Unsticking the Pages of Prophecy
-Today's post originally featured on LifeWay Women's All Access Blog. You can find it here: https://blog.lifeway.com/womenallaccess/2018/05/24/the-reference-desk-how-to-study-prophecy/
Until about five years ago, books like Isaiah, Daniel, and Revelation were all crispy and clean in my Bible. The pages all stuck together and had to be peeled apart because, quite frankly, I’d never read much of them. Sure, there were a couple of pages here and there that I had referenced, but study the whole book? I hadn’t tackled that, and it seemed unlikely I would.
But then a local Bible study began on the Book of Isaiah, and I thought, “This is probably my best shot to unstick those pages.” Admittedly, I’m not super Type A, but it did bother me that parts of my Bible were unread and crisp. I felt incomplete. There were these passages of Scripture I was not only ignorant of, but was also afraid of. (Those two liabilities often hold hands.) So, I nervously signed up.
And goodness gracious, it changed my Bible study in the most profound ways! Now, I won’t lie. It was crazy hard most weeks. But I learned things not just about the Book of Isaiah, but about all of the Bible, that have refined my study and illuminated Scripture. Here are three “ah-ha” moments from studying just one book of prophecy.
The Bible is meant to be read both literally and literarily.
Isaiah, like the Books of Daniel, Revelation, Jeremiah, and Habakkuk (just to name a few), is a literary genre called “prophecy.” This literary genre is meant to be read differently than other parts of Scripture. Scholars typically break the Bible down into several categories or genres, including historical narrative, law, wisdom, psalms, and prophecy in the Old Testament; and gospel, parable, Acts, letter, and apocalypse in the New Testament.  It can be difficult to know which genre we are reading, but it is worth a little work and research to find out. Because reading a book within the intended context is critical to understanding it. Think of it this way: we wouldn’t (and shouldn’t) read Shakespeare and The New York Times the same way. Similarly, we shouldn’t read Genesis the same way we read Philippians. And we shouldn’t read Philippians the same way we read Isaiah.
Knowing a book’s genre helps me read it the way the author intended and allows me to follow the content more clearly.
This is especially true of books and passages of prophecy. (We should point out that prophecy appears even within books that are not books of prophecy. For example, Luke records the prophecy that Zacharias will be silent until the birth of his son, John the Baptist, because Zacharias didn’t believe the angel’s promise. That prophetic word is realized just a few verses later. But it is prophecy nonetheless.) When I had studied a part of any book of prophecy before, I tried to read it linearly. To me, it was just another part of the story, and I wanted each section to follow sequentially. But prophecy rarely does that. It’s not like reading narrative or even an epistle, like Paul’s letter to say, the church at Corinth. Books of prophecy use literary devices like symbolism, parallelism, or allegory. And the oracles or revelation each writer is describing can span years, centuries, or even millennia. Within the Book of Isaiah we read prophecies that would be fulfilled within a few generations for the Israelites. For example, Isaiah 44:28 prophesied that after years of captivity, Cyrus would allow the Jews to return to their homes to rebuild the temple. This was fulfilled in Ezra 1:1-2. But parts of Isaiah, that appear both before and after chapter 44, are messianic and point to Jesus. These prophecies would not be fulfilled for hundreds of years. Consider Isaiah 53:5-6:
“But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to our own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all. ”
Prophecy can be intimating and hard to understand, but it tells us something unique about God.
Because of its purpose, a “miracle of knowledge, a declaration or description or representation of something future, beyond the power of human sagacity to foresee, discern, or conjecture,” prophecy can be especially intimidating to study and particularly hard to understand. While the meaning of some prophecies is understood and generally accepted, there are passages that are still disputed even among the smartest biblical scholars. It can make us wonder what hope we have, and ask ourselves if we should even study books like Revelation, Zechariah, Ezekiel, Nahum or prophetic passages found in Genesis, Psalms, or John. But friend, while we may not fully grasp what is being promised or how it will be fulfilled, the study of prophecy is for more than just understanding a timeline or cracking a symbolic message. Prophecy, like all of Scripture, is meant to tell us something about our supremely powerful, yet sweetly intimate God. That He would condescend to tell us the promises and plans He has for His people is a staggering prospect and makes God completely distinct from all other gods. More than anything, these messages were an invitation for God’s people to trust and revere Him. Additionally, because we see the scarlet thread of Scripture, that every promise made of Jesus’ first 33 years was accomplished, we can have hope that no promise of God will ever fail. Even if we aren’t one hundred percent sure exactly what that promise is.
Though studying prophecy can be daunting, here are a few practical ways to tackle even the most confusing passages.
- Read the passage and ask yourself, “What does this tell me about God? What attribute of His is on display, being celebrated or communicated?”
- Next, ask who the intended audience is for this prophetic word. While some texts are communicated to a specific individual, most prophecy is either made to Israel, about Jesus, or for the church. (And in some cases, all three.)
- Finally, consider how this promise, when it was made or when it is fulfilled, advances the grand story of Scripture—God creating and then reclaiming a people for Himself to enjoy relationship with Him forever.
The primary benefit to studying Scripture is to know and love God. We can often cling to the parts of Scripture that we understand. We are creatures of habit and comfort. I know I don’t know you, but would you let me gently encourage or push you (if you’re stubborn like me) to places of Scripture you wouldn’t likely go before? The point of study isn’t to start smart. It’s to finish smart, or smarter. And that path begins with some level of ignorance. Don’t hide out afraid of what you don’t know. Jump in, with just you and the Holy Spirit as your guide, or perhaps in a group. Either way, I can tell you, you’ll be glad you did.