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BIBLE PROPHECY: Start By Learning The Language

This might sound obvious to most, but — surprisingly — it doesn’t seem to be the case.  How many people think that Revelation must be mythology because of the beasts it describes?  How many believers actually insist we will see such beasts in the flesh?  Both interpretations result from not knowing the language that John was using.  We encounter the same problem today.  If I told you “I store my contacts in the cloud,” what would it mean to you?  I am using English, but does it mean I put the contacts from ignition system in a cloud in the sky?  Or my corrective contact lenses in that cloud in the sky?  Or have I put my list of personal contact information on a computer somewhere on the Internet?  It all depends on to who I am speaking and when.  This is because the language can only be understood when viewed from the vantage point of the culture being addressed, at the time it was addressed.  So, let’s start with a few basics to help us understand the language of prophecy.First things first: we must understand that the prophets were guided by the Holy Spirit, but they were also individuals.  This means they will include  apiece of their own, unique personalities in their messages, but the message, itself, will remain True to what the Holy Spirit told them to write.

Next, we must understand that every one of the prophets was a Hebrew writing to other Hebrews.  This means we must learn to read prophecy from the perspective of an ancient Hebrew.  This is where things start to get hard.

We have to start by understanding that the ancient Hebrew was of a Middle Eastern mind.  This is a difficult thing for most of us today, especially those of us who grew up in the Western world.  The Greek influence in our culture has taught us to think in abstract terms.  But the Hebrew thought in more concrete terms.  For the ancient Hebrew, what mattered was what a thing did?  What was its purpose or function?  Therefore, the best way I have found to try and understand the difference between the way we think today and the way the prophets thought was to think in pictures.  This is because, in practical terms, they thought in pictures.  Here, this next part should help the reader understand what I am trying to explain.

Ancient Hebrew only had some 8,500-9,000 words.  Originally, the language was pictorial (i.e. hieroglyphic).  The individual letters were pictorial representations of things in the every day lives of the Hebrew.  The language worked by putting these pictures together in a way that described the purpose of the thing being described.  For example: the symbol for strength was an ox head with horns.  There was also a symbol that looked like an ancient tent.  It meant tent (or house).  When they are put together, you get the Hebrew word for father (or husband).  It literally meant the strength of the house, and in their culture, that was the husband or father.  Similarly, the Hebrew for anger literally means flaring nose.  This is because, when we get angry, our nostrils usually flare out because we start to breath harder and faster.  But notice how all of this is pictorial in nature?  (Keep this in mind when you read the Scriptures, because it applies to the entire Bible, not just prophecy).

The next thing we have to do is learn the different Hebrew figures of speech.  Here again, if we read the Bible literally, but we do not know Hebrew idioms, we are going to misunderstand.  A modern example would be if I was talking to you about a game I was playing and I said “I killed him!”  You know I do not mean that I literally killed someone, but if a third person who did not grow up in our culture were to over hear our conversation, they might think this is what I was saying.  Now, can you see how you, who understand what I meant, and the person who did not are going to arrive at two totally different interpretations of “I killed him?”  And I would dare say that the person listening in is going to go away with a less than favorable opinion of me.  Well, non-believers do this a lot when they read the Bible, but — sadly — so do believers.

In addition to idioms, we have to learn the ways Scripture uses symbolism.  Fortunately, this is not as difficult.  If we read carefully, we will generally find that the Scriptures define the symbols is uses.  Either it will be defined in clear language, or by context (which is another critical element of understanding the prophets: always context, context, context!).  The only hard part here is, the farther we go into Scripture, the more likely it was defined earlier in the Bible.  This is why we have to know the whole of Scripture: because Scripture assumes this.  Additionally, some symbols re assigned different meaning according to how it is used or addressed.  Here is why we must pay attention to who is speaking, to whom the passage is addressed and about what it is addressing.  Context!  I cannot stress how important this is.

Then we have the use of allegory.  Since the prophet assumes the audience knows all of Scripture, and Hebrew history, he will often use everything we have just discussed in a story form that would be familiar to his audience, but which is actually about a central theme that may not be readily apparent to an outsider.  For example: the Wizard of Oz is believed to be an allegory dealing with the ramifications of America coming off the gold standard in the 1890’s.  We can find similar themes in ‘The Planet of the Apes.’  In fact, many classical stories are actually allegories.  So we have to pay attention to prophecy because we may be reading an allegory that the original audience would have understood clearly, but the meaning of which has been lost to us due to the passage of time.

Finally, we have to pay attention to the indicators the prophet gives us telling us he is using symbolic language.  When the prophet tells us he had a ‘vision,’ or was ‘in the spirit’ (an idiom), he is telling us what follows is symbolic in nature. He may also use words that tell us he is using symbolism.  These include “like’ or ‘like unto,’ and ‘as’ or ‘such as.’  There are many others, but the point is to read carefully.  You are dealing with an infinitely intelligent author here — God!  He does not waste words, and He folds meaning upon meaning into the words He does use.

We’re almost ready to begin our study of end times prophecy.  However, there are a few more guidelines we need to address before we do.  Theses guidelines are important as they help us understand how to approach prophecy, and to make sure we have a proper and correct understanding of what the prophets have told us.  This will be the subject of my next post.

8 responses to “BIBLE PROPHECY: Start By Learning The Language

  1. Pingback: BIBLE PROPHECY: Why Study Bible Prophecy? | The Oil in Your Lamp

  2. Would Nebuchadnezzar’s dream interpretation (of the Colossus) in Daniel 2:31-45 where world history was foretold be an example of “learning the language?”

    I learned something new about “The Wizard of Oz.” I did not realize that it was “an allegory dealing with the ramifications of America coming off the gold standard in the 1890’s.” What a disaster of debt has befallen us since then!

    John saw pictures of what was to come and wrote them down in the book of Revelation. Makes sense that he would describe them as best he could since he was seeing amazing things and events that would happen in the future end times!

    • Yes, we’ll even be covering Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, and soon 🙂

      As for John, he was also writing in such a way that non-believers would not understand. I believe for the same reason Jesus taught in parables 😉

      • I agree that “non-believers” would not understand what John wrote in Revelation just as they would not “get” the parables of Jesus. But there are also those who absolutely refuse to believe…despite all the evidence presented (especially the fact that Jesus has fulfilled over 300 prophecies of the Messiah prophesied in the Old Testament) in Scripture.

        You made an excellent point about the need to study and learn all of Scripture! Even after over 25 years of study, I know that I have never “arrived” in such an endeavor. But I do learn more and more to cement my decision about what is needed in order to be forgiven for my sins through the blood of Jesus Christ…and to trust Him only for my salvation!

        • Amen! But, sadly, what we think ‘trust’ means is an excellent example of what I was talking about when I urged people to learn the language. Our modern understanding of ‘trust’ and ‘faith’ and ‘believe’ are very different from what the Bible means. We tend to think they are three distinct things, but the Bible uses them as though they are one and inseparable. To trust Jesus is also to believe in and have faith in, just as having faith in Him means to believe in and trust Him, and so on. And then we need to understand how it all works. If you say you ‘trust’ the Lord, but you do not do His will and live as He commands, then you may need to go back and study this concept again — from the beginning. Something is missing in your understanding (not you, Christie, just using a generic ‘you’ here 🙂 )

          Sadly, I know many believers who do not understand this. In fact, I had a discussion with one lady this past week. She is convinced she just has to ‘believe’ in Jesus and she is saved. I tried to ask her about her understanding of the word ‘believe,’ and she attacked me and told me she would pray I gain ‘wisdom.’ She is a new Christian, so I tried to help her, but she lashed out. Obviously, she has a way to go before she gets off milk 🙂

          • As a new believer, we would think that she would be open to learning from someone who has diligently studied the Bible and has been a born-again Christian for quite a long time!

            These days, people often let “the pride of (their own) life” get in the way of gaining truth, wisdom and knowledge from God’s Word via Christians who have long studied the Bible and are willing to share what the Bible says…not what they have “dreamed up” as “the truth.”

            I have recently had two very different encounters with people who think they have “the truth” in such matters. One of the encounters led to the blog post you read at Talk Wisdom regarding Eckhart Tolle.

            Heck! I have been a born-again Christian for decades and have been studying the Bible for close to 30 years…yet I never claim to “have arrived” regarding the wisdom, knowledge, and truth therein! My studies each and every year have helped me gain much more wisdom, knowledge and truth than I previously had, but the beauty of God’s Word is that this side of heaven, I will forever be learning more!

            Our modern English dictionaries tell us that the terms faith and belief are synonyms of the term trust. But I agree that the Bible tells us that they are inseparable in meaning and context.

            1Ti 4:10

            For to this end we both labor and suffer reproach,[fn] because we trust in the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially of those who believe.

            Rom 3:22

            even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all[fn] who believe. For there is no difference;

            Jhn 6:29

            Jesus answered and said to them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He sent.”
            [bold mine]

            • Amen! But here’s the catch. Matthew 7:23 tells us there are many within the Church, even calling themselves by His name, who are not part of the Church! Therefore, when the TRUE Word is preached, they revolt — just as any lost soul will.

              Now, I am NOT saying the people I was dealing with are lost, but the thing that was bothering them was the fact that I was telling them things are not quite as simple as they want to believe. I cannot say “I’m saved” and then go live a life of sin. Scripture tells us that this does not work. If saved, we must also be converted; and if converted, then we are a new creation in and through Christ — and the way we live our lives will reflect this new creation (which is Christ in us). But these folks did not want to hear ANY of that, which is why I grieve for them so… 😦

  3. Pingback: BIBLE PROPHECY: Some General Guidelines To Help Us Stay On Track | The Oil in Your Lamp

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