Fulfilled Prophecy: How do we study the prophetic predictions of the Bible?

The question of fulfilled prophecy has engaged the attention of biblical scholars for centuries. Students in my hermeneutics classes, in which we study the science and art of biblical interpretation, frequently ask...

How do we interpret the prophetic books in the Bible?

How accurate are the prophetic predictions of the Bible?

Do all biblical prophecies foretell the future?

Let me make clear at the outset... there is no “key” to a scientific study of prophecy, because prophetic language is often ambiguous and there is an immense body of prophetic Scripture.

In his acclaimed Protestant Biblical Interpretation, leading evangelical scholar Bernard Ramm (1916-1992) wisely counsels that “regardless of our millennial views, certain principles must be followed by all exegetes of the prophetic Word.”

A. Berkeley Mickelsen, former Professor of New Testament Interpretation at Bethel Theological Seminary in St. Paul, MN, acknowledges the difficulty of the hermeneutical task regarding prophetic literature and fulfilled prophecy, calling for “an approach that will read nothing into prophecy that is not there, that will make clear all that the prophet said or wrote to his own people, and that will make the correctly interpreted message of the prophet relevant to our own times. This is no small task.”

Is all prophecy predictive?

Grant Osborne

Before considering fulfilled prophecy, the Bible student must first ask what kind of prophetic literature are we dealing with? Not all prophecy is predictive. Grant Osborne, professor of New Testament at Trinity International University in Deerfield, IL, helpfully identifies nine specific forms of prophetic proclamation:

(1) Judgment speech, which is the basic and most common form of the prophetic message.

(2) Prophecies of blessing or deliverance, in which the major emphasis is upon divine mercy (e.g., Isa. 41:8-20; Jer. 33:1-9).

(3) The woe oracle is a type of judgment prophecy that begins with hoy (“woe”) and is followed by a series of participles explaining the subject, the sin, and the judgment (e.g., Amos 5:18-20; Isa. 5:8-24; Mic. 2:1-4; Hab. 2:6-8).

(4) Jeremiah and Ezekiel frequently employed symbolic actions to serve a object lessons for the observers (e.g., Jer. 18:1:10 with Rom. 9:20-23; Exek. 5:-4).

(5) Legal or trial oracles, consisting of summons to the divine law court—a trial setting to which witnesses are called. The oracle may stress the guilt of Israel and/or the nations and the judgment and sentence due (e.g., Isa. 3:13-26; 42-48; Hos. 3:1-12; 4:1-19).

(6) Disputation speech is used to quote the people’s own words against them and use their own statements to expose their error (e.g., Jer. 31:29-34).

(7) The prophets use poetry extensively. Osborne indicates the value of the poetic form as vehicle for prophecy: “Poetry always had a more powerful voice since it was easily memorized and spoke more eloquently to the issue.”

(8) Prophetic literature is also closely allied with wisdom thinking, including the prophetic use of proverbs (1 Sam. 10:11-12; Jer. 3:29-30; Ezek. 18:1-2), popular wisdom sayings (Jer. 23:28), and allegories (Ezek. 16, 20, 23).

(9) Apocalyptic is found in later Old Testament prophetic books like Ezekiel, Daniel, and Zechariah; and in the New Testament, the Book of Revelation.

Click here to read about the nature of apocalyptic literature on our Revelation Bible study page.

In the study of fulfilled prophecy we must give careful attention to the type of language in the prophetic passage, noting if it is figurative, poetic, symbolic, or apocalyptic. We must then determine the historical background or Sitz-im-Leben (seat-in-life) of the prophet and the prophecy. Keep in mind that much of the prophetic description of the future is set in the language of past historical events.

We must be mindful of the context and flow of the prophetic passage. Remember, the chapter and verse divisions in the Bible are relatively recent additions and at times arbitrary and misleading. Prophetic Scripture is discursive, which means it passes rapidly and irregularly from one subject to another. The prophets were seers, visionaries, and preachers, not systematic theologians.

Additional articles on fulfilled prophecy

In this article on Bible prophecies fulfilled Dr. Ian Bond investigates the remarkable predictions made by the Hebrew prophets Ezekiel and Isaiah of Jerusalem concerning the ancient cities of Tyre and Babylon.

Does Jesus birth fulfill ancient prophecies in the Torah and the Nevi’im Acharonim? Click on this link to read this article.

Is end times prophecy being fulfilled? Click here to find out.

Prophets and Prophecy

The prophet’s role is complex and multifaceted. According to Professor Osborne “receiving and communicating revelation from God was their major purpose.” The first function of a prophet was to hear from God. This would either be in words (“burdens” or “oracles”), or in pictures, which can be visions (received when the prophet is awake) or dreams (received when asleep).

The second function of a prophet is to speak for God. This would either be a word of challenge, when people were doing wrong; or comfort, when they were doing right. False prophets prophesy only comfort. A fulfilled prophecy does not per se authenticate the prophet. If such a person by his ministry turns others away from obedience to Yahweh, then that person is a false prophet, even if he makes correct predictions concerning the future (Deuteronomy 13:1-5; 18:20-22).

The process of prophecy is that God spoke in various ways to prophet’s spirit, mind, and body. The divine message is processed through the prophet’s spirit and mind, and expressed through his body, usually the prophet’s mouth. The prophets may not have been fully cognizant of all that they wrote or understood all of the ramifications of their writings.

Walter Kaiser, Jr. Dr. Walter Kaiser, Jr., retired President of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, MA contends that the prophets were aware of the results of their prophecies.

He makes three assertions. First, the prophets were aware of the implications of their prophecies. Second, the prophets were told things that were humanly impossible to know. Third, the prophets related their predictions to contemporary events and circumstances.

The student of fulfilled prophecy should keep these three perspectives in mind when approaching any prophetic passage.

How do we study fulfilled prophecy?

The first step in the study of fulfilled prophecy is to discover the innermost characteristic of a passage of prophetic Scripture by asking three questions:

(1) Is the passage predictive or didactic? Not all prophecy is foretelling the future. We need to determine whether a passage is predictive or if it is didactic. Didactic prophecy is instructional, dealing with moral, ethical, or theological truths. Both may be encountered in one prophetic passage; for example, Zechariah 1:1-6 is didactic, whereas verses 7-21 are a prophetic vision.

(2) Is the passage conditional or unconditional? The major promises of a Messiah and his salvation are unconditional. However, many examples of conditional prophecies can be given (Jer. 18:8, 10; 26:12-13; 3:12; Johan 3:4; Zech. 6:9-15).

(3) Is the prophecy fulfilled or unfulfilled? If you are investigating fulfilled prophecy, then you must study the text with the historical materials which contain the fulfillment.

The Bible claims that God is the only being in a position to “make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come” (Isa. 46:10).

J. Barton Payne

J. Barton Payne (1922-1979) taught at Wheaton College and Covenant Theological Seminary. He was on the committee of translators for the New American Standard Bible and the New International Version.

Dr. Payne identified 737 separate predictions in the Bible. Of these, he contends 594 (over 80%) have already been fulfilled. Furthermore, those that have not are all concerned with the end of the world, which has not happened yet. If Payne is correct, this means that to date, fulfilled prophecy has achieved 100% accuracy. The Bible declares that predictive prophecy is a sign of God’s power and presents the supernatural nature of his Word (see Deuteronomy 18:18-22).

A more detailed discussion of how to interpret fulfilled prophecy may be found in my eBook, Developing a Sound Hermeneutics, Second Edition (2009).

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