Wednesday, April 26, 2017

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Prophecy is not always so easy to interpret

The issue I want to discuss today is beware of "simple" interpretations of Biblical prophecy, especially when trying to discuss events still future.

We all have our favorite authors and teachers, but I'm going to cite a renowned expert in Biblical prophecy: Levi (a.k.a. Matthew). You know, the guy who wrote the Gospel we call "Matthew" (yeah, that guy). I would like to share with you a few examples as to how Matthew looked at prophecy, and you can judge for yourself how easy or hard it is to predict what a particular prophecy meant.

For our first example, Matthew makes a reference to the words of the prophet Micah concerning the birth of Yeshua in Matthew 2:5-6:

They told him, "In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet: "And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.""

The quotation is a paraphrase of Micah 5:2-4 (5:1-3 in the Hebrew). Micah, who was a contemporary of Isaiah, prophesied these words during a time when the Neo-Assyrian Empire had its sights on the subjugation of Judah. The verses paraphrased by Matthew seem straightforward in that they predict the fulfillment of the Davidic line begins (or should I say continues) with a birth in Bethlehem.

This scenario depicts the de facto way many popular teachers interpret prophecy today; literal prediction and a literal fulfillment. This of course happens in Scripture, but as we wills it is far from the only way prophecies get fulfilled in Scripture.

For our second example, Matthew reads a passage cited from Hosea 11:1 in a very odd way. Speaking of Joseph (after the birth of Yeshua) in Matthew 2:14-15, Matthew writes:

And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, "Out of Egypt I called my son."

What is particularly bizarre about this fulfillment is that the verses cited from Hosea have nothing to do with the Messiah at all. Hosea was talking about the nation of Israel, citing a past event (the exodus) and a present reality (serving idols). Matthew basically ignores the literal context of Hosea, opting instead for a metaphorical similarity (or contrast). The likely point is to show that "God called Israel, and we stumbled, but now God raised up Messiah and he did not stumble."

So here is the problem with prophecy and context: if we read Hosea 11 without knowing what happened to Yeshua, I am unconvinced that you would know that Hosea 11 was prophetically related in any way to the Messiah. Even still, the fulfillment seems at odds with the plain literal meaning of the text.

Our final example will suffice. A well known prophecy concerns the appearance of Elijah before the Messiah emerges in Malachi 4:5:

"Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes."

The context is clear: Elijah must come before an eschatological event occurs. In recorded history, we have not seen Elijah yet. But Yeshua himself said that Elijah did come - and it was John the Baptist (see Matthew 17:11-12 and also Matthew 11:13-14). Yeshua basically uses a metaphorical way to interpret the passages in Malachi (and I'm not going to argue with him).

Once again we ask the question: reading Malachi before Yeshua came, could you have possibly guessed that the fulfillment of these verses would have come in a figurative way? The Gospels show that the Jews were looking for a literal fulfillment - yet the fulfillment was right in front of them.

I urge you to be cautious when trying to interpret prophecies yet future. The interpretation of prophecy is not as clear cut as many make it seem, as evidenced by the above examples. This is not to discourage the study of prophecy; far from it. Rather, I'd say we might be better off not trying to "predict" future prophetic events, or at the very least we should be humble about it when someone disagrees with our interpretation.

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