“That ye may be mindful of the words which were spoken before by the holy prophets, and of the commandment of us the apostles of the Lord and Saviour” 2 Peter 3:2

One of the tragic ironies of ecclesial life in the last days is that the subject of prophecy has become a source of confusion and contention in some parts of the world. Ironic, be­cause the closer we are to the coming of the Lord the clearer our expectation should be, and tragic, because contention can result in classifying God’s prophetic details as ‘off limits’ when it comes to Bible classes and public lectures.

The Faith of Joseph

When we examine the attitude of the faithful we find a different perspective. Take for example Joseph. In Hebrews 11:22 we read this: “By faith Joseph, when he died, made mention of the departing of the children of Israel; and gave commandment concerning his bones”.

God gave Abraham a prediction concerning his seed 300 years before Joseph’s death and yet time had not dimmed the import of the message. Joseph’s reaction to the prophecy was to give a commandment about his final resting place. We may feel that this command was rather insignificant; after all when you are dead and buried does it really matter where the body finally rests? But from God’s perspective this seemingly obscure charge at the end of Joseph’s life was seen as an expression of great faith.

We might have thought that Joseph’s faith in Potiphar’s house or his constancy in the darkness of an Egyptian prison would have been highlighted by Paul. But they weren’t. What Paul culled from the record was Joseph’s reaction to an ancient prophecy. In other words, his understanding of the Prophetic Word directed his life and his desires. It allowed him to understand what God intended to do, which in turn allowed him to live by faith. What is even more remarkable is that Joseph’s response to this prophecy could not even technically be described as a deed. It was a simple command; but it was indicative of a frame of reference built upon an unshakeable faith in what God had revealed. This surely is how all of us must respond to the Prophetic Word. Our words and actions must be shaped by our expectations of the future inheritance promised to the heirs of faith.

The Prayer of Nehemiah

There are a number of examples in the Old Testament which highlight the desire of the faithful to unravel the secrets of prophecy and to remain strongly convinced about the importance of the message. Their appreciation of the Prophetic Word provided a wonderful impetus to their faith.

Take for instance Nehemiah. He heard of the affliction of the returning captives and prayed earnestly for them. Part of that inspiring prayer contained a reference to prophecy. “Remember, I beseech thee”, he said in Nehemiah 1:8–11, “the word that thou commandedst thy servant Moses, saying, If ye transgress, I will scatter you abroad among the nations: but if ye turn unto me … yet will I gather them from hence”. The Prophetic Word given by Moses was a vibrant reality to Nehemiah. He studied it and applied the power of its message in his prayers. And God heard that prayer and added His providential blessing in reply!

The Diligence of the Prophets

Peter informs us that the prophets diligently re­searched their own predictions in relation to the work of Messiah, particularly in connection with his sufferings and glory (1 Pet 1:10–12). They were joined by the angels who also shared a great desire to look into the whole work of redemption. This diligence to seek out the will of God in relation to the future (because all the predictions about the Son of God were prophetic when they were first given) is a hallmark of people who count it an honour to search out the things that God has hidden in His word (Prov 25:2). If the hosts of heaven were motivated to study God’s Prophetic Word in relation to the future work of God’s Son shouldn’t we feel constrained to follow their example and “be mindful of the words which were spoken before by the holy prophets”? They sought to understand both the sufferings and the glory. We have seen the sufferings and now we should appreciate the full outworking of God’s purpose in relation to the coming glory.

How important it is to contemplate that future glory. Amidst the gloomy and desperate present we look for a better day and in doing so we follow the examples of the prophets themselves. How often do we read of men like Jeremiah being encouraged by future prophecies involving Israel and the kingdom. Prophecy was not some intellectual pastime to these men. It was a life-line of hope which could transport them by faith into the future and encourage them to endure unto the end.

One of the most startling ways in which proph­ecy was used to affect the lives of the faithful was in the time of Isaiah. The second part of Isaiah’s prophecy involves a number of predictions and exhortations specifically aimed at those who would end up living 160 years later under the heel of Babylonian oppression. He predicted the fall of Babylon with precise accuracy.

It is sometimes assumed that the captives ef­fected an immediate and complete change when they arrived in exile. This was not the case. Ezekiel testifies to the prevalence of idolatry and supersti­tion in those early years (Ezek 14: 20). Isaiah’s prophecies, therefore, were not given merely to predict the imminent fall of Babylon and the re­lease of the captives from bondage, though they certainly did this. They were given to startle Israel into repentance and to inspire them with faith. They were designed to convince Israel of the importance and responsibility of their calling as God’s servant.

With impassioned enthusiasm he sets before Israel the character of God in all its splendour and majesty. He chides them for their timidity and fear and then prepares them to welcome the deliverance that He alone can bring through a greater serv­ant. These prophecies are not easy to follow, but God expected His people to understand the flow of thought and let them effect a change for good. Here, surely, is how the power of prophecy should work. It is designed to be understood and to become an impetus to people’s steadfastness and holiness.

Seeking out the Meaning

Is the Prophetic Word supplied by God too dif­ficult to unravel? The Lord expected his audience in the first century to understand the complexities of Daniel’s utterances. “Whoso readeth, let him understand”, he said (Matt 24:15). In fact, Daniel himself is an inspiring example of a man who yearned to know the meaning of all the prophetic details that were given to him. He pored over the words of Jeremiah attempting to solve the puzzle of specific time periods, fasting and praying (Dan 9:1–4). In one case he became physically ill because he was unable to understand fully what God was saying (Dan 8:27). Daniel was styled by God “be­loved” and his seeking to understand the prophetic symbols and imageries illustrates the frame of mind we need to adopt to understand. The secrets of God’s Word are only unearthed after prayerful seeking. If we lack wisdom we need to pray to God for understanding and God will give liberally (Jas 1:5). The challenge we face is finding the will and the time to explore the depths of that Word.

Prophetic interpretation has been connected with controversy in the past and so we should not be surprised if it occurs in our day too. Look at the times of Jeremiah. He gave clear predictions about the immediate future which were sharply contra­dicted by others who claimed special revelations. The expectations of the exiles in Babylon was buoyed up by the utterances of false prophets who promised them a speedy return (Jer 29; Ezek 13). Misled by similar false prophecies, the inhabitants of Jerusalem persuaded themselves that they had nothing to fear from Babylon (Jer 28). Imagine the difficulty of deciding who was right and who was wrong. Both sides seemed plausible, but only one was right. Those who made the wrong choice perished in the wake of Babylon’s onslaught. Let us take heed to that poignant warning.

Accepting a line of prophetic interpretation does affect one’s walk in the Truth. In Haggai’s time the people of Israel were using the Divinely ordained time periods to justify their inactivity in their service to God. “This people say, The time is not come, the time that Yahweh’s house should be built” (Hag 1:2). We’ve got plenty of time, they argued. But Haggai’s response was clear—“Consider your ways… Is it time for you, O ye, to dwell in your ceiled houses and this house lie waste?” (Hag 1:4,5). It is so easy to slip into a false sense of security and misuse the Prophetic Word to justify our laziness in the things of God. Prophecy is designed to stimulate fervour amongst us, not drive us into apathy. It can also encourage us to find ourselves at a particular point in time within God’s time schedule and stimulate an appreciation of the urgency of the times.

How can the Prophetic Word help us today? Let us consider the freshness of these words which were penned so long ago in Elpis Israel (p324 14th ed):

“From these premises we may conclude that, as the Lord has also revealed what is to come to pass in these latter days, it is both our duty and privilege to make ourselves acquainted with it, that our faith may grow and be strengthened; that our affections be detached from the fleeting present, and set more firmly on things to come; that our minds may be fortified against error; and that we may be prepared to meet the Lord as those who have kept their garments, and shall not be put to shame. It is our own fault if we are not ‘light in the Lord’. He has plainly set before us what is happening in our day and what is yet to occur.”

May we heed the warning of the Lord himself—“Watch ye therefore, and pray always, that ye may be accounted worthy to escape all these things that shall come to pass, and to stand before the Son of man” (Luke 21:36).