Interpreting Prophecy: A Time When it is Best to be a Monday Morning Quarterback

 


I wouldn't want to be a Cossack / headed for that Palestine Road / Thinking about what's written in the Word of God /About the things that he's foretold 

No, I wouldn't want to be there, down Jerusalem way

No, I wouldn't want to be there, headed for my grave

 

I wouldn't want to march with the comrades / when they enter Israel / Headed straight into the fiery wrath of God /And finding no escape from, well

 

I wouldn't want to be there, down Jerusalem way

No, I wouldn't want to be there, headed for my grave. 

~ Love Song, “The Cossack Song

 Back in the late 70s or early 80s, I played drums in a Christian rock band. While we had fun and played a few coffee houses and youth group gatherings, we didn’t come close to hitting the big time. One of the songs that we performed was “The Cossack Song” by Love Song – a song that played on the theory then in vogue that the army of the Soviet Union would invade Israel leading to the battle in the Valley of Jezreel. We played a much more energetic version than Love Song did, and usually brought out a huge round of applause. But while I hadn’t done much Bible study to that point, I always found the interpretation of the Biblical prophesies as found in those lyrics problematic.

Even now, I am not really into eschatology which explains why you won’t find much I’ve written on this blog concerning prophecy still looking into the future, i.e., Bible books like Revelation, the second half of Daniel or Ezekiel. I think my dislike of eschatology (defined as “the part of theology concerned with death, judgment, and the final destiny of the soul and of humankind”) has been driven by the fact that I have seen how some Christians having the best of motives can create immensely elaborate but ultimately groundless interpretations of future prophecies. To paraphrase what I once hear Greg Koukl of Stand to Reason say, there are people out there with endless charts and graphs detailing exactly what each little jot and tittle of the prophesies of Revelation mean, but who know nothing about the work of the cross, i.e., they become experts on the unknowable while knowing nothing about the knowable.

Ultimately, the prophetic books are loaded with so much symbolism and so many analogies that they are extremely difficult to interpret prospectively. In fact, when I teach on any type of Biblical prophecy, I always warn the class that much of the prophecy is only understandable retrospectively.  

Still, when I observe people constructing their detailed Biblical interpretations about the identity of the beast or the identity of the two prophets, I have often been left at a loss as to how to lead them away from such a fool-hearty task. Primarily, I am astounded that anyone believes these types of detailed interpretations, yet the church quite often falls in line and widely accepts the theory that X is the only possible interpretation or that Y constitutes a sign of the coming end times.

The Cossack Song is an example of such an apparently failed interpretation. As noted above, it posits that the army of the now-former Soviet Union would be the army which would invade Israel – something that seems highly unlikely at this time following the fall of the Soviet Union. (By the way, I should note that it is still certainly possible that Russia could invade Israel at some time in the future which could be Armageddon, but it seems very unlikely that the now-defunct Soviet Union will crawl out of the ashes and become Russia again.)  But this is only one example in a long list of people interpreting the eschatological prophesies in light of then-existing people, countries and events that failed to come true.

Still, many people in the Evangelical movement (of which I consider myself to be a partner) still continue to accept these detailed interpretations so fully that in some cases they don’t even accept people into their church who hold alternative views. (A shadow of this can be seen in some churches that require their parishioners to believe in a pre-tribulation rapture before being allowed to become a member of the church. In other words, you have to buy into the fictional Left Behind book series as the only correct interpretation of these prophesies to be Biblically pure.)

I have thus far discovered only one tactic that helps people to reconsider spending their time and energy on these tasks. When I come across someone who is convinced that they have the only correct interpretation of the end times prophesies, I ask them a simple question: “How many people prior to Christ’s coming do you believe accurately interpreted how Christ would come and what He would do based on their interpretation of prophesy?”

As most people probably know, prior to Jesus’ arrival, hundreds of Biblical texts prophesied about the coming Messiah. Then, as now, there were experts who studied the many prophesies and developed theories about the coming Messiah. Many saw him as a coming warrior. Many saw him as an Earthly king. But how many of them correctly brought together all of the Messianic texts and foresaw Jesus, how he came and what he did?

The answer: we have no record of anyone getting it right. It was only after Jesus came and did His work that we were able to look at the prophesies and say, “Oh, now I see it.” Prophesy is best interpreted retrospectively and not prospectively.

Some might say, “This is some Monday morning quarterbacking on your part.” Yes, it is. But in this case, given that it is my belief that no one will correctly interpret end time prophecy prospectively, Monday morning quarterbacking is likely the only way to correctly interpret these end-times writings. And when it comes to interpreting prophesy -- especially when that interpretation ties the prophesy to an existing person, country or situation and which ultimately does not come to fruition -- giving a false interpretation can lead to significantly more harm than good for non-believers.

Does that mean that these prophesies have no usefulness for Christians? Not at all. I am certain that when the time comes that the events described in these prophetic books come to pass, the prophesies will help guide and comfort believers (and possibly a few wise non-believers) during the tribulations to come. In fact, the tribulations to come are part of God’s plan and these prophesies will help give believers hope and trust during some very dark times – even when it turns out that it isn’t the Soviet Union or even Russia attacking Israel.

But I do want to spend a little time the next time I write (the Lord willing) on the prophesies about heaven and the new Earth because there is something that we can learn now from Genesis and Revelation that will help us lead people from false notions that may be holding them back from faith.

Comments

Great post Bill. I agree with everything you said. I am pretty negative about eschatology. Most of it tends to be light on the esch and heavy on the scatology.
BK said…
That's hilarious. I almost spit out my tea laughing. :)

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