Foretelling vs Forth-telling
Admittedly, prophecy is one of the hardest genres to understand in the Bible. Some types of Scripture like narrative and letters are more straightforward. Genres like apocalyptic found in revelation, and prophecy found throughout the Old Testament take a little more time and technical knowledge to grasp. Understanding the rules for how to interpret texts (called hermeneutics), helps us consistently understand what we are studying.
The questions for us are these. What does the word prophecy mean? What does your mind automatically jump to when you hear the words prophet or prophecy? For most of us, it would be future events. But is that what the word really means?
The word prophet means spokesperson. For our purposes of studying Scripture, it means a divine spokesperson. In other words, a prophet is one who speaks for or on behalf of God. They speak forth what God has told them. This is why we would call it forth-telling.
Understanding the rules for how to interpret texts (called hermeneutics), helps us consistently understand what we are studying.
So why, when we hear prophecy, do we think of predicting future events? First, some of what the prophets do is speaking about future events. Second, this is how our modern society, and even some dictionaries have come to define it.
Is it wrong to think about future events when hearing the word prophecy? Not necessarily. But it puts the cart before the horse. The primary function of the prophet was to be God’s mouthpiece. In that, they at times would predict what would happen if people did or did not obey God.
We can look at the Old Testament prophecy and see that while there are predictions in there, most of it was not foretelling, but forth-telling. Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart in their How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth explains this in their chapter “The Prophets: Enforcing the Covenant in Israel.”
What they teach us is “Less than 2 percent of the Old Testament prophecy is messianic. Less than 5 percent specifically describes the new covenant age. Less than 1 percent concerns events yet to come in our time.” This means that 9/10ths of these books are not prophetic as we would think about them.
“Less than 2 percent of the Old Testament prophecy is messianic. Less than 5 percent specifically describes the new covenant age. Less than 1 percent concerns events yet to come in our time.”
Fee and Stuart go on to say “The prophets did indeed announce the future. But it was usually the immediate future of Israel, Judah, and other nations surrounding them that they announced rather than our future.” In other words, most of what they were declaring was God’s laws, the blessings for following them, and curses for not following them. They were speaking to their contemporaries.
This is exactly what Moses did for the people of Israel. The prophets were reinforcing what God had already said through Moses. This is why Fee and Douglas call the prophets “covenant enforcement mediators.”
So how does this affect the way that we study the prophets? What it means is that the majority of our time in the books labeled prophecy should not be trying to figure out future events. The majority of the time should be remembering God’s plan and path for His people. It should be a time where we hear the sin God is calling out, what the path of righteousness looks like in His sight, and time repenting of anything being spoken so we can be in pure fellowship with Him again.
How do you look at prophecy? Do you see it more as foretelling or forth-telling? When you hear the Old Testament books preached or read them, do you allow the Holy Spirit to convict you of sin and repent of it? Do you spend time asking God to bring you back into the right fellowship with Him again?
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