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Lessons in interpreting prophecy from the Old Testament

It sometimes comes a s surprise to readers of works on Revelation that they must understand the Old Testament prophets as well. In this brief survey, we shall not do justice to the Old Testament; rather, we shall be able to point out those prophets and writings which are most significant for Revelation.

Why study the Old Testament?

There are a number of reasons:

·         First, as we so often remember verses in the King James Version, the reader of Revelation would have remembered passages from the Old Testament. He would have used those images as we would memory verses -- they would be the guidelines and touchstones of his thinking.

·         Next -- and probably most important to twentieth century thinkers -- is that the Old Testament serves as a type of Rosetta stone. Many of the prophecies of the Old Testament have been fulfilled, and by seeing the prophecy and fulfillment, we can see how prophecy is constructed.

·         Finally, we will often encounter allusions in Revelation -- the passing reference to a text in the Old Testament. The doctrines of those passing texts would be groundwork for the prophecy. This is particularly important in interpreting the work in an allegorical or poetic sense.

Certain principles of prophecy, taken from our study of Daniel, deserve to be repeated:

·         Prophecy centers around the people of God. This is not a world history course.

·         The methodology of this type of prophecy -- the apocalyptic -- is the use of symbols. More than one symbol may mean the same thing (for example, in Daniel -- the bronze portion of the statue and the goat mean “Greece.”)

·         We must always be aware of the “mountain range” effect. The Old Testament prophets (and probably John as well) saw the high points; they could not gage the valleys below. Time must not be expected to march in step; sequence might be.

·         No prophecy stands alone, particularly in apocalyptic literature. It needs to be confirmed, at least in general, by another source. If not, there is a good chance we have misinterpreted something.

·         The nearer to the event, one would think, the clearer it becomes. This is sometimes -- but not always -- the case.

There are certain figures and events in the Old Testament with which every Jew would be familiar. John used these in Revelation knowing that everyone would look back and see the original -- and draw conclusions. Here are some of the things he might have expected us to know intimately:

·         The plagues of Egypt (see the bowls of wrath)

·         The tabernacle in the wilderness

·         The altar of the tabernacle.

·         The ark of the covenant. This one bears a little examination, for it’s a good example of how the poetic, or allegorical, method depends upon such a comparison. Remember that in Old Testament times the ark was in the “Most Holy Place” of the tabernacle[1] or in the “Holy of Holies” in the Temple.[2] But in Revelation 11:19 we read,

(Rev 11:19 NIV) Then God's temple in heaven was opened, and within his temple was seen the ark of his covenant. And there came flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, an earthquake and a great hailstorm.

The difference may seem subtle to us -- but note that anyone can see the ark, not just the high priest on one day of the year. Symbolically, this would mean that God is now completely accessible to us.

·         In Zechariah chapter 6 we see four chariots; in Revelation 6 we see four horses. Are they the same? The order of the colors is different; it’s chariots versus horses (but the military technology had changed). It’s an example of the problems the commentators face. We see similarities; we see differences. Are they the same thing? If not, what two different things are they? As we see some of the major prophets, we will see that this is a non-trivial problem.

The Great Pictures

The Throne of God

The Throne of God is portrayed in detail in three places:

(Isa 6:1-5 NIV) In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple. {2} Above him were seraphs, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. {3} And they were calling to one another: "Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory." {4} At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke. {5} "Woe to me!" I cried. "I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty."

(Ezek 1:4-20 NIV) I looked, and I saw a windstorm coming out of the north--an immense cloud with flashing lightning and surrounded by brilliant light. The center of the fire looked like glowing metal, {5} and in the fire was what looked like four living creatures. In appearance their form was that of a man, {6} but each of them had four faces and four wings. {7} Their legs were straight; their feet were like those of a calf and gleamed like burnished bronze. {8} Under their wings on their four sides they had the hands of a man. All four of them had faces and wings, {9} and their wings touched one another. Each one went straight ahead; they did not turn as they moved. {10} Their faces looked like this: Each of the four had the face of a man, and on the right side each had the face of a lion, and on the left the face of an ox; each also had the face of an eagle. {11} Such were their faces. Their wings were spread out upward; each had two wings, one touching the wing of another creature on either side, and two wings covering its body. {12} Each one went straight ahead. Wherever the spirit would go, they would go, without turning as they went. {13} The appearance of the living creatures was like burning coals of fire or like torches. Fire moved back and forth among the creatures; it was bright, and lightning flashed out of it. {14} The creatures sped back and forth like flashes of lightning. {15} As I looked at the living creatures, I saw a wheel on the ground beside each creature with its four faces. {16} This was the appearance and structure of the wheels: They sparkled like chrysolite, and all four looked alike. Each appeared to be made like a wheel intersecting a wheel. {17} As they moved, they would go in any one of the four directions the creatures faced; the wheels did not turn about as the creatures went. {18} Their rims were high and awesome, and all four rims were full of eyes all around. {19} When the living creatures moved, the wheels beside them moved; and when the living creatures rose from the ground, the wheels also rose. {20} Wherever the spirit would go, they would go, and the wheels would rise along with them, because the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels.

(Rev 4 NIV) After this I looked, and there before me was a door standing open in heaven. And the voice I had first heard speaking to me like a trumpet said, "Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this." {2} At once I was in the Spirit, and there before me was a throne in heaven with someone sitting on it. {3} And the one who sat there had the appearance of jasper and carnelian. A rainbow, resembling an emerald, encircled the throne. {4} Surrounding the throne were twenty-four other thrones, and seated on them were twenty-four elders. They were dressed in white and had crowns of gold on their heads. {5} From the throne came flashes of lightning, rumblings and peals of thunder. Before the throne, seven lamps were blazing. These are the seven spirits of God. {6} Also before the throne there was what looked like a sea of glass, clear as crystal. In the center, around the throne, were four living creatures, and they were covered with eyes, in front and in back. {7} The first living creature was like a lion, the second was like an ox, the third had a face like a man, the fourth was like a flying eagle. {8} Each of the four living creatures had six wings and was covered with eyes all around, even under his wings. Day and night they never stop saying: "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come." {9} Whenever the living creatures give glory, honor and thanks to him who sits on the throne and who lives for ever and ever, {10} the twenty-four elders fall down before him who sits on the throne, and worship him who lives for ever and ever. They lay their crowns before the throne and say: {11} "You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being."


·         Are the seraphim the four living creatures?

·         Are they different creatures, or different visions of the same creatures

·         Do we combine all the details of the throne, or are the 24 elders a change in vision since Christ has come?


Throughout the Scripture Babylon -- whether the real city or figurative -- has stood for the city of evil. We see the “mountain range” effect in Isaiah. He begins with a prophecy which clearly applies to the physical Babylon (and which has come true):

(Isa 13:19-20 NIV) Babylon, the jewel of kingdoms, the glory of the Babylonians' pride, will be overthrown by God like Sodom and Gomorrah. {20} She will never be inhabited or lived in through all generations; no Arab will pitch his tent there, no shepherd will rest his flocks there.

But shortly thereafter, in a passage clearly relating to Satan (and very much in tune with Revelation) we see this:

(Isa 14:12-15 NIV) How you have fallen from heaven, O morning star, son of the dawn! You have been cast down to the earth, you who once laid low the nations! {13} You said in your heart, "I will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above the stars of God; I will sit enthroned on the mount of assembly, on the utmost heights of the sacred mountain. {14} I will ascend above the tops of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High." {15} But you are brought down to the grave, to the depths of the pit.

Babylon is doomed -- not just the literal city, but the figurative one as well. Here’s how John put it:

(Rev 17:1-5 NIV) One of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and said to me, "Come, I will show you the punishment of the great prostitute, who sits on many waters. {2} With her the kings of the earth committed adultery and the inhabitants of the earth were intoxicated with the wine of her adulteries." {3} Then the angel carried me away in the Spirit into a desert. There I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that was covered with blasphemous names and had seven heads and ten horns. {4} The woman was dressed in purple and scarlet, and was glittering with gold, precious stones and pearls. She held a golden cup in her hand, filled with abominable things and the filth of her adulteries. {5} This title was written on her forehead: MYSTERY BABYLON THE GREAT THE MOTHER OF PROSTITUTES AND OF THE ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH.

Who, then, is this Babylon -- or what?

New Heaven and Earth

For a real puzzler, this is a good one. Isaiah and John both talk about a New Heaven and Earth:

(Isa 65:17-25 NIV) "Behold, I will create new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind. {18} But be glad and rejoice forever in what I will create, for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight and its people a joy. {19} I will rejoice over Jerusalem and take delight in my people; the sound of weeping and of crying will be heard in it no more. {20} "Never again will there be in it an infant who lives but a few days, or an old man who does not live out his years; he who dies at a hundred will be thought a mere youth; he who fails to reach a hundred will be considered accursed. {21} They will build houses and dwell in them; they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit. {22} No longer will they build houses and others live in them, or plant and others eat. For as the days of a tree, so will be the days of my people; my chosen ones will long enjoy the works of their hands. {23} They will not toil in vain or bear children doomed to misfortune; for they will be a people blessed by the LORD, they and their descendants with them. {24} Before they call I will answer; while they are still speaking I will hear. {25} The wolf and the lamb will feed together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox, but dust will be the serpent's food. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain," says the LORD.

(Rev 21:1-4 NIV) Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. {2} I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. {3} And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. {4} He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away."

OK -- you figure it out. Do these passages talk about the same thing? If so, why is there still death in Isaiah’s vision and not in John’s? If not, then what are they talking about?

The Millennial Temple

Sometimes God sticks in a passage just to puzzle the reader, I think. Such a section occurs in Ezekiel, chapters 40-48. Nine chapters of description -- of the millennial temple. It is clearly not the vision of any temple yet constructed. John dismisses it thusly:

(Rev 11:1 NIV) I was given a reed like a measuring rod and was told, "Go and measure the temple of God and the altar, and count the worshipers there.

Later on he tells us there is no temple in the New Jerusalem, saying:

(Rev 21:22 NIV) I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple.

How do we reconcile these? Is the reconciliation related to the previous little problem? Where do we find the answers?

Daniel -- the Rosetta Stone of Prophecy

Daniel’s work is for us the key to interpreting prophecy. It shows us a number of principles of prophecy, for it foretells the coming of Christ, even to the time of his coming. We need to go through this book very quickly, so that we may outline the prophecies of importance. (We’ll skip the lion’s den -- I hope).

Opening: The four kingdoms

The coming of Christ is clearly prophesied in Daniel chapter 2:

(Dan 2:40-45 NIV) Finally, there will be a fourth kingdom, strong as iron--for iron breaks and smashes everything--and as iron breaks things to pieces, so it will crush and break all the others. {41} Just as you saw that the feet and toes were partly of baked clay and partly of iron, so this will be a divided kingdom; yet it will have some of the strength of iron in it, even as you saw iron mixed with clay. {42} As the toes were partly iron and partly clay, so this kingdom will be partly strong and partly brittle. {43} And just as you saw the iron mixed with baked clay, so the people will be a mixture and will not remain united, any more than iron mixes with clay. {44} "In the time of those kings, the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will it be left to another people. It will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure forever. {45} This is the meaning of the vision of the rock cut out of a mountain, but not by human hands--a rock that broke the iron, the bronze, the clay, the silver and the gold to pieces. "The great God has shown the king what will take place in the future. The dream is true and the interpretation is trustworthy."

Note the ten toes on the statue; they will be important later on.

The Beast

No figure is more common between Daniel and Revelation than The Beast. This is found in chapter 7. Note the following common characteristics:

·         The beast has ten horns.[3] Some interpret this as the ten kingdoms into which Rome was divided; other interpretations include the Common Market.

·         Three horns are uprooted[4] -- but only in Daniel.

Time, times and half a time

In one of those magic phrases that runs through books on prophecy, we have this:

(Dan 7:25 NIV) He will speak against the Most High and oppress his saints and try to change the set times and the laws. The saints will be handed over to him for a time, times and half a time.

This is almost always interpreted as 1260 “days.” In one interpretation, this is three and a half years, the first half of the tribulation. Another interpretation makes in 1260 years, usually from 606 AD to 1866 AD, the time when the Pope held temporal sovereignty.

The 2300 Years

In Daniel chapter 8 we read of another time period:

(Dan 8:13-14 NIV) Then I heard a holy one speaking, and another holy one said to him, "How long will it take for the vision to be fulfilled--the vision concerning the daily sacrifice, the rebellion that causes desolation, and the surrender of the sanctuary and of the host that will be trampled underfoot?" {14} He said to me, "It will take 2,300 evenings and mornings; then the sanctuary will be reconsecrated."

Again, we have controversy. Is it 2300 days? 1150 days (meaning to count an evening as one and a morning as one)? 2300 years? Those who think days usually try (rather poorly) to fit this in between the defiling of the temple (Antiochus Epiphanes) and its rededication. The “day year” interpretation yields an interesting result: from the time Alexander started his conquest of the Holy Land, (334 BC) to the time the Jews finally regained complete control of Jerusalem (1967 AD) is (allowing for calendar problems) 2300 years.

Daniel’s 70 weeks

Of all the passages which deal with time in prophecy, this is the most critical. It is most critical because it is partially fulfilled (thus opening up the interpretation):

(Dan 9:24-27 NIV) "Seventy 'sevens' are decreed for your people and your holy city to finish transgression, to put an end to sin, to atone for wickedness, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal up vision and prophecy and to anoint the most holy. {25} "Know and understand this: From the issuing of the decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until the Anointed One, the ruler, comes, there will be seven 'sevens,' and sixty-two 'sevens.' It will be rebuilt with streets and a trench, but in times of trouble. {26} After the sixty-two 'sevens,' the Anointed One will be cut off and will have nothing. The people of the ruler who will come will destroy the city and the sanctuary. The end will come like a flood: War will continue until the end, and desolations have been decreed. {27} He will confirm a covenant with many for one 'seven.' In the middle of the 'seven' he will put an end to sacrifice and offering. And on a wing of the temple he will set up an abomination that causes desolation, until the end that is decreed is poured out on him."

The first 69 “sevens” have been accomplished; that is the time from the decree until the crucifixion of Christ. The last “seven” -- a seven year period -- has traditionally been interpreted as the Tribulation. Here again we see the “mountain range” principle.

The Antichrist

Perhaps no clearer example of the mountain range principle can be found than in Daniel 11. The first 33 verses are explicit about the history of the Greek occupation of Palestine (remember how we put name tags on everyone?). The rest of the chapter refers to the Antichrist, coming in the future.

The Millennium

So when does this all happen?

Daniel gives us something of a timetable. First, from Revelation, we see:

(Rev 12:6 NIV) The woman fled into the desert to a place prepared for her by God, where she might be taken care of for 1,260 days.

and Daniel gives us two longer periods:

(Dan 12:11-12 NIV) "From the time that the daily sacrifice is abolished and the abomination that causes desolation is set up, there will be 1,290 days. {12} Blessed is the one who waits for and reaches the end of the 1,335 days.

Are these the same events? Are they in the same sequence?

The problems are non-trivial. If nothing else, I submit we need to recognize the following:

·         Reasonable men will come up with different, reasonable answers.

·         Those answers must take into account the Old and New Testament words

·         Those answers will change with time, as more of history unfolds.

[1] Exodus 26:33-34

[2] 1 Kings 8:7

[3] Daniel 7:7, Revelation 12:3

[4] Daniel 7:8, no mention in Revelation

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