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Types of Prophecy and Prophetic Types
by Michael Bugg
The single biggest issue that comes between students of Biblical prophecy is the most fundamental of all: How do we approach the text? Do we take it literally or do we approach it as symbolic and allegorical? If a little of both, how do we determine between the literal and the symbolic without being arbitrary and turning the prophetic Scriptures into a matter of “private interpretation” (2Pe. 1:20)? As always, let us use Scripture as our guide.
Not all prophecies are delivered to us the same way or meant to be interpreted precisely the same. Of course, many prophecies are simply given as utterances or writing, delivered in everything from simple, straightforward prose, like the latter chapters of Zechariah, to exquisite poetry like Isaiah. Others are given as symbolic visions, and others as prophetic “types.”
In many ways, straightforward prophecies like this can be considered our baseline or foundation for understanding Scripture, requiring a minimum of interpretative work beyond understanding the meaning of the words and their context. Daniel’s prophecy of the Seventy Weeks and Yeshua’s Olivet Discourse both fall into this category, and both together provide the foundation for our understanding of the book of Revelation.
Prophetic utterances can be prose or poetry. The difference between the two is usually a matter of the amount of idiom used: Prose is usually very straightforward, using figures of speech but otherwise meaning what it says and saying what it means, while poetry uses a correspondingly greater number of similies, metaphors, and other verbal expressions that are designed to make the event described by the prophet—whether the sin of the people, the coming judgment, or the future glorification—incrediably vivid in the minds of his intended audience. This does not mean that we start allegorizing every statement; the normal rules of interpreting text still apply, and behind the idioms and occasional uses of symbolism is a core that needs to be taken literally.
It is interesting to note that every time someone in the Bible interprets a prophecy, they do so in the most literal manner possible, and often interpret the prophecy more literally than the text seems to allow! For example, Mattityahu (Matthew) understands it literally that the Messiah would come from Bethlehem (Mat. 2:6, quoting Mic. 5:1) and be born of a virgin (Mat. 1:23, quoting Isa. 7:14). He even cites a prophecy of Hosea as proof that God’s Son would at one point come out of Egypt (Mat. 2:15, quoting Hos. 11:1)—even though that passage is seemingly so manifest in using God’s “son” as a symbol for Israel! If one simply goes through the Gospel accounts with an eye for how the prophecies of Yeshua HaMashiach’s First Coming, death, and resurrection were fulfilled, one finds an amazing degree of literalism! So why should we then expect that the prophesied events leading up to and surrounding the Second Coming would be fulfilled only in pale allegory? And yet many otherwise excellent scholars will say that you can’t take those prophecies literally, that a thousand years that aren’t really a thousand years, Satan is bound in the Abyss at the same time that Sha’ul calls him “the god of this Age," (2Co. 4:4) 144,000 Israelites specifically numbered from the twelve tribes really represent the Church, unfulfilled promises to Israel of a physical, earthly kingdom that are to be spiritualized away and given to the Gentile Christians, and on and on . . .
But what then of the blatantly symbolic imagery that floods the apocalyptic books like Daniel, Zechariah, and Revelation? This second type of prophecy can be called symbolic prophecy or prophetic visions (some would call it “apocalyptic” prophecy). We see this kind of prophecy in both Daniel and Revelation, in which beasts and statues represent kingdoms, or in which trumpets and bowls represent the wrath of God, and so on. Strangely enough, I’m going to suggest that we should interpret these prophecies “literally,” or rather, “normally,” as well.
Are we to understand then that the Antichrist will really be a beast with red skin, seven heads, and ten horns? No, not at all. But there’s a clear distinction between interpreting a symbol and allegorizing the text: When the Scripture means something to be symbolic instead of literal, 90% of the time it comes right out and tells you—and then goes ahead and gives you the interpretation right then and there! The other 10% of the time, we simply let the Bible tell us what it means by checking every other appearance of that symbol throughout the Scriptures. The heads and horns of the Beast of Revelation 13 are explained in chapter 17 and its body in Daniel 7, Daniel chapter 2 tells us with no misunderstanding what the successive layers of Nebuchadnezzar’s dreamt statue mean, etc. There is no need to speculate endlessly, because God has told us what everything means in His own Word. Amazingly, this collection of laws and ceremonies, histories, poetry, letters, and apocalyptic visions is consistent throughout its pages in its use of these symbols so that we do not need to have any doubt about what they mean. But in all cases, unless the Bible tells us that a symbol is in use, uses an obvious simile or metaphor, or makes an obvious symbolic comparison (e.g. “Assyria was a cedar in Lebanon . . .” in Ezk. 31:2), it is better to simply assume that God is quite capable of saying what He means and meaning what He says rather than to try to “help” Him with a tortured interpretation.
This is especially important when dealing with the third kind of prophecy.
Missler writes, “The western mind views prophecy merely as prediction and fulfillment. The Jewish mind saw prophecy as a pattern being recapitulated, where a pattern of events illuminates a thematic replay in the future.” A prophetic type then, is an artifact, a construction, or a historical event or figure that appeared in the past (or in a few cases, will appear in the future kingdom of the Messiah) which reflects future events or spiritual realities. Our proof-text for this type of prophecy is Hos. 12:10, in which God says, “I have also spoken to the prophets, and I have multiplied visions; and by the ministry of the prophets I have used parables.” The word translated “similitudes” is damah, which this context means a likeness. This same word is used in Psa. 102:6, in which the author writes, “I am like (damah) a pelican of the desert . . .”
For one prominent and well-documented example of a damah, Abraham’s “sacrifice” of his son Isaac on Mt. Moriah was a type of another Father’s true sacrifice of His only Son on that same mountain (and likely on the very same spot) two millennia later. Likewise, the book of Joshua, for all that it is a historical record rather than a book of prophecy, seems to prefigure the Yeshua’s ultimate “conquest of the land” in Revelation. God often told the prophets to do weird things in order to act out prophecy—poor Ezekiel, who had to lie in bed on one side for 390 days and on the other for 40 days, “besieging” a clay model of Jerusalem (Ezk. 4) is another prime example.
Even the very names of individuals in the Bible can be significant: Yeshua being betrayed into the hands of the Romans by Y’hudah (Judas) was a microcosm of being handed over to the Romans by all of Y’hudah (Judea). However, after His Resurrection, He appeared to His brothers Ya’akov (James) and Y’hudah (Jude), who then believed in Him and became leaders of His Ekklesia. In the same way, when He appears in the sky to Ya’akov, or Isra’el, and Y’hudah, they too will believe in Him and receive His Spirit.
It should be noted that evidence of a symbolic vision or type does not deny the existence of the literal object. For example, 1Co. 3:16 indicates that Solomon’s Temple was a type of the believer’s life—that does not mean that Solomon’s Temple never existed, nor does it prove that the future Temple described in Ezk. 40-47 will not physically exist, or that Sha’ul was simply speaking of the believer’s psyche in 2Th. 2:4. In the same fashion, Abraham’s “sacrifice” of Isaac on Mt. Moriah was a type of Messiah’s atoning sacrifice on that same spot, but that doesn’t mean that Abraham and Isaac were not real people.
It is also important to note that the fulfillment of a type (the antitype) is not, contrary to the views of many amillennialists, necessarily “spiritual” rather than physical. In fact, such thinking is derived not from the native Hebrew writers’ thoughts, which viewed body, soul (nephesh, lit. “breath” or “life”), and spirit as a totality that were not meant to be separated. It is, rather, an example of how Greek Platonic philosophy, called dualism—in which the body is seen as a mere container for the soul or spirit, which has an independent life—infiltrated the Ekklesia; it was this dualism which gave rise to Gnosticism (Wilson, Abraham 135-165; Dahl, Resurrection 59-73; and Perkins, Resurrection 37-63).
It’s also important to beware of building doctrine on prophetic types, which generally are not meant to be fully understood until after the fact or in the light of a later, more straightforward prophecy. To use the previous example of Isaac’s sacrifice, we would probably not have known what it meant if not for the other prophecies of the Messiah’s atoning death and their fulfillment in Messiah Yeshua. There are doubtless many more hidden types in Scripture that we will only fully understand or even recognize after they have been fulfilled. There are others that we may be able to recognize in advance because of allusions in other prophecies and Scriptures. For example, when Yeshua warned His disciples, or talmidim, to watch for “the Abomination of Desolation" (Mat. 24:15, Mark 13:14), He was referring to a prophecy of Daniel that was already fulfilled, in type, by Antiochus Epiphanes when he set up an idol to Zeus in the Holy of Holies in the second century B.C. (We will explore this event and its final fulfillment in the chapters ahead.) However, we have to be very careful when looking at as-yet unfulfilled types, or we soon find ourselves wandering away from the Biblical view and into the realm of purely private interpretation and sheer speculation.
See The Messiah in Genesis for more extensive examples of this type of prophecy.
Issues of Time and Repetition
One important thing to bear in mind when interpreting prophecy is that the Eternal’s time is not our time. “But don’t forget this one thing, beloved, that one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day" (2Pt. 3:8). A prophecy of the Scripture may, in the course of a single line, or even in the space of a comma, jump from one event to another hundreds or even thousands of years apart. Nowhere is this truer than in the prophecies of the Messiah’s two Comings. An example that the Lord Himself interpreted for us can be found in Luke 4:16-19, in which He quotes Isa. 61:1-2 as proclaiming His mission. He finishes with His mandate, “To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” What one doesn’t realize unless he has gone back to Isaiah to read the original prophecy for yourself is that Yeshua stopped reading right in the middle of the sentence! The rest reads, “and the day of vengeance of our God.” In that comma, the prophecy jumped from the time of Messiah’s First Coming some two thousand or more years into the future to the time of the Second Coming. This is hardly an isolated example in Scripture, and we’ll be looking at others as we proceed.
In addition, we need to be aware of what Van Kampen refers to as a “near-far” prophecy. “In other words, prophecy often operates on two levels of fulfillment. On the first level, there is a divinely revealed ‘near’ prediction relating to a soon-coming event. But on a second level, there is a corresponding ‘far’ prediction that will be fulfilled in a later time . . .” For example, there are prophecies that promise Abraham both a son and also speak the distant Son that would be the Messiah. There are other prophecies that were partially fulfilled by Antiochus Epiphanes that will be completely fulfilled by the final Antichrist. However, Van Kampen warns, and rightly so, that misuse of this principle of prophetic interpretation will cause every bit as much confusion as ignoring it. “For a near/far interpretation to be valid, it must clearly be allowed for by the context and by the specific wording of the text itself, as well as be consistent with the rest of Scripture" (Van Kampen, Sign 29).
One such near-far prophecy is the Immanuel prophecy of Isaiah 7:14. Note that the sign was to be to Ahaz, not to a generation 740 years later, and that the kings threatening Judah were to be eliminated by Assyria when the child was young, not centuries before his conception. In fact, the fulfillment is given in the very next chapter, with the birth of Isaiah’s son Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz. We would hardly think this a Messianic prophecy at all—except for the unfulfilled details: 1) The child’s name was supposed to be Immanuel, not Maher; 2) Maher’s mother was not a virgin by definition when he was conceived, and 3) the prophecy goes on to state in chapter 9 that the child would sit on David’s throne, which Maher never did.
This prophecy gives us the principle for recognizing a near-far prophecy without being arbitrary: A prophecy’s “near” fulfillment, which authenticates the prophet and deals with the near-term problem facing the nation, fits the broad scope of the prophecy but does not fulfill the specific details. These details are fulfilled in the “far” fulfillment in a literal fashion, almost always pointing to the Messiah. Understanding this principle, the rabbis stated, “All of the prophets prophesied only concerning the days of the Messiah" (b. Berakhot 34b), even though they were fully aware that there were many prophecies in Scripture that had fulfillments in the past. Understanding this principle also resolves the long-standing dispute as to whether the Olivet Discourse refers to the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD or a yet future Second Coming—the answer is both, the fall of the Temple being the “near” fulfillment of the broad scope of the prophecies without fulfilling all of the specific details that the “far” fulfillment will in the coming years.
Understanding that a given Scripture can have multiple levels of meaning brings a fresh insight to the discussion about which view of Revelation is correct. A few years ago, this author had the pleasure of interning at an internationally-known apologetics ministry. Those within came from a wide variety of theological opinions and backgrounds, from pre-millennialist to amillennialist, Arminian to Calvinist. During a casual conversation with one of the senior members, a well-known speaker in his own right, the subject of prophecy came up, and he said something that rang true long before I learned anything of Jewish hermeneutics: “Michael, to be honest, I think that when Christ finally does come back, we’ll find that all three viewpoints will have turned out to be true.” Perhaps he was just trying to avoid an argument, but his words struck me and still strike me as profound.
That is not to say that the fall of Jerusalem or the whole of church history is the ultimate fulfillment of the prophecies examined in this book, but in many cases they could easily be looked on as prophetic “types.” One moderate preterist that I spoke to pointed out to me, “To the first century Jew, the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple was the end of the world.” Indeed. Yet the world continues as it did before that destruction, as decadent and violent as ever, so even if the fall of Jerusalem was a fulfillment of prophecy (even ignoring that Revelation was written twenty years after the fact), it was not the fulfillment of the End of the Age or the beginning of Messiah’s rule on the earth.
As Sir Robert Anderson so eloquently put it:
The question here at issue must not be prejudiced by misrepresentations, or shirked by turning away to collateral points of secondary moment. It is not whether great crises in the history of Christendom, such as the fall of Paganism, the rise of the Papacy and of the Moslem power, and the Protestant reformation of the sixteenth century, be within the scope of the visions of St. John. This may readily be conceded. . . The question is not whether the history of Christendom was within the view of the Divine Author of the prophecies, but whether those prophecies have been fulfilled; not whether those Scriptures have the scope and meaning which historical interpreters assign to them, but whether their scope and meaning be exhausted and satisfied by the events to which they appeal as the fulfillment of them. It is unnecessary, therefore, to enter here upon an elaborate review of the historical system of interpretation, for if it fails when tested at some one vital point, it breaks down altogether. (Anderson, Prince 136f)
Like Sir Anderson, I can readily consider that Revelation and many other End Times prophecies have application to events of the past, that they may include double-prophecies or that certain cycles of history are prophetic types of the End of the Age. As Joseph Seiss writes, “The only prerequisite to the entertainment of both [the historic and futurist interpretations] is, that the two should be homogeneous, and that the one fulfillment should be regarded as inchoate [incomplete], and only a sort of preliminary and imperfect rehearsal . . . of the other" (Seiss, Apocalypse 121f). That is, the futurist interpretation of Revelation is its pashut, the historicist interpretations (including the preterist) may be either remez or in some cases sod, and the idealist interpretation may have application as a midrash. Indeed, when we study the seven letters to the seven churches, we will see just such a multidimensional interpretation in this book.However, to suggest that when it is all said and done that we will be able to look back at the panorama of history and see how HaShem Elohim-Tzva’ot (The Eternal God of [Heaven’s] Hosts) wove events into a prefiguration of the End of the Age is a far cry from the historicist ideal wherein all has been fulfilled in a highly poetic way and all that’s left is a bowl or two before the Second Coming, or the preterist belief that Messiah’s Second Coming was fulfilled in the destruction of the Temple and that the prophetic Scriptures have virtually nothing to say to our own age. However, to exhaust a study of Revelation and its related prophecies as partially fulfilled in the cycles of history would require decades of time and volumes of books
In the West, we think of time as a straight line, and prophecy as a simple matter of prediction and fulfillment. In the Far East, time is thought to be a circle, a never ending cycle. Hebrew thought lies between these two extremes. It shares with the East a sense of cycles, exemplified in the continuing pattern of the Eternal One's Appointed Times, which were repeated every year, but also shares with the West a sense of final destiny, that all history has a purpose towards which it drives. Thus, we best understand Biblical prophecy if we envision history to be like a Slinky--a spiral in which similar points are reached over and over again, but which nevertheless has an ultimate beginning, and an ultimate End. We are not merely cogs in a wheel, but important threads in a grand history which ultimately leads us to Eternity, and we can best understand our role by understanding the patterns that the Eternal One has woven into that tapestry.
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