Two Keys to Old Testament Prophecy
Grand Rapids, 1840. Freida heaves water up from a deep well to carry home for cooking, cleaning, and drinking. A long line of others wait for their turn.
The village Alderman catches up with her as she begins her long walk home and asks her: “What do you think about the new well, Freida?”
“It’s fantastic,” she responds, “The winch is much smoother, the bucket is much bigger, the whole process is much quicker, and the water is much safer.”
“Wow, that’s an amazing improvement!”
“Yes, I’m very grateful” she says, “But you know what I sometimes dream about? I dream of something like a pulley system that extends out from the well to every house in the village. Maybe we could employ someone to fill the buckets at the well, attach it to the pulley, and maybe some harnessed horses could power the ropes to bring a constant supply of buckets to our front doors!”
She laughed. “It’s crazy isn't it!”
Dream Comes True
170 years later, Freida’s crazy dream has come true.
“How?” you ask, “We don’t have anything like that in Grand Rapids.”
No, but we have something even better: underground pipes that bring clean water to our homes whenever we want and we don’t have to sweat a drop for it.
Freida’s dream predicted the future using the only concepts and vocabulary she knew (pulleys, ropes, horses, buckets, etc.). With the passage of 170 years, the details, the visible form of the fulfillment, looks different – underground pipes, pumps, faucets, etc. But the essential principles of her dream are fulfilled – a faster, easier, cleaner water supply.
Key One: Principles Behind the Details
Similarly when Old Testament prophets predicted the future, they did so using the vocabulary and concepts they knew. With the passage of hundreds of years, the details, the visible form of the fulfillment often looks different. But the essential principles of their predictions are literally fulfilled. That's the first and most important key for understanding Old Testament prophecy.
For example, in Ezekiel 47v1-12, Ezekiel predicts a remarkable river:
- A temple river: It began beside the Temple altar, flowed through the inner and outer courts, and then seeped under the door.
- A flowing river: There was a basin of water in the Tabernacle, and a huge basin of water in Solomon’s Temple, but here we have an ever-running supply of water.
- A widening river: Though it begins with a trickle, it widens further and further as it goes.
- A deepening river: As the angelic guide leads the prophet further into the river, the water rises to his ankle, then his knees, then his waist, until eventually it is impassible.
- A tree-lined river: The river banks are lined with multiple fruit trees giving bumper crops every month.
- A healing river: When the river reaches the Dead Sea, which is six times saltier than the ocean, the waters are healed
- A life-giving river: The Dead Sea becomes the Living Sea. Indeed, wherever the river goes, life is created and sustained - human, animal, agricultural life
- A productive river: Fishermen are lining the banks and hauling in tons of fish from the teeming waters.
Have you seen this?
No wonder the angelic guide asks Ezekiel, “Have you seen this?”
And he’s not merely asking, “Are you looking at this amazing vision?” but also, “Have you seen through it, have you understood what this means?”
Ezekiel was not the only prophet who predicted the future in terms of an extraordinary river (Joel 3:18; Zech. 14:8).
So what should we expect as the fulfillment of this? Should we expect a literal rebuilt Temple in Jerusalem and a literal river like this flowing under the Temple door, with lots of fishermen having the best fishing days of their lives? Of course not. That would be like us preferring Freida’s pulleys and buckets instead of our modern water supply.
Ezekiel was using the vocabulary and concepts of his own day to predict a day of massive and spreading spiritual life flowing from the heart of God’s dwelling-place to all the nations. Jesus confirms that this is how we are to understand this prophecy (John 7:37-39).
Key Two: Three Stages
The second key for interpreting many Old Testament prophecies is to see them fulfilled in three stages:
Commencement: Although the Holy Spirit was like a trickle or small stream in the Old Testament, at Pentecost the Spirit burst His banks and flooded the world.
Continuation: The river of the Spirit continues to flow throughout church history, bringing deepening, widening, healing, fruitful, life-giving blessing to the nations. But notice that there are still some untouched salty marshes as long as this world exists (Ezek. 47:11).
Consummation: We look forward to the elimination of all salty marshes and the covering of the new heaven and the new earth with life-giving and life-sustaining blessing (Rev. 22:1-2). Eden’s life-giving rivers are not only restored, but surpassed and exceeded. Where sin abounded there did grace much more abound.
Although we can see this prophecy fulfilled in the big picture, in the history of the New Testament church, we can also see it fulfilled on a personal level.
Commencement: Spiritual life begins with the Holy Spirit trickling into our hearts with healing, life-giving power. Is your soul dry and dusty? “Let him who thirsts come. Whoever desires, let him take the water of life freely” (Rev. 22:17).
Continuation: The Holy Spirit continues to flow into the believer’s life in ever-widening and ever-deepening power, healing our bitter waters, and producing spiritual health and fruit (John 4:13-14).
Consummation: In heaven the Holy Spirit will flood our whole beings in unprecedented measure and power.
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