Understanding Prophecy - D. Yamartino
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Chapter 7 of  60

Filling In the Details (7:1)

Along with an inability to distinguish which words should be taken literally, and which words symbolically, another obstacle presents itself before us. Even in the case where the words might have a purely literal meaning and therefore could be understood correctly (if there were some way for us to know that the meaning was purely literal, which there is not), practically all details are absent in the picture given by prophecy. The prophecy uses but a few words, to express what are sometimes great, even magnificent themes or events. This leads to a rather natural, but possibly fatal consequence: we ourselves fill in the details of the picture. We read the words, we make sense out of them, and by this we form a picture of what they mean. This picture, then, becomes our "vision" of what will happen (7:2)

Our picture may or may not be the true picture (7:3)

The inadequacy and the deceptiveness of forming a picture through words can be easily demonstrated. Simply have a friend get a picture that you have never seen, say, from a magazine, and then have the friend describe it for you. As it is described, you will "see" in your mind an image. Afterwards, take a look at the actual picture. The picture will not be the same as you imagined. As you study it, you will then understand what was "meant" by the words that your friend used to describe it. This is a rather simple experiment, which you may want to try. It demonstrates the inadequacy of words in trying to convey something which can really only be conveyed by the sense of sight. In any case, we're going to try a variation on this right here which will more closely illustrate the subtleties involved in trying to fully understand the meaning of a prophecy before it is fulfilled. Here we will begin not with the picture, but as in the case of our attempting to understand prophecies, with words: (7:4)

Read the following sentence which I have entitled "The Traveler": (7:5)

The traveler, weary from a long journey, arrived at a vast plain stretching as far as the eye could see, and stopped to rest before continuing (7:6)

As you read these words, you see an image. This is what words are used for much of the time. The prophecies of the Old and New Testaments are full of images. Christ Himself constantly offered images to illustrate His teachings and so did His disciples after Him. But we must realize that the images that words provoke in us actually often come more from our own imagination than from the words themselves. No one but ourselves knows exactly what we "see" because we see with the imagination that is particular to us (7:7)

Now, imagine, if you will, that this sentence, which I have called "The Traveler", were a prophecy and that you were awaiting its fulfillment. What would you look for? By what event or sign would you know that it was fulfilled? Well, you would look for the picture you see in your mind, the same thing we do when we await the fulfillment of the prophecies of the Second Coming. We have a "picture" we are waiting for, a vision of what those glorious signs will bring (7:8)

Now, let's examine what is happening here. "The Traveler" is 26 words long, but to make a picture from these words, we have to add details - details that simply aren't in those 26 words. Of course, the details we add may indeed be correct, but, then again, they may not (7:9)

We have to assume many things, otherwise we can't "see" a picture. There's no harm done in adding details; it's automatic, a natural outcome of the capacity of the human mind. However, what would happen if this "prophecy" were fulfilled in a way that didn't match our picture? What would we do? How would we react? Is it possible that we would miss the fulfillment because of a preconceived notion of how it "should" be fulfilled? Or could we accept that a higher wisdom was operating and could we adjust our thinking. Could we keep our assumptions from getting in the way? (7:10)

So let's take "look" at "The Traveler". In the picture, what do you see? (7:11)

Did you assume that the traveler was on foot? What if he arrives on horseback, or by canoe? Did you assume that the traveler was alone? What if he is a soldier in an army? What if he is the commander of an army? Did you assume that the traveler would cross the plain? What if after resting, for some reason he turns around and returns the way he came? Did you assume that the traveler was to stop for a short while? What if he marries, and raises children before continuing. Did you assume that the traveler was to live? What if he dies as he rests? Did you assume that the plain was empty? What if a city were built there? And did you assume that the traveler was a man? What if the traveler is a woman? (7:12)

To illustrate how we automatically form a "picture", and how this picture may vary from the one intended, I have, through my "what-ifs" suggested certain details that may have been associated with the fulfillment of this "prophecy". I have not tried to be clever or deceptive in this. The only "rule" I have followed in suggesting these, is that if it were not ruled out by the "prophecy", then it could be part of the "fulfillment" (7:13)

As we study, in the following chapters actual prophecies and their fulfillment, we will see that God is not even bound by this "rule"; indeed, of course, He is not subject to any "rule" whatsoever, and fulfills prophecies according to His wisdom. Using the life of Christ as an example of the fulfillment of prophecy, we will see that even things that seem to be clearly ruled out in a prophecy, may indeed be present in the fulfillment. And if this weren't enough to confound anyone who would place their confidence in their own understanding of the scriptures, this may be: things that are clearly stated as elements of the fulfillment of a prophecy, may be absent in the actual fulfillment. Moreover, the Word of God gives no explanation as to why this is the case. It is as if God is telling us that, through the events that have come to pass in the life of Christ, we are to understand the meaning of the prophecies referring to Him. For this is exactly what has happened. Now that we have knowledge of Christ and His life through the word of God in the New Testament, we can go back to the Old Testament, and understand His words. Without the New Testament, we cannot understand them (7:14)

Now if, as shown in the example of "The Traveler", common words are subject to widely differing interpretation, how could we possibly assume to have grasped the correct interpretation of the holy words we have been given that describe the Advent of the Lord? (7:15)

The tongue of the prophets described things that others could not perceive. Like a man seeing a coming thunderstorm that his blind friend cannot see, so the prophet sees and tells of things to come (7:16)

We, who read their words, or the words of Christ, are not prophets. Yet, generally, we assume we understand the precise meaning of their words. And though to make this assumption is a perfectly natural thing to do, now that we have the life of Christ described in the New Testament before us as the supreme example of how all assumptions were blown to smithereens at His Coming, can we persist in this practice? (7:17)

The prophecies of the Bible are like seeds, and their fulfillment is like the plants into which these seeds grow. By looking at the seed, there is no way to tell what shape or color or form lies within it. It is only after the seed develops into a plant that we know the "meaning" of the seed (7:18)

In the same way, by studying the words of a prophecy, there is no way to tell what it signifies, or what future events will fulfill it. It is only after the prophecy has been fulfilled that we can understand what the words of the prophecy mean (7:19)

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