Introduction to Prophecy Interpretation
Updated: Jun 25, 2021
Disclaimer: Bible prophecy interpretation is complex, and as Sir Isaac Newton noted, generally not well understood until fulfillment. Yet Jesus told his disciples to "keep on the watch" and to "lift up your heads" when they see significant events--that deliverance is near. It is in this spirit that this is written: to help Christians make sense of today's events in the context of prophecy. There is no claim to inspiration or special insight. All errors are mine.
Prophetic interpretation involves knowing the high points in the history of the key players, and recognizing the details of the prophecy that enlighten us as to their meaning. The following is an introductory lesson in what I call Iterative Historicism.
Methods of Interpretation - Which is the Right One?
There are essentially three approaches to prophecy: Preterism, Futurism, and Historicism. Preterism says most prophecy was fulfilled in 70 CE with the destruction of Jerusalem. But did all eyes see Jesus? Did he separate the sheep from the goats? Did he bring an end to world governments and take charge? Obviously not. We can reject Preterism.
Futurism says most prophecies are not fulfilled yet. It takes the last week of the 70 week prophecy in Daniel 9, cuts it off from the 69 prior weeks, and unnecessarily puts it far into the future, which is irrational. This method was popularized by Hal Lindsey in The Late Great Planet Earth, and has been thoroughly debunked, including, of course, his prediction that the end would come in the 1980's. In Revelation Chapter 1, John says these things "are about to take place, and things after these" (Rev 1:19), and so it is clear that at least in Revelation, the prophecies begin to be fulfilled in early Christianity and continue forward. The Christians of the first three centuries would recognize Rome as the beast of Chapter 13:1-10, for example. The angel in Daniel, when asked to explain, shows these kind of prophetic fulfillments roll out in history, one after the other. The idea that most prophecy is still future rejects what the angel tells Daniel when he asks for an interpretation, as well as what John is told in Revelation. We can reject Futurism.
Historicism is the method explained by the angels in Daniel. World powers arise one after another, throughout history without a significant break. This is the correct method, with this caveat: some prophecies can be fulfilled more than once. How do we know? Because not all the details were fulfilled (see Matt 24, Luke 21). The first fulfillment becomes a template or example for future fulfillments. I believe this is the correct method, which I call Iterative (more than once) Historicism. Note that in Historicism, a "day for a year" is a guiding principle (Numbers 14:34; Ezekiel 4:5-6; Daniel 9:24-27).
Example 1: Daniel 2:31-45
This is the easiest prophecy that sets the context for the others in Daniel and Revelation. As the angel says, the head of gold is Babylon, the next kingdom of silver we know from history is Medo-Persia, which conquered Babylon, then the belly of bronze, is Greece, and the legs of iron is Rome, which conquered all others. Two legs likely indicate the Western (Latin speaking) and Eastern (Greek speaking) halves of the empire. The feet are part iron and part clay, and this is the state of affairs when Christ returns (the rock cut out of the mountain is hurled at the feet of the statue destroying it). The feet therefore must represent our world sometime from now forward, since Christ has not yet returned.
The iron represents Rome or Roman Power in some form. But what does the clay represent? Let's do a search on "clay" in the bible. Isaiah 64:8; Job 10:9; Jer 18:4 What do you think the phrase means: "they will combine with one another in the seed of men; but they will not adhere to one another, even as iron does not combine with pottery." (v43) Refer to Revelation 17. Since clay can represent God's people, and this clay is in an unholy relationship with iron, representing Roman power, it is likely the clay means God's people corrupted.
A Very Brief History of Rome
Prophetic interpretation requires a knowledge of history so I've tried to summarize the important events here. Iron is the prophetic symbol for Rome, but Rome goes through some transformations through the centuries. Rome began as a small town on the West coast of Italy in 753 BCE and was a monarchy. In 509 BCE it became a republic (representative government and laws). Other towns were invited to join, and they did, and Rome grew very quickly to become the world power, defeating Greece and conquering Egypt, Israel and many other powers around the Mediterranean and eastward. It was Imperial Rome that crucified Jesus and destroyed Jerusalem and its Temple in 70 CE. In 312 CE, Constantine, who was not in line to be emperor, defeated his rivals and through intrigue, became sole emperor of Rome's Eastern (Greek speaking) and Western (Latin speaking) divisions. In 313 CE, in his Edict of Milan, he returned all church property, ended the persecution, and provided funding to build new churches. But there was a catch: Constantine, a Sun God worshiper and murderer, would be in charge. The Church would report to him and he would decide, through various councils, what Christians must believe and practice. Obviously this was an abomination: there is only one head of the true Church, Jesus Christ, not some Sun-worshiping, murderous Roman Emperor.
The result was the gross corruption of Christianity. Greedy, ambitious people sought the financial rewards and power and fought for their place in the Church hierarchy. Many sincere Christians left the church and went elsewhere to live, or practiced their faith privately, and tried to avoid the persecuting authorities. Church councils debated, fought, and declared various doctrines, most of which are unbiblical, and forced Christians to obey them on pain of persecution. The Roman Empire began to deteriorate from corruption within and was destroyed by Germanic tribes in the 5th century CE. There were initially 10 tribal powers from the North, represented by "ten horns" in Daniel 7:7-24; Rev 7:7,24; Rev 12:3; and 13:17:3-16. This was the "head wound" of Revelation 13:3 and I believe, punishment from God for corrupting and persecuting the true Church. The "10 horns" would eventually become the countries of Europe that grew out of Rome, and later, likely all republics in the world that descended from the Roman style of government.
But Rome was not finished. From the ashes of the old empire arose "Holy Rome" and the Papacy. The Papacy was instituted by the Emperor Justinian in the 6th century CE and grew in power and control over previously Roman lands. The Papacy was arguably the most wicked institution ever created. It viciously persecuted Christ's followers, forcing people to attend Mass, and attempted to destroy any Christian belief or practice it did not ordain. The Spanish Inquisition tortured and killed thousands of people. In fairness, the Roman Catholic Church did do some good: building hospitals and schools, helping the poor, etc., but it also did a lot of damage. When Luther nailed his theses to the door of Wittenberg Church in 1517, the Reformation against the Roman Church began. Zwingli in Zurich and Calvin in Geneva would follow Luther. In 1534 King Henry VIII would create the Church of England and separate from the Papacy. The Papacy and the Holy Roman Empire was losing ground quickly, as the Reformation progressed.
Most commentators argue that it was the Reformation that brought Christianity back to the Bible. "Sola Scriptura", or Scripture Alone, was the byword. Many Catholic doctrines, like Mary worship, were rejected as unbiblical, and Luther's "salvation by grace alone" spread across Europe. Yet Protestants still thought that the Church should partner with the government to rule over the people. The persecutions continued, but now, it was the Protestants that were doing the persecuting. However, in 1573 CE, exactly 1260 years after Constantine's Edict of Milan in 313 CE, the Warsaw Confederation was signed in Poland. Although some countries in Europe allowed for some limited freedom of worship, for the first time in history, a significant country in Europe allowed total freedom of conscience. Many people moved to Poland to be free to practice religion (or not) as they saw fit, and a succession of Polish Kings supported this. The Polish Brethren, who were non-Trinitarian, pacifist, and egalitarian, opened universities and published many books which were read across Europe. This lasted for almost a century. However, Jesuits infiltrated Poland and turned the new King against the Brethren and they were forced to leave Poland or be imprisoned or executed. But these ideas had already taken root in other countries of Europe and would eventually result in freedom of conscience everywhere in the West--but not yet.
The Papacy viciously tried to claw back lost ground in the so-called "Counter Revolution". This resulted in the 30 Years War (1618-1648) in Germany where an estimated 8 million people died. Both sides were exhausted and signed a peace treaty, known as the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, where it was decided that each King or Queen could choose their own state church. It wasn't complete religious freedom (non-Trinitarians and atheists still had no place) but at least you could move to a country where you would experience some degree of freedom of conscience.
The Papacy continued to interfere with European governments where it could. France was its most powerful supporter. But in 1789 the French Revolution broke out. It was a people's revolution--first of its kind--and threw aside monarchy and the Church. In 1792, exactly 2300 years after Rome became a Republic, France became a Republic. Religion would now be a personal affair, as per the new Constitution. From now on, religion would have no part in government. The final humiliation occurred in 1798, approximately 1260 years after Papacy was established by Justinian, when Napoleon, now military dictator of France, had the Pope arrested. He died in transit to prison. Surely this must be the end of Rome, as it was embodied in the Papacy and the Holy Roman Empire?
But recall, Rome must still be around in some form when Jesus returns (Daniel 2:42-43). Recall Rome really began as a Republic in 509 BCE. It was destroyed in the 5th century CE by the "ten horns"--the Northern Tribes. The "Holy Roman" empire and Papacy arose to take its place, but the Papacy was essentially neutered in 1792 with the French Revolution. The modern day Papacy is no longer prophetic Rome: it has no political power whatsoever, and all these previous powers are political or political/religious in nature. So what arose to take its place, since Rome must be around at the end, in the feet of the statue of Daniel 2?
The French Revolution set the tone for the rest of Europe. Republics arose and took down the previous monarchies aligned with religion. From the Western Empire arose powers like France, Germany, Holland etc. From the Eastern Empire arose countries like Russia, Greece, Ukraine, etc. Rome, I believe, is now represented by these powers. These powers are Republics as Rome was. And many of these powers also have harlot churches in bed with the government. The Russian Orthodox and Ukrainian Orthodox churches are an example, as are Evangelical churches in the USA, Africa, South America, and Asia, which promote the prosperity Gospel and are partnering with their governments to rule over the people. The "ten toes" of the statue in Daniel 2, I believe, are representative of all these powers (10 in Scripture means complete set with regard to the earth). This is the state of affairs when Christ returns.
Note that Greece, the superpower that was defeated by Rome, appears as a single power in Daniel 2, but in Daniel 7:6 Greece, represented by a leopard, has 4 wings and 4 heads. In Daniel 8:8 Greece is represented by a male goat with a single, large horn. But that horn is broken, and 4 horns grow up in its place. Alexander the Great led Greece to superpower status, but at the height of his career, he suddenly died, likely from illness. His Kingdom was divided between his 4 generals: Cassander, Ptolemy, Antigonus, and Seleucus. Ptolemy and Seleucus emerged as the primary powers. We see them again in Daniel 11, where Ptolemy is King of the South (Egypt) and Seleucus is King of the North (Syria)--South and North of Israel, respectively.
Example 2: Daniel 7:1-28
This prophecy looks at all these powers from a different perspective: as beasts. The first is a lion, representing Babylon, the second is a bear, representing Medo-Persia, the third is a leopard with 4 heads, representing Greece, and the last "dreadful and terrifying" beast with 10 horns (v7) is Rome, since it was Rome that conquered Greece. A "little horn" emerges displacing 3 other horns, and is given a "mouth uttering great boasts." This is the rise of first, Constantine, and then Holy Rome and the Papacy, which displaced 3 Germanic tribes who were non-Trinitarian: the Heruls in 493 CE, the Vandals in 534 CE, and the Ostrogoths in 538 CE. The Roman Church was Trinitarian and declared all non-Trinitarians to be heretics fit for death. But the Most High takes his seat on His throne. This beast is judged, and slain. The other beasts remain for a while. I believe this refers to the French Revolution, whereby the Catholic Church was humbled, humiliated, and had its political power removed. But there may be a complete destruction coming as well later, we shall see.
Note the number of heads: Babylon (1), Medo-Persia (1), Greece (4) and Rome (1), for a total of 7 heads. Now compare to the beast in Revelation 12:3: "a great red dragon having seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads were seven diadems...the dragon stood before the woman who was about to give birth, so that when she gave birth he might devour her child." The child is Jesus and so this beast must be Imperial Rome, which crucified him and persecuted his disciples. By noting the similarities between the Daniel beasts and the Revelation beasts, we can make connections and get more information on what these beasts have done or will do. I believe the Revelation 12 Dragon Beast is a composite beast, composed of the various beasts in Daniel 7.
Like Israel's slavery in Egypt, prophecy showed that Christians would also go through a very dark time of oppression, for 1260 years. But at the end of it, God humbled the oppressor and freed his people to worship openly, and we should be thankful for that.
These prophecies show that Satan has used corrupt governments and false religion to control and deceive God's people. God allowed it for a while, but when the time came, he humbled these evil powers and freed his people. They will still try, but Christians today are free to worship God in Christ according to Scripture, and according to their biblically trained consciences.
Although we have focused on Rome and Europe, they are not the only powers in prophecy operating today. Revelation 13:11-18 describes another Beast which arises from the earth as the previous Beast from the sea (v1-10) is in decline and has "all the authority of the first beast", that is, Rome. I believe this beast is the Anglo-American partnership, which represents Roman power today. But that's for another time.