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Rightly Understanding God’s Word: Context of Genre, Part 3, by Craig S. Keener

Before the exile, prophets usually prophesied in poetry in their books.

God does not give prophecy to satisfy our curiosity, but to tell us just what we need.

That prophets often prophesied in poetry invites us to interpret them in a particular manner. First, most ancient poetry was rich in symbolism, worded so as to capture attention. Most people knew that not all the details were literal; rather, one should strive to catch the basic point. Some details were even deliberately obscure until their fulfillment, though clear enough in retrospect that one would recognize both God’s wisdom and humanity’s foolishness in not understanding it.

Second, Israelite prophecy involved parallelism, as in the psalms and proverbs. (When the King James Version was translated, this principle was not recognized, but nearly all newer translations arrange biblical prophecies in lines like other poetry, which makes it easy to recognize the poetic form.) Some modern poetry and songs balance sound, for instance, by rhyme and rhythm; but the Israelites balanced especially ideas. Thus the second line might repeat the thought of the first line (either in the same words or in similar ones that might slightly develop the thought). Or the second line might give the opposite point (e.g., if the first line says, the memory of the righteous will be blessed, the second might note that the name of the wicked will rot). In such cases, we should not read into parallel lines different thoughts. Some preachers have even taken separate points of their sermon from parallel lines, but in the original poetry, these separate lines were not separate ideas; they were simply varied ways of stating the same idea.


Was the prophecy fulfilled already? Does some remain?

How do we interpret books of prophecies that do not provide the full background concerning the situations they address?

Here you should check historical parts of Bible and other historical information to see if a prophecy was fulfilled. Often prophecies are poetic ways to give the general sense, while the particular application remains ambiguous (Is 37:29, 33-37); God does not give prophecy to satisfy our curiosity, but to tell us just what we need. Thus we should not expect literal fulfillment of every detail as if prophecies were prose rather than poetry (although God sometimes did fulfill details literally). Thus, for example, all scholars agree that Jeremiah prophesied before Jerusalem’s fall, announcing in advance judgment on his own people. (This was unusual in the ancient Near East, where prophets were often expected to be patriotic and encourage their people to victories.) But Jeremiah (and Deuteronomy) prophesied the restoration of Israel to the land. When the Assyrians had carried people into captivity, no one ever returned, and no one expected matters to be different with the Babylonians. But a generation after Jeremiah’s death the Judean exiles returned to their land. This was a remarkable, large-scale fulfillment, not naturally expected and not able to be viewed as coincidence, that validates Jeremiah’s prophecy even if some details were intended poetically. Jeremiah’s very writing style lets us know that many of his details are merely poetic, graphic ways of communicating his broader point (e.g., Jer 4:7-9, 20-31). (Parts of Daniel include more details in prose; these occurred exactly as Daniel predicted them.)

We must be careful in speaking of ‘double fulfillments.’

A few prophecies were never fulfilled and never will be (e.g., Jer 46:13; Ezek 29:19; 30:10), because people responded to the threats or took for granted the promises; God gives many prophecies in a conditional manner (Jer 18:7-10).

Of prophecies that were fulfilled, part may remain future. This is because there are consistent patterns in God’s dealing with humanity, because both God and human nature have remained the same. Thus, for example, the temple was repeatedly judged in “abominations of desolation,” by the Babylonians (587 BC), by Antiochus Epiphanes (second century BC), by Pompey (first century BC), by Titus (first century AD) and by Hadrian (second century AD). (Referring in advance to Titus’ destruction of the temple, Jesus could speak of an abomination of desolation within one generation—Matt 23:36-38; 24:1-3, 15, 34—which was fulfilled forty years after Jesus predicted it.) Because there are many evil emperors in history, the “mystery of lawlessness is already at work” (2 Thess 2:7); because deceivers remain, there are already many antichrists (1 Jn 2:18).

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Category: Biblical Studies, Fall 2005

About the Author: Craig S. Keener, Ph.D. (Duke University), is F. M. and Ada Thompson Professor of Biblical Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. He is author of many books, including Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts (Baker Academic, 2011), the bestselling IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, The Historical Jesus of the Gospels, Gift and Giver: The Holy Spirit for Today, and commentaries on Acts, Matthew, John, Romans, 1-2 Corinthians, and Revelation. In addition to having written more than seventy academic articles, several booklets and more than 150 popular-level articles, Craig is is the New Testament editor (and author of most New Testament notes) for the The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible. He is married to Dr. Médine Moussounga Keener, who is from the Republic of Congo, and together they have worked for ethnic reconciliation in North America and Africa. Craig and Médine wrote Impossible Love: The True Story of an African Civil War, Miracles and Hope against All Odds (Chosen, 2016) to share their story. Twitter: @keener_craig

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