Foundations of Prophecy

Many people, even non-Christians, are fascinated by prophecy. They are intrigued and curious to know what is going to happen in the future and how the world will end. But many Bible students and teachers start off on the wrong foot, because they fail to observe certain foundational principles in understanding Biblical Prophecy. I used to shy away from the subject, but have recently found that it is relatively easy to understand, in light of the overall message of the whole Bible.

People most often have problems with prophecy when they don't first understand the overall message of the Kingdom of God. If they start out believing that the dead are conscious in heaven, or that the Kingdom of God is a figurative kingdom in the heart, or that it's only for Israel while the Church has a different destination, and then try to interpret other prophetic Scriptures in light of these erroneous ideas, the result is a compounding of error.

But we have seen the clear message of the Scriptures, that the Kingdom of God is primarily a literal one on earth, at which time the dead shall be raised to life. The coming of the Kingdom is an eschatological event, which means it is involved with the end times. As seen in the Old Testament Foundation and Kingdom Come sections, the Bible teaches us that when Jesus Christ returns it will be a cataclysmic event which will bring an end to the present evil age and begin what is called the "Age To Come."

There are certain theological terms to describe the different beliefs that exist regarding prophecy and the end times. They sound complicated but really aren't. The word "millennium" means a period of 1000 years. When you read about THE Millennium, or Millennial Reign, it is referring to the 1000 year reign mentioned in Revelation 20. There are basically three views concerning the return of Christ relative to the Millennium:

  • Premillenialism is the belief that Christ will return "PRE" or BEFORE the Millennial reign (i.e. to set it up).
  • Postmillenialism is the belief that Christ will return "POST" or AFTER the Millennium (i.e. the 1000 years leads up to his return).
  • Amillennialism is the belief that there IS NO Millennial reign (i.e., it is figuratively representing something else).

Personally I believe in Premillennialism, and I will demonstrate why in the course of these articles. However I would hasten to add that many good-hearted Christians may hold differing opinions. These are not issues on which our salvation depends, nor are they issues over which we should have division or antagonism.

The Bible actually says quite a lot about the events leading up to and surrounding Christ's return, but there are many different opinions about how to interpret these prophecies. One of the reasons is the lack of understanding of the Hebrew Scriptures. Many people start with the Book of Revelation and try to interpret it without understanding its background. Revelation makes many, many references to things in the Old Testament, and without understanding those Old Testament references, it is impossible to understand Revelation.

One of the foundational sections of Scripture regarding prophecy is the Book of Daniel. Jesus himself referred to the words of the Prophet Daniel, so it would be well to have a basic understanding of it if we are to understand what Jesus said about the end of this age. There are also other prophecies that form the background of things that the New Testament says about the End Times, and it is crucial to start with an understanding of these.

As we saw in our look at The Kingdom in the Prophets, Daniel interpreted Nebuchadnezzar's dream of the giant image in chapter two as representing four kingdoms, each of which would succeed the previous one. The fourth kingdom would be directly replaced by the Kingdom which the God of heaven shall set up, which will obliterate all previous worldly kingdoms (Daniel 2:44). That prophecy by itself shows that a literal kingdom on earth is God's ultimate plan.

The vision in Daniel 7 describes four beasts, which also represent four kings or kingdoms. The "Little Horn" in this vision represents a leader who will rise up out of the fourth kingdom, and make war with the saints until the Ancient of Days (God) delivers the Kingdom to the Son of Man. At that time, "...the saints of the most High shall take the kingdom, and possess the kingdom for ever, even for ever and ever" (verse 18) This ties in with Nebuchadnezzar's vision, establishing that the fourth kingdom shall immediately precede the establishment of the Kingdom of God on earth.

The vision in chapter 8 describes the kings of Media and Persia being defeated by the king of Grecia (Greece), and the division of the Greek empire among four heads. This was fulfilled historically in Alexander the Great, whose empire when he died was divided among his four generals. This was still future at the time Daniel was written (although skeptics claim it was written later, but with no valid proof). Thus we can deduce that the first three kingdoms are Babylon, Medo-Persia, and Greece. The fourth beast, described in Daniel 7:7 as "diverse [different] from all the beasts that were before it" as well as “dreadful and terrible, and strong exceedingly” is not identified.

But in Daniel 8:9  we are told that out of one of the divisions of the Greek empire, the Little Horn will come. It is further stated in verse 17 that it is "at the time of the end" that the vision deals with, and a fierce king will rise up "in the latter time of their kingdom." It ties this king together with other references to the Little Horn when it says in verse 25, "he shall also stand up against the Prince of princes; but he shall be broken without hand." This prophecy is reiterated in other places, as we will see.

One of the biggest keys to understanding prophecy is to take note of the sequence of events.  Daniel 9:26 states that the wicked prince, the Little Horn, would put an end to daily sacrifice, and cause what’s called the Overspreading of Abominations, elsewhere called the Abomination of Desolation (Daniel 11:31; 12:11; Matthew 24:15; Mark 13:14).

Daniel 9:

26  And after threescore and two weeks shall Messiah be cut off, but not for himself: and the people of the prince that shall come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary; and the end thereof shall be with a flood, and unto the end of the war desolations are determined.

27  And he shall confirm the covenant with many for one week: and in the midst of the week he shall cause the sacrifice and the oblation to cease, and for the overspreading of abominations he shall make it desolate, even until the consummation, and that determined shall be poured upon the desolate. [see NASB]

This sign is referred to by Jesus in his prophecy of end times in Matthew 24 and Mark 13.  There have been a few different suggestions of what this might be, and what was the fulfillment of it.  But the qualifying factors are that it must be in close succession with the Little Horn’s end, as well as the Great Tribulation, the resurrection of the dead, and the return of Christ.

Matthew 24:

15  When ye therefore shall see the abomination of desolation, spoken of by Daniel the prophet, stand in the holy place, (whoso readeth, let him understand:)

16  Then let them which be in Judaea flee into the mountains:

21  For then shall be great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world to this time, no, nor ever shall be.

22  And except those days should be shortened, there should no flesh be saved: but for the elect’s sake those days shall be shortened.

29  Immediately after the tribulation of those days shall the sun be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken:
30  And then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven: and then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn, and they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.
[see NASB]

Notice it says that immediately after the tribulation of those days, there would be signs in the heavens involving the sun, moon, and stars, and then the Son of Man will be seen coming in the clouds.  Any theory about end time events must have these events in this order, or they will not fit the prophecies.  Some historical events have had some of these factors, but not all, showing that while they may be a type of the ultimate fulfillment, they are not the final one.  For more on this, see Dual Fulfillment of Prophecy.

In Daniel chapter 9, Daniel prays and Gabriel responds to his prayer with a reference to "seventy weeks." Most Christians have heard of the "seventy weeks" in Daniel, but there are differences of opinion as to how they should be interpreted.

Daniel 9:
24 Seventy weeks are determined upon thy people and upon thy holy city, to finish the transgression, and to make an end of sins, and to make reconciliation for iniquity, and to bring in everlasting righteousness, and to seal up the vision and prophecy, and to anoint the most Holy.
[see NASB]

The word translated "weeks" here is the Hebrew word shabua, which literally means a "heptad" or period of seven. It can refer to seven days, or seven years. The "seventy weeks" in Daniel refer to seventy periods of seven years. Daniel knew that the Babylonian captivity would last seventy years (Daniel 9:2). In light of this, he prayed for the complete restoration of the holy mountain of God in the first part of chapter nine, and Gabriel's revelation is in direct response to Daniel's prayer. It is revealed that an additional 70 - this time 70 sevens rather than just 70 years - have been determined, to complete everything that verse 24 says.

There are basically two theories regarding this prophecy. One is that the seventy weeks are continuous, while the other holds that there is a gap between the 69th and 70th year. Within the "continuous" interpretation, at least four possibilities have been proposed. One is that the last seven years were fulfilled at the time of the Maccabees and Antiochus Epiphanes. Another is that the prophecy was fulfilled with the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD (although this would be almost forty years after the 69th week). Another is that the prophecy refers to an indefinite period from the time of Christ, lasting until the end. A fourth possibility is that the last "week" of years began with Christ's ministry and ended about three and a half years after his death (sometime in the Acts period).

The problem with all of these is that there is no significant event which fits the prophecies to mark the end of the period. Specifically, while certain events may seem cataclysmic (such as the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD), the Age to Come which is clearly predicted has not taken place. Messiah has not returned, the dead have not been raised, war has not been done away with, and regarding Daniel 9:24, there has not been an end to transgression and sin, a bringing in of everlasting righteousness, a sealing up of the vision and prophecy, or an anointing of the most holy place, all of which are prophesied as being accomplished by the end of the seventy "weeks" as we read.

The other theory about the seventieth week is that there is a gap between the 69th and 70th week. The possibility of a gap is allowed for by the wording of Gabriel's prophecy in the verses following verse 24.

Daniel 9:
25 Know therefore and understand, that from the going forth of the commandment to restore and to build Jerusalem unto the Messiah the Prince shall be seven weeks, and threescore and two weeks: the street shall be built again, and the wall, even in troublous times.
26 And after threescore and two weeks shall Messiah be cut off, but not for himself: and the people of the prince that shall come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary; and the end thereof shall be with a flood, and unto the end of the war desolations are determined.
27 And he shall confirm the covenant with many for one week: and in the midst of the week he shall cause the sacrifice and the oblation to cease, and for the overspreading of abominations he shall make it desolate, even until the consummation, and that determined shall be poured upon the desolate.
[see NASB]

The division of the seventy weeks in verses 25-27 into seven weeks, then threescore and two (sixty-two) weeks, then one week, indicates that the seventy weeks are to be further divided. It also indicates that the three subgroups are not necessarily consecutive. Rather than saying that Messiah shall be cut off after 69 weeks (the first 2 groups combined), it says that it would occur after the second group, 62 weeks. Then it refers to the people of the prince and the things that would happen, but it doesn't say these events follow immediately after those 62 weeks. It says they would happen in "one week" and would lead up to "the consummation." This implies a gap between the second and third division. Messiah is cut off after 7 and 62 weeks (69 weeks total), but the final events take place in the last week, which will be just before the end. Nothing is said about how much time is between the 69th and 70th week.

The wording used in these verses allows for the possibility of a gap of time before the 70th week. (There are other examples of chronological gaps in Biblical prophecies, such as Isaiah 9:6-7; 61:1-2; and Zechariah 9:9-10, where events of Christ's first and second comings are foretold together, with no indication of time in between.)  One may ask, “Why word it this way? If it’s supposed to be an indication of time, what sense is there in breaking it up and having a huge gap between two of the parts?”  Since the gap is of an unknown length, it is the best way to indicate the length of each part.  The first two are measured from the beginning, but the last is measured from the end, i.e. one “week” before the end. 

The Great Tribulation takes place in the second half of the last week.  Its duration is specifically defined in chapter 12.

Daniel 12:
6 And one said to the man clothed in linen, which was upon the waters of the river, How long shall it be to the end of these wonders?
7 And I heard the man clothed in linen, which was upon the waters of the river, when he held up his right hand and his left hand unto heaven, and sware by him that liveth for ever that it shall be for a time, times, and an half; and when he shall have accomplished to scatter the power of the holy people, all these things shall be finished.
8 And I heard, but I understood not: then said I, O my Lord, what shall be the end of these things?
9 And he said, Go thy way, Daniel: for the words are closed up and sealed till the time of the end.
10 Many shall be purified, and made white, and tried; but the wicked shall do wickedly: and none of the wicked shall understand; but the wise shall understand.
11 And from the time that the daily sacrifice shall be taken away, and the abomination that maketh desolate set up, there shall be a thousand two hundred and ninety days.
12 Blessed is he that waiteth, and cometh to the thousand three hundred and five and thirty days.
13 But go thou thy way till the end be: for thou shalt rest, and stand in thy lot at the end of the days.
[see NASB]

When Daniel asked how long it would be to the end of those signs, he was given the mysterious answer of “a time, times, and an half" (KJV) or "a time, times, and half a time." (NASB) He didn't understand and so he asked what shall be the end. He was then told that from the abomination of desolation until the end would be 1290 days, and that "he that waiteth" comes to the 1335 days. If you take "a time" to mean one year and "times" to mean two years, then "a time, times, and half a time" refers to 3 1/2 years, which fits with other references to this period, and is also close to both 1290 and 1335 days (a difference of 45 days, which may also have its own significance). This fits with the reference to the "Little Horn" in chapters 7 and 8 (identified as existing at "the time of the end" in 8:17), who "...shall speak great words against the most High, and shall wear out the saints of the most High, and think to change times and laws: and they shall be given into his hand until a time and times and the dividing of time" (7:25).

This also fits with the prophecy of the abomination being set up "in the midst of the week" in chapter nine - half of seven years is three and a half years. Revelation 12:14 also refers to "time, and times, and half a time," and there are also references to 1260 days in Revelation 11:2-3 and 12:6, and to 42 months in Revelation 13:5, both of which equal 3 1/2 years (using the Hebrew reckoning of a year as 360 days).

All of these references speak of a time of unprecedented tribulation brought about by a wicked tyrant shortly before the return of Christ and the setting up of God's Kingdom.  Other references speak of Israel being attacked by someone called The Assyrian. Micah 5:5-6 says that the Messiah shall "be the peace, when the Assyrian shall come into our land."  And Isaiah refers to the remnant of Israel being delivered, and mentions Assyria by name.

Isaiah 10:
20 And it shall come to pass in that day, that the remnant of Israel, and such as are escaped of the house of Jacob, shall no more again stay upon him that smote them; but shall stay upon the LORD, the Holy One of Israel, in truth.
21 The remnant shall return, even the remnant of Jacob, unto the mighty God.
22 For though thy people Israel be as the sand of the sea, yet a remnant of them shall return: the consumption decreed shall overflow with righteousness.
23 For the Lord GOD of hosts shall make a consumption, even determined, in the midst of all the land.
24 Therefore thus saith the Lord GOD of hosts, O my people that dwellest in Zion, be not afraid of the Assyrian: he shall smite thee with a rod, and shall lift up his staff against thee, after the manner of Egypt.
25 For yet a very little while, and the indignation shall cease, and mine anger in their destruction.
[see NASB]

Historically, Assyria only defeated the northern kingdom of Israel (not the southern kingdom of Judah), and was afterward conquered by Babylon. Yet this prophecy (and others) describe Assyria as being around at the time of the end. The rest of chapter 10 speaks of this Assyrian having come against other cities, but only being able to shake his fist at Mt. Zion (verse 32). Yet it cannot be referring to Assyria's unsuccessful siege of Jerusalem recounted in the Old Testament, because the context is the time leading up to the Messiah establishing God's Kingdom. The beginning of the Messianic Age follows immediately, as described in chapter 11.

Isaiah 11:
1 And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots:
2 And the spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD;
3 And shall make him of quick understanding in the fear of the LORD: and he shall not judge after the sight of his eyes, neither reprove after the hearing of his ears:
4 But with righteousness shall he judge the poor, and reprove with equity for the meek of the earth: and he shall smite the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips shall he slay the wicked.
[see NASB]

It is not uncommon for there to be historical events that are similar to those prophesied, to serve as a type of the ultimate fulfillment (see Dual Fulfillment of Prophecy). But several prophesies refer to the wicked tyrant's final defeat. Isaiah 10:23 (quoted above) describes the destruction of the Assyrian as, "a consumption, even determined." The NASB renders it as, "a complete destruction, one that is decreed." The exact same words are used in Daniel 9:27 (quoted above) to describe the end of the wicked prince. The historic King of Assyria did not meet his end following his unsuccessful attack of Jerusalem, nor did the Messianic Age begin at that time. This tells us that Assyria will be in the picture again, sometime in the future.

Paul quotes from Isaiah 11 in connection with the Son of Perdition and the Man of Sin in II Thessalonians 2:8, "And then shall that Wicked be revealed, whom the Lord shall consume with the spirit of his mouth, and shall destroy with the brightness of his coming."  This is a quote from Isaiah 11:4 and it is here connected with the Man of Sin, otherwise known as Antichrist and the Beast in the New Testament.

John in his first epistle says, "Little children, it is the last time: and as ye have heard that antichrist shall come, even now are there many antichrists; whereby we know that it is the last time" (I John 2:18). Notice he does not challenge or question the coming of a single Antichrist, which they had heard of, but simply points out that we know it is the last time because there are many antichrists (defined in verse 22 as those who deny the Father and the Son). I John 4:3 specifically refers to this as "the spirit of antichrist" which was already in the world, but nowhere does he state that the antichrist is not coming, which would contradict the many prophecies that deal with him.

So a major key in understanding prophecy is to "connect the dots" between different passages of Scripture that use the same word or phrase. When we join together the connected ideas, all the prophecies fit together to give a unified picture of the events that are to come just before the return of Christ to set up his Kingdom on earth. The wicked prince, or Antichrist, will set up the abomination of desolation, kicking off the three-and-a-half year period of Great Tribulation. He and his armies will assemble against Jerusalem, but he will be defeated and come to his ultimate, decreed end when Christ returns. At that time there will be a resurrection, signs of the Son of Man and the Son of Man himself will be seen in the heavens, and the Kingdom of God will be inaugurated.

The most important key to the interpretation of prophecy, however, is what Jesus himself taught his disciples concerning the end times, which we will examine next.

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This page was last updated on June 20, 2018.

Mark Clarke