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:
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 worldly kingdom 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, and when he died his empire 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.
In 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.
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.
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.
So verse 26 says that after the 62 weeks Messiah is cut off. Then it says "...and the people of the prince that shall come..." The "prince that shall come" is not referring to Messiah, but rather the future tyrant whom verse 27 says will cause the abomination of desolation (referred to elsewhere also). As noted, nothing requires that this follow immediately.
"The end thereof" in verse 26 is translated "its end" or "his end" in other versions. The word for "end" has a masculine singular pronoun ending, indicating that it refers back to the prince that shall come and destroy. "His end" would be the better translation according to several sources, including the Jewish Publication Society Old Testament. Verse 27 begins with "he" which would not fit unless the previous pronoun referred to a person and not the city and sanctuary as some suggest. (Also, if the "end" in verse 26 referred to the city and sanctuary, it would be plural, i.e., "their end".)
Since the prophecy states that the wicked prince would meet his end at the time he destroys the city and the sanctuary, it could not be referring to Antiochus Epiphanes, even though there were similar events at that time. Antiochus set up an idol in the holy place in the Temple, and later destroyed the Temple. But he did not come to his end at that time. In addition, Jesus referred to the abomination of desolation in Daniel as something to watch for in the future, so he clearly did not consider it to have been fulfilled by Antiochus. (It also could not refer to Titus, since he likewise did not meet his end at the time he destroyed Jerusalem in 70 AD.)
But there is more to consider. Verse 27 said he would confirm the covenant and then in the midst of the week would stop the sacrifices, and cause "the overspreading of abominations." This abomination of desolation is also referred to in chapter 11. That passage is referring to the wicked king of the north, who is identified with this prince in chapter 9, by similarly referring to the stopping of the sacrifice and the placing of the abomination of desolation.
Chapters 11 and 12 go on to describe the wicked king's activities.
Again we read that the coming wicked tyrant will attack Jerusalem (the holy mountain) and he will come to his end. None of the suggested historical fulfillments came to their end at their respective times. In addition, we are told in this passage that at the time of these events, there would be a time of trouble "such as never was since there was a nation even to that same time" and following that there would be a resurrection of "them that sleep in the dust of the earth." Not only did the historical figures that have been suggested not meet their ends, but these events - the Great Tribulation and the resurrection of the dead - did not occur in history and have not yet occurred. This establishes that the events referred to in this context are at the time of the end of the age, just prior to the return of Christ and the establishment of the Kingdom of God on earth. To further establish this point, Gabriel tells Daniel that "the words are closed up and sealed till the time of the end" and then tells him to "...go thou thy way till the end be: for thou shalt rest, and stand in thy lot at the end of the days" (Daniel 12:9).
The duration of the time of the Great Tribulation is specifically defined in chapter 12.
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.
Historically, Assyria only defeated the northern kingdom of Israel, 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.
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. But several prophesies refer to the wicked tyrant's 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, 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.