“How to Interpret Bible Prophecy” (Part 1): Historical Context

Billy Goat Curse

On November 2, 2016 the Chicago Cubs defeated the Cleveland Indians to win the World Series. This might not seem significant. After all, a team wins the World Series every year, right? But looking at the Cubs’ history reveals how important it is.

The Cubs hadn’t won the World Series since 1908. They hadn’t even appeared in the World Series since 1945. Many fans attribute this 71-year absence to “the curse of the billy goat.” Legend has it that during the ’45 Series, local tavern owner Billy Sianis tried to buy a ticket for his pet goat. Angered that his goat was not admitted, he pronounced, “Them Cubs, they ain’t gonna win no more.”

This may seem ridiculous. But during the last 71 years, there were several times the Cubs were poised to win the pennant only to have a run of unexplainably bad luck. Cubs fans know their history as a team. The ’16 Series is more than a championship to them; it represents the lifting of a long-standing curse.

The historical context of the Chicago Cubs helps us interpret their World Series championship. Without that context, we won’t understand the full significance of their victory.

Historical Context

Historical context helps us understand what happens in the world of sports. More importantly, it helps us interpret what happens in the Bible. This is especially true with the prophets. The Bible contains several books of prophecy. Without an awareness of their historical context, we will be hopelessly lost in our attempts to interpret them.

“Historical context” refers to the circumstances surrounding an event. It prompts us to ask, “What was happening when this book of the Bible was written?” Such a question sheds light on the original meaning of Scripture and guides us to properly interpret Bible prophecy.

Old Testament Prophets

There are several books of prophecy in the Old Testament. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel are the Major Prophets. Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi are the Minor Prophets.

Each book begins with a statement that locates the prophet’s ministry in a specific historical setting. We must interpret their prophecies in light of what was happening in their day, not our own. We must bear in mind the situations they faced and the events that loomed near on their horizon.

Most of the prophets ministered in times of religious apostasy and political uncertainty. In all things, they sought to advise Israel and Judah in light of their present situation. It is best to first seek the fulfillment of their prophecies in events that have already passed. Some historic moments in Bible history include:

  • The Assyrians destroying Samaria and taking Israel captive (722 B.C.)
  • The Babylonians destroying Jerusalem and taking Judah captive (587 B.C.)
  • The Jews returning from exile in Babylon (538 B.C.)
  • The Romans destroying Jerusalem (A.D. 70)

Book of Revelation

Revelation is the only book of prophecy in the New Testament. But it is arguably the most difficult book of prophecy to interpret in the entire Bible! However, much of the difficulty fades when we consider its historical context.

The book begins, “John, to the seven churches in the province of Asia” (1:4). These churches lived under the Roman Empire. During the first century, emperors began declaring themselves gods. Citizens were forced to pledge allegiance to the emperor by worshiping him at local shrines or temples. Anyone who refused was labeled a traitor and persecuted as such.

John identifies these seven churches as the church in Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. Each church faced its own difficulties and hardships. We must remember John was advising them in light of their present situation.

This series will continue over the next few weeks. To receive new posts, subscribe by e-mail!

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