What is Prophecy?

P.S.G. Watson*

Webster defines the noun “prophecy, prediction;” and the verb “Prophesy, to foretell events.” Greenfield in his Greek Lexicon of the New Testament, defines the noun “Propheteia, prophesy, i.e., a prediction of future events,” etc.; and the verb “Propheteuo, to prophesy, i.e., to foretell future events, predict,” etc.

Points forward.
By this definitions it can be seen at once, that prophecy always points forward – never backward, of course. This simple truth is as valuable as it is self-evident; and its valye will be fully recognized in the interpretation of the book of Revelation.

The Author.
God alone is the Author of every true prophecy. This is self-evident. Foreknowledge is absolutely necessary to foretelling: God alone knows the future: therefore, He alone can foretell. In many cases both men and angels have delivered prophecies; but the angels spoke as they were commanded, and men as they were moved by the Holy Spirit. Some of the most wonderful prophecies were given by Jesus of Nazareth, in whom dwelt “all the fullness of the Godhead bodily.”

The kinds of events
Of the predicted events, there is great variety: they are great and small; good, bad, and indifferent; individual and national; religious and political; far and near; temporal and eternal, etc., etc. These predictions may be found in the form of a promise, or of a threat, or of a mere declaration. In order to determine whether or not a given passage of Scripture is prophetic, the following question should always be asked: Does it foretell? If it does, it is prophetic; but, if it does not, it is not prophetic. As God knows all the future, He could have foretold every event that would ever occur throughout the vast Universe: but He has not done so. A book containing the prediction of every event would be so inconceivably large, that even a Methusalah could advance but little beyond the Introduction in reading it! But God has not burdened us with such a book of prophecy. We may reasonably suppose, that he has foretold only a sufficient number and variety of events to answer the intended purposes.

Prophetic Time.
The Time in which a predicted event will occur, is a part of the prediction itself; and a very important part it is indeed. As already shown, prophecy is the foretelling of future events: these events are realities; therefore they require real time in which to occur; and every event must have its own time – no other time will meet the demands of the prophecy. The predicted time may be long or short, precise or approximate: in every case the particular prophecy must determine its own time. In speaking of Himself, Jesus said that He would “be killed, and be raised again the third day. – characteristic given in the advertisement, and the delivery to the sheriff must be within the published time. In like manner, every item of every prophecy must be fulfilled: and, of the prophetic items, the time is one of the most important. Over eighteen hundred years ago, Jesus came “in the fullness of the time.” – Gal. 4:4: therefore the prophecies which He fulfilled, can never be fulfilled by another person – “the time is fulfilled.”

Jesus foretold that He would rise on the third day: therefore He would have failed in the fulfillment of His own chosen, predicted sign, if He had risen even on the second or the fourth day. And this failure would justly have forfeited His claim to the Messiahship! See Matt. 12:38-40 and 27:62-64. In short, the predicted time is a part of the prophecy itself: and the veracity of God is pledged as much for the fulfillment of the time as it is for any other item of the prophecy. By a strict observance of the prophetic time, we can detect an immense number of false interpretations.

The Order or Relation.
The Order or Relation in which the predicted events are given, must be carefully observed in their interpretation. For example, take the seven trumpets and the seven vials of Revelation; the interpretation of these must place the Order of the fulfillment in the order of the prophecy. That is, the first must precede the second; the second, the third, and so on. To interpret so as to change the order of the fulfillment, would be a virtual change of the prophecy itself. Indeed it would be the promulgation of another prophecy, for the fulfillment of which the Lord would in no wise be responsible. For another example, take Matt. 24:15-31. In these verses, the following Order of events, is clearly revealed: First – The abomination of desolation – 15th verse. Second – The great tribulation – 21st verse. Third – The shortening of the days – 22d verse. Fourth – The false Christs and false prophets – 23d and 24th verses. Fifth – The carcass and the eagles – 28th verse. Sixth – The darkening of the sun, etc. – 29th verse. Seventh – The coming of the Son of man, etc. – 30th verse. Eighth – The gathering of the elect, etc. – 31st verse. This is the Order or Relation of the predicted events to one another: and to change the Order is to change the prophecy itself.

Many interpreters have transposed this divinely arranged Order or Relation of the predicted events. For example, they begin the great tribulation of the 21st verse, at or near the fall of Jerusalem, more than eighteen hundred years ago, and continue it to the present time; while they find the beginning of THE ENDING of the darkening of the sun, etc., in the 29th verse, at or about the fall of Jerusalem! Now the 29th verse begins thus: “Immediately AFTER the tribulation of those days shall the sun be darkened.” This tribulation is foretold in the 21st verse, and the darkening of the sun in the 29th: this is the Order of the prophecy. The Lord says the tribulation shall end, before the darkening of the sun shall even begin! His language is unequivocal – “AFTER the tribulation of those days shall the sun be darkened.” How, then, in the name of sober reason, could the 29th verse have been completely fulfilled – begun and ended – at or about the fall of Jerusalem more than eighteen hundred years ago, while the 21st verse is still in process of fulfillment?! Whatever may be meant by the great tribulation and the darkening of the sun, the former must certainly end before the latter can even begin.

Prophecy like a lamp.
Correctly interpreted, the prophecies light up the future. Without them, we know nothing beyond the present moment outside of the fixed laws of nature. The apostle Peters says: “We have also a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto ye do well to take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day star arise in your hearts.” – 2 Peter. 1:19.

* Patrick Samuel Gideon Watson (1816-1889)  was a 19th century itinerant minister and the father of Baptist history in the state of Arkansas. Watson had an unusually keen ability to unveil and explain Bible prophecy so that anyone could understand. His major work, "Prophetic Interpretations" is a landmark contribution to the study of eschatology, though it is extremely rare.  He also published a monthly prophetic magazine entitled "Prophetic Key."