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Understanding Prophecy: Where Do I Begin?

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Understanding Prophecy

Where Do I Begin?

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In the series of books and movies The Hunger Games, a trilogy of novels written by American novelist Suzanne Collins, the action takes place in an unspecified future time, in the dystopian, post-apocalyptic nation of Panem, located in North America. Although captivating, these books are quite fictional—a story developed purely for entertainment. 

Have you ever wondered what the actual future will be like? God reveals this through prophecy in His Word, the Holy Bible. While various books and movies give their interpretation of what the future might be like, God’s Word is the only factual source of what lies ahead for us in this age and for the world to come. 

When it comes to the subject of Bible prophecy, there is a lot to consider. Perhaps the first thing to ask is, “Where do I begin?” We all want to understand what is going to happen in the future, and Bible prophecy is “history written in advance.” For years you have probably heard about symbols, beasts, plagues, church eras, a place of safety and many other intriguing or puzzling subjects discussed in sermons or Bible studies. How can you sort them all out?

Lay the foundation

When rightly understood, Bible prophecy is a wonderful and accurate guide to the future. The place to begin is to truly believe that “All scripture is given by inspiration of God” (2 Timothy 3:16) and that “prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21).

Prophecy is a direct message from God to those who serve Him. “Surely the Lord God does nothing unless He reveals His secret to His servants the prophets” (Amos 3:7). Bible prophecy reveals what is going to happen in the future to those who work to seek God’s will and understand His Word—that’s you! More than one third of God’s Word is prophetic, and much of that deals with upheaval and difficult times that are going to happen in the near future. If you look at the events in the news today, it is becoming obvious that this world is hurtling toward a horrible catastrophe. Unfortunately, many are blissfully unaware of what lies ahead.

Three central themes

There are three main themes or subjects of prophecy in God’s Word:

  1. What will happen to the nations of the earth?
  2. God dealing with Israel in the past and future
  3. God’s process of building a family

Once we understand these concepts, virtually every sentence about the future in Scripture fits into this framework. In this series of articles, we will explain each of these themes so that you can build a basic comprehension of what God wants you to know about the events and times ahead.

First Theme: What will happen to the nations of the earth?

One of the key foundational chapters concerning God dealing with the nations of the world is Daniel 2. God chose to reveal the framework of future history or “prophecy” to the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar. This was done through a strange dream. In the dream he saw a large statue with a head of gold, chest and arms of silver, belly and thighs of brass, legs of iron and feet made of a mix of iron and clay. An odd statue indeed! Perhaps even more interesting is that we read that this statue is destroyed by a supernatural stone “cut out without hands.” The king was unable to figure out what he had seen, but God revealed both the vision and the interpretation of it to Daniel, one of the king’s young wise men and a prophet of God. This took place about the year 603 B.C. when Daniel was perhaps 17 years old.

Daniel explained to King Nebuchadnezzar the purpose for the vision: “But there is a God in heaven who reveals secrets, and He has made known to King Nebuchadnezzar what will be in the latter days” (Daniel 2:28). Daniel added, “As for you, O king, thoughts came to your mind while on your bed, about what would come to pass after this; and He who reveals secrets has made known to you what will be” (Daniel 2:29). So, the vision of the statue was to reveal the future from the time of this king until the last days!

The five different parts of this statue are used to describe five ruling empires that would play a major role in the future. Four of them have already come and gone, and the fifth will soon appear!

Head of gold

In verses 36-45, Daniel explains the vision to the king. Daniel said to Nebuchadnezzar, “You, O king, are a king of kings. For the God of heaven has given you a kingdom, power, strength, and glory” (verse 37). Historically, Babylon was the first kingdom to rule all the known world. There had been powerful nations before this time—such as Egypt, the Hittites and Assyria—but never before had one nation conquered and ruled so much of the earth. The head of gold symbolized Babylon. Daniel plainly told Nebuchadnezzar, “you are this head of gold” (verse 38).

In addition to this vision revealing that the head of gold was the Babylonian empire, it also revealed that the empire of Babylon would not continue indefinitely. There would be successive empires following Babylon that would exist until the return of Jesus Christ and the establishment of the government of God on earth.

Chest and arms of silver

The chest and arms of silver pictured the Medo-Persian Empire. In 539 B.C., the Persian King Cyrus conquered Babylon exactly as was foretold by God’s prophet Isaiah 200 years earlier (Isaiah 45:1-2). The Medo-Persian Empire was the second imperial power to rule the known world and lasted over 200 years. Daniel continued to serve the king of Persia and much of what he wrote in his book was during this time. The book of Esther also took place during the rule of the kingdom of Persia.

Belly and thighs of brass

In 334 B.C., an army under the Greek King Alexander the Great invaded Persia, defeating the Persians in 331 B.C. The Greek Empire was even larger than Persia, extending from Egypt and Southern Europe all the way to India. Greek culture, art and religion were infused throughout the Middle East.

Legs of iron

The fourth kingdom, centered in the city of Rome on the Tiber river in Italy, grew quickly, became powerful and conquered most of the territory of the previous three empires. By 31 B.C. Rome ruled over all the Mediterranean, the Iberian Peninsula, much of Europe, plus Southern Britain and the entire coast of North Africa. Rome had a powerful army and a fierceness that had not been seen before.

The Roman Empire grew so large that it was divided into two parts—East and West—in A.D. 284 by the emperor Diocletian. The “two legs of iron” in Nebuchadnezzar’s vision represent this time in the Roman Empire.

Feet and toes of iron and clay

This is the fifth kingdom that has not yet fully developed and will be a “revival” of the fourth empire, Rome. The fourth kingdom—Rome—was predicted to be strong as iron, the strongest metal known at the time, and would “crush all the others” (verse 40). But the kingdom would be divided and weakened over time, as symbolized by the feet and toes. It would still have military power, even though it would no longer be a unified nation (verses 41-42).

Often we hear people say something like, “The world is falling apart.” In reality, everything is coming together just as God planned and revealed to His servants!

The stone “cut out without hands”

The last part of King Nebuchadnezzar’s vision was of a supernatural stone coming out of the sky and striking the statue on its feet (Daniel 2:34). The feet and toes are broken into pieces, become like straw and are blown away in the wind. The stone then becomes a great mountain that fills the entire earth!

The stone that came from heaven and struck the toes symbolizes Jesus Christ returning to earth as the real King of Kings. The Bible uses the term “rock” or “stone” several times as a representation of Jesus Christ. 1 Peter 2:4 states, “Coming to Him as to a living stone, rejected indeed by men, but chosen by God and precious.” In 1 Corinthians 10:4, we read, “For they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them, and that Rock was Christ.”

You can read other accounts of the return of Jesus to this earth in 2 Thessalonians 1:7-10, Zechariah 14:1-4 and many other places in God’s Word.

To recap, during the days of the 10 kings symbolized by the 10 toes on the statue, the God of Heaven will set up a kingdom on earth that shall never be destroyed. It will break in pieces all other nations and take over all the earth and shall exist forever!

A good overview—but missing details

The vision given to King Nebuchadnezzar is an incredible panorama of the history of man’s governments until the return of Jesus, the Messiah, but much is left out. Thankfully, God reveals more details later, starting in Daniel 7.

Here instead of interpreting the vision of a king, Daniel records one of several visions given to him by God that covers events that will happen to future nations. To provide us a different perspective, this vision represents the four world-ruling empires described above as animals. Instead of parts of a statue, these four empires are now described as animals—predatory meat eaters!

In Daniel 7:4, Babylon, the head of gold, is described as a lion with eagle’s wings. The king of Babylon is compared to a lion in several scriptures (Jeremiah 50:17; 4:7 ). The Ishtar Gate of Babylon, which was excavated between 1902 to 1914, has numerous lions depicted on it. It has been restored and is on display today at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, Germany. The wings on the lions denote the swiftness of the conquests of Nebuchadnezzar.

The next empire revealed in Daniel 7:5 is Medo-Persia and is described “like a bear.” This is the empire that was previously described as the chest and arms of silver. Described as having three ribs in its mouth, these three ribs represent Babylon, Lydia and Egypt, which were all conquered by the Persians.

Continuing in Daniel 7:6, the leopard is used as a symbol of the Greek Empire, previously described as the belly and thighs of brass. A leopard is no doubt used because of the great swiftness with which Alexander’s army moved and conquered nations. He took over all the known world in barely 12 years and pushed the boundaries farther out, but then died in 323 B.C. at the age of 33 in Babylon. His kingdom was divided into four parts by his generals and continued, as the vision predicted: “The beast also had four heads, and dominion was given to it” (Daniel 7:6).

The fourth beast, described in Daniel 7:7-8, Rome, is not an animal we recognize. It is described in the vision as “dreadful and terrible, exceedingly strong. It had huge iron teeth.” It also devours and breaks other nations into smaller pieces, plus has 10 horns. When this fourth beast is explained to Daniel by an angel in verse 23, he is told that this final beast “shall be different from all other kingdoms, and shall devour the whole earth, trample it and break it in pieces.” Then the angel says, “The ten horns are ten kings Who shall arise from this kingdom . . . ” (verse 24).

These 10 horns represent the continuation or “revival” of the rulership of the system of the fourth beast after the original empire collapsed. In the vision of the statue, these were represented by the feet and 10 toes made of iron mixed with clay. These kings are to reign in succession until the return of Jesus Christ to replace them and rule the earth (the stone cut out without hands in the vision of the statue). Their story is foretold in the 13th chapter of Revelation. The apostle John saw a vision depicting the same empires that God revealed to Daniel, symbolized by a strange animal that he called a “beast.” In Revelation 13:3 we read, “And I saw one of his heads as if it had been mortally wounded, and his deadly wound was healed. And all the world marveled and followed the beast.”

When Rome was finally defeated in A.D. 476, it was only a wound. The Roman Empire did not die completely, but was significantly weakened. It lived on in the Eastern capital city of Byzantium, later called Constantinople, and currently known as the city of Istanbul in Turkey. The deadly wound was healed in A.D. 554 by the Eastern Roman emperor Justinian when he restored the empire in the West. While this kept the Roman Empire alive, it has not yet achieved the world ruling power it once had.

The full revival of the Roman Empire is revealed beginning in Revelation 17:3, “So he carried me away in the Spirit into the wilderness. And I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast which was full of names of blasphemy, having seven heads and ten horns.” This scarlet beast pictures the fully revived Roman Empire that will be in place at the return of Jesus Christ!

What does it all mean?

Often we hear people say something like, “The world is falling apart.” In reality, everything is coming together just as God planned and revealed to His servants! Although these images of statues and beasts can be frightening, we can take great comfort in what is recorded in Daniel 2:44, “In the days of these kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom which shall never be destroyed; and the kingdom shall not be left to other people; it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it shall stand forever.”

The Kingdom of God has not yet been established on earth. And while we are not yet fully into the days of “these kings,” they are coming, and we must be making ourselves ready (Revelation 19:7). For a few more years, man will continue to misrule and hurt his fellow man, still writing the sad lessons of human history. Understanding Bible prophecy can give us hope for a bright and wonderful future!

To gain a better understanding of what God foretells about the nations, we suggest that you read our booklet, The Middle East in Bible Prophecy. In the next issue, we will cover the second major theme: God’s choosing of Abraham’s family and the prophecies about Israel—past and future.