What makes prophecy so complicated is that it rarely comes right out and says precisely what is going to happen and when. Remember, God is working in a kind of loop between our free will and his knowledge of what will be the result of what we know.

Obviously, as he tells us more about what will happen, it results in responses on our part, which, in turn, will affect the end result. He can only tell us so much, and then he must take into account what our reaction to that will be. If our reaction would be such that it would actually change the outcome that he has predicted, then of course he must alter the prediction or restrict what he says until he tells us just enough to prepare us for the coming event, without us missing the point of the change needing to be internal rather than external.             

Occasionally there are exceptions to this. When Jonah went through Nineveh shouting, "Forty days and Nineveh will be destroyed!" it was really just a threat more than a prediction. Because the people repented, God did not destroy them at that time. Jonah himself was deeply angered that God had made a fool out of him by not carrying through on the threat. (Jonah 3:4-4:1) (Note: God did, however, destroy Nineveh eventually.)

There are little tricks that God uses to hide certain parts of what he is trying to say. Some parts are hidden to everyone; and others are just hidden to certain people. Jesus said to his closest followers, "Unto you it is given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God; but to others in parables, that seeing they might not see, and hearing they might not understand." (Luke 8:10)

Another trick is to include hidden meanings and double entendres that only become clear as one moves closer to the events that they predict. In Chapter Six we will discuss a prophecy which actually predicted the date when something would happen. However, it included a word which had two different meanings. It could have meant seven days or it could have meant seven years. Because the prophecy was not fulfilled in time for the seven "day" interpretation, and because it was fulfilled perfectly for the seven "year" interpretation, we now know which meaning was the right one.

But the people who first heard it would not have known for certain which interpretation was correct. Virtually every prophecy includes some vague terms like that.

Most prophecies are like single pieces in a jig-saw puzzle. They must line up with all of the pieces around them if they are to be considered correct. You might be able to force two pieces together that don't really belong together, but it is very unlikely that the same piece can be forced to agree with all the other pieces around it.
We have suggested four areas where the prophecy must line up with the pieces around it. They are (1) literal meaning; (2) secular events; (3) spiritual lessons; and (4) consistent use of code words. There may be others, but these will do for now.

(1) Literal meaning. If you get the feeling that someone is trying to get a prophecy to say something that it is not actually saying, don't be afraid to challenge the interpretation. Spurious interpretations often focus on key words and ignore the grammatical context of the sentence in which they appear. One of the areas where this most often happens is with numbers. People see a passage which refers, for example, to 1260 days, but because the period of time does not fit their personal theory, they will tell you that it really means 1260 years!

The Year 2000 theory was an example of this. The Bible says that time is nothing to God: "A day with the Lord is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as a day." (Psalm 90:4) We know God made the world about 6,000 years ago, in just six days, and then he rested on the seventh day. Neither of these two isolated truths is prophetic. They just say the obvious: that God can do more in one day (e.g. create human life) than we could do in a thousand years.

But Bible prophecy does say that Jesus will rule the world for 1,000 years after he returns. So people took the two non-prophetic statements and put them together to form a theory that God spent 6,000 years running the world, and in the year 2000, Jesus would return, so that God could have a 1,000-year rest. But of course the Bible never said that.

(2) Secular events. Ultimately, the proof of the pudding is in eating it. If Jesus had returned on January 1, 2000, then I would have had to back down on what I said before that date. Hindsight is much sharper than foresight, and it is easier to see where a prophecy clearly said something after the "something" actually happens. This reality robs the prophecy of some of its punch, but it can still show just how clever God is: He's able to tell us something at the same time that he hides it from us until he really wants us to see it. As we said earlier, it keeps us from using our knowledge to upset the flow of events. Secular events are especially helpful as we get closer to the fulfilment of a prophecy. Certainly things that are happening in the world today are exciting when you compare them with what the Bible says about them. But beware when people start with the newspaper and then try to find some prophetic significance in every headline they read. There is always someone trying to tell you that the Bible predicted Monica Lewinsky, or that it said Diana was going to die in a car accident. Make sure the particular prophecy lines up with the other three parts of the puzzle before you put much faith in it relating to the particular secular event.

(3) Spiritual lessons. As we said earlier, God doesn't just do miracles to entertain us, and this includes Bible prophecies. Even his warnings of judgment are pretty few and far between. Most prophecies are actually trying to teach us something about the world in general; and the lessons from one prophecy to another are fairly consistent. Most of the prophecies of the Old Testament were about the coming of Jesus Christ. Most of the prophecies of the New Testament are about his return. But along with the return itself are important revelations about the futility of trusting any other system or organisation except God himself and his invisible kingdom of love and faith.

(4) Consistent use of code words. This rule may sound a bit strange. But because prophecies are so cleverly hidden from the understanding of most people, it takes a little work to find key words that help to line one prophecy up with another. They not only establish a connection between various passages, but they also give a hint as to what the spiritual lesson is behind them.

For example, most of the Old Testament prophecies about the Jewish Messiah did not use the term "Messiah". There were a number of other code words or phrases. In Daniel 7:13 it was the term "Son of Man". Although Jesus rarely referred to himself as the Messiah (or "Christ"), he repeatedly used the term Son of Man when referring to himself. To the unlearned mind he was saying nothing proud or boastful. After all, we are all sons or daughters of other human beings. He was not claiming divinity or kingship or even that he was the Messiah. This was consistent with what he taught about not over-rating ourselves, and about leaving it to others to praise us. (Luke 14:8-11) Hindsight has revealed the full significance of what Jesus was saying. "Son of man" was a code phrase that led back to Daniel's messianic reference to Christ returning in "the clouds of heaven."

Because of all these factors, we can't teach prophecy by just pointing to a verse that says, "The U.S. is going to be destroyed in the year 2023." We have to link up a lot of jig-saw pieces first, before we can say much with confidence; and even then the prophecy will be part of a bigger lesson that is being taught. When all the pieces start going together, then it can be quite exciting. But it takes a while before this begins to happen.

Appendix, Chapter 3

Jonah 3:4-4:1. "Jonah began to enter the city a day's journey, and he cried and said, "Yet forty days and Nineveh shall be overthrown!" So the people of Nineveh believed God and proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them even to the least of them… And God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way, and God repented of the evil that he had said he would do to them. And he did it not. But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was very angry."

Luke 14:8-11.  [Jesus said:] "When you are bidden of anyone to a wedding, sit not down in the highest room, lest a more honourable man than you be bidden of him, and he that bade you and him come and say to you, "Give this man place", and you begin with shame to take the lowest room. But when you are bidden, go and sit down in the lowest room, that when he that bade you comes, he may say to you, "Friend, go up higher." Then you will have worship in the presence of them that sit at meat with you. For whoever exalts himself shall be abased; and he that humbles himself shall be exalted."

Daniel 7:13-14.  [Daniel said:] "I saw in the night visions, and behold, one like the Son of Man came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of days. They brought him near before him. And there was given him dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all people, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed."