How to (Mis)Interpret Prophecy

The Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem, David Roberts (1796–1864)

There’s no shortage of advice on how to interpret the Bible. One maxim that I’ve already mentioned advises, “When the plain sense makes sense, seek no other sense.” I’ve heard it quoted when it comes to biblical prophecy—encouraging people to interpret literally, at face value. Although that sounds like good advice, some New Testament writers didn’t get the memo.

One of the most well-known examples of a non-literal reading appears in Acts 15 when the apostle James quotes Amos 9:11–12:

Acts 15:16–18

After this I will return, and I will rebuild
the tent of David that has fallen;
I will rebuild its ruins,
and I will restore it,

that the remnnt of mankind
may seek the Lord,
and all the Gentiles,
who are called by my name,
says the Lord,
who make these things
known from of old.


Amos 9:11–12

In that day I will rise up
the booth of David that is fallen
and repair its breaches,
and raise up its ruins
and rebuild it as in the days of old,

that that they may possess
the remnant of Edom
and all the nations
who are called by my name,
declares the LORD
who does this.

In the Amos prophecy, God promises to one day “raise up the booth of David and repair its breaches, and raise up its ruins, and rebuild it.” Hearing the language of repair and rebuilding, we might think of a physical structure. “Booth” (sukkah) is a word used for tents at the Feast of Booths (Lev 23:34). Reading literally, we might think that the tabernacle, still used in David’s day and brought into the temple after it was built by Solomon, might be the focus of the prophecy.

Many interpret Amos 9 this way, believing the passage describes the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem in the end times. The “possession” of Edom and the nations who are destined to call the Lord their God would seem to fit that context.

But Luke, the writer of Acts, doesn’t interpret the passage that way. He doesn’t take it “plainly” or literally. In Acts 15, he describes the fledgling Church gathering in Jerusalem to hear that Paul and Barnabas had taken the gospel to gentiles, who had embraced it. Peter and James came to their defense. To prove the momentous event had been prophesied in the Old Testament, James quoted Amos 9:11–12. James (and the writer, Luke) understood the language of building and repairing to refer to a person—the resurrected Jesus, the son of David. They also don’t refer to “the remnant of Edom” but instead “the remnant of mankind.”

James and Luke used the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament. The Hebrew version of the prophecy had “Edom” (Hebrew ʾedom), but the Septuagint reads “mankind” (reading the Hebrew as ʾadam). The words share the same consonants but are otherwise entirely different.
The switch to “mankind” fits the occasion of this meeting as well as the ministry of Paul and Barnabas. The gentiles—all the nations of mankind, not just Israel—are now accepting the gospel. But that is not how the passage read in Hebrew. The interpretation by James and Luke is not a literal one, but an abstract or “spiritual” one, based on a different reading from a translation.

Did James and Luke misread the Bible, then? Not necessarily. The “remnant of Edom” could be considered an abstract reference to “non-elect” people: Remember that the Edomites were descendants of Esau (Gen 36:1), who surrendered his birthright (Gen 25). Therefore, the non-literal translation of “mankind” in the Septuagint version of Amos 9:11 is within the realm of accurate meaning.

Comparing these passages illustrates important lessons: Interpreting biblical prophecy cannot be distilled to a simple maxim, and everything cannot be taken literally. The New Testament shows us otherwise.

***

why is the bible hard to understandThis article is excerpted from Dr. Heiser’s book The Bible Unfiltered.

Dr. Michael S. Heiser is the author of The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible and Angels: What the Bible Really Says about God’s Heavenly Host.

His newest book, The World Turned Upside Down: Finding the Gospel in Stranger Things, is now on pre-order.

He’s taught many Mobile Ed courses, including Problems in Biblical Interpretation: Difficult Passages I.

Comments

  1. Of course, the fallen tent of David in Amos could refer to the Davidic kingship. Then James/Luke understands Jesus as the Anointed (king) who restores the fallen kingship, which is central to Acts, from Jesus’ message at the start (1:3) to Paul’s message at the end (28:31).
    Then (as you say) the resurrection of the kingship is the resurrection of Jesus.

  2. Carl F. Lindstrom says:

    I bought three of Dr. Heiser’s books today from Logos. :-) Applying critical thinking skills is challenging. I live right beside the main spiritualist church in my region. Does approaching the supernatural require downloading and critiquing “Phantasms of the Living” (Volumes 1 & 2) and “Modern Spiritualism” (Volumes 1 & 2) by Frank Podmore? Besides reason do we have moral senses and spiritual senses? Are the gifts of the Spirit a closed list or are they different now than in the times of the early church? Are some “sign gifts” not available today? Do we need a gift of discernment to interpret the Bible properly? What is the meaning of perspicuity in all this — can a six year old really make meaningful understandings of the Bible? How much do we need Biblical Theology and sound scholarship to answer these questions?

  3. Carl F. Lindstrom says:

    Got the new release (three volumes) by Dr. Heiser, :-) Much to learn. Must not be the person always learning and never coming to knowledge of truth. Had a beneficial entry on my home screen or workspace. “Magic” of virtually all kinds is to be avoided or better yet resisted. Baker Encyclopedia describes it as attempts to control through supernatural means (IIRC). In considering the paranormal and supernatural, one must be open to God and not quenching the Holy Spirit; but, resisting the satanic and demonic. Read Chapter 5 from this month’s free book on Biblical Theology. Supernatural is everywhere in the Bible. From Creation onwards. Wow!

  4. Carl F. Lindstrom says:

    If Edomites are egregious sinners and humankind are wayward sinners, then, a fortiori, if Edomites can have a saved remnant, how much more so may varieties of humankind have saved remnants. Apparently, worst can stand in for bad or sometimes vice versa. Is there a rule of substitution for interpretation? Paul, chief sinner, is surprisingly sometimes an example for us. Or maybe his conversion and repentance is the example. Now about halfway through the book of the month about Biblical Theology: studying the Mosaic Covenant and read Exodus 19 – 24 among other things. Cool book.

  5. Jesus said that the prophets all speak of himself. I would broaden that to say that they all speak of the him and messianic age. IE: They speak a lot about the Kingdom of God, the resurrection of Israel and a lot more that is part of the Messiah’s day.

    The Messiah is the righter of wrongs. The righteous are rewarded, the wicked are judged, the LORD is exalted, the enemies of Israel are destroyed, etc.

    One of the wrongs that the Messiah is that there are still some Edomites that escaped the purge of them for their opportunistic attacks on Israel. God doesn’t forget such things. So to understand how Amos understands the role of the Messiah one can read Amos 9 and then turn the page and read Obadiah:

    [Oba 1:6-19 CSB] (6) How Esau will be pillaged, his hidden treasures searched out! (7) Everyone who has a treaty with you will drive you to the border; everyone at peace with you will deceive and conquer you. Those who eat your bread will set a trap for you. He will be unaware of it. (8) In that day — this is the LORD’s declaration — will I not eliminate the wise ones of Edom and those who understand from the hill country of Esau? (9) Teman, your warriors will be terrified so that everyone from the hill country of Esau will be destroyed by slaughter. (10) You will be covered with shame and destroyed forever because of violence done to your brother Jacob. (11) On the day you stood aloof, on the day strangers captured his wealth, while foreigners entered his city gate and cast lots for Jerusalem, you were just like one of them. (12) Do not gloat over your brother in the day of his calamity; do not rejoice over the people of Judah in the day of their destruction; do not boastfully mock in the day of distress. (13) Do not enter my people’s city gate in the day of their disaster. Yes, you ​– ​do not gloat over their misery in the day of their disaster, and do not appropriate their possessions in the day of their disaster. (14) Do not stand at the crossroads to cut off their fugitives, and do not hand over their survivors in the day of distress. (15) For the day of the LORD is near, against all the nations. As you have done, it will be done to you; what you deserve will return on your own head. (16) As you have drunk on my holy mountain, so all the nations will drink continually. They will drink and gulp down and be as though they had never been. (17) But there will be a deliverance on Mount Zion, and it will be holy; the house of Jacob will dispossess those who dispossessed them. (18) Then the house of Jacob will be a blazing fire, and the house of Joseph, a burning flame, but the house of Esau will be stubble; Jacob will set them on fire and consume Edom. Therefore no survivor will remain of the house of Esau, for the LORD has spoken. (19) People from the Negev will possess the hill country of Esau; those from the Judean foothills will possess the land of the Philistines. They will possess the territories of Ephraim and Samaria, while Benjamin will possess Gilead.

    The discrepancies between Amos 9 and Acts 15 seem to never end. Personally I am inclined to either be a later addition (to Acts) OR it is intended to depict “James” as a bumbling unregenerate Jewish leader into whose mouth the LORD brought forth his ruling:

    [Act 5:33-42 CSB] (33) When they heard this, they were enraged and wanted to kill them. (34) But a Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law who was respected by all the people, stood up in the Sanhedrin and ordered the men to be taken outside for a little while. (35) He said to them, “Men of Israel, be careful about what you’re about to do to these men. (36) “Some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a group of about four hundred men rallied to him. He was killed, and all his followers were dispersed and came to nothing. (37) “After this man, Judas the Galilean rose up in the days of the census and attracted a following. He also perished, and all his followers were scattered. (38) “So in the present case, I tell you, stay away from these men and leave them alone. For if this plan or this work is of human origin, it will fail; (39) “but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You may even be found fighting against God.” They were persuaded by him. (40) After they called in the apostles and had them flogged, they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus and released them. (41) Then they went out from the presence of the Sanhedrin, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to be treated shamefully on behalf of the Name. (42) Every day in the temple, and in various homes, they continued teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Messiah.

    [Jhn 11:47-53 KJV] (47) Then gathered the chief priests and the Pharisees a council, and said, What do we? for this man doeth many miracles. (48) If we let him thus alone, all men will believe on him: and the Romans shall come and take away both our place and nation. (49) And one of them, named Caiaphas, being the high priest that same year, said unto them, Ye know nothing at all, (50) Nor consider that it is expedient for us, that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not. (51) And this spake he not of himself: but being high priest that year, he prophesied that Jesus should die for that nation; (52) And not for that nation only, but that also he should gather together in one the children of God that were scattered abroad. (53) Then from that day forth they took counsel together for to put him to death.

    “James” is clearly not inspired because his eisegesis is “stinky” with human artifice.