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In a recent discussion on this site, someone told me that the nature of Biblical Prophecy is such that it cannot be understood prior to its fulfillment; that this is essentially the point of a prophecy: to be understood only after the fact.

This was a new concept to me, and now I'm curious:

Are there any examples of Biblical prophecies which were understood (by anyone) before they were fulfilled?

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If it is too easily understood, it becomes self-fulfilling as people work to make it happen. It takes something away from the miracle. What to look for is an ancient prophesy where we have text dating back to before it was fulfilled. –  Joel Coehoorn Jul 24 '12 at 21:28
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Whoa! Then we must not really understand Revelations at all. –  Hammer Jul 25 '12 at 2:49
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@Joel Well, not necessarily. For example, God told Noah that he would send a great flood. Noah didn't make the flood happen. God told Daniel that a powerful ruler would come out of Greece, normally understood to be a prophecy about Alexander the Great. But Daniel didn't cause Alexander to come to power. Even if Alexander knew about this prophecy, this knowledge of itself wouldn't have enabled him to conquer an empire. Maybe possibly you could argue that it inspired him to try. –  Jay Jul 26 '12 at 8:36

3 Answers 3

Without doing too much digging and research I can think of one example.

In Matthew 2 the priests and teachers of the law knew that the Christ was to be born in Bethelehem as per their interpretation of the prophecy in Micah 5.

Matthew 2:3-6 (ESV)
3 When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. 5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet:

6 “‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’”

Also in the Old Testament, dreams foretelling the future were interpreted prior to the events taking place. (Examples in the stories of Joseph and Daniel) However I'm not sure this falls under the category of official prophecy.

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Interesting - Thanks! And welcome to Christianity.StackExchange! Please stick around and continue to contribute to our Q&A. Here are some tips for formatting longer answers, for future reference. Ciao. –  Jas 3.1 Jul 25 '12 at 1:09
    
This was the first one that came to mind for me as well. –  Andrew Jul 25 '12 at 13:49
    
It occurs to me that this is still a post-hoc prophecy. The book of Matthew was written well after the chronicled death of Jesus. It's as if I were writing a book about Elvis right now and prophecying certain songs he might have written. –  Kaz Dragon Jul 27 '12 at 6:46
    
@KazDragon The prophecy was in the book of Micah, written long before Christ's birth. Assuming Matthew's statements were true, they are an example of someone recognizing the fulfillment before it happened. There is other evidence that people were expecting a Messiah at the time of Jesus' birth. –  disciple May 17 at 20:08

Eh? I don't know much about prophecy, but why would that be the case?

I grabbed one of the first sites that Google returned for "list of bible prophecies" just to get a few links, and can't imagine what your conversation partner might have meant.

To clarify, here are a few examples of prophecies, taken from the first few listed on the above site, that it seems anyone could understand at first glance:

  • Isaiah 35:4-6
    • The blind would receive their sight, the deaf would hear, etc.
  • Psalm 41:9
    • The messiah would be betrayed.
  • Zechariah 9:9
    • Messiah would arrive riding on a donkey.
  • How about Isaiah 53?
  • Etc.

Of course, there are plenty that are difficult to interpret, and plenty that are downright otherworldly -- such as just about anything in Revelation -- but that's certainly not "all" of the prophecies in the bible.

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Good points. We were indeed discussing "end-times" prophecies, which many consider to be a "separate class" of prophecy. But given the wording of my question, this is a great answer. +1 –  Jas 3.1 Jul 25 '12 at 1:11
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Well, end-times prophecies seem to be mostly those prophecies that haven't been fulfilled yet, so I'm not sure they should be a separate class. Although many prophecies weren't "difficult" to understand, how they were eventually fulfilled was often surprising (like how the messiah was to come from bethlehem, nazareth, and egypt). This will probably be true of "end-times" prophecies as well. –  Matt White Jul 25 '12 at 16:02

Let's see...

  • God told Noah to build an ark to save his family because God was going to destroy the earth with a flood. Noah built the ark, so he seems to have understood it.

13 And God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence through them. Behold, I will destroy them with the earth. 14 Make yourself an ark of gopher wood. Make rooms in the ark, and cover it inside and out with pitch... 17 For behold, I will bring a flood of waters upon the earth to destroy all flesh in which is the breath of life under heaven. Everything that is on the earth shall die. Genesis 6:13,14, 17 ESV

  • God told Abraham he would become the father of many nations. That's unambiguous.

When Abram was ninety-nine years old the Lord appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless, 2 that I may make my covenant between me and you, and may multiply you greatly.” 3 Then Abram fell on his face. And God said to him, 4 “Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. Genesis 17:1-4 ESV

  • God told Abraham that he would have a son through Sarah. That was pretty clear.

15 And God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. 16 I will bless her, and moreover, I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall become nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.” Genesis 17:15-16 ESV

  • God revealed to Daniel and Nebuchadnezzar about the four world kingdoms to come. That was clear.

39 Another kingdom inferior to you shall arise after you, and yet a third kingdom of bronze, which shall rule over all the earth. 40 And there shall be a fourth kingdom, strong as iron, because iron breaks to pieces and shatters all things. And like iron that crushes, it shall break and crush all these. Daniel 2:39-40 ESV

  • God told Moses to go to Pharaoh, because He would set the Israelites free with a mighty hand. Moses understood and went to Pharaoh.

Then the Lord said, “I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings, 8 and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the place of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. 9 And now, behold, the cry of the people of Israel has come to me, and I have also seen the oppression with which the Egyptians oppress them. 10 Come, I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring my people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt.” Exodus 2:7-10 ESV

The list could go on and on.

Basically, there are some prophecies that are very clear. Other prophecies are not as clear. Sometimes the meaning gets obscured when we try to fit them into our own desires and plans.

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