Copyright © 1999 Mywitz. All rights reserved.
If we begin having made the assumption that prophecy is real, that is, that there are individuals who from time to time actually do catch glimpses of the future, then we can ask: How is this possible? For if it does happen, it must be possible and there must be a means for doing it.
What is fundamental to prophecy is its relation to the future: The prophet is aware of the future before it occurs. This suggests that the prophet's experience of time is somewhat different from what we might call 'normal' experience of time. The normal view of time is one which sees it as continuous, measurable by discrete units (hours, minutes, seconds...), and marching ever forward. The usual depiction of time, these days, is as a straight line, as in the figure:
Personal experience, however, quickly informs one that
this depiction, while it may represent something like a communal or societal
experience of time, is not true to one's personal experience of time.
Anyone who has ever felt five minutes drag by or several hours quickly
pass, can testify that the time they experience is not made of units of
equal size, some seconds last longer than others. Similarly, they
may dispute the continuity of time: Anyone who has fallen into a deep sleep
and then awakes hours later with the feeling that only seconds have passed,
feels as though they have 'jumped' through time, or at least have experienced
it in a way that does not map on to a straight line with uniform units,
as in the figure:
The full time line of an individual's experience, therefore, would be full of such 'loops' as well as places where the line was stretched out (when time passed slowly) or compressed (when it flew by).
The prophet's experience of time must be an extreme version of this personal time. For the prophet, the loops do not necessarily come back to their point of departure, and the time line of history doubles back to intersect with itself. At the points of intersection, the prophet catches a glimpse of the future, as in the figures:
What distinguishes these three time lines is the order in which the prophet experiences future events. In the first, the prophet experiences the five future events in their chronological order. In the second, the prophet experiences the events in reverse chronological order (he sees future events A. B, C and D in the order D, C, B, A). In the third, the sequence is scrambled: What will be events A, B, C, D and E are experienced by the prophet in the order C, D, B, A, E. Unfortunately, the prophet himself does not seem to have control over this aspect of his experience and he may not recognize that the order of events which he has experienced is in fact scrambled. For example, in Revelations 8-11, John sees seven angels with trumpets and he reports what happens as each sounds its trumpet. The reader (and one suspects that John himself thought this) passes from one angel to the next, naturally expecting that the events that occur in relation to the first trumpet will occur prior to those that occur in relation to the second trumpet, and so on down the line. This may not, however, be the case. If what we have are a number of snapshots or short movie clips, each of which starts with an angel blowing a trumpet, there is nothing there to assure us as to whether we are moving forward through time, or backward, or in some scrambled order. Since the correct and reverse chronological order are simply special cases of random scrambling, we should expect prophecies to be chronologically scrambled most of the time.
Of course, these diagrams present a prophet's revelations as if they occur all in a moment (the point where the two lines intersect). It is more likely that the overlap is more extended, lasting minutes or even hours. All this tells us something about the nature of time which is quite different from what a conventional, straight time line tells us, but we can leave that more philosophical discussion about the nature of time aside for now.
Because we can have no assurance about the order of events as presented in a prophecy, the interpretation of prophecy is tricky because the reader can not be sure that the text presents things in the 'correct' chronological order. But this is not the sole difficulty with interpreting prophecy. A second problem emerges when one considers that the future is not determined. Indeed, if it were, prophecy would not be anything special, unusual or scarce, rather, there would be a whole science for forecasting the future. Thus, what is revealed is always potential, not definite. Under this condition, visions of the future can serve one of two functions. They reveal the future, or they can act as a preventative.
One example of the potential preventative power of prophecy occurs at Revelation 17:5, the text reads "And upon her forehead a name was written--a mystery--Babylon the great, the mother of the harlotries and of the abominations of the earth." The name is kept secret and the name 'Babylon' is substituted for it. Why? Because if the text had read, "And upon her forehead was written a name, Las Vegas..." then the name 'Las Vegas' would have been perceived as cursed and so the founders of that city would likely have picked another name. (How many cities have been named Sodom or Gomorra in the past 3000 years?) Revealing the name would have served to prevent that name from being used.
This example also shows us the importance of coding and omissions within a prophecy. A code word like 'Babylon' helps get around the nearly impossible situation of revealing the true name of the place. Imagine the comic cycle that could ensue: The angel reveals the name 'Las Vegas', St. John writes it down, the founders of the town, frightened by the prophecy give the town another name; the angel, who is aware of the name change, now reveals this new name to St. John, the founders then name it 'Las Vegas' or some other name, and the cycle goes on and on.
Nor is it always possible for the prophet to identify which prophecies are preventative and which are not. Thus there is always an ambiguity about any given prophecy: Is it something that is to be, or is it something to be prevented?
If, then, a prophecy is not fulfilled, should we be happy or disappointed? Should we label the prophet a failure or a success? That much is hard to say.
We must also be aware of anachronism. When, for example, St. John sees helicopters he has no conception of what they are, and so calls them locusts by analogy (Revelation 9:1). We must be able to see the future or the present world through the eyes of a past inhabitant if we are to understand the prophecies that have been handed down to us. This not only applies to how they may view new technologies, but also to their perceptions about the world. Thus at Revelation 14:4, St. John speaks of the Saints attending Christ as "These are they who were not defiled with women", using his personal and Greco-Roman prejudice against women to express the purity of the Saints. Genesis 1:26-31 makes it clear that God does not view women or sex in this way.
There is also what we can call 'contamination' in prophecy. This has two forms. One is a direct result of temporal scrambling. If a seer sees events A, B and C as related, but only A and C apply to a given time and place while B is an insight into a totally unrelated event, then the prophecy of A, B, C is contaminated by the presence of the unrelated event B. Another form of contamination occurs in the interaction between the seer and what he sees. Being human, the seer may inject things into his vision from his own imagination, thus a prophecy of events L, M, N may be contaminated because one of them is a pure fantasy, while the other elements are true visions.
These are the problems that one must bear in mind when attempting to interpret prophecy. I hope they serve you well in your reading of prophecies. You may see how I have applied them to a reading of Revelation.