Eschatology 101: Prophetic Language or Psalm 97:1-5 (Part 3)
*Note: this article is polished & re-posted*
Onward we go in this series covering prophetic language in the Old Testament. While I believe the post on Leviticus was important, I recognize that it wasn't more than a whetting of the appetite. Some may have taken issue with it and lost heart. In either case there is a lot left to cover and be challenged by. There are better examples of prophetic language remaining in the Scripture. And many of these will push us to expand our idea of what is the average Jew listening to the Scriptures might think.
Though often neglected for theology, the Psalms offer many profound insights in the life of Christ. Even during the time of Christ there was a growing number of Jews who discounted the theological value of the Psalms making it entirely subject to interpretations of founded in the law. Another faction of Jews was beginning to interpret the whole of the Psalms in a Messianic context. In a style reflecting both movements, the Psalms factored heavily into the early church's theology and Christology (thoughts concerning Messiah) since it is the most quoted book in the Bible (Psalm 110 being the most quoted chapter). Unfortunately, I think many Christians have gone the opposite way. Since we do not sing the pslams they do no often affect out theology. But that's a postmillennial story for another time.
Since it would seem that Jesus and His disciples were familiar with the Psalms, we'll see what they tell us about the Biblical imagery Jews might have been familiar with. Today's we're going to begin to focus on the prophetic imagery within the book of Psalms.
The Lord reigns, let the earth rejoice;
let the many coastlands be glad!
Clouds and thick darkness are all around him;
righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne.
Fire goes before him
and burns up his adversaries all around.
His lightnings light up the world;
the earth sees and trembles.
The mountains melt like wax before the Lord,
before the Lord of all the earth. - Psalm 97:1-5
I venture to guess that some of the elements of this Psalm are being seen with "fresh eyes". Knowing that we're looking for prophetic/apocalyptic language heightens senses to what we might expect to read. Often times in teaching on prophecy or eschatology there is a focus for the "what's next?" and "when?" over against the simple place of prophecy within the Scriptures. I have always stated that people should not reach a prophetic text and go "huh?". That doesn't mean people won't. But we must believe the texts were intended to actually communicate! I believe this Psalm gives us a wonderful example of this. If we're familiar with this pslam and the way it presents the awesome righteousness and justice of God, we will recognize elements of it in the rest of the Scriptures. Let's take a look at some of those passages and images that are shared in this Psalm.
1) The Giving of the Law.
I am amazed at how expressive the language here is conjoined with the scene at Mt Sinai (Exo 19:9, 16, 18). This is imagery that had a historical foundation and may even be a source of rejoicing for the Psalmist. God's word and righteousness was provided at Sinai. Here the ideas of righteousness and justice as "foundations" cannot be taken literally. Instead the focus is on God's reign being firmly established in righteous judgment. His behavior is rooted in justice. This doesn't surprise anyone with a Christian worldview. But it might surprise them to realize this imagery isn't a cataclysmic event but the general condition of God's reign.
2) The Giving of the Holy Spirit.
Similar to the giving of the law, this passage could be linked to the infamous quotation in Joel 2. Given the parallels between the giving of the law and the giving of the Holy Spirit, its proper to see a connection to Peter's sermons incorporating "fire and vapor of smoke" (Acts 2:19). I think this prophetic word from Peter was fulfilled completely in A.D. 70 but Peter saw the resurrection and day of Pentecost as elements in the event. They were a "starting of the clock" so to speak. The forty days Moses would spend up on Sinai could correlate typologically to the ~40 years before the destruction of Jerusalem.
3) The Judgments of 2 Thessalonians.
When I say I'm a preterist people look confused. When I tell them I believe 2 Thessalonians 1-2 were fulfilled in the time leading up to A.D. 70 they look downright scared. Most assume I've given up any useful way of interpreting the Bible. Perhaps I have. Admittedly I think I'm just letting Scripture interpret Scripture.
I am willing to admit that chapter 1 presents the most difficulties. But Christ Jesus coming "in flaming fire" (2 Thess 1:7-8) is not one of them. I am not denying this could speak to a final return of Jesus Christ. It's simply that this language can also confirm that Christ is the Lord who reigns (Psalm 97:1). When the Lord comes in righteousness and justice fire consumes all His enemies. As the psalmist used this of God's judgment, then also when God's judgement came down in A.D. 70 against the temple of Jerusalem this language would be fitting.
4) Lightning and the World.
Remember those pesky phrases in the Olivet Discourse about lightning being a description of Christ's coming (Matt 24:27)? How the whole earth would see and mourn (Matt 24:30)? I think Psalm 97 provides a basis for both passages (we'll see this more cleanly in the actual prophetic books). These are the things the psalmist "expected" because the Lord reigns. These things are thus brought forth in passages concerning judgment throughout prophetic literature.
When justice and righteousness are pervasive these things shake the world. When the Lord brings judgement into the world this is the imagery used to describe God's work. This is what the resurrected Christ came to do (Matt 28:3). And this explains why the resurrected Christ would use this language to describe His judgment of Israel in A.D. 70. Perhaps more importantly, look at all the passages in the book of Revelation where lightning is associated with judgment (Rev 4:5; 8:5; 11:19; 16:18). Do John's visions require a literal reading? Or are they each wonderful continuation of God's revelation of His style of judgment?
5) The Introduction to Micah.
Here is a little practical peak of how this impacts the Old Testament prophets. God's coming in judgment in the book of Micah is fierce (Mic 1:1-7). And its similarities to this Psalm are pretty staggering. The imagery is hardly different. God is coming in justice and righteousness. Still, there are some who think this has not happened because of the simple verse on the mountains melting (Mic 1:4). There remain literalistic dispensationalists who are waiting for this to happen. This type of thinking is persuasive in the evangelical church because it is the easiest interpretation to understand. But here is the value in what we learn from the Psalmist. This imagery is a sign of the Lord reigning in righteousness. The remaining context of the book demonstrates God is concerned with justice in the book of Micah (Mic 2-3). The people of Israel upon hearing this prophecy from the mouth of Micah would have known instantly that the prophet was not being literal. He was offering them a profound warning straight from their favorite songs. Knowing this, is a faithful interpreter of God's word to think Micah hasn't been fulfilled? Or have the mountains been melted before, and many times over, as God has judged His people and the nations?
In conclusion, I hope that this glance at Psalm 97 has begun to stir in you a desire to study the Psalms more. I also hope that it has begun to set the trend for what will be a whole pathway of Old Testament passages containing prophetic imagery.