Symbolic Language in Prophecy

  1. The type of prophetic language that is used in Matthew 24, and elsewhere in the NT, is symbolic, figurative and apocalyptic language.  This is often used in Scripture regarding prophecies.  Those passages told exactly what was to happen in their 1st century near future, so those born again who were watching and searching would be able to understand.  In a very dangerous time to be a believer, the Holy Spirit allowed Christians to understand, whereas at the same time by using the symbolic metaphoric language, He kept the meaning hidden from their non-believing persecutors.  By now, we should be very familiar with the symbolic and apocalyptic language used many times in the Old Testament (we looked at many examples in Study Series 5 Being a Hebrew in the Old Covenant).
  2. Let us recall just a few of these passages à one example of this figurative or symbolic language is (Jeremiah 4:23-27).  God is talking to and about Judah and Jerusalem.  He tells them that He is angry with them because of their wickedness.  He prophesies that His destruction is coming upon them.  He states that the land will be desolate, but it will not be a full end at that time.  After this prophecy, the southern kingdom of Judah ended in the exile of most of its people to Babylon, mainly as a result of two invasions by King Nebuchadnezzar (597 and 586 BC).  Remember, the northern kingdom of Israel has already long since been judged and destroyed by God using the Assyrian armies back in 722 BC.  The only Hebrew nation left at that time were these people being spoken to in the southern kingdom of Judah.  The language describing what happened is as follows:

Jeremiah 4:23-27 (NKJV) – “I beheld the earth, and indeed it was without form, and void; and the heavens, they had not light.  I beheld the mountains, and indeed they trembled, and all the hills moved back and forth.  I beheld, and indeed there was no man, and all the birds of the heavens had fled.  I beheld, and indeed the fruitful land was wilderness, and all its cities were broken down at the presence of the LORD, by His fierce anger.  For thus says the LORD: ‘The whole land shall be desolate; yet I will not make a full end.” 

3. The following passage of Jer. 4:5-18 helps provide us with the context and audience of

this apocalyptic and figurative judgment language.  God tells Judah that their wickedness is causing Him to send judgment upon them.  The “presence of the Lord” spoken of in verse 26 is demonstrated by the fierce anger of the Lord.  In the New Testament this is like the “coming (Gk. Parousia, which literally means a time of “presence,” as opposed to a quick appearing) of the Lord.”  It means being against someone or something in a fearful way.  The following are some of the verses in Jeremiah, chapter four, that describe what is actually happening to Judah and Jerusalem:

 “Declare in Judah and proclaim in Jerusalem, and say:” (Jer. 4:5)

“I will bring disaster form the north and great destruction.” (4:6)

“To make your land desolate, your cities will be laid waste, without inhabitants.” (4:7b)

“O Jerusalem, wash your heart from wickedness, that you may be saved.” (4:14)

“Your ways and your doings have procured these things for you.” (4:18a)

4. Another Old Testament example of symbolic, figurative or apocalyptic language in Scripture in Micah 1:3-6.  God is talking about the two areas of Samaria and Jerusalem.  The northern kingdom of Israel (Samaria) was gradually overrun by the Assyrians, with the capital of Samaria finally falling in 722 BC.

Micah 1:3-6 – “For behold, the LORD is coming out of His place; He will come down and tread on the high places of the earth.  The mountains will melt under Him, and the valleys will split like wax before the fire, like waters poured down a steep place.  All this is for the transgression of Jacob and for the sins of the house of Israel.  What is the transgression of Jacob?  Is it not Samaria?  And what are the high places of Judah?  Are they not Jerusalem?  “Therefore I will make Samaria a heap of ruins in the field, places for planting a vineyard; I will pour down her stones into the valley, and I will uncover her foundations.”

This destruction came as a result of the wickedness and transgression of Israel.  Its occurrence was spoken of as the Lord ‘coming’ and ‘coming down.’  The Lord used human armies to bring about the desolation of the northern kingdom of Israel, but His description was letting us know that it was His doing, it was as if He had come Himself

5. Likewise in Matthew 24, and elsewhere in the NT, it is describing the fall and destruction of the special chosen status of the remaining kingdom of Judah.  The judgment and destruction of the city of Jerusalem, the desolation of the Jewish Temple, and the consummation into the New Heavens and Earth cosmological order through the blood of Christ and New Covenant eternal kingdom in the New Testament times were all said to occur at the coming (parousia = presence) of Christ.  The primary events are described in symbolic and apocalyptic language:

Isaiah 51:6 includes the following statement: “For the HEAVENS will vanish away like smoke, the EARTH will grow old like a garment, and those who dwell in it will die in like manner.”  A few verses later in Isaiah 51:16 God says: “That I may plant the HEAVENS, lay the foundations of the EARTH, and say to Zion, ‘You are my people.’”   

6. In Deuteronomy 32:1, after the formation of Israel, God said: “Give ear, O HEAVENS, and I will speak; hear O EARTH the words of my mouth.”  God was not talking to the literal, physical heavens and the earth.  No, He was talking to ISRAEL (see: Deut. 31:30.  Also see: Isa. 1:1-4).  Old Covenant Israel was the epitome of the Old Heavens and Earth animal sacrifice system (instituted back in the Garden of Eden by God). 

SUMMARY: Our Lord Jesus is not capable of deceiving His people.  He is truth!  He does not lie to them.  He does not give them a promise, knowing that it will not come true.  He promised His disciples and His people that He would come again in their generation (Matt. 16:27-28, 23:36, 24:34).  He would save/rescue the persecuted believers from their persecutors and the coming outpouring of God’s wrath on OC Israel.  He would bring judgment on the Old Covenant Jewish world, remove the obsolete Old Heavens and Earth animal sacrificial system (epitomized in the OC Jewish Temple system), and consummate the eternal New Heavens and Earth and New Covenant everlasting Kingdom (through His blood). 

The apostles told the believers again and again that Jesus was coming soon! (1 Cor. 1:6-8; Phil. 1:6; Col. 3:1-4; 1 Thess. 4:15, 17; 1 Tim. 6:14; Heb. 8:13, 9:26-28, 10:25-27, 37; Jam. 5:7-9; 1 Pet. 1:5-7, 10, 12, 20, 4:5, 7, 17; 1 John 2:28).  The first century believers expected Him to come and trusted Him to come and rescue them before the outpouring of God’s wrath on OC Israel (1 Thess. 1:10, 5:9).  This was their blessed hope.  They obeyed His instructions to be prepared.

Unfortunately, over the years many Christian leaders have taught that Jesus was really talking about something that would occur 2000 years in the future.  This is in an effort to try and explain why, as they believe, He did not come in the first century.  Even the honorable C.S. Lewis said in 1960: “‘Say what you like,’ we shall be told, ‘the apocalyptic beliefs of the first Christians have been proved to be false.  It is clear from the New Testament that they all expected the Second Coming in their own lifetime.  And worse still, they had a reason, and one which you will find very embarrassing.  Their Master had told them so.  He shared, and indeed created, their delusion.  He (Jesus) said in so many words, ‘this generation shall not pass till all these things be done.’  And he (Jesus) was wrong.  He clearly knew no more about the end of the world than anyone else.’  It is certainly the most embarrassing verse in the Bible.” (Essay “The World’s Last Night” (1960) found in The Essential C.S. Lewis p. 385)

Now, this is unacceptable for Christians to have to hold hands with the enemies of Christ, such as Islam, atheists, and other false religions, and to say that Jesus was wrong.  And this is inadvertently what is being done by many churches today just to promote a futurist view of eschatology.  The fact is that the futurists are wrong.  Jesus was right!  He fulfilled all propheciesHe judged and did away with the OC, He rescued His 1st century saints from their persecutors and the coming wrath of God, and He fully consummated His everlasting New Covenant Kingdom in His church, which will last for all generations, forever and ever – Amen! (Eph. 3:21; Gen. 8:21; Isa. 9:7, 45:17; Dan. 2:44, 7:13-14; Eccl. 1:4; Psa. 78:69, 104:5, 119:90; Psa. 148:4, 6; Ezek. 37; Luke 1:32-33; Eph. 2:20-22).


See also related “Topic Studies & Terms”:

Sun, Moon, Stars

Sons of the Kingdom Cast Out (Old Covenant Israel)



Related full “Study Series” (available upon request if not hyperlinked):

[For a more in-depth study see eschatology “Study Series 7 Lesson 6 Matt. 24:45-51”]

[For a more in-depth study see eschatology “Study Series 5 Being a Hebrew…Audience Relevance”]

[For a more in-depth study see eschatology “Study Series 5b Hebraic Language Symbolism”]