Who Can Interpret Prophecy?

The Gordian knot was said to be the greatest enigma in the days of Alexander the Great. Wise was the person​—and great his conquest—​who could unravel that complicated knot. * Alexander solved the enigma, so the legend goes, by one slash of his sword.

DOWN through the ages, wise men have sought not only to untie difficult knots but also to unravel riddles, interpret prophecies, and even predict the future.

More often than not, however, those tasks were beyond them. The wise men of Babylon, for example, were unable to interpret the handwriting that miraculously appeared on the wall of King Belshazzar’s palace during a boisterous feast. Only Daniel​—the aging prophet of Jehovah God, who had a reputation for “the untying of knots”—​proved to be the one who could interpret the prophetic message. (Daniel 5:12) That prophecy, foretelling the doom of the Babylonian Empire, was fulfilled that very night!​—Daniel 5:1, 4-8, 25-30.

What Is Prophecy?

Prophecy has been defined as the future revealed, events in time recorded before they occur. True prophecy is an inspired message, written or spoken, a revelation of the divine will and purpose. In the Bible are found prophecies regarding the appearance and identity of the Messiah and “the conclusion of the system of things,” as well as judgment messages from God.​—Matthew 24:3; Daniel 9:25.

The “wise men” of today​—experts in science, economics, health, politics, environment, and many other fields—​attempt to predict the future. Although many of such predictions are highly publicized by the media​—and eagerly consumed by the public—​they are, at best, educated guesses and personal opinions. In addition, for every opinion expressed, invariably there are numerous opposing opinions and counterarguments. The business of predicting the future is risky indeed.

The Source of True Prophecy

Where, then, do true prophecies originate, and who can interpret them? The apostle Peter wrote: “No prophecy of Scripture springs from any private interpretation.” (2 Peter 1:20) The Greek word for “interpretation” has the meaning “solution, disclosure,” with the idea that “what is thus released or loosed was before bound.” Thus, The Amplified New Testament renders Peter’s words: “No prophecy of Scripture is [a matter] of any personal . . . loosening.”

Picture a sailor skillfully tying a rope into a complicated knot. When it is complete, the layman can see the strands going into the knot, but he is not sure how to loosen it. Similarly, people can observe current trends leading to a future bound up with complexity, but they are unsure of how that future will unravel or turn out.

 The inspired prophets of old, such as Daniel, did not personally analyze the current trends of their time and then attempt to unravel a complicated future by uttering a prophecy. If they had tried to force the future to unfold in this way, such prophesying would have originated in their own imagination. It would then have been a human prediction, a forecast built upon an imperfect foundation. Instead, Peter went on to explain: “Prophecy was at no time brought by man’s will, but men spoke from God as they were borne along by holy spirit.”​—2 Peter 1:21.

“Interpretations Belong to God”

Some 3,700 years ago, two men were locked away in a prison in Egypt. Each received an intriguing dream. Having no access to the wise men of the land, they expressed their perplexity to a fellow inmate, Joseph, exclaiming: “We have dreamed a dream, and there is no interpreter with us.” That servant of God encouraged them to relate their dreams to him, saying: “Do not interpretations belong to God?” (Genesis 40:8) Only Jehovah God has the ability to unravel prophecies, just as an experienced sailor can untie complicated knots. After all, it was God who made or tied up those prophecies in the first place. Logically, we must look to him for the loosening of their meaning. Yes, Joseph was right in giving the credit to God.

In what sense, then, do “interpretations belong to God”? There are a number of ways that this proves to be the case. Some Bible prophecies are recorded along with their fulfillment. These, then, are relatively simple to untie, as are some knots that the sailor freely explains how to undo.​—Genesis 18:14; 21:2.

Other prophecies can be explained and unraveled by an examination of the context. The prophet Daniel had a prophetic vision of ‘a ram with two horns’ being decisively struck down by a “hairy he-goat” that had “a conspicuous horn between its eyes.” The context shows that the ram with the two horns represented “the kings of Media and Persia” and the goat, “the king of Greece.” (Daniel 8:3-8, 20-22) More than 200 years later, “the great horn”​—Alexander the Great—​began his conquest of Persia. The Jewish historian Josephus claimed that during Alexander’s military campaign in the vicinity of Jerusalem, he was shown this very prophecy and believed that it referred to him.

“Interpretations belong to God” in another sense. Guided by holy spirit, Joseph, a faithful servant of Jehovah God, was able to understand the meaning of the perplexing dreams his fellow prisoners related to him. (Genesis 41:38) When present-day servants of God are unsure of the meaning of a certain prophecy, they pray for God’s spirit and then diligently study and search the spirit-inspired Word of God. With God’s guidance they can locate scriptures that open up the meaning of some prophecies. The interpretation does not come miraculously through any humans. It comes from God because it is by means of his spirit and his Word that the meaning becomes clear. The interpretation is not introduced from outside the Bible by human forecasters.​—Acts 15:12-21.

“Interpretations belong to God” also in that he determines and directs when a prophecy is to be understood by his faithful servants on earth. The meaning of a prophecy can be discerned before, during, or after its fulfillment. Since God tied up the prophecies, he will unravel them at the right time​—his time.

In the account of Joseph and the two prisoners, he interpreted the dreams three days before they were fulfilled. (Genesis 40:13, 19) Later, when Joseph was brought before mighty Pharaoh to explain Pharaoh’s dreams, seven years of plenty were about to  start. With God’s spirit, Joseph unraveled the meaning of Pharaoh’s dreams, so that arrangements could be made to take in the foretold bumper crops.​—Genesis 41:29, 39, 40.

Other prophecies are fully understood by servants of God only after their fulfillment. Many events in Jesus’ life had been prophesied centuries before his birth, but this was not fully understood by his disciples until after his resurrection. (Psalm 22:18; 34:20; John 19:24, 36) Finally, according to Daniel 12:4, certain prophecies were to be ‘sealed up’ “until the time of the end,” when, Daniel said, “the true knowledge will become abundant.” We are living in the very time when those prophecies are in the course of fulfillment. *

Bible Prophecies and You

Joseph and Daniel stood before the kings of their day and delivered prophetic messages that affected nations and kingdoms. Christians in the first century stood before the people of their day as spokesmen of Jehovah, the God of prophecy, and brought great benefit to those who responded to their messages.

Today, Jehovah’s Witnesses worldwide are sounding forth a prophetic message​—the good news of God’s Kingdom—​and telling people that Jesus’ prophecy on “the conclusion of the system of things” is undergoing fulfillment. (Matthew 24:3, 14) Do you know what that prophecy is and how it will affect you? Jehovah’s Witnesses are happy to help you understand and benefit from what is surely one of the grandest of all Bible prophecies.


^ par. 2 Greek legend has it that at Gordium, the capital of Phrygia, the chariot of the city’s founder, Gordius, was tied to a pole with a complicated knot, which could be untied only by the future conqueror of Asia.

^ par. 19 See the cover series “Six Bible Prophecies You Are Seeing Fulfilled,” in the May 1, 2011, issue of this magazine.

[Pictures on pages 12, 13]

Both Joseph and Daniel gave credit to God when explaining prophecy