Thanks to modern revelation, Mormons understand quite well what the prophets taught. The gospel has been made very plain due to the restoration and the ministering of modern prophets.
But there is one exception to that rule: prophecy.
It seems that the imagery of prophecy is still, to a great extent, an enigma to us. Visions such as those of John in Revelation, Daniel, Ezekiel and Isaiah — just to name a few — are loaded with symbolism that mystifies us.
Even some of Joseph Smith’s prophecies have these same, symbolic features. Sections 88 and 133 of Doctrine and Covenants are a case in point.
The fact that Joseph Smith used imagery consistent with that of the ancient prophets is a powerful verification of his calling as a prophet, but it still does little to help us interpret the mystifying symbolism of prophecy — either ancient or modern.
There has been no shortage of those who claim to have the answers to prophecy. A whole host of books attest to the sad fact that anyone’s guess is as good as another’s. A survey of the multitude of present offerings suggests that very nearly all of it is guesswork and hunches, since none of it actually gives the reader the tools to interpret prophecy. Each interpretation depends on its founder’s own approach.
Of course, anyone can open the scriptures, turn to a prophetic passage and hazard a guess at the meaning of the inspired imagery found there. And many do.
Warning of this very practice, Peter wrote, "No prophecy of the scripture is of private interpretation."
In fact, such guessing is at the heart of the confusion that reigns in Christendom where prophecy is concerned. The would-be interpreters either avoid the most mysterious imagery, or they try to interpret it by turning to speculation.
The basic, underlying supposition of most analysts is that the Old Testament prophets, upon seeing our technologically advanced world in vision, were at a loss for words. Hence, they turned to imagery to describe what they saw in revelations. For example, an atomic bomb became "a pillar of fire and smoke," or an attack helicopter firing missiles became "locusts" with "stings in their tails."
However, research suggests that the prophets were using traditional imagery of their time, talking about natural events of which we know little or nothing. We'll see that we are oblivious to the the things that they took for granted.
Most damaging is that modern expositors’ interpretations take to be literal what was meant to be imagery and metaphor. Contrarily, they also resort to the opposite device, making symbolic what was meant to be literal. Thus, they almost entirely sabotage the original meaning of the prophets’ words.
What analysts universally fail to see is that there are numerous hints — ‘keys’ if you will — found in the scriptures, modern revelation and ancient history that all move us closer to understanding prophecy. By letting the prophets speak for themselves, rather than 'interpreting' their words, we discover those keys.
There are hints everywhere in ancient cultures that the images of scriptural prophecy were customary, traditional images, common to all early peoples. Thus, the study of ancient iconography or symbolism becomes an invaluable interpretive tool in our quest to discern the meaning of prophetic imagery.
This article is the introduction to a series that identifies and explains the various keys to prophecy. Some are found in scripture, some in the words of modern prophets, some in science and some in comparative mythology. Singly, they are curiously insightful; jointly, they make a powerful case for a truly novel method of interpreting prophecy.
Like fitting the pieces into a puzzle, each key adds a little to our understanding of prophecy, making the picture more complete. When all the pieces are in place, we see the big picture. They produce a comprehensive explanation of prophetic symbolism. They make prophecy plain and understandable for anyone.
Hence, Joseph Smith’s statement, "Revelation is one of the plainest books God ever cause to be written."
In subsequent installments in this series we will carefully search out and examine each of these clues as we unravel the mysteries of prophecy. But what may be even more exciting and enlightening is that this quest will also allow us to better understand all the ancient imagery found in the Bible and even in modern revelation. It will explain otherwise enigmatic statements by Joseph Smith and other modern prophets since his time — statements that have been neglected or dismissed by many LDS scholars because of their seeming irrelevance or lack of substantiation.
Still more remarkable is the discovery that this analysis will reveal uncommon knowledge about temples ancient and modern — from the icons that adorn their exteriors and interiors to the very purpose of the rituals enacted within and what they are meant to teach us.
It will also explain Joseph Smith’s interest in things Egyptian and the revelations, such as the book of Abraham, which came from that study.
So, as it turns out, this effort is fundamentally about understanding the gospel itself rather than just the narrow confines of prophecy. Indeed, this study will lead us to understand more clearly even the first principles and ordinances of the gospel, the very foundations of our faith.
Only a study of correct principles could have such sweeping and profound implications and ramifications.
© Anthony E. Larson, 2004