Three theses on biblical prophecy

prophecy chart

A Chart Explaining Biblical Prophecy and Its Fulfillment

I
have taught the same adult Sunday School class for more than ten years.  From time to time we have studied the Bible’s prophetic writings.  I remember distinctly when we studied the Old Testament’s minor prophets.  A recurring experience of the members of the class was exasperation as, week after week, they failed to find any prophecy in these prophets.  They expected to find in these writings detailed predictions about Jesus Christ and the end of the world.

What they instead found was discourse about the problems of ancient Jews.  For instance, Haggai harangues Israel about its failure to rebuild the temple after its destruction by the Babylonians.  Amos keeps relating God’s demand that Israel practice justice for the poor.  Where is the prophecy? The assumption was that prophecy is prediction about things in the prophets’ distant future and that there is an exact correspondence between prophetic word and historical fulfillment.

In response, over the years I have developed three theses about prophecy in the Bible:

First,
biblical prophecy operates within a fairly near time horizon–the anticipated time between prophetic word and fulfillment is at most a matter of decades, not centuries or millennia.  Thus:

  • Isaiah 1-11 is speaking about most directly about the war between Judah and Israel.  Its hopes for a king who will rule in righteousness (7:10-16 [the sign of Immanuel], 9:1-7, 11:1-9) relate to the son of the current king, Ahaz, not to a messianic figure hundreds of years in the future.
  • Ezekiel’s promise that God would give to Israel a new heart and spirit (36:25-27) is a hope bound up with the return from exile in Babylon.  The book of Ezekiel thus expects a fulfillment within a few years.
  • The book of Revelation is best understood as a warning to Christian churches to maintain moral and spiritual distance from the Roman empire and Greco-Roman culture.
Prophecy is a response to
the immediate situation.

In short, biblical prophecy is a response to the prophet’s immediate situation, whether war with Israel, Babylonian exile, or the Roman empire.  This is not everything that we must say about prophecy, but it is the first thing.  We gain nothing by pretending that the prophets were talking about events in the year 2016.

Second,
prophecy often is not fulfilled according to the time expectations of the prophet and usually not in the manner expected.

  • Isaiah’s hopes that Ahaz’ son would be an ideal king of righteousness were dashed.
  • Ezekiel’s hopes for a renewal of Israel were not fulfilled, at least to the extent that he hoped.
  • Prophecies about the restoration of Jerusalem after the exile were fulfilled in part–Jerusalem was indeed rebuilt after the Babylonian destruction–but not to the degree that oracles such as Isaiah 2:2-4 would lead us to expect.

Additionally, sometimes prophecy is simply not fulfilled.  Ezekiel’s prophecy that God would destroy Tyre by the hand of Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon (chapter 26) did not happen, as the book of Ezekiel admits in 29:17-20.  Babylon simply didn’t have the military might to get the job done.  Likewise, Daniel’s prophecy that the kingdom of God would be established 490 years after the decree to rebuild the temple did not come about.  Indeed, we are still waiting for the fulfillment of that promise.

Prophecy’s fulfillment
is always deferred

To appreciate biblical prophecy, we must acknowledge that the complete fulfillment of its hopes are usually deferred to the indefinite future.  This is why hope is an essential virtue of the Christian life, and why the concept of the future is of such importance.

Third,
the prophetic word is capable of multiple partial fulfillments in different times.  The prophetic word contains a fullness of meaning that is not exhausted in any particular time, short of the eschatological fulfillment.  The prophetic word is thus potent–full of potentiality, capable of speaking, not only to its own time but to future times as well.  The book of Revelation, for instance, although initially relating to the threat posed by the Roman Empire, has the power to speak to Christians of every generation.

The fulfillment of prophecy, therefore, develops over time, as the initial word is re-actualized in new settings.  The task of Christian preaching and teaching is to use the Bible’s prophetic writings in order to discern our situation today, and then to let those writings speak words of judgment and comfort to the church.

 

2 thoughts on “Three theses on biblical prophecy

  1. Very good synopsis. Want to things that I teach is that all prophecy is conditional. If you look at all the prophecies in the Old Testament they are on the condition that the Israelites of the Jews do not change their path. Jonah is a good example. The fact that the prophecies do come to fruition is an indictment against the Israelites because given the heads up they still do not change. So the prophecy seems filled but only because of the choices that were made.

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