Hear the word prophecy, and what comes to mind?
Depending on your background, it could be Nostradamus, the 16th-century French apothecary and collector of diverse historical and prophetic material written across the centuries. If so, then you are probably familiar with his best-known book, Les Prophéties (The Prophecies), in print for most of the past four centuries. Its verses, or quatrains, have been subjected to multiple and often conflicting interpretations about world events, from the French Revolution to the rise of Hitler to the deaths of John F. Kennedy and Princess Diana.
If the Bible is your starting point, then you might associate prophecy with various Old Testament writers, Armageddon, the end of the world and the Last Judgment.
But certain kinds of prophets and prophecies have failed so often that many simply don’t trust anyone, religious or secular, who claims to foretell events. The turn of the millennium has come and gone without universal disaster. And despite fears about the Mayan calendar, 2012 did not end in catastrophe.
So does prophecy have any future? Does biblical prophecy in particular point to any central and certain event?
Let’s take a look at the subject from its biblical beginnings, defining aspects of it as we proceed.
“The prophet was an individual who said No to his society, condemning its habits and assumptions, its complacency, waywardness, and syncretism.”
The first prophecy in the Bible is found early in the book of Genesis. It is understood to be a reference to the adversarial relationship between Satan and the Messiah. Speaking to the serpent that had just deceived Eve, God said, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her Seed; He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise His heel” (Genesis 3:15). In other words, animosity would characterize Satan’s relationship with Eve and with her offspring, including Christ (the “Seed”), who would in turn ultimately deal with Satan. This prophecy looked ahead 4,000 years to the time of Christ’s crucifixion, when Satan would “bruise” God’s Son, and beyond this to the final defeat of the Adversary (Revelation 20:10). As we will see, the coming of the Messiah is mentioned throughout the Bible’s prophetic sequence. Indeed, it is made central to the working out of God’s plan for humanity and His creation.
For the earliest reference to a human prophet, we have to wait until the time of Abraham around 2000 BCE. He is the first in the Bible to be named a navi, the Hebrew word for “prophet” (Genesis 20:6–7). The role of prophet here is to make a connection between man—in this case the Canaanite king Abimelech—and God. Abraham is not foretelling so much as “forth-telling” or explaining and representing God to man. With that definition in mind, we could add earlier figures in Genesis such as Abel, Enoch and Noah, who, though not named as prophets, were God’s agents in an otherwise godless world (see Hebrews 11:4–7).
Others who take on the role as interlocutor, or go-between, include Moses’ brother Aaron, who became his “prophet” (Exodus 7:1). Moses speaks God’s words, and Aaron in turn delivers them to the people: “So he shall be your spokesman to the people. And he himself shall be as a mouth for you, and you shall be to him as God” (Exodus 4:16). Moses is also a spokesman-prophet to the people of Israel, the forerunner of a much greater one; God told him, “I will raise up for them a Prophet like you from among their brethren, and will put My words in His mouth, and He shall speak to them all that I command Him” (Deuteronomy 18:18).
Here again is a prophetic reference to the coming of the Messiah. The apostle Peter alludes to this passage when he says of Jesus, “Moses truly said to the fathers, ‘The Lord your God will raise up for you a Prophet like me from your brethren. Him you shall hear in all things, whatever He says to you” (Acts 3:22).
Jesus was well aware that His coming was prophesied throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, or Old Testament, which He defined as comprising three main sections: “the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms” (Luke 24:44). This accords with current Jewish practice, which refers to the three parts collectively as the Tanakh, from the first letters of the Hebrew Torah (the Law), Nevi’im (the Prophets) and Kethuvim (the Writings, beginning with the book of Psalms).
Speaking to two followers who viewed Him as “a prophet mighty in deed and word,” Jesus, “beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, . . . expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself” (Luke 24:19, 27).
Prophets, Former and Latter
Within this three-part structure of the Hebrew canon, the Prophets may be divided into Former and Latter. The Former Prophets comprise the historical books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings; the Latter include the three Major Prophets and the twelve Minor Prophets.
Moses’ successor, Joshua, acted like a prophet of the Abrahamic type, though the word navi is not used of him. The succeeding book of Judges speaks of the Israelite leader Deborah as a prophetess in the same sense: a revealer of God’s will, not necessarily one who primarily foretells future events (Judges 4:4). By the time of Samuel, during the 11th century BCE, we learn that the people had actively sought out “seers” to know God’s will: “Formerly in Israel, when a man went to inquire of God, he spoke thus: ‘Come, let us go to the seer’; for he who is now called a prophet was formerly called a seer” (1 Samuel 9:9). We also read that Samuel spoke God’s words of opposition to the idea of human kingship when Israel rejected God’s rule (1 Samuel 8:7, 10). Later he led “the company of the prophets” (1 Samuel 19:20, English Standard Version). During this period, prophets often dealt individually with Israel’s monarchs. For example, Samuel interfaced with Saul (1 Samuel 15), Nathan brought God’s corrective words to David (2 Samuel 12), Ahijah foretold Jeroboam’s rise and fall (1 Kings 11, 14), and Elijah confronted Ahab (1 Kings 17, 18).
“Reading the words of the prophets is a strain on the emotions, wrenching one’s conscience from the state of suspended animation.”
But it was in the time of the Latter Prophets that much of what is popularly considered “Bible prophecy” first appeared. Here the predictive element becomes more evident.
Prophecies, Sooner and Later
Some biblical prophecies have imminent fulfillments, while others have far horizons. Some have both. Consider the announcement of the coming of the Messiah celebrated in Handel’s well-known oratorio: “For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given; and the government will be upon His shoulder. And His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6). The first phrases about a child are recognized as foretelling Jesus’ coming as Mary the virgin’s miraculous firstborn. But the prophecy about the responsibility He would bear for government was not fulfilled at His first coming. Confirming this, the passage continues, “Of the increase of His government and peace there will be no end, upon the throne of David and over His kingdom, to order it and establish it with judgment and justice from that time forward, even forever. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this” (verse 7). This speaks of a time of Christ’s rule on earth at a yet future date. This kind of government was never part of Jesus’ role in the first century (John 18:36). There are many such prophecies with initial partial fulfillments, the remainder of which were to be completed in the distant future.
The Messiah, then, is the subject of prophecies about His first and second comings. Yet those who delivered such prophecies did not fully understand them at the time. As the apostle Peter wrote, “Of this salvation the prophets have inquired and searched carefully, who prophesied of the grace that would come to you, searching what, or what manner of time, the Spirit of Christ [which] was in them was indicating when [it] testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow. To them it was revealed that, not to themselves, but to us they were ministering the things which now have been reported to you through those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven—things which angels desire to look into” (1 Peter 1:10–12).
So prophets may forth-tell in the sense of inspired teaching that connects man with God, and they may foretell. If they speak about their own times, they may proclaim an imminent event. If they speak about the very far future, we are in the realm of eschatology and sometimes dealing with apocalyptic material.
Much of what is covered in the Latter Prophets involves warnings to the children of Israel of impending punishment at the hands of foreign powers such as the Assyrians and the Babylonians. After the death of David’s son Solomon, their united monarchy was split into Israel in the north and Judah in the south. Because of the Israelites’ decline into sins against God and fellow man, into idolatry and interpersonal law-breaking, prophets were sent with messages of repentance in efforts to turn kings and kingdoms from their destructive ways. Prophecies of retribution and restoration, both near and far future, often accompanied these messages. Within them we find many statements relating to “the Day of the Lord” (understood later to be the Messiah’s second coming)—prophecies referred to and expanded in New Testament scriptures about that same yet-future event.
Isaiah prophesied about the work of Jesus when he wrote: “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon Me, because the Lord has anointed Me to preach good tidings to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord. . .” (Isaiah 61:1–2). We know this because Jesus read Isaiah’s words in reference to Himself in His hometown synagogue at the beginning of His ministry (see Luke 4:16–21). However, He stopped short and did not complete the passage. Why? Perhaps because it refers to His second coming—“the day of vengeance of our God” (Isaiah 61:2)—and it was not yet time to emphasize that. Isaiah’s prophecy, then, applies in part to his own work and in a larger sense to the Messiah’s first and second comings.
The Second Coming
The New Testament’s emphasis on Christ’s return is striking when you consider that most New Testament books refer to it either directly or by implication. Of those few that do not, three are one-chapter letters on particular subjects.
As a young man, Peter spoke of the centrality of Christ’s return when he compared the fact of the first coming with the certainty of the second.
In an early public address, he said, “Those things which God foretold by the mouth of all His prophets, that the Christ would suffer [i.e., His first coming], He has thus fulfilled.” He continued by emphasizing that people should seek God’s forgiveness and change their ways “so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that He may send Jesus Christ [the Second Coming], who was preached to you before, whom heaven must receive until the times of restoration of all things, which God has spoken by the mouth of all His holy prophets since the world began” (Acts 3:18–21). The prophets whose words were fulfilled in Jesus’ lifetime are the same ones whose words will be fulfilled at Christ’s return. The prophesied events are equally sure.
It was the same Peter who wrote later in life about prophecy, again emphasizing its certainty with respect to Christ’s return. He did this by referring to the experience of seeing Jesus transfigured in a vision of the kingdom of God (see Matthew 17). He writes, “We did not follow cunningly devised fables when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of His majesty. For He received from God the Father honor and glory when such a voice came to Him from the Excellent Glory: ‘This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.’ And we heard this voice which came from heaven when we were with Him on the holy mountain.”
Peter goes on to make an important point about the confidence we can have in biblical prophecy: “We have the prophetic word confirmed, which you do well to heed as a light that shines in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts; knowing this first, that no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation [or human origin], for prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:16–21).
Peter’s words convey valuable additional thoughts about how to view prophecy, what to be aware of, and what to beware of when it comes to its origins. Pay attention to prophecy that originates with God, not human predictions. This is something we need to be sensitive to in terms of our own ideas about prophetic outcomes and the speculations of others. In Matthew 24, Jesus’ reply to questions about His return centers on the fact that it will happen very visibly, not on when it will happen. This alone should be enough to cause us to be suspicious of anyone who comes adding dates to the discussion. All those who have come up with a date so far have been wrong, and if we go by Jesus’ words, they will continue to be wrong.
“The images that the prophets use for the love of God are themselves revealing. Parent, teacher, healer, counselor—these are some of the roles that the prophets give to God, roles that reveal the concern and passion God has for people.”
Nevertheless, one day it will happen. It’s in the same chapter where Jesus spoke to His disciples privately about His return. He said, “The sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And He will send His angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they will gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other” (Matthew 24:30–31).
What will precede this great event toward which human history is moving? Many details are given in the New Testament’s preeminent prophetic book, Revelation, or the Apocalypse. Establishing that it speaks of the same event recorded in Matthew 24, Revelation states, “Behold, He is coming with clouds, and every eye will see Him, even they who pierced Him. And all the tribes of the earth will mourn because of Him” (Revelation 1:7).
Revelation goes on to describe and explain to the followers of Christ the course of human government and society in opposition to God’s way, so that they will understand what is ahead and how everything will be resolved. Part of that explanation focuses on the nature of human society as it will be in the final days of human civilization. A globalized world will be in the thrall of a vast economic, political and religious system that will trade in familiar commodities. The long list is found in Revelation 18. It includes food and drink, but also precious metals, exotic furnishings, gemstones, fabrics, perfumes, and the very troubling exploitation of the “bodies and souls of men” (Revelation 18:11–13).
Such a system must be brought to an end for the sake of humanity—to save humanity from itself. It will require the intervention of the Father as He sends His Son to deliver humankind. John, the writer of Revelation, saw that intervention in vision (see Revelation 6:12–17).
The result will be the end of the evils of human rule: injustice, war, hunger, poverty, exploitation, suffering. The long-awaited “restoration of all things” will begin. When that time comes, it will be possible to declare, “The kingdoms of this world have become the kingdoms of our Lord and of His Christ, and He shall reign forever and ever!” (Revelation 11:15).