Wednesday, December 21, 2016

What about Daniel?

I have argued that the fulfillment of Biblical prophecies depend to a large extent on the continuation of current conditions at the time of the prophetic announcements. If reality changes at some point between the giving of the prophecy and the point of expected fulfillment, then the fulfillment of the prophecy may not happen as predicted. When prophecies predict human behaviors, the precision is less dependable because people often respond to events in surprising and unexpected ways.

When the above position is taken, a frequent retort is, "What about Daniel?"

The claims I have defended are most vulnerable when they are held up against the book of Daniel. If God accurately foresaw detailed events hundreds of years before they happened—including human actions of near spontaneity—how can the future properly be understood as "open?" Many of the prophecies in Daniel are given with such precision that a reader is apt to conclude that the future is totally closed, not partially closed.

So what about Daniel? Daniel's prophecies in chapter 11 speak about the rise of Greece. The prophecies mention several very specific actions of the Greek kings from Alexander down to Antiochus IV Epiphanies. People's actions are precicely predicted. While it is true that some Biblical prophecies about people's actions did not go as predicted, in Daniel, prophecies about human actions―people that did not yet exist, no less―are very precise. Prophecy seems to work two different ways. Do the two ways share common ground? How we approach this question is informed by the different kinds of literature we find in the Bible.

The Bible contains different types of literature. The way we understand and apply what we read ought to be informed by the kind of literature we are reading. The Bible contains, for example, history literature, poetry literature, wisdom literature, prophecy literature, gospels and epistles. In the arena of World Literature, the examples we see in the Bible are not the only examples ever written. All of the writings in the Bible, however, are theologically consistent. They are writings that stood such a test of time that they came to be recognized as having theological authority. Long story short: The Bible came together with all those Scriptures included and a lot of typically similar writings excluded.

We do not read the Psalms the same way as we read the Chronicles (or, we should not read them the same way).

A proper approach to the book of Daniel begins with a realization that it is mostly an apocalypse. The Bible contains two formal apocalypses: Daniel 7-12 and Revelation. To properly read Daniel and Revelation we should have some familiarity with the meaning of apocalypse literature. If we read Daniel the same way we read, say, Amos, we will draw improper theological conclusions sharply opposing theology found in other parts of the Bible. Frederick J. Murphy says in his introduction to Apocalyptic literature, "A solid understanding of the genre, the worldview, and the original historical circumstances of apocalypses can enable today's believers to benefit from their spiritual insights and strange beauty without being misled by simplistic and sometimes dangerous interpretations" (8). He defines "apocalypse" as follows.
All apocalypses are narratives, stories describing the disclosure of otherwise inaccessible secrets to a human seer by a heavenly being. The disclosures are usually through visions. (The term seer literally means "see-er," one who sees visions.) Often the visions themselves are enigmatic and must be interpreted by a heavenly being, usually an angel. There are two main kinds of apocalyptic narratives. In the first, the seer travels to the heavenly realm or to parts of the cosmos usually inaccessible to human beings. The second type contains no otherworldly journey. This type often incorporates a review of history, culminating in an eschatological crisis and resolution, such as a conflict between the forces of good and evil, resulting in evil's defeat. ... The element common to all apocalypses is postmortem rewards and punishments, an idea that enters Judaism through the medium of apocalypticism, since it does not occur elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible. (Murphy 2)
Sidnie White Crawford offers a similar definition:
Apocalypses are characterized by the presence of vision, symbolism, a human seer and otherworldly mediator, an otherworldly journey, an emphasis on events on the cosmic rather than human realm, an increased interest in angels and demons, the notion of the transcendence of God, and pseudonymity.
The above definitions are true for nearly all apocalypses. There are probably some exceptions. The most notable exceptions occur in literature containing apocalyptic features without being proper apocalypses (Isaiah 56-66; Ezekiel, Zechariah; Matthew 24; Mark 13; Luke 21, although the apocalyptic sections in Matthew, Mark and Luke may qualify as proper apocalypses). There are several apocalypse features I want to highlight for this study. Apocalypses
  1. present a review of history and includes a prophetic prediction of something that must shortly take place, or the prophet/seer witnesses something otherworldly;
  2. are pseudonymous—that is, the author is writing under a pseudonym;
  3. feature an expectation of life-after-death.
Murphy adds:
They [apocalypses] allow their readers to see their own situations from the perspectives of the supernatural world and from the vantage point of life after death. This change of perspective allows a different consciousness to emerge, thereby changing experience itself. Human experience is found to be connected to larger, even cosmic realities. One's own historical period or personal life is viewed within a broad vista and can thereby be ordered correctly. This does not just make experience more tolerable; it actually changes experience, since experience is inseparable from perception. To change perception is to change the world. (Murphy 7)
Apocalypses emerge in times of crisis. They give readers hope and meaning in situations where life is otherwise hopeless and meaningless. In that respect, an apocalypse is crisis literature. For that reason many scholars describe apocalyptic language as "language of oppression." Therefore, apocalypses
  1. emerge in times of crisis in order to provide hope and meaning to readers whose lives feel otherwise hopeless and meaningless.
The book of Revelation is a good place to start. We analyze it as an apocalypse. Revelation is noteworthy for not being pseudepigraphic (pseudonymous). The book of Revelation was written by a man named John. Otherwise, it fulfills all the appropriate definitions of an apocalypse. It features a conversation with otherworldly persons (Jesus and angels). It features a brief history of the rise of the Roman empire (or the rise of an oppressive Roman administration) and it predicts the fall of Rome (or the oppressive administration) by divine action. Afterwards, there is a kind of eschatological expectation, the meaning of which is beyond the scope of this article. The crisis situation is pretty clear. People are being martyred for their faith. When people are imprisoned and martyred for trying to do the right thing, life feels pretty meaningless. The book of Revelation aims to provide meaning for those saints.

In Daniel 11, almost all interpreters see the rise and fall of the Greek empire. That meaning in Daniel is almost unmistakable. The particular crisis situation addressed in Daniel 11 is associated with persecution under the Greek governor Antiochus IV Epiphanies.

A quick look at the book of I Enoch is informative here. First Enoch is an apocryphal collection of apocalypses from the pseudonymous pen of Enoch, in the seventh generation from Adam (Jude 1:14, citing 1 Enoch 1:9). First Enoch 83-90 is an apocalypse that addresses the same historical crisis as that of Daniel 11. The whole vision describes the history of the world from the Adam and Eve to the Maccabean revolt against Antiochus Epiphanies's Jerusalem occupation 165-161 B.C. In the apocalypse of 1 Enoch 83-90, various people and peoples are described as animals, especially from chapters 85-90, often identified as The Animal Apocalypse.

At the end, the crisis under Antiochus IV reaches a climax and God steps in to help the Jews in their resistance. They suddenly triumph.
Then I kept seeing till one great horn sprouted on one of the sheep [one of the Maccabean leaders], and he opened their eyes; and they had vision in them and their eyes were opened. He cried aloud to the sheep, and all the rams saw him and ran unto him. In spite of this, all those eagles, vultures, ravens, and kites until now continue to rip the sheep, swooping down upon them and eating them. As for the sheep, they remain silent; but the rams are lamenting and crying aloud. Those ravens gather and battle with him (the horned ram) and seek to remove his horn, but without any success.

I saw thereafter the shepherds coming; and those vultures and kites cried aloud to the ravens so that they should smash the horn of that ram. But he battled with them, and they fought each other; and he cried aloud, while battling with them, so that (God's) help should come. I kept seeing till that man, who writes down the names of the shepherds and elevates them before the Lord of the sheep, came; it is he who helped him and revealed (to him) everything; thus help came down for that ram. And I kept seeing till the Lord of the sheep came upon them in wrath, and all who saw him fled and fell into darkness, from before his face. All the eagles vultures, ravens, and kites gathered, with all the sheep of the field lining up with them; and having thus come together in unity, all of them cooperated in order to smash the horn of the ram. I saw that man who was writing a book by command of the Lord, for he opened that book (of) the destruction which those twelve last shepherds caused; and he revealed before the Lord of the sheep that they had much greater destruction than their predecessors. I kept seeing till the Lord of the sheep came unto them and took in his hand the rod of his wrath and smote the earth; and all the beasts and all the birds of the heaven fell down from the midst of those sheep and were swallowed up in the earth, and it was covered upon them. Then I saw that a great sword was given to the sheep; and the sheep proceeded against all the beasts of the field in order to kill them; and all the beasts and birds of heaven fled from before their face. (Isaac, 1 Enoch 90:9-19)
There quickly follows a kind of judgment against fallen angels and of those who oppressed the Jews. Note the eschatological hellish punishment they receive.
Then the Lord called those people, the seven first snow-white ones, and ordered them to bring before him (some) from among the first star(s) that arose, and from among those stars whose sexual organs were like those of the horses, as well as (that) first star which had fallen down earlier. And they brought all before him. He spoke to the man who was writing in his presence―that (man) being one of those seven snow-white ones―saying, "Take those seven shepherds to whom I had handed over the sheep, but who decided to kill many more than they were ordered." Behold, I saw all of them bound; and they all stood before him. Then his judgment took place. First among the stars, they received their judgment and were found guilty, and they went to the place of condemnation; and they were thrown into an abyss, full of fire and flame and full of the pillar of fire. Then those seventy shepherds were judged and found guilty; and they were cast into that fiery abyss. (1 Enoch 90:21-25)
The Jews who were complicit with the Greek oppression―those who gave lip-service to the resistance but never gave real support―receive a similar punishment.
In the meantime I saw how another abyss like it, full of fire, was opened wide in the middle of the ground; and they brought those blinded sheep, all of which were judged, found guilty, and cast into this fiery abyss, and they were burned―the abyss is to the right of that house; thus I saw those sheep while they were burning―their bones were also burning. (1 Enoch 90:26-27)
There follows a national restoration and a reward for the righteous, both living and dead. The restored nation is ruled by a strong messianic figure. The description of the national restoration in 1 Enoch 90:28-38 sounds a lot like what the disciples had in their minds when they asked Jesus, "Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?" (Acts 1:6).

A couple observations: The whole Animal Apocalypse prophecy is aimed at the people suffering at the end of the detailed history. The predictions do not pertain to the people who lived at any other time in the Animal Apocalypse chronicle in 1 Enoch 85-90. The prophecy pertains to those living during the time of Antiochus IV Epiphanies. The seer describes a future that punishes those who practice evil and rewards those who practice righteousness, both living and dead. The described future is very near to the people living in those times. The prophecy did not play out as described but notice what the prophecy did for those living in that horrible time. The prophecy gave meaning to the injustices those righteous Jews were suffering. Once they were able to see reality as something more than life in the world―that there is more to life than living―then death is not a point of defeat. It is a moment of victory. That perspective changes the meaningless into the meaningful.

As for the author, Enoch in the seventh generation from Adam, he is certainly not the actual author; but he is tagged as the author pseudepigraphically. Why? It may be because Enoch was an ancient hero who legendarily predicted the Great Flood. He went to be with God without having to first experience death. Why the real author wrote about his visions under a pen name of an ancient hero is a point of speculation. I think he wanted to keep his identity secret for reasons of personal security. The more common explanation is that by writing under the name of an ancient hero, it gives an appearance that the much more ancient writer was able to accurately predict all the events that led up to the current date; so the events that are still yet future must be dependable prophecies too. That may be the case; but that motive comes off in my mind as deliberate deception. The contemporary readers knew that the documentation of the visions were pseudepigraphic. I think the writer detailed all that history to show that his predictions logically follow from history and Scripture.

Up to this point I have been working toward comparing the Daniel 7-12 with other apocalypses. I selected the Animal Apocalypse in 1 Enoch because it and and Daniel both apply to the same historical crisis.

In Daniel 10:20-21 an otherworldly being presents a book that contains the history of the world from King Darius of Persia to Antiochus IV Epiphanies. The history details particularly the divided Greek empire and highlights the northern (to Israel) branch spanning Syria all the way to Persia and the southern (to Israel) branch that covers the historical region of Egypt. The rulers of those two branches of Greek empire constantly bickered over who controls Israel. Eventually, the northern branch gained control of Israel under the leadership of Antiochus IV Epiphanies. In the prophecy, Antiochus IV is the most interesting actor (Daniel 11:20-39). The writer describes the friction that ensues between Antiochus IV and Ptolemy VI Philometor of Egypt (Daniel 11:25-28).

The whole vision that is detailed in the chapter is extraordinarily accurate historically... right up to Daniel 11:39. Then the seer predicts "The time of the end" which happens when Ptolemy VI attacks Antiochus IV. They will war against each other and Antiochus IV will die alone. The beginning of the end in Daniel 11:40-45 has no historical parallel. The accuracy of the events in Daniel 11 suddenly falls apart beginning with verse 40. Was the seer just wrong? No. What he is doing now (and for the first time in chapter 11) is prophesying. John Goldingay notes in his commentary on Daniel, "It is not the nature of biblical prophecy to give a literal account of events before they take place" (305).

The eschatological events described in Daniel 12 include eternal reward for the righteous, both living and dead, and eternal punishment for those who practiced wickedness. Those who are punished may include Jews who insincerely cheered on the ones who resisted the occupation (Daniel 11:34).

Note that this prophecy has nothing to say to people in Daniel's time; nor does it have anything useful to say to anybody else living in the period between Daniel and Antiochus IV! But for the people living just before the "time of the end," the prophecy has an important message. The message is to remain faithful. Antiochus may kill you but he cannot take away your eternal reward. Martyrdom is not meaningless. Your righteousness and patience means something.

Why did the seer write under the pseudonym Daniel? Possibly, he wanted to disguise his true identity. He selected Daniel possibly because he is a great example of one who remained faithful against threats of death. Daniel thus served as an example for people in the time of Antiochus IV. Their lives were likewise threatened by their righteousness.

Following the standard rubric of an apocalypse, the writer wrote under a pseudonym. He wrote for people living in a time of moral crisis. He wrote their history as if he were Daniel himself; so the history comes across as quasi-prophecies. The readers recognized their time in the quasi-prophecies and they knew that the writer had written under the pseudonym of Daniel. They read the prophecies of Daniel 11:40ff as a logical "what's next" of history up to the point before the expected fulfillment. The seer himself consulted the Bible to try to understand the nature of his times (Daniel 9:2).

Finally, the apocalypse ends with an eschatological expectation that features eternal reward and punishment for those both living and dead.

The original readers of the book of Daniel did not believe the author was being dishonest. The readers were quite familiar with the genre and they knew they were reading pseudonymous literature. The seer was writing in the style of a kind of writing that was well represented in those days. That kind of Scripture is called an apocalypse.

Crawford, Sidnie White. "Apocalyptic." Eerdman's Dictionary of the Bible. Ed. David Noel Freedman. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000. Electronic.

Goldingay, John. Daniel. WBC 30. Dallas: Word, 1989. Print.

Isaac, E. "Translation and Introduction of 1 (Ethiopic Apocalypse of) Enoch." The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha: Apocalyptic Literature and Testaments. Ed. James Charlesworth. Doubleday, 1983. Print.

Murphy, Frederick J. "Introduction to Apocalyptic Literature." The New Interpreter's Bible 7. Nashville: Abingdon, 1996. Print.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Robert Stein on Luke. Luke Johnson on Acts.

I just want to register a few reactions to a set of commentaries I have begun to use in supplementing my study of Luke-Acts. I have studied through the Luke-Acts duo in the past; but the motive was as a family devotional study. Thus, my study was centered around teaching my children. This time, I am studying the books for me and I want to go into a little more depth. I picked up Robert Stein's New American Commentary on Luke on the merits of online reviews. I picked up Luke Timothy Johnson's Sacra Pagina Commentary on Acts on the good reputation of Luke Timothy Johnson.

Stein's comments are quite excellent. He has an astounding command of the Old Testament especially as it relates to a reader's understanding of the book of Luke. He does not get bogged down in modern denominational doctrinal quibbles. His aim is to help us understand what Luke's account meant to a first century reader, notably a man named Theophilus (Luke 1:3; Acts 1:1). Stein's comments are outstanding.

He does, however, occasionally succumb to modern consensus. A careful reader notices when a writer takes a doctrinal stand without Biblical proof or with weak proof. The particular poorly stance of which I speak is the modern view that "God is in control." As much as a modern reader is inclined to accept that particular theology, I have never seen adequate Biblical support for it. Stein makes the claim in in his introductory remarks and continues to make it in the commentary proper. He makes the claim in his comments on Luke 1:9, which reads,
he [Zechariah] was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense.
Stein's comments:
This indicates that God's providential leading caused Zechariah to be chosen. For Luke this was not the result of "chance" or "fate." God was clearly in control of this event.
Stein includes this footnote:
This example and the fact that the selection of Matthias (Acts 1:26) was preceded by prayer (Acts 1:24-25) make clear that that act should also be understood as taking place according to God's providential will.
I'm sorry. I need Stein to present for me a better argument. I don't see either one as God controlling how the dice are rolled, or how the straws are drawn, or however they took their lots. If there is a suggestion of providence, it sure is not clear!

Stein's "God is in control" assumption motivated me to peek ahead at Luke 22:31-34 to see what Stein says about Jesus' prediction of Peter's denials. The text reads:
31 “Simon, Simon, listen! Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat, 32 but I have prayed for you that your own faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.” 33 And he said to him, “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death!” 34 Jesus said, “I tell you, Peter, the cock will not crow this day, until you have denied three times that you know me.”
Stein comments on the clause, "I have prayed for you that your own faith may not fail."
Jesus, as well as Luke's readers, knew that Peter would deny the Lord (Luke 22:34, 54-62). Thus the content of this prayer should not be understood as a prayer that peter would not deny Jesus. If this were so, then Jesus' prayer failed completely. Rather the prayer was that Peter would not disavow his allegiance and loyalty to Jesus. This Peter did not do; and the reader, who is aware of Peter's leadership role in the early church, knows that Jesus' prayer for Peter was answered.
"When you have turned back...."
The issue was not whether Peter would repent but what he would do after he repented. Jesus foreknew that Peter's faith would not fail but that after his denial he would repent because he prayed for him.
I don't see definite foreknowledge here and I am not convinced that Luke's main reader, Theophilus, necessarily saw it either. I am not convinced that Jesus got everything he prayed for either. Maybe so. I'll think about it harder when I get to that passage in my study. At this point in my study, the passage looks more like an indicator that it is possible for a person to be restored to ministry once he has fallen away. It does not look to me like an indicator of the infallibility of Jesus' prayer.

It may sound like I am not a fan of this commentary. So far, it is pure gold with only a few impurities. Another example. This one regards the virgin birth of Jesus (Luke 1:34). Stein mined ancient tradition to find an antecedent of a virgin birth upon which Luke's report may have been based.
Yet we find no evidence anywhere of a Jewish expectation that the Messiah would be born of a virgin.

Footnote: Isaiah 7:14 was not interpreted in the intertestamental period as teaching a messianic virgin birth. It is much more likely that after the origination of the virgin birth traditions, Isa 7:14 began to be used to support the traditions rather than that it created this tradition.
That's good writing. It is also very insightful.

Since I plan to consult Luke Timothy Johnson in my Acts study, I thought I would check out how he handles passages that lean towards determinism. The exercise should be profitable since both commentaries comment on the companion book. That is, Stein has a lot to say about Acts in his commentary on Luke. Likewise, Johnson has a lot to say about Luke in his commentary on Acts. My test passages is Acts 13:48.
When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and praised the word of the Lord; and as many as had been destined for eternal life became believers.
 The context shows that the people who "had been destined" were so destined by their own choices and attitudes (Acts 13:42). Let us see what Johnson says.
The verb tassō ("set/appoint") in the perfect passive participle takes on the sense of "destined/allotted." The language reminds us of that used at Qumran for those slotted for everlasting light or darkness, life or death (see CD 3:20; 1QS 3:18-4:1). The term "eternal life" picks up from Acts 13:46, the only other time it occurs in Acts. The Jews "rejected the word of God" and judged themselves "unfit for eternal life"; in contrast, the Gentiles show that they are destined for eternal life by "glorifying" this same "word of the Lord."
That is not bad. Johnson emphasizes the method by which the Jews and Gentiles in this account found themselves destined. It was by their respective embrace of the word of the Lord. That may motivate me to pick up Johnson's companion volume on Luke.

Matt Skinner has written a book on Acts. I appreciate Skinner's perspective in the few things I have read from him. Unfortunately, he has not written anything that I can find on Luke.

A final word about these two commentaries. Sometimes in commentary series such as those that include Stein and Johnson's commentaries, there are rigid format requirements. Stein's comments begin with a few pages discussing "Context" followed by verse-by-verse comments and then a few pages focusing on "Message." That format makes for a little tedium when using the book as a reference. To answer what Stein thinks about a particular verse, one must read all three sections, for Stein may have commented on the verse three times in three different places. I would prefer to see all of his various thoughts on a particular verse located closer together.

The Sacra Pagina commentary format has a section of verse-by-verse comments followed by an "Interpretation" section. I am finding that format much more friendly than the New American Commentary structure.

Monday, December 12, 2016

What about prophecies that predict human behavior?

When Biblical prophecies predict divine action, the fulfillment of those prophecies depend upon the continuation of the current state of affairs when the prophecy is delivered. God reserves the right to change his mind and change his plans (Jeremiah 18).

When prophecies depend upon human behaviors, their precision is less dependable because people often respond to events in surprising and unexpected ways. They may repent of their sinful ways or they may respond to a prophecy in ways that nullify the prophecy's fulfillment. Sometimes, prophecies only predict how people will behave in certain situations. When the time comes for fulfillment, for some strange reason, those people respond in unanticipated ways. Consider Isaiah's prophecies about the Assyrian king Sennacherib when he threatened Jerusalem (2 Kings 19):
2 And he [Hezekiah] sent Eliakim, who was in charge of the palace, and Shebna the secretary, and the senior priests, covered with sackcloth, to the prophet Isaiah son of Amoz. 3 They said to him, “Thus says Hezekiah, This day is a day of distress, of rebuke, and of disgrace; children have come to the birth, and there is no strength to bring them forth. 4 It may be that the Lord your God heard all the words of the Rabshakeh, whom his master the king of Assyria has sent to mock the living God, and will rebuke the words that the LORD your God has heard; therefore lift up your prayer for the remnant that is left.” 5 When the servants of King Hezekiah came to Isaiah, 6 Isaiah said to them, “Say to your master, ‘Thus says the LORD: Do not be afraid because of the words that you have heard, with which the servants of the king of Assyria have reviled me. 7 I myself will put a spirit in him, so that he shall hear a rumor and return to his own land; I will cause him to fall by the sword in his own land.’” 
God did indeed cause Sennacherib to believe two rumors; but Sennacherib's consequent actions did not go as predicted.
8 The Rabshakeh returned, and found the king of Assyria fighting against Libnah; for he had heard that the king had left Lachish. 9 When the king heard concerning King Tirhakah of Ethiopia, “See, he has set out to fight against you,” he sent messengers again to Hezekiah, saying, 10 “Thus shall you speak to King Hezekiah of Judah: Do not let your God on whom you rely deceive you by promising that Jerusalem will not be given into the hand of the king of Assyria. 11 See, you have heard what the kings of Assyria have done to all lands, destroying them utterly. Shall you be delivered? 12 Have the gods of the nations delivered them, the nations that my predecessors destroyed, Gozan, Haran, Rezeph, and the people of Eden who were in Telassar? 13 Where is the king of Hamath, the king of Arpad, the king of the city of Sepharvaim, the king of Hena, or the king of Ivvah?” (2 Kings 19:2-13)
The Assyrian king heard two rumors. He heard Libnah was rebelling against the Assyrian army. He also heard that the Ethiopians were coming up against him. It appeared that Judah had two new allies, Lackish and Ethiopia. Neither was true; but Sennacherib believed the rumors, as God promised. The expected result was for Sennacherib to abandon the Jerusalem effort and head back to Assyria. Surprise of all surprises, Sennacherib did not go home. Instead, he steeled his resolve against Jerusalem. Well. That was totally contrary to the prophetic expectation! How could God have been so wrong? The reason is because the prophecy was based upon Sennacherib's likely response to the rumors. His response was not certain, even from God's perspective. The prediction was a likelihood but not a certainty.

In round two, Hezekiah himself prays. The prayer plus Sennacherib's blasphemous bragging provoke a new divine response. God sent an angel into the Babylonian camp. The angel killed 185,000 Assyrians. Sennacherib finally went home to Nineveh.

When God predicts human behaviors, the predictions are based upon strong likelihoods rather than on unalterable certainties. Thus, for example, we recall that Jesus told Peter that he would deny Jesus three times. A short time later, he instructed the disciples‒and Peter‒to pray that they will not come to the time of trial (Luke 22:40, 46). That means Jesus' prediction of Peter's denials was not a certainty but rather a strong likelihood.

There is an interesting side-lesson here. Prayer affects God. God makes plans and alters plans based upon people's prayers. The sincerity of an offered prayer seems to matter. Hezekiah's prayer resulted in stronger divine action than did Isaiah's prayer. We do not know why; but it is very possible that the reason for the stronger divine response was due to Hezekiah's greater commitment in the prayer. Hesekiah's appeal reminds me of the prayer of Epaphras when he prayed for his friends in Colossae.
Epaphras, who is one of you, a servant of Christ Jesus, greets you. He is always wrestling in his prayers on your behalf, so that you may stand mature and fully assured in everything that God wills. (Colossians 4:12)
When you need prayers, be sure to ask your friends and maybe even your minister to pray for you; but be sure to bend your own knees in prayer too. Your prayer may be the one that has the biggest impact on God.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

How is prophecy fulfilled?

Most Bible readers unknowingly impose upon the Bible their own notions of what they see as appropriate characteristics of the Bible. That is, if the Bible is God's revelation of himself to mankind (which it definitely is), then it ought to be infallible. Some Christians use the word "inerrant" to describe the Bible, and then they discuss among themselves what "inerrant" even means.

One area where people have their own expectations of the Bible is in the area of prophecy. We see a word of prophecy kind of like the mythological prophetic oracle received by Oedipus in Sophocles's tragedy Oedipus the King. In the mythological story, Oedipus was told by the oracle that he would kill his father and marry his mother. Oedipus tried very hard to prevent the fulfillment of the oracle and his efforts actually worked to bring about its prophetic fulfillment.

The Bible does not expect prophecies to be fulfilled in that way. If a prophecy is given that involves the actions of people, the actual fulfillment may or may not come about. That is the nature of biblical prophecy. Many Bible readers, when they realize that biblical prophecy does not always find fulfillment, are thrown off their balance and come to doubt the divine influence upon the Bible. We should permit Scripture to speak for itself. We should get to know the Bible by spending time with it and learning its personality. Our faith in God should not be threatened when we discover a surprising aspect of the character of biblical prophecy. Instead, we should register our surprise and apply the new discovery to our understanding of God.

Most prophecies are conditional. They depend to a large extent on the assumption that current conditions (as they are when the prophecy is given) continue. If reality changes at some point between the giving of the prophecy and the point of expected fulfillment, the fulfillment of the prophecy may not take place.

Today, I am making a very strong and cautious claim: Literal fulfillment of biblical prophecy is conditioned upon the continuation of the current state of reality at the time of the prophetic pronouncement.

Now, why would I, a believer who wants to facilitate stronger faith in fellow believers, write such an article? The reason is a little bit strategic. The information is available already on the Discovery Channel, PBS or in college classrooms. The information is often presented by Bible scholars who are atheists and don't really care how believers will process the information. Well, I care. Furthermore, if you read the Bible, you will eventually make these discoveries yourself. Most biblical apologists will try to show that your assumptions about the Bible were right all along; but sometimes, the case really cannot be made and you, the Bible reader, are left with a lingering unanswered question. How the God of the Bible acts in prophecy tells us something about how God works in the world. God reveals himself and his experiences to us through Scripture. That is pretty cool if we pay attention.

I give one exception to the above claim of conditional prophecy fulfillment. There is going to be an "End" (e.g., 2 Peter 3) and a judgment (e.g., Matthew 11:22; Luke 11:32; Matthew 7:21-23).

We are interested here with prophecies that anticipate something about the future. I am going to divide those prophecies into two groups. One kind of forward-looking prophecy is described as something God is going to do. God reserves the right to alter his plans as reality changes with respect to the original purpose of God's original plan of action. That divine right is abundantly clear in Jeremiah 18, Exodus 32, the book of Jonah and in other passages.

The second kind of forward-looking prophecy deals with people's actions as anticipated by God. God expects people to behave in a certain way and he reveals that particular expectation to a prophet. Most of the time, the human actors to which the prophetic word pertains do indeed behave as expected. But not always. Sometimes, a word of prophecy is proclaimed that a particular person will behave in a certain way and then the person behaves in a different way resulting in an unfulfilled prophecy. There are many examples; but I will present here what I see to be the most clear examples.

In 1 Samuel 23, David is a fugitive. He is doing his best to keep a comfortable distance between himself and King Saul. At one point, David asks the priest to inquire of the LORD what Saul's actions will be.
10 David said, “O LORD, the God of Israel, your servant has heard that Saul seeks to come to Keilah, to destroy the city on my account. 11 And now, will Saul come down as your servant has heard? O LORD, the God of Israel, I beseech you, tell your servant.” The LORD said, “He will come down.” 12 Then David said, “Will the men of Keilah surrender me and my men into the hand of Saul?” The LORD said, “They will surrender you.” 13 Then David and his men, who were about six hundred, set out and left Keilah; they wandered wherever they could go. When Saul was told that David had escaped from Keilah, he gave up the expedition. 14 David remained in the strongholds in the wilderness, in the hill country of the Wilderness of Ziph. Saul sought him every day, but the LORD did not give him into his hand. (1 Samuel 23:10-14)
This example is pretty straightforward. The prophecy about King Saul's actions depended upon the current given state of reality. As soon as David and his men changed their plans, the fulfillment of the prophecy was no longer expected. The word of the inspired priest was not foreknowledge in the sense of God standing outside of time and observing the future and then giving a report to the priest. It was, rather, the case of God's foreknowing the future based upon the current state of reality. It was a view of the future that takes into account all available contemporary (temporal) evidence.

Here is another fascinating example from 2 Kings 13.
14 Now when Elisha had fallen sick with the illness of which he was to die, King Joash of Israel went down to him, and wept before him, crying, “My father, my father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” 15 Elisha said to him, “Take a bow and arrows”; so he took a bow and arrows. 16 Then he said to the king of Israel, “Draw the bow”; and he drew it. Elisha laid his hands on the king’s hands. 17 Then he said, “Open the window eastward”; and he opened it. Elisha said, “Shoot”; and he shot. Then he said, “The LORD’s arrow of victory, the arrow of victory over Aram! For you shall fight the Arameans in Aphek until you have made an end of them.” 18 He continued, “Take the arrows”; and he took them. He said to the king of Israel, “Strike the ground with them”; he struck three times, and stopped. 19 Then the man of God was angry with him, and said, “You should have struck five or six times; then you would have struck down Aram until you had made an end of it, but now you will strike down Aram only three times.” (2 Kings 13:14-19)
I always imagine the sound of a cat's shriek when Joash shoots the arrow out the window. Anyway, in this interesting example, a word of prophecy is changed on the fly. The prophet gives a word of prophecy and within a minute he cancels the prophecy and gives a different prophecy! The prophet, in his divinely inspired wisdom, gave the first prophecy, that King Joash would put Aram to a complete end. We can see in this short account that the fulfillment of the prophecy depended at least in part upon the will of King Joash. The prophet believed Joash was sufficiently motivated to bring the prophecy to its completion. On the other hand, when Joash struck the ground with the arrows, the prophet saw that the king's determination was lacking. The prophecy depended upon the will of King Joash which was not as strong as the inspired prophet had originally thought. The details of the prophecy had to be adjusted.

Sometimes, the actors involved with the fulfillment of a prophecy are very determined to bring it to fulfillment and yet the prophecy somehow still fails.

Ezekiel 26 features a prophecy against the island city of Tyre. In the prophecy, King Nebuchadrezzar (NRSV) will be the instrument by which God destroys Tyre. Nebuchadrezzar and his army tried really hard to capture Tyre but he failed. God saw the hard work of Nebuchadrezzar's men and he believed they deserved some loot; so God authorized the Babylonian king to invade Egypt and get its loot there.
18 Mortal, King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon made his army labor hard against Tyre; every head was made bald and every shoulder was rubbed bare; yet neither he nor his army got anything from Tyre to pay for the labor that he had expended against it. 19 Therefore thus says the Lord GOD: I will give the land of Egypt to King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon; and he shall carry off its wealth and despoil it and plunder it; and it shall be the wages for his army. 20 I have given him the land of Egypt as his payment for which he labored, because they worked for me, says the Lord GOD. (Ezekiel 29:18-20)
The text does not explain why the king was unable to bring the prophecy against Tyre to fulfillment. It does report the determination of the king and his men. They were motivated. We might speculate that the city of Tyre anticipated the coming battle and better prepared for it than they had been at the time of the original prophecy. Something changed that resulted in the prophecy's failure.

Realizing that fulfillment of prophecies involving the actions of free agents depend upon those agents' choices gives us a more honest way to read scripture. We may read about a prophecy concerning King Zedekiah.
4 Yet hear the word of the LORD, O King Zedekiah of Judah! Thus says the LORD concerning you: You shall not die by the sword; 5 you shall die in peace. And as spices were burned for your ancestors, the earlier kings who preceded you, so they shall burn spices for you and lament for you, saying, “Alas, lord!” For I have spoken the word, says the LORD. (Jeremiah 34:4-5)
Then we read that Zedekiah had his eyes plucked out and he died in prison (Jeremiah 52:8-11). The compilers of the book of Jeremiah were not bothered that this prophecy did not find fulfillment. Neither should we. The fulfillment of the prophecy depended upon the attitudes of free agents at the time of the prophecy. People's attitudes change and they sometimes make unexpected choices.

The book of Jeremiah also records a prophecy about Jehoiakim.
Therefore thus says the Lord concerning King Jehoiakim of Judah: He shall have no one to sit upon the throne of David, and his dead body shall be cast out to the heat by day and the frost by night. (Jeremiah 36:30)
But King Jehoiakim received a proper burial and his son succeeded him (2 Kings 24:6).

A proper reading of prophecy helps us to appreciate passages like Haggai 2:21-23 which anticipates Zerubbabel's rise to full kingship and yet we never see that prophecy fulfilled. Zerubbabel seems to disappear from history shortly after Haggai's prophecy about him. Why? Nobody knows. It is very possible that the king of Persia detected Zerubbabel's ambitions or he heard about Haggai's prophecy. The Persians then responded maybe by removing Zerubbabel from his office of governor of Judah.

Biblical prophecy functions very differently than the oracle at Delphi in Oedipus. There were real prophecies that came from Delphi; but on the mythological level, they were expected to be bullet-proof. The fulfillment of biblical prophecy involving the free actions of humans depends upon how those choices will eventually be made. Such prophecies do not need to find fulfillment.

Footnote: There are prophecies in the book of Daniel that detail very specific future actions of several people. I will address those prophecies in a separate article.