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.

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