Chapter 1: What do we see?
Where one is positioned so determines one’s viewpoint. This is true at the simple level of personal experience: everything is going well and I am optimistic, and if I have the ability to ignore the facts my optimism can remain high. If my life is falling apart I will tend to have a negative outlook and will probably wrestle with issues of resentment when I meet those where they only carry good news.
Our reflections are based on where we are situated and at the biblical level we encounter the same. The texts before us are not all reflective of a vision from the same unified position. We have within Scripture perspectives that are from these (and other) perspectives:
- creation: pre-Fall (though this is reflected on post-Fall and perhaps also mainly post-Exilic)
- pre-Israel as nation, but as the family of Abraham
- Israel waiting deliverance in Egypt
- Israel in the land
- Monarchial Israel
- Israel post-schism of the northern and southern kingdoms
- Israel in Exile
- Israel post-return
- John as watershed and Jesus in his historic context
- Paul et al. in their post-Easter / Pentecost but pre-AD70 context
- Revelation probably in a post AD70 context
We need to be sensitive to context, but it is probably the bigger issue that the likes of you and me who claim to be of the same spiritual family as those who have kept hope alive, first in the Jewish and then in the Christian context, do not stand where they stood. We live post New testament, and that has a particular implication for us when we read the New Testament. The majority of the Scriptures as we have them are pre-AD70 and we are most certainly post-AD70. (AD70 being the final fall of Jerusalem and destruction of the Temple after the four years of battle against the Romans, and with the final 2 years as highly traumatic in Jerusalem and in the wider Roman Empire with the four rival claimants to the position of Emperor and the ensuing civil wars.)
So we have to remember that we are reading much of the Scriptures from the ‘wrong’ side of AD70. It would be like reading an article from the 1800s which suggests ‘in the future there will be carriages without horses that will power themselves’. If we read that as a still-future prediction what would we be waiting for? If however we read it as some kind of prediction of the motor car we would not be teaching from the article as a document outlining future transport for us. Our viewpoint is different from that of the New Testament era believers, and are we advantaged in that we can look back? Or are we disadvantaged as we read the text imagining that it is being written for us in ‘these end times(??)’.
It is easy for us to say that Acts 2 is the fulfilment of Joel 2 (‘I will pour out My Spirit…’) because we have a biblical record that says ‘this is that’. We don’t have a ‘this is that’ in the Bible for, for example, Jesus and his teachings in Matthew 24, with his predictions of signs leading up to the coming of the Son of Man. We can make an assumption those things are future. Certainly they were future for Jesus and for the majority of the biblical texts, but we also have to face that they might now be past events from where we are positioned.
Whenever we draw up our understanding of eschatology, we must at least keep in mind this huge difference that a post-AD70 perspective gives and be open to possibilities that perhaps we had not thought of previously.
Interpret prophecy correctly
If we have an issue of viewpoint we also have a two-fold issue of the nature of the fulfilment of prophecy. There are prophecies that have not been fulfilled literally – are they future words yet to be fulfilled. One such Scripture that sparks hope within the Middle Eastern context is found in Isaiah 19: 24,25
At that time Egypt, Assyria and Israel will be a blessing to the whole earth. The Lord who rules over all will bless those three nations. He will say, “Let the Egyptians be blessed. They are my people. Let the Assyrians be blessed. My hands created them. And let the Israelites be blessed. They are my very own people.”
Do we wait for a literal fulfilment of that prophecy? If so we will be very challenged to find who the Assyrians that are referred to in that context are today. Is there hope for ‘Egypt’ and for ‘Assyria’ as a result of that text? Most certainly, but perhaps the hope is not simply that of a straight line fulfilment. There was hope for the prominent non-Israel (chosen) people in the time of Isaiah’s prophecy, just as there is hope for all those not in Christ (the Chosen One) today.
Taking the Scripture as fuel for hope and prayer is a good thing, but to insist on a literal fulfilment is almost certainly taking it much too far.
Indeed there are some real internal challenges when we read Scripture concerning non-fulfilments. In Old Testament Theology John Goldingay pulls out a number of unfulfilments. (Sourced at: http://reknew.org/2015/02/what-unfulfilled-prophesies-say-about-the-open-view)
- Jeremiah prophesied that Jehoiakim would die a dishonorable death. It is said that no one would mourn for him and that his corpse would be dragged around and thrown outside the gates of Jerusalem, left unburied to decompose in the sun (Jer. 22:18-19, cf. 36:30). Not only this, but it was prophesied that no descendent of his would sit on the throne (Jer. 36:30-31). As it turned out, however, Jehoiakim received a proper burial and his son succeeded him as king (2 Kg. 24:6). What are we to make of this?
Something similar is true of Jeremiah’s prophecy to Zedekiah. Jeremiah declares to Zedekiah that the Lord says “You will not die by the sword” but will rather “die peacefully.” The Lord adds that people will mourn his death (Jer. 34:4-5). As it turned out, however, Zedekiah was captured by the Babylonians, had his eyes plucked out and died in prison (Jer. 52:8-11). What’s most interesting is that both the prophecy and the record of events revealing that it wasn’t fulfilled are included in the same book, demonstrating that Jeremiah and/or the compilers of this work weren’t at all bothered by the fact that the prophecy didn’t come to pass.
- In Ezekiel 26-28 we find a lengthy prophecy against the city of Tyre. It is said that Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, would utterly defeat Tyre, killing its inhabitants, plundering all its wealth and leveling all its walls so that it ends up being flat as a rock. Indeed, it is prophesied that it would virtually vanish from the earth and never be found again. Goldingay notes that it didn’t quite happen that way:
Nebuchadnezzar did lay siege to Tyre, but, while he did gain some control of the city, it was “nowhere near as decisive as Ezekiel had implied” (Old Testament Theology, Vol. II, 83). The city wasn’t completely conquered and laid flat until Alexander did this several hundred years later.
Because his campaign failed, Nebuchadnezzar failed to get much of Tyre’s wealth. So, says Goldingay, Yahweh made “ a new decision.” He decided to turn Egypt over to him in order to repay him for his expenses in his “vain effort” to take Tyre (Ezek. 29:17-20; Goldingay, ibid., 84). The amazing thing is that this campaign also seems to have failed! Nebuchadnezzar invaded Egypt, but “the achievement did not amount to conquest” (op.cit.),
- As with Jeremiah, Goldingay is impressed with the fact that Ezekiel and/or the compilers of this work seem totally untroubled by these “unfulfilled” prophecies. He surmises that this is due to the fact that, despite Ezekiel’s strong emphasis on divine sovereignty, he accepts that “human beings exercise real freedom in the world and do not have to cooperate with God’s will.” The prophecies announce God’s plan, but as Goldingay repeatedly emphasizes, a plan is not an unalterable script. When humans resist his will, Yahweh “reworks the plan” rather than coercively bulldoze over them (op. cit.) When the Old Testament speaks of a divine plan therefore, “this is not a design for the detail of history… but an intention for the present context.” So, Goldingay concludes, “The assumption that everything that happens in the world emerges from God’s plan stands in contrast with the more concrete way in which the Scriptures speak of God’s plan. God’s plan refers to the way God works out specific details of an overall vision as decades unfold, in interaction with human actions.”
So we need to exercise great caution, particularly when approaching Old Testament prophetic utterances.
- They were spoken into that era and context
- They might not have been fulfilled as suggested, and they might not be fulfilled
- They must all pass through the filter of the New Testament and cannot stand apart from that as Jesus is the fulfilment of all prophetic promise.
- The final word there, ‘promise’, is very key. Prophetic words release promise and the fulfilment of the promise is greater than some thought-out literal fulfilment.
So in concluding this chapter, we are deeply challenged by where we are positioned. We are post-AD70. We are challenged by the internal-to-Scripture issues we face regarding fulfilments. So 1 Kings 9:5 is another example where we have to rethink Scripture and the implications of promise:
Then I will establish the throne of your dynasty over Israel forever. For I made this promise to your father, David: ‘One of your descendants will always sit on the throne of Israel.’
However, King Zedekiah and his sons were killed or died in the Babylonian conquest of Israel, so we can only claim some kind of wooden literal fulfilment through some considerable twisting of what took place. Better we let Scripture dictate what will be considered fulfilments rather than imposing on it something alien to the actual internal understanding.
For this reason we concentrate on the texts from the New Testament that relate to eschatology, rather than try and interpret into today’s world Old Testament prophetic ‘predictions’. This is not to say the OT is irrelevant, but it is to say that the writers were writing into their context, about their world. Fulfilments are expected in their future (not ours), and all predictions do not seem to be nullified by what we might think of as a ‘non-fulfilment’, and crucially all prophetic writings are subject to re-interpretation and fresh expectation when passed through the lens of the New Testament.