Reading OT Prophecy

An important element is that we should not think of prophecy as being simply ‘history written in advance’. A history book can tell me what took place in the (say) 14th Century, but prophecy is not the unfolding of what is about to take place in the 21st Century in the sense of a set of events. Scripture was not written to us, although it is written for us. That distinction is significant; we are not Jews whose prophets are giving us a hope for the end of the Babylonic exile, and prophets writing about that hope are not writing to us, though the words remain with power for us.

Prophecy is in the realm primarily of promise in order to give hope, and promise goes far beyond prediction. In giving hope (or warning) prophecy will often pull on imagery that resonates with the hearers. That imagery might be pulled from the historical and geographical context of the hearers or from the sacred literature that belongs to the people’s journey (in other words, it might draw from other parts of what we term the Old Testament).

The threat of attack from Gog and Magog (Ezek. 38, 39) should not be read as some prophecy that relates to a threat from Russia in the near future, with an approach that tries to align city names in Ezekiel to modern city names in Russia! Hebrew names are not Russian names in disguise. We read that Gog, the ruler of Magog, has an alliance with a host of other nations in Ezekiel but will be utterly defeated. It should not surprise us that Ezekiel uses descriptions for Gog that he has already used for the king of Tyre and for Pharaoh. The prophecy uses Gog, with the various alliances, symbolically of the nations who set themselves against God – the nations in rebellion that will be judged. And the language? Language borrowed from Genesis 10 where we read of the list of nations descended from Noah. All will be judged, but we should not try to align names in a way that we think might fit our world. The prophet speaks into his world with the assurance that, be it Tyre, Babylon, Egypt or ‘Magog’, God will not remain inactive.  

Prophecy releases hope (promise not prediction) using language that is expressed in the context of that time. We read in Isaiah 19:18-25,

On that day there will be five cities in the land of Egypt that speak the language of Canaan and swear allegiance to the Lord of hosts. One of these will be called the City of the Sun.
On that day there will be an altar to the Lord in the midst of the land of Egypt and a pillar to the Lord at its border. It will be a sign and a witness to the Lord of hosts in the land of Egypt; when they cry to the Lord because of oppressors, he will send them a saviour and will defend and deliver them. The Lord will make himself known to the Egyptians, and the Egyptians will know the Lord on that day and will serve with sacrifice and offerings, and they will make vows to the Lord and perform them. The Lord will strike Egypt, striking but healing, so that they will return to the Lord, and he will listen to their supplications and heal them.
On that day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria, and the Assyrian will come into Egypt and the Egyptian into Assyria, and the Egyptians will serve with the Assyrians.
On that day Israel will be the third party with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth, whom the Lord of hosts has blessed, saying, “Blessed be Egypt my people and Assyria the work of my hands and Israel my heritage.”

What a hope! But is it a literal prediction that we wait to be fulfilled? We read of the two powerful nations that sandwiched Israel in the ‘fertile crescent’, one to the north (Assyria) and one to the South West (Egypt) taking not only the worship of Israel’s God but being given titles that were given to Israel by God was a hope that would have expanded all vision. Hope and promise, to be fulfilled in a literal way? Or to be fulfilled when  all nations acknowledge the God of Israel? I suggest the latter. Promise is beyond prediction and the ‘prediction’ is expressed in the temporal situation of the era.

The hope would have been an all-but beyond belief for the hearers, but the hope that lies beyond those words are of the kingdoms of this world becoming the kingdom of our Lord and Christ!

I am sure we can use the Scripture to pray for Egypt and (the modern equivalent of) Assyria; by all means we can prophesy a great visitation in those lands… but to hold it as ‘therefore this will take place’ is to miss the element of promise.

Promise goes far beyond a literal fulfilment (hence again the point that all the promises of God are in Jesus). In Galatians we see how the coming of Jesus changes everything – so radically that to re-establish what once defined transgression would be to become a transgressor! We cannot seek to draw a straight line from ‘predictions’ to point to a fulfilment without understanding that the cross of Jesus points us toward a greater fulfilment: the restoration of all things.

Prophecy is not always fulfilled. There are situations where a prophecy is reversed through repentance (Jonah in Nineveh for example), but there are other prophecies that simply do not come to pass, with no factor expressed for the non-fulfilment. This principle is a significant element that has to be grasped. If within Scripture (and as will be quoted below even at times within the same book) there is prophecy that reads as a prediction but then we read that the prediction did not take place this must make us cautious about insisting on simple literal fulfilments.

Here are some examples (from the work of John Goldingay).

Jeremiah prophesies that Jehoiakim would die without honour, his body dragged, buried outside Jerusalem and that no descendent would sit on the throne:

Therefore thus says the Lord concerning King Jehoiakim son of Josiah of Judah:
They shall not lament for him, saying,
    “Alas, my brother!” or “Alas, sister!”
They shall not lament for him, saying,
    “Alas, lord!” or “Alas, his majesty!”
With the burial of a donkey he shall be buried:
    dragged off and thrown out beyond the gates of Jerusalem (Jer. 22:18-19).
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 (Jer. 36:30).

However! However if we read the report in 2 Kings we see that the above was not fulfilled.

So Jehoiakim slept with his ancestors; then his son Jehoiachin succeeded him (2 Kings 24:6).

Jehoiakim received a proper burial and his son succeeded him. The prediction is clearly not fulfilled.

Likewise Jeremiah prophesied to Zedekiah that he would not die by the sword but peacefully with people mourning for him.

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; 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. (Jer. 34:4-5).

But if we continue to read we will discover that Zedekiah is captured, has his eyes pulled out and then dies in prison (Jer. 39.7; 52:11). Again the prophecy is not fulfilled.

In Ezekiel chapters 26-28 we have an extended prophecy that Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon will defeat Tyre, kill its inhabitants, plunder the wealth and bring the walls down flat. Indeed the text suggests that Tyre will disappear and never be found again. The prediction is fairly conclusive and clear. In due course Nebuchadrezzar did come against the Tyre, but the effect was nothing like was prophesied (a few hundred years later one might be able to suggest that Alexander the Great came close to fulfilling that). The prophecy is not fulfilled through that Babylonian attack and what makes it even more interesting is that it seems that there is a further word to Nebuchadrezzar along the lines of – well that did not work out but you will attack Egypt… and that one did not work out either!

In the twenty-seventh year, in the first month, on the first day of the month, the word of the Lord came to me: Mortal, King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon made his army labour 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 labour that he had expended against it. 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. I have given him the land of Egypt as his payment for which he laboured, because they worked for me, says the Lord God (Ezek. 29:17-20).

The Babylonians did not get ‘anything from Tyre’, so (we almost read) because that one did not come to fulfilment Egypt will be the nation you can plunder!

We might come up with reasons why there were non-fulfilments (and there might be some legitimate explanations) but the occurrences indicate that we should be careful about insisting on absolute literal fufilments. And once we understand that Jesus is the centre, not the periphery of prophecy, we will be less insistent on literal fulfilments. Even when there is a fulfilment (‘the young woman will be with child’ indicating that this would take place as a sign in Isaiah’s day) the ‘larger’ fulfilment is through a young submissive woman in the opening pages of the Gospels.

An example of a Scripture that is often pushed into the category of ‘this will literally be fulfilled in the last days’ is Zechariah 14:4,

On that day his feet shall stand on the Mount of Olives, which lies before Jerusalem on the east, and the Mount of Olives shall be split in two from east to west by a very wide valley, so that one half of the mount shall withdraw northward and the other half southward.

It is more likely that Jesus saw himself as fulfilling that Scripture as he camped on the Mount of Olives during that Passover week. The Mount of Olives was the place where many pilgrims camped as Jerusalem itself could not contain the number of visitors that travelled for the feast. Those Jews who came experienced a great divide, those who saw him as the Messiah and those who rejected him; those who saw him as the fulfilment of Passover and those who continued to only celebrate the past.

I suggest we should be very cautious about interpreting such prophecies and seeking to apply them to the ‘end times’. The main reason for this is that any straight line idea was seriously disrupted by the Easter event(s). We will always be better to say ‘this is that’ than trying to make some current or imminent world events fit. All prophecy receives it ‘yes’, its fulfilment in Jesus. The ‘this’ that is ‘that’ is a Christ event and the Christ event takes hope beyond any literal interpretation expressed within any predictions that we read. There is hope for Egypt and for Assyria, they can be given names reserved for Israel for the fullness of all predictions is a hope for restoration of the world that God has made. 

New Testament hope is for the world and its restoration; it does not focus on the fulfilment of Old Testament predictions; Old Testament imagery and allusions might be referred to but none of that allow us to use prophecy as a crystal ball informing us of future events.

One thought on “Reading OT Prophecy

  1. I think our problem with prophecy comes from our human need to feel safe and secure. Prophecy as history written in advance allows us to relax. We know what is going to happen, hence the emphasis on dates as well. Even with a prophecy that paints a negative future, we are in control, at least at the level of being prepared emotionally or mentally, if not physically. And of course, the church through the ages, has used prophecy this way as a recruiting tool.

    Prophecy as something more nebulous fails then to fulfill our need for security, and for certainty. Less certainty means more agency for us but also then, more responsibility. Prophecy as history written in advance is like a weather forecast for a bad storm. It is a negative experience but you can board up the windows and sandbag entrances in response to gain a sense of control. Then the winds can rage, the rain the come but we have done what we can and who knows, it might work.

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