20 July 2002, from handwritten, insomniac notes of a few weeks before.
Once, out with friends, we got into a discussion about prophecy. Among the group discussing it were myself (an Orthodox Christian), a Muslim, and several others of indistinct religious upbringing, but leaning toward secularism and not believing in the possibility of prediction. They asked me what I thought about prophecy, and essentially my answer was, “Things happen in cycles, and the Divine gave to the prophets the ability to recognize the patterns and record them. It’s not so much seeing the future as describing the inevitable outcome of the present.” That’s how I see it. Later, I was curious and in reading various publications related to the interpretation of biblical prophecy, I have come to see that I have a distinctly different manner of understanding biblical prophecy than do others. This paper is an attempt to collect some notes on my thoughts concerning the nature of biblical prophecy, its interpretation, and some methods that would help in the study of its fulfillment in the past, present and future.
The following are standard, but too limited and unhelpful categorizations:
1.) Preterist — all fulfilled in the past, in the original contexts.
2.) Historicist — highly subjective, to be generous. Fulfilled throughout history to the present (which is invariably the end time)
3.) Futurist — all to be fulfilled in the future
1.) Obviously not. The world has not been made new. Lions don’t lie down with lambs. Christ has not destroyed the rebellion of the nations. The resurrection and judgment have not taken place (unless I’m mistaken and this is hell — sometimes I wonder…).
2.) Very subjective, as noted. Generally, such interpretations are built up out of selective histories, and much allegorical interpretation. They tend, from what I’ve seen, to present the end as present or very near. Especially popular in the early to mid-nineteenth century (e.g., Elliott’s Horae Apocalypticae, Keith’s Signs of the Times, etc.). This is also a common approach with, or at least a similar foundational approach or worldview to, that f ound among current dispensationalists, in that the various visions of Daniel, John, et al., can all be linked to concrete, historical events, whether past, present or future.
3.) “All to be fulfilled in the future” also doesn’t ring true. Clearly John in Revelation is describing some things which have already occurred (namely the kings/emperors). Daniel also clearly describes events from the 6th to the 2nd centuries BC, clearly a 400+ year sweep of prophecy/history.
The way I see it is that all of these three common approaches actually do apply. Some thoughts:
1.) There are multiple applications of prophecies, sometimes figuratively applied, sometimes literally. The Preterists’ approach is to be admired for providing the original context of a prophecy and the first or most immediate fulfillment, but it should not end there. The Historicists’ approach is also important, in that these writers do come across some series of events which do appear to correspond to the prophecies, but their mapping of events to prophecies is often uncontrolled. The Futurists’ viewpoints are also important, as we certainly do read in the prophecies the promise of a future world devoid of injustice, pain and death, but one should certainly not ignore the original context and the possibilities of further fulfillments.
2.) One might describe this as (from the temporal viewpoint of the original prophet):
Immediate, Intermediate, and Ultimate Fulfillments
The immediate would be the application which would have been most clearly intended at the time of the utterance/writing of the prophecy (e.g., the Assyrian threat of Isaiah’s day; the Seleucid threat in Daniel; the Roman threat in Revelation). The intermediate would cover those peculiar series of events throughout history that really do seem to fit the prophecies quite well, and yet they don’t end up being the signs of the end, just signposts along the way (e.g., the prime example of Jesus’ “little apocalypse” in Mt 24 parr — not quite what occurred in Jerusalem 66-70 AD, but very close; or Daniel’s prophecy of Antiochus IV — all except for his death and what follows, etc.). Also note that Christianity is essentially founded in a luminous fog of these intermediate fulfillments (Christ as the child born of the virgin; the Suffering Servant; etc.). The ultimate I take as in two senses: the last in that it would be both the final iteration of the various events (and clearly those intended as heralds of the end), and the final moments of history, per se.
But what would one call this view of the fulfillment of prophecy? I would call it Iterative.
3.) A very important part of the approach I see is a strong focus on the immediate context as described above, which I would also refer to as the prophetic archetype. The historical events of that first iteration of fulfillment should be the basis of both recognizing and understanding further iterations. For instance, Daniel’s four empires (originally, Babylon, Persia, Alexander, and the Diadochoi) were easily adapted to end with the Roman Empire, and have even been adapted to continue down through the ages, nowadays often to end with the European Union. Yet it is the first iteration which is the most instructive, and provides the archetypal pattern by which such a series of kingdoms is recognized. This is especially the case in the Major and Minor Prophets and Revelation. The original kingdoms and history involved in the Prophets, reused by John in Revelation, retain the import of their original context even in John’s reuse of the images and the names — the long-forgotten Gog/Gyges returns as a threat! Hemer’s Letters to the Seven Churches of Asia is additionally important in this, too, for those who find current value in the hearing of those letters even now. We can understand the meaning for ourselves better if we understand the meaning for the original hearers and readers better.
4.) A diagram:
The immediate fulfillment in its original context is well-defined, as is the ultimate fulfillment, by the descriptions given in the biblical texts themselves. Thus they are shown in the diagram as distinct, solid circles. The various intermediate fulfillments occurring throughout history, however, are dotted circles, to show that their definition is uncertain or only partial, and conjoined to show that these are a part of our continuous history as opposed to The Beginning (the original context of the prophecy) and The End (the ultimate fulfillment of the prophecy).
5.) Figurative versus Literal Fulfillment
From a recent reading of Isaiah came the idea of the multiple applicability of prophecies to various times and situations. Also, the recognition that some prophecies, even in their original context, weren’t literally fulfilled (as in the various “in that day” passages), was noticed and understood in possibly two (or more) ways. First, the prophet’s “in that day” prophecies of the Lord’s Day or a paradisiacal earth obviously were not fulfilled then. Now, the intent at that time may have been figurative, but that seems a stretch (what is figurative about war and peace?). That is, however, one way of seeing the passages. Secondly, the prophecies apply to the immediate situation, but through the miracle of inspiration, are also timeless, covering events which will recur, and eventually end with “in that day”/”day of the Lord” moments. This is the case even if the prophet understood the various passages as figurative when he wrote them. Such is inspiration. So, what am I trying to say here?
There are essentially and logically only three options in dealing with the prophecies and their fulfillment:
1.) Original context only — literary work, no supernatural element, no future applications, perhaps no original fulfillment.
2.) Future only — work of inspiration; original context is barely relevant, as it was obviously not fully fulfilled then. True fulfillment is only future.
3.) Original and further contexts — work of inspiration; past, present and future applications.
I choose number 3. Numbers 1 and 2 are too limited in perspective and are essentially arrogant in their assumptions. Also, they not only avoid the mystery of God, but human history.
6.) This understanding of prophecy truly does justice to the concept of inspiration from a God who is outside of time. His having given concepts to His prophets, or even words, which in their very organization permit of more than one iteration, is what one should have expected. Inspiration is not so much a demonstration of predictive power as it is an expression or even an unavoidable result of connection with the eternal realm. Prophecy deals with, most of all, the behavior of people, much more than their historical actions. It’s this recurrent pattern of behavior that is revealed in the prophecies, and that hearers are warned against, warned to repent of, to turn away or turn back from, even to change their minds concerning. It’s only in the act of repentance, in that change of mind from the standard response initiated by the standard stimuli, that there is release from the recurrence of the pattern. And though that’s a real possibility because of free will, it’s not, sadly, the norm or even very common at all. Thus the Santayana quote can be seen in an even more poignant, spiritual-prophetic light: “Those who do not learn from the past are condemned to repeat it.” Well, until The End, anyway….
7.) Socio-political Commentary and Prediction
Modern protestations that the prophecies present social and political commentary only, and that commentary solely for the original context, are only partially representative of the truth. All the prophets indulged in not only criticism, but certainly also predicted the downfall of the criticized persons or institutions. Prediction certainly is not required for mere “social commentary.” The prediction of the Lord righting all wrongs is certainly beyond the context of ensuring, for example, honest weight and volume measurements in the marketplace. There can be no doubt that these prophets did actually make predictions of the future, both near and distant (would anyone call the Day of the Lord prophecies determined for fulfillment immediately in the ears of the prophets and those hearing them? I think not.). There is always a certain distance presented in passages of the Day of the Lord, as in “these things will happen, and then the Day of the Lord.”
8.) A prophetic worldview is truly countercultural. Although the prophets were a part of the culture, the prophets of the Lord, the true ones, consistently presented a message at odds with their societies. They called for true justice, not its seeming appearance, not religious expiation, not temporary adherence to the Lord’s code of justice. Because there is still no true justice in any government of the world, the messages are still in all their ancient, stalwart, uncompromising stance, as valid as the day they were first uttered. These words should be treasured, not picked apart by bored professors looking for footnote immortality, not selectively (ab)used by religions to promote this or that crank doctrine, or to sell books/tapes/lectures/videos on “the end times.” Each of us, as individuals, needs to repent, to change so that we are not a part of the world’s unjust system’s of oppression, but part of the Lord’s team of bringing justice to all.
9.) An Approach Toward Understanding Prophecy
All of the following items need to be taken into consideration and controlled well in order to gain a proper understanding of prophecy:
1.) Immediate context:
A. Biblical context —
1. textual issues: what is the text of this prophecy?
2. versional issues: what are the versions of the text?
3. canonical issues: which prophecies can be relied upon?
B. Historical context —
1. historical literary primary data: tablets, inscriptions, etc.
2. related modern secondary histories
3. small realia — lamps, pots, etc, as illustration
4. larger realia — structures, cities, roads, landscapes, as illustration
Note: the above investigations are in a positive relationship to modern scholarship’s historical-critical method, archaeology, etc., where these are performed properly, according to accepted methodologies, and without ideological agendas as drivers. There can be no Luddite denunciation of all scholars, wholesale.
2.) Intermediate context:
A. Recorded — mentions of the fulfillment of prophecies or prophetic fulfillment schemes (or the lack thereof) in various periods:
1. Early Christian opinion (through second century)
2. Early Jewish opinion (through second century)
3. Patristic opinion (post-2nd century)
4. Rabbinic opinion (post-2nd century)
5. Medieval Orthodox Christian opinion where available
6. Medieval Roman Catholic opinion where available
7. Medieval Jewish opinion where available
8. Early modern (15th through 16th centuries)
9. Early critical (17th through 19th centuries)
10. Early counter-critical (17th through 19th centuries)
11. 20th century “modernists”
12. 20th century “fundamentalists”
Note: Select various representative interpretations where available. They tend to overlap, as the Judeo-Christian interpretive matrix is a literary one, each work tending to draw upon earlier works.
B. Constructed — recognition and labeling of various events as “fitting” well the prophetic archetype.
1. Where a certain inkling leads to an investigation of a certain historic period or series of events, and a pattern similar to a prophecy’s pattern is recognizable, note its coherence and possibility of application.
2. Construct prophecy frameworks without identification of the elements. In such a manner, pattern recognition may help with finding matches.
3. Solicit suggestions, perhaps, though I can see that turning sour.
4. This will take a whole lot of learning in different branches of history than one person (myself!) is capable of or interested in.
1. For all of these interpretations of the intermediate fulfillments, emphasize the uncertainty, and especially that the uncertainty grows the more specific the reconstructed fulfillments are; and the further from the time of the original we are (though this second proviso is perhaps unnecessary).
2. Mention should be made of how little of the distant past we can actually know with certainty. Realia are mute. Surviving texts are few, mostly never applicable, and if they are applicable, usually come from ideologically opposing viewpoints from those of the prophecies (not from the perspective of justice, but of self-aggrandizement and/or glorification of false gods.)