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11. The exiles who returned

11-1 Ezekiel’s Temple: Based Upon Solomon’s Temple || 11-2 The Nature Of Prophecy || 11-2-1 Conditional Prophecy || 11-2-2 Human Response || 11-2-3 Tyre in Ezekiel 26 || 11-2-4 Delayed Prophecies || 11-2-5 Prophecies With Changed Fulfillment || 11-2-6 The Nature Of Prophecy || 11-3 Command More Than Prediction || 11-4 The Contemporary Relevance Of Ezekiel's Temple || 11-5 The Restoration: Potential Kingdom Of God || 11-6 The Potential And The Reality || 11-6-1 The Weakness Of Judah Under Nehemiah || 11-6-2 Isaiah's Prophecies Of Restoration || 11-6-3 Jeremiah's Restoration Prophecies || 11-6-4 Ezekiel's Restoration Prophecies || 11-6-5 The Cherubim And The Restoration || 11-6-6 Zechariah's Restoration Prophecies || 11-6-7 The Restoration Psalms || 11.7 “The prince" in Ezekiel || 11-7-1 " The prince" : Potential Messiah || 11-7-2 Zerubabbel- Potential Messiah? || 11.8 The Potential For The Surrounding World || 11-8-1 Haggai 2 || 11-8-2 Meshech And Tubal || 11-8-3 Joel Chapter 3 || 11-9 Different Sequences Of Prophetic Fulfillment || 11-10 Zechariah And Malachi: More Chances || 11-11 The Returned Exiles

11-2-6 The Nature Of Prophecy

Thus we have seen that God’s conditional prophecies are in three groups: 

Prophecies that will not come true because they depended upon human response which was not forthcoming

Prophecies that are delayed / rescheduled in their fulfilment

Prophecies whose intended fulfilment was changed into something else. 

In which of these groups we place Ezekiel’s prophecy of the temple I leave to the reader to decide. Harry Whittaker and George Booker suggest the whole prophecy has been given a spiritual fulfilment in Jesus. Others see it as simply being delayed in fulfilment until the second coming. And yet it is equally possible that  the whole prophecy is command rather than prediction; it was what potentially could have been possible.  

If there is genuine freewill, it is apparent enough that God’s purposes must be to some extent conditional. If the Lord had failed in the wilderness temptations, “there was the possibility that the purpose of God would have been circumvented” , as Frank Birch expressed it. All this explains why the fulfilment of prophecy can only be perceived at the time of fulfilment- it is impossible to know in advance how it will be fulfilled. It isn’t a time-line of  future events which we are to discern. 

Taking this idea yet further, it is also true that some prophecies are fulfilled according to the acceptance of men, and therefore have their fulfilments in different ways at different times. Thus for those who received it, Malachi’s ‘Elijah’ prophecies were fulfilled in John the Baptist, for those who accepted him (Mt. 11:14). The implication is that for those who didn’t, those prophecies weren’t fulfilled. When the Lord stood up and read from Isaiah, He commented that “this day is this Scripture fulfilled in your ears” (Lk. 4:21). He didn’t mean that His reading those words in a synagogue had fulfilled them. He speaks of “your ears” as standing for ‘your correct perception / understanding’ in Mt. 13:16. What He was surely saying was that for those of them who perceived who He was, Isaiah’s words were ringing true. For those who rejected Him, of course, they weren’t fulfilled, and therefore their complete, universal acceptance  / fulfilment would be delayed until a future day; just as it was with the ‘Elijah’ prophecy.  

Moreover, a study of how OT prophecies were seen as ‘fulfilled’ in the NT reveals that not every detail of the original prophecy had to have a specific fulfilment for it to be understood as ‘fulfilled’, nor is the context of the prophecy necessarily relevant to its fulfilment. The way Matthew especially sees fulfilments of prophecy in ‘out of context’ ways is proof enough of this. And James’ use of Amos in Acts 15 is another example. The ideas and images of the OT prophets are interpreted in a certain light in the NT which is judged to be their ‘fulfilment’. Thus Ezekiel prophesies a latter day invasion of Israel by a power using horses and swords. This need not have a literal fulfilment to the letter; but the essence will come true. And the later chapters in Ezekiel must be seen likewise. The above examples show beyond doubt that prophecy is conditional. Whilst it cannot be denied that some prophecies have turned out to have a ‘continuous historic’ fulfilment, it must also be understood that we cannot think that all prophecy is going to have a sequential fulfilment, having predicted a series of prearranged events which are bound to occur at certain dates. This just cannot be so, because its fulfilment depends upon the response of men- the clay in the hand of the potter. This is why there could be more than one possible outcome to ‘prophecy’. Dean Brown has pointed out two such examples: 

“Was there a fixed date for the departure of Israel from Egypt? (read Gen. 15:13; Ex. 12:40-41; Acts 7:17, 25, 30). Was the son of Jacob from which Messiah was to come fixed? (we all know that Jesus is of Judah, but consider Joseph the type of Christ; Joshua the son of Nun of the tribe of Ephraim the son of Joseph, who was a type of Christ in many ways including being the prototypical " prophet like me from among your brethren; the prophecy concerning Judah in Gen. 49:8-12 with that concerning Joseph in Gen. 49:22-26 and also the incident of the blessing of Ephraim in Gen. 48:8-22; especially consider Ps. 78:67-68 and context)”.

It should also be born in mind that “the teaching of Jesus [is] that the purpose of prophecy is that we shall be able to recognize the signs when they appear, not that we shall be able to predict the future”, as Cyril Tennant put it:

· “I have told you before it come to pass, that, when it is come to pass, ye might believe” (Jn. 14:29).

· The disciples did not expect Jesus to enter into Jerusalem “sitting on an ass’s colt” in fulfilment of Zech. 9:9. But when He did, then soon afterwards, all became clear to them- that He had fulfilled this prophecy (Jn. 12:16).

· Likewise with prophecies such as “the zeal of thine house hath eaten me up” in Ps. 69:9, and even the Lord’s own prophecies of His resurrection. When it happened, “his disciples remembered that he had said this unto them; and they believed the scripture (Ps. 69:9), and the word which Jesus had said” (Jn. 2:17-22). 

Indeed, it seems to me that we have quite over-emphasized the ‘predictive’ aspect of prophecy. We need to read Is. 43:9,12 with perhaps more care: “Let the people be assembled: who among them can declare this, and shew us former things?...I have declared, and have saved…”. The wonder of Israel’s God was not so much that He declared future things in a way that could be understood before they happened, but rather that He ‘declared’ the meaning of past events. There is a certain enigma to Israel’s history, both as history, and also sociologically, psychologically, indeed in every way. It is that enigma which is declared in God’s word, enabling Israel to make sense of what happens to them by their reflection, after the event, upon God’s word. Likewise it seems that only once the events have happened can we look back with true understanding into God’s word and understand. This was in fact the case with a number of the predictions of the Lord Jesus (Jn. 2:19; 3:14; 11:50; 21:18). They would have remained enigmas, until after the event. And then, all would have been so clear.

Broken Promises?

God stated in passages like 2 Kings 8:19 that He would not destroy Judah at the hands of her enemies for the sake of His eternal promise to David; but later, He did bring the destructions which He said He could not bring for the sake of the promises to David. Surely the conclusion is that He reinterpreted and reapplied that promise, in such a way as not to break it, and to uphold His own integrity on all counts; remaining both the faithful covenant God, and the God who judges sin. In this sense, God's word can 'change' or be "revoked". Thus God says that in the case of Damascus, He will not "revoke my word" (Amos 1:3 RVmg.)- implying that He can and will "revoke" His word at times.

It is also possible for God to 'change His mind'- there are around 40 examples in Scripture of this (the destruction of Nineveh, e.g.). When David wanted to build a temple, Nathan the prophet initially said "Yes, go ahead; for the Lord is with you"; and then came back to David and said "No, God says you're not to do it. God will build you a house" (2 Sam. 7:1-4). The usual assumption is that Nathan spoke too quickly, assuming that it was God's will that David should build the house; and then had to backtrack. And that may be so. But surely there is the possibility that Nathan spoke both times from God; but God changed His mind. The fact God can change His mind inevitably impacts the nature of the prophetic word spoken in His Name.