11-2-6 The Nature Of Prophecy
Thus we have seen that God’s conditional prophecies are in three
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
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
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.