On the Meaning of Biblical Prophecy
by John C. Trevor
Professor of Religion, Baldwin-Wallace College
Every world crisis since the completion of the Biblical Canon in the first and fourth centuries has provoked certain Christians to search their Bibles for any possible parallels to so-called "Biblical prophecy." With the present military and verbal conflicts in the Middle East, Christians are once again being flooded with claims that the ancient prophets predicted these events. The widely publicized film, "His Land,'' sponsored by the Billy Graham Foundation, is a graphic portrayal of the process. Conservative religions literature abounds in the emphasis. In the face of the added menace of a potential nuclear confrontation between world powers, it is particularly urgent right now that every Christian pay sober attention to the historic meaning of "Biblical prophecy'' lest he become a victim of the propagandist's machinations. A little study now will go a long way in easing the layman's mind in the midst of the conflicting voices and perhaps spare him the agony of disillusionment later.
Our Word "Prophet"
To understand any word, one must penetrate to its root origins, its etymology. For the word "prophet" it is especially important since it communicates an ancient concept and translates a Biblical Hebrew word. The English word is taken directly from an ancient Greek noun which literally meant "to speak for" or "on behalf of." Thus the noun embraced the concept of speaking for someone, or a spokesman. The story of Moses at the burning bush is a good Biblical illustration, when in Exodus 7: 1 God argues with the reluctant Moses, saying, "See, I make you as God to Pharaoh; and Aaron your brother shall be your prophet." Aaron was to be Moses' spokesman, or to speak for Moses.
For centuries the meaning "spokesman," or "proclaimer," was the primary use of the Greek and later the English. In 1615, for instance, Jeremy Taylor wrote a book entitled, "The Liberty of Prophesying." Today its contents would be titled "The Freedom of Preaching." for that was the subject matter. Our word "prophet and the ancient Greek meant, therefore, what "preacher'' means today - one who is a spokesman for God. To see how the word was applied in the Bible to the spokesmen for God, read such Biblical passages as Deuteronomy 18:15-20; Amos 3:7-8, 10-16; Isaiah 6:8-10; Jeremiah 20: 7-9, and Ezekiel 3: 16-21.
In the Hebrew Old Testament the word we translate "prophet" occurs frequently after the passage in Exodus 7:1, where its meaning is clearly identified. Scholars differ, however, regarding the origin of that Hebrew word. Some say it was a word borrowed from another Semitic language, Akkadian, from a word meaning "to call." Others think the word came from a slightly different Hebrew root meaning "to bubble up," "to boil" (from the possible relation to epilepsy, or the ecstatic nature of the earliest prophets). Still another assumption is that there was an early verb meaning "to proclaim," or "speak forth," which was retained only in this noun form. Whatever the actual origin, these three suggestions, when added together, provide an excellent description of the classical Hebrew prophets. They were men who felt a deep sense of the Divine presence linked with a call to serve; they were deeply disturbed (they "bubbled" and "boiled") by the serious inconsistency between the behavior of their nation and its people in the face of the Sinai Covenant, until they bubbled over to proclaim the Word which stirred within them from the Divine presence. They therefore were "forth tellers," not "foretellers" - the preachers of ancient Israel and Judah who took seriously the Divine Covenant morality to which their nation had become committed at Sinai. They were the "Covenant conscience" of the ancient Hebrew-Jewish people.
The story of the development of the prophet-preachers in ancient Israel is long, and its origins are obscure in the pre-writing period of Hebrew history. There is no question, however, that the movement had emerged by the tenth century B.C., at least by the time of David.
It was then that writing became a cultural feature of Israel. We might identify an earlier stratum or level of prophecy, however, among the so-called ''Judges," whose charismatic nature, marked by religious enthusiasm, nationalistic zeal, and aggressive leadership, links them with the later classical prophets. The stories of Deborah (Judges 4-5), Gideon (Judges 6-8) and their peers read like stories of the heroes of any emerging nation. Security of the nation was their predominant concern, and sprang from their religious enthusiasm in which they saw God "fighting" for Israel." It is hard to detect in these stories the fine ethical and moral ideals of the Mosaic Covenant from less than a century earlier, for nationalism took precedence over covenant responsibility. Establishing the security of the nation came first. The clear inconsistency between the militant stories in Joshua and Judges on the one hand and the moral emphasis in some of Exodus and most of Deuteronomy on the other hand ought to make the careful Bible student cautions about any authoritative use of these early nationalistic stories.
The Classical Prophets and Covenant Responsibility
With the stories about Samuel (a transitional figure) and especially the account of Nathan's rebuke of David, after he committed adultery with another man's wife, Bathsheba, a new stratum of prophecy can be identified in Hebrew history, A man of God, Nathan, dares to challenge a king who violated the rights of one of his people. The Mosaic Covenant Law had been prostituted. The condition which God had laid down at Sinai for the fulfillment of His promises of a land to Abraham's descendants was ignored, as David behaved like any other oriental despot. With the violation of the uniqueness of Israel's heritage in the Covenant - an ethical-moral social structure seen for the first time in human history - those loyal to the Covenant became incensed, and some felt called to thunder. "Thus says the LORD!" The era of the classical Hebrew prophets had been born.
Nathan, Ahijah, Elijah, Micaiah and Elisha left no personal writings, but an indelible impact from their Covenant concerns remained on sensitive minds in Israel and Judah for later recording. With Amos a new kind of literature appeared in the form of prophetic oracles, usually in poetic form, the more clearly to impress and preserve the stern words. Beamed to a recalcitrant nation, usually to secular-materialist kings and princes and often religious leaders, their warnings were focused on doom and punishment of the nation for her Covenant-breaking.
A desire to save the nation may have sparked the prophets concern, but it was Covenant responsibility that was clearly motivating his oracles. Amos thundered:
"For three transgressions of Israel, and for four,
I will not revoke the punishment;
because the [Israelites] sell righteous for silver,
and the needy for a pair of shoes." (2:6)
The first message of the first writing prophet of history was proclaimed in terms of economic and social justice, which Amos had seen violated in the cities of Israel and Judah. Isaiah wailed:
Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth;
for the LORD has spoken;
"Sons have I reared and brought up,
but they have rebelled against me.
The ox knows its owner,
and the ass its master's crib;
but Israel does not know,
my people does not understand.
Ah, sinful nation,
a people laden with iniquity (1:2-4a)
and he feared for the fate of Judah because the Covenant of God had been forgotten. Punishment therefore was inevitable. How otherwise would a just God deal with faithless Judah? And so on through the seventh century B.C. and into the sixth, these men of God warned, threatened and cajoled their people and their leaders. Moral responsibility, they sincerely believed, was the only sound basis for their security as a nation. Then tragedy struck, and Judah succumbed to the onslaught of Nebuchadnezzar's ruthless army in 587 B.C. Jerusalem fell; the people were carried into bondage, this time into Babylon. The prophetic message had been fulfilled, as God's retribution descended upon Judah. Hopes were dashed. The nation was crushed. Thus ended the classical period of Hebrew prophet-preachers and their Covenant-oriented messages.
Revival of Nationalism
A new era of prophetic preaching appeared in the Babylonian Exile, as the people's inevitable question, "Why have we suffered so?" prompted their spiritual leaders to assert more than just "The prophets told you so." With a punishment so severe - many Judean leaders were in exile, while most of the peasants were left in a desolated Palestine in desperate plight - the preachers of Israel turned to messages of hope and encouragement. They, too, sought an encouraging word from the LORD. Already the classical prophets had laid a base for such preaching with occasional flashes of pleading among their harsh warnings. The word "return" had punctuated many a prophetic sermon as a clarion call back to Covenant responsibility. But Isaiah more than any other pre-Exilic prophet probably set the stage with two deeply moving poems in which he expressed the universal longing for a just and righteous ruler for the nation.
With the Exile, however, oracles of assurance and comfort flowed from the mouths and pens of devout men of the Covenant. Some of these new oracles later became attached to the classical prophetic writings. Of all the Hebrew prophetic poetry, however, none can match the sublime thought and expression of Isaiah chapters 40-55, which present the highest plateau of inspiring literature in the midst of the Exile. The familiar words:
Comfort, comfort my people,
says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that her time of service is ended,
that her iniquity is pardoned,
that she has received from the LORD'S hand
double for all her sins.
begin a series of matchless prophetic oracles that pointed toward a period of Hebrew renewal.
The enlightened and more benevolent rule of the Persians also sparked a renewed hope in the exiled Judeans. What emerged was a religious nation, however, rather than a political state. Nevertheless, the return to Palestine and the rebuilding of Jerusalem (520-440 B.C.) saw the revival of nationalism and separatism under the zealous leadership of Haggai, Zechariah, Nehemiah and Ezra. Covenant responsibility, other than within their own community relationships, again was submerged beneath legalistic particularisms and new nationalistic aspirations.
The vast sweep of Alexander's Greek armies across the Middle East in 333-33 1 B.C. did not change immediately the course of Jewish cultural and religious developments so much as it intensified resistance to foreign domination. The struggle produced a new kind of literature born of persecution and suffering under tyranny in the second century B.C. It is called "apocalyptic" literature, from the Greek root "to uncover" or "to reveal." It expressed man's ultimate response to frustration in which he abandons his final hope to God. Born in the midst of crisis, apocalyptic literature was to continue to provide devout men facing persecution with strength and inspiration for centuries to come. The major Old Testament examples are found in Isaiah 24-27, Ezekial 38-48, Zechariah 9-14, and especially Daniel. But a vast literature of this nature that never gained admittance to the Bible-Enoch, Jubilees, Apocalypse of Baruk, II Esdras, the Psalms of Solomon, and a host of others - was penned during the critical years when Judah was dominated by the Greeks and the Romans, especially during the three centuries following the battle of Panias in 198 B.C., when the aggressive Seleucid Greeks captured Palestine from the Ptolemies of Egypt. It was in the spirit of this literature that the Qumran Community by the Dead Sea was established and thrived. The Dead Sea Scrolls were predominantly apocalyptic in nature, reminiscent of Daniel and Revelation in our Bible. The hope that a new and mighty act of God in history would bring to an end the age of human abuses amid persecution and usher in a transformed era of peace, justice and brotherhood by a great miracle was the inspiration that spurred the discipline and devotion of the men of Qumran. They, as well as most Jews, awaited the appearance of the ''anointed one" (Messiah) who would lead and rule in the new age.
It was, furthermore, about 200 B.C. that the writings of the classical prophets became canonized; that is, they came to be considered the sacred word of God. Once having attained that level of authority, those books lent themselves readily to searching examination for indications of God's plans for the future and further goaded devout Jews like the holy men who produced the Dead Sea Scrolls. The original historical associations of the oracles from the preacher-prophets became secondary, as their metaphors and allusions became useful for interpreting contemporary events in terms of the impending end. The prophets as "predictors" thus gradually replaced the "preacher" concept and took on a new significance, for every possible relation to their day was sought. Concern for Covenant responsibility once again became secondary. For the Christians in the latter part of the first century A.D. the attempt to prove to the Jews that Jesus was their long-expected Messiah added to this method of interpreting the prophets. It should be noted that though the men of Qumran used the same method for interpreting Scripture that was later used by the Christians, both differed in their interpretations of history. Both believed, also, that their particular interpretation was revealed to them by God and thus had final authority.
Back of the figures of both John the Baptist and Jesus can be seen this mingling of the prophetic concerns for Covenant responsibility with the apocalyptic hopes of their contemporaries. Scholars differ over the degree to which Jesus may have been influenced by apocalyptic literature and thought, but that he spoke in a context of this intense thought pattern there is no question. That he used its vivid imagery and many of its expressions there can be little doubt. That Christianity wrested itself from a dominating control of that kind of thought, however, in contrast to the men of Qumran, there is also little doubt. The Gospel of John demonstrates a move away from a preoccupation with the end of the age and reveals a viability not found at Qumran, which was crushed by the Romans about A.D. 70. But in periods of crisis, such as that of the Domitian persecutions of AD. 95, when the Book of Revelation was probably written, apocalyptic literature served as a steadying influence for suffering Christians. That the Book of Revelation was written to meet such a need can easily be seen by noting such repeated expressions as "what must soon take place", "for the time is near". Such expressions stand as warnings against applying the contents of the book to centuries later. Apocalyptic literature represented a decided decline from the lofty heights of classical prophetic literature.
In discriminate combining and equating of quotations from apocalyptic literature with passages from the classical prophets of ancient Israel and Judah, as is done by those who claim that the Bible is being fulfilled in Palestine today, is therefore a serious breach of academic honesty and a violation of historical integrity.
On the other hand, failure to see the promises of God to Abraham in the light of the Mosaic Law and the centrality of Covenant morality in the stream of prophetic pronouncements is to prostitute the moral focus of the Bible. When we read, therefore, in Genesis 15: 18:
On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abraham saying, "To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates…"
and claim that its fulfillment began with the Partition of Palestine in 1948, we are misusing the Bible. That promise must be read in the light of the Books of Exodus, Deuteronomy, and Joshua, which already record the historic fulfillment of the Genesis passage. But even more do we misuse the Bible when we forget its central concern for morality and Covenant responsibility on the part of those who would claim to be God's people who were "chosen" for responsibility, not privilege. Thus we must also put beside Genesis 15: 18 such passages as Deuteronomy 7:12 and 8:19-20:
"And because you hearken to these ordinances, and keep and do them, the LORD your God will keep with you the covenant and the steadfast love which he swore to your fathers to keep…"
"…And if you forget the LORD your God and go after other gods and serve them and worship them, I solemnly warn you this day that you shall surely perish. Like the nations that the LORD makes to perish before you, so shall you perish, because you would not obey the voice of the LORD your God."
From the standpoint of Biblical prophecy, therefore, to evaluate the situation in Palestine today apart from its relevance to Covenant morality, the heart of the Mosaic and classical prophetic pronouncements, is to falsify the Biblical message and prostitute its purpose.
Christians should ask again the obvious question in the face of the Middle East crisis. "Is the God we worship One who works in history through geopolitics, or through men who respond in faith to His moral demands and spiritual guidance?" It is only a blind faith that can see the God of Jesus Christ at work in most of the events in the Middle East today, as the Graham film "His Land" so naively suggests.
According to the central Biblical prophecy, therefore, the State of Israel today must stand under the moral judgment of God on the same Covenant terms that were proclaimed to ancient Israel and Judah, if she is to claim anything from that Biblical heritage. On such a basis the present events in Palestine cannot possibly be interpreted as fulfilling Biblical prophecy. Instead we should be reminded of the poignant words of Isaiah:
Zion shall be redeemed by justice, and those in her who repent, by righteousness.
But rebels and sinners shall be destroyed together,
And those who forsake the LORD shall be consumed. (1:27-28)
What we see happening in Palestine today is purely secular, political nationalism at work; and it must be viewed and evaluated in terms of other ethnic, political nationalisms of our day.
Publication of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America