A little less than a year ago I was invited to speak at a prophecy conference and gladly accepted because my prior experience (a men's retreat) with the fellowship had been both fruitful and great fun. However, a week or so after accepting the invite this hit me: I'd never spoken on prophecy before! Worse yet, other than some general biblical teachings, what did I really know about prophecy? Then came an even more unsettling question: "What's my attitude toward prophecy?"
My "attitude" at that time could be described as mixed at best. While I could get excited about those prophecies which were quite straightforward, too many others, it seemed to my uninformed mind, verged on the cryptic. Then too there was my bias against the teachings of some "prophetic ministries" which launch from a biblical platform but too often end up in a speculation tailspin.
On the other hand, I was aware that 30 percent of the Bible includes predictive prophecies, and they certainly must be included for good reasons. So I made it my task to learn what those reasons were—not only for my growth in understanding God's Word but in the hope of edifying the conference attendees. Or, falling short of that, at least avoiding the descriptive term "embarrassment" on a post-conference evaluation card. It's interesting to consider what circumstances the Lord will allow in our lives in order to teach us something.
So what have I learned? Let's begin with the fundamentals. Prophecy has two biblical meanings. In a general sense, the term refers to everything God has to say to His rational creatures. The Bible, therefore, as God's specific revelation to mankind, is a completely prophetic book (2 Pt 1:19-21). It is His forthtelling us things we could not know otherwise. Prophecy also includes His foretelling, or telling us ahead of time what will take place. The ability to predict the future, which, as we said, pertains to nearly one-third of the Scriptures, is declared by God to be a major proof that He alone is God: "...I am God, and there is none else; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times the things that are not yet done" (Isa:46:9-10).
Nearly all predictive prophecy deals with Israel and the First and Second comings of the Messiah. In fact, God tells the Israelites that they will be a sign to the world, glorifying Himself in and through them (Isa:46:13). In Isaiah:43:10 God declares to them, "Ye are my witnesses...and my servant whom I have chosen: that ye may know and believe me, and understand that I am he: before me there was no God formed, neither shall there be after me." In other words, God will use them and their land to be "witnesses" both to themselves and to the world, not only that He exists, but that He is actively involved in shaping the history of Israel, as well as bringing about His purpose for all of mankind. Prophecy declares God's plan in advance. And the purpose is that we all may "know" Him, and "believe" in Him, and "understand" that He alone is God. Prophecy is compelling proof not only for the existence of God, but that the Bible is exactly what it claims to be—His Word!
Here is a sampling of God's prophetic witness through Israel: He declared to Abraham (Gen:12:1; 15:18), and then to Isaac (Gen:26:3), and after that to Jacob (Gen:28:13) that He would give them the land "from the river of Egypt unto the great river, the river Euphrates" (Gen:15:18), and that this Promised Land would be theirs and that of their descendants forever (Jos:14:9). It is a fact of history, as the book of Joshua records, that the Israelites took possession of the land God promised. While His promise was irrevocable, He nevertheless warned them that should they cease to obey Him He would cast them out of the land for a time: disobedient Israel "shall be plucked from off the land whither [they go] to possess it" (Deut 28:63). They were and He did—resulting in the Assyrian captivity of the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Babylonian captivity of the Southern Kingdom (Judah).
Jeremiah prophesied that the captives would return from Babylon to Jerusalem "when 70 years [were] accomplished" (Jer:25:12). Even so, a still more devastating dispersion of the Jews was foretold: "And the LORD shall scatter thee among all people, from the one end of the earth even unto the other" (Deut 28:64). This, the last major diaspora, took place when the Roman army under Titus utterly destroyed Jerusalem in A.D. 70. Not only have the Jews been widely dispersed as the Bible predicted; God's Word also gives details as to how they would be treated: "And I will...deliver them to be removed to all the kingdoms of the earth, to be a curse, and an astonishment, and an hissing, and a reproach, among all the nations whither I have driven them" (Jer:29:18). We know this today as anti-Semitism, yet it was first prophesied by Moses (Deut 28:37) 3,500 years ago!
It would seem that this dispersion, along with accompanying persecutions and attempts at annihilating the Jews, would have placed God in an untenable position. After all, He promised unconditionally to Abram (Abraham) that the Promised Land "which thou seest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed for ever" (Gen:13:15). The Lord declared also that while Israel would not go unpunished, He would "not make a full end of thee," but would "save thee from afar, and thy seed from the land of their captivity; and Jacob [Israel] shall return" (Jer:30:10-11).
That a scattered and persecuted minority could live for two thousand years or more among other races without being absorbed into them (especially when doing so could have avoided endless repression), and remain a uniquely identifiable ethnic group, is inconceivable—certainly beyond chance and without precedence in world history. Add to that astonishing fact that they would then be gathered from around the world and brought back to the land God promised to them more than three millennia ago. Yet as the world knows, this took place "officially" in 1948 when Israel was recognized as a sovereign nation.
Concerning this prophesied restoration, the Bible gives numerous related details of what would take place when the Jews returned to their land. Among these, the Book of Isaiah states that "[The Lord] shall cause them that come of Jacob to take root: Israel shall blossom and bud, and fill the face of the world with fruit" (27:6); and Hosea adds that the Israelites "shall return; they shall revive as the corn, and grow as the vine: the scent thereof shall be as the wine of Lebanon." In the late 1800s a visiting Mark Twain noted that the Holy Land was almost entirely barren, yet since the return of the Jews agriculture has become one of Israel's top economic enterprises. This small country is now the leading exporter of fruit and vegetables to Europe, even shipping flowers to Holland!
The Hebrew prophets also foretold that restored Israel would exhibit an awesome military capability: "In that day will I make the governors of Judah like an hearth of fire among the wood, and like a torch of fire in a sheaf; and they shall devour all the people round about, on the right hand and on the left....In that day shall the LORD defend the inhabitants of Jerusalem; and he that is feeble among them at that day shall be as David; and the house of David shall be as God, as the angel of the LORD before them" (Zec 12: 6,8). Even a cursory review of Israel's three wars to protect itself from being destroyed by the surrounding Arab countries provides overwhelming proof that they are a fulfillment of Zechariah's God-given words. The 1948-49 war following its independence had Israel hopelessly outnumbered and outgunned; her astounding victory, therefore, was nothing short of miraculous. The 1967 Six-day War, against overwhelming odds, was won so quickly and so decisively by Israel that Newsweek featured an article about it titled "Terrible Swift Sword." The 1973 Yom Kippur War found Israel again outnumbered and this time, because the attack came during its religious holiday, caught by surprise. Yet despite suffering heavy casualties, these beneficiaries of God's promise routed the combined Arab forces.
One last prophetic item regarding Israel and Jerusalem (from among the hundreds that could be given) has to do with its standing in the world today. Circa 480 B.C., Zechariah wrote that Jerusalem would become "a cup of trembling...a burdensome stone for all people" (12:2-3) This prediction was particularly astonishing because at the time it was made, the situation in Jerusalem makes it seem foolish at best. A portion of the Israelites had only recently returned from captivity in Babylon to a Jerusalem which had been desolate for 70 years. Its walls were destroyed, its fields fallow, and the remnant faced problems in even rebuilding the temple because they were unable to ward off the continual harassment by local Samaritans. Yet nearly 2,500 years later Jerusalem has indeed become "a cup of trembling" for this anxious world, a "burdensome stone" which, unless the problems there are resolved, everyone knows could bring nuclear conflagration upon the entire planet.
God is the God of prophecy. He is also the God of our salvation; and the former points to and underscores the latter. Israel was chosen of God for the primary purpose of bringing His Messiah into the world "that the world through him might be saved" (Jn:3:17). When the Apostle Paul went on his missionary journeys, his approach in each city he visited was first to enter the Jewish synagogue and preach that Jesus was the Messiah whom God had promised. In the synagogue of the Greek city of Berea, the Jews were commended not only for listening to what the apostle had to say, but more specifically because they "searched the scriptures daily, [to discern] whether those things [he said concerning the Messiah] were so" (Acts:17:10-11). Although we don't have the details of what he preached, we do know that there were hundreds of messianic prophecies to which he could refer.
No doubt he listed for them the prophetic criteria necessary for wannabe messiahs to qualify as God's Christ, the Savior of all mankind: He must be born in Bethlehem (Mic:5:2); He must be from the tribe of Judah (Gn 49:10); His lineage must be from King David (Isa:11:1); He must be born of a virgin (Isa:7:14); He must demonstrate a miracle-filled life (Isa:35:4-6); He must die for the sins of the world (Isa:53:5,6,10); He must be three days and nights in the grave (Jon 1:17); He must be resurrected from the dead (Ps:16:10).
Only Jesus qualified.
For those first-century Bereans desiring more information about the Messiah's sacrificial death, Paul could have supplied so many descriptive details from Old Testament prophecies (written as long as 1,500 to 400 years before the event) that it would have seemed to them as if they had been there themselves. Consider the following: Daniel gives us the exact day the Messiah will enter Jerusalem to be hailed as Israel's King (9:25). Zechariah tells us He will be riding upon a donkey (9:9) and that He will be betrayed for thirty pieces of silver (11:12); the betrayal will be by a friend (Ps:41:9). Isaiah predicts He will be silent before His accusers and then smitten and spat upon (53:7; 50:6). Moses indicates that He will be crucified (Deut 21:22-23). The psalmist tells us that the crowds present at His crucifixion will scorn and mock Him, and shake their heads at Him (22:7-8; 109:25); that His friends will watch from afar (38:11); that soldiers will gamble for His clothes (22:16-18); that for His thirst they will offer Him gall to drink (69:21); His hands and feet will be pierced (22:16); none of His bones will be broken (34:20); the very words which He will cry out to the Father are given (22:1; 31:5). Zechariah writes that His side will be pierced (12:10). Isaiah declares that He will die among thieves (53:9,12) and that He will be buried in a rich man's grave (53:9). Moreover, Isaiah gives the reasons that the Son of God went to the cross: He was "wounded for our transgressions"; "the Lord hath laid upon him the iniquity of us all"; and "thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin" (Is 53:5, 6,10). Once again, only Jesus qualifies to be our Savior.
What then of all the prophecies yet to be fulfilled? Since what was predicted regarding Christ's First Coming was perfectly fulfilled, we can be absolutely confident God will bring to pass all that He has foretold.
So, to borrow two phrases from Romans, what profit is there in prophecy? Much in every way. The Lord tells us, "...who, as I, shall call, and shall declare it,...and the things that are coming, and shall come....Fear ye not, neither be afraid: have not I told thee from that time, and have declared it? ye are even my witnesses"(Isa:44:7-8). Biblical prophecy assures us that God exists, and that He alone knows "the things that are coming," and we who have faith in Him have no reason to walk in "fear." More than that, we are to be God's "witnesses," using biblical prophecy as a testimony to the revealed truth of the Scriptures and proof that faith alone in Jesus, His only begotten Son, is mankind's only hope for salvation. Let us therefore eagerly share the good news, "the gospel of God (which he promised afore by His prophets in the holy scriptures), concerning his Son Jesus Christ our Lord" (Rom:1:1-3). TBC