guess what: prophecies aren’t predictions of the future (you can look it up)

Posted by PeteEnns on September 20, 2016 in guest posts Old Testament 30 Comments

hays-bookToday’s post is part 2 of a 3 part series on why Jesus didn’t come back soon as he said he would—or in technical terms, why the parousia is delayed.

The posts are co-written by Christopher M. Hays and C. A. Strine and based on the recent book edited by Hays, When the Son of Man Didn’t Come: A Constructive Proposal on the Delay of the Parousia. (You can click on yesterday’s post for more information on our authors.)

The gist of yesterday’s post (Hays) was that, indeed, Jesus told his disciples that he would come back soon but then didn’t. Today’s post, written by Old Testament scholar Strine begins to tell us why.

Post 2: Prophets aren’t Fortunetellers or Meteorologists (by C. A. Strine)

How does one explain with any intellectual honesty a Second Coming that Jesus said would come soon but didn’t? As Christopher mentioned in the first post, we believe it comes down to how one understands “predictive prophecy.”

We think that the statements about Jesus’ return in the Gospels are prophecies, which aren’t meant to be predictions of future events. Now that really sounds weird.

Except, it isn’t.

When most people read something called prophecy, especially predictive prophecy, they assume that the statements about the future intend to describe accurately what the prophet understands, through divine inspiration, will actually happen in the future.

We tend to think of prophets like divine meteorologists providing a long-term forecast. Predictions of doom and gloom or images of abundant blessing are taken to be statements about what the future will be like. That’s what prophets do: they tell us now about what things will be like then, some time in the future.

Only that’s not what the Old Testament tells us.

The Book of Jeremiah comes closest to giving a model for how predictive prophecy works, and it is rather different than the “predict the future” model.

Indeed, Jeremiah makes it very clear that some predictive prophecy is not meant to come pass at all.

Let’s look at Jeremiah 18:5-10. This passage explains that God reserves the possibility to change course even after the prophet who speaks on God’s behalf predicts blessing or cursing.

Then the word of the LORD came to me:  Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the LORD. Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.  At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it. And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, but if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will change my mind about the good that I had intended to do to it. 

In other words, God may not send the predicted punishment if the people repent, or conversely withhold a predicted blessing if the people do evil in God’s sight.

Statements about the future are descriptions of how bad it might be, or how abundant God’s blessing could be. It all depends on what people do.

Prophecies are conditional statements. Predictive prophecies explain what is on offer, not what has already been decided.

This dynamic is highlighted later in Jeremiah (ch. 26, to be exact). After having prophesied the destruction of the Temple—obviously not a popular position in Jerusalem—the priests, the prophets, and all the people condemn Jeremiah to death (vv. 7-9) because of his prediction of doom.

But then the elders of the land recall that Micah had predicted a similar fate for Jerusalem. They also recall that, on that occasion, Hezekiah (the king reigning at that time) didn’t try to eliminate Micah because he was irked by his dire prophecy; rather, the threat of destruction provoked Hezekiah to plead with God to spare Jerusalem.

And God did. Crisis averted.

Micah’s prophecy didn’t come to pass, but drove Hezekiah to change his ways. And that made him a good prophet. A very good one indeed.

Prophecy does not simply seek to predict the future, but to change the present. The potential of future disaster is meant to change current behavior, to motivate people to repent, to turn back to God, and to live in a way that will persuade God to hold back judgment.

Or, when blessing is promised, prophecy aims to encourage people to persevere in following God’s commands, to do so with all the more conviction, and to remind them that backsliding into rebellion might convince God not to bestow the good things offered to them at all.

Prophets want to activate certain behaviors in their audiences, not prognosticate future events. They are like parents warning children against foolish behavior and encouraging good behavior, not weather forecasters attempting to tell you whether or not you’ll need an umbrella at noontime tomorrow.

This is the case around the ancient world and the Old Testament (as we discuss in the book).

Think, for instance, of the book of Jonah. This prophet is no doubt a comic figure, in a comical book, but surely one with a serious point.

C. A. (Casey) Strine
C. A. (Casey) Strine

Why does Jonah resist going to Nineveh? Precisely because he knew that alerting the people of this foreign nation to the potential of God’s punishment would cause them to change their ways (Jon 4:1-4). Jonah wanted God to punish Nineveh; he knew his “prediction” of punishment could change their behavior and avoid that outcome; so he ran away.

In the book we show how this same view of prophecy lies beneath passages in Isaiah, 2 Samuel, early Jewish texts, and, as Christopher will explain in the next post, the New Testament too.

Prophets are not fortunetellers or weather forecasters. They are not claiming to predict an inevitable, unchanging future, but to change the way that people live in the present.

When we read predictive prophecy—in the Old Testament, the Gospels, or elsewhere—we need to ask what it wants to activate us to do, not what it might prognosticate about the future.

As we’ll see in our next post, this is just what New Testament shows us.

[Part 3 coming tomorrow . . . ]

***See some of Pete’s popular books: The Bible Tells Me So (HarperOne, 2014),  Inspiration and Incarnation (Baker 2005/2015), and  The Sin of Certainty (HarperOne, 2016).***

  • Pete E.

    Let’s see what tomorrow brings. You can always address this to the authors.

  • Jaime Vega

    Pete, what is your opinion of Bart ehrman and his views on the reliability of the gospels?

    • Darrin Hunter

      Off topic but on target.
      Pete? Any chance of doing a little interaction with some Ehrman-type-stuff?

      • Pete E.

        Never crossed my mind, to be honest.

  • Gary

    The other night I was chatting with a Christian long-timer about prophecies we heard over the years. You might be onto something here.

  • Gary

    Circularity is no blocker.

  • http://www.thecontemplativelife.org Anthony

    This is the issue that caused me to leave orthodox Christianity. The seeming fact that Jesus expected “the end” within a generation of his ministry, coupled with the fact that the Synoptics frame his entire message in these terms (i.e. “the kingdom of God is at hand”) was just too much for me. I can’t read the Synoptics anymore without the words “apocalyptic prophet” echoing in my head. I am really interested to read Post 3 tomorrow … although I have to admit, I feel the ultimate solution will involve some special pleading, which only committed Christians looking for a way to solve this problem would find convincing.

    To say that Jesus put a time stamp on his prediction, and then, when it didn’t take place, interpret it as being simply a “Hebraic way” of exhorting Israel to repent (i.e. there was actually no predictive element) is exactly what Dale Allison would argue that apocalyptic groups do – find a way to reinterpret after a prediction fails. And that seems to be exactly what we see in 2 Peter.

    But yes, excited to read Post 3 and will likely be buying the book…

    • Christopher Hays

      Thanks for the comment, Anthony. I actually think that Dale Allison and Bart Ehrman are quite right when they say Jesus is an apocalyptic prophet. But I think that the intrinsically conditional nature of prophecy means that the theological conclusions I draw based on Jesus’ non-return are different than the ones Allison draws. But in any scenario, I think the current conversation on eschatology definitely should take Allison’s thesis as a point of departure.

      And thanks for your interest in picking up the book too!

      • http://www.thecontemplativelife.org Anthony

        Thanks Christopher, I appreciate the response…the thesis your group proposes, as far as I can tell, is truly unique, at least among modern authors. In my opinion, accepting the broad outline of Jesus’ eschatology presented by Allison/Ehrman, etc. is the starting point for finding a true solution. But few people want to go down that road…

        One major question I have with your proposal (and I wrote this on the page for Post 3 as well), is Why wouldn’t Jesus just use conditional language? He uses conditional language elsewhere (“unless you repent, you too will all perish”), but choses not to when speaking of the end times/his return. Wouldn’t this have been a way to avoid a lot of confusion?

        • Christopher Hays

          That is a great question. It is worth noting that, even in the cases of prophecies that the OT explicitly looks back on as conditional (i.e. Jonah), the language of the prophecy is not actually conditional. For example, Jonah’s message to Ninevah is not “Repent or you burn”, but rather “You’re all gonna’ burn.” Nonetheless, they repent, and then they don’t burn. Likewise, with the prophecy to Hezekiah that he will die young, the message is not “Pray to God or you will die”, but rather “Set your affairs in order because you will die.” And yet, he calls on God and God relents.

          All that to say: the fact that the prophetic utterance is not expressed in conditional language does not imply that it isn’t conditional. That’s just normal. And it makes sense not to put things in conditional terms, if indeed your purpose is to underscore the gravity of the scenario and galvanize action.

          When we were working on this part of the book, the Royal Wedding (Will and Kate) was happening. And Casey pointed out, “Look, at the royal wedding, the archbishop is talking about the insolubility of marriage, how it is a life-long commitment, etc. But in the front royal is Prince Charles and his second wife. It’s not that the Archbishop doesn’t know about divorce, but if he adds caveats about divorce during the wedding vows, that undercuts the hortatory/paranetic force of the wedding homily.” And so with prophecy.

          • https://forthegloryofgodandkings.com/ Travis Finley

            Dr Hays,
            The difficulty I have in accepting this paradigm is this: Jeremiah say’d when word of a judgemnt is coming and the city repents, that judgement is averted. Jerusalem didn’t repent. So, why would we assume the judgement is averted or delayed? Jesus clearly say’d that generation would be held accountable for bloodshed on the land. That was in no way placed into some parenthesis.

        • https://forthegloryofgodandkings.com/ Travis Finley

          The answer is bc his words weren’t conditional regarding the coming judgement. What was conditional was that “generations” standing when the j came.
          Everything after the OD is about the Olivet Discourse. Rev is the first century fulfillment of Matt 23-25. Believe it!!
          https://youtu.be/7Q4wW6Z2FEg

    • https://forthegloryofgodandkings.com/ Travis Finley

      Come back, A!!
      Jesus was not wrong. Our reading of what he said has been wrong. We have not asked the right question: what was the nature of his coming?
      Answer that and the clarity becomes pristine!!

  • charlesburchfield

    IMHO the best screen portrait of “a Christmas Carol” is the English 1950s version with Alistair sim. A work of art! I think the spirit of what repentance can be is revealed with such joy! I also reflect on the fact that this was filmed soon after the blitz.

  • Christopher Hays

    I think that is dead right, Jonstzel.

  • Christopher Hays

    Cheers, mate! We obviously talk about Deut. 18 in the book, and how the OT holds both the Deuteronomic and Jeremianic modes of prophecy in balance. But alas, there wasn’t space for that in the blog post!

  • D Holcombe

    If prophecy does not simply seek to predict the future but to change the present, could someone please prophecy a more reasonable cost of “When the Son of Man Didn’t Come” than a starting retail price of $70.00? It MAY be worth a srp of $70.00 if G.E.Ladd wrote a back cover recantation blurb from the grave. Other than that….

  • parousia70

    As mentioned before, Their thesis has a conundrum in Deuteronomy 18:22 which says if a prophet says a thing that fails to come to pass, He is a false prophet. Though the OT conditional “ifs” they cite are interesting, they are not exactly applicable to the prophesies of the Parousia. The only “if” conditions placed on the Parousia are to its effects upon the 1st century people it was to befall… “If” they watched and we’re ready for it, it would involve great blessing, rest and relief… If they did not watch for it, it would come as a thief, unexpectedly, ransacking, full of destruction… The timing of the event is never conditional on the actions of human beings,(Acts 17:31, Rev 22:11) only its effects.

    For example, The only conditional part to Rev 2-3 is whether each Church would be punished or rewarded (according to their works, of course). If they were obedient, they were rewarded. If disobedient, punished. The idea that Christ was making his thief’s coming to them conditional is nowhere in the text.

    –COMPARE THIS–

    Matt 24:42-44
    be on the alert, for you do not know which day your Lord is coming…if the head of the house had known at what time of the night the thief was coming, he would have been on the alert and would not have allowed his house to be broken into. For this reason you also must be ready; for the Son of Man is coming at an hour when you think not

    –TO THIS–

    Revelation 3:1-3
    “To the angel of the [first-century] church of Sardis write:…remember what you have received and heard; and keep it, and repent. Therefore if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come to you.

    The giving of either a punishment or a reward was all that was conditional, and the condition was placed upon “their works” (Matt 16:27; Rev 20:13; Rom 2:6), which Jesus was then judging in Rev 2-3 (Rev 2:2, 2:9, 2:13, 2:19, Rev 3:2, 3:8, 3:15 ). The judging of their works took place in Revelation 2-3, back in the first century, and St. John documents it for us to read about.

    The thief’s coming itself was not conditional, and it was fulfilled exactly when Jesus and the apostles believed it would be–in their generation.

    The parousiaof Christ is NOT A CONDITIONAL EVENT. According to scripture, the parousiaof Christ was to take place irrespective of whether some repented and others did not — in fact, the doctrine of the coming fully and uniformly teaches that some would be faithful and others unfaithful (Romans 2:5-9; Mt 25:1-13; Lk 13:24-30; 1 Cor 3:12-15). As the angel also plainly states:

    Revelation 22:10-11
    And he said to me, “Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is near. Let the one who does wrong, still do wrong; and the one who is filthy, still be filthy; and let the one who is righteous, still practice righteousness; and the one who is holy, still keep himself holy.”

    Did you catch that???

    Man’s repentance or lack thereof has nothing to do with the timing of the parousia. Nothing whatsoever. Note also that Jesus explicitly says that the Thyatria Prophetess movement chose not to repent, and that He was coming and would kill her and her “children.” But to the rest at Thyatria (the faithful), they were to hold fast and had no additional burden placed upon them, for Jesus had rewards to give them as stated in Rev 2:26-28. We know that Christ came to them, for he came and killed the Prophetess and rewarded the faithful as he said. This is all first-century stuff here. No “Church Age,” no “1948,” no “21st century computer chips” — the glorified Jesus knew of none of those modern speculative doctrines, and that makes them impossible doctrines, ones not found anywhere in scripture. Had any of those things been biblical doctrines, then Jesus would not be speaking to first-century churches about His coming as we see him doing in Revelation 2-3 and elsewhere, where He plainly applies the doctrine to first-century people.

    • Pete E.

      Duet 18:22 is not the key verse to cut off all discussion but one of multiple voices in Scripture. The authors give BIBLICAL examples that are at odds with this one lonely verse. The same holds for the other texts you cite (all of which are open to more than one interpretation). If you want to engage these posts, engage the passages they cite.

      • Peter Bach

        Pretty sure I did engage them (I posted as parousia70 above- forgot my disqus login so posted as guest… I’ll post with my account from now on)
        As I said, The OT passages they cite were indeed conditional as to whether or not the event itself would come, but are not applicable to the prophesies of the parousia, which were only conditional as to it’s effects.
        The entire premise is based on the assumption that the parousia was either delayed or nulified by the actions of those 1st century Christians, which I believe I showed could not be the case.
        Deut 18:22 was merely a sidebar –

        If the authors are going to posit anything about a delay or nullification of the parousia, I would think ALL prophesies about the parousia and it’s 1st century immanency would be open to scrutiny as it relates to their premise, no?

        • Pete E.

          OK. I didn’t know about the log in issue.

  • Hill Roberts

    I’ve always thought of the prophets and their messages/sermons (prophecies) as essentially identical to what is standard fare for preachers. “God wants you to do things his way (which I have an inside track on by listening to his revelations). If you don’t, it will not turn out well for you. So change, do better, and maybe he’ll decide you’re okay. Now let’s all sing Amazing Grace and Just As I AM.” That’s the essence of all OT prophecy IMO.

  • Casey Strine

    Thanks to everyone for their comments on this blog, particularly the fact that people have raised the issue of how Jeremiah 18 (and similar passages) relate to Deut 18:22. Let me see if I can clarify our position as expressed in the blog a bit.

    The shortest answer (as Pete suggested) is that the texts are in tension with one another. Indeed, I think Jer 18 knows and intends to respond to Deut 18.

    I should also say that even though prophecy is conditional and people may repent in response to it, God retains the freedom on how to respond to that human action. See, for example, David’s response to announced and then realised judgment in 2 Sam 12. Here is a case where the prediction does come to pass as announced. So, even when one recognises the view expressed in Jer (and elsewhere in the OT) that prophecy is conditional, the result is not just a different, formulaic understanding of prophecy. The range of the texts won’t allow us to adopt a position that is so neat and tidy.

    I also argue at length in the book that Deut 18:22 is anomalous in the ANE. I won’t go into detail on that here, but it is worth noting that the Deuteronomistic view of prophecy is far from the dominant one in antiquity, let alone in the OT. Whatever your final position, if you want to base your view on Deut 18:22 you have to explain why you prefer it over Jer 18, Jonah, Isa 6, 2 Sam 12, etc… I’m not claiming that we have not chosen to prefer the position expressed in Jer 18 in our book, but taking Deut 18:22 as the definitive text requires preferring another text against the contrasting views expressed in the OT.

    Our most important response to this issue with respect to the parousia is, in fact, in Chris’s third blog: the NT (especially 2 Pet 3) encourages people to understand the timing of Christ’s return based on the Jeremianic, conditional approach to prophecy.

    I know this further explanation will neither satisfy all the questions people have raised here nor, even in its longer form in the book, persuade everyone to adopt our view. Fair enough. We do, however, think our view is well supported by the texts in the OT, NT, across the ANE, and even in the early church.

    Look forward to hearing what else people have to say.

  • Tim

    Be that as it may; What if the end that was actually predicted did come, and we “didn’t notice” it because we were looking for the fulfillment to look quite differently than it did? I’m thinking of a more preteristic type of view here. Wasn’t the judgment referred to, the final destruction of the temple and the whole temple system in 70 AD? What about the language of “coming on the clouds”, terminology which was used consistently to indicate invasion by an earthly army (such as in AD 70)?

  • Pete E.

    Do you know you misspell “judgment” throughout? :-)

    • https://forthegloryofgodandkings.com/ Travis Finley

      I also shpell mit die British “s:” memorise.

      • Pete E.

        Hehe

  • https://forthegloryofgodandkings.com/ Travis Finley

    Funnily enough, I learnt all this from Richard Pratt 17 years ago.

    • Pete E.

      I know a lot of Pratt students who learned much from him and lament his turn to the “ark side” :-)

      • https://forthegloryofgodandkings.com/ Travis Finley

        I don’t get your allusion…