We have seen from Charles Ozanne’s analysis that one needs great care when interpreting prophecy. Here are some further examples of the problems that can arise, and how they may be understood.
It is an inviolable law of Evangelicals that every word of prophecy in the Bible must be fulfilled literally. That which seems on the surface to be impossible of fulfilment, due to the length of time from the giving of the word, has to be “updated” to square with modern world conditions. An example of this may be adduced from Ezekiel 38-39, where a northern army attacking Israel is destroyed by divine intervention, and bows, arrows, shields, and other wooden weapons provide fuel for Israel’s fires for seven years. We have heard it said that bows and arrows will be replaced by tanks and planes, but the latter part about seven years’ fuel remains problematic.
And what about the new plan for a Temple complex, set forth in amazing detail by Ezekiel? Blood sacrifices are still mentioned, as might be expected of the time he wrote. But evangelicals try to wrestle with this, insisting that the complex must be built in the Millennium. We have had a letter from a friend saying that he expects the sacrifices to continue, looking back to Christ, even as the earlier ones looked forward to Christ! Such is the ingenuity of the evangelical mind. We now want to show that there is a better way of understanding the problems of ancient prophecy, and its fulfilment.
Our first reference comes from Jeremiah 18:1-10.
“The word which came to Jeremiah from the LORD, saying, Arise, and go down to the potter’s house, and there I will cause you to hear my words. Then I went down to the potter’s house, and, behold, he wrought a work on the wheels. And the vessel that he made of clay was marred in the hand of the potter: so he made it again another vessel, as seemed good to the potter to make it.
Then the word of the LORD came to me, saying, O house of Israel, cannot I do with you as this potter? says the LORD. Behold, as the clay is in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. At what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up, and to pull down, and to destroy it; if that nation, against whom I have pronounced, turn from their evil, I will relent of the evil that I thought to do unto them.
And at what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to build and to plant it; if it do evil in my sight, that it obey not my voice, then I will relent of the good, wherewith I said I would benefit them.”
Notice first of all that the Potter doesn’t discard the marred clay. He casts it down on the wheel and remakes it. This helps us grasp the mind and purposes of God. A good example of the ensuing words of the Lord may be seen in the book of Jonah. The prophet, when finally confronting the Ninevites, said, “Yet forty days and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” (Jonah 3:4) But Nineveh repented, and the calamity was averted. However, the word of judgment, which could bring divine blessing or punishment, remained firm. 87 years later Nineveh had forgotten the lessons of Jonah’s day, and by the word of Nahum, it was destroyed as punishment from God. But it was not destroyed in 40 days. That part of Jonah’s prophecy was discarded in the later judgment.
The Lord showed the prophet Amos in vision, first a terrible plague of locusts, and then a ravaging fire, directed at Israel, he prayed and asked that these judgments would not fall on His people, and on both occasions we are told, “the Lord relented and said, This shall not be.” Here is the text.
Thus the Lord GOD showed me: Behold, He formed locust swarms at the beginning of the late crop; indeed it was the late crop after the king’s mowings. And so it was, when they had finished eating the grass of the land, that I said: “O Lord GOD, forgive, I pray! Oh, that Jacob may stand, For he is small!” So the LORD relented concerning this. “It shall not be,” said the LORD. Thus the Lord GOD showed me: Behold, the Lord GOD called for conflict by fire, and it consumed the great deep and devoured the territory. Then I said: “O Lord GOD, cease, I pray! Oh, that Jacob may stand, For he is small!” So the LORD relented concerning this. “This also shall not be,” said the Lord GOD. (Amos 7:1-6)
Here then is another aspect of prophecy. The dire judgments about to be meted out could be averted, not so much by the repentance of the people, but by the earnest prayer of the prophet. No doubt there is a divine warning here. Those who read the threats and judgments in the Book of Revelation, and who take seeming delight in their fulfilment, are not displaying the type of imploring prayer shown by God’s true prophet. Should we not learn the lesson, and Amos-like, implore the Lord to relent of His fierce anger, and deal in mercy in these end days? Has anyone ever thought about the Book of Revelation in that light?
Huldah the prophetess declared to young King Josiah, “I am bringing disaster on this place and its inhabitants.” (2 King 22:16) But the King repented on behalf of the nation, and the judgment was averted for the time being. However, as with Nineveh, so also with Judah, the judgment was enacted later because the subsequent kings of Judah were as wicked as Josiah’s grandfather Manasseh. Here is the text.
Then she [Huldah] said to them, “Thus says the LORD God of Israel, ‘Tell the man who sent you to Me, “Thus says the LORD: ‘Behold, I will bring calamity on this place and on its inhabitants—all the words of the book which the king of Judah has read— ‘because they have forsaken Me and burned incense to other gods, that they might provoke Me to anger with all the works of their hands. Therefore My wrath shall be aroused against this place and shall not be quenched. But as for the king of Judah, who sent you to inquire of the LORD, in this manner you shall speak to him, ‘Thus says the LORD God of Israel: “Concerning the words which you have heard— because your heart was tender, and you humbled yourself before the LORD when you heard what I spoke against this place and against its inhabitants, that they would become a desolation and a curse, and you tore your clothes and wept before Me, I also have heard you,” says the LORD. “Surely, therefore, I will gather you to your fathers, and you shall be gathered to your grave in peace; and your eyes shall not see all the calamity which I will bring on this place.” So they brought back word to the king.
We have seen three different responses to the prophetic word of judgment. There are others as well, but in keeping with our theme, we shall leave it at that, and concentrate now on the way in which prophecy changes, being subject to the contingency of human response. It can be demonstrated that in fact the Lord modifies, remakes, and even changes His prophetic word according to the responses of His people but also according to the circumstances of the times in which they are fulfilled.
In order to follow this through in greater detail we should like to take a closer look at the history of Judah from the time of their deportation to Babylon, right up to the present day. The prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel were full of dire predictions for the southern kingdom, saying that unless repentance was real, and observed by the Lord to be genuine, the Babylonian armies would take them away, and their city destroyed. The people laughed at the prophetic word, and as we read in 2 Chronicles 36:15-16,
“The LORD God of their fathers sent to them by his messengers, rising up betimes, and sending; because he had compassion on his people, and on his dwelling place: but they mocked the messengers of God, and despised his words, and misused his prophets, until the wrath of the LORD arose against his people, till there was no remedy.”
The result was Nebuchadnezzar’s invasion, and the fulfilment of the prophesied judgment scene as we read in 2 Chron.36:17-21.
“Therefore he brought upon them the king of the Chaldees, who slew their young men with the sword in the house of their sanctuary, and had no compassion upon young man or maiden, old man, or him that stooped for age: he gave them all into his hand. And all the vessels of the house of God, great and small, and the treasures of the house of the LORD, and the treasures of the king, and of his princes; all these he brought to Babylon. And they burnt the house of God, and broke down the wall of Jerusalem, and burnt all the palaces thereof with fire, and destroyed all the goodly vessels thereof. And those who had escaped from the sword he carried away to Babylon; where they were servants to him and his sons until the reign of the kingdom of Persia: to fulfil the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah, until the land had enjoyed hersabbaths: for as long as she lay desolate she kept sabbath, to fulfil threescore and ten years.”
The purpose of God for His nation was thereby delayed for these 70 years, which were deemed necessary to teach the people a lesson. After the 70 years had expired, the Lord looked for clear signs of repentance from His nation in captivity, which, by the mouth of the prophet Ezekiel, would result in great blessings, namely the return of the people to Jerusalem and Judah, the return of the House of Israel from the Assyrian captivity, and the return of the Shekinah Glory to the new Jerusalem complex, depicted by Ezekiel in his final chapters.
Daniel was in Babylon at the time. In Daniel 9:1-2 we read,
“In the first year of Darius the son of Ahasuerus, of the seed of the Medes, who was made king over the realm of the Chaldeans; in the first year of his reign I Daniel understood by books the number of the years, whereof the word of the LORD came to Jeremiah the prophet, that he would accomplish seventy years in the desolations of Jerusalem.”
Because of the near termination of these years, the prophet gave himself to earnest prayer.
What happened may best be seen from Daniel’s own words. Breaking into his prayer in chapter 9, verse 14, we read,
“Therefore hath the LORD watched upon the evil, and brought it upon us: for the LORD our God is righteous in all His works which he performs: for we obeyed not his voice. And now, O Lord our God, that has brought your people forth out of the land of Egypt with a mighty hand, and has got You renown, as at this day; we have sinned, we have done wickedly. O Lord, according to all your righteousness, I beseech You, let your anger and your fury be turned away from your city Jerusalem, your holy mountain: because for our sins, and for the iniquities of our fathers, Jerusalem and your people are become a reproach to all that are about us. Now therefore, O our God, hear the prayer of your servant, and his supplications, and cause your face to shine upon your sanctuary that is desolate, for the Lord’s sake. O my God, incline your ear, and hear; open your eyes, and behold our desolations, and the city which is called by your name: for we do not present our supplications before you for our righteousnesses, but for your great mercies.”
Daniel acted like Amos before him, and hoped for God’s mercy. But Daniel also knew that the nation in captivity had not repented, and he had no idea whether the Lord would relent and deal kindly with His errant people. But no sooner had he completed his intercession than the angel Gabriel appeared with the Lord’s answer. Here it is, in Dan.9:22-24.
“O Daniel, I am now come forth to give thee skill and understanding. At the beginning of your supplications the commandment came forth, and I am come to show you; for you are greatly beloved: therefore understand the matter, and consider the vision. Seventy sevens (of years) are determined upon your people and upon your holy city, to finish the transgression, and to make an end of sins, and to make reconciliation for iniquity, and to bring in everlasting righteousness, and to seal up the vision and prophecy, and to anoint the Holy of Holies.”
The angel had more to say than that, but when he had completed his message, we find no mention of Daniel’s reaction. Reading it in these last days cannot affect us as it must have affected Daniel. He had been hoping for a return from captivity with multiple blessings to follow, but instead only a dreadfully long further wait, some 490 years instead of just 70. Why was this? To gain insight we need to go back to the Mosaic Law in Leviticus 26:14-18
“But if you will not hearken unto me, and will not do all these commandments; and if you shall despise my statutes, or if your soul abhor my judgments, so that you will not do all my commandments, but that you break my covenant: I also will do this unto you; I will even appoint over you terror, consumption, and the burning ague, that shall consume the eyes, and cause sorrow of heart: and you shall sow your seed in vain, for your enemies shall eat it. And I will set my face against you, and you shall be slain before your enemies: they that hate you shall reign over you; and you shall flee when none pursues you. And if you will not yet for all this hearken unto me, then I will punish you seven times more for your sins.”
There it is, in all its stark reality – “seven times more.” Instead of having to suffer the indignity of the captivity for 70 years, they would now have to wait seven times seventy years for the complete fulfilment, “to finish the transgression, and make reconciliation for iniquity, and bring in everlasting righteousness.” To Daniel that must have been a most daunting message. But now we must see what else the angel Gabriel revealed to him that day. It is in Daniel 9:25-27
“Know therefore and understand, that from the going forth of the commandment to restore and to build Jerusalem unto the Messiah the Prince shall be seven sevens, and sixty two sevens: the street shall be built again, and the wall, even in troubled times. And after sixty two sevens shall Messiah be cut off, and have nothing for Himself: and the people of the prince that shall come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary; and the end thereof shall be with a flood, and unto the end of the war desolations are determined. And he shall confirm the covenant with many for one week: and in the midst of the week he shall cause the sacrifice and the oblation to cease, and for the overspreading of abominations he shall make it desolate, even until the consummation, and that determined shall be poured upon the desolator.”
These words must have been even more terrifying to the aged prophet, probably still on his knees from the long prayer. But after Gabriel’s departure, he sat down and recorded every word spoken, and contemplated what God had in store.
What he understood was this. In a short time a commandment would be given by a ruler of Babylon to release the Jews, and allow them to return to rebuild Jerusalem and the Temple. That was good news in itself. In point of fact the Babylonian empire ceased on the night of Belshazzar’s feast, and was succeeded by the Medes and Persians. Daniel received his last prophecy in the third year of Cyrus, King of Persia, when he was about 89 years old. Thus he lived to hear the decree of Cyrus, to release the Jews, and allow them to return. But in fact the vast majority of Jews had settled down to a more or less comfortable existence in exile, and didn’t favour being uprooted again. It was but a remnant of some 42,360 people who were keen to move back to their homeland.
Furthermore, Gabriel had mentioned the Messiah, the Anointed One of God, who had been forecast throughout history, even from Genesis, where He was known as Shiloh. But what was this about Him being “cut off and have nothing for Himself”? And that last seven years, that seemed to be full of trouble, right up to the “end”? To Daniel all this seemed mysterious. No wonder the angel’s last words were,
“But go your way till “the end”, for you shall rest (in death), and stand (in resurrection) in your inheritance at the end of the days.” (Dan.12:13)
And so the days dragged on. The small remnant returned to start work on rebuilding the Temple, but they didn’t adopt the new design shown to Ezekiel. In fact it would have been impossible at that time to construct a Temple and courts on a square of 500 cubits. There simply wouldn’t have been room on the platform raised in Solomon’s days. Perhaps they looked upon Ezekiel’s design as an ideal that was never meant to be put into practice. This is our conjecture, having no written testimony to fall back on.
Later on, another contingent arrived in Jerusalem with Nehemiah to begin rebuilding the walls. It was a task performed in “troubled times”, as the Samaritans were continually thwarting the progress. However, the city and Temple were eventually rebuilt, and the nation began to grow out of the remnant. One is reminded of the 18th century settlers in New England. In each case there was a renewed call to holiness and obedience, based on the word of God, but as time passed the original fervour died down, and worldly religion took over, a lifeless political structure that retained only an outward form of godliness. Such was the prevailing condition in Palestine at the coming of the Messiah.
The “62 sevens” ran their course, and “afterwards” the Messiah was “cut off” in crucifixion, not having received the Kingdom for which He came. But there was that final seven years to complete Gabriel’s prediction, and this has become a bone of contention to Biblical expositors, some of whom insist that it must have occurred, and others who still place it in the future. So let us stop for a moment and view the circumstances that transpired from the resurrection until the end of the New Testament era.
After the resurrection Peter wanted to know whether the Lord would immediately establish His Kingdom, but was told,
“It is not for you to know the times or the seasons, which the Father has placed in His own authority.” (Acts 1:7)
Instead Peter and the eleven were given instructions to preach the good news of the resurrection, as witnesses, throughout the whole world. The power of the Holy Spirit was to be given as the divine enablement to carry out this injunction.
On the cross the Lord had asked forgiveness for His nation, just as Joseph forgave his brethren in Egypt. Joseph saw the Lord’s purpose in everything that had happened, whereby his family were saved from starvation and death. The Lord saw His own death as the means of overcoming the Devil, and bringing salvation to His people. Hence the request for forgiveness. As a result, the nation came under a new mandate. Would they obey? Would they accept Peter’s call for repentance? Luke tells us in Acts that initially all went well, with thousands responding positively to Peter’s call. But there was gross political and religious darkness over the land, and ugly incidents soon began to emerge, culminating when Stephen was stoned to death at his preaching.
This act was the turning point for the nation. Stephen saw the Lord stand up in judgment just before he died. The anger of the Lord was revealed, and Israel, designed to be God’s evangelistic nation to all other nations, was set aside. Shortly afterwards the Lord appeared in sovereign power to Saul of Tarsus, whom He raised up to do the job single-handed, which the nation had signally failed to do.
And so we find that the Book of Acts is (mainly) the record of Paul’s work, as he took the good news of the resurrection to all the outposts of Jews throughout the Roman Empire. In each and every case they behaved like their brethren back home in Palestine, creating uproars, and making Paul’s life and preaching, impossible. Finally, on reaching Rome, Paul called for a full-day conference with the Jewish leaders. He explained the meaning of recent events, setting forth Jesus as their Messiah, and called for them to make a unified decision. But they argued amongst themselves, with a few accepting, and the rest rejecting. Paul was infuriated with them, and pronounced a final judgment, as we read in Acts 28:25-29.
“And when they agreed not among themselves, they departed, after Paul had spoken one word, Well spoke the Holy Spirit by Isaiah the prophet to our fathers, saying, Go to this people, and say, Hearing you shall hear, and shall not understand; and seeing you shall see, and not perceive: for the heart of this people is waxed gross, and their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes have they closed; lest they should see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and should be converted, and I should heal them. Be it known therefore unto you, that this, the Salvation of God, is sent unto the Gentiles, and they will hear it. And when he had said these words, the Jews departed, and had great reasoning among themselves.”
Seeing that this concludes the book of Acts, we suspect Luke intended it that way. He could easily have written more, especially concerning the events relating to Paul’s release, and his journeys to Spain and Britain, but he didn’t. Although Paul was established as the Apostle to the Gentiles, nevertheless he had an important job to do relating to the Jews. God had judged Palestinian Jewry at the time of Stephen’s death, but now required the Good News to be preached to all the outposts of Diaspora. Acts 28 may therefore be seen as the final judgment on the whole nation of Jewry. See how Paul describes the finality of this judgment in the following two passages.
“The Jews, who both killed the Lord Jesus, and their own prophets, and have persecuted us; and they please not God, and are contrary to all men: forbidding us to speak to the Gentiles that they might be saved, to fill up their sins always: for the wrath is come upon them to the uttermost.” (1 Thess.2:14-16)
“For I would not, brethren, that you should be ignorant of this mystery, lest you should be wise in your own conceits; that blindness in part is happened to Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles be come in. And so all Israel shall be saved: as it is written, There shall come out of Zion the Deliverer, and shall turn away ungodliness from Jacob: for this is my covenant unto them, when I shall take away their sins. As concerning the gospel, they are enemies for your sakes: but as touching the election, they are beloved for the fathers’ sakes. For the gifts and calling of God are without repentance (i.e. change of mind).” (Romans 11:25-29)
Blindness in part – in fact the larger part, because Paul said earlier in this chapter that
“there is a remnant according to the election of grace . . . what Israel sought after he obtained not, but the election obtained it and the rest were hardened.” (11:5-7)
And so the shutters went down on the Jewish race, and their eyes have been closed ever since.
“Unto this day, whenever Moses is read, a veil lies upon the heart. But whenever it (i.e. the heart) turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away.” (2 Cor.3:15-16)
Individual Jews have experienced the miracle of conversion, but the nation as a whole has remained blind. In Israel today, Jews look upon Christians as heretics, and are a nation of Christ-haters.
It has been nearly 2,000 years since this judicial blindness descended on the Jewish nation. But God abhors a vacuum, so He filled it with the Gospel to the Gentiles, and as Paul declared to the arguing Roman Jews, they have indeed heard it, and understood it. If statistics are to be believed, there are over one billion souls world-wide who claim to be Christians, nearly all of them Gentiles.
But Paul spoke about a time when a Deliverer would come to Jacob to turn away ungodliness from Jacob. When would this be? “Until the fullness of the Gentiles be come in,” Paul said. We are able to look back in history and see the progress of the Gospel to the Gentiles, and as we said, 2,000 years has almost gone by. How much longer will Israel have to wait?
This is where we shall present an understanding from Leviticus 26 that may give some further understanding. Remember that Daniel read Jeremiah’s prophecies, and knew that the 70 years was about to expire, and he knew it was time to pray. So likewise now, it could well be that the time of Israel’s blindness is about to expire, and this should give us incentive to pray for them. Let us explain.
In Leviticus 26, the Lord spoke about the sevenfold intensity of judgment for refusing to obey. We have mentioned this already in connection with the seventy sevens. But in that chapter the sevenfold judgment is mentioned four times over. Why was it necessary for the Lord to use such great emphasis? Would it not have been sufficient to state it just once? Or maybe twice for emphasis? But why four times. Working on the principle enunciated in the days of Joseph in Egypt, when he said that Pharaoh’s dream was doubled to show that the prophecy wouldsoon come to pass, (Gen.41:32) we dare not treat the fourfold statement in Lev.26 as being without significance. In this case we present the concept that the seventy sevens would be repeated four times over for Israel’s great sin of rejecting the Messiah and His forgiveness for the nation.
Now 4 times 490 is 1960 years, and if we add that to AD 35, when Stephen was stoned, it brings us to 1995. On the other hand, if it should be added to the date of Paul’s final word of judgment in Rome, variously dated at 58, 59, or 60 AD, then the end would be 2018 – 2020. We are not trying to set dates, but rather to obtain some idea of what the fourfold judgment might mean. Indeed, it is only to those of us who are now living that we can apply such a suggestion. 1,000 years ago it would have been impossible to see any connection with Leviticus 26.
We are now at the end of this study. We have seen the manner in which the Lord adjusted His own prophetic word to suit the circumstances of the times. By this we appreciate that although God has a stated goal for all His works and plans, He has consistently placed promises of blessing alongside threats of judgment to His people. The blessings would have brought about a quick enactment of God’s plan, based on obedience to the word. But man’s old nature, being what it is, generally brought about delays, coupled with periods of punishment.
Some may argue that, if this is so, then God is always having to change His mind, based on man’s intransigence, as though He hadn’t made allowance for human folly, and was caught napping. But this would not be a true evaluation. Isaiah wrote that God is the first and the last, the beginning and the end. The wonder of the divine mind is that no matter how much delay, no matter how much disobedience, no matter how many times the divine word needed modification, God will complete His plan as He intended, because He knows the end from the beginning.
So we see that God’s word is always fluid in its enactment but is always Truth and brings about what He intends. Again we repeat what Isaiah said,
“My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways. Says the Lord. . . the word that goes forth out of my mouth shall not return to me void but shall accomplish that which I please, and prosper in that whereto I sent it”. (Isa.55:8,11)