Yesterday I made the suggestion that Jesus not only didn’t know “the day nor the hour” of His return, but also that He believed it to be within the lifetime of the generation then living. Many of His sayings would confirm this, and the apostles took up the message and declared it throughout their ministry and letters.
Should we ask the question – why did the Father allow His Son to believe this knowing that it would be far away in the future? The words Jesus spoke were, by His own confession, those He received from His Father, and therefore He was speaking truth as it then applied. So do we have something here to investigate in respect of the nature of prophecy, and the nature of Divine Communication to man, whether itbe through the Prophets, or through His own Son?
I said that I would attempt to answer this question today. In order to do so, I believe it is necessary first of all to review certain events in the Old Testament which betray an understanding related to this question. Because this will be more than sufficient for one edition, I shall divide my solution into two parts.
The first item comes from the very beginning, in Genesis 3. The Serpent had deceived Eve, and the Lord had spoken about a future event when the Serpent would be punished. The Lord said to the Serpent, “I will establish enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed. He will bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” (Gen.3:15) Try to imagine what these words meant to Eve. When God spoke about “the woman”, to whom was He addressing? Well, there was only one woman on the earth! Eve would quite naturally have assumed that God was referring to her. And what about the “seed”? Here again, she would have interpreted the word to mean her own son, yet to be born. And so, when he was born, she exclaimed, “I have begotten a man with the help of the Lord.” (Gen.4:1) No, she didn’t say that! The Hebrew distinctly says “I have begotten a man – the Lord.” She truly believed that the “seed” had arrived, and that in due course he would undo the evil that the Serpent had started, that she had fostered by her disobedience. Brief though the text is, there is a clear indication that she brought up Cain (meaning “acquisition”) to think that he was to be a great man. When she bore a second son, by contrast she called him Abel (“transitoriness”, here today, gone tomorrow). This would explain the problem that arose with Cain, who was so offended that God should not heed his sacrifice. His anger led to murder, because he thought he was really someone, unlike his brother.
We now need to turn to Isaiah 7:14. “Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a son and she will call His name Immanuel.” Before saying any more, let it be understood that the Hebrew word used here for “virgin” is Almah, which Gesenius’ Lexicon declares is “a young woman of marriageable age”, the masculine word of the same root being Elem, meaning “a young man at the age of puberty.” The strict technical Hebrew word for Virgin is Bethulah. This in no way undermines the Virgin birth of Jesus of course, where Mary was a true Virgin, and her Son was born by parthenogenesis.
Isaiah received these words, and so he believed that they were addressed to him. In the next chapter we read, “I went in unto the prophetess and she conceived and bore a son.” (Isa.8:3) This was exactly as Isaiah expected, but before his wife called their son Immanuel, the message came from the Lord, “Call his name Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz.” That was a surprise. The name was far removed from Immanuel. And so, like Eve, he had to learn the lesson that prophetic words often refer to events far distant in the future, even though they appear to be associated with immediate happenings.
Our next reference is back in Genesis, and refers to the events connected with Sodom. After speaking to Abraham and Sarah about the forthcoming birth of their son, the Lord said to His angelic companions,“Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, seeing that Abraham shall become a great and mighty nation . . . . No, for I have chosen him [Hebrew ‘I have known him’] that he may charge hischildren . . to keep the way of the Lord.” (Gen.18:17-19) The Lord “knew” Abraham. He knew that he was going to be trustworthy. Nevertheless, he could not be exempted from tests, and the next of these concerned Sodom. It may seem almost scandalous that he should have persisted for so long in his demand for the Lord to act righteously in respect of the coming tragedy, but the Lord took no offence. He was, I am sure, pleased to hear Abraham’s insistence about saving the righteous in Sodom. Is there a lesson here? I’m particularly concerned with the interaction between God and man. The Sinless, all-knowing God, and the fallen race of human beings with whom He has to do. Only a God as wonderful as He truly is, can have decided on so great a plan as the Redemption in His Son, and furthered His plans for the most part in spite of all our self-centredness. But occasionally He found an Abraham, and even though he was also part of the fallen scene, He was able to use him mightily to further His purposes.
There’s another little conversation piece which fits in with these thoughts. It’s found in Numbers 14, and relates to that heart-achingly wretched situation presented by the return of the spies from the Promised Land. Joshua and Caleb, the only faithful ones, were just about to run for their lives from being stoned to death by the crazed mob, when the glory of the Lord appeared, and Moses was no doubt shaking with fear at the displayed anger of the Lord. “How long will this people despise me? How long will they not believe in me, in spite of all the signs I have wrought among them? I will strike them with pestilence and disinherit them, and I will make of you a nation greater and mightier than they.” (Num.14:11-12)
Is it possible to enter into the mind of the faithful Moses when hearing these words? This situation was far worse than Sodom, when the Lord pronounced judgment on a wicked people. These were His own redeemed people, a nation drawn out from Egypt to enter a Promised Land. This thought would have been uppermost in Moses’ mind, and indeed was reflected in his reply. But there was something else. The Lord had made a promise to elevate him to the position of being the generic head of a new nation, thereby taking the very place that Abraham occupied earlier. This was a heady thought, and could have produced pride. It was a severe test on Moses. But he was a stalwart man of God. How did he answer? “Now if You kill this people as one man, then the nations who have heard of Your fame will say, ‘Because the Lord was not able to bring this people into the land which He swore to give to them, therefore He has slain them in the wilderness’. . . . . Pardon the iniquity of this people, I pray You, according to the greatness of Your steadfast love, and according as You have forgiven this people, from Egypt even until now.” (Num.14:15-19)
This plea contained three elements, namely, (a) the preservation of God’s people, (b) the preservation of the glory of God in the eyes of the nations, and (c) the outworking of God’s great character of love. As a result, God changed His mind, and preserved the Israeli nation, but exacted a penalty in that only their children would enter the land of promise. All this transaction is important for us to bear in mind as we proceed in this enquiry.
And this brings us to another similar circumstance many years later in the days of Amos the prophet. He had received some dire warnings about the nation’s transgressions, that occasioned such words as, “I hate, I despise your feasts; I take no pleasure in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer burnt offerings, I will not accept them.” (Amos 5:21-22) And then the Lord showed him a vision in which he saw the Lord creating locusts to eat up and destroy all the grass of the land. He cried out, saying, “O Lord God, forgive, I beseech You! How can Jacob stand? He is so small!” (Amos 7:1-2) What about the result? “The Lord repented concerning this, ‘It shall not be’ says the Lord”
But this was not the end. There was yet another vision. This time he saw a great judgment of fire eating up the land. Amos continued pleading with the Lord, using the same words as before. The Lord heard, repented, and said, “This also shall not be.” It may sound offensive in our ears to hear about the Lord “repenting”. We must understand that He has “changed His mind” at the imploring of His prophet, just as He did for Moses before.
However, this was not the end. Amos saw yet a third vision, in which the Lord was holding a plumb line. Before Amos could say anything, he was told, “Behold I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel, and I will never again pass by them.” (7:8) The forecast about locusts and fire had been removed, but the Lord reserved the right to judge His people. They were precluded from entering the land in Moses’ day. In the days of the later prophets, they were carried away into captivity. Two things need to be mentioned here. (a) We cannot ask God to overlook the sins of His people as though they can be swept under His rug, and (b) we can appeal to God’s mercy and lovingkindness to avert the worst aspects of promised judgment. In this respect, how should we interpret some of the dire judgments in Revelation, which also speak of locusts and fire? Are we like some modern-day expositors, who seem content to accept that a quarter of earth’s population is destroyed without batting an eyelid? Or do we feel like Amos, and cry out that these things should not be? Perhaps the Lord has recorded John’s visions to test us, just as He tested Moses when He was about to destroy the nation. That is a truly awesome thought.
One is then reminded that even the Apostle Paul had the same heart of pleading with God, when he said,“I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen by race. They are Israelites, and to them belong the sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises.” (Romans 9:2-4) Here was a true Israelite, whose heart had been transformed, now speaking as Moses did when he saw the iniquity of the golden calf. “But now, if You will forgive their sin – and if not, blot me, I pray You out of Your Book which You have written.” (Exodus 32:32)
These great passages, displaying the intensity of godly love within certain Biblical characters, make a sure foundation stone upon which we can, and must, interpret later events that occurred in Jesus’ day and afterwards. Let us reserve this, and keep it in mind as we proceed. We must now turn to quite a different scene, but one which will also help us in understanding how to interpret prophecy. It concerns the destruction of the city of Tyre. Ezekiel received a lengthy account of the Lord’s displeasure with Tyre. It is found in chapters 26 -28. The Lord appointed Nebuchadnezzar as His agent to destroy the city. “I will bring upon Tyre from the north Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon . . .and I will make you a bare rock, you shall be a place for the spreading of nets; you shall never be rebuilt.” (26:7-14)
But it never happened quite as the Lord prophesied. Nebuchadnezzar did indeed attack the city, but the city was built in two parts, the mainland city, and the island city, which was defended by stout walls, and seemed like an impregnable fortress. He managed to defeat the mainland city, but could not break through the island walls, even after an extended siege lasting 13 years, from B.C. 585 – 572. This was left to Alexander the Great, who succeeded after a 7 month siege, in B.C. 332. Alexander took all the rubble from the mainland city, and built a mole out to the island, thereby enabling him to wheel his siege engines across on dry land. That mole is still there, and is even today a place “for the spreading of nets in the midst of the sea.”
We might ask why the prophecy was not fulfilled completely by Nebuchadnezzar, the Lord having made no statement to indicate that he would be only partially successful. It shows us that statements made prophetically need to be understood properly in their outworking. In this case, the work was started by Nebuchadnezzar, and that apparently satisfied the prophetic announcement. It mattered not that another had to step in to finish the job, 240 years later.
Having studied all these matters from Old Testament times, we are now in a position to attack the problem stated in the previous number in this series. We are presented with the problem of seeing numerous allusions to an early return of the Lord, well within the lifetimes of the apostles, and knowing that it not only didn’t happen, but even after some 2,000 years, it still hasn’t happened. Why is this? Tomorrow I shall try to find a satisfactory solution, based upon the foundation laid in today’s O.T. studies.
(As a footnote here, our readers may be interested in the preparation for these recent studies and many of our writings. Rosalind and I frequently talk about the subject matter before I write and sometimes we go out to a nearby Garden Centre, where it is possible to have coffee outside in a secluded area, where one may talk freely without being overheard or distracted. Or often it’s over coffee at home or when out driving but always we ask the Lord to help us understand the many puzzling things which confront us especially in a study of this sort. We are amazed at how first one thing, and then another, is brought to our minds from the Bible, so that as soon as possible I have to sit down and quickly make notes of everything before it is lost. This has been my guide in writing, and we commend it to you, not as those who think they know all the answers, but as those who delight in the words and ways of our Lord, and who wish to share with others. We are now totally alone, all the family having departed, and no further meetings in our home, and no churches within miles that have any form of true life. We tend to look upon our writings as a means of being a part of, and contributing to, God’s Global Church, and that is why we value all your comments. God bless you all.)