An essay by Dr. Charles Ozanne, written in 1972 as the Introduction to his book of this title.
“God is not man, that He should lie,
or a son of man, that He should repent.
Has He said, and will He not do it?
or has He spoken and will He not fulfil it?”
“. . . if that nation, concerning which I have spoken turns from its evil,
I will repent of the evil that I intended to do it,
. . . and if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice,
then I will repent of the good which I had intended to do to it.”
“And we have the prophetic word made more sure.
You will do well to pay attention to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place.”
(2 Peter 1:19)
In this essay it is proposed to comment briefly on the character of Biblical prophecy and how it should be interpreted. First and foremost is the principle of literalness. A. B. Davidson writes: “This I consider the first principle in prophetic interpretation – to read the prophets literally – to assume that the literal meaning is his meaning – that he is moving among realities, not symbols, among concrete things like peoples, not among abstractions like our Church, world, etc. If we make this assumption then we know what we have before us”. Again he writes: “The first thing in interpreting prophecy is to hold that the prophet had a meaning, that he used language like any other writer, and what he literally says he literally means. Thus, and thus alone, can we reach his meaning”.
On the basis of this principle we can only reject that line of interpretation which “spiritualises” the Old Testament prophets, and makes them out to have been fulfilled in the spiritual truths of the New Testament. It is true, as we shall see in due course, that many prophecies are modified in process of postponement. Owing to changed circumstances, it is now impossible for many prophecies to be fulfilled in precisely the manner in which they were originally formulated.
This however is a matter relating to fulfilment; the original meaning of the prophet is still the literal meaning. It is this meaning moreover – or something not far removed from it – which is the meaning for us as well. Israel is still Israel (and not the Church), the Temple which Ezekiel saw in vision is still a literal, physical Temple in Jerusalem (and not the spiritual Temple of which Christians are the living stones), and the various nations denounced are still the same nations, or their modern equivalents.
Only with disastrous results can this principle of literalness be neglected. By such neglect the Prophets are vitiated of their plain grammatical meaning, and something which never entered their minds is put in its place. If the Prophets do not mean what they say, there is no knowing what they mean and one man’s guess is as good as another. In short, either the Prophets mean what they say, or they mean nothing at all.
As a rider to this it should be added that the New Testament use of Old Testament passages cannot be deemed normative as to their primary interpretation. Of course, all such uses are inspired and instructive, but they may not represent– and in many cases do not represent – the original meaning of the writer. Only the writer’s original meaning constitutes the proper interpretation of a passage. All else is application.
The real problem of the Prophets, however, resides not so much in the area of meaning as in the areas of fulfilment. At the outset it cannot be too strongly emphasised that predictive prophecy is not simply pre-written history. The mistaken view that predictive prophecy is in essence pre-written history has bedevilled – and still bedevils – a great deal of evangelical thinking on the subject. In the 19th century it actuated such men as Alexander Keith who thought he could prove the inspiration of the Bible and the truth of the Christian faith from the evidence of fulfilled prophecy. Unfortunately, however, the prophecies were not fulfilled for the most part with anything like the precision which Keith supposed, and his efforts only served to stimulate the devastating labours of Abraham Kuenen. Working on the same general assumption as Keith that the prophecies were intended as pre-written history, Keunen “proved” with far greater cogency than Keith that the Bible could not have been written by Divine inspiration at all.
This would certainly follow if the Prophets’ original intention was to give a blueprint of future events. This however is not the case. What the Prophets predict as going to happen is not therefore what necessarily does happen; it is only what ought to happen according to God’s purpose revealed at that time.
The purpose is often of a temporary character; it is God’s programme for the future then being offered to the nation, but which may subsequently be modified, postponed, of even withdrawn if the nation does not respond in the manner desired. For example, it is predicted in the second chapter of Daniel that four Gentile kingdoms would appear on the stage of history prior to the setting up of the kingdom of Messiah. If this prophecy were simply pre-written history one would have to assume (as indeed most commentators do) that the fourth kingdom is Rome. But Daniel is not predicting what must take place; he is only predicting what should take place according to God’s purpose revealed at that time, a purpose which was to have wound up in full Messianic blessing in little more than 490 years.
The purpose was subsequently delayed, and in process of delay inevitable changes occurred in the original forecast. If therefore the Prophet’s meaning is to be grasped, it is important to resist the ever-present temptation of reading back into his words the events of subsequent history, for as likely as not these will be rather different from what the prophet actually anticipated. His true meaning can only be apprehended through the study of the prophet himself.
The study of a portion of the prophetic scriptures naturally falls into three stages: first the investigation of what the prophet expected to happen, second the determination of what actually did happen, and third (which only applies when the first two fail to correspond) the resolution of what actually will happen. As regards the first two no doubt need exist: the analysis of Scripture will determine the first, and the perusal of history should settle the second. The third stage alone must remain uncertain. Even when we know precisely what the prophet says, we still cannot know for certain how it will turn out in the future, for the original conditions will have changed, and a change of conditions naturally brings with it a modification of the prophecy.
It is a characteristic feature of Old (and New) Testament prophecy to present the Day of the Lord and related events as springing out of the circumstances of the day, and therefore as more or less imminent. Continually we come across the statement that the Day of the Lord is near. On the principle of literalness we are bound to accept at their face value the prophetic statements to this effect. But then we have to explain why the Day of the Lord never arrived, and why the bulk of Old Testament prophecy was never fulfilled either in the time or in the manner that the Prophets anticipated.
Many have found a solution to this problem in the theory of “perspective foreshortening”. Delitzsch talks glibly about “the foreshortening of the prophetic horizon”. This foreshortening is said to be no more a defect in apocalyptic than it is a defect in a telescope that makes distant objects appear near at hand. But the Bible is not a telescope and has little in common with a telescope. The prophecies themselves contain no indication that they are foreshortened or contracted. Indeed many of them give circumstantial details which prohibit such a view, as for example when the birth of Immanuel is bound by the circumstances of the Syro-Ephraimite alliance at the beginning of the reign of Ahaz (Isaiah 7), or the obliteration of Tyre is committed to Nebuchadnezzar in person (Ezekiel 26). Though dignified by the name of “law” the theory of perspective foreshortening is not in fact derived from the Bible at all. It was invented independently to explain the non-fulfilment of prophecy and then imposed on the text from outside.
Much nearer the truth are those who have found the solution in the principle of conditionality. It is an undoubted fact that a strong element of contingency inheres the prophetic statements. This arises from the fact that the prophets were ministers of righteousness whose predictions accordingly were based on morality. These are not merely divine fiats or oracular pronouncements; they are moral judgments designed to encourage and deter. R. Payne Smith has wisely written, “A prophecy is never merely a prediction. The heathen oracles simply foretold an event. So to do is an act of divination or soothsaying, a thing always condemned in the Bible in the strongest terms. A prophecy always has a moral purpose, and Hezekiah used Micah’s prophecy for its proper purpose when he repented, and urged the people to repentance, and besought the Lord to avert the evil”.  Jerome is reputed to have said that “Many of the prophecies were given, not that they should, but that they should not, be fulfilled”. And another writer: “Their menace always implies an unless”.
There is no difficulty in discerning the condition in prophecy; the difficulty comes in defining the absolute. This for some writers is virtually nonexistent. Thus according to one writer, “All national prophecy is conditional. It is based on conditions in existence at the time of the prophecy, and if these are changed, then the prophecy ceases to be in force”. If therefore a prophecy was not fulfilled, we have only to postulate that the conditions were changed and the problem is solved!
It is true of course that God is merciful and repents of the evil “if that nation” concerning which He has spoken “turns from its evil” (Jeremiah 18:8) But what if that nation did not repent (so far as we can tell) but went on sinning as it had done before? – as in fact was the case with most of the prophecies of national doom. This principle, moreover, can only operate in one direction – in the withdrawal of threatened punishment. The gifts and calling of God are without repentance; His promises therefore are never finally withdrawn, but will all be fulfilled in the fullness of time.
A more accurate statement of the case is that prophecy on the whole is conditional with respect to time but unconditional with respect to eventual fulfilment. In other words, its conditionality consists chiefly in the time element and not in its minatory or promissory content. Many examples could be cited in support of this principle, the most obvious being that of Jonah. Jonah’s warning to the Ninevites was a plain statement of the divine intention unrelieved by any stated conditions: “Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown!”
But as Jonah knew only too well (Jonah 4:2) if the Ninevites were to repent of their barbarous conduct, God in His turn would repent of this evil, and that of course is precisely what happened. Some would have us believe that the threatened judgment was now withdrawn and forgotten. But it would be nearer the truth to say that it remained suspended over the city as a permanent warning to the Ninevites, awaiting only the return of the conditions which originally called it forth. These conditions did not have to return, and to that extent the prophecy did not have to be fulfilled. Nevertheless, about 150 years later, Nineveh was destroyed, and this I believe was in fulfilment not only of Nahum’s prophecy but also of Jonah’s.
Another example is to be found in Micah. It is here predicted in no uncertain terms that “Zion shall be ploughed as a field; Jerusalem shall become a heap of ruins, and the mountain of the house a wooded height”. (Micah 3:12) And this was to happen “because of you”, that is, because of the abhorrent behaviour of the rulers of Israel. It is clearly implied that this fearful judgment would overtake those very rulers – though in point of fact nothing happened for more than a hundred years. In this instance we are not left to guess the reason, for we are explicitly told in Jeremiah 26:18-19 that the Lord repented of the evil in answer to Hezekiah’s humble confession and entreaty. “Did Hezekiah king of Judah and all Judah put him to death?” ask the elders of the land. “Did he not fear the Lord and entreat the favour of the Lord, and did not the Lord repent of the evil which He had pronounced against them?” But Micah’s threat was not permanently averted. In the words of A. F. Kirkpatrick, “The threat indeed was absolute and unconditional; but God’s threatening, like His promises, are conditional; they may be withdrawn or suspended; and upon the repentance of Hezekiah and the people the threatened punishment was averted . . . But Micah’s prediction remained on record. Its fulfilment was only deferred”.
In due course every word of Micah’s threat was fulfilled. The process began in 586 BC when Jerusalem fell prey to the Babylonian invader; but in that year the details of the prophecy remained untouched. In AD 70 it received another fulfilment at the hands of the Romans. Then were the foundations of the Temple torn up with a ploughshare at the orders of Terentius Rufus. It was not however till AD 135, after the Bar-Cochba revolt, that the site of Jerusalem was actually ploughed as a field. In content, therefore, Micah’s prophecy was an unconditional pronouncement of future disaster; it was conditional only in the matter of time.
This principle, I believe, runs through the entire length and breadth of the Bible and colours all its prophetic statements from Genesis to Revelation. In all probability it is the explanation of the concluding promise of the Bible. This is the promise of the ascended Christ, “Surely I am coming quickly”, (Rev.22:20) The book of Revelation, in common with nearly all the New Testament books, assumes that the second coming of Christ was due for almost immediate fulfilment. In assuming this, the apostles were not mistaken (as some suppose), but were repeating some of the most emphatic statements of the Lord Jesus Himself. These statements, however, were conditional in their time element, for they could not be fulfilled without the repentance of the Jewish people and their acceptance of the Lord Jesus as their Messiah. When they failed to do this – and truly their failure was dismal – the promise of an imminent “Parousia” was withdrawn, and the nation instead was handed over to the Romans to be enslaved and destroyed. Nevertheless, the second coming itself is an absolute promise which must in due course be fulfilled.
Reading the Old Testament prophets, we find it implied in nearly all of them that the time of fulfilment had already drawn near – but only occasionally are their anticipations confirmed by events. The critics have seen in this a clear indication of prophetic fallibility, but the true explanation is entirely different. This is that the threats are repeatedly put off because of God’s mercy and longsuffering, while the promises are likewise deferred on account of man’s disobedience and unbelief. Both of these (the threats and the promises) belong for the most part to the Day of the Lord and to the inception of the Messianic Kingdom. But the Day of the Lord is an ever-receding event. Again and again it is said to have drawn near (and the Prophets mean what they say), but again and again it does not take place.
The reason for this is not to be sought in the prophets’ mistaken enthusiasm, nor in the alleged “law of prophetic perspective”, but in the process of divine postponement. It is not that God does not speak in human language or that His words are non-literal in meaning, but that man in his unbelief makes it impossible for God to implement His purposes within the time limit originally intended.
What therefore we find in the Prophets is not the overall purpose of the ages as we now know it from the completed revelation of the Bible, but a succession of temporary purposes, each suited to the time in which it was announced. These purposes are all similar in character, but vary in particulars according to the circumstances of the time. Canon Girdlestone has well written, “It would seem as if there were a constant reconstruction of the Divine plan, to meet the new set of circumstances brought about by human failure; so that whilst in one sense God is not a man that He should repent (Num.23:19 & 1 Sam.15:29), yet He does repent, in the sense of changing course (1 Sam.15:35)”. These purposes however, though differing in details, all agree in saying that the Messianic Kingdom would be inaugurated in the foreseeable future.
As far as some people are concerned, to speak to them of the postponed kingdom is like waving a red rag to a bull. But in point of fact the kingdom has been repeatedly postponed from the time of Joshua onwards (Heb.4:1-11). This is not merely a New Testament truth but one which runs right through the history of Israel. The kingdom was repeatedly offered to them, and repeatedly was postponed simply because the conditions pertaining to it were not fulfilled. For this reason the kingdom is still awaited, and now maybe in our own generation is drawing near for the last time.
This principle means in effect that the bulk of Old Testament prophecy, though in the first place presented as imminent, still to this day awaits fulfilment and will go on doing so until the Day of the Lord arrives and the Millennial Kingdom is set up. In process of postponement, however, no prophecy remains totally unchanged. Altered circumstances, a new political environment, the disappearance of cities and states, modern methods of warfare, and technological advance are bound to produce far-reaching changes in the prophecy as originally stated. For example, the prophecies of doom on the Philistines, on Tyre, and on the ancient cities of Egypt and Moab cannot now be fulfilled. They belong to the day of the Lord as it would have happened in Old Testament times, not as it yet will happen in a future time. Again, the famous prophecy on Gog in Ezekiel 38-39 mentions shields and bucklers, bows and arrows, handpikes and spears, as the weapons used in the conflict. It is almost inconceivable that weapons such as these will be used in any future conflict; but insofar as the burning of these weapons plays a major part of the prophecy, we are bound to believe that the weapons employed, whatever they may be, will still be made of some inflammable material. It is not always possible to decide to what extent a prophecy will be changed, but in most cases the essential kernel at the very least may be expected to remain intact. It will be chiefly in circumstantial details that the modifications will occur.
 “Old Testament Prophecy”. T. & T. Clark, 1904. Pp 167 f.
 “Evidence of the Truth of the Christian Religion Derived from the Literal Fulfilment of Prophecy”, 36th edition, Edinburgh, 1848.
 “The Prophets and Prophecy in Israel” translated from the Dutch, London, 1877
 “Prophecy: a Preparation for Christ”, Bampton Lectures for 1869, pp. 222 f.
 “The Doctrine of the Prophets” (London 1901), pp. 209 f.
 “The Grammar of Prophecy” (London 1901), p.28