Prophecy – What It Is, and What It Isn’t

The Fellowship  |  November 1, 2019

Israeli flag waving in the air in front of the Western Wall.

Harold Camping had done his work carefully, and he was certain.

Using information gleaned from his close study of the Bible, the Christian author, radio personality, and evangelist predicted that the Rapture would occur on May 21, 2011. Shuttered in his home in California, he awaited the much-anticipated event. When nothing happened, he admitted that he was “flabbergasted,” and “looking for answers.” His followers also expressed their astonishment. “I can’t tell you what I feel right now,” said one. “Obviously, I haven’t understood it correctly because we’re still here.”

Still, Camping revised his prediction to October of the same year. When, once again, nothing happened, he admitted that his calculations had been made in error — despite his careful work. “We have learned the very painful lesson that all of creation is in God’s hands and He will end time in His time, not ours,” he wrote to his followers in March of 2012.

It was not the first time that Harold Camping had erroneously predicted the end of the world based on his interpretation of the Bible, and he was certainly not the first person to do so. But his story illustrates well the danger of using the Bible to say with certainty the exact time and date when events will occur. For Christians, it may bring to mind Jesus’ admonition in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 24: “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father … Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come” (v. 36, 42).

But does this mean that there is no such thing as prophecy?

Certainly, the Bible teaches otherwise. And there is another biblical view of prophecy: Prophecy is God’s way of revealing Himself at a particular time in history, of entering into the natural order and speaking to people, often using individuals to do so. Prophecy is one of the vehicles of communication between God and man. A prophet’s role, in this view, is to cut through hypocrisy by bringing God’s Word into a world that has gone astray.

The classic case of prophecy is the Ten Commandments — God speaking to the people of Israel directly at Mount Sinai. Isaiah, chapter 58, is another. There, the prophet goes to the people and says, in effect, “if you’ve been fasting, but you’re not getting the salvation you expect, then ask yourself why.” Fasting, he tells them, isn’t just abstaining from food. It’s not just refraining from drinking water. A real fast, Isaiah tells them, is “to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood” (v.7).

We also know that history clearly shows God’s hand at work, and that many events we have seen happening in modern history are the fulfillment of biblical prophecies. The formation of the modern state of Israel, the reunification of Jerusalem after the 1967 Six-Day War, the return of Jews to Israel from “the four corners of the earth” — none of these events are accidents. This view of prophecy is expressed well in a letter sent by 250 top Israeli rabbis to American President Donald Trump the day after he declared that the U.S. would recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel: “We are privileged to be living in a generation that is repeatedly witnessing the words of the prophets coming true … Jews have made aliyah and are continuing to come to the land of Israel from all corners of the world. Israel triumphs over its enemies time after time, the mountains of Israel offer generous bounty and the economy is booming.”

There is a difference between saying that we are living in a time when events seem to point to the end of days and saying that we know definitively when the events leading up to the end of days will occur. It is tempting to believe that we can predict the future — it led Harold Camping (and many others throughout history) to name the precise date and hour of the dawning of the “end times.” But if we learn anything from those erroneous predictions, perhaps it should be that we must approach the subject with great humility, in the belief that certain knowledge of such things belongs to God alone. As we read in Isaiah 55:8, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways.” There are many ways that God’s plan and promises can unfold.

Prophecy is about God’s providence, not predictions. Rather than looking forward and saying such-and-such will happen in this exact way, we look back and see God’s footsteps. We marvel at how history has unfolded just as God promised it would in the Bible, and find comfort in knowing that while we might not know God’s plan, we know He has a plan — and everything is happening exactly as it should.

Perhaps the lesson is that, as we go through our day-to-day lives, we should do so prayerfully and with humility. We can listen to the ancient words of the prophets and find guidance relevant to what we should be doing today, even as we plan for our and our children’s future, and do our utmost to help others and improve the world we live in now while preparing ourselves spiritually for the world to come. And we can pray for the day when God will bless us with peace, sure in the knowledge that He, and only He, remains sovereign over all people and all things.

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