A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, September 29, 2013
Isaiah 17:1-3 GNT
Here is a question for the day: Does the Bible—especially the books of the Old Testament—predict or prophesy contemporary events or things that are yet to come? The question is quite timely. And the reason I was moved to ask the question is the fact that a few weeks ago, when the Syrian crisis was at its peak, the sales of books on biblical prophecy picked up dramatically. And some ministers began sermon series and new Bible studies on biblical prophecy. And the reason is the passage that I read to you from the prophet Isaiah: “Damascus . . . will be only a pile of ruins. The cities of Syria will be deserted forever.” This 2700-year-old oracle was dusted off, as it were, and made to apply to the city of Damascus today. Since Isaiah predicted the destruction of Damascus and the desolation of Syria, and since a strike on Syria by the US for a couple of weeks seemed imminent, then this passage was on the verge of being fulfilled. So the thinking went. But do 2700-year-old biblical passages apply to today, or to the future?
This phenomenon—applying ancient biblical passages to our own day—has lent support to such bestselling popular books as the Left Behind series that has sold into the millions of copies. If you haven’t read the Left Behind series, then you likely know someone who has. In the 1970s and early 1980s, one of the hot titles was Hal Lindsey’s, The Late, Great Planet Earth. It was required seminary reading; not because my professor or seminary bought into it or believed it, but just so we would be aware of what was being read by the popular religious culture. By the 1990s, The Late, Great Planet Earth had sold about 28 million copies. The premise of such books as The Late, Great Planet Earth and Left Behind series is they take select biblical passages, apply them to contemporary events, and construct elaborate interpretations and timelines from them, having to do with the Rapture, tribulation, Battle of Armageddon, and so on. Different countries and kings named in the apocalyptic books of the Bible—Ezekiel, Daniel, and Revelation—are picked out and equated with different countries and rulers today.
Now, all of this raises some pertinent questions. Questions such as, What was the nature and purpose of the Old Testament prophets? Was it within their purview to be predictors of the distant future? In actuality, the nature and functions of the Hebrew prophets were many and varied, depending upon the time period and contemporary circumstances. The role of the prophet evolved somewhat over the centuries. Early on, the prophet might be consulted for a variety of reasons, such as helping locate lost property, predicting whether a sick child would live or die, declaring “God’s will” regarding whether the people should go to war, and so on. Sometimes the prophet would announce that God had designated a particular individual to become king (as with David), or that God had rejected the reigning king (as with Saul).
Then during the eighth century BCE, the prominent prophets (notably Amos, Hosea, Micah, and Isaiah) were interpreters of international affairs, critics of corrupt or shallow religious practices, and vocal judges against the abuses of social justice. Then during the sixth century BCE exilic period, the prophetic task centered around issues of restoring the Jewish community and its religious institutions.1
Oddly enough, and contrary to much contemporary thinking, prophets were not predictors of the distant future. When prophets such as Isaiah made pronouncements about what they saw coming, such as the destruction of Damascus, they were making reference to their own time or within the current generation, generally speaking.
This leads to a second question, Do ancient biblical texts in fact predict contemporary events? The short and simple answer is “No, they do not.” But I will give a few qualifiers momentarily. But let me try to bring it a bit closer home. Think about one of today’s well-known and prominent megachurch pastors or television preachers. Pick any one you like: Billy Graham, Joel Osteen, Robert Schuller, Rick Warren, or Joyce Meyer; it really doesn’t matter. Now think about one of those guys making a prediction a thousand years, fifteen hundred years, or even twenty-five hundred years into the future. It doesn’t make much sense, does it? For Rick Warren to predict what is to come to pass 2500 years from now—say, the destruction of Damascus, or Moscow, or North Korea, or any other place familiar to us—wouldn’t mean anything to us. Such pronouncements would only get our attention if it were in the immediate future or at least within our own lifetime. Well, such it was with the ancient prophets. Isaiah had no interest whatsoever in predicting something 2700 years into the future. He was speaking to events in his own lifetime. In speaking of the coming destruction of Damascus and Syria, scholars think he most likely was making reference to the Syro-Ephraimite War that occurred in the eighth century BCE. In 735 BCE, King Rezin of Damascus of Syria organized a coalition that included Ephraim (the northern Israelite Kingdom) that attached King Ahaz of Judah (the southern Israelite kingdom). So you see, Isaiah wasn’t speaking about the demise of Damascus in our day, but was concerned with the events going on in the Syria of his own day.
However, you may have heard the saying that “The Bible repeats itself.” In other words, sometimes something historical that the Bible says may appear to apply to our own day. One good example from the New Testament is where Jesus is quoted in Matthew as saying, “nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places” (24:7 ESV). I heard my late grandmother more than once quote this verse to prove that the end of the world was near. But was Jesus (or Matthew?) referring to events 2,000 years away, or to events that were happening at the time that the gospel of Matthew was written? So, you see, one way of looking at it is there is a way that the Bible does seem to repeat itself, but not because the writer was looking 2,000 or 2,500 years into the future, but only because history tends to repeat itself.
A third question, How should such ancient texts that speak of familiar places be interpreted? Again, a short and simple answer is, such texts should be studied within their historical context—what was going on at the time the book was written. To attempt to take books like Isaiah, or the apocalyptic books like Daniel and Revelation, and make their pronouncements and predictions fit the events of our own day is pretty much a futile exercise. If you walk into any conservative Christian bookstore, you likely will find a number of books on biblical prophecy, and all of them somewhat different. I had someone ask me just a few weeks ago, “What is your view and interpretation about the Rapture and Millennium? And my answer was quick and short: Pure speculation. But pure speculation has sold a lot of books and made a lot of writers rich. And by the same token, predicting the day of the Rapture or the end of the world has made a lot of cult leaders over the centuries who predicted the end of the world look quite foolish. All this is to say, we should critically and academically study ancient prophecies within the historical context when they were written.
Fourth and finally, If we buy into ancient biblical prophecy, how does it change our worldview? This one question could be a sermon in itself for another day, and may very well be one in the near future. But in short, if we allow our lives to be dictated by some ancient biblical prophecy that was never intended for our own day to begin with, we may miss out on living the one, precious life we have to live. Many Christians have lived their entire adult lives “waiting for Jesus to come,” while at the same time giving little thought to the social problems and injustices of our contemporary world. If Jesus is coming soon, then why go to the trouble of addressing or trying to fix society’s problems?
But in another way, buying into ancient biblical prophecy that would seem to demonize a particular country of the world—such as Syria, Iran (which was ancient Persia), Iraq (which was Babylon), and so on, can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If the Bible says God pronounces judgment on such and such a place (i.e., Damascus), then it is all too easy to start believing that we are God’s agents to do it. And you can see the dangers in such a line of thinking.
Well, biblical texts can be fascinating. But there is another old saying to the effect that you can make the Bible say anything you want it to. That certainly is true when it comes to biblical prophecy. Let us read and study the Bible, and let us read and study it well. But let us do so with the help of such distinguished biblical scholars as Marcus Borg and Amy-Jill Levine, as we are now doing in our adult Sunday school class. When we study the Bible well within its historical context, then we will have a good foundation and know how to answer those who might unsettle us by trying to make ancient biblical texts say something they never intended to say. Amen.
1Some thoughts gleaned from the New Oxford Annotated Bible, Third Edition.