There’s considerable confusion about the basic meaning of the phrase “biblical prophecy.” Always has been. And the phrase has hit the news cycle again.
Recently in an article in the New York Times titled, “Christian Prophets are on the Rise. What Happens When They’re Wrong?” the subject hit the big time. Those old enough to remember the Fundamentalist Christian writer Hal Lindsey’s book “The Late Great Planet Earth,” will recognize that this is an old trope which resurfaces periodically. And those like me with a checkered religious past will even recall sweaty revival preachers who promised an immanent day of judgement and doom that kept getting deferred.
Actual “Prophecy” in the Bible usually had two elements: foretelling or prediction (which is what the popular mind and the media tends to gravitate to because it is spectacular, speculative and inconsequential) and forth-telling or proclamation (which is one of the essential functions of religious leadership in the Judeo-Christian heritage). Among the canonical Hebrew prophets (like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea, Amos, and so forth), the two elements are interwoven and are delivered usually by a reluctant figure (the prophet) who wishes he didn’t have the awesome responsibility to pass on the Word of God.
You’ll remember Isaiah famously following up his “Here am I, Lord, send me” statement with the question, “How long, O Lord, do I have to preach this stuff?” This is why these prophets kept saying, “Thus saith the Lord.” They really didn’t want “credit” for the message they had to deliver.
Most of the forth-telling side of the prophetic messages comes from the clarity and integrity of the vision God gave the prophets. The prophets were unbiased by chicanery, bribes, popular opinion, or political pressure. They believed deeply in God and the Covenant that God made with his people; they trusted God explicitly over every earthly power. As the Psalms say of the righteous, “they do not place their trust in princes,” nor in “horses and chariots,” nor in “the legs of any man” (I just love that last one).
So, when kings and princes, courtiers and judges take bribes, or make decisions based on narrow self-interests, or show preference toward the privileged while ruling against the powerless, or shamelessly bend to momentary expediency, the prophets remind the rulers, judges, and the whole people of God, who they are, who they are called to be, with whom they have a covenant, and to whom they belong. Indeed, although the prophets often spoke directly to the rulers, they intended their message to be over-heard by everyone in their society. As Abraham Heschel once wrote: Few may be guilty, but all are responsible.
Both the rulers and the people seemed to tire of hearing from the prophets. The prophets just went on and on about injustices that most people accepted as standard operating procedure. God frequently appears to be the only one who wants to hear the prophets speak. When the Bible describes “prophecy” this is the aspect of the message of the prophets most often called to mind.
When it comes to foretelling, a prophet’s messages proceeded from the same clarity and integrity of vision as his forth-telling, and the same conviction that God has made his Covenant with his people. There were in the ancient world, even before the biblical prophets showed up, people designated as prophets. They resembled what we would call soothsayers and shamans. Some fell into ecstatic trances, others frothed at the mouth, still others covered themselves with dust and worse, and many spoke gibberish (hmmm, I wonder if I haven’t come across some of their descendants?).
Among the people of Israel, however, what was considered prophesy was spoken by a different sort of person:
Nathan, for example, who stood courageously before King David and spoke the uncomfortable truth to the king. The king had used his position of power to kill a faithful officer and to steal that man’s wife. Nathan told David a moving story that provoked David’s sense of justice. And when David demanded that justice be rendered to the guilty man, Nathan said to the king, “Thou Art the man.” That’s what is meant, incidentally, by the phrase “speaking truth to power.”
The paradigmatic Hebrew prophet, of course, was the great Isaiah, often called the Prince of Prophets, a man at the inner circle of the royal court, a priest in the Temple, apparently a respected counselor to the king, who, when he was confronted by the Lord, humbly confessed, “I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell among a people of unclean lips.” When Isaiah looked into the future, he was observing an historical trajectory with which his king had to struggle in light of God’s Covenant.
There is this element of what we might call “prediction” among the Hebrew prophets, such as when they (like Isaiah) tell their rulers about unpleasant outcomes awaiting the nation if it continues on a particular course. But even here it is more a matter of reading the signs of the time than reading the tea-leaves. There’s really nothing equivalent to Madame Zola’s House of Divination and Palmistry in the biblical prophets. And the fevered pronouncements of many self-proclaimed contemporary Christian prophets are as far from biblical prophesy as can be imagined.
While there was in the earliest church (before the death of the first generation of apostles) a lively expectation that Jesus would return to establish the Kingdom of God on earth, and although monks and mendicant preachers in the medieval period turned to predictions of the End of Times whenever pandemics came along, the popular conception of “biblical prophecy” (as a sort of game of “Armageddon Watch” or “Pin the Tail on the AntiChrist,” traces its origin to only a hundred or so years ago. This is especially the case for that popular version of prophesy which uses verses in certain biblical books as keys by which to predict the second coming.
This popular view of “biblical prophesy” traces its origin to the rise of a particular school of biblical interpretation described as Premillennial Dispensationalism. It is a surprisingly modern approach to the Bible. And if you want to ace the historical theology section on the ordination exams, remember that this is the only modern doctrine the Presbyterian Church has ever actually declared as a genuine card-carrying heresy.
Premillennial Dispensationalism teaches that the reign of Christ will come on earth following a series of events which have been predicted in the Bible. Preachers and writers of this ilk arbitrarily choose a variety of enigmatic themes and symbols and metaphors imbedded mostly in poetic and apocalyptic sections of various biblical books (notably Daniel and the Revelation) to construct a more-or-less coherent script that God will follow in ending the world. They correlate the symbols they choose to contemporary events, and away they go!
These preachers and writers tend to be lucky in their choice of audiences. When their predictions of the end of the world turn out to be wrong (and they all have been so far), their audiences are forgiving enough, credulous enough, or suffering from enough erosion of memory to show up next time for the new and improved predictions.*
This Premillennial Dispensational doctrine got very popular with the publication in 1909 of a “study Bible” called the Scofield Reference Bible in which the editor told readers what was “really” meant by obscure references and symbols in commentary which was deftly incorporated into the Bible itself. The editor did what other Premillennial Dispensationalists did; he used certain sections of the Bible as a key to break his own secret codes. But, at a marketing and propagandizing level, placing his interpretation right on the pages of the Bible was a brilliant move.
The Scofield Reference Bible spread the doctrine of Premillennial Dispensationalism throughout the English speaking world, especially in the United States. Because the doctrine actually appeared in the editorial study notes in the Bible, people tended simply to assume that it is true. After all, it’s right there in the Bible! And revival preachers in particular used this to dramatic effect.
Vague references in the Bible, such as rising with Christ, and symbolic visions, such as are common in apocalyptic* writings, coalesced into images (such as “the rapture”) that became so common they entered into popular currency. And among Fundamentalist Christians of one decade after another, hated political figures vied for the title of the AntiChrist.*
What I find especially strange these days is the way the foretelling aspect of prophesy has tended to be taken on by Fundamentalist Christianity while the forth-telling has tended to be taken over by Liberal Christianity. The former try to recast America as an Evangelical Christian theocracy and the latter try to persuade through verbal abuse. To many, both are so wrapped-up in their own self-righteousness that the Jesus of the Sermon on the Mount has become to them offensive.
A friend recently asked, “Well what happens when prophets get it wrong?”
There’s a sort of gallows humor answer which I provided: According to the Old Testament, if you claim the mantle of a prophet and you get it wrong, the community should stone you.
Ps. I recommend never to claim you’re a prophet. If God forces you to be one, better to say, “I am not a prophet, nor am I the son of a prophet.” Good luck on that.
*A Premillennial orthodontist removed Debbie’s wisdom teeth not long after we were married. He demanded we pay in advance for the surgery “in case Jesus returned.” I wasn’t born yesterday. Even at twenty-one years old that sounded fishy.
*Apocalyptic literature is a specific form of religious literature that extends well beyond the Bible. It usually seeks to “unveil” or “reveal” (as the word apocalypse implies) a secret message of hope to those who are oppressed or left-out of society. Historically it tends to rise in popularity in periods of economic and political uncertainty. The Revelation of St. John is an example of such literature. Rich in poetry and metaphor, it is the single richest source of sacred musical texts of any part of the Bible except the Psalms. However, its place in the canon of the Church has been a source of debate from the very beginning (theories of authorship are widely varied, but no credible scholar attributes it to the apostle John), and neither Martin Luther nor John Calvin were comfortable with it, each for their own reasons. It is the only biblical book on which Calvin wrote no commentary.
* It became a sort of Fundamentalist parlor game, for example, in the 1970s to argue whether the real AntiChrist was Henry Kissinger or Jimmy Carter, depending on your political perspective and your views on Middle Eastern peace-making efforts.