Contrary to general notions, outside the book of Revelation or the Apocalypse there is not a great deal in the Greek Scriptures about" Prophecy" as we usually understand the term, namely, the setting out of God's purposes and of things to come. In fact, anything like this usage of the word is ,confined to one passage, 2. Peter 1:19-21. Translated as literally as possible, this reads:
The word prophetic (prophEtikon) occurs elsewhere only in Rom. 16:26 where the Apostle Paul refers to certain of his writings as "prophetic scriptures" (graphOn prophEtikOn). Here in 2. Peter 1:19 it is "the prophetic word" (ton prophEtikon logon) and is therefore wider in scope to include the whole of Scripture. The two references to Prophecy itself, in vv. 20, 21 are probably in accord with our ordinary usage of the word.
Two special lessons are to be learnt from this passage. The first is that the prophetic word is "a lamp appearing in a squalid place." By a lamp we must not think of a powerful modern acetylene or electric affair, but of something little more effective than a candle or a wick floating in oil. It lights up the squalor of our immediate surroundings and so guides us a step or so on our path; but emphatically it is not to be thought of as providing a modern well illuminated highway into a city. If we expect Prophecy to indicate our path for years ahead, our expectation will prove utterly vain. The second is that we must not expect Prophecy to be self-explanatory. In our studies of 1. Thess. 4:13-17 we have found out how difficult it is to explain clearly every aspect of the prophecy. It would have been immensely convenient for us if God had chosen to set out His time-table in neatly tabulated form. But that is just not the way Prophecy works. It is not a sort of glorified fortune-telling. The very limitations of the light it confers are at once an invitation to our faith to rest on Christ Jesus alone and a challenge to our faith to believe what is revealed, neither more nor less; to search with all our powers to ascertain what is the whole of that revelation, and to have the holy patience to be satisfied when our search can take us no further. If Prophecy were like a railway time-table or even a general conspectus of history written in advance, it would leave no room for faith, for we would see every step of the way ahead.
Our only hope of getting any light on this subject is to make a systematic attempt to place the outstanding events, as revealed, in chronological order.
Meanwhile the man of sin's aim to control the entire world will have to a large extent succeeded, and the words "Peace and security" will be on people's lips (A). This era will be accompanied by eating and drinking and marrying and giving in marriage as just before Noah entered the ark preparatory to the Deluge (F). But, as then, the peace and security will be short-lived. The Son of Mankind will come (C and G) and be present (F), the chosen will be assembled (C), the man of sin will be destroyed (B), all in one vast cataclysm. The Lord's Day will have come on the revellers as a thief in night time (A) and its presence (C) will lead up to the consummation (D). This pretty well sums up all we actually know about the future sequence of prophetic events; for although the Hebrew prophets and the visions of the Apocalypse furnish numerous details, they tend to confuse rather than enlighten us as regards the actual timing of the sequence. Many attempts have been made to set it out, but none are wholly satisfactory; for it is difficult, if not impossible, to avoid mixing into Our scheme some measure of conjecture. Whether it is possible to make any indubitably sound deductions is doubtful.
Elsewhere, however, one such deduction can be made. From Matt. 24:15 and 2. Thess. 2:4 it is plain that the Temple of God will be in existence once again before the end of the eon and therefore that Israel will once again be in full possession of Jerusalem. Neither the regaining of Jerusalem nor the rebuilding of the Temple are directly prophesied, but only indirectly, by implication; so they are no part of the prophetic sequence of events itself. This means, in turn, that their accomplishment is possible (so far as we know) before the fulfilment of 1. Thess. 4:13-17. From this, we may further deduce that those who have hailed the return of Israel to their Land as a fulfilment of Prophecy and as an indication of the certain nearness of the end-time are altogether mistaken. Israel may yet be thrown out again, only to await another return somewhere in the future; or they may eject the Arab intruder while we are still here. If the latter should happen, it would strongly suggest that the end-time is not far off, but it would fall short of proof. There might still be a set-back to come without our own hope being in any way upset. It has been put to me that the situation has developed in the direction of the fulfilment of Prophecy during the last two or three generations. For "has" it would have been more accurate to have said "appears to have," for the fact remains that no prophecies have been fulfilled up to now that were not already fulfilled then. We know of no reason why the Dark Ages should not return instead of Christendom developing to its foretold climax. Neither do we know any reason why they should. There is a possibility that nuclear warfare may destroy civilization; but it is quite as likely that no nation will dare to start such warfare. It is not given to us to prophesy; so when we make the attempt we are simply numbering ourselves among the false prophets.
As regards the interpretation of the Apocalypse itself there is very little more to be said. It is a vision or a series of visions; and how far any item is literal or figurative is by no means easy to discover. There is need for much more study, and patient painstaking research. Instead, most people start off with fixed preconceptions, and, all too often, they find only what they are looking for. The kind of problem we have to face can best be shown by one example. In Rev. 5:6 we have "a Lambkin standing, as though slain, having seven horns and seven eyes." Now, is seven literal or symbolic, and if the latter, what does it symbolize? Turning to Rev. 17:7 we find the wild beast with seven heads and ten horns. What of these? How are we to judge with any assurance?
I do not wish to appear sceptical about Scripture, for I am -not; but I am extremely sceptical about our ability, at present, to sort out the prophecies of the Apocalypse and the unfulfilled prophecies of the Hebrew Scriptures. If we cannot yet claim unanimously to have accomplished such sorting out of the prophecies which are ours, how can we expect to do so with prophecies which are, after all, primarily Israel's? So if, to some, I seem to be unduly hesitant; I would say that in these matters it is better to be too cautious than too rash.
The Praeterist system may be ignored, as it makes nonsense of Scripture. The Historicist system is little better, as anyone who cares to compare its various expositions with what Scripture actually says can readily see for himself.
Not long ago, a copy of the Proceedings of the Centenary Meetings in 1942 of "The Prophecy Investigation Society" came into my hands. This Society was evidently committed to the Historicist system, though there were some of its members who stood out in some measure for the only sane interpretation, the Futurist one. The bulk of their booklet was devoted to a "Brief Survey of Prophecies fulfilled during the Century" and comments thereon; and the statement in it of "fulfilled" prophecies makes pathetic reading. Its most interesting feature is a lengthy reply by one of the speakers, Mr. Albert Close, attacking the Futurist system as originating with the Jesuits Ribera and Bellarmine, and condemning it as "Satan's great movement to change the interpretation of Divine Prophecy." He quotes from various past sources.
On the other hand, others apparently taught about a century ago that it is not the Futurist interpretation, but the teaching that 1. Thess. 4:13-17 is the first event of Prophecy awaiting fulfilment, that came from Ribera. This point could probably be checked by research in one of the great libraries, such as that of the British Museum; but, except as showing the futility of these people, the issue is so unimportant that it is not worth such waste of time. Neither Mr. Close nor these writers of a century ago appear to have produced anything against either matter other than this sort of "evidence," which is quite worthless. If Ribera did hold that the fulfilment of the Apocalypse was still future, what of it. So did the Apostle John, and many since have done likewise.
As Mr. Thomson has pointed out to me in a private letter, why should Futurism "ever have been necessarily introduced? Was it not always there, for anybody who might read the Scriptures? Thus, anyone reading the Wiclif Bible at Rev. ch. 1 would be bound to notice that events there mentioned were to happen in the future."
We may safely dismiss the talk about Ribera, together with the Historicist system, to the limbo of ideas best forgotten.
Here I would like to quote some words of Sir Robert Anderson at the close of an Address given in 1899 about the coming of Messiah ("Things to Come," Vol. 6).
One of the greatest services Dr. Bullinger did for us was in demonstrating that the church which is Christ's body is altogether outside the scope of the Apocalypse. This fact by itself suffices to put out of the running both the Praeterist and the Historicist systems of interpretation. The apocalypse is entirely within the time-series of Prophecy; we are, most definitely, entirely outside it. The whole of our position, our standing and our hope, are linked up with this fundamental fact. Abandon it, and no place remains for us in God's scheme of things; for within the time-series there is room only for two alternatives: Israel as God's People, or judgment for the entire world. Paul's Evangel is wholly absent from Hebrew Prophecy and from the Apocalypse.
Support for both Praeterist and Historicist positions has been demanded on the ground that much of the material in the Apocalypse is spoken of as in the past. Against this, it must be pointed out that the book is a description of things seen by John; so it is not necessarily the events themselves, but his vision of them, that he is describing. If it were the actual events, what would this involve? The latest possible date can hardly be later than A.D. 100, when the Apostle John would have been an extremely old man; so we have to conclude on that view that all the events revealed in the prophecy took place before that date, which is absurd.
A much more serious problem is involved in the sealing. In Rev. 22:10 John is specifically ordered "not to be sealing the sayings of the prophecy of this scroll, for the season is near." Yet, against this, Daniel is definitely ordered to "close the words, and seal the book until season of conclusion" (generally rendered "the end time," LXX Greek: eOs kairou sunteleias). In the Greek Scriptures the word sunteleia occurs only in connection with aiOnos (eon) (Matt. 13:39, 40, 49; 24:3; 28:2O; Heb. 9:26); but as kairos, season, is found in Rev. 22:10 we ought to take the hint. Yet we are told also in Rev. 1:3 that "the season is near." The word near does not necessarily mean "on the point of arriving"; it is possible to draw near and then draw away again, as when two trains pass one another. All this is very difficult to interpret; and I am inclined to think that it is designedly so, and that as the time approaches the prophecy will open out, as it were, to God's people, till, at the conclusion of the eon, the Apocalypse will have become fully plain and the seal on Daniel's prophecies removed.
Yet one thing is apparent. Only as the season is near do the apocalyptic prophecies become plain. Those who seek to. wrench them about till they seem plain have not even begun to understand them.
Although Daniel's prophecy of the Seventy Sevens seems to simplify matters, it does not do so in reality. These Sevens are marked of as a period when Israel are ammi, God's People; and one must in honesty ask oneself whether the period of their greatest apostasy can come within that time. Here I dare not make any sort of final pronouncement, for the issues are far from plain. We ought to treat this whole matter with extreme reverence and extreme caution—qualities which are conspicuously absent from most expositions of Prophecy. Yet there is this more to be said: during that terrible time God will be dealing with His Covenant People once again as He is not now in any sense. Their judgment is in order that He may be merciful to them; it is as His People that He will be judging them. So let us not judge one way or the other; but believe what we do know and refrain from speculating over what we do not. As an outstanding example of the folly of such speculation, here are four Historicist explanations of the healing of "the deadly wound" of the wild beast of Rev. 13:3 according to four speakers at meetings of the "Prophecy Investigation Society," published by them under the heading "Aids to Prophetic Study":
These guesses are a flagrant violation of the principle set out so well by Sir Robert Anderson, and their only effect must be to bring the study of Prophecy into disrepute and even contempt. In the face of such utter confusion among Historicists, it seems odd to hear it stated that, owing to the complications of Futurism, some of its exponents have turned over to Historicism instead. But it is only just to acknowledge that there are Futurists, so-called, who have indulged in the wildest guessing about the year of fulfilment of 1. Thess. 4:13-17 on the basis of "the year-day theory," itself a wild. guess. Such men are blind to the facts of Scripture. If any people had been entitled to know the times and the eras, they would have been the eleven Apostles, yet such knowledge was firmly refused to them. What is so hard to understand is how any Christian could wish to force from God information about His earthly plans which He has explicitly declined to give even to His earthly People.
Yet the efforts of these men fade into insignificance when compared with the achievements of the Historicists, such as those just quoted, who have combed out the records of history and chronology in searching for material for their systems, only to achieve results of almost unbelievable fantasy. The most that can be said for them is that there are indications that the chronology of events in this era tends to be "marked by cycles composed of multiples of 70." (The Coming Prince, by Sir Robert Anderson, p. 268). In the same work (p. 293), he refers to the interpretation of Rev. 6:17 by some Historicists thus:
Of late I have been able to give much time to reading and reflecting on reports of a number of discussions of prophetic matters. Their most impressive feature has been the way the speakers have disagreed among themselves on every issue. Their disagreements fall into two main classes: those which result from trying to fit events into Scripture prophecies or force the prophecies into matching events, and those which result from careless or stupid inaccuracies. The latter class are continually coming up for discussion in these pages; so we, at any rate, have no excuse for continuing to indulge in them. The former sort, some of which we have been considering, are no more excusable; for they betray complete misunderstanding, not only of the nature of Prophecy itself, but of the whole method and purpose of God's self-revelation in His Word. Prophecy is a revelation, not an invitation to a guessing competition, still less to the unbridled imaginative invention of a writer of fiction.
What the Historicist guessers fail to perceive is that, once an event of Prophecy is "fixed" by them, all previous events in the prophetic sequence are "fixed" too. They find their event more or less plausible, so they use it as starting-point for fixing the others and, forgetting all discretion, allow their zeal to lead them into endless follies. The true event prophesied will ultimately take place, and then all its predecessors will be seen to fit perfectly without any of the straining and distorting which seems to be the principal occupation of the various schools of the Historicists.
Sir Robert used to say that Prophecy was not given in order to enable us to prophesy, but as a witness to God when the time of fulfilment comes. After many years of thought and experience, I am convinced that this sums-up the truth of the matter. After all, the point can easily be tested against those prophecies they have undoubtedly been fulfilled. These can be gathered from a concordant study of the word plEroO. Look at the first and second occurrences, in Matt. 1:22 and 2:15. In each there is fulfilled a prophecy which is not in itself very explicit but becomes so the moment it is compared with the fulfilment. The same applies to the third (2:17) and the fourth (2:23). The last of these is interesting as the first of which it could be urged with any plausibility at all that the fulfilment was arranged to suit the prophecy; yet, even so, on examination such an idea can be seen to be absurdly far-fetched. Indeed, in this and the next (4:14) it would have required in practise a great deal of skill (or perhaps cunning) even to think of a suitable prophecy, let alone afterwards so to arrange events as to fulfil the prophecy with such accuracy. True, some expositors, have accused Matthew of this very thing, but without producing any evidence that he ever even contemplated committing so frightful a blasphemy. Such a suggestion, silly though it is, might be excusable in an anti-Christian propagandist; from those who get a livelihood as ministers of the Evangel it is abominable.
However, this last is a digression from our theme that however obscure an unfulfilled prophecy may seem, once it is fulfilled the fulfilment becomes crystal clear. This indubitable fact furnishes the watcher with sufficient light to see at any instant where he stands in the prophetic series, and then to check any guesses about the next event that he may come across. For example, here is a statement in the printed record of a speech made in April, 1939:
Another speaker tried to safeguard himself after talking about "Recent events in relation to Prophecy" by saying:
That not one, not even one, single event of the series of Hebrew Prophecy has been fulfilled in the last 1900 years is a fact of history. We do not need the Scriptures to tell us that, because we can see it for ourselves, provided that we turn away resolutely from "pipe dreams" of our own devising. And this obvious fact does not stand by itself, for the Scriptures are entirely in harmony with it. Although some of Dr. Bullinger's ideas about "dispensationalism" were mistaken, he was entirely sound about the root of the matter: the fact that throughout the period during which Paul's Evangel is in force, the prophetic series of events is in abeyance. There is a gap, and no amount of argument will get over the fact. This is apparent from one of the key passages of Scripture, Luke 4:16-21. The Lord Jesus closed the book before He had read the whole of what was written in Isa. 61:1, 2, seated Himself, and said, "To-day this Scripture is fulfilled in your ears." But He could not have said this if He had read the concluding words: "the day of vengeance of our God." There is a gap between the sufferings of Christ and the glories after these (1. Peter 1:10)—a wider gap, but a gap, nevertheless. Dr. Bullinger lists others in "How to Enjoy the Bible," p. 103.
In my earlier papers the justification of the position "confidently asserted" (see above) is set out at considerable length; but perhaps its corollaries should be summed-up here. First; it prohibits absolutely any attempt to place any of the series of prophetic events, and in particular those of Matthew 24 and the Apocalypse, in this present period since the call of Paul. Second, by freeing us from preoccupation with the past history of Christendom and current events, it frees us also from having our attention set on earthly things, and enables us to seek that which is above, where Christ is, sitting at God's right hand (Col. 3:1). Third; it destroys at one blow the mass of confusions we have inherited from the varied speculations of Christendom. In particular, all "dispensational" problems vanish like a puff of steam. Fourth; it frees us from fear and enables us to view the whole scene with some measure of detachment. For Israel in the coming days of the fulfilment of the apocalyptic judgments, no sort of detachment will be possible; but, instead, the witnessing of one prophecy after another, being truly and vividly fulfilled will bring its own comfort, in the knowledge that God has foreknown it all from the beginning and is in complete control of its outcome. The Historicists are casting aside their real blessing in favour of the feeble illusion of comfort derived from imaginary fulfilments. Those who, in 1938, saw Hitler or Mussolini as the Beast, and have lived through the succeeding twenty years, must feel very foolish now; yet seemingly most of them can never learn by experience. In earlier days were Kaiser Wilhelm, Napoleon, Nero and doubtless others, yet still the false prophets abound. I even remember that some thought in this way of Gladstone, for many years Prime Minister of Great Britain. Human capacity for self-deception is very great indeed.
"For God gives us, not a spirit of timidity, but of power and of love and of sanity." (2. Tim. 1:7). Why is it that so few seem to be able to perceive and to grasp this tremendous fact? All my life as a Christian I have been witnessing with horror the craziness of the majority of my fellow Christians; and I still cannot understand how it is that so few share my horror at it. In the study of Prophecy, this spirit of sanity is of supreme importance and is, all too often, the very last thing to be found.
R.B.W. Last updated 26.5.2006