A booklet recently received and intended for believers compares the state of present world conditions with those which prevailed in the time of Noah and assumes from this that we live in the time our Lord foresaw in Matt. 24:37: "As were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of man". For reasons about to follow here, we dissent from that conclusion and we trust this paper may help to dispel much unsound and unhealthy speculation about Messianic prophecy.
No one will deny that there are similarities between the evils of modern society and the much greater evils of the days before the Flood, but such an approach to prophecy is no more than making circumstances fit cases. It is not a desirable method of dealing with Scripture.
The importance of understanding prophecy as far as we are able, like the understanding of all Scripture, is something no true believer will deny. That we share this interest is evident from the papers we have already published which attempt to throw a little light on the widely misunderstood Seventy Sevens of Daniel's vision. Not all may realise, however, that outside the Book of Revelation and the recorded words of our Lord, the Greek Scriptures contain very little about "prophecy", meaning here a forecast of God's future purposes. Much has been made by some exponents out of very little, and Pauline prophecies for the church which is the body of Christ have been much confused with Messianic prophecies which are for Israel; especially those spoken by our Lord or appearing in the Book of Revelation, the Unveiling.
There are three distinct kinds of Scriptural prophecy and it is the confusing of these which has contributed so much to the general confusion of the whole subject.
The first kind is SYMBOLIC. Most of the prophecies of Daniel and in Revelation are of this kind, signs or symbolic figures and ideas, seldom understood until AFTER the events prophesied.
The second kind is PARABOLIC. A notable example is the set of parables in Matthew 13, described as "the secrets of the kingdom of the heavens". They are simple in form, but not in content.
The third kind is DIRECT. Such prophecies are forecasts, made in plain and unambiguous terms that admit no doubt or hesitation about their meaning. Important examples are Matthew 13 and 25 (remarkable chapters for containing many parables); also Acts 1:11 and 3:21 which are as clear and direct as words could be. Prophecies of particular interest to present believers are Rom. 11:25-32, I Cor. 15, I Thess. 4:13-17, II Thess. 2:5-12, II Tim. 3:1-5 and II Tim. 4:3-4, also Jer. 31:31-34 which is repeated in Hebrews 8:8-12. This latter prophecy concerning Israel is often quoted in theological writings and if the authors indicate they really do believe it, they can be accepted as fairly sate guides, for here is a prophecy so definite that its meaning does not admit any argument or dispute and is capable of complete verification when the fulfilment occurs. It is a prophecy obviously not yet fulfilled, for God has not yet imparted His laws to Israel's comprehension nor inscribed them on their hearts, nor has He done so to any people on earth since the Ascension.
The Apostle Peter has clear words for the guidance of all students of this fascinating subject, to which, he says, we should "take heed in our hearts". That passage from II Pet. 1:19-21 was translated as literally as possible by R. B. Withers in the following words:
This is a difficult passage, and to realise how very faulty an idea we can get from incorrect translation this rendering should be compared with the Authorised Version.
Paul, in Romans 16:26, refers to some of his own statements as "prophetic scriptures", but Peter has reference to "the prophetic word" which has a wider scope and includes the whole of Scripture.
There are two important lessons to learn from what Peter says in the above passage. The first is that the prophetic word is as "a lamp appearing in a squalid (or a dark) place". Peter referred not to a powerful light but a lamp like then in common use, a little light only from a wick floating in oil, hardly brighter than a candle. It is sufficient to shed light on its immediate surroundings and to guide us for a step or two on our way. It is NOT the type of lamp which illuminates a modern motorway. If we expect prophecy to light our way for years ahead we expect in vain.
The second lesson is hat we must not expect prophecy to be self-explanatory. Indeed, the finest student will confess how difficult it is to explain clearly every aspect of Bible prophecy. Some may like to prepare "charts" of the future, and no doubt we should have found it very convenient if God had set out a time-table for us, but that is NOT the way prophecy works, it is not a kind of glorified fortune-telling. It is a very limited light in a dark place, and its limitation is an invitation for our faith to rest on Christ alone, and a challenge to believe what has been revealed, nothing more and nothing less. It is also a challenge to us to search for revelation, and to have the divine patience granted to us to be satisfied when our search comes up against a blank wall. If prophecy were a detailed outline of history written in advance there would be no room for faith, since we could see all the way ahead. The righteous lives by his FAITH.
In Paul's epistles, except for the tremendous revelation of the secret concerning ourselves, our changing and snatching away, there is very little prophetic teaching other than some reassuring words to the Thessalonians concerning the Day of the Lord which, in view of their then current troubles, they imagined might have taken place already; and, if so, they were unable to understand why they were still here on earth. He tells them of some of the events which will precede that Day; the apostasy, the unveiling of the man of sin and his session in God's temple; then of his fearful end. All this was evidence to them that their current fears were unfounded.
If we take our Lord's utterances as recorded in Matthew 24 and 25, also Luke 21:24-28, we find that He put events relating to Israel in a sequence commencing with the fulfilment of the times of the Gentiles and Israel's attaining complete control of Jerusalem. For some expositors who regard all but the last of the seventy sevens as long since fulfilled, here is where they conclude the final seven-year week of Daniel begins; yet we assume that by now our present readers may foresee with us that from there is where the ENTIRE "seventy weeks of years" only begin to apply as a premillennial era for Israelis renascence, which includes first the reconstruction of Jerusalem and a new temple where Levitical services must resume. Later in that future era, as a consequence of Israel's foretold apostasy, the man of sin will appear; and in the midst of the last seven-year week he will establish his "abomination of desolation" in the Holy Place while faithful ones will be fleeing from Jerusalem because of the oncoming Great Tribulation.
Meanwhile the Day of the Lord will have crept in quietly like a thief in the night (I Thess. 5:2) even as the man of sin is then enjoying a brief time of world acclaim under morally degenerate conditions, comparable to Noah's day. Men will be saying "peace and security," unmindful that extermination is standing closely by, for the man of sin is then about to be vanquished just before the unveiling of the Son of Man and by "the forth shining of His presence" (II Thess. 2:8-9). Though our Lord will be sending His messengers with the loud sounding of a trumpet to assemble His chosen ones of Israel (Matt. 24:31), the context where that trumpeting appears is so obviously different from Paul's prophecy of a meeting in "air" at the eve of this present era that it has no remote allusion to "the trumpet of God" which saints of the past and the present are to hear. To THEM, our Lord most certainly will not come "as a thief in the night".
The above events, in broad outline, are practically all that are revealed of the future sequence of prophetic events, apart from the details (not always easy to understand) given to us in the Revelation end by the Hebrew prophets. We are well aware of the many attempts that have been made to relate these details to a general sequence of events, some of them very ingenious, but to the earnest student none of them affords complete satisfaction.
But from both Matthew 24 and II Thessalonians it is quite plain that the Temple of God will be rebuilt before the conclusion of this eon, with Israel gathered in the land in full possession of Jerusalem; yet neither the regaining of Jerusalem nor the rebuilding of the Temple are DIRECTLY prophesied as specific events; only indirectly and by implication. Meanwhile the present return of Jews to Palestine and the now existing state of Israel are not any fulfilment of Hebrew prophecy, so these by themselves do not indicate if the end-time may or may not be near. There are other indications apparent to the enlightened eye which may well indicate that the full complement of the Gentiles is soon to be realised, but since the precise time is a secret, it is something we cannot determine by any imaginary fulfilment of Hebrew prophecy. When we say there are many general indications that the beginning of the end-time may be near, we hasten to add that they all FALL SHORT OF PROOF. Yet one comforting fact is clear and certain: God's wrath cannot come into operation as long as Romans 5 and II Corinthians 5 remain present truth. Among its many other glories, Romans states assuredly that we shall be saved from wrath through Him and Corinthians underlines the fact of reconciliation. To all who come within the scope of those provisions, this entirely precludes any future exposure to wrath. Therefore we may flatly reject any suggestion that we shall remain on earth when God's wrath appears. If we were we should need to be sheltered from it and Scripture does not indicate HOW. Indeed, the only reference to shelter from the wrath of that day is restricted to some of the faithful of Israel, such as the woman of Revelation 12, and no one could logically contend that she represents the Pauline church. Dr. Bullinger settled that idea once and for all.
We must not speculate on what may or may not happen to the present state of Israel in the foreseeable near future. Even if it should involve a set-back as disastrous as those of the Dark Ages, that would have no real bearing on our own expectation. The fact remains that until now no Hebrew prophecies have been fulfilled which were not already fulfilled when Paul wrote II Thessalonians. It is not for us to prophesy, and if we attempt to do so we shall only swell the ranks of false prophets and disillusioned date-setters.
Many attempts have been made to interpret Revelation—some which are worthy of praise—but the book remains a vision or series of visions, some of which appear to be literal though others may be figurative; a distinction by no means simple to determine. It is all TRUE, but we are in no position to interpret its truth. That eminent scholar R. B. Withers once said that he was very sceptical of our ability AT PRESENT to sort out the prophecies of the Apocalypse and the unfulfilled prophecies of the Hebrew Scriptures: "If we cannot claim unanimously to have accomplished such sorting out of the prophecies which are ours, how can we hope to do so with prophecies which are, after all, primarily Israel's? •••• I would say that in these matters it is better to be too cautious than too rash".
Readers much fascinated with the study of prophecy are aware that there are three systems of interpretation, usually classified as Preterist, Historicist and Futurist. The first of these regards all prophecies as fulfilled long ago, so it can be ignored as making nonsense of Scripture. The second teaches that the prophecies of Revelation began to be fulfilled as soon as they were written, so it too can be ignored as making nonsense of Scripture, as one may readily see by comparing Historicist expositions with what Scripture actually says. Thus the only sane interpretation is the Futurist; but as Alexander Thomson once pointed out, there was never any reason for INTRODUCING a Futurist system, for it was ALWAYS there for anyone who might read the Scriptures! Even so long ago as when the Wiclif Bible first appeared anyone reading Revelation chapter one would have been bound to observe that the events mentioned there were to happen in the future.
Sir Robert Anderson pointed out from I Peter 1:11-12 that THE PROPHETS THEMSELVES who were inspired to foretell the Lord's coming "inquired and sought diligently" as to the meaning of their own prophecies: Tales of suffering mingled with visions of glory must have seemed to them as inconsistent and impossible to harmonise. Even the Lord's disciples who were privileged to receive His own teaching and see the actual events pertaining to Him which appear to us now as literal fulfilments of Scripture were baffled and perplexed. "We trusted," they said, "that it had been He which should have redeemed Israel", but the very death WHICH SECURED THAT REDEMPTION seemed to them as the grave of all their hopes. Are we to learn nothing from this? The humble and earnest truth-seeker will accept everyone of the prophecies God has given us for the future and will confidently look for their literal fulfilment, but he will not venture to argue from the divine words; still less add to them or paraphrase them.
It was an enormous service that Dr. Bullinger did for us in showing conclusively that the Church which is Christ's body is altogether outside the scope of the Revelation, yet foolish attempts continue in misapplying the letters for the seven ecclesias of Revelation to the history of Christendom. The book of Revelation is entirely within the time-series of Hebrew prophecy while we are, most definitely, entirely outside of it. The whole of our position, our standing,and our hope as the body of Christ depend on this fundamental fact. If we abandon this position, no place remains for us in God's plan, for within the Scriptural time-series there is room for only two alternatives: 1) Israel as God's covenant people; or, 2) judgment for the entire world. Paul's evangel is entirely absent both from Hebrew prophecy and from Revelation.
Daniel's prophecy of the Seventy Sevens was formerly thought to simplify matters which more recently we have found it does not. Research by the late Commander Steedman has shed much new light on this subject which in turn tends to illuminate the forthcoming era of Israel's renascence when they once again shall be AMMI, God's covenant people. From the time of our Lord's earthly ministry even until now they remain LO AMMI, "not My people". Thus present attempts to fit Hebrew prophecy into the times of the Gentiles are contrary to all revelation. The whole matter should be treated with extreme caution, and with due reverence, for the issues are far from plain. Since those qualities of caution and reverence are often conspicuously absent from the efforts of those who profess to "explain" prophecy, we must be doubly careful to avoid any pretense of understanding things which are not now clear. We must carefully refrain from speculation, especially such foolish speculation as attempts to identify Roman Catholicism with Babylon. That sort of thing is dragging God's Holy Word down into the mud.
As we pause to reflect, if any people had been entitled to know "the times and the eras", it would have been those eleven Apostles who remained before Pentecost but our Lord EXPLICITLY DENIED that information, even to them. It is hard to understand Why any Christian should try to wrest from Scripture such information of God's earthly plans as He has withheld thus far even from His earthly people.
Lest we might venture into the realms of pure fantasy, we should take warning from the vain attempts of Historicists who have combed the records of history and chronology to support their fallacious systems and false calculation of dates which have long since failed. They come perilously near to the sin whereof Revelation warns, that of "taking away from the words of the book of this prophecy". Ignoring the truth that the present time is Wholly outside the chronological sequence of Israel's prophecies, they seem undeterred by repeated failures and go merrily on, yet there are better ways of wasting time than to trifle with Scripture prophecies, and this is far from what Peter meant by Acts 2:17.
Sir Robert Anderson once said that prophecy was not given so that we might be able to prophesy, but as a witness to God when the time of fulfilment comes. Prophecy is a REVELATION, not an invitation to a guessing contest. This fact can be tested against such prophecies as have been already fulfilled, for many of them were by no means explicit beforehand but they became instantly plain when the time of their fulfilment had arrived.
Here as in all other matters relating to the understanding of God's Word, if we are on the wrong course it makes no differenoe to our direction whether we are ten yards or ten miles along the way, we are still going far astray. It is a fact of history that not one, not even one single event in the series of Hebrew prophecy has been fulfilled in the last 1900 years and longer. We should not even need the Scriptures to tell us that, because the fact itself is obvious, but the Scriptures also confirm the fact that during the entire period while Paul's evangel has been in force the whole series of events which relate prophetically to Israel have remained in abeyance. That period constitutes a long gap as far as Hebrew prophecy is concerned and it is only those who refuse to acknowledge Paul's special ministry who attempt to fill that gap with past or present imaginary fulfilments.
If we recognise and believe this Scripturally Testified truth, it serves greatly to fortify our faith and increase our understanding of God's Word. First it serves to reassure our minds that ever since the call of Paul, no Hebrew prophecy has been or is now in course of fulfilment; not even Matthew 24 nor any part of Revelation. This liberates us from any misplaced preoccupation with "earthly things" and enables us to "seek that which is above, where Christ is" (Col. 3:1). It destroys the mass of confusion arising from fear and enables us to view today's events with a measure of detachment. When God resumes His dealings with Israel and one prophecy after another is then fulfilled, it will be impossible for the saints of that era to remain detached, but they will take comfort in realising all this was foreknown to God ever since the beginning and that He is in full control.
Meanwhile "God gives us not a spirit of timidity but of power and of love and of sanity" (II Tim. 1:7); qualities so often found lacking in premature applications of Hebrew prophecy. For US the realisation of Pauline prophecy draws nearer every day as we anticipate the "shout of command". To quote an ancient Eastern poet:
"The bird of Time has but a little way to fly;
And, Lo, the bird is on the wing".
Cecil J. Blay (Treasures of Truth, Instalment Five, June 1972)