STUDYING OLD TESTAMENT PROPHECY (Part 3)
Let us point out a few more matters to look for or to be aware of as we sink our teeth into the written messages of God’s inspired spokesmen. Here are some facts and principles to keep in mind.
Not in chronological order – The order in which the 17 books from Isaiah to Malachi appear in our Bible is not chronological. For instance, the Book of Ezekiel comes before the Book of Jonah, but Jonah lived before Ezekiel did. In fact, even within a single prophetical book, things are not always written in chronological order. For example, Jeremiah 28 records the death of a false prophet in the beginning of the reign of Judah’s last king, Zedekiah (28:1), but Jeremiah 36 records that an earlier king, Jehoiakim, tried to destroy a written record of God’s word (36:9-26). The truth is, the events recorded in chapter 36 preceded the ones that are recorded in chapter 28.
“Prophetic perfect” – The prophets sometimes employed what is known as “prophetic perfect” language. With such language, a prophet predicted a future event, but because it was certain to happen, the prophet spoke of the event in the past tense – as if it had already taken place. In Isaiah 53:4,5 we read, “Surely He has born our griefs and carried our sorrows; Yet we esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; The chastisement for our peace was upon Him, and by His stripes we are healed.” These words clearly refer to Messiah, as proven by Acts 8:32-35. Yet, Isaiah wrote about 700 years before they transpired, speaking of them as if they had already happened. Again, that is called “prophetic perfect” language.
The Jeremiah 18:7-10 principle – Sometimes the prophets by the Spirit foretold the fall or destruction of a city or nation. But what if the people involved turned from their wicked ways? In other cases, the prophets promised blessings from the Almighty. But what if the people turned from serving Him faithfully? How would the Lord deal with people in those instances when He had already spoken plainly about their doom or blessings? Jeremiah 18:7-10 gives God’s answer: “The instant I speak concerning a nation and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up, to pull down, and to destroy it, if that nation against whom I have spoken turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I thought to bring upon it. And the instant I speak concerning a nation and concerning a kingdom, to build and to plant it, if it does evil in My sight so that it does not obey My voice, then I will relent concerning the good with which I said I would benefit it.” These principles may not be stated explicitly in connection with every predictive prophecy, but they always apply. Do you recall what the prophet Jonah preached to the people of Nineveh? “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown” (Jonah 3:4). But, after 40 days Nineveh was still standing. Why did the Lord fail to carry out the predicted destruction of the city? The Ninevites repented (Jonah 3:5-10). When that happened, the city was spared. That is an example of what I call “the Jeremiah 18:7-10 principle.” Remember it.
“The day of the Lord” – One on-line concordance that I consulted indicates that this phrase is found 22 times from Isaiah 2:12 through Zechariah 14:1. Whereas “the day of the Lord” can refer to Jesus’ second coming (as in 2 Peter 3:10), in most instances in the Old Testament, this expression refers to a local judgment from Jehovah – a visitation from Him because of the evil of a city or nation. In order to understand which “day of the Lord” is intended in the prophets’ writings, one must note carefully the context of each passage. Here are a few samples of the warnings about an impending “day of the Lord”:
Isaiah 13:6,9 – fall of Babylon (13:1)
Jeremiah 46:10 – fall of Egypt (46:1,2,8)
Ezekiel 30:3 – fall of Egypt & her supporters (30:4-6)
Amos 5:18,20 – fall of Israel (5:1,4,5)
Zephaniah 1:7,14,15,18 – fall of Judah (1:4)
In many verses we read the pre-B.C. prophets declaring that the day of the Lord was “at hand” for a particular nation or place of their generation. Such words obviously did not refer to Jesus 2nd coming.
Variety of themes in a limited context – It is not uncommon to see the prophets “lift up their eyes” to the future and proclaim God’s word on a wide variety of topics, often with little or no attention given to any chronology of those events. A prophet may speak of one topic, then speak of a second one that is unrelated to the first, then come back to the original topic again. Consider Isaiah’s message. In chapter 2:2,3 he foretells of God’s house or church, in 9:6,7 it is the coming Messiah (9:6,7), in 13:1-10 it is the fall of Babylon (in B.C. 538), in 44:28 it is the role of King Cyrus in helping rebuild Jerusalem and its temple (B.C. 538-516), and then in 40:3,4 it is the work of John the Baptizer, followed once more by references to the coming Messiah (53). So, be aware that in the prophets’ writings the subject matter can change abruptly within a limited context.
Prophet impostors – Many that are identified in the prophet’s writings as “prophets” were actually false prophets. They were impostors, claiming to speak the Lord’s words, when, in reality, they spoke from their own imagination (Ezekiel 22:28). In contrast to the true spokesmen of God, the pseudo prophets, often from a covetous heart (Micah 3:11), spoke things that they thought the people wanted to hear instead of what they needed to hear (Jeremiah 6:14,15).
As we give serious attention to the message of God’s prophets in the Old Testament era, let us not miss the godly character which those faithful messengers demonstrated. “My brethren, take the prophets, who spoke in the name of the Lord, as an example of suffering and patience” (James 5:10).
— Roger D. Campbell
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