The Spirit of Prophecy
5 ‑ Avenues of Time
The most striking and spectacular, besides the most important type of Bible prophecy is that which has its object and focus at the end of the Age, the time when God brings what Paul calls 'this present evil world' to a close. He replaces it by the Heaven-directed administration of the Messianic Kingdom, the period characterised by the presence of Christ as World-King during His Second Advent. St.Peter is on record as declaring in his first evangelical address at Pentecost, that every one of the old Hebrew prophets since the Age began had said something about that time; a painstaking reading of the Scriptures will confirm the truth of his words. Every prophet has said something, either in brief or in considerable detail, about the manner in which the kingdoms of this world will eventually become the Kingdom of our Lord. Proof of the genuineness of any prediction can lie only in its manifest fulfilment so that much of this type of prophecy still awaits vindication, but many of the intervening factors have now passed into history and to this extent given the stamp of authority to such prophecies.
Daniel the statesman of the Babylonian Exile in the sixth century BC is responsible for recording the most striking of these 'eschatological' (relating to the last things) predictions, and no better examples for the present purpose can be found. He records fore-views of events that were to occur in the political affairs of the world at various times throughout the two and a half millenniums that have elapsed between his day and ours. These started with contemporary happenings of only a few years beyond his own death and extended into a time which to us is still future. The correspondence of that which was thus recorded with events that undeniably have happened is so exact that the Book of Daniel has become a battle-ground between believers in the influence of the supernatural and those who deny the existence of the supernatural.
Daniel started on the basis of a prediction sixty years earlier by the prophet Jeremiah to the effect that after seventy years' captivity in Babylon the Jewish people would be restored to their own land. Nearly two centuries previously Isaiah had given the name of the conqueror ‑ Cyrus ‑ who would order that restoration. Before Daniel died he witnessed the conquest of Babylon by Cyrus and fulfilment of the prophecy by his restoring the nation to its land and ordering the rebuilding of the Temple. But in the meantime Daniel had received and recorded revelations imparted to him by a celestial visitant, the messenger of the Most High, announcing himself to Daniel under a proper name, Gabriel. This coming of a heavenly messenger to Daniel is one instance of the lifting of the curtain that divides us from the spiritual world, even though it affords but a shadow image of that world. We are permitted to glimpse just a little of those activities that are going on 'beyond the veil'. "At the beginning of your supplications a word went forth" says Gabriel to Daniel "and I have come to tell it to you." (Daniel 9 23 RSV) There is indication here of activity and organisation in the world of the spirit which shows it to be a very real world. Here is an individual, a citizen of that world, deputed to carry out a task involving his transfer temporarily to our world, in a way that human eyes could see, so that the message may be given.
That message comprised three distinct and separate fore-views of things to come. One was plainly stated to extend from Daniel's own day to the coming of Messiah for the purpose of suffering and death ‑ the time we call the First Advent. The other two covered a much longer space of time, between them they extend beyond the ending of this present world-Age and into the Messianic Kingdom. The exactitude of the first prophecy is a matter of wonder to all who read, but no longer a question of dispute. Taking as a starting point an event that was not to occur for some eighty years after the death of Daniel ‑ the decree of Artaxerxes king of Persia authorising the rebuilding of the city of Jerusalem ‑ the coming of the Messiah was to be sixty-nine 'sevens'. This was a cryptic way of indicating four hundred and eighty-three years. Precisely that number of years from the Decree to AD29 when Jesus of Nazareth began His ministry. The Messiah had come! Gabriel predicted that associated with the Messianic appearance would be events the details of which must have shaken Daniel and his fellow-patriots to the core.. Foreign powers would destroy Jerusalem and its Temple again, bring to an end the old ritual of sacrifice and worship, and desolate the land. The pages of Josephus give sufficient testimony to the terrible manner in which that prediction was fulfilled within forty years of the coming of Christ, in the Jewish War against Vespasian and Titus resulting in the depopulation of Judea and the Dispersion of Israel amongst all nations
Although the same definiteness of time-scale is not associated with the 'end-of-the-Age' predictions of Daniel it is true to say that Gabriel gave him a relatively clear and detailed picture of events that were to happen over a period of something like twenty-five hundred years. That much is evident even if we do not fully understand the fulfilment of all that he told Daniel. The question of immediate interest to us is this: how could these detailed happenings be known so long before they occurred? The account in Daniel 11 is no general statement of the ultimate purpose of God, no set of terms that cover in a general way the main drift of world events into the Kingdom. The detailed and precise nature of the narrative implies that Gabriel could see, or had seen, a clear panorama or chart of world history as yet not enacted, and was able to speak to Daniel with the precision of absolute knowledge.
It is here that we are brought face to face with one of the most intriguing statements in the whole of the Scriptures; one that seems to have received less than its due share of notice from scholars and commentators. "I will show you the truth" says Gabriel (ie. in the 'true writings' ‑ Dan.11.2). It takes a moment or two to realise that these 'true writings' which Gabriel proposed to reveal to Daniel, and did reveal in what we now have as chapters 11 and 12 of the latter's prophecy, are not recorded in any 'true writings' which now exist upon earth! These two chapters with their detailed account of world history from Daniel's time to the consummation of the Kingdom, stand unique in literature. There is nothing like them in the Bible or anywhere else. Whatever may be the nature of those 'true writings' from which the angel Gabriel drew his authority to speak, they are not of this world or this order of things!
Then what can they be? Are there indeed books in Heaven? Did the angel bring with him a celestial scroll, from which, as his unrolled, he could read to the prophet concerning things to come? Is there a literal 'Book of Life' reposing in some kind of heavenly library, containing all the records which are to be made known when the Last Day shall come? Will the angels turn over literal pages to find the judgments recorded, when all men stand before the great Throne, and the "judgment was set and the books were opened"?
We do not think so. What we do know is that there must be counterparts to these things in the heavenly realm. Just as the records of men upon earth, preserved in book form, exist as aids to memory, so in that spiritual realm, there must be 'records of memory' waiting to be called upon when the time of decision and judgment comes. But not only of memory, for the angel spoke of things yet to come as being already recorded in the 'true writings'. What then can these 'true writings' be but the eternal purpose of God, known unto Him from the foundation of the world, made known by Him, to angels or to men, as He sees fit? The expression 'true writings' in such a connection gives a terrible finality to the things to which reference is made. There can be no escape from the fulfilment predicted. There can be no possibility of turning the current of events so that the details of prophecy given by the angel do not come to pass after all. These things shall be and they are so written. The only explanation of that irrevocable finality consistent with God's gift of free will to man is that God having set in motion the forces which are leading men to their destined end, sees into the future and perceives what is coming. This is much the same as a railway train driver from his cabin who looks forward along the track and perceives the trees and rivers and towns advancing toward him. But the passengers are limited to their sideways vision and can have no conception at all of what they will be seeing five minutes hence.
We naturally ask ourselves what determines the nature and sequence of events. Were they arbitrarily devised and ordained by God in the dim long ago before as yet any of them began, before man had been created or the earth brought into being? Or can we conceive of God, in the immensity of His power and wisdom, being able to take a comprehensive view of the world as it now is. He sees all its creatures with all the thoughts and intents of all their minds, discerning in His infinite knowledge just how every one of those creatures will react to each of the influences that will be brought to bear upon him or her during life. Does He thus perceive the end from the beginning not because He had arbitrarily willed the minutiae and detail of that end but because He can foresee what is going to be the effect of every thought and word and action of every person at this particular moment. Does He see the further effects of those effects and so on into infinity, so that from the state of the world and the men in it at this present time, He can as it were calculate the precise outcome at the 'end of the world"?
The world of computers can perhaps help us to understand. A computer can solve in a few seconds abstruse mathematical problems which would either take a professional mathematician years to calculate or by normal methods would not be capable of calculation at all. A computer does this when the necessary data relating the problem is fed into it. It calculates the effect arising from a large number of causes with lightning rapidity. Similarly, the Divine Mind, in an infinitely greater fashion, can take in all the possible influences bearing upon people, all the facts and figures which go to make up our world and people's minds as they are now. From that He can foresee what is going to be the outcome. Man's power of choice, his exercise of freewill is not fettered or limited in any way by the fact that God can foresee how he will exercise that power.
Let Isaiah, who knew the majesty and power of God more intimately, perhaps, than any other of the prophets, give his testimony as to what he perceived of this aspect of God's character. "I am God and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning, AND FROM ANCIENT TIMES THE THINGS THAT ARE NOT YET DONE." (Isa. 46. 10).
"Set forth your case, says the Lord; bring your proofs says the King of Jacob. Let them bring them and tell us what is to happen. Tell us the former things, what they are, that we may consider them, that we may know their outcome; or declare to us the things to come. Tell us what is to come hereafter, that we may know that you are gods; do good, or do harm, that we may be dismayed and terrified." (that is, perceive that man can tell the end from the beginning; Isa. 41.21-23 RSV). The point so noticeable when pondering these Scriptures is that the certainty of the prophecy is due, not so much to God's exercise of fore-ordination, but to God's knowledge of things to come. It is as though He sees what is not yet apparent to men, and tells them what He sees. It would seem that this power to foresee future happenings is one that can be shared by others in the spiritual realm. The word 'gods' in Isa.41 is 'elohim' and denote the celestial powers. It is evident that this clear perception of the future is not normally possessed by the angels, for we are told that the mysteries of coming things are matters "which the angels desire to look into" (1 Pet. 1. 12). Gabriel certainly had knowledge of coming things when he spoke to Daniel; so did the angels who appeared to Ezekiel and Zechariah. Above all, our Lord, manifested to John on the island of Patmos, declared that He was about to show him "things which must shortly come to pass" (Rev. 1. 1). Our Lord, at that time, had a clearer knowledge of the time and events of His Second Advent than He possessed sixty years earlier when, in the days of His flesh. Then He had said "Of that day and hour knows no man, no, not the angels which are in heaven, neither the son, but the Father" (Mark 13. 32). It may then be literally true that God does "see" down the "stream of time" and, without deliberately ordaining or commanding specific events and happenings, does perceive what those happenings are going to be. If this be indeed the case, we may rest assured that men like Daniel and Ezekiel are the very ones to whom the visions of remote futurity would be given. They were men whose hearts were earnestly set on the fulfilment of all God's gracious plans; men whose minds were closely attuned to God in their endeavour to see what He could see, and to hear what He would say to them. Hence Paul, caught up into the "third heaven" (2 Cor. 12. 2) was able to hear and see things which could never be repeated or imparted in their detail to his fellows, because so different from anything with which we are familiar upon earth.
This brings us to the greatest difficulty in the imparting of this type of prophecy. The conditions of far distant days differ so widely from those of today that a great many statements and allusions must of necessity be quite unintelligible unless reexpressed in terms familiar by reason of everyday use. Suppose an angel from heaven had appeared, for instance, to Sir Francis Drake in 1588 to tell him of the great war of 1939-45. It would be supremely difficult for the Elizabethan Admiral to understand the angel's description of naval warfare with its dive-bombers and submarines. The angel would have to recast his description along the lines of wooden sailing-ships, bows and arrows, primitive ball-firing cannon, and cutlasses. His reference to American participation would leave Sir Francis puzzled, for North America, although vaguely known to Europeans, had not then been colonised and its only inhabitants were American Indians. Holland and Belgium would have to be referred to by their medieval name of Flanders, and Russia as Muscovy. The whole story would need recasting in the atmosphere and within the limits of knowledge of the sixteenth century. The angel would be hard put to it to convince the sceptical sailor that men would be flying in winged ships mi1es above the earth and at the same time converse easily with their fellows on the ground a hundred miles away. So when the angel spoke to Daniel, and Jesus spoke to His disciples on the Mount of Olives, their language had to be accommodated to the knowledge of the times. Gabriel spoke of kings at war with one another down to the end of the Age. In the reality those "kings" may be local powers or they may represent empires, presided over by mighty military conquerors. They may depict whole races of mankind exercising a period of world supremacy and then declining and giving place in turn to others. But to Daniel they were kings. The angel spoke of Michael standing up; we know that he referred to Christ, who is to take control at the time of the resurrection, in the dawn of the Millennial Age. Daniel knew not Christ and like other Jews of his day, he looked on 'Michael the archangel' as the traditional spiritual prince and champion of his people. Hence quite naturally Gabriel used the name of the archangel to represent the one of whom Daniel would not as yet know.
So Jesus, viewing the events of today from two thousand years ago, could not describe those things to His disciples without using words and terms familiar to His hearers. Men do not live on housetops today, neither do most women grind at corn mills. But He could not have said "Let not the factory worker return to his bench, nor the train-driver to his engine-shed" for such words would convey nothing to the disciples. We must interpret the words Jesus did use in the realisation of this fact. Each individual example of prophecy, therefore, has to be considered and interpreted on its own merits. The judgment of the student must be brought to bear upon the text, whether literal or symbolic, in everyday plain language or in metaphor or poetry. Was it intended only for the people of the generation to which it was first spoken or was its meaning veiled that it might reveal its message in a much later day? Does its range cover the few short years only of its own epoch or does it extend forward into far futurity, affording guidance for a Christian of the generation in which the prophecy is to have its fulfilment? To what extent does it illuminate the eternal purpose of God and the ceaseless operation of the Divine Mind working in history and the world of men? It is only when we can ask these questions and set their answers in proper relation, that we shall be able correctly to interpret the prophecies, "comparing spiritual things with spiritual".
When all that we can say has been said, it remains that we know very little of the power behind prophecy. If the foregoing has helped to demonstrate that prophecy is in fact based upon a sure knowledge of the future and that God reveals it to those whose minds and hearts are attuned to Him then it has served its purpose. That revelation of such knowledge is of value in the development of Christian character and the preservation of Christian faith. It will be necessary for many minds to be exercised and many pens to be busy if the "sure word of prophecy" is to be expounded in all its fulness of light for our day, for such things can never be the peculiar privilege of one man. The subject is too vast to be comprehended from one viewpoint. But whilst remembering this we need also to remember that in prophecy, as in perhaps no other Scriptural subject, it is necessary that old understandings be continuously amplified and enlarged, and oft-times drastically revised, as we progress along that upward pathway that "shines more and more to the perfect day".