Years ago the noted English agnostic Thomas Huxley was in Dublin, Ireland, for some speaking engagements. On one occasion he left his hotel in a hurry to catch a train, taking one of the city’s famous horse drawn taxis. Huxley thought that the doorman at the hotel had told the driver where he was going, so he simply settled back in the cab and told the man at the reins to drive fast. The driver set off at a vigorous pace. In a few minutes Huxley realized that the cab was headed away from the station. “Do you know where you are going?” he shouted to the driver, “No, your honor,” the driver answered, “but I’m driving fast.”
This story seems to sum up more than just the spirit of Huxley and his followers toward the end of the nineteenth century. It is also an illustration of the outlook of many in our tumultuous age. There is much motion, much speed. Yet few in our day seem to know where they are or where they are headed. For most of our contemporaries, life is as Franklin Delano Roosevelt described it in his inaugural address: “We don’t know where we are going but we are on our way.”
This state of affairs is completely abnormal, of course. Or, to put another way, the confusion is not God’s fault. In fact, God’s revelation in the Bible exists to accomplish just the opposite. The Bible is God’s revelation to men of where we have been, where we are, and where we are headed. It is a revelation of our past, present, and future; and these are revealed, not only in reference to the individual, but also as the concern nations and the movements of history. What will happen to us in the years to come? Where is history headed? How will it end? Is God in control or has He forgotten us? Do the events of our life have significance?
If you are interested in these questions and have not been satisfied with the predictions of politicians or pollsters, then this series of studies of what the Bible has to say about the future is for you.
Why Study Prophecy?
I must admit that for many years I have been reluctant to write on this subject – for two reasons. First, I believe that in the last generation there has been an overemphasis on prophecy in the writings of certain evangelical leaders. Prophecy is a part of the Bible. It should be studied. Yet sometimes prophecy has been discussed to the exclusion of many other vital and urgent doctrines. That is inexcusable when some still do not know about sin or about Christ’s atonement.
The second reason that I have hesitated to write on this subject has been an inner suspicion that much teaching on prophecy has been directed toward a wrong level of involvement both for the teacher and for the listener. Many are interested in prophecy solely because of a desire to know something that no one else knows, to have the final word on things to come in the future. In some circles this has led to a certain smugness which has destroyed the very compassion and outreach to humanity that a true understanding of the subject is intended to produce.
Since in the face of such misgivings, I have decided to write a series on biblical prophecy, it would be well to give you my reasons. There are four of them.
Four Reasons To Study Biblical Prophecy
First, for anyone who has determined, as I have, to explore the whole counsel of God by means of a thorough exposition of the Bible, it is impossible to avoid prophecy, for the Bible is full of it. In fact, from one point of view, the Bible is almost entirely prophecy. It is the record of God’s promises of a Redeemer and of the salvation of the human race, together with a record of the fulfillment of those promises insofar as they occurred. One-fourth of the Bible is specifically prophetic. Whole books, both in the Old Testament and the New Testament, are devoted to prophecy. It is a recognition of this fact that has led most good Bible students to treat the subject at least to some degree. A list of them would include such names as Sir Isaac Newton, Blaise Pascal, Jonathan Edwards, H.A. Ironside, I.M. Haldeman, C.I Scofield, Arno C. Gaebelein, G.H. Pember, and, in our day, J. Dwight Pentecost, Hal Lindsey, Billy Graham, and many others.
It is relevant here to point out that 2 Timothy 3:16-17 does not let us regard prophecy, any more than any other part of Scripture, as unprofitable. For we are told, “all Scripture is given by inspiration of God and profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works.”
My second reason for treating prophetic themes at this time is the current secular interest in the future, particularly as shown by the involvement of many with astrology and spiritualism. It is true that humanity has had an interest in the future throughout history. The Babylonians, Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans all had fortune-telling priests and astrologers. Although condemned by Christianity, astrology was popular in the western world until after the Renaissance, when increased scientific study discredited it. However, the study of astrology has revived in recent years. Today an interest in the future is everywhere apparent. Astrological signs abound. Newstands are filled with books and pamphlets on what is to come. Astrology was brought to the popular level by the rock musical Hair, with its highly successful song “Aquarius.” Millions consult their horoscopes daily. In fact, according to Hal Lindsey, a new and popular writer on prophecy, columns on astrology now run in 1220 of 1750 daily newspapers in the United States. Twenty years ago only 100 papers ran astrology columns.
There is also an interest in the more popular prophets of the day such as Jeanne Dixon, Carroll Righter, and Syndey Omarr. In Europe there are literally thousands of mediums. According to one estimate, there is a fortune-teller for every 120 Parisians. I have been told that there are over 200 mediums in the city of Zurich, Switzerland, alone. Certainly, this kind of interest needs to be countered by the legitimate biblical approach to the events associated with the culmination of our age.
The third reason is the current renewed interest in biblical eschatology by established theologians. The best known of these is the German theologian named Juergen Moltmann, a professor of systematic theology at the University of Tuebingen. His first widely successful book, The Theology of Hope, is an attempt to look at all Christian doctrine from the perspective of God’s future promises, and it has set off a wide range of related studies by others. Thus, although a generation ago many scholars laughed at any interest on the part of conservatives in biblical prophecy, today many would agree with Henry P. Van Dusen who has argued that “the problem of eschatology my shortly become, if it is not already, the framework of American theological discussion,” and perhaps indeed of theological discussion generally (Henry P. Van Dusen, “A Preview of Evanston,” Union Seminary Quarterly Review, March, 1954, p.8).
My fourth and final reason for writing this series of studies is the most important one, however. It completely overshadows the others. The reason is this: God Himself appeals to the fulfillment of prophecy as evidence that He alone is God and that He is faithful to all who follow Him. In fact, He challenges those who do not yet believe to investigate personally the fulfillment of biblical prophecy.
I know that some will say, “But I have never heard of that. Where in the Bible does God make such an appeal?” God does so in many places, but the greatest appeal is in a section of nine chapters from the heart of the book of Isaiah, chapters 40-48. The theme of these chapters is the greatness and majesty of the true God, and the appeal is to prophecy.
In chapter 40 God begins by contrasting His own performance on behalf of His people with the performance of idols. The point is that the idols can do nothing.
To who then will you liken God?
Or what likeness will you compare with Him?
As for the idol, a craftsman casts it,
A goldsmith plates it with gold,
And a silversmith fashions chains of silver.
He who is too impoverished for such an offering
Selects a tree that does not rot:
He seeks out for himself a skillfull craftsman
To prepare an idol that will not totter. (Isaiah 40:18-20, NASB)
In the next chapter an appeal is made to the idols:
“Present your case,” the LORD says.
“Bring forward your strong arguments,”
The King of Jacob says.
Let them bring forth and declare to us what is going to take place;
As for the former events, declare what they were,
That we may consider them, and know their outcome;
Or announce to us what is coming.
Declare the things that are going to come afterward,
That we may know that you are gods;
Indeed, do good or evil,
that we may anxiously look about us and fear together.
Behold, you are of no account,
And your work amounts to nothing;
He who chooses you is an abomination. (Isaiah 41:21-24, NASB)
The point of these verses is that the idols are ineffective. No one but God Himself can tell the future, since no one but God can control it. The argument continues in this vein for several chapters until it is summed up in chapter 48, “Who can foretell the future?” God asks.
I declared the former things long ago
And they went forth from My mouth, and I proclaimed them.
Suddenly I acted, and they came to pass. (Isaiah 48:3, NASB)
This is the test of the true God and of the one who claims to speak in His name. No one in biblical times – or today, for that matter – doubts that there are people in every age who will pretend to possess insight into future events. The idols, as well as Jehovah, had their prophets. There have always been astrologers and mystics. But the question is not “Are there prophets?” The question is “Whose prophecies come true?” By this standard, it is the claim of God and of the Bible that all that is prophesied in the Bible has either come to pass or is coming to pass and that men should believe on the God of the Bible because of it.
In this series we will be looking primarily at the biblical prophecies of things that have not yet come to pass. Yet it would be inadequate to look at prophecies that relate to the future without at least considering some of the many prophecies that are also part of the biblical revelation. For one thing, we need to look at the past to meet God’s challenge to Isaiah. For another, only as we do this will we be able to approach the future prophecies, not as guesses by reasonably intelligent men, but rather as further divine revelations, through those who have already been tested, of what awaits this race and the individuals in it.
An excellent place to begin is with a little known prophet, Micaiah. His story is told in 1 Kings 22. Micaiah was a prophet of God in Israel during the days of the divided monarchy when Ahab was king of Israel and Jehoshaphat was king of Judah. At one point in their reigns Jehoshaphat went north to visit Ahab, and the two kings got into a discussion about an area of ancient Palestine called Ramoth-gilead, which bordered on Israel. Ahab had wanted the land for some time, and he saw an opportunity in Jehoshaphat’s visit to possess it. He suggested, “We could take Ramoth-gilead if we did it together, you and I. Shall we do it?”
Jehoshaphat answered, “I am as thou art, my people as thy people, my horses as thy horses.” Ahab was not a worshiper of Jehovah and, in fact, was quite wicked, while Jehoshaphat was more or less a believer in God. So, before they went to battle, Jehoshaphat said, “Let’s consult the Lord before we break camp.” Ahab responded by producing four hundred of his court prophets and asking them, “Shall I go against Ramoth-gilead to battle, or shall I forbear?” The prophets gave the answer that the king wanted to hear.
“Go up; for the Lord shall deliver it into the hand of the king.” This word from the prophets satisfied king Ahab (actually, he would gone even without consulting the prophets) but Jehoshaphat was not satisfied. These men were paid mouthpieces, and Jehoshaphat knew it. So he said to Ahab, “But isn’t there a real prophet, a prophet of the Lord, that we may ask the outcome from him?” Ahab replied that there was one, a man named Micaiah, but that he hated Micaiah because Micaiah never prophesied anything good about him, only evil. Nevertheless, at Jehoshaphat’s insistence, Micaiah was called.
Now if ever there was a situation in which the deck was stacked against one poor prophet, this was it. First, Micaiah was warned as to what he should say. Second, he was brought into the capital city and into the marketplace where all the troops, the false prophets, and the two kings were assembled. Third, he was confronted by the king who hated and feared him. The question was asked: Micaiah, shall we go against Ramoth-gilead to battle; or shall we forbear?”
At first Micaiah ridiculed the kings. He said, “Go and prosper; for the LORD shall deliver it into the hand of the king.” What Micaiah said was a direct quotation of the false prophets, and everyone knew it. Ahab became angry. He literally roared at Micaiah: “I adjure thee that thou tel me nothing but that which is true in the name of the LORD.” So Micaiah replied, “I saw all Israel scattered upon the hills, as sheep that have not a shepherd. And the LORD said, These have no master; let them return every man to his house in peace.”
Ahab recognized that this was a prophecy of his death. He turned to Jehoshaphat and said, “See? What did I tell you? Didn’t I say that he would prophesy no good about me, only evil?” Ahab then disguised himself. But in the fighting one of the Syrian soldiers shot an arrow at random which entered a joint in Ahab’s armor and killed him. So the king died and the people of Israel were scattered, as Micaiah had prophesied.
A much better known prophet is Isaiah. Isaiah had a long life, prophesying over a period of sixty years, during the lifetimes of four successive kings of Judah. Many of his prophecies have been fulfilled, some during and others after his lifetime.
In the year 701 B.C., in the fourteenth year of the reign of King Hezekiah (the third king under whom Isaiah prophesied), the Assyrian king Sennacherib besieged the city of Jerusalem, threatening its total destruction. Sennacherib later wrote that he shut up Hezekiah “like a caged bird…in…his royal city.”
In the midst of the siege, which dragged on and on because of the city’s strong fortifications, Sennacherib sent one of his deputies named Rabshaketh to Jerusalem with a speech intended to weaken the morale of the defenders and perhaps lead to a revolt within the city and subsequent surrender. Rabshaketh spoke in Hebrew, rehearsing all that had happened to other cities and then threatening the same fate for the inhabitants of Jerusalem. The speech had a deadly effect, so much so, in fact, that the city officials asked Rabshaketh to speak Aramaic, the language of international diplomacy, lest the people be further discouraged by hearing him. At this confession of weakness, the deputy merely kept on with his destructive propaganda.
Word came to Hezekiah of what was happening, and he was dismayed. He sent to Isaiah and asked him to pray for the people and the city. Instead, Isaiah immediately sent back a prediction of what would happen. He said, “Thus saith the LORD, Be not afraid of the words which thou hast heard, with which the servants of the king of Assyria have blasphemed me. Behold, I will send a blight upon him, and he shall hear a rumor, and shall return to his own land; and I will cause him to fall by the sword in his own land” (2 Kings 19:6, 7; Is. 37:6,7).
That is precisely what happened. Soon a plague swept through Sennacherib’s army. Then the king apparently heard rumors of rebellion and insurrection at home, and the army left Palestine. Sennacherib was assassinated by two of his sons when he returned to Nineveh (2 Kings 19:35-37).
Later Isaiah predicted the fall of Jerusalem to the armies of Babylon, the captivity of the people, the overthrow of Babylon by the Medes and the Persians, and the eventual return of the Jewish exiles to their homeland. All these events took place roughly one hundred, one hundred fifty, and two hundred years after Isaiah had foretold them.
Prophecies of the Messiah
Spectacular as these specific prophecies relating to Jewish history are, however, the most important of Isaiah’s prophecies are not those relating to the nation at all. They are the prophecies of the Messiah. Here, however, the testimony of Isaiah is supplemented by the predictions of many other prophets who lived both before and after his time.
These men told a great deal about the Messiah and they told it in exquisite detail. The Old Testament tells us that the Messiah was to be a descendent of Abraham through King David (2 Sam. 7:12, 13; 1 Chron. 17:11-14; Jer. 23:5). Micah, one of the so-called Minor Prophets, wrote that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem (Mic. 5:2). This prophecy was quoted by the Jewish leaders in Jerusalm as an answer to the Wise Men, who came to the city inquiring where the King of the Jews had been born. Isaiah revealed that the Messiah would be the child of a virgin (Isa. 7:14). He also foretold the King’s rejection by Israel and described His suffering (Isa. 53). Zechariah spoke of the price of the Messiah’s betrayal: “So they weighed for my price thirty pieces of silver” (Zech 11:12). Parts of the Psalms describe the crucifixion and intense suffering of the Chosen One; Psalm 22 contains prophecies of the mocking of the Messiah, the piercing of His hands and feet, and the division of His garments by those who carried out his execution.
In Daniel there is even a prophecy of the time at which this would take place. The Messiah was to come shortly before the destruction of the temple built by Herod; that is, before A.D. 70 (Dan. 9:24-26). Moreover, Daniel foretold that the time between the publishing of the decree permitting the rebuilding of the temple after the destruction of the first temple by the Babylonians and the “cutting off” of the Messiah would not exceed 483 years (69 weeks of years or 69 times 7). Since the date of the decree to permit the building of the temple has been fixed from several sources at 445 B.C., the latest possible date for the death of the Messiah is fixed at A.D. 38, meaning that if the prophecies of the Bible are correct, all the events foretold about the Messiah had to be fulfilled before that time (note:The prophecy may be even more accurate than these figures show. For if, as Charles C. Ryrie argues, the “years” of Daniel are based upon 360 rather than 365 days, the prophecy spans 173,880 days and the cutoff date for the Messiah falls on 6 April A.D. 32, the most probable date for Christ’s crucifixion. Justification for a 360-day year lies in the fact that the Scriptures seem to equate 1260 days with 42 months or 31/2 years in prophetic passages, See Ryrie, “The Bible and Tommorow’s News”, Wheaton, ILL.: Scripture Press, n.d., pp.52-56).
Were these prophecies fulfilled? Of course, they were fulfilled. They were fulfilled in the genealogy, birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, who is thereby identified as the Messiah, the Son of God.
A Future World
In Part Two of our series we will begin to look at the biblical prophecies of things to come. But before we do that, we need to take note of the following three conclusions. First, if the prophecies we have already looked at have been fulfilled, as the Bible and history reveal them to have been fulfilled, then the God of the Bible is the true God and we should worship Him. That is the conclusion that must be reached if we take God’s own challenge through the prophet Isaiah seriously.
Second, if these prophecies have been fulfilled, as we know them to have been fulfilled, then the Bible is a supernaturally trustworthy and totally authoritative book. This will guide our approach as we turn to future things. The Bible is a record of prophecy. If the prophecies have been fulfilled, then what Peter said about this Book is true. “No prophecy of the Scripture is of any private interpretation. For the prophecy came not at any time by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet. 1:20, 21). God Himself stands behind this Book. It follows that we can trust the Bible for what it has to say about our own condition and about God’s plan of salvation through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Finally, if the biblical prophecies about the past events have come true and if we may expect the biblical prophecies about future events to come true, then the future is bright for those who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and are His followers. One day the rays of the sun will rise on that last and future world that has been spoken of so much by our contemporaries. But it will not be a world devastated by an atomic holocaust, as some are predicting. It will not be a world decimated by the inevitable encroachment of worldwide famine, which others are warning about. It will not even be a dehumanized world composed of machines and the men who serve them. These things may come. The Bible even predicts that some of them will come. But this will not be the end. The Bible teaches that there is a future beyond them when the Lord Jesus Christ, the Messiah who came once to suffer and will return again, will reign in righteousness and will establish a social order in which love and justice will prevail.
[This article was adapted from Chapter One in one of the first of James Boice’s plethora of books, and is entitled: The Last and Future World, Grand Rapids, MI.: Zondervan, 1974. Though this book was written almost 40 years ago – it’s contents are just as relevant today as when it was first written, since most of the prophecies taught in the Scriptures and addressed by Dr. Boice have yet to be fulfilled.]
*Dr. James Montgomery Boice (July 7, 1938 – June 15, 2000) was a Reformed theologian, Bible teacher, and pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia from 1968 until his death. He is heard on The Bible Study Hour radio broadcast and was a well known author and speaker in evangelical and Reformed circles. He also served as Chairman of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy for over ten years and was a founding member of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. He was the author of numerous expositions of the Bible (e.g. Genesis and Romans), Theological writings (e.g. Whatever Happened to Grace? & Foundations of the Christian Faith), and on the practical Christian life (e.g. Living By The Book & The Cost of Discipleship).