Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Mail Call

An astute reader has written me lately and asked a very good question about my critique of Left Behind Theology. She also included a note pleading with me not to reveal her identity because "I don't want anyone to know that I actually read this blog." So, thank you, Carol Mahasky, and don't worry, Carol Mahasky, your dirty little secret is safe with me.

Dear Reverend Know-it-all,
After reading your blog, I'm wondering if you even believe in prophecy. Do you consider what we call prophecy to be nothing but history?

Dear CM,
Is Bible 'prophecy' history? That is actually a very good question.

Here's my take: For me, prophetic texts are as historical yet timeless as the rest of Scripture.

The prophets themselves were not intending to talk about history by any means; they were speaking the right word at the right time. However, here we are thousands of years later, reading texts from way back when. And sometimes we get the sense that a phrase like "Jesus is coming soon" becomes "Jesus is coming soon ... er or later" simply because of the sheer amount of time that has elapsed. Then, if you throw in a few well-intended, but wrong-headed folk who speak with certainty that the turning of the 19th to the 20th century is going to mark the end of the world as we know it, or, the turning of the 20th to the 21st century, or maybe 9/11, or maybe that giant earthquake, or this or that... then you see why the relevance of a prophet's message thousands of years ago to our own time today requires careful consideration.

I think we read the prophets most profitably (so to speak) as 'forth-tellers' rather than 'fore-tellers.' That is to say, they spoke the truth, rather than told the future.

If you read about the prophets, they were in constant danger of being imprisoned, thrown into a pit, banished, or even put to death. (Remember Jesus' words, "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, which kills the prophets and puts to death those who are sent to you.") Now, honestly, who would put a prophet to death for prophesying something that might happen thousands of years from now? Why would I get all murderously angry about somthing that happens long after my grandchildren's grandchildren are passed? As Robert Heilbronner once famously asked, "What has posterity ever done for me?" Prophets that speak about the way, way, way future elicit rolling eyes and snickers, not punishment, threats or death.

We have a common perception that prophets were intentionally predictive. I do not think the prophets meant to be that way, certainly not with regard to what may happen a thousand years from now. If they said something about what was yet to come, they were speaking about the near future, the trajectory of where their people's current faithfulness or unfaithfulness was taking them. That might be 'predictive,' but only in the sense of having the boldness to say "If we stay on this road, here's what will happen."

So, the question arises: "If we don't read the prophets as predicting the future, how do we read the prophets?"

First, we should read them historically. I am not saying that we read them strictly historically. I do think that is the first way that we should read them in order to comprehend them. Isaiah was a court prophet, speaking at a certain time under certain circumstances that we shouldn't ignore when reading Isaiah. The historical Daniel was an exile during one crisis, and the book of Daniel was written during a later crisis, thus speaking to a very different time under very different circumstances. 200 years later, Mark read Daniel very helpfully to speak to his community at the time of his own crisis, the temple's destruction. A few decades later, the writer of Revelation was speaking to his commuity about their own persecution. Isaiah, Daniel, Mark, and John were speaking about God's activity in the world- in their real world, under their real circumstances. And yet, they were speaking with the assumption that God acts in human history. So their words continue to be instructive for us today to discern how we ought to live with faith in our times.

If we begin by reading prophetic texts historically, we can see that they don't all say the same things. But, we don't just read them historically, because each of them is speaking the Word of the same God, whose steadfast love endures forever... and ever... and ever. From the time of Isaiah's advise to a confused king to the historical Daniel's catastrophe to the literary Daniel's catastrophe to Mark's catastrophe to the persecution of the church when the book of Revelation was written to our own day- God's steadfast love endures forever. So, the second way that we read prophetic texts is that, even though they were spoken or written in history, they continue to speak meaningfully to us today, because they disclose how God acts in history and how God's people maintain faithfulness, especially in trying times.

So, is Bible prophecy history? Yes, they are historical, but timelessly true.

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