Part 1a

Part 1b

Objection #1

Objection #2

Objection #3: The Bible Contains False Prophecy

This particular objection is not referring to what I explained in the first objection about the Bible reporting falsehood, without endorsing it, for the Bible clearly does report that there were some false prophets who prophesied falsely (Jeremiah 28:15; Ezekiel 13:9; Mark 13:22).  This objection charges the Bible with claiming true prophecy in cases where the prophecy is not true.

Clark Pinnock

WordObj21What discussion of an area of Christian controversy would be complete without good old Clark adding his input?  Honestly, I am not intending to pick on Pinnock, but since he does represent a fringe position within Christianity well, I find his opinions worth discussing.  In his book Most Moved Mover, he claims of the Bible that “There are imprecise prophetic forecasts based on present situations, as when Jesus predicts the fall of Jerusalem” (p.50).  Pinnock expands on this in a note on the next page, saying “despite Jesus, in the destruction of the temple, some stones were left one on the other’ (Mt. 24:2)”.  This is at least partially due to his belief that God does not know the future (a topic worth taking up at another time), but regardless of the reasons, the concern is that Pinnock is content to say that “prophecies often go unfulfilled.” (Most Moved Mover, p.51 note 66).

Thom Stark

WordObj22Stark would agree that Jesus’ prediction of the fall of Jerusalem was an imprecise forecast that is not so impressive (The Human Faces of God, p.190), and he would also say that Jesus “got a few things wrong.” (The Human Faces of God, p.225).  In addition to this, Stark would go so far as to claim that the Bible includes pseudo-prophecy or prophecy after the fact.  When this is the case, the so-called “prophet” is really writing history or contemporary events that have already happened, but writes it like it is prophecy by putting the words in the mouth of a past prophet.  To give an example of this claim for the Bible, Stark mentions in passing, accompanied by a footnote, that Isaiah 40-66 was not written by Isaiah, but that chapters 40-55 and then 56-66 by two successive disciples of Isaiah, one near the end of the Babylonian exile (40-55) and one after (56-66) (The Human Faces of God, p.83 note 22).  In fairness to Stark, he is basing his arguments on previous scholarship (The Human Faces of God, p.xvii) and is not intending in the book to argue for things like the dividing of Isaiah into three parts, so I am not faulting him for that.  However, what I do take issue with is the often unchallenged assumptions on which these kinds of casual assertions lie, of which Stark merely stands as a representative.  Knowing that scholars generally claim a certain thing does not impress me.  I am more concerned with why they do so and if acceptable reasons present themselves.

Pseudo-prophecy?

In the previous article, I made use of the book of Isaiah and his prophecies in support of the Bible being the word of God, so the integrity of the book is certainly worth defending.  After all, if what I claimed was predictive prophecy, showing that God revealed His word to Isaiah, turned out to be some anonymous poet writing history and tacking it on the book of Isaiah, it would negate the point.  It is WordObj23worth mentioning that the idea of a book of the Bible having multiple authors is not the issue, for the book of Proverbs very openly declares to include contributions by Solomon (1:1), the wise (24:23), Hezekiah’s men copying Solomon’s proverbs (25:1), Agur (30:1), and Lemuel (31:1) as a collection of wise sayings.  The issue is whether the words of Isaiah are predictions of the future which imply God’s hand in them being spoken (Isaiah 48:3-5) or the reminiscence of the past (Isaiah 64:10-11) and descriptions of the present (Isaiah 45:1).  The question is if God has truly declared the end from the beginning (Isaiah 46:10) or if a clever writer has declared the middle from the end as if it were from the beginning (Isaiah 42:22).

The Division of Isaiah

WordObj24Though I pointed out above that Stark mentions three different authors of Isaiah, there are some who opt for two authors, and still others that consider the book to be the work of more than three.  Since I will be defending the unity of Isaiah below, I will only look here at the idea that there are two authors, or a “First” and a “Second” Isaiah, so to speak.  This is just for the sake of simplicity, for I will be attempting to refute that Isaiah should be divided into different books at all, so naturally, the number of books will be of less consequence if the argument for unity is strong.  In fact, the idea that there might be a “Third” Isaiah built upon the same principles that declared that there was a “Second” Isaiah in the first place, so if there was not adequate reasoning for breaking the book at chapter 40, serious doubt is cast on breaking the book at chapter 56 as well.  I will first present some of the challenges to the unity of Isaiah (summarized by Daniel Lewis in The Book of Isaiah, p.51) and then proceed to respond to such challenges.  The terms “First Isaiah” and “Second Isaiah” will be used for simplicity in discussing the two parts.

WordObj25aOne challenge is that of historical situation, for while chapters 1-39 (First Isaiah) are largely concerned with the threat of the Assyrians in the 8th century BC, chapter 40 and onward (Second Isaiah) are concerned with Babylon in the 6th century BC.  These latter chapters also deal with the Babylonian exile of the Jews and subsequent rise of Persia as yet a third world power after Assyria and Babylon.  Cyrus the Great is even mentioned by name a couple times (44:28, 45:1).  “Furthermore, it is not simply that Second Isaiah envisions a different historical circumstance than First Isaiah, but more important, that it views the exile and the destruction of Judah as a past event (40:2; 42:22-25).”

Another issue is the literary difference between First and Second Isaiah.  In the former, the tone is one of condemnation, while in the latter, it is one of consolation, with the change of attitude suggesting a change of author.  In addition, First Isaiah has biographical material about Isaiah the prophet, but Second Isaiah has none.

Old NewsA final point has to do with the fact that the writings in Second Isaiah are said to be “new” and previously unknown (48:6-8).  However, if this concerns the exiles in the 6th century BC, how could they not know about it if it was written in the 8th century BC?  How could something around 150 years old be considered new?

The Unity of Isaiah in Historical Perspective

In response to the difference of historical situation, it must first be said that the subject matter of these latter chapters is not in dispute, for they do deal largely with Babylon.  WordObj27The issue is whether these chapters are history written as pseudo-prophecy (as would be the case if chapter 40 and onward represented a much later work than chapters 1-39) or represent authentic predictive prophecy (as would be the case if the Isaiah of the 8th century was the author of both halves of the book).  So what can be said in support of both halves of the book coming from the same prophet in light of this dilemma?  First, even if there is a significant change in subject matter and time period, this does not necessarily negate the possibility of common authorship.  Some of the smaller prophets mix prophecies of the imminent judgement, physical restoration of Israel, messianic restoration, and final judgement and restoration all together, and yet escape suggestions of segmentation.  Perhaps their small size makes the variety of time periods prophesied about less obvious, but the point remains that prophets are free to prophesy about more than their own period.  Of course, whether this is true prophecy or not depends on personal presuppositions, as we will see below, but at least in principle, Isaiah can write about Babylon if he so chooses, even if Assyria was formerly the main threat.

Second, though it is true that Assyria was the main enemy in chapters 1-39, should we expect that this continue after chapter 39, if indeed Isaiah is really the author?  When I look at the end of First Isaiah, I am convinced that the answer is a resounding “No!”  WordObj28Chapters 36-39 narrate the events surrounding the 701BC invasion of Judah by King Sennacherib of Assyria (John Walton, The IVP Bible Background Commentary OT, p.584).  This invasion, and the others they had made against surrounding nations previously, certainly makes them a threat at the time, but the fact that they subsequently withdrew from Judah for the next few decades changes things.  Though some might question the historicity of the withdrawal, in his prism, Sennacherib himself mentions Hezekiah the Jew, that he had him “like a bird in a cage”, but there is no mention of a conquest of Jerusalem, which would be expected if the city had been taken (Daniel Lewis, Archaeology and the Old Testament, p.33).  Whatever happened there, Assyria was no longer a threat for the time being.

Third, though the question of why Babylon would replace Assyria as the enemy of Judah might surface, this is also described in this same section in chapter 39, forming what I find to be a natural transition from Assyria to Babylon.  After chapters 36-38 narrate how Assyria came, but was unable to conquer Jerusalem, chapter 39 reveals Hezekiah showing off to the representatives from Babylon.  It is at this point, and not starting at chapter 40, that Isaiah prophesies the following words.WordObj25

Isaiah 39:6-7 “Behold, the days are coming, when all that is in your house, and that which your fathers have stored up till this day, shall be carried to Babylon. Nothing shall be left, says the LORD.  And some of your own sons, who will come from you, whom you will father, shall be taken away, and they shall be eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon.”

So the change from Assyria to Babylon is explained within the text itself and we need not resort to conjecture about the implications of such a change; at least if we are at all interested in what the book itself says.

WordObj30Fourth, for those who might then be tempted to suggest that the break should not be at chapter 40, but 39, or maybe even 36, what is said about Babylon even earlier in the book will likely be even more frustrating.  Isaiah 21:1-10 contains an initially puzzling oracle concerning the wilderness of the sea.  It is not clear what this is referring to until verse 9, where “Fallen, fallen is Babylon” is found.  In this light, it is interesting to go back to verse 2, which states “A stern vision is told to me; the traitor betrays, and the destroyer destroys. Go up, O Elam; lay siege, O Media; all the sighing she has caused I bring to an end.”  As it happens, Babylon was conquered by the Medo-Persian Empire in 539BC led by Cyrus the Great, who represented the area of Elam and Media, which would explain the reference to them in this prophecy.  In addition, the Medes had formerly been allies with Babylon when they were both fighting against Assyria, but after Babylon became the world power, betrayal and destruction came when Babylon was conquered by their former allies (Leon Wood, A Survey of Israel’s History, p.316).  So this is a passage which envisions something quite similar to that of Second Isaiah, but strangely enough, it is found in First Isaiah.

Cyrus the Great

Cyrus the Great

Fifth, though this objection might seem for many to have an aura of objectivity about it, it is based upon the anti-supernatural presuppositions that these kinds of prophecies could not have been predictive prophecies.  EJ Young objects to this kind of thinking when he suggests, “It is time that we cease to call such a method scientific.  It is not scientific, for it does not take into consideration all the facts, and the basic fact it overlooks is that of God and His relation to the world which He created.” (Quoted by JB Payne, in Inerrancy, p.93).  Why is it that Isaiah can prophesy about what Cyrus did in conquering Babylon without suspicion in chapter 21 and yet be denied authorship of chapters 44 and 45 because he uses Cyrus’ name?  If God really does know what is going to happen and reveals it to His prophets, then denying that possibility from the start is not going to lead to correct evaluations of the prophetic literature.

The Unity of Isaiah in Literary Perspective

WordObj32aIn response to the literary objection, it must also first be said that there is a general recognition of the difference of tone between First Isaiah and Second Isaiah.  In fact, in the Bible study school I am leading, we divide the book between “Judgement” (1-39) and “Restoration” (40-66).  However, does this necessitate a change of authorship?  Well first, I can say that this judgement to restoration pattern is common to other prophets (Ezekiel, Joel, Amos, Zephaniah), but this does not mean that these books were also written by different authors.  In one prophet after another, the idea is that God presents the bad news that judgement and cursing are coming because of the disobedience of the people, but also the good news that if they turn to God and repent of their disobedience, He will bring restoration and blessing.  This is a fundamental feature of the prophets and is to be expected, even sometimes in different halves of a book.

WordObj32Second, though First and Second Isaiah can roughly be split between mostly judgement and mostly restoration, it is not entirely clear cut.  There are many promises of restoration in the first 39 chapters and many descriptions of judgement of disobedience in the last 27 chapters.  This is also true of the other prophets that are divided according to judgement and restoration, as it is rarely black and white.  To give a couple examples of restoration from Isaiah, in First Isaiah there is 4:2-6, depicting the glory of the Lord among the survivors of Israel, or 12:1-6, which describes how God’s anger turned to comfort and how Zion could sing for joy and proclaim in all the earth what the Lord had done.  Interestingly, these same passages have parallels in Second Isaiah.  4:2-6 describes the glory of the Lord, the survivors of Israel, and how they will be cleansed, while Isaiah 60:19-21 speaks of the Lord being their glory and them all being righteous, and 56:8 speaks of God gathering the outcasts of Israel.  As for 12:1-6, we see the idea of God being angry with Israel, but then gathering them in compassion and love in Isaiah 54:7-8, as well as declaring in joy to all the earth that the Lord redeemed and comforted His people in 48:20 and 49:13.  These are just select examples, but other instances could be multiplied.

In terms of judgement, the story is the same.  While Second Isaiah might contain a higher proportion of restoration compared with judgement, it is not without its wrath against the wicked who rebel against God.

Isaiah 59:17-18 “He put on righteousness as a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation on his head; he put on garments of vengeance for clothing, and wrapped himself in zeal as a cloak.  According to their deeds, so will he repay, wrath to his adversaries, repayment to his enemies; to the coastlands he will render repayment.”

Isaiah 63:10 “But they rebelled and grieved his Holy Spirit; therefore he turned to be their enemy, and himself fought against them.”

Isaiah 65:6-7 “Behold, it is written before me: ‘I will not keep silent, but I will repay; I will indeed repay into their bosom both your iniquities and your fathers’ iniquities together, says the LORD; because they made offerings on the mountains and insulted me on the hills, I will measure into their bosom payment for their former deeds.’”

WordObj33aOther examples could be given, such as the repetition of “There is no peace…for the wicked” and the shaming of those who trust in idols, but the point is that there is plenty of judgement in the latter chapters of Isaiah.  Though there is a shift in emphasis, it is not night and day, as it might look at first glance.  In addition, one could expect a shift in emphasis in a book that speaks a lot about judgement of sin, for there must be something to look forward to and strive for, and the end of Isaiah shows that even if the people of God fail and are judged, God has not given up on them.  “But Zion said, ‘The LORD has forsaken me; my Lord has forgotten me.’  ‘Can a woman forget her nursing child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb?  Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.” (Isaiah 49:14-15).

WordObj34aAs far as Second Isaiah lacking biographical details about Isaiah, I feel this severely overestimates how much of First Isaiah is actually biographical material and underestimates how selective the material is.  It is not as if Isaiah’s life story is in First Isaiah.  1:1 is a verse that explains when Isaiah is seeing his visions concerning Judah and Jerusalem: during the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah.  2:1 basically repeats this without naming the kings.  Chapters 6-8 describe Isaiah seeing God’s glory at the end of the reign of Uzziah and confronting Ahaz, which would have happened while Jotham was still alive and co-reigning with his son Ahaz.  Chapter 20, during the reign of Hezekiah, is the sign against Egypt and Cush, as Isaiah walked naked for three years and the same would happen to them.  Chapters 37-39 tell of Isaiah’s interactions with Hezekiah concerning the king of Assyria, Hezekiah’s sickness, and the Babylonian envoys.  In all, there are about 94 verses in Isaiah that could be considered biographical.  There are 1292 verses in Isaiah, so the biographical detail makes up about 7% of the book, and it is not even as if it is evenly distributed.  Three chapters close to the beginning, one chapter after 11 chapters with no biographical detail, and three chapters after 16 chapters with no biographical detail.  To compare a couple of other prophets, Amos contains 13% biographical material in 3 of 9 chapters, though after 1:1 there are 6 chapters without any narrative.  Hosea contains 7% biographical material in 2 of 14 chapters, but nothing after the third chapter.  Also consider prophets like Malachi, Nahum, Obadiah, Joel, and Zephaniah who reveal little more than their name.  I am not saying that there are no other prophets who have more biographical detail, but I am simply pointing out that Isaiah’s percentage and distribution is nothing out of the ordinary.  There are 57 chapters in Isaiah that contain no biographical detail, and while it is true that 27 of those belong to Second Isaiah, the other 30 belong to First Isaiah.  If an author has the freedom to organize his material as he wants, he should not be denied authorship of his book based on how he distributes his narrative.

It is also worth noticing that the blocks of narrative seem to be from the reigns of each king mentioned in 1:1: Uzziah (chapter 6), Jotham and Ahaz (co-reigning when chapters 7 and 8 were taking place), and Hezekiah (chapters 20 and 37-39).  It seems as though Isaiah has organized a selection from each of their reigns.  Though Hezekiah is the king at the time of chapter 20, he is not mentioned in the text.  If Isaiah is so selective in First Isaiah and he has already narrated a significant event from the reign of each king, is it really so strange that he does not add anything more to the events of Hezekiah’s reign in Second Isaiah?  Is it really such a glaring omission in Second Isaiah if First Isaiah does not say a whole lot during any particular reign in the first place?

The Unity of Isaiah in Chronological Perspective

WordObj35So what about the apparent “newness” of the prophecies of Second Isaiah, if they were supposedly spoken at least 150 years before their fulfillment in the fall of Babylon?  Well, first of all, even if we say that there is some pseudo-prophet writing history and contemporary events as if they are predictive prophecy, this question is still not answered.  After all, by joining Second Isaiah to First Isaiah, this pseudo-prophet is trying to gain some credibility for the prophecies by claiming that they were spoken in the time of First Isaiah.  So the interpretation that the “newness” of the prophecies refers to the fact that the exiles in Babylon have never heard of them seems incorrect, no matter when I say they were written.

Second, as always in Bible study, I do not think words should be taken out of context.  To take a key passage for this objection, let us look at Isaiah 48.

WordObj35aIsaiah 48:1-8 “Hear this, O house of Jacob, who are called by the name of Israel, and who came from the waters of Judah, who swear by the name of the LORD and confess the God of Israel, but not in truth or right.  For they call themselves after the holy city, and stay themselves on the God of Israel; the LORD of hosts is his name.  ‘The former things I declared of old; they went out from my mouth, and I announced them; then suddenly I did them, and they came to pass.  Because I know that you are obstinate, and your neck is an iron sinew and your forehead brass, I declared them to you from of old, before they came to pass I announced them to you, lest you should say, “My idol did them, my carved image and my metal image commanded them.”  ‘You have heard; now see all this; and will you not declare it? From this time forth I announce to you new things, hidden things that you have not known.  They are created now, not long ago; before today you have never heard of them, lest you should say, “Behold, I knew them.”  You have never heard, you have never known, from of old your ear has not been opened. For I knew that you would surely deal treacherously, and that from before birth you were called a rebel.’”

WordObj36The ending is where the “new” and “hidden” things are described, but a question I have is whether this is being spoken to the exiles in Babylon or not.  Even if it is, the issue is not merely knowledge about the prophecies, but true understanding.  The last verse says “your ear has not been opened”, which reminds me of Isaiah 6:9-10 where it says to keep hearing but not understand, and the hearts of the people would be made dull to not hear with their ears and understand with their hearts.  If this message is to the exiles, God is simply saying that they would never understand what this prophecy meant until they were right in the middle of God’s judgement of their rebellion.  This also goes along with the second part of that verse, where God knew that they would deal treacherously and be rebels.  In other words, God knew that they would not understand what He was doing with them until after.

WordObj38However, I am not totally convinced that this is a message to the exiles, even if it would definitely be a message applicable to them.  The first verse depicts swearing by the name of the Lord, but not in truth as an identification of Judah.  This idea of false allegiance is repeated in the book of Isaiah, of which 29:13 is a good example: “this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me”.  I find this idea of false allegiance to be right at home in the time of Isaiah, and thus, it could be Isaiah challenging Judah to truly trust the Lord, having seen former prophecies come true (48:3-5) and having confidence that current prophecies will be fulfilled in the future.  In fact, 48:3-5 is integral in understanding 48:6-8, for it is precisely God’s ability to predict long ago what His people have seen happen in recent times that allows Him to pronounce, with authority, new events in the distant future, from Judah’s perspective at the time, that is.  Because He has shown Himself to be superior to idols in declaring what is to come, He can announce new things to the people of Isaiah’s time, creating the expectation that they will be fulfilled in the future.  It is a call to trust God in the present because of how He has been trustworthy in the past and because He declares hope for the future.  In this case, the newness would be from the time that the prophecies are spoken, in the time of Isaiah, and not the time of fulfillment.  If the author really expects his readers to believe that God declares things long before they happen (48:3-5) and the end from the beginning (46:10), he should continue with predictions of the future, as I believe he does.

Other Considerations Supporting the Unity of Isaiah

It is also significant to note how later authors treated the book of Isaiah.  Ecclesiasticus, also known as Sirach, is a work from the 2nd century BC that makes reference to Isaiah (Esay) in Ecclesiasticus 48:22.  Then, 48:23 goes on to state “In his time the sun went backward, and he lengthened the king’s life”, which is narrated in Isaiah 38:4-8.  Going further in 48:24, Sirach also says “He saw by an excellent spirit what should come to pass at the last, and he comforted them that mourned in Sion.”  This last phrase is especially important, because it would appear to attribute a writing of Second Isaiah to the same Isaiah just described from First Isaiah.  The passage I am referring to comes from Isaiah 61:2-3, where we find “to comfort all who mourn; to grant to those who mourn in Zion”, so it seems that Sirach considered the Isaiah of the First and Second parts of the book to be one and the same.  Along the same lines, some of the authors of the New Testament made reference to the writing of the prophet Isaiah.  Though there are as many quotes of Isaiah as there are chapters in his book, not all of these New Testament quotations mention his name.  However, the twenty that do mention his name are listed in the table below, along with where they are taken from.

New Testament                                                  Isaiah 1-39

 

Matthew 4:14-16                                                        9:1-2

Matthew 13:14-15                                                      6:9-10

Matthew 15:7-9                                                          29:13

Mark 7:6-7                                                                  29:13

John 12:39-40                                                           6:10

Acts 28:25-27                                                            6:9-10

Romans 9:27-28                                                       10:22-23

Romans 9:29                                                             1:9

Romans 15:12                                                            11:10

                                                                        Isaiah 40-66

 

Matthew 3:3                                                  40:3

Matthew 8:17                                                 53:4

Matthew 12:17-21                                          42:1-4

Mark 1:2-3                                                      40:3

Luke 3:4-6                                                       40:3-5

Luke 4:17-19                                                    61:1-2

John 1:23                                                          40:3

John 12:38                                                        53:1

Acts 8:28, 32-33                                              53:7-8

Romans 10:16                                                   53:1

Romans 10:20-21                                             65:1-2

Of the twenty quotations of Isaiah by name, nine are from First Isaiah and eleven are from Second Isaiah.  This means that the New Testament attestation for Second Isaiah belonging to Isaiah the prophet is on the same level (technically even a little better) as that for First Isaiah.  Perhaps the best example of this is found in John 12:38-41.

WordObj39WordObj40John 12:38-41 “so that the word spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: ‘Lord, who has believed what he heard from us, and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?’  Therefore they could not believe. For again Isaiah said, ‘He has blinded their eyes and hardened their heart, lest they see with their eyes, and understand with their heart, and turn, and I would heal them.’  Isaiah said these things because he saw his glory and spoke of him.”

John first quotes from Second Isaiah (53:1), attributing it to the prophet Isaiah, and then he proceeds to quote Isaiah “again”, this time from First Isaiah (6:10).  John wraps it up by explaining that Isaiah said these things because he saw His glory and spoke of Him.  Thus, these references are inextricably connected to the historical prophet Isaiah.

WordObj41Furthermore, in terms of manuscript evidence, those who would split up Isaiah do not have a manuscript copy of only Isaiah 1-39 (or only 40-66 for that matter) to bolster their case.  If they did, they would certainly make no secret of the fact that one or the other or both have been preserved in separated form.  However, as it turns out, the earliest known copy of any complete book of the Bible (2nd century BC) just happens to be of the prophet Isaiah, including all 66 chapters (Josh McDowell, The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict, p.78-79).  So as far back as we can see, Isaiah stands complete in its undivided form.

WordObj42Finally, as I pointed out in the previous article, Isaiah makes other predictions of the future, some of them referring to the time of Jesus as messianic prophecies.  While it may be conventional for scholars to suggest that the prophecies in Second Isaiah concerning the exile were actually written around that time, no one has suggested that the messianic prophecies were written around the time of Jesus.  Of course, the above mentioned complete copy of Isaiah from before the time of Jesus prohibits such suggestions, but the principle is the same.  Isaiah’s messianic prophecies are on the same level as his exilic prophecies, for he presents compelling knowledge of what would happen in the life of Jesus.  Norman Geisler points out twelve aspects of Jesus’ passion that were foretold in the twelve verses of Isaiah 53.  He would be rejected, be a man of sorrow, live a life of suffering, be despised, carry our sorrows, be afflicted by God, be pierced for our transgressions, be wounded for our sins, suffer like a lamb, die with the wicked, be sinless, and pray for transgressors (Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, p.611).  If Isaiah could predict that and not have those portions of his book assigned to the 1st century AD, he could certainly have spoken about the Babylonian exile without those portions of his book being assigned to the 6th century BC.  If predictive prophecy is not ruled out of the equation from the beginning, I do not see any reason to consider the prophecies of the book of Isaiah to be any later than the life of the prophet himself.

WordObj-figure 3-2

Unfulfilled Prophecy?

WordObj43In considering Jesus’ prediction of the fall of Jerusalem, and particularly the temple located there, objections range from claiming that Jesus was a little off to saying that He was completely wrong.  The former focuses on the specific claims of what Jesus said would happen in the events surrounding Jerusalem’s fall, which we know from the history of the event in 70AD.  The latter dispenses with the details and suggests that Jesus said a lot more would happen than what actually did happen.  Both of these views are compatible with seeing Jesus’ prediction as imprecise and foreseeable by natural common sense.  However, I believe that neither is compatible with what Jesus actually meant, so these claims are worth taking a closer look at below.

Jesus Thought the Final Judgment Would Occur along with the Fall of Jerusalem

This is where people like Thom Stark (The Human Faces of God)  and Bart Ehrman (Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium) would claim that Jesus was wrong.  A couple of quotes from Stark in reference to the Olivet Discourse (Matthew 24; Mark 13; Luke 21) sum up the contention.

WordObj44“The simplest reading of this discourse, and the reading that best fits with the Jewish apocalyptic context out of which Jesus and his disciples emerged, is also the only reading that makes sense of Jesus’ claims.” (The Human Faces of God, p.173).

“Jesus could not have been clearer if he had said, ‘I predict that the final judgement will occur within the next forty or fifty years.’” (The Human Faces of God, p.174).

The basis for such confidence in such an interpretation rests largely on the weight of the evidence of Jewish apocalyptic literature from around the time of Jesus and His disciples, coupled together with textual evidence of what Jesus said in light of historical evidence of what did and did not happen at the fall of Jerusalem.  The case certainly sounds convincing when such evidence is presented, but it is not the evidence that I take issue with; it is the interpretation of this evidence.  So let us examine the Jewish apocalyptic context and the textual evidence.

The Jewish Apocalyptic Context

WordObj45In Stark’s summary of the different chapters of his book, in reference to the chapter on Jesus, he states that “honest appraisals of the text force us to acknowledge that because of the apocalyptic worldview that Jesus inherited, he necessarily got a few things wrong.” (The Human Faces of God, p.225).  Why is this so?  Well, for Stark, Jesus (and His disciples with Him) is merely a child of His own generation, hopelessly locked within the framework with which He is presented.  So naturally, if Jesus were to make a prediction of the coming kingdom, Stark would say that it would, of necessity, fit into the Jewish apocalyptic context.  Though I do not dispute his general depiction of the Jewish apocalyptic environment, I ask: is this a valid way to interpret the situation?

I would emphatically answer this question in the negative for a few reasons.  First, this is precisely what I have been contesting in the previous article; namely, that the Bible is just a book like any other.  If you deny Jesus the possibility of being able to think differently about the coming of the kingdom of God than the other Jews of His time, of course you would have to admit that Jesus got a few things wrong.  After all, I do not know of anyone who thinks the Jews fighting to deliver their land from the oppression of the Romans prior to the destruction of Jerusalem got things right.  However, if God is permitted to provide correct ideas about the nature of the kingdom of God, Jesus is not bound to think as others before Him have thought.  With a starting point that limits God from speaking into a situation, it is no wonder that many who take such positions fail to recognize the voice of God in the words of Jesus.  If God’s ability to speak is not ruled out from the beginning, the rules of the game change considerably.

WordObj45aSecond, there is much evidence that Jesus did think of the kingdom differently than the other Jews of His time.  In one of my articles on the historical evidence for Jesus resurrection (The Argument from Jesus’ Resurrection (Part 4)), I explained how the particular portrait of Jesus as Messiah did not fit any of the messianic paradigms around at the time.  There was no belief in a dying, much less, rising Messiah, and there was no belief that anyone, not even the Messiah, would rise in advance of the general resurrection at the end of time.  Yet, as evidenced by the birth of Christianity in the first place, Jesus surprised everyone, including His disciples, by showing the true nature of the kingdom to be different than anticipated.  A great example of this same iconoclastic thinking, even before Jesus’ death, would be the events surrounding Peter’s confession of Jesus as Messiah.  Matthew 16:16-23 describes how Peter calls Jesus the Christ, the Son of God, but then as soon as Jesus tells His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem to suffer and be killed, Peter rebukes Jesus.  Jesus then proceeds to rebuke the satanic nature of Peter thinking according to the things of man, but not of God.  Peter was merely acting according to what he believed about the nature of the kingdom, but Jesus was trying to illustrate the earthly nature of those actions.  Another good example would be Jesus’ confession before Pilate, where Jesus is not merely putting off the timing of His kingdom, but the very nature of it.

WordObj46John 18:36 “Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.’”

Third, even within an apocalyptic framework, different interpretations are plausible.  Though I have my own particular view of how to interpret apocalyptic literature, there are others, and some can even be made to complement each other.  I have reasons for why I prefer my particular apocalyptic view, but I would not be so arrogant as to suggest that my view is the only possible view.  I see some views as more plausible than others, but the point is that if I can recognize the plausibility of other views, even if I am not compelled to adopt them, the field of interpretation may not be as narrow as some would like it to seem.

The Textual Evidence

As Stark puts it, “Although Jesus spoke of an imminent final judgment frequently, in two of his discourses in particular Jesus predicts that the final judgment will occur within the lifetime of his disciples.” (The Human Faces of God, p.168-169).  The passages he is referring to are both found in all three synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, but for the sake of simplicity, I will focus mostly on Matthew.

WordObj47After the passage in Matthew 16 that I mentioned above, Matthew 16:28 (Mark 9:1; Luke 9:27) says, “Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”  The claim is that Jesus is saying here that He will come back and judge the earth within the lifetime of some of the disciples.  This is based on the notion that His kingdom is only to be identified with the final judgement, but as we have seen above, Jesus’ kingdom was not of this world.  The kingdom of God is not restricted to one meaning, so we need to look at the context.  Stark is very much aware of this and correctly points out that the preceding context contains reference to the Son of Man coming with His angels in the glory of His Father and repaying everyone for what has been done (Matthew 16:27) (The Human Faces of God, p.172).  However, I feel he brushes over the proceeding context, which narrates the transfiguration of Jesus in all three instances (Matthew 17:1-13; Mark 9:2-13; Luke 9:28-36).  Stark explains why he thinks the transfiguration is not a good explanation of what Jesus means in Matthew 16:28.  He points to the fact that there is no mention of angels in the transfiguration and that there is no mention of judgement, both of which can be found in the preceding context (16:27).  However, he is assuming that Matthew 16:27 and 16:28 are talking about the same event, and I think the context reveals this.  If we go back a little further, Matthew 16:24-26 talks about the paradox of losing life and yet saving it and vice versa, and then about a person gaining the whole world but forfeiting their WordObj48soul.  How can someone lose their life and yet save it?  How can someone try to save their life and yet lose it?  Well, Jesus is not speaking of life in this world, and this is where Matthew 16:27 comes in.  If someone gives their life for Jesus’ sake in this world, they will find it in the afterlife, for the judgement will be favourable when the final judgement comes.  Conversely, if someone seeks to save their life away from Jesus, they too will die eventually, but the judgement will not be favourable when the final judgement comes.  This clearly speaks of the final judgement in my opinion.  However, I feel that Matthew 16:28 speaks of this life and I believe the proceeding context supports that.

To review, Jesus has been proclaimed as the Messiah by Peter.  He then reveals that He would be killed in Jerusalem and would rise again on the third day.  Peter rebukes Him, but is in turn rebuked for being mindful of the things of man and not God.  Jesus tells His disciples that they would need to be willing to suffer like Him and it could even cost them their lives, but they could be assured of their souls being preserved unto the final judgement.  Now, it is at this point that Jesus proclaims something that would be for this life and would only be to some.  WordObj49The final judgement was going to be for every person, but the next part was for a select few.  The final judgement was not dependent on physical survival, but this next part was.  In Matthew 17:1-13 Jesus takes only Peter, James, and John up a mountain with Him and is transfigured before them, shining like the sun and becoming white as light.  He proceeds to talk with Moses and Elijah, and this is capped off with a voice from the clouds saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.”  On the way down from the mountain, Jesus commands them to tell no one until the Son of Man had risen from the dead.  Jesus thus had shown these three disciples a secret of the kingdom that was not to be revealed until after His resurrection from the dead, and indeed would only make sense after that.  Jesus is not predicting the final judgement within forty or fifty years, but is simply showing a revelation of His kingdom to His closest followers, who would spread the message of His kingdom after His resurrection.

WordObj47aMoving to the next passage in Matthew 24 (Mark 13, Luke 21), the claim is again that only one event is in mind: the fall of Jerusalem and the final judgement together.  However, to properly understand Jesus’ answer to His disciples, we need to know the question.  The question is initially prompted by Jesus’ statement about the temple, for He pronounces of the temple that, “there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.” (Matthew 24:2).  WordObj53In reaction to this, His disciples ask “when will these things be” and “what will be the sign of your coming and of the close of the age?” (Matthew 24:3).  There are actually two questions here: one concerning the destruction of the temple and the other concerning Christ’s coming and the end of the age.

Jesus describes that they should not be led astray as false christs are leading people astray, as well as wars, famines, and earthquakes, but interestingly, He says the end is not yet, but these are just the beginning of birth pains (Matthew 24:4-8).  As I described in the previous article, these kinds of things happened leading up to the fall of Jerusalem, but Jesus says that this is not the end.  If Jesus was intending to say that the final judgement was drawing near when the events of the fall of Jerusalem started happening, this would be a confusing passage indeed.  However, I do not believe that is what He is doing, and I see more evidence of that as the passage goes on.

Matthew 24:14 says that the “gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.”  Though the disciples were certainly prolific in their preaching, they did not travel significantly outside the Roman Empire.  In fact, after nearly two thousand years, this gospel has not yet been proclaimed to all nations, so it was certainly not the case by 70AD.  No, the events surrounding the fall of Jerusalem are separated significantly from the coming of Jesus for final judgement.

WordObj50Matthew 24:36-51 provides a fitting end to the passage and yet further indication of the distinction between the timing of the fall of Jerusalem and the final judgement.  To give a little context, Matthew 24:32-34 says to learn a lesson from the fig tree, seeing leaves and tender branches, and knowing that summer is near.  This is paralleled with seeing “these” things and knowing that “he” is near.  It also says that this generation would not pass away until all “these” things took place.  It is tempting to suggest that “these things” refers to both the fall of Jerusalem and the coming of Jesus, but the final passage of the chapter suggests otherwise.  It starts out by saying that no one knows the day or the hour of the coming of the Son of Man.  A comparison is then made with the days of Noah, for as they were unaware when the flood swept them away, no one knows when the Lord is coming.  It goes on to encourage readiness, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.  A comparison is also made with a faithful servant and a wicked servant, again emphasizing the unexpected nature of the Lord’s return.

WordObj51aSo, the question naturally presents itself: can we consistently claim that the coming of Jesus is both expected and unexpected?  Stark seems to think so, as he suggests that “Jesus knows it will happen soon, has promised that it will happen before the last of his disciples tastes death, but he does not know the precise date or hour that it will occur within those boundaries.” (The Human Faces of God, p.187).  I find this hard to believe.  On the one hand, Jesus gives detailed descriptions of what would happen leading up to the fall of Jerusalem (as explained in more depth in the previous article), so much so that people in Judea were supposed to be able to see the signs clear enough to know exactly when to flee (Matthew 24:15-16).  Then, on the other hand, the coming of the Son of Man, which is allegedly inextricably linked with the fall of Jerusalem, is supposed to remain ambiguous.  If I am one of the people like in Noah’s day or like the wicked servant, I do not need to stay awake, I just need to wait for the signs before I get my act together.  No, I see the events as separate, even if that is not immediately obvious.

WordObj52That is another question worth answering, though; namely, why are these ideas linked if they are indeed separate?  Well, as I explained in the previous article, prophets in the Bible sometimes used telescoping in their prophecy.  The idea was to give a short-term prophecy that would be fulfilled relatively soon and then a long-term prophecy at the same time.  When the short-term prophecy came to pass, it would give credibility to the long-term prophecy.  Having been almost two thousand years since Jesus gave the prediction of His coming, it can be easy to doubt that it will ever be fulfilled, as some people certainly think.  However, what Jesus has done in predicting telescopically is ensuring the fulfillment long-term prediction through the fulfillment of the short-term prophecy.  When that generation saw the fulfillment of Jesus’ first prediction, they would be encouraged to spread the gospel of the kingdom, which is part of the second prediction coming to pass (Matthew 24:14).

As for the claim that Jesus’ prediction was imprecise and not that impressive, I think the detail presented here and in the previous article suggests otherwise.  Furthermore, the timeframe for the fall of Jerusalem was quite accurate and should not be overlooked based on assumptions that Jesus intended for a lot more to happen around 70AD than actually did.  It is strange, because in complaining of the fact that some stones of the temple were left on another, Pinnock ignores the fact that, even if there were a few stones left on each other (an overly literalistic interpretation), this is still a fairly precise prediction.  There had been many wars involving Jerusalem over the preceding thousand years, but the temple had only been destroyed once.  However, this is a case of “even if”, because as Norman Geisler points out, “archaeologists have discovered the stones to which Jesus referred, and there was literally not one left upon another.  I (Norm) saw them on a recent trip to Jerusalem.” (Norman Geisler and William Roach, Defending Inerrancy, p.54).

WordObj-figure 3-3

Summary

WordObj54cWith all this talk of what the Bible does and does not do with reference to prophecy, it is significant to point out that these accusations often rest upon unproven assumptions.  While the skeptical and liberal views may appeal to the so-called “assured results of modern criticism” (JB Payne, in Inerrancy, p.103), they provide considerably less assurance when examined critically themselves.  The claim is often that the text demands that we understand predictive prophecy in the Bible to be the product of various historical and cultural factors, even if Bible-believing Christians find that hard to stomach.  However, I cannot help but think that the prophecies are often straightforward and it is rather the scholar who finds it difficult to stomach the fact that the prophecies seem to be the product of God speaking.  Since I have offered good reasons for thinking that this objection fails, we are left with reason to honestly consider the positive evidence for God having spoken through the prophecies of the Bible.

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