The Hebraic View of Prophecy

Reggie Kelly – 20th January 2002

The phenomenon of Biblical prophecy rises out of a profound philosophy of history that by means of the prophetic unction interprets its past, illumines its course, and predicts its ultimate goal.

In prophetic perspective, the future is shaping the present rather than the reverse. This is why the powers of the eschatological future in both judgment and salvation are ever penetrating the contemporary circumstance as men are brought into encounter with God’s future through the word of prophecy. Whether for salvation or judgment, the future is ever “at hand.”

The imminence of the prophetic future initiates a crisis of decision, not on the basis of chronological proximity, although, because of the nature of existential proximity to eternity,  such expectancy would not be inaccurate. Rather, there is a constant proximity that all persons have to the end that justifies the concept of an “existential imminence” in the sense of the moral and spiritual claims contained in the inexorable approach of God’s future. Hence, unfaithfulness will draw near the judgment of the great day as will righteousness its salvation.

Note: An ever present existential proximity to the end is to be distinguished from an eventual chronological imminence that becomes true only in the presence of definitely foretold signs as seen in Jesus’ Olivet prophecy (Mt 24) and Paul’s little apocalypse of 2Thes 2:1-8.

Israel’s religion, unlike that of her contemporaries, was grounded in a revelation that is mediated through the prophetic interpretation of historical events based on a covenant pattern of salvation, judgment, and restoration. Israel’s calling and election establishes the bonds of a relationship of mutual faithfulness and moral obligation. This helps to explain why the historical books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings are designated the “Former Prophets” in the Hebrew canon. The authors of these books, like the later prophets, saw that Israel’s unique history was in itself a revelation of God.

When a writer recorded Old Testament history he was not interested simply in writing history as history, but in tracing the revelation of God in and through that history. This history, however, is selective according to what is revelatory in the context of covenant and salvation. But because salvation history is controlled by God’s “purpose according to election,” it is distinctively the history of Israel.

Apart from the prophetic key of Israel, history is a hopeless enigma. Human futility can be traced to its failure to accept Yahweh’s challenge to test the reality of His existence and personality through the miracle of prophecy. God has chosen that His existence and nature be verified through prophecy concerning Israel in particular. “You are My witnesses”. Prophecy is the sign that God has chosen to prove His existence and power and to reveal the glory and the terror of His person, will and purpose.

Throughout the second half of Isaiah’s prophecy, the “ancient people” in their peculiar role in history as Yahweh’s (“My”) witnesses, are set forth as the key to the meaning of history. Through the evidence of prophecy, Israel is the sign of God’s sovereign and purposeful design in history. No apologetic for the faith can improve on this formula; and if we would be witnesses to the God that predestines history according to a revealed will and plan, we cannot neglect the witness that God Himself invokes, the everlasting nation, Israel in the light of prophecy and history.

The meaning and destiny of history and even the purpose of creation has been set along side of God’s self-revelation through His prophetic purpose for Israel and the nations through His covenant of salvation in the Messiah Redeemer (“the testimony of Jesus is the Spirit of prophecy;” Rev 19:10). If we would receive the message of God through His acts in history, we must see it reflected in large part through the prophetic drama of Israel’s sojourn through time.

From the Biblical perspective, the historical role and destiny of nations receive significance only in relationship to the prophetic future of Israel. In the New Testament, Paul discusses this concept of salvation history in Romans chapters nine through eleven. It is not meant, however, that the purpose of God in His providential workings in the arena of history is by any means for Israel’s sake only. Though Israel’s election remains central, both testaments declare the universal scope of God’s redemptive intention for all nations.

The prophet was the bearer of a special message from God, particularly addressed to his own nation or contemporaries, and usually at a time of national crises. He would diagnose the nation’s true condition before God, interpret the cause of present ills, declare and interpret the divine will according to the regulating principle of the covenant, exhort and comfort the remnant, and warn the impenitent of the wrath that draws near in the always imminent Day of the Lord.

The future toward which the divine will is moving all things is unchangeable and its swift approach inexorable, but every man’s relationship to this future is determined now by his response to the word of revelation in the prophet’s mouth. For this reason it may be said that all prophecy, whether forth-telling or foretelling has an ethical thrust on the basis of the covenant, and is intended to expose the heart, affect repentance, and create faith in a context of promise and hope.

The prophet was the guardian of the covenant, the enforcer of Moses, maintaining the law of the blessing and the curse as announced between Mt. Gerizim and Mt. Ebal (Deut. 27-28). But conscious of the inability of human nature to fulfill the righteousness required in the law, the prophets would mingle their stern charge with the balm of promise and overtures of love to elicit repentance, hope, and faith. Israel is promised an immediate aversion of the present distress if she responds faithfully to the prophet’s message, but the ultimate and everlasting redemption comes only through the Messianic deliverance always put at the end of Zion’s travail, a final time of unequaled distress and tribulation climaxing in the Great Day of the Lord.

But if Yahweh’s appeal through the prophets is spurned, then the prophetic call itself is sign that the Day of the Lord is drawing near and hastens greatly. Its powers for destruction will not be postponed to a distant time. Already, in the impenitent slighting of the prophet’s appeal, the end draws near for the generation of greatest prophetic accountability, because where there is great light, there is great responsibility. Even before its ultimate and exhaustive fulfillment at the last day, the powers of that coming day may be visited on a specific generation in judgment. Conversely, the blessings of the coming age may come in advance of that day as first fruits through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.

There is a recurrent pattern of judgment and restoration based on election and covenant that is faithful in its cycles. In this way, the history of Israel has been punctuated with repeated adumbrations of that ultimate day, and the prophets show an awareness of this pattern, as one will use nearly the same language of his predecessors to warn of a near contemporary threat that is represented as no less imminent than the earlier prophets applied to earlier invasions, also depicted in all the imagery of the same day of the Lord. This has been described as the near far perspective unique to Hebrew prophecy.

Regardless of how many generations may have passed since an earlier prophet would present the contemporary threat in the familiar imagery of the day of the Lord, with its promise to judge Israel’s enemies and end the captivity, a later prophet would not hesitate to use the same language to describe the same day as no less imminent. If the prophet’s warnings go unheeded, then by Yahweh’s commitment to uphold the word of His sent one, the day is made near for that very reason. But woe unto that prophet who has not been sent.

A visitation of the judgments of that day that come short of accomplishing Israel’s everlasting deliverance and secure and abiding possession of the Land cannot be the full and exhaustive fulfillment of the day of the Lord, but it can bring the judgments of that coming day in exacting severity on the generation that rejects the sent Word. In this sense, the near fulfillment of the Day of the Lord in Israel’s historic invasions and captivities are the advance visitation of the powers of the climatic Day reaching into the present. It is the impingement or breaking in of the future, the presence of the future.

Thus the prophets as inspired interpreters of history have given us a philosophy of history that derives from Israel’s experience in that history. The past is both a pattern and promise of the future, a prophetic point of reference that discloses the ethical and redemptive purpose of God unfolded in the progress and future of salvation history. The meaning of Israel is the meaning of history. The Lord of history and of all the earth, and of all nations, has, for a profound reason chosen to identify Himself uniquely as the God of Israel.

Finally, the prophetic awareness is that God has chosen to educate mankind through his unique revelatory dealing with Israel. If we would understand the meaning and message of history we can be successful only so far as we submit our hearts to learn of God in His self disclosure though the prophets of Israel, who present to us Israel as the great object lesson of history.

“I will set My glory among the nations; all the nations shall see My judgment which I have executed, and My hand which I have laid on them. So the house of Israel shall know that I am the LORD their God from that day forward. The Gentiles shall know that the house of Israel went into captivity for their iniquity; because they were unfaithful to Me, therefore I hid My face from them. I gave them into the hand of their enemies, and they all fell by the sword. According to their uncleanness and according to their transgressions I have dealt with them, and hidden My face from them. Therefore thus says the Lord GOD: Now I will bring back the captives of Jacob, and have mercy on the whole house of Israel; and I will be jealous for My holy name – after they have borne their shame, and all their unfaithfulness in which they were unfaithful to Me, when they dwelt safely in their own land and no one made them afraid. When I have brought them back from the peoples and gathered them out of their enemies’ lands, and I am hallowed in them in the sight of many nations, then they shall know that I am the LORD their God, who sent them into captivity among the nations, but also brought them back to their own land, and left none of them captive any longer. And I will not hide My face from them anymore; for I shall have poured out My Spirit on the house of Israel,’ says the Lord GOD.” Ezekiel Ch 39:21-29

Copyright Reggie Kelly January 2002. All rights reserved notwithstanding which: Articles may be photocopied and distributed at the discretion of the reader. We do, however, request that any copying and quoting upholds the integrity of the article and that all quotes are made accurately and in context. Articles should not be published on websites, publications, etc, without prior written permission, which will not be unreasonably witheld.

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