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Bible Encyclopedias

Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature

Prophecy

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Under this head we propose to treat of certain general aspects of the subject of permanent interest, reserving for the head of PROPHET what relates more personally to the organs or media of true prophecy, as found in the Bible. In doing so we combine the Biblical elements with the best results of modern criticism and discussion.

I. Design of Prophecy. In this respect we would define prophecy as "God's communication to the Church, to be her light and comfort in time of trouble and perplexity." Vitringa defines it as "a prediction of some contingent circumstance or event in the future received by immediate or direct revelation." Dr. Pye Smith speaks of it "as a declaration made by a creature under the inspiration and commission of the omniscient God relating to an event or series of events, which have not taken place at the time the prophecy is uttered, and which could not have been certainly foreknown by any science or wisdom of man." Other writers say, "Prophecy is nothing but the history of events before they come to pass." Dean Magee dissents from this popular but erroneous view. In a lecture on the uses of prophecy he defines a prophet as "the religious teacher of his age, whose aim is the religious education of those whom he addresses." To have received a call and message direct from God, and to deliver it, is the essence of prophetism. The Jewish lawgiver in delivering moral and ceremonial precepts received from God, and our blessed Lord in the Sermon on the Mount, were prophets just as much as when they predicted the future of Israel (M'Caul, Aids to Faith). As a reaction from the general body of writers on prophecy, who exalt the predictive and neglect the moral element of God's communication to man, there have arisen in Germany, and to some extent in our own land, writers who speak exclusively of the moral stream of light flowing through prophecy, and deny altogether its predictive character. Both errors will be avoided by bearing in mind that the word of prophecy was profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction, to the first recipients of the message, as well as for succeeding ages.

The usual view of prophecy as anticipated history virtually excludes from the roll the great Prophet who was its theme and author, Moses his distinguished prototype, John the Baptist his eminent forerunner, Elijah, Samuel, under the old covenant, as well as the apostles and prophets under the new. According to this view, prophecy is virtually limited to what the Spirit saith unto the churches in the four hundred years between Hosea and Malachi. and by the beloved John, the writer of the Apocalypse. But if we agree to regard the prophet as the forthteller, possessing the munus praedicandi rather than the foreteller, possessing only the munus praedicendi we see at once how the very highest place is assigned to our Lord and to Moses; how John the Baptist was more than a prophet, as he stood within the actual dawn of the day of Christ, and as a religious teacher did really more for the religious training of those whom he addressed than any of the prophets of the old covenant. We see, too, how naturally and clearly the earlier prophets were subordinate to Moses, so that the test of their commission was conformity to the lawgiver; and how appropriately the term is applied to the apostles of our Lord and Saviour, as charged by Christ with the whole ordering and establishing of the Church in its institutions, government, and progress. In fact, students of prophecy perpetually use the word in a non-natural sense. Hence the variety and discordancy of their interpretations. Our attention must be rigidly fixed on the natural and proper sense of the terms, if we would gain any satisfactory results.

In all communications from God to man two elements may be traced, the moral and the predictive. Neither element must be pressed or insisted on, so as to depress and exclude the other. Yet the moral element is the fundamental, to which the predictive is always subsidiary. The moral element occupies the highest place in the communications made by our Lord, by Moses, by the apostles; the predictive element prevails in those who had the more ordinary gifts, as all their announcements appealed to the revelations made by Moses and by Christ. The testimony of Jesus as the author, and the testimony borne to Jesus as the theme, is the spirit of prophecy. According to this view prophecy is always didactic; the moral element is fundamental, the predictive is entirely subsidiary. All who bore testimony to Jesus before his incarnation were preachers of righteousness, and all who testify that Jesus is come in the flesh exercise the prophetical function.

II. Value of Prophecy as Evidence of the Truth of Revelation. Davison, in his Discourses on Prophecy, fixes a "Criterion of Prophecy," and in accordance with it he describes "the condition is which would confer cogency of evidence on single examples of prophecy" in the following manner: first, "the known promulgation of the prophecy prior to the event; secondly, the clear and palpable fulfilment of it; lastly, the nature of the event itself if, when the prediction of it was given, it lay remote from human view, and was such as could not be foreseen by any supposable effort of reason, or be deduced upon principles of calculation derived from probability and experience" (Disc. 8:378). Applying his test, the learned writer finds that the establishment of the Christian religion and the person of its Founder were predicted when neither reason nor experience could have anticipated them; and that the predictions respecting them have been clearly fulfilled in history. Here, then, is an adequate proof of an inspired prescience in the prophets who predicted these things. He applies his test to the prophecies recorded of the Jewish people, and their actual state, to the prediction of the great apostasy and to the actual state of corrupted Christianity, and finally to the prophecies relating to Nineveh, Babylon, Tyre, Egypt, the Ishmaelites, and the Four Empires, and to the events which have befallen them; and in each of these cases he finds proof of the existence of the predictive element in the prophets.

In the book of Kings we find Micaiah, the son of Imlah, uttering a challenge, by which his predictive powers were to be judged. He had pronounced, by the word of the Lord, that Ahab should fall at RamothGilead. Ahab, in return, commanded him to be shut up in prison until he came back in peace. "And Micaiah said, If thou return at all in peace" (that is, if the event do not verify my words), "the Lord hath not spoken by me" (that is, I am no prophet capable of predicting the future) (1 Kings 22:28). The test is sound as a negative test, and so it is laid down in the law (Deuteronomy 18:22); but as a positive test it would not be sufficient. Ahab's death at Ramoth-Gilead did not prove Micaiah's predictive powers, though his escape would have disproved them. But here we must notice a very important difference between single prophecies and a series of prophecy. The fulfilment of a single prophecy does not prove the prophetical power of the prophet, but the fulfillment of a long series of prophecies by a series or number of events does in itself constitute a proof that the prophecies were intended to predict the events, and, consequently, that predictive power resided in the prophet or prophets. We may see this in the so far parallel cases of satirical writings.

We know for certain that Aristophanes refers to Cleon, Pericles, Nicias (and we should be equally sure of it were his satire more concealed than it is), simply from the fact of a number of satirical hits converging together on the object of his satire. One, two, or three strokes might be intended for more persons than one, but the addition of each stroke makes the aim more apparent; and when we have a sufficient number before us, we can no longer possibly doubt his design. The same may be said of fables, and still more of allegories. The fact of a complicated lock being opened by a key shows that the lock and key were meant for each other. Now the Messianic picture drawn by the prophets as a body contains at least as many traits as these: That salvation should come through the family of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Judah, David; that at the time of the final absorption of the Jewish power, Shiloh (the tranquilizer) should gather the nations under his rule; that there should be a great Prophet, typified by Moses; a King descended from David; a Priest forever, typified by Melchizedek; that there should be born into the world a child to be called Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace; that there should be a Righteous Servant of God on whom the Lord would lay the iniquity of all; that Messiah the Prince should be cut off, but not for himself; that an everlasting kingdom should be given by the Ancient of Days to one like the Son of man. It seems impossible to harmonize so many apparent contradictions. Nevertheless, it is an undoubted fact that at the time seemingly pointed out by one or more of these predictions there was born into the world a child of the house of David, and therefore of the family of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Judah, who claimed to be the object of these and other predictions; who is acknowledged as Prophet, Priest, and King, as Mighty God and yet as God's Righteous Servant who bears the iniquity of all; who was cut off, and whose death is acknowledged not to have been for his own, but for others' good: who has instituted a spiritual kingdom on earth, which kingdom is of a nature to continue forever, if there is any continuance beyond this world and this life; and in whose doings and sufferings on earth a number of specific predictions were minutely fulfilled. Then we may say that we have here a series of prophecies which are so applicable to the person and earthly life of Jesus Christ as to be thereby shown to have been designed to apply to him. If they were designed to apply to him, prophetical prediction is proved.

Objections have been urged:

(a.) Vagueness. It has been said that the prophecies are too darkly and vaguely worded to be proved predictive by the events which they are alleged to foretell. This objection is stated with clearness and force by Ammon. He says, "Such simple sentences as the following: Israel has not to expect a king, but a teacher; this teacher will be born at Bethlehem during the reign of Herod; he will lay down his life under Tiberius, in attestation of the truth of his religion; through the destruction of Jerusalem, and the complete extinction of the Jewish state, he will spread his doctrine in every quarter of the world-a few sentences like these, expressed in plain historical prose, would not only bear the character of true predictions, but, when once their genuineness was proved, they would be of incomparably greater worth to us than all the oracles of the Old Test. taken together" (Christology, p. 12). But to this it might be answered, and has been in effect answered by Hengstenberg:

1. That God never forces men to believe, but that there is such a union of definiteness and vagueness in the prophecies as to enable those who are willing to discover the truth, while the willfully blind are not forcibly constrained to see it.

2. That, had the prophecies been couched in the form of direct declarations, their fulfilment would have thereby been rendered impossible, or, at least, capable of frustration.

3. That the effect of prophecy (e.g. with reference to the time of the Messiah's coming) would have been far less beneficial to believers, as being less adapted to keep them in a state of constant expectation.

4. That the Messiah of Revelation could not be so clearly portrayed in his varied character as God and Man, as Prophet, Priest, and King, if he had been the mere "teacher" which is all that Ammon acknowledges him to be.

5. That the state of the prophets, at the time of receiving the divine revelation, was (as we shall presently show) such as necessarily to make their predictions fragmentary, figurative, and abstracted from the relations of time.

6. That some portions of the prophecies were intended to be of double application, and some portions to be understood only on their fulfilment (comp. John 14:29; Ezekiel 36:33).

(b.) Obscurity of a Part or Parts of a Prophecy otherwise Clear. The objection drawn from "the unintelligibleness of one part of a prophecy, as invalidating the proof of foresight arising from the evident completion of those parts which are understood" is akin to that drawn from the vagueness of the whole of it. It may be answered with the same arguments, to which we may add the consideration urged by Butler that it is, for the argument in hand, the same as if the parts not understood were written in cipher, or not written at all: "Suppose a writing, partly in cipher and partly in plain words at length; and that in the part one understood there appeared mention of several known facts it would never come into any man's thought to imagine that, if he understood the whole, perhaps he might find that these facts were not in reality known by the writer" (Analogy, pt. 2, ch. 7). Furthermore, if it be true that prophecies relating to the first coming of the Messiah refer also to his second coming, some part of those prophecies must necessarily be as yet not fully understood.

It would appear from these considerations that Davison's second "condition," above quoted, "the clear and palpable fulfilment of the prophecy," should be so far modified as to take into account the necessary difficulty. more or less great, in recognizing the fulfilment of a prophecy which results from the necessary vagueness and obscurity of the prophecy itself.

(c.) Application of' the Several Prophecies to a mor e Immediate Subject. It has been the task of many Biblical critics to examine the different passages which are alleged to be predictions of Christ, and to show that they were delivered in reference to some person or thing contemporary with, or shortly subsequent to, the time of the writer. The conclusion is then drawn, sometimes scornfully, sometimes as an inference not to be resisted, that the passages in question have nothing to do with the Messiah. We have here to distinguish carefully between the conclusion proved and the corollary drawn from it. Let it be granted that it may be proved of all the predictions of the Messiah (it certainly may be proved of many) that they primarily apply to some historical and present fact: in that case a certain law, under which God vouchsafes his prophetical revelations, is discovered; but there is no semblance of disproof of the further Messianic interpretation of the passages under consideration. That some such law does exist has been argued at length by Mr. Davison. He believes, however, that "it obtains only in some of the more distinguished monuments of prophecy," such as the prophecies founded on, and having primary reference to, the kingdom of David, the restoration of the Jews, the destruction of Jerusalem (On Prophecy, disc. 5). Dr. Lee thinks that Davison "exhibits too great reserve in the application of this important principle" (On Inspiration, lect. 4). He considers it to be of universal application; and upon it he founds the doctrine of the "double sense of prophecy," according to which a prediction is fulfilled in two or even more distinct but analogous subjects: first in type, then in antitype; and after that perhaps awaits a still further and more complete fulfilment. This view of the fulfilment of prophecy seems necessary for the explanation of our Lord's prediction on the Mount, relating at once to the fall of Jerusalem and to the end of the Christian dispensation. It is on this principle that Pearson writes: "Many are the prophecies which concern him, many the promises which are made of him; but yet some of them very obscure... Wheresoever he is spoken of as the anointed, it may well be first understood of some other person; except one place in Daniel, where Messiah is foretold to be cut off'" (On the Creed, art. 2).

Whether it can be proved by an investigation of Holy Scripture that this relation between divine announcements for the future and certain present events does so exist as to constitute a law, and whether, if the law is proved to exist, it is of universal or only of partial application, we do not pause to determine. But it is manifest that the existence of a primary sense cannot exclude the possibility of a secondary sense. The question, therefore, really is, whether the prophecies are applicable to Christ: if they are so applicable, the previous application of each of them to some historical event would not invalidate the proof that they were designed as a whole to find their full completion in him. Nay, even if it could be shown that the prophets had in their thoughts nothing beyond the primary completion of their words (a thing which we at present leave undetermined), no inference could thence be drawn against their secondary application; for such an inference would assume what no believer in inspiration will grant viz. that the prophets are the sole authors of their prophecies. The rule Nihil in scripto quod non pius in scriptore is sound; but the question is, who is to be regarded as the true author of the prophecies-the human instrument or the divine author? See Hengstenberg, Christology, appendix 6:p. 433. (See DOUBLE SENSE).

(d.) Miraculous Character. It is probable that this lies at the root of the many and various efforts made to disprove the predictive power of the prophets. There is no question that if miracles are, either physically or morally, impossible, then prediction is impossible; and those passages which have ever been accounted predictive must be explained away as being vague, as being obscure, as applying only to something in the writer's lifetime, or on some other hypothesis. This is only saying that belief in prediction is not compatible with the theory of atheism, or with the philosophy which rejects the overruling providence of a Personal God. See Maitland, Argument from Prophecy (Lond. 1877); Row, Bampton Lecture for 1877, p. 219. (See MIRACLE).

For a copious list of treatises on Scripture prophecy in general, see Darling, Cyclopoedia Bibliographica, col. 1785 sq.; and Malcolm, Theological Index, s.v. Comp. Kurtz, Gesch. d. Alten Bundes, ii, 513 sq.; Hardwick, Christ and other Masters, vol. i, ch. 3, esp. p. 135 sq.; Smith, (Bampton Lecture) On Prophecy (Bost. 1870, 12mo); Brit. and For. Ev. Rev. 1863. art. 8; Bibl. Repos. p. 11, 138, 217; Westm. Rev. Jan. 1868, p. 106; Kitto, Journ. of Sac. Lit. 30:1 sq., April, 1853, p. 35; Aids to Faith, essay 3; E Rsgl. Rev. 8:181; Fisher, The Beginninigs of Christianity, p. 8, et al.; Stanley, Lectures on the Jewish Church, 1st series, lect. 17-20; Fairbairn, Prophecy Viewed in respect to its Distinctive Nature, its Special Function, and Proper Interpretation (Edinb. 1856); and for the vast field of German literature on the subject, see Keil, Introd. to the Old Test. (ibid. 1869), i, 265 sq.

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Bibliography Information
McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Prophecy'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/tce/p/prophecy.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.

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