It was not that long ago that billboards like this one were sprouting all over the Midwest. Radio preacher Harold Camping had announced that, based upon his interpretations of biblical prophecies contained particularly in Daniel and Revelation, judgment day would come on May 21, 2011, and the world would end that October. Last time, we discussed the “Left Behind” phenomenon, and specifically, the film starring Nicholas Cage that had premiered on October 3–my birthday. Evidently, there is something about October that elicits end-time fever. Mr. Camping had earlier, in 1994, announced that that was the year the world would end. I remember this clearly, because Armageddon was scheduled for October 3, 1994!
Mr. Camping was far from the first person who believed that he had “cracked the code” of biblical prophecy to unveil future history. He will certainly not be the last. We have, it seems, an insatiable appetite for this particular way of misreading Scripture.
Let me be very blunt. Mr. Camping’s predictions were not wrong because his sums were off–so that, while his dates were wrong, his reading of the prophets was still valid. The problem, not only with this prediction, but with all those who claim to read a future history in the Bible is that the Bible does not present a future history. Period.
The difference between the prophets of the Bible and modern charlatans who confidently claim to see the future is a difference not of degree, but of kind. The prophets of Israel were not accurate fortune-tellers. Rather, they were not fortune-tellers at all. The prophets were the obedient messengers of God, faithfully passing on to us what God had shown to them.
For example, Jeremiah spoke clearly of Judah’s future: Jerusalem would fall the Babylon. But he also delivered to his people God’s challenge:
No, if you truly reform your ways and your actions; if you treat each other justly; if you stop taking advantage of the immigrant, orphan, or widow; if you don’t shed the blood of the innocent in this place, or go after other gods to your own ruin, only then will I dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave long ago to your ancestors for all time (Jer 7:5-7).
Although their present course would lead them into exile and destruction, the possibility of a different future lay before them, if they would only claim it (though Jeremiah doubted that they could or would do so; see Jer 13:23). Rather than presenting an infallible vision of a fixed and unchangeable future, Jeremiah’s predictions are conditional, depending upon whether Jerusalem repents, or not.
This may come as a surprise. Ask nine out of ten people on the street what a prophet does, and they will say “foretell the future.” This seems to be the stance of some biblical texts as well. Deuteronomy 18:22 certainly seems clear: “The prophet who speaks in the LORD’s name and the thing doesn’t happen or come about—that’s the word the LORD hasn’t spoken. That prophet spoke arrogantly. Don’t be afraid of him.” Accurate prediction is the sure test of the true prophet.
The prophets themselves, however, seem untroubled by this assessment. It is not at all difficult to find unfulfilled prophecies in Scripture. For example, the prophet Huldah, the woman Josiah consulted to confirm that the scroll of the Law found in the temple was indeed God’s word (2 Kgs 22:11-17), also promised that because of Josiah’s righteousness and humility, God “will gather you to your ancestors, and you will go to your grave in peace. You won’t experience the disaster I am about to bring on this place and its citizens” (2 Chr 34:28//2 Kgs 22:20). But Josiah did not go down to his grave in peace! In fact, he died tragically, in battle against Pharaoh Necho (2 Kgs 23:29-30; 2 Chr 35:20-27)–a fact which the authors of Israel’s history surely knew, and yet they let Huldah’s “false” prophecy stand in the text.
In Jonah 3:4, the prophet (after a fishy detour!) at last arrives at Nineveh to deliver the message the Lord has given him: “Just forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown!” But it does not happen. The people (and animals; Jonah 3:7) of Nineveh repent in sackcloth, and God changes God’s mind (Jonah 3:10).
This is deeply disturbing to Jonah, but not surprising. To explain his earlier flight from God’s presence, which had resulted in his sojourn in the fish’s belly, the prophet declares:
Come on, LORD! Wasn’t this precisely my point when I was back in my own land? This is why I fled to Tarshish earlier! I know that you are a merciful and compassionate God, very patient, full of faithful love, and willing not to destroy (Jonah 4:2).
Jonah had not wanted to deliver the message of judgment against Nineveh he had been given because he knew that God was likely to show mercy, leaving Jonah with the stamp of the false prophet, whose predictions had not come true (as, remember, Deut 18:22 declares) —which was, of course, exactly what had happened. No wonder Jonah is angry!
We might consider as well the many predictions in the New Testament that the end of the world would come soon (for example, Mk 13:30; 1 Cor 7:29-31; Rev 22:12, 20), which, taking them at face value, clearly did not come true, either. Within the New Testament itself, this delay is seen as a sign of God’s grace: “The Lord isn’t slow to keep his promise, as some think of slowness, but he is patient toward you, not wanting anyone to perish but all to change their hearts and lives” (2 Peter 3:9).
It is finally Jesus himself who puts to rest the pretense that, if we are only clever enough, we can read our future in the pages of Scripture: “But nobody knows when that day or hour will come, not the angels in heaven and not the Son. Only the Father knows” (Mark 13:32). If Jesus does not know, brothers and sisters, then certainly we do not, and cannot, know. The Bible is not tomorrow’s newspaper. It is word of God for the people of God, yesterday, today, and forever.