Lecture 14: Hermeneutics for Prophecy (Part 1)
Course: Biblical Hermeneutics
Lecture: Hermeneutics for Prophecy (Part 1)
Alright now we are getting into a little bit more touchy here area. And it has to do with prophecy.
Another genre, Prophetic literature. I have over the years enjoyed starting with an example in the book of Jonah, which indicates something about the way a form of prophecy works and the rules associated with it.
In Jonah 3, you remember the story of Jonah, called by Lord to go to Nineveh to preach to the city and he runs away, goes on board a ship, tries to escape and there is a great storm and they throw him overboard. He is swallowed by a fish and he is regurgitated later on and eventually he goes to Nineveh.
In chapter 3, verse 1,
The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, 2‘Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.’ 3So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. 4Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, ‘Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’
Ah but we find in verse 10,
10 When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.
Here you have a prophet predicting a prophecy that is not fulfilled. Is Jonah a false prophet? If we were there, should we stone him? Penalty for false prophets. Interesting. Well, Jonah and the people of Nineveh all knew something about prophecy that most of us did not know – at least I did not know for a long time. And that is that one of the rules of prophecy is that when you preach judgment, if the people repent, the judgment will not take place.
Even when not stated a judgment prophecy assumes that if people repent there will be no judgment. In the Caird book, he has a reference to this. If I can find my reference very quickly I would like to read it. It is very good. Page 56 in the G.B. Caird text.
“Readers of the book of Jonah” – Its about the 6th line at the bottom of the page – “have commonly been preoccupied with problems of marine biology to pay attention to the much more important theological difficulty that Jonah is ordered to prophesy something that does not happen.
“In forty days, Nineveh shall be overthrown.” Chapter 3, verse 4 as McGurney – another writer – has put it. Many things were foretold precisely that they might not come to pass. What we have to decide is whether the prophecy was intended as a prediction or as a warning. If it was a prediction, the plain statement of fact about the future was absolute and was falsified by the event.
If it was a warning, it carried an unexpress condition clause, “unless you repent.”
Now in a later chapter we shall see that it is characteristic of Semitic style to express ideas absolutely and to leave the listener to fill in for himself the implicit qualifications. Now the nice thing about this is that elsewhere in the OT, in another prophetic book – this rule is explicitly referred to. In the book of Jeremiah, chapter 18, verses 5 and following.
5 Then the word of the Lord came to me: 6Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the Lord. Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. 7At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, 8but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it. 9And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, 10but if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will change my mind about the good that I had intended to do to it. 11Now, therefore, say …
And so forth. So you have here explicitly a statement that judgment prophesies if people will repent, will not take place and we find this in Jonah itself. Verse 10 of chapter 3, we read, Let me read it again.
“10 When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.”
“4 But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. 2He prayed to the Lord and said, ‘O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”
Here we have the reason given why Jonah flees from the Lord. He doesn’t go to Nineveh. Why? Not because he is afraid to preach. It is because he knows that if he goes to Nineveh and preaches this message, they may just happen to repent and they won’t be judged as a result and frankly he wanted the people of Nineveh to go to Hell. It sounds harsh, but that’s what he really believes.
Now please understand – the people of Nineveh, capital of Assyria was a brutal nation. They were the Nazi’s of their day. Terribly brutal people. And Jonah believed this nation should experience the wrath and judgment of God because they are evil.
Now if God said to Jonah, “Go and tell the people, 40 days and they will be destroyed and if he knew that there was no possibility, that even if they repented that would be, that would be undone. He would not have fled away. He would have run all the way to Tarshish. He would have run to the city walls, climbed up and said, “40 days from now, you are going to be destroyed and there is nothing you can do about it and it makes me happy.”
But he knew there was this was this rule in this game of Prophecy and that is repentance undoes the threat of judgment. I mean why tell people anyhow that you are going to be destroyed unless implicit in that is, unless you repent. Why tell people judgment is coming if in some way there is nothing they can do to avert it.” It assumes that possibility.
And Jonah was frightened by the thought, not frightened but maybe unhappy with the thought that if he went, they might repent and judgment would not take place. And therefore he did not want to go. Now there are other examples of this. In the Book of Micah 3, verse 12, we have another example of this kind of thing taking place. Where we read, a prophecy
12 Therefore because of you Zion shall be ploughed as a field; Jerusalem shall become a heap of ruins, and the mountain of the house a wooded height.
And that does not take place because the people repent. And you have another example at 1 Kings 21:21-29. So a basic rule of prophecy: Prophecies of judgment assume whether stated or not, if the people repent, judgment will not take place.
Let me just ask you. How many of you did not know that before class? Well people in Jonah’s day knew that. So you don’t have to repeat that. It is understood this way. But we have to relearn some of the rules involved in this kind of literary form of a judgment prophecy.
Alright let me just stop there and see any comments of questions so far.
Student: Are they all this category?
Dr. Stein: I would think you could say that. Yes. Any judgment prophecy assumes that if you can repent, that if you repent, it wont take place. There may be instances however in which the Prophet knows from God that the people will not repent, therefore the judgment will come. But hypothetically if they repented which they won’t, the judgment will be stayed nonetheless.
Student: So as an example, the book of Nahum,
Dr. Stein: Tyre, Sidon sure. Sure. And the – the great apocalyptic end of the world, “Jerusalem! Jerusalem! How often would I have gathered you into my arms, but now judgment has coming upon you.” Yeah. If they still repented in time it would not have taken place. In the mind of God, now if you argue from the mind of God, He knows if it is conditional or if it is absolute, but we don’t. Many times a prophet may not.
Although I think Jeremiah has a pretty good idea that the judgment is coming because the people will not repent. But hypothetically if they did repent, it wouldn’t come.
Student: Same thing holds true for [Hard to Hear]
Dr. Stein: You would also have to start pressing the language that God really is repenting at this time. So it is not a matter of His knowledge, but His morality that is coming to play here or something like this.
I think what you have to do is to look at the language and say from “What we are doing is that we are interpreting what God is doing from the perspective of how we would look at things. He changed His mind or something like that.”
Student: Does God’s mind really change or is it just the action of the people [Hard to Hear]
Dr. Stein: Depends on if you know God is omniscient and knows all things which I believe. So I think that what we have here is the length – how do you describe God and how He acts except by analogy with how we understand things. So from the description you would say, “Huh. He repented. He changed His mind.” But what simply happened was that the prophecy which He knew was open, people repented as He knew they would and it looks like now by not having the judgment, God changed His mind from our human perspective.
Alright, well lets look then at another rule of prophecy and this has to do with the language of prophecy. The language of prophecy. In the book of Isaiah 13, I want to read verse 9 through 11. Now don’t bother following at this point, just listen to this and try to think what are we talking about here.
9 See, the day of the Lord comes, cruel, with wrath and fierce anger, to make the earth a desolation, and to destroy its sinners from it. 10 For the stars of the heavens and their constellations will not give their light; the sun will be dark at its rising, and the moon will not shed its light. 11 I will punish the world for its evil, and the wicked for their iniquity; I will put an end to the pride of the arrogant, and lay low the insolence of tyrants.
Now if you read that in your church Sunday, how would the people who heard this understand it? What would they be thinking of? It is a prophecy about what? The end of the world right? Now why would they come to that conclusion? Lack of it sometimes yeah. The cosmic language right?
You have here “the stars of the heavens and their constellations will not give their light.” But that doesn’t look like a daily occurrence. “The sun will be dark at its rising. The moon will not shed its light.” I mean these cosmic kinds of things involve the end. It has to be the end of history as we know it.
Well. Now the question comes up. If you look at the context, there are some things about this that are very very different, because the chapter opens,
“The oracle concerning Babylon that Isaiah son of Amoz saw.” Its about Babylon here supposedly. Not only that, you have in verse 19 once again,
19 And Babylon, the glory of kingdoms, the splendour and pride of the Chaldeans, will be like Sodom and Gomorrah when God overthrew them.
Now let me ask you something. When Isaiah spoke and mentioned the word Babylon, what would his readers in the norms of language have understood Babylon to be?
Babylon right? Not a cold [Hard to Hear] but Babylon.The kingdom up north. Later which Nebuchadnezzar will come down from and so forth on a Tigris, Euphrates rivers and so forth.
Further more in verses 17 and 18,
17 See, I am stirring up the Medes against them, who have no regard for silver and do not delight in gold. 18 Their bows will slaughter the young men; they will have no mercy on the fruit of the womb; their eyes will not pity children.
Medes – what does that refer to? A people in modern day Iran, who are enemies of the Babylonians. Furthermore they were noted for their archery, their bows and that’s particularly referred to.
So I think that Isaiah’s readers would say, this is a prophecy about the Babylonian Empire. But that raises a problem and the problem is this cosmic language. What are we going to do with that? What are we going to do?
Well. As I was working my way through this, I thought, “Aha. Let me look up a concordance and see where the expression, “sun not giving its light, the moon turning to blood, stars falling from heaven” – that kind of language is found in the Bible.
I want to see how do the Biblical writers use such language and understand it. So I got my concordance. I looked up passages and I began to find lots of places where the sun is turning to blood, the moon is not giving its light, the stars are falling from Heaven. It seemed to be a fairly regular occurrence in the OT, and so as I looked them I found passage such as Jeremiah 4. Jeremiah 4 verses 23 to 28, read this way,
23 I looked on the earth, and lo, it was waste and void; and to the heavens, and they had no light. 24 I looked on the mountains, and lo, they were quaking, and all the hills moved to and fro. 25 I looked, and lo, there was no one at all, and all the birds of the air had fled. 26 I looked, and lo, the fruitful land was a desert, and all its cities were laid in ruins before the Lord, before his fierce anger.
27 For thus says the Lord:
The whole land shall be a desolation;
yet I will not make a full end. 28 Because of this the earth shall mourn, and the heavens above grow black; for I have spoken, I have purposed; I have not relented nor will I turn back.
Well now if you look at the context of this in chapter 4, we have verse 3,
3 For thus says the Lord to the people of Judah and to the inhabitants of Jerusalem …
5 Declare in Judah, and proclaim in Jerusalem, and say …
11 At that time it will be said to this people and to Jerusalem …
What we have here is a description of Jeremiah’s prophecy about the destruction of Jerusalem. But you have that same language once again.
The earth is becoming black. Stars and heavens, mountains shaking and so forth and so on. Now we haven’t talked yet about poetry. We do so next week. But notice that in this passage in Jeremiah in my Bible, you have a lot of broken [Hard to Hear] not solid black. Right? And in the Isaiah was it the same way? So what we have here is poetry.
And we have to realize that what the prophets are, are poetic prophets as they speak. This is the language of the prophets – the language of poetry. Notice that there are other kinds of examples of this cosmic terminology, going back to Isaiah 24, verse 23, you have another kind of. Here you have Isaiah talking again about, verse 24, 1 now
1 Now the Lord is about to lay waste the earth and make it desolate,
It occurs after the prophecy or oracle concerning Tyre. And then in verse 23 you have that same language again.
23 Then the moon will be abashed, and the sun ashamed; for the Lord of hosts will reign on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem, and before his elders he will manifest his glory.
Back to Jeremiah 15:9. Here you have Jeremiah, verse 5,
5 Who will have pity on you, O Jerusalem, or who will bemoan you?
Then it says verse 9,
9 She who bore seven has languished; she has swooned away; her sun went down while it was yet day; she has been shamed and disgraced. And the rest of them I will give to the sword before their enemies,
says the Lord.
Here again you have that cosmic language.
Ezekiel, chapter 32, verses 7 and 8. Here you have context, verse 1,
In the twelfth year, in the twelfth month, on the first day of the month, the word of the Lord came to me: 2Mortal, raise a lamentation over Pharaoh king of Egypt, and say to him: You consider yourself a lion among the nations, but you are like a dragon in the seas; you thrash about in your streams, trouble the water with your feet, and foul your* streams. 3 Thus says the Lord God: In an assembly of many peoples I will throw my net over you; and I* will haul you up in my dragnet. 4 I will throw you on the ground, on the open field I will fling you, and will cause all the birds of the air to settle on you, and I will let the wild animals of the whole earth gorge themselves on you. 5 I will strew your flesh on the mountains, and fill the valleys with your carcass.* 6 I will drench the land with your flowing blood up to the mountains,
Now historically, one of the hopes of Jerusalem was that when Babylon was coming down to invade Jerusalem, they would be rescued by the Egyptians – the Egyptians led by Pharaoh Neco were leading an army up at this point.
Let me have an aside for a minute. In the Mediterranean world – that’s Greece by the way. Here is Egypt. Here you have. People of Israel hate the name Palestine, because that means the land of the Philistines. But here is Israel by the way. And over here is Babylon. Tigris. Euphrates River.
Other times there was Assyria and so forth. Usually Egypt was powerful and there would be a powerful northern kingdom of some sort. In between the powerful north and the powerful south, there is this land of Israel. Now if you have a powerful north, you want to control Israel because any enemy from the south has to go through Israel. So why don’t they just come over here?
Over the centuries people have learned to like to drink water once in a while and that’s not the way to go. This is the great desert of Saudi Arabia, so all travel has to go this way. And there are limited number of valleys that you have that are passable and if you control that area, you can put fortresses on those – on the mountains over those valleys and you know – they may not have been as smart as we are, but they knew that if you were in the top of the mountains throwing rocks down, its was better than throwing rocks up.
And so you wanted to dominate them. And so if Egypt was strong, it wanted to dominate here and what happens now is Babylon is powerful and is coming down this way and Egypt – we are not let them come all the way down to Egypt before we fight. We are going to fight them in the valleys where we can defeat them.
And what happens is, the people of Israel, of Judah in particular during the time of Nebuchadnezzar are looking for help from Pharaoh Neco and this prophecy is about the destruction of Pharaoh Neco - Pharaoh, King of Egypt, verse 2.
In the particular passage, notice the language that’s used to describe this in verses 7 and 8, verse 6,
6 I will drench the land with your flowing blood
up to the mountains,
and the watercourses will be filled with you.
7 When I blot you out, I will cover the heavens,
and make their stars dark;
I will cover the sun with a cloud,
and the moon shall not give its light.
8 All the shining lights of the heavens
I will darken above you,
and put darkness on your land,
says the Lord God.
Again cosmic language being used to describe this event. Two more references and then we will have a break. The Joel passages – well we will look a little more at a different time later. Amos 8:9, notice the cosmic language used here in this judgment prophecy.
9 On that day, says the Lord God,
I will make the sun go down at noon,
and darken the earth in broad daylight.
Finally back through 11 there are others, but this will do.
10 The mountains saw you, and writhed;
a torrent of water swept by;
the deep gave forth its voice.
The sun raised high its hands;
11 the moon stood still in its exalted place, at the light of your arrows speeding by, at the gleam of your flashing spear.
12 In fury you trod the earth,
And so forth. So you have again cosmic kinds of language. Now what I am going to suggest and we will take a break and we will discuss it at that point. I want to suggest that what the prophetic poet is trying to say when he uses language like this is to say, the God of Heaven and Earth – the God who controls the planets, the stars, the sun and the moon, this God is going to act. These are signs that this God of the Heavens will bring judgment upon the nations. His readers all understood that this was the use of poetic language – symbolic language, but it had a truth – judgment, horrible judgment was coming.
The description of that judgment might use apocalyptic cosmic language. It might use this poetically – shouldn’t be understood literally. But what it is indicating should be understood literally and that is God is bringing judgment. Judgment is going to take place.