Prophecy

Like the Resurrection, the argument from prophecy is best conceived as part of “Christian evidences.” It is evidence that establishes a Christian theism after a generic monotheism has been established by the arguments of natural theology. The cosmological arguments, moral arguments, ontological arguments, and other natural theological arguments imply that God must be personal, for different reasons. The moral argument in particular implies that God does care about how we live our lives. If God is the ground of our moral obligations, then he, by definition, cares when we obey or do not obey our moral obligations. In addition, as we saw in considering the argument from metaethics, a non-personal foundation of morality makes no sense. Thus, what grounds morality must be a person. If this is the case, then it is reasonable to think that he would want to communicate with us and that he might specially intervene in the world. Thus, the prior probability of miraculous prophecy is moderate at least.

There are several prophecies in the Old Testament that are specific and that came true long after the life times of the author or prophet. Because it is fairly easy to prophesy accurately when your prophecy is sufficiently vague and when future events are easy enough to guess, we need to impose some conditions that make it improbable that the prophet would have been able to know what would have happened without supernatural revelation. Thus, the probability that the prophet would have been able to guess what would happen, or figure it out through other natural means, must be low. Robert C. Newman is an astrophysicist and theologian who has done a good job of showing the apologetic value of biblical prophecies, beyond their theological value. Newman covers both prophecies about the destruction of ancient cities and peoples, as well as messianic prophecies fulfilled in the life of Jesus. Newman establishes conditions under which we would have good reason to deem fulfilled prophecy to be a miracle. “(1) that the text clearly envisions the sort of event alleged to be the fulfillment, (2) that the prophecy was made well in advance of the event predicted, (3) that the prediction actually came true.” In addition, it must be improbable that the event could have been staged by anyone other than God, and the evidence would be even better if “the event itself is so unusual that the apparent fulfillment cannot be plausibly explained as a good guess.”[i]

Messianic Prophecies

In a passage sometimes ascribed to the messiah in rabbinic literature, we read the following (Isaiah 49:6-7):

“Indeed He says,
‘It is too small a thing that You should be My Servant
To raise up the tribes of Jacob,
And to restore the preserved ones of Israel;
I will also give You as a light to the Gentiles,
That You should be My salvation to the ends of the earth.’”

Thus says the Lord,
The Redeemer of Israel, their Holy One,
To Him whom man despises,
To Him whom the nation abhors,
To the Servant of rulers:
“Kings shall see and arise,
Princes also shall worship,
Because of the Lord who is faithful,
The Holy One of Israel;
And He has chosen You.”

The New Testament applies this prophecy to Jesus and Newman points out that this would have been a very risky prophecy for them to claim fulfillment in Jesus, since Christianity was still a small, provincial sect, when the apostles were alive. Jesus is the founder of the world’s largest religion, with around 2 billion adherents and he is the only self-proclaimed Jewish messiah who successfully established a surviving religion and that has the majority of it adherents among the Gentiles (“I will also give You as a light to the Gentiles, that You should be My salvation to the ends of the earth.”)[ii]The disciples could not have predicted this through natural means. The prophecy claims, paradoxically, that kings and princes will worship the messiah, but that he will also be someone “whom man despises, whom the nation abhors.” So the prophecy speaks of someone who will be despised by Israel (“the nation”) but also significantly adored. Why would the Jews despise their own prophesied messiah? This is clearly another risky prediction and it is nicely fulfilled in Jesus.[iii]

Another interesting (and very specific) messianic prophecy occurs in Daniel 9:24 -26):

24 “Seventy ‘sevens’ are decreed for your people and your holy city to finish transgression, to put an end to sin, to atone for wickedness, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal up vision and prophecy and to anoint the Most Holy Place.

25 “Know and understand this: From the time the word goes out to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until the Anointed One, the ruler, comes, there will be seven ‘sevens,’ and sixty-two ‘sevens.’ It will be rebuilt with streets and a trench, but in times of trouble. 26 After the sixty-two ‘sevens,’ the Anointed One will be put to death and will have nothing. The people of the ruler who will come will destroy the city and the sanctuary. The end will come like a flood: War will continue until the end, and desolations have been decreed.” (NIV)

The “sevens” in this passage ( often translated as “weeks”) probably refer to the “recurring seven-year sabbatical cycle for land use.”[iv] This is because if we interpret the weeks here in the modern sense, the time period referred to would have expired before Daniel’s prophecy had even been circulated. In addition, the weeks of years was an established tradition in Israel.[v] Another factoid which gives evidence to this rendering of the “sevens” is the fact that Josephus, Tacitus and Suetonius all mention that the Jews thought that a messianic prophecy was supposed to have expired during the first century A.D, which is when the events that the prophecy predicts is supposed to have occurred if the “sevens” are interpreted as years, instead of days.[vi] In addition, both liberal and conservative commentators agree that these sevens are to be interpreted as years.[vii] According to the prophecy, there will be a time “a word goes out to restore and rebuild Jerusalem” and that from this time to the coming of the Messiah, there will be a period of 69 sevens (62 +7).  The “word” to restore and rebuild Jerusalem is often supposed to have been, reasonably enough, a decree of a Persian king, Artaxerxes I during 445 B.C. for Nehemiah (the Hebrew prophet) to return to Jerusalem and restore it.[viii] So, measured from 445 B.C. 69 sevens brings us to A.D. 38 ([69 x 7]- 445). Jesus is believed to have been crucified around A.D. 30 – 33, so we are not yet exactly on the money ( still remarkably close though).

However, the sabbatical cycles should be used as units of measurement, since this “fits better with the context.”[ix]Newman locates the sabbatical cycle in history, so that it corresponds with the sabbatical cycle that would have been used then. According to the book of Maccabees (a main historical source on the Maccabean era)  Jewish resistance against the Syrians was weakened, because of their observation of the sabbatical year. We are told in the book of Maccabees that this occurred during the 150th year of the Seleucid era. This would be either 163/2 B.C. or 162/1 B.C. “depending on whether the Macedonian or Babylonian calendar was in use.”[x] Ben-Zion Wacholder, who was a professor of the Talmud and Rabbinics at the Hebrew Union College, conducted an in-depth study and believes that 163/2 B.C. is the sabbatical year that the book of Maccabees refers to. Based on Wacholder’s list of sabbatical cycles, the date 445 B.C. falls into the sabbatical cycle 449 – 442. Using an inclusive method of counting (the usual Jewish one), 449-442 is the first seven of Daniel’s prophecy. This means that the 69th cycle is 28 – 35 A.D, which is precisely the time of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem and his crucifixion. But doesn’t the prophecy imply that the messiah will only come “after” the 69 sevens have elapsed? This is a “conventional Jewish idiom in which “after” means “after the beginning of.” Recall that Jesus’ resurrection is alternatively spoken of as occurring “after three days” (Matt 27:63; Mark 8:31) and also “on the third day” (Matt 20:19; Mark 9:31).”[xi] Newman also notes that if we choose a different scheme of sabbatical cycles (proposed by Zuckermann) or if the dates of Jesus’ crucifixion or Artaxerxes’ decrees are off by a year or two, the prophecy would still work.[xii]

 (For those of you who may be confused about verse 26, the prophecy refers to 7 sevens and 62 sevens, both of which must be traversed before the coming of the Messiah. The messiah clearly cannot be “cut off” or “put to death” before his coming. So the 62 sevens in verse 26 occurs after 7 sevens has already elapsed, which makes 69 sevens.) So, the timing itself is incredible, but what seemed just as compelling to me when I first read this was its prediction of the fall of Jerusalem. First it proposes that the events of this messiah would “atone for wickedness.” This, we are told, would happen in part because the messiah would be “put to death” and then “the people of the ruler who will come will destroy the city and the sanctuary.” The Romans destroyed Jerusalem along with the Temple shortly after Jesus’ crucifixion in A.D. 70.

Prophecies about the Jews

In the third chapter of Hosea, we read, “For the Israelites will live many days without king or prince, without sacrifice or sacred stones, without ephod or household gods.  Afterward the Israelites will return and seek the Lord their God and David their king. They will come trembling to the Lord and to his blessings in the last days.” (Hosea 3:4-5)

The prophecy makes very specific claims about what the Jews will lack, but is vague about the timeline (“many days”). But that vagueness does not detract from how accurately it has predicted the condition of the Jewish people for 2 millennia. The Israelites’ last king died in A.D. 44 and they have been without any significant government ruler from the destruction of the Jerusalem by Rome in A.D. 70 to the establishment of the modern state of Israel in 1948. It is important to note that the Hebrew word for “prince” in this passage can refer to any government official. This is significant because the Jews did establish some heads of court (nasi’) at the behest of the Romans, during this intervening period, and the Hebrew word for prince, used in the passage, can refer to them. But even if they are to be counted as rulers, the period when Jews had no “prince” even in this broad sense, is still from 1100 to 1948.[xiii] The “ephod” referred to in the passage is a garment worn by a priest and is a reference to the Jewish sacrifices and priestly system. Since the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in A.D. 70, the Jews have not had a system of priests or sacrifices, both of which the passage says will end for “many days.” The sacred stones in this passage probably refer to pagan idol worship (which the Jews haven’t practiced for a long time as well).

Newman concludes that it would be impossible (for humans) to orchestrate the fulfillment of this prophecy since it is something that occurred over centuries. The prophecy is also compelling in that it would have sounded very strange to someone living in Hosea’s time, to hear that idolatry would not be a problem for Jews for “many days”, because up until then, idolatry had been a huge problem for a long time. It is also strange that Hosea contends that the Jews would be without central divinely ordained elements of their culture: kingship, sacrifices and the priesthood.[xiv]

Destroyed Cities

The Hebrew prophets also made some pretty grim (and sometimes optimistic) predictions about several Gentile cities. One important objection to these sorts of prophecies is that they have a high likelihood of being fulfilled regardless of God’s intervention, because cities tend not to last for that long, especially in the volatile and violent world in which these prophets lived. It isn’t hard to guess correctly that those cities would be destroyed. Another theologian, John Bloom, proposes the following response to this objection. He uses the concept of a control group in scientific experiments, in which nothing is done to a control group, but x is done to another group. If the responses of the two groups is too similar or not different enough, then x is has no effect. In the same way, we can look at other cities contemporary to the cities about which the prophecy is made as “control groups.” If there is no difference between how the cities came to ruin, then the fulfilled prophecy is not evidence. I think the above “test” is not even necessary, because none of the prophecies about these cities say simply “X will be destroyed or come to ruin.” They are much more specific than that – they claim that specific events will happen to cause the ruin, and even in what state the ruins of that city will be.

Tyre and Sidon

In Ezekial 26:3-14 (NKJV) we read the following about Tyre:

“Therefore thus says the Lord God: ‘Behold, I am against you, O Tyre, and will cause many nations to come up against you, as the sea causes its waves to come up. 4 And they shall destroy the walls of Tyre and break down her towers; I will also scrape her dust from her, and make her like the top of a rock. 5 It shall be a place for spreading nets in the midst of the sea, for I have spoken,’ says the Lord God; ‘it shall become plunder for the nations. 6 Also her daughter villages which are in the fields shall be slain by the sword. Then they shall know that I am the Lord.’

7 “For thus says the Lord God: ‘Behold, I will bring against Tyre from the north Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, king of kings, with horses, with chariots, and with horsemen, and an army with many people. 8 He will slay with the sword your daughter villages in the fields; he will heap up a siege mound against you, build a wall against you, and raise a defense against you. 9 He will direct his battering rams against your walls, and with his axes he will break down your towers. 10 Because of the abundance of his horses, their dust will cover you; your walls will shake at the noise of the horsemen, the wagons, and the chariots, when he enters your gates, as men enter a city that has been breached. 11 With the hooves of his horses he will trample all your streets; he will slay your people by the sword, and your strong pillars will fall to the ground. 12 They will plunder your riches and pillage your merchandise; they will break down your walls and destroy your pleasant houses; they will lay your stones, your timber, and your soil in the midst of the water. 13 I will put an end to the sound of your songs, and the sound of your harps shall be heard no more. 14 I will make you like the top of a rock; you shall be a place for spreading nets, and you shall never be rebuilt, for I the Lord have spoken,’ says the Lord God.”

The prophecy about Sidon (Ezekial 28:22-23) is less detailed:

“Thus says the Lord God:

“Behold, I am against you, O Sidon,
and I will manifest my glory in your midst.
And they shall know that I am the Lord
when I execute judgments in her
and manifest my holiness in her;
23 for I will send pestilence into her,
and blood into her streets;
and the slain shall fall in her midst,
by the sword that is against her on every side.
Then they will know that I am the Lord.”

Tyre was a powerful Phoenician port city. Nebuchadnezzar laid siege to Tyre for thirteen years (“Behold, I will bring against Tyre from the north Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, king of kings”). However, the people in the city relocated to an island a few hundred meters off shore to escape the Babylonians, while they were under siege. As a result, the Babylonians were left with little to plunder. About two centuries later, Alexander the Great attacked Tyre (“I am against you, O Tyre, and will cause many nations to come up against you”). The Babylonians and Alexander may not count as “many nations” but of course, both Alexander’s army and Nebuchadnezzar’s were composed of several conquered nations. What was left of mainland Tyre was used to construct a causeway to the island (“they will lay your stones, your timber, and your soil in the midst of the water.”) It is interesting that in one part of the prophecy, we are told that “he” (referring to Nebuchadnezzar) will do this and that, but in verse 10, the prophecy starts referring to “they”. The island city was later restored, but mainland Tyre (the original city) has never been reconstructed (“and you shall never be rebuilt”). Also, parts of the former island of Tyre is used to spread fishnets even today (“you shall be a place for spreading nets”). Sidon was seen as similar to Tyre even in antiquity, but what happened to it was different. Sidon has been rebuilt, but the original site of Tyre is still bare and even its rubble was cleaned away by Alexander to build his causeway (“I will also scrape her dust from her, and make her like the top of a rock”). None of the above happened to Sidon. Newman concludes “The specifications about Tyre are sufficiently unusual to make coincidence unlikely. They were fulfilled by such actors over such a time span as to rule out the plausibility of intentional human fulfillment.”[xv]

Ezekiel dated his prophecies, so we know that they occurred between 593 to 573 B.C, although the actual book of Ezekiel may not have been written until 562 B.C (at the latest). The judgment of Tyre specifically occurred 587 to 586 B.C. Nebuchadnezzar conquered mainland Tyre in 573 B.C. Alexander attacked Tyre in 332 B.C. You might notice that the date for Nebuchadnezzar’s invasion of Tyre was pretty close to the date Ezekiel himself gave for his prophecy (about 10 years earlier). This might lead you feel justified that he could have known of Nebuchadnezzar’s success against Tyre through other means or even that he wrote it down after the fact. However,  we can be reasonably sure that the attack on Tyre had not already happened when he prophesied it. His fellow Jews would not have found it funny if it already had occurred, especially when the penalty for false prophecy in ancient Israel was death. And they probably wouldn’t canonize his work and regard it as sacred scripture if he prophesied events after the fact.  And this only applies to Nebuchadnezzar’s attack (which is only one part of the fulfilled prophecy I indicated). The parts of the prophecy that are fulfilled by Alexander’s attack and thereafter is 250 years after Ezekiel lived.

Babylon and Nineveh

In Isaiah 13:19-22, we read the following about Babylon:

“And Babylon, the glory of kingdoms,
The beauty of the Chaldeans’ pride,
Will be as when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah.
20 It will never be inhabited,
Nor will it be settled from generation to generation;
Nor will the Arabian pitch tents there,
Nor will the shepherds make their sheepfolds there.
21 But wild beasts of the desert will lie there,
And their houses will be full of owls;
Ostriches will dwell there,
And wild goats will caper there.
22 The hyenas will howl in their citadels,
And jackals in their pleasant palaces.
Her time is near to come,
And her days will not be prolonged.”

In Jeremiah 51:26:

“They shall not take from you a stone for a corner
Nor a stone for a foundation,
But you shall be desolate forever,” says the Lord.”

About Nineveh (the capital of the Assyrian empire) we read the following in Zephaniah 2:13-15:

“And He will stretch out His hand against the north,
Destroy Assyria,
And make Nineveh a desolation,
As dry as the wilderness.
14 The herds shall lie down in her midst,
Every beast of the nation.
Both the pelican and the bittern
Shall lodge on the capitals of her pillars;
Their voice shall sing in the windows;
Desolation shall be at the threshold;
For He will lay bare the cedar work.
15 This is the rejoicing city
That dwelt securely,
That said in her heart,
“I am it, and there is none besides me.”
How has she become a desolation,
A place for beasts to lie down!
Everyone who passes by her
Shall hiss and shake his fist.”

Nineveh was destroyed with its empire, but Babylon, the city, was destroyed some time after the fall of its empire. “Both became desolate for centuries”[xvi] (“it will never be inhabited”). Arabs are still afraid to live where Babylon used to be (“Nor will the Arabian pitch tents there”). The soil there is also inadequate for grass for grazing (“Nor will shepherds make their sheepfolds there”). However, the site where Nineveh used to be has been used to graze sheep. More specifically, “Babylon is quarried for its brick but not for its stone, which is burned to lime to make mortar.” (“They shall not take from you a stone for a corner. Nor a stone for a foundation”). Nineveh has been partially restored but Babylon has not.[xvii]

Memphis and Thebes

The following is written about Memphis in Ezekiel 30:13 (NIV):

‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says:

“‘I will destroy the idols
and put an end to the images in Memphis.”’

And about Thebes (Ezekiel 30:14-15):

“I will lay waste Upper Egypt,
set fire to Zoan
and inflict punishment on Thebes.
15 I will pour out my wrath on Pelusium,
the stronghold of Egypt,
and wipe out the hordes of Thebes.”

Memphis and Thebes were both capitals of Egypt, but at different times: Memphis during the Old Kingdom (2500 B.C.) and also around 200 B.C, and Thebes during the Middle and New Kingdoms (1900- 1000 B.C.). Islamic invaders made camp outside of Memphis. The people of Memphis were gradually drawn to the camp (which eventually became Cairo), and the city of Memphis came to be used as a stone quarry. The statues of pagan idols were consequently used for stone (“I will destroy the idols and put an end to the images in Memphis”). Thebes was destroyed by Caesar Augustus in 30 B.C. and is still relatively deserted, with only some small villages at its original site (“I will…wipe out the hordes of Thebes”). However, unlike Memphis, the original site of Thebes has one of the most impressive displays of ancient ruins in the world, “including an enormous number of idols and statues that have survived intact.”[xviii] So, in other words, “Thebes has lost its hordes but retains its idols. Memphis has lost its idols, but is a suburb of Egypt’s largest city, Cairo.”

Ekron and Ashkelon

Zephaniah 2:4-7 says,

“For Gaza shall be forsaken,
And Ashkelon desolate;
They shall drive out Ashdod at noonday,
And Ekron shall be uprooted.
5 Woe to the inhabitants of the seacoast,
The nation of the Cherethites!
The word of the Lord is against you,
O Canaan, land of the Philistines:
“I will destroy you;
So there shall be no inhabitant.”

6 The seacoast shall be pastures,
With shelters for shepherds and folds for flocks.
7 The coast shall be for the remnant of the house of Judah;
They shall feed their flocks there;
In the houses of Ashkelon they shall lie down at evening.
For the Lord their God will intervene for them,
And return their captives.”

Ashkelon and Ekron were philistine cities to the south of Israel. The philistine people no longer exist (“I will destroy you, so there shall be no inhabitant.”) Ashkelon and Ekron were destroyed during the Crusader period ( around 1100 A.D.) Ashkelon was used as a sheep-herding area after it lost its value as a seaport due its harbour being filled with stones to prevent a second Crusader invasion (“The seacoast shall be pastures, with shelters for shepherds and folds for flocks”). Ekron was not rebuilt, but Ashkelon was rebuilt to become a Jewish city (“The coast shall be for the remnant of the house of Judah…”). [xix]

[i] “Fulfilled Prophecy as Miracle” Robert C. Newman, in In Defense of Miracles: A Comprehensive Case for God’s Action in History,edited by R. Douglas Geivett and Gary Habermas ( Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press,1997) 215

[ii] Ibid., 223

[iii] Ibid., 223

[iv] Ibid., 224

[v] Ibid., 224

[vi] Ibid., 223

[vii] Robert C. Newman, “The Time of the Messiah”, in The Evidence of Prophecy: Fulfilled Prediction as a Testimony to the Truth of Christianity edited by Robert C. Newman (Hatfield: Interdisciplinary Biblical Research Institute, 1988) Loc 2032, Kindle Edition.

[viii] Ibid., 224

[ix] Robert C. Newman, “The Time of the Messiah”, Loc. 2112

[x] Ibid., Loc. 2128

[xi] Ibid., Loc. 2146

[xii] Ibid., Loc. 2146

[xiii] Ibid., 216 – 217

[xiv] Ibid., 217

[xv] Ibid., 219

[xvi] Ibid., 220

[xvii] Ibid., 220

[xviii] Ibid., 221

[xix] Ibid., 221[