The Bible would not be the Bible without the element of predictive prophecy. Its influence in our lives, apart from this unique element, would be considerably altered. Diminish it or remove it and you end up with a wholly different book, a faith alien to the one we’ve been given. But how so? Why is this particular element so vital to the whole? I would like to suggest three specific reasons: it tells us we are going somewhere; it gives specificity to the purposes of God at each juncture of that journey; and it draws us in to participation in those purposes.
The Movement of History
Philosophers of history have long recognized the uniqueness of the biblical outlook. Not cyclical or merely developmental, (as if each culture were a kind of plant growing and developing in its own right and apart from a larger structure), the Bible presents us with an overwhelming sense of linear movement. We are going somewhere. This conviction permeates the whole and supplies the essential foundation for both hope and meaning.
It is my own conviction, though somewhat speculative, that God is always going somewhere; that even apart from the sin problem, He is going somewhere and that once it is resolved the expansiveness of the divine purposes will be progressively opened up to us in ways we can hardly fathom. But, in the light of the sin problem, this conviction of movement is absolutely vital. Indeed, the gospel promise itself cannot even be stated without bringing in the sense of linearity, of movement in historical time, of the future tense and all it implies. “I will put enmity between you and the woman, between your seed and her seed.” Seed speaks of progeny and progeny points to some time in the future. And because the promise is given in respect to the future, and yet not without recognition of present needs, the future can be full of hope, even when present experience is painful and hard and evil seems to triumph.
But the hope provided in this one promise, though substantial and containing a forward-looking element, lacks a concrete specificity in regard to time. And hope, without such specificity is difficult to maintain. I liken the human experience to that of a ship on a boundless sea. It is one thing to know you are going somewhere. But this fact alone cannot sustain. I may be moving, but if the ocean is boundless and there are no markers, even movement in the end loses its value. Lamech intones, at the naming of his son, Noah, “This one will give us rest from our work and from the toil of our hands arising from the ground which the Lord has cursed.” You sense here the difficulty. You sense the longing for a rest that goes beyond mere physical cessation. You sense the problem of generations passing without seeming change and the abiding presence of the curse.
But then you also note, in this word of Lamech’s, a delimiting marker. The ocean is no longer boundless. “This one will give us rest.” Something significant that moves us towards the final harbor will happen in our lifetime. This is Lamech’s prophetic assertion. His prophecy is part and parcel of Enoch’s before him, who, in the naming of his son, Methuselah, gave a harbinger of the coming flood judgement. The point here is that early in the scripture record we begin to see markers, indications by which movement and progress might be measured, specific events in specific time frames. God knew that these were essential for the maintaining of gospel hope.
This measuring of time, however, did not begin and end with Enoch and his progeny. It continues with Abraham and the time frame laid down for the captivity and subsequent deliverance of his descendants, (Gen. 15:13–16 and Ex. 12:40). It is picked up again by Jeremiah in the seventy-year delineation of exile in Babylon, (Jer. 25:11–12; 2 Chron. 36:21; Dan. 9:1–2), and then, in the work of Daniel, it reaches its soaring climax, laying down a grid of time that carries us clear through to the “time of the end.” These time-specific markers keep linearity alive: the sense of movement; the sense of a destination; the sense that our salvation is closer now than when we first believed (Rom. 13:11).
Specificity to the Purposes of God
The prophetic framework that we have been describing is not just a series of markers, not vacuous, not void of content and meaning, as if the continuum of time had been merely divided at intervals. On the contrary, every point of time singled out by a prophet is inextricably linked with a purposive act of God. Some movement is initiated, some action taken, in respect to the redemption of mankind and the resolution of the sin problem.
This can, perhaps, be most clearly seen in the vision portion of Daniel 9. The time element of seventy weeks of years is established in verse 24 and then, immediately, in respect to that time framework, a list of purposive actions is set forth: “to finish transgression, to make an end to sin, to make atonement for iniquity, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal up vision and prophecy and to anoint the most holy place.” This link between a time element and purposive action is very clear in this passage, but not just in this passage. In every instance where a time element is prophetically given, there is an accompanying action. God does not lay down markers in jest.
Furthermore, those events, aims, or purposes so marked are never lower-level initiatives, peripheral to the primary task of redemption and judgement. Rather, divine actions, so marked, are at the very heart of God’s movement on behalf of mankind, vital to the attainment of His ends, and vital to all who hope to partake in His redemption.
Human Participation in the Purposes of God
The question remains, why has God moved in this way? Why has He marked out time and revealed His purposes relative to those marked times? We have already argued that one reason is to sustain courage and hope. But there is another reason, perhaps even more vital, and it is seen most clearly in the experience of Daniel himself as recorded in the ninth chapter of his book.
The narrative in the first part of this chapter is important because it portrays for us a pattern of response to a specific time prophecy that I believe is paradigmatic. At the head of the chapter we are told that “Daniel, observed in the books the number of the years which was revealed to Jeremiah.” It is evident that he is dealing with a time prophecy. But notice his response. He reflects and calculates until perceptive insight is gained as to the purposes of God for his day, for that day, that juncture in time in which he found himself, and then he begins to pray. “So I gave my attention to the Lord God to seek Him by prayer and supplications, with fasting, sackcloth and ashes.”
It is essential for us to see that Daniel understood that a particular moment in the unfolding of God’s purposes had been reached. He grasped that a time prophecy was near to fulfillment, a prophecy of Israelite return from exile, even though nothing in his purview gave evidence of such a possibility. Nonetheless, he does not merely shrug his shoulders and say, “Oh, well. I guess God will do what God will do, with me or without me. I have other important matters to tend to.” No, he engages with God, he partners with God, through prayer. He reaches out with the whole of His being for the accomplishment of what had been predicted by Jeremiah, knowing as he did that those things promised were crucial for the fulfillment of God’s purposes and the ultimate salvation of humankind.
This was a partnership with God in prayer and it was signally answered. It was in response to this prayer that Gabriel came and laid out in even more detail the purposes of God in respect to the Israelite return and the rebuilding of the city and the sanctuary. Daniel’s action was a first step, but it was absolutely vital to the work of those who came after him: Ezra and Nehemiah and those who worked with them. Daniel’s was a partnership in prayer and prophecy, theirs a partnership of action. But both prayer and action were engaged in by reason of a time-specific prophecy. And it was this prophecy that determined the direction and the focus of their efforts.
The purposes of God are unified within the context of history, but they are not uniform. There are particular times and places where He especially moves to accomplish particular ends. And these are marked out within the great framework of prophecy that has been given us.
Furthermore, when God gives a specific time prophecy it is meant to galvanize His people into specific commitments and actions as the time of its fulfillment comes upon them. This is the essence of Adventism, rooted as it is in the longest time prophecy of scripture. To the extent that we denigrate or deny this pattern, to that same extent we imperil ourselves, and in the sight of heaven, render ourselves irrelevant.
Several applications are in order:
- When living in the context of prophetic fulfillment, heaven sets the priorities for ministry, not earth. The patterns of ministry belong to heaven as well. We are at no more liberty to turn our back on heaven’s stated interests than Noah would have been to deny the prophecy of Enoch and the confirming word of his own father; at no more liberty than Jesus himself to reject the mission outlined for Him in the words of Daniel 9, or to substitute another plan in its place.
- Adventism has not always escaped the temptation to reduce the great passages that gave birth to this movement to a mere proof texting prod to join our denomination. Set answers are given to a standard set of questions and the whole becomes little more than a prop set off to the side, a litmus test of Adventist identity, but far too often a superficial test. Daniel’s response to the time-specific expression of God’s purpose for his day was deep repentance, earnest prayer, and vigorous engagement. Our response to Daniel 8 and Revelation 14 should be no less earnest. Yes, the ideas in these passages can be expressed in simple terms, but they are not simplistic. They plumb the depths of the spiritual issues which God has judged to be most pertinent to our day. Engagement here should produce a profound maturity and a broad and penetrating witness. When it does not, something is amiss.
- Triumphalism has no place in Adventism, but neither does embarrassment. How easy it is for us to swing from crowing that we are the one true church, to being embarrassed and insecure about our lack of acceptance in the broader Christian family. I don’t find any crowing in the prayer of Daniel 9, but neither do I find embarrassment at the truths that Israel had been given, in spite of the fact they had failed to honor them in their lives.
Rob Wilcox, MDiv, is a former missionary to Albania and now pastors the Porterville and Lindsay SDA Churches in Central California.
Photo by Jorgen Hendriksen on Unsplash.
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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/10515