Understanding Biblical Prophecy

Episode #33: (Post on Sunday) Understanding Biblical Prophecy The LKN Faith Podcast

Est. Reading Time:

18 minutes

For Christianity, one of the foundational beliefs is that the Bible is the inspired word of God.

Given that the Bible fulfills the first requirement to be considered inspired (that it claims to be the inspired word of God), Christians are tasked with proving its claims to be true. There are many ways to go about doing so, since the Bible possesses many characteristics that help to prove its claim of inspiration.

One of the most convincing is that of the predictive prophecies which are both made and fulfilled within the pages of the Bible. A. M. Morris succinctly stated that “promises and their fulfillment, types and their anti-types, prophecies, and their fulfillment in the facts of history, constitute a vast threefold system of divine testimony” (1). If it is the case that the Bible contains even one property or characteristic that could not have originated with man, then it is the word of God. Since the Bible does contain at least one characteristic which could not have originated with man, that of predictive prophecy being made and fulfilled, the Bible is the word of God.

By demonstrating the predictive nature of certain prophecies within the Bible, as well as by identifying their fulfillment in a historical context, one can confirm that these prophecies could not have been the work of man but must have come from God.

Concerning the prophets themselves, James Lewis stated, “Jesus warns ‘Beware of false prophets’ (Matt. 7:15). John says, ‘Many false prophets have gone out into the world’ (1 John 4:1). Where that which is false exists here necessarily must exist at least the standard which determines the true. To say someone is telling a lie implies that truth does exist. When Jesus affirmed the existence of false prophets, He was also affirming the identifiability of the true prophets. The counterfeit only proves the genuine” (146).

Rubel Shelly provides further clarification as to the characteristics a prophecy must contain to be predictive in nature:

The presentation of a case for the Bible’s inspiration based on fulfilled prophecy demands a more complete understanding of the nature of prophecy than has been presented thus far in our study. True prophecy may be evaluated in the light of three definite criteria:

1. The prophecy must deal with nations, persons and/or events that are, at the time of the prophetic utterance, remote enough in time as to be incapable of mere guesswork or logical deduction. This criterion requires that a prophecy be the foretelling of an event far enough removed in time that the prophet cannot have an immediate pat in its actual occurrence and that it be of such a nature as to exclude all elements of chance…

2. True prophecy is not a matter of vague generalizations but involves minutely detailed predictions. People are named and their destinies are carefully traced long before they are even born.

Nations are characterized before they exist and wars are described before they are fought. The more detailed the prophecy and the more unusual its nature, the greater the evidence for inspiration!

3. Fulfillment of the prophecy is clear and unequivocal. Mere prediction is no evidence of supernatural presence and power. It is the clear fulfillment of the prediction in an unmistakable manner that proves its divine character. (“Biblical Prophecy” 30-31)

Predictive prophecy is not the same as when someone manages to correctly guess the outcome of an athletic event based upon knowledge of the teams or even by sheer chance. It is common for predictions of uninspired men to “fall to the ground,” but God caused the words of His inspired prophets to hold true (Aebi 95). The length of time which passes between prophetic utterance and fulfillment in biblical prophecy is what makes it so striking and such powerful evidence in support of the claims of inspiration made throughout the Bible.

For example, Isaiah the prophet predicted the downfall of the nation of Babylon in his writings, claiming that Babylon would be conquered by the Medes. He wrote, “Behold, I will stir up the Medes against them, who will not regard silver; And as for gold, they will not delight in it. Also, their bows will dash the young men to pieces, and they will have no pity on the fruit of the womb; Their eye will not spare children” (Isa. 13:17-18).

When Isaiah prophesied concerning Babylon, he did not use vague language that could be interpreted in many ways. He was extraordinarily specific in his naming of the nation that would oversee the eventual destruction of Babylon as a world power (Ludwigson 37).

Shelly notes that Isaiah spoke for God in the eighth century BC and then goes on to provide further insight into the historical time frame for the conquest of Babylon by the Medes:

“The Medes came against Babylon in 539 BC and, under the leadership of Cyrus, conquered it. Its destruction was made complete when Cyrus’ son-in-law, Xerxes, later plundered the city. So desolate did Babylon become that, when Alexander the Great later decided to restore it, he gave up the task as a hopeless one” (What Shall 23).

Shelly’s statement that Alexander the Great gave up the restoration of the city of Babylon gives further credence to Isaiah’s statement that Babylon would be “as when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah” (Isa. 13:19). Though the date of Isaiah’s prophecy is not certain, at least 150 years passed between the time the prophecy was made and its fulfillment. Such a prophecy, with the level of detail that Isaiah provided, is beyond the ability of a mere human to produce without the assistance of the supernatural being that is God.  

Babylon is not the only nation, or city, to face destruction as prophesied in the Bible. Ezekiel predicted the fall of the great city of Tyre in Phoenicia, stating:

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. And they shall destroy the walls of Tyre and break down her towers; I will scrape her dust from her, and make her like the top of a rock. 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. Also her daughter villages which are in the fields shall be slain by the sword. Then they shall know that I am the Lord.” (Ezekiel 26:3-5)

Kenny Barfield gives further insight into Ezekiel’s prophecy concerning Tyre:

Consequently, Ezekiel (26:3-5, 7, 12, 14) painted her future in dark and ominous colors. Six distinct hues of his prophecy can be isolated.

(1) Nebuchadnezzar would besiege the city, but his siege would fail to achieve its total purpose.

(2) Tyre would be attacked by many nations who would reduce it to nothing.

(3) Even the stones, timber, and dust of the old city would be deposited in the sea. In this prediction, Zechariah (9:3-4) echoed the one by Ezekiel.

(4) The site of the city would become as flat as the top of a rock.

(5) She would never be rebuilt.

(6) The city would become a place for fishermen’s nets. Of the six prophecies, only the first occurred during the lifetime of the prophet. All others happened much later. (88-89)

It is beyond the realm of reason to believe that Ezekiel could have prophesied the downfall of Tyre with such accuracy without the aid of God. How could he, on his own, have concluded that many nations would reduce Tyre to nothing? How could he have accurately predicted, on his own, that the site of the city would become as flat as the top of a rock? How could he have predicted, on his own, that the city of Tyre would never again be rebuilt after its destruction? How could he have predicted, on his own, that it would become a place for “fishermen’s nets”? There is no rational conclusion that does not include inspiration from God.

Consider as greater evidence the prophecy of the fall of Nineveh by both Nahum and Zephaniah. Nahum opens his writings by stating that he is writing concerning the “burden against Nineveh” (Nahum 1:1). Many remember and recognize Nineveh and its repentance from the story of Jonah.

Yet, Shelly notes that “approximately one hundred to one hundred and fifty years after Nineveh’s penitence under the preaching of Jonah, her sinfulness became so great that God had the prophets Nahum and Zephaniah speak of her impending doom” (What Shall 24).

To consider the writings of both Nahum and Zephaniah concerning the destruction of Nineveh to be prophetic, the approximate dates of their writings must be identified. In the case of Nahum, Coffman provides an explanation for the logical date he assigns to this writing:

The mention of the destruction of No-amon (Thebes in Egypt) as a past event and Nahum’s appeal to that as an indication of certainty for the doom of Nineveh, places the prophecy after the destruction of that city. This occurred “when Ashurbanipal captured and plundered the city in 663 B.C.”

It should also be noted that some of the previous generations of scholars mention a number of other “destruction of Thebes,” occurring at intervals in preceding centuries, and do not therefore accept 663 as the earliest date of Nahum. At issue is whether or not Nahum prophesied the destruction of Sennacherib and his army before Jerusalem; and we are unwilling to eject this view.

Nevertheless, in deference to the great majority of present-day students of the question who appear to be positive enough that the 663 sack of Thebes is the one referred to here, we accept that. The burden of Nahum’s prophecy was not “the destruction of Sennacherib,” but “the destruction of Nineveh”; and the 663 date as the earliest the prophecy could have been written does no violence at all to that. The terminal date after the prophecy was written would be the fall of Nineveh in 609 B.C.

We believe, however, that the commentators who move the date as closely to 609 B.C. as possible are incorrect. We strongly prefer a date in the vicinity of 650 B.C., or thereabouts. (4)

As for the matter of the date of Zephaniah’s writings, Coffman notes that all of the scholars whom he consulted placed the date somewhere between 628 and 626 BC (121). As Shelly notes, “In 612 B.C. the combined forces of the Babylonians and Medes came against Nineveh and destroyed it. The once proud and powerful city was in ruins and was an object of derision and scorn” (What Shall 24).

Simple math would cause one to recognize that the prophecies of Nineveh’s destruction by Nahum and Zephaniah were made 38 and 16 years beforehand, respectively. Such information begs the question of those who deny the inspiration of the Bible, that Robert Milligan so aptly asked, “How will you account for the many plain and unmistakable instances of Fulfilled Prophecy?” (21).

Without abandoning reason and rationality, it is impossible for anyone to claim that the instances of predictive prophecy previously outlined do not provide both necessary and sufficient evidence to confirm the inspiration of the Bible.

Perhaps the most crucial prophetic utterances within the Scriptures in reference to confirming the inspiration of the Bible are those prophecies made in the Old Testament concerning Jesus Christ. The sheer number of Old Testament Messianic prophecies is impressive.

Barfield notes the work of various scholars concerning the total amount of Messianic prophecies that were made:

At one end of the spectrum stands the venerable and meticulous 19th century scholar Alfred Edersheim. After seven years of exhaustive research, he published his acclaimed two-volume work, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. Using his Jewish background as a foundation, Edersheim cataloged 456 references from the Old Testament that early rabbinical sources labeled as “Messianic.”

Other writers concurred, in general, if not with Edersheim’s exact figure. Pierson, while not claiming his list to be complete, identified more than 300 predictions regarding the Messiah taken from the Old Testament. Likewise, without claiming an encyclopedic listing, James F. Smith itemized 72 prophecies he claimed were fulfilled by Jesus of Nazareth. J. Barton Payne of Covenant Theological Seminary listed 127 predictions, drawn from approximately 3,000 verses of scripture, as future references to the Messiah. (123-24)

Regardless of the exact numbers of prophecies made concerning the coming Messiah, the simple fact of the matter is that there are multiple Messianic prophecies, by multiple authors, in the Old Testament. Shelly makes the astute statement that “no more evidence of the Bible’s reliability as a prophetic book could be cited than the many detailed prophecies concerning Jesus Christ which have been accurately fulfilled” (What Shall 25).

Without identifying the time frame of when these Old Testament Messianic prophecies were written, it is clearly recognizable that the time period between utterance and fulfillment shatters any of the previously mentioned prophecies concerning nations and cities. It is generally accepted that a period of approximately 400 years passed between the final words of the Old Testament and the beginning of the gospel accounts of the life of Jesus Christ in the New Testament when the prophecies concerning Him began to be fulfilled. 

The prophecy concerning the virgin birth of Jesus Christ in Isaiah is, perhaps, the most recognizable and well-known prophecy in regards to the life of Christ. It reads as follows:

Moreover, the Lord spoke again to Ahaz, saying, “Ask a sign for yourself from the Lord your God, ask it either in the depth or in the height above.” But Ahaz said, “I will not ask, nor will I test the Lord!” Then he said, “Hear, now, O house of David! Is it a small thing for you to weary men, but will you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign:

Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel. Curds and honey He shall eat, that He may know to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the Child shall know to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land that you dread will be forsaken by both her kings. The Lord will bring the king of Assyria upon you and your people and your father’s house—days that have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah. (Isaiah 7:10-17)

Not only was the manner of the birth of Christ prophesied, but the place of His birth was also foretold by the prophet Micah who said, “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of you shall come forth to Me The One to be Ruler in Israel, whose goings forth are from old, From everlasting” (Micah 5:2).

Both of the prophecies concerning the manner of birth and the location of the birth of Christ are fulfilled early on in the gospel accounts. Concerning the virgin birth, Matthew specifically recalls the prophecy made by Isaiah, writing:

So all this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying: “Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,” which is translated, “God with us.” Then Joseph, being aroused from sleep, did as the angel of the Lord commanded him and took to him his wife, and did not know her until she had brought forth her firstborn Son. And he called His name Jesus. (Matthew 1:22-25)

Luke (1:27-33) provides a similar account of the virgin birth of Christ, further substantiating the fulfillment of the Messianic prophecy in regard to the birth of Jesus.

This singular event, the fulfillment of prophecies concerning the birth of Christ, is of much magnitude that it alone provides sufficient evidence to prove the inspiration of the Bible. It is not possible that Isaiah, a mere man, could have accurately predicted the virgin birth on his own. It is not possible that he could have provided the level of detail that is read in Isaiah 7 on his own. This is a man whose prophetic utterances occurred over six hundred years prior to their fulfillment. Such an act is beyond mere human capability and origin.

The only reasonable explanation for such an event is the influence of a supernatural, omnipresent, omnipotent, omniscient being that is unmistakably the God of the Bible. However, this was not the only event which was foretold in the Old Testament, as Shelly further notes:

The work of John the Baptist, His forerunner, was announced in Malachi 3:1. His triumphal entry into Jerusalem was foretold in Zechariah 9:9. His death and its purpose were outlined by Isaiah. (Isa. 53). The dividing of His personal belongings and the casting of lots for His seamless garment were predicted in Psalm 22:18.

The New Testament records an episode of conversion which is rooted in the Old Testament prophecy contained in Isaiah 53. The evangelist Philip proclaimed Jesus to be a fulfillment of this detailed prophecy of Jehovah’s Suffering Servant. Although a popular alternative to Philip’s inspired interpretation of Isaiah 53 identifies the Servant as Israel, this is not a reasonable possibility for the following reasons:

(1) Isaiah 49:5-6 clearly distinguishes between the Servant and Israel, (2) Israel suffered because of her own sins (cf. Deut. 28) whereas the Servant of Isaiah 53 suffered as an innocent victim, (3) Israel was not a voluntary sufferer as was the Servant and (4) Israel’s sufferings did not atone for the sins of mankind.

One should also notice that Isaiah 53 is capable of satisfying every test which can be legitimately applied to determine a prophecy’s supernatural origin. It undeniably antedates the time of Christ by several hundred years and deals with events which could not have been either guesses by the author or contrived fulfillments by its subject. It is magnificently specific and cannot be dismissed on ground of vagueness of ambiguity. And the fulfillment of Isaiah 53 is unequivocal in every particular. (What Shall 25-26)

It is not only the birth and death of Christ that is of the utmost importance, but the entirety of the life of Christ. Throughout the approximately 33 years of His life, Christ was time and time again fulfilling prophecies made centuries before He walked on Earth. In His birth, humanity was provided with a wonderful gift. In His life, mankind was given a perfect example of love, peace, humility, and obedience. In His death, Christ Himself gave the gift of His life, sacrificing Himself upon the cruel cross at Calvary. Yet in all aspects of His life, He fulfilled prophecy and further solidified the Bible’s claim of inspiration by God.

If the Bible, which on numerous occasions claims to be the inspired word of God, contained only one of the prophecies briefly mentioned it would be enough evidence to conclude that the Bible is in fact what it claims to be. Every one of the prophecies mentioned are beyond the possibility of human origin.

As has been continuously stated, no man could have possibly predicted accurately the downfall of nations, of cities, or of the life of Christ in the manner which the prophets of the Bible did, without the assistance of God.

Concerning the Messianic prophecies alone, Shelly notes that “someone has taken the trouble to calculate that the possibility of their being fulfilled in one person by sheer chance is one over 84,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000th of 1 percent” (“Biblical Prophecy” 32).

Understanding this and following the law of rationality which demands that one draw conclusions from the evidence at hand, it is undeniably the case that the predictive prophecies of the Bible are beyond human origin and, therefore, confirm that the Bible is the inspired word of God.

Editor’s Note: I hope this song encourages and helps you to reflect on our desperate need for God’s inspired Scripture.

Works Cited:

Aebi, Charles J. “Predictive Prophecy as Evidence of the Bible’s Divine Origin.” Sufficient Evidence 2.2: 95-104.

Barfield, Kenny. The Prophet Motive: Examining the Reliability of the Biblical Prophets. Nashville: Gospel Advocate, 1995.

Coffman, James Barton. The Minor Prophets: Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, and Haggai. Abilene: ACU, 1989.

Lewis, James. “The Fulfillment of Predictive Prophecy as Proof of Inspiration.” The Inspiration of the Bible. Ed. Jim Laws. Pulaski: Sain, 1996.

Ludwigson, Raymond. A Survey of Bible Prophecy. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976.

Milligan, Robert. Reason and Revelation. Indianapolis: F&F, 1998.

Morris, A. M. The Prophecies Unveiled. Winfield: Courier, 1914.

Shelly, Rubel. “Biblical Prophecy as an Evidence of Inspiration.” Spiritual Sword. 1.2: 29-32.

– – -. What Shall We Do with the Bible? Ramer: National Christian, 1975.

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