Monday, July 21, 2014

Prophetic gaps

In Jewish and Christian tradition, Gabriel's promise has been applied rather to later events: the birth of the Messiah, Jesus' death and resurrection, the fall of Jerusalem, various subsequent historical events, and the still-future manifesting of the messiah. Exegetically such views are mistaken. The detail of vv24-27 fits the second-century BC crisis and agrees with allusions to this crisis elsewhere in Daniel. The verses do not indicate that they are looking centuries or millennia beyond the period to which chaps. 8 and 10–12 refer…The passage refers to the Antiochene crisis. J. Goldingay, Daniel (Word 1989), 267.

i) I've discussed this before, but now I'd like to approach it from a general angle. Goldingay is making a specific claim about Daniel, but the same issue crops up regarding various OT and NT prophecies. Are conservatives inserting ad hoc gaps or intervals in prophecy as a face-saving device?

ii) Liberals like Goldingay take this position because they don't believe in predictive prophecy. They think these are failed prophecies or prophecies ex eventu.

However, even if one takes that secular position, a scholar ought to ask himself how, for the sake of argument, the prophecy would be expressed any differently, if at all, if it were, in fact, a long-range prophecy. Notice Goldingay assumes that if the verses were looking far ahead, there'd be some indication to that effect. But is that the case?

iii) Let's assume God knows the future. Let's assume he sometimes reveals the future to a prophet. These sometimes refer to the near future, sometimes to the distant future. Or there might be a series of oracles that span a long stretch of time.

As a rule, would the prophet know how soon these will be fulfilled? Unless the prophecy is worded in terms that clearly refer to events within the lifetime of the prophet or his immediate audience, I don't see why. Moreover, even long-range prophecy might be worded in contemporary terms for the sake of intelligibility.

iv) To approach this from the opposite direction–as indeed we must–knowing the interval between prediction and fulfillment is usually a retrospective rather than prospective assessment. After it happens, or after a significant time has elapsed since the oracle was issued, we can say how long it took or how long it is taking. 

But that's not something a prophet can generally surmise looking forward. Rather, that's something we discern looking back. Since a prophet rarely knows in advance how long it will take, we wouldn't expect him to posit a gap or lengthy interval, even if, as it turns out, this is a long-range prophecy. From his standpoint, he can't tell if this is a short-term or long-term prophecy. He may state one thing after another, not because one thing happens right after another, but simply to indicate the relative sequence. One thing happens before or after another, without implying how much earlier or later. 

Conservative Christians aren't inserting gaps or intervals. Rather, with the passage of time, the duration becomes clearer. We know something the prophet didn't, because God didn't reveal the timing to the prophet. Our hindsight complements his foresight. And that's in the nature of long-range prophecy. Often the prophetic referent, whether short-term or long-term, only emerges with the passage of time. Only time will tell. 

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