The Logic of Faith

(2) Prophecy - General Principles

Introduction

The Bible claims that all its words are inspired by God. One piece of evidence that would support this claim would be if the Bible contained information that could not have been known to the people who wrote it, but which is nevertheless known to be true by others later. One particularly spectacular kind of information of this kind is fulfilled prophecy.


Principles of Predictive Prophecy

A predictive prophecy is a description of an event which has not happened at the time it was written down. Provided that there is a reasonable time lapse between the prophecy being given and its fulfilment it would not be possible for the prophet to have known what would happen, and the prophecy could be taken as evidence that the information in the prophecy came from some higher agency than the prophet's own mind. As such it is evidence of inspiration of the prophet's message.

The Bible contains a passage which tells us that fulfilled predictions will be a hallmark of a prophecy from God:

Deuteronomy 1821-22 And if thou shalt say in thy heart, How shall we know the word which the LORD hath not spoken? When a prophet speaketh in the name of the LORD, if the thing doth not follow, nor come to pass, that is the thing which the LORD hath not spoken, but the prophet hath spoken it presumptuously: thou shalt not be afraid of him.

This passage tells us that prophets of God will be able to produce fulfilled prophecy as evidence that their message is from God, and that this test can be used to decide who is and who is not a real prophet from God (there is another test in Deuteronomy 13).


Requirements for Predictive Prophecy

For a prophecy to be of any use in determining whether a document is from God, the predictive material in it must fulfil the following conditions:

  • It must be specific. This means that it must refer to a recognisable event or set of events which can be observed rather than to a general feeling or trend. Thus a prophecy which states that in general people will be happier cannot be used to verify a document as it is not sufficiently specific.
  • It must be detailed. The prophecy must contain detail which identifies uniquely to what or to whom it applies. Without this detail it is difficult to decide whether the prophecy has been fulfilled.
  • It must be unambiguous. This is an important part of a valid prediction. If the prophecy needs to be decoded before it can be understood it cannot be used as a test for inspiration as a different method of decoding or interpreting it would lead to a different prophecy.
  • It must be falsifiable. This means that there must be a possibility that the prophecy would go wrong. A prediction that (for example) "one day king Solomon will die" is not of use as everyone dies. Similarly a prophecy that "the city Jericho will be rebuilt" is not falsifiable on its own as, if Jericho is not rebuilt, one can simply say "wait a little longer".
  • It must have been written before the events it describes were planned. If this is not the case the prophecy could easily be given without divine aid.
  • It must be fulfilled. A prophecy which is yet to be fulfilled may be of interest to those seeking to know the future, but is of no use in deciding whether a particular document is inspired by God.

Two Examples

These characteristics can be found in many Bible prophecies. For example, consider two prophecies from the Old Testament:

Psalm 2216 For dogs have surrounded me: the assembly of the wicked have inclosed me: they pierced my hands and my feet.

This prophecy of the crucifixion of Jesus was written by David about 1,000 years before it occurred. Certainly it was written long before the death of Jesus, as it appears in a scroll of the Psalms found among the Dead Sea Scrolls and copied in about 100 BC. This fulfils the last two conditions. It is specific; it describes an action involved in Jesus' execution (the piercing of his hands and feet which took place when the nails were driven in). This detail makes it falsifiable; if Jesus had died of old age or by strangulation, for example, the prophecy would have failed. It is also particularly convincing because death by crucifixion was not invented at the time when David wrote the Psalms.

A second example is from the prophecy of Micah and again prophesies part of the life of Jesus...

Micah 52 But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou art little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth to me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting.

This prophecy was also written some centuries before the time of Jesus. However, it has now been fulfilled and is a testimony to the inspiration of Scripture. It is specific; not only does it mention Bethlehem, it indicates which of the Bethlehems this one was: the one in Judah.


Statistical Survey

According to one survey of biblical predictions, the Bible contains 8,352 verses of predictive material out of a total of 31,124 verses, or 27% of the total. Of these, 1,556 verses (19% of the predictive verses) relate to events at or after the time of the return of Jesus, leaving 6,796 verses predicting events which could already have happened. All of these have been fulfilled: a 100% success rate.

The predictive prophecies cover 1,817 events. This is a remarkable degree of accuracy in prediction, far higher than one might expect by chance predictions.


Further Examples - Prophecies of the nations

One kind of prophecy that appears in the Bible predicts the fate of the various nations in the Bible area. Here is a summary of a few of these prophecies.

Ammon

Ezekiel 252 Son of man, set thy face against the Ammonites, and prophesy against them...
Ezekiel 257 Behold, therefore I will stretch out my hand upon thee, and will deliver thee for a spoil to the nations; and I will cut thee off from the people, and I will cause thee to perish out of the countries: I will destroy thee; and thou shalt know that I am the LORD.

Ammon was to be destroyed from among the nations. This happened when it was invaded by the Nabateans in the first century BC.

Assyria

Nahum 11 The burden of Nineveh...
Nahum 19 What do ye imagine against the LORD? he will make an utter end: affliction shall not rise up the second time...
Nahum 213 Behold, I am against thee, saith the LORD of hosts, and I will burn her chariots in the smoke, and the sword shall devour thy young lions: and I will cut off thy prey from the earth, and the voice of thy messengers shall no more be heard.

The Assyrian empire fell suddenly in 612 BC when Nineveh was sacked by the Babylonians with the Medes and Scythians. The river Tigris was diverted to cover the ruins of Nineveh. The site was buried for many centuries until it was discovered by archaeologists in the nineteenth century. The Assyrian empire has never risen again.

Babylon

Isaiah 1319-20 And Babylon, the glory of kingdoms, the beauty of the Chaldees' excellency, shall be as when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah. It shall never be inhabited, neither shall it be dwelt in from generation to generation: neither shall the Arabian pitch tent there; neither shall the shepherds make their fold there.

The Babylonian empire was superseded by the Persians and the glory of Babylon gradually faded away until the city became a ruin in the desert. It has never been rebuilt, although there have been several attempts to do so.

Edom

Obadiah 11 The vision of Obadiah. Thus saith the Lord GOD concerning Edom; We have heard a rumour from the LORD, and an ambassador is sent among the nations, Arise ye, and let us rise up against her in battle.
Obadiah 19-10 And thy mighty men, O Teman, shall be dismayed, to the end that every one of the mount of Esau may be cut off by slaughter. For thy violence against thy brother Jacob shame shall cover thee, and thou shalt be cut off for ever.

By 500 BC Edom had ceased to exist as a nation. The Idumean tribes were pushed out by the Nabateans and many Idumeans went to live in Judea. Edom has never been restored as a nation.

Egypt

Ezekiel 2914-15 And I will bring again the captives of Egypt, and will cause them to return into the land of Pathros, into the land of their habitation; and they shall be there a base kingdom. It shall be the basest of the kingdoms; neither shall it exalt itself any more above the nations: for I will diminish them, that they shall no more rule over the nations.

Egypt has declined in power and has never again reached the superpower status it enjoyed in Bible times.

Moab

Zephaniah 29 Therefore as I live, saith the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, Surely Moab shall be as Sodom, and the children of Ammon as Gomorrah, even the possession of nettles, and saltpits, and a perpetual desolation: the remainder of my people shall lay them waste, and the remnant of my people shall possess them.

Moab was completely destroyed.

Philistia

Amos 18 And I will cut off the inhabitant from Ashdod, and him that holdeth the sceptre from Ashkelon, and I will turn my hand against Ekron: and the remnant of the Philistines shall perish, saith the Lord GOD.

After 165 BC the Philistine cities had become Greek and the Philistines were no longer in them. The cities were overrun by the Maccabees in the late second century BC.

Phoenicia

Zechariah 93-4 And Tyre built herself a strong hold, and heaped up silver as the dust, and fine gold as the mire of the streets. Behold, the LORD will cast her out, and he will smite her power in the sea; and she shall be devoured with fire.

Tyre was finally destroyed by Alexander the Great, and Sidon by the Persian Artaxerxes III.

Israel

Jeremiah 3011 For I am with thee, saith the LORD, to save thee: though I make a full end of all nations where I have scattered thee, yet will I not make a full end of thee: but I will correct thee in measure, and will not leave thee altogether unpunished.

Jews have been scattered into all the world and regathered in part twice since this prophecy was written. They have endured 20 centuries of persecution and repression but they still exist.


Conclusion

The Bible has predicted the fate of every one of the nations surrounding Israel, and done so correctly. The probability of predicting the survival or otherwise of these nations by chance alone is 1 in 2 to the power of 9 (29), or one in 512. In fact the predictions contain other information and are therefore more unlikely to be fulfilled by chance. This suggests that some intelligent power is behind the prophecies of the Bible.
 

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