The language of prophecy is powerful, spoken with the force of metaphor and in extremes of hyperbole. Too often the rich poetry of the prophets is sacrificed on the altar of prediction, the colour drained by fortune-telling zealots rather than considerate disciples.
I should know, I was one of them.
Several years ago I came to a natural break in my own studies of eschatology and began to explore the diversity of interpretation involved in "end times" prophecy. I was particularly interested in the premillennial dispensationalist theology espoused by Tim LaHaye's popular Left Behind series, which is itself grounded in the work of Hal Lindsey.
At about this time I was starting to educate myself about better methods of biblical interpretation, and it didn't take me long to realise that my own views of the latter days didn't stand up to scrutiny. Mainstream evangelical interpretation of the Left Behind ilk didn't seem to fare any better, veering to worse in the "blood moon" fiasco.
The more time I spent digging into prophetic interpretation, the more it became apparent that the vast majority of modern day "prophets" lack any kind of consistency or credibility. One of my friends began maintaining a list of "ends of the world that I have survived". As I write this, a number of my social media contacts are sharing videos claiming the world will end on Saturday.
This situation is non-optimal.
Which is why I found D Brent Sandy's book Ploughshares and pruning hooks an oasis in the desert of prophetic studies. In his preface, Sandy acknowledges the discrepancy between the pop-prophecy mainstream and the quieter waters of more measured conclusions:
To some people the books detailing how -- and sometimes how soon -- prophecy will be fulfilled are life-giving water to the thirsty soul. To others they are contaminated with sensationalism. Certainly if the number of books sold is the measure of success, this [mainstream] is the crème de la crème.
A much smaller current of books attempts to go against the flow. They challenge the assumption that contemporary events must certainly be the fulfilment of prophecy.
Throughout the book Sandy is careful to remain impartial to dispensational and non-dispensational perspectives. I felt he achieved this aim. By the end of the book I had been impressed by how poetic prophetic language really is, and how this simple fact goes a good way to explaining the diversity of interpretation that exists on the subject.
An example that resonated with me is the message to King Solomon that his kingdom would be taken from him, or rather his offspring:
"I will surely tear the kingdom from you and give it to your servant. Yet for the sake of your father David I will not do it in your lifetime; I will tear it out of the hand of your son" - 1 Kings 11:11-12 [NRSV]
If we were to purge our minds of what actually happened and instead try to "predict" how this might be fulfilled, we might search the scriptures for other references to "tearing". Perhaps we would light upon Judges 14:6 where Samson tears apart a lion, and conclude that Solomon's dynasty was due to face a violent and catastrophic end.
And we'd be flat wrong. The split was acrimonious, but hardly a bloodbath. I realise that this particular example could be seen as a straw-man argument, but I've seen enough ill-conceived "end times" prophecies to recognise a familiar trope:
Sandy's book is written in a very accessible style. He explains the power of metaphoric language and the prophetic role as ambassadors of the covenant, seeking to change hearts and minds through emotive messages rather than simply professing "tomorrow's news today". The following passage from Joel has been used to justify all sorts of ludicrous predictions, some of which border on being horoscopes:
"I will show portents in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes." - Joel 2:30-31 [NRSV]
The language is that of disruption to the cycles of nature and time, creation undone in God's presence. It's not in the Bible to give readers a magic key for unlocking the future; there's clearly not enough information in the verse to base any kind of prediction on. Rather the passage is intended to convey the urgency of repentance. That's why it's followed by:
"Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved;" - Joel 2:32 [NRSV]
Unfortunately passages such as these continue to be used to justify all manner of wild and wonderful latter day applications. I feel strongly that the Christian community needs to stand up to these messages when they arise. Not only does the media have a field day with them, they're also blamed for creating a generation incapable of critical thought.
While the Word of God is being brought into increasing disrepute by fallacious claims of a minority, the majority have not educated themselves sufficiently to identify and reject these claims when they arise. If you consider yourself to be a Christian, and claim to take the Bible seriously, I encourage you to buy this book, get smarter, and publicly call out nonsense when you see it.
Obviously Sandy's book isn't the end of the matter. His care to remain independent of any wider interpretive framework is commendable but leaves a large void that only further exploratory study will fill. However, it's a great first step into the counter-narrative of latter days prophecy, and it's up to every disciple to individually engage with the problem to the best of their ability, and together move the discussion forward.
I'm also a nervous guest on my friend Dan Abson's Four Cubits and a Span podcast next week (25th September 2017), where we discuss--amongst other things--Ezekiel's prophecy regarding Tyre, and how recognising the poetic element of prophecy helps to understand the passage.