Prudence in the rising wake of an ancient Apocalyptic Speech

The Bible unapologetically tilts to the future. From the Beginning back in the Garden to the very last chapter of the last book there is a steady stream of prophecies directing our thoughts to events yet to come. You can recognize these predictions by the repeated use of ‘will’ – as in the future-tense verb. Such-and-such ‘will’ happen is stated again and again throughout the Book.

There are no doubt many reasons for this. For starters, since no human knows the future, it serves as a testable signature to verify if indeed there is a Divine Mind behind those writings, separating would be pretenders from the Real. Reflect on how key events of Abraham as well as the Passover fit like a key in a lock with the crucifixion of Jesus. Prophecies as predictions of the future thus help our minds recognize truth.

Our lives are also full of trials and heartaches wherein we regularly suffer profound loss. We long for a better world and many of us despair that it will ever come about. So we need encouragement. Many Bible prophecies look to a better future and are given as encouragement so we do not lose hope. “The Kingdom of God will be established and peace one day will reign – so do not give up now” is the thrust of many prophecies, providing needed comfort, strengthening us emotionally.

But there is yet another reason for prophecies. Some confront our wills – the part of us that makes choices – to warn us of hard consequences in the future if we do not change the direction we have chosen for ourselves. These are probably the most difficult for us to accept (at least that is true for me) precisely because they oppose our inborn tendency of not wanting anyone, whether God or man, to speak warning into our lives.

Some prophecies combine all these elements. And no prophet does so with better effect than Jesus himself. He gave future-looking prophecies, apocalyptic even, that somehow provide comfort, engage our minds – and yet still confront our wills.

Events this week brought one of his apocalyptic speeches to my mind, causing me to ask whether we are seeing it (parts at least) unfolding in front of our eyes – and on our websites and TV screens. The complete discourse is in the link here. Below are  highlights.

Some of his disciples were remarking about how the temple was adorned with beautiful stones and with gifts dedicated to God. But Jesus said, “As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down.”

“Teacher,” they asked, “when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are about to take place?”

He replied: “… 20 When you see Jerusalem being surrounded by armies, you will know that its desolation is near. 21 Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, let those in the city get out, and let those in the country not enter the city. 22 For this is the time of punishment in fulfillment of all that has been written … against this people. 24 They will fall by the sword and will be taken as prisoners to all the nations. Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.

Destruction of Jerusalem prophesied

The phrase I underlined is a tipping point pushing people to vastly different conclusions. We know from history that the Romans sacked Jerusalem in 70 AD and expelled the Jews living there across the Roman Empire – mostly as slaves – exactly as the underlined section states. It indicates it will occur in Jesus’ future (note the ‘will’s). So is this a case of prophecy? Some say ‘yes’. But Luke authored this Gospel some years after Jesus. Perhaps he authored it after 70 AD and, knowing the events that had transpired, put the ‘prophecy’ in Jesus’ mouth to give him robust prophetic credentials. In fact, most scholars date Luke after 70 AD precisely because it makes this very prediction. In this logic, since prophesy is impossible (they assume), the only way to explain it is to set the date of authorship after 70 AD.

The conclusion of the Gentiles over Jerusalem prophesied

What seems to get missed in the authorship controversy is that Jesus continued seamlessly along and predicted that the Gentile (i.e. non-Jew) control of Jerusalem, initiated in 70 AD with its destruction, would end one day, when ‘the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled’. This is the part I have bolded. For thousands of years, one Gentile group after another swapped control of that city. But that all changed in 1967, when it was captured by the new state of Israel in the Six-Day war – and Gentiles now no longer control that city. Whatever one chooses to believe about it, whether one ‘likes’ it or not, this part of the prophecy was fulfilled – along with all its attendant issues – and certainly it was not because Luke inked it in after the fact.

Roaring and tossing of the sea prophesied

But maybe it was just a lucky guess, bound to come true eventually by chance. Jesus’ speech continues on:

25 “There will be signs in the sun, moon and stars. On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea.

Last week the nations witnessed Cyclone Pam rip through and devastate islands in the South Pacific. Consider some headlines through the lens of this prediction of the ‘roaring and tossing of the sea’

Devastation from Cyclone Pam in Vanuatu - March 2015

Devastation from Cyclone Pam in Vanuatu – March 2015

We have been hearing for a while now of the threat of sea level rise and the increased intensity of ocean storms. Cyclone Pam was just the latest exhibit in lengthening line-up of such stories we now commonly hear. Something is changing in the seas such that they now ‘roar’ and ‘toss’.

The perplexity of the nations prophesied

But Jesus was not just talking about the sea itself, but about ‘the nations’ and their perplexity of what to do about this rising problem. In a twist of irony, while his country was being devastated by Cyclone Pam, Vanuatu President Baldwin Lonsdale was in Japan attending a United Nations conference on how to understand and deal with these rising storms.  As the United Nations bulletin expressed it

Devastation in cyclone’s wake illustrates need for targeted disaster response, Pacific leaders say at UN conference

Jesus’ predictions of the ‘nations’ being in ‘anguish’ and ‘perplexity’ with the problem of increasing storms on the seas was vividly illustrated for us. We may think it is obvious that ‘nations’ will convene to discuss and fret about global problems – but that certainly was not a given in the 1st Century when nations did not exist in a global community like they do today. Jesus’ words anticipated the context of nations, the endless discussions and forums amongst nations about the ‘sea’, as well as the sea itself. That starts to intrigue me.

Netanyahu at Western Wall of ancient Second Temple in Jerusalem after winning elections in March 2015

Netanyahu at Western Wall of ancient Second Temple in Jerusalem after winning elections in March 2015

This all happened as the Israeli elections results were agonized all the world over. This picture of Netanyahu at the Western Wall of the Temple (destroyed in 70 AD as predicted in the Speech) reminding us of Jewish re-control of that sensitive area after 2000 years, in the same week as the devastation of the ‘roaring and tossing’ of Cyclone Pam, seem almost like Someone is adding pictures to go along with the text of Jesus’ ancient speech.

The Celestial Bodies

But what to make of this other prediction in Jesus’ speech, that of ‘signs in the sun, moon and stars’? Frankly, it is not clear to me. The recent spectacular eclipse that made headlines around the world is actually part of a series of ‘blood’ moon events that have been coinciding with the last Jewish festivals of Passover and Sukhot for which the secular Times of Israel published an interesting article. Is there a ‘sign’ in that?  Perhaps.  Jesus concludes his speech with the following:

28 When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

29 He told them this parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees. 30 When they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near. 31 Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that the kingdom of God is near.

This was given to reassure, as a comfort. It also indicated that these events will occur progressively. Not all will be clear at once. But when they ‘begin’ we can know that the Kingdom is ‘near’.

In American baseball, only the exceptional batter ever reaches a batting average of .333. This means that he gets out twice as often as he makes first base. Yet pitchers regularly walk those batters. Why? Because they prudently recognize that 1 hit for every 3 at bats is very good and it is prudent to walk such a batter rather than risk a hit. If that is true for batters at .333 how about for the record in this Speech? Perhaps not everything is clear yet. But enough seems to be happening that at the very least it would be prudent to take it seriously – just like pitchers take a .333 batter seriously.

The Warning

Jesus adds the following footnote to his Speech

34 “Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you suddenly like a trap. 35 For it will come on all those who live on the face of the whole earth. 36 Be always on the watch, and pray that you may be able to escape all that is about to happen, and that you may be able to stand before the Son of Man.”

True to form, this is the part we do not like because it is a warning challenging our wills and therefore we would prefer to ignore the whole speech, hoping it will just go away. But if we are prudent we will recognize that Jesus, master teacher that he was, combined elements in his Apocalyptic speech to reach our minds, our emotions and our wills – for our good. I know that I am planning to keep ‘watch’ as I go about the life that has been given to me.

The Prophet, The Skeptic, & the Fulfilled Event (Pt. 2)

The ‘Fed’ Weighs in on Trusting Event Predictions

In my last post I put forward how the Jewish exile from Israel 606 BC -> 537 BC -> 1948 AD was foreseen by Ezekiel as he prophetically lay on his side for 430 days.  I used this to address Sam Harris’s demand that the Biblical prophets foretell something specific for our time.

The Prophetic Timetable for Jerusalem

What is interesting is that this same sequence also holds true for the city of Jerusalem and the Jewish temple – it is just frame-shifted from the above dates.  To see this we just need to know some details of Jewish history.  The Jewish nation of Judah lost its independence to the Babylonians in 606/605 BC when the first wave of deportations to Babylon occurred and which started the initial 70 year countdown.  From this point on they were a vassal state of Babylonia.  However it was not until their failed revolt a few years later that the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar came and besieged Jerusalem and then took it, destroying and burning both the city and the Jewish Temple.  This occurred either in either 587 or 586 BC (different scholars argue either of these years).  This started the exile and desolation of Jerusalem proper.

The Jerusalem Temple – also desolate for 70 years

The Jews returned under the Persian Emperor Cyrus’s Edict in 537 BC that fulfilled the 70 years of exile that Jeremiah had predicted.  But when the Jews returned they were not able (because of lack of interest and local opposition) to rebuild their temple.  That endeavor was not begun in earnest until 520 BC, the temple being finally inaugurated in 516 BC.  So from 587/86 BC to 516 BC the temple was also desolate for 70 years.  The length of time was the same as the exile but just shifted over.

Jerusalem in 1967

I suggested that the re-birth of Israel in 1948 was what Ezekiel foresaw as the culmination of that first deportation in 606/605 BC and return in 537 BC with the remainder of the 430 years multiplied by seven as per the principle of Leviticus – exactly as Sam Harris had asked for.  But in that 1948 re-birth Israel did not get Jerusalem.  In the fierce war of 1948 they were not able to hold the city or the Temple site, though they were able to establish their nation outside of Jerusalem.  It was only in a subsequent war, the six-day war of 1967, that Jerusalem and the Temple site was captured by Israel.

Applying the same prophetic timetable that we used for the nation of Israel onto Jerusalem we get the following result:

586 BC + [70 + (360 * 7)]*360/365.24 + 1 => 1967 AD[1]

Ezekiel foretells the dispersal and re-gathering to Jerusalem, as a frame-shift of the schedule of Israel proper

Ezekiel foretells the dispersal and re-gathering to Jerusalem, as a frame-shift of the schedule of Israel proper

In other words, the prophetic schedule given by Ezekiel (with some principles from Leviticus) is frame-shifted so that the city of Jerusalem also fits the prophetic timetable of exile for the nation proper.  The pivotal dates of 586 BC (destruction of Jerusalem) -> 516 BC (restoration of temple) -> 1967 AD (return of Jerusalem to Israel) matches the predictions of Ezekiel exactly as the pivotal dates of 606/05 BC (first deportation of Israelites) -> 537 BC (first return from exile) -> 1948 AD (re-birth of modern nation).  Both sets of events follow the same intervals and thus both are fulfilled with Ezekiel’s drama of lying on his side.  As the saying goes, Ezekiel “killed two birds with one stone”.

Coincidence or Prophecy?

So what are we to make of this?  Cautious skepticism is certainly warranted – and here is why.  The reality is that if you look long and hard enough you can match some sequence of numbers with different historical events.  For example, the interval of 2300 days (and thus the number 2300) features prominently in Daniel 8.  World War II was awfully close to being 2300 days long.  Could it then be said that this event is a ‘fulfillment’ of Daniel’s 2300 days because of the close match?  We would probably all see this as a coincidence especially since Daniel 8 is talking about something else.  If so, what makes Ezekiel’s foretelling different?

The Persistent Theme of Dispersal and Re-gathering

This World War II and 2300 day example illustrates how Ezekiel’s ‘lying on his sides’ prophecies are quite different since they not being matched with any event that ‘fits’ but are fitted with what he is predicting as he lies on his side and this prediction is part of a specific theme that runs through the Bible – this theme of a dispersion and a re-gathering of the Jews.  It starts with the books of Moses and continues through many books of the Old Testament in addition to Ezekiel and goes even into the New Testament when Jesus himself predicted the destruction of Jerusalem and its restoration.  Sam Harris thought the prediction too vague because he did not follow this theme as it was developed in subsequent books.

The theme established with Moses ensures that we are not just grabbing any set of numbers presented in Ezekiel and looking for any set of events that matches these numbers.  Moses and Ezekiel (along with Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah and a few others) work in tandem to flesh out a consistent theme with some remarkably precise elements within that theme.  In some future articles I hope to look at some other aspects of this theme presented in these other books.  All have a degree of specificity that is startling and matches what we see today.  Ezekiel matches with respect to a precise and measurable chronology.  The others match with other criteria.  I know of no other writings, modern or ancient, that does this in a remotely comparable way.

Foretelling: Biblical Prophets vs. the Fed

We can in fact compare the prophetic team of Moses, Ezekiel et al. with that of the very brightest and best that work for us today.  Last week Ben Bernanke stepped down as the chairman of the US central bank – the US Federal Reserve or the ‘Fed’.  His predecessor, chair of the Fed from 1987-2006, was Alan Greenspan, probably the most well-known and respected economist in the world.  He became famous for having a midas touch in guiding the US (and global) economy through persistent growth during his tenure.  Greenspan was chair of the Fed until just before the great economic crash in 2008.  He published his memoirs late last fall and thus gave a series of high-profile interviews in the global media.  In his words, here is how well the crash of 2008 was anticipated by the best and brightest that lead our planet in economic forecasting.

“One thing that shocked me is that not only did the Federal Reserve’s very sophisticated model completely miss (the crash on) September 15th, 2008, but so did the IMF, so did JP Morgan, which was forecasting American economic growth three days before the crisis hit, going up all through 2009 and 2010.”  BBC interview on Oct 20, 2013 (

All the Kings Horses and All the King’s Men did not foresee the fall of the economic Humpty Dumpty even three days before it happened!  They had access to all the computer models running on super computers with the best and latest economic research and data but not one of the agencies setup for the very purpose of guiding economies around the world saw the 2008 economic crash even just days before it hit!  This gives us a benchmark to make a comparison:  the very best of human predictive capability vs. the Biblical prophets.  When I do that I am astounded that this theme of dispersal and re-gathering that was declared thousands of years ago has come to pass, is continuing before our eyes, and with a level of detail and precision that the best human forecasters can only dream about.  Events certainly could have played out differently.  By sheer probability the Jews should have ceased being a distinct ethnic group along with the “Jebusites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites, Girgashites” that are specifically mentioned in the books of Moses as being the peoples surrounding the Israelites in his day – and who have long ago disappeared as distinct groups.  But Moses predicted the Israelites would persist though they would be scattered and then re-gathered.  Ezekiel then added the timing to this theme.  To use the words of Harris, against those odds an accurate set of predictions spanning millennia is like a ‘product of omniscience’.

We Trust in …?

But perhaps even more surprising is that you and I are still trusting the economic predictions of the Fed, the IMF, JP Morgan etc.  If you have a pension plan, RRSPs or equivalent, or your company is investing in new production or technologies you are trusting in these same people and agencies that could not foresee the worst economic crash since the 1930’s.  But I am not arguing that we should cease to trust them.  In fact I have RRSPs and fund managers that invest based on the economic predictions of these agencies.  I do so not because I do not have trepidation and doubt, not because all my questions are answered, nor because I understand all their models.  I do so because on the balance they offer reasonable hope.  And even more so because there are no real alternatives.

If you and I will practically-speaking place our trust in these institutions that have so obviously failed at critical moments it is ironic that we struggle so in placing our trust in the gospel.  Yet this is what the gospel calls us to.  The call of the gospel is not to understand every point, not to have no further questions or uncertainties, nor even to dispel all our doubts.  The call of the gospel is to trust our lives with the person and work of Jesus – nothing more, nothing less and nothing else.  He is made known to us through historical writings that have been reliably preserved.  Hundreds of years before his life he was preceded by men who claimed Divine Inspiration in their writings and then predicted details of his life in uncanny ways.  These same men also predicted events such as the dispersion and re-gathering of the Jews which we have been looking at, so their predictions are testable.  A strong case can be made for the bodily resurrection of this Jesus.  In fact, when we look at other alternatives out there to place our trust in, this assessment given by his disciple Peter is fairly bang-on still these two thousand years later.  When he was asked if he was going to quit trusting Jesus he replied

Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” (John 6:68)

All of us extend trust.  The question is to whom and to what. We trust our money to those, as we saw, who have failed us.  Given the track record of the gospel and the dearth of alternatives that offer hope in the face of our approaching death, give meaning and purpose in a seemingly purposeless world, and a relationship with our Creator that is promised to continue into eternity, one is no fool for deciding to trust Jesus and, perhaps with some fear and trepidation and not having all the answers to ones questions, accept his gospel offer of life.  Maybe we should look again at that sought after ‘note’ printed by the Fed and take its advice to heart about where to place our trust.

[1] As in the previous timetable there were 430 years of exile, 70 of which were paid in the initial exile but the remainder being multiplied by 7 as per Leviticus.  This is the ‘[70 + (360 * 7)]’ part of the calculation.  We, like before and like in Daniel, convert to 360 day years (the ‘360/365.24’ factor).  The ‘+1’ because there is no year 0 in going from BC -> AD.  These factors are exactly the same as used in the previous calculation of the exile of Israel.  What is different now is that we start with 586 BC rather than 606 BC since we are starting from the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple.  586 BC is like -586 so the whole equation become -586 + [70 + (360 * 7)]* 360/365.24 = 1967, which corresponds to 1967 AD