This week – Genesis 3:15 lays out the whole plan of the Bible as it plays out in history, including the return of Christ culminating in a great confrontation. All this from the Garden. Jacob explores this
Every autumn a somewhat obscure 8-day festival, with a 3500 year history, is celebrated around the world by a rather extraordinary people. The festival I am referring to is the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles, also known as Sukkot or Feast of Booths. Since it follows the Jewish lunar calendar it moves from year to year in our calendar (like Easter does), but it is always celebrated sometime in September-October. In 2018 it will be celebrated from Sept 23 – Sept 30.
This festival was instituted by Moses to commemorate the years that the Israelites wandered in the desert after their Exodus departure from Egypt. Therefore, Jews today celebrate the festival by living outdoors in booths or tents through the festive period. It is thus a festival of cultural and historical meaning.
But the Jews have had a long history, and for much of the Bible period they had a Temple in Jerusalem. During this period they celebrated the Festival by going on a pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem. Therefore it also has great ritualistic meaning.
The Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot) was one of several annual festivals established by Moses which were interspersed through the Jewish year. Though interesting on their own account, the meaning of these festivals becomes positively intriguing when viewed through the person and career of Jesus. Because he was a Jew, and since he lived in the Temple period, he celebrated these festivals along with his countrymen. But on top of that, his person and life seemed to fulfill them. From that perspective the meaning of these Festivals goes deeper still, like another layer in an onion. For example, Jesus was crucified and died on Passover, one of these festivals. The very day instituted by Moses to remember how lamb’s blood saved the early Israelites from death was the day his blood was shed. This is why today Easter and Passover occur together every year. I explored the significance of this remarkable timing here. The coming of the Holy Spirit and the birth of what would become church occurred 50 days after Easter Sunday – exactly on the same day of another Festival started by Moses – the Feast of Weeks (or Pentecost). I explored the significance of that here, but even without delving into the details, the fact that pivotal historical events landed on multiple festival days that were started over one thousand years beforehand is exclusive to Jewish history. In fact, all three springtime Jewish Festivals have an exact day-to-day match to a major event in later history.
Jesus at the Feast of Tabernacles
Sukkot, being part of the Jewish autumn festivals does not have a day-to-day match with a New Testament event. Nonetheless the parallels are striking in a different, perhaps deeper, manner still. The Gospel of John records Jesus participating in this same Feast of Tabernacles. But the account records Jesus doing something curious. It says
37 On the last and greatest day of the festival, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. 38 Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.” 39 By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive. Up to that time the Spirit had not been given, since Jesus had not yet been glorified. (John 7:37-39)
Jewish Feast of Tabernacles festivities in the Temple period
To appreciate the full significance of what he said we need to know how the Jews in Bible times celebrated the Feast of Tabernacles. Jewish history and their sacred rituals are well documented in the Old Testament and in other sources like the Talmud and Mishna. The Jewish website http://www.templeinstitute.org/sukkot.htm explains from these sources:
At the foothills of Mount Moriah, down below in the City of David, flows a natural spring called Shiloach. This spring is ancient, and as it is located literally in the shadow of the Holy Temple, it has always had spiritual significance for Israel. It is the original source of Jerusalem’s water.
Every day of the festival [i.e. of Taberncales], the priests descended down to the Shiloach, accompanied by all the congregation assembled in the Temple. There, they filled a golden flask … of the pure water. Ascending back up, carrying the flask with song … the gathering entered back into the Temple through the Water Gate, one of the gates on the southern side of the court (it received its name on account of this event (Shekalim 6, 3). As they entered the gate, their steps were greeted by the sound of trumpets and shofar-blasts, …
Once in the Temple, the priest who had the honor of performing this service now carries the golden flask up the altar ramp. … which took place on exculsively on Sukkot.
“With joy you shall draw water out of the wells of salvation” (Isaiah 12:3).
Based on this verse, the drawing of water from the Shiloach spring and its libation upon the altar of G-d was accompanied by great rejoicing and celebration in the Holy Temple. In fact, this joy was so immense, and the celebrations so uplifting, that the sages of Israel emphatically stated:
“Whoever has never seen the celebrations of the Festival of the Water Libation-has never experienced true joy in his life” (ibid. 5, 1).
But what was the cause of such great happiness, to the extent that this statement was recorded for all posterity? Indeed, what could be so moving about the simple act of gathering up some water, and pouring it onto the altar? …
So Jesus used the context of the joyful ceremonial gathering of pure water poured on the altar in the Temple during the Feast of Tabernacles to point to himself as likewise giving ‘living water’ to anyone who is ‘thirsty’. His self-portrait was made vivid in that context to his hearers.
The curious response of Jesus’ hearers
But still, the response of his hearers seems perhaps a bit excessive. When they heard his declaration their response was:
40 On hearing his words, some of the people said, “Surely this man is the Prophet.”
41 Others said, “He is the Messiah.”
How did Jesus’ hearers go from Jesus’ statement of ‘living water’ to think ‘Messiah’? At first glance there seems to be no natural connection.
However, there is one key Old Testament passage describing the Feast of Tabernacles and ‘living water’. But I have to warn you now – it is so apocalyptic that it may not be pleasant to unpack.
Zechariah, Living Water & the Feast of Tabernacles
Zechariah wrote of a coming day when:
A day of the Lord is coming, Jerusalem, when … 2 I will gather all the nations to Jerusalem to fight against it …3 Then the Lord will go out and fight against those nations, as he fights on a day of battle.4 On that day his feet will stand on the Mount of Olives, east of Jerusalem, and the Mount of Olives will be split in two from east to west, forming a great valley, with half of the mountain moving north and half moving south…
6 On that day there will be neither sunlight nor cold, frosty darkness.7 It will be a unique day—a day known only to the Lord—with no distinction between day and night. When evening comes, there will be light.
8 On that dayliving water will flow out from Jerusalem, half of it east to the Dead Sea and half of it west to the Mediterranean Sea, in summer and in winter.
The Lord will be king over the whole earth. On that day there will be one Lord, and his name the only name.
…16 Then the survivors from all the nations that have attacked Jerusalem will go up year after year to worship the King, the Lord Almighty, and to celebrate the Festival of Tabernacles.17 If any of the peoples of the earth do not go up to Jerusalem to worship the King, the Lord Almighty, they will have no rain.… 19 This will be … the punishment of all the nations that do not go up to celebrate the Festival of Tabernacles. (Zechariah 14: 1 – 19)
Here we have a convergence of ‘living water’, the ‘Feast of Tabernacles’ and ‘all the nations’ along with Someone who is ‘King’ and ‘Lord’. If we understand where the term ‘Messiah’ (= Christ) comes from we will see that this Someone was the Messiah. This is an Old Testament messianic prophecy. Hearing Jesus talking about ‘Living Water’ at the Feast of Tabernacles would have reminded his Jewish audience of this very passage and so they would have thought ‘Messiah’. Hence their response to his Feast of Tabernacles cry. It is just that Zechariah does not seem to describe Jesus to our modern-day minds.
Zechariah and the ‘one they have pierced’
But that is because I started the quote of Zechariah partway through his prophecy. It actually begins two chapters earlier. If we start at that beginning the meaning goes deeper still;
A prophecy: The word of the Lord concerning Israel.
The Lord, who stretches out the heavens, who lays the foundation of the earth, and who forms the human spirit within a person, declares:2 “I am going to make Jerusalem a cup that sends all the surrounding peoples reeling. Judah will be besieged as well as Jerusalem.3 On that day, when all the nations of the earth are gathered against her, I will make Jerusalem an immovable rock for all the nations. … 8 On that day the Lord will shield those who live in Jerusalem….9 On that day I will set out to destroy all the nations that attack Jerusalem.
Mourning for the One They Pierced
10 “And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and supplication. They will look on me, the one they have pierced, and they will mourn for him as one mourns for an only child, and grieve bitterly for him as one grieves for a firstborn son…
“On that day a fountain will be opened to the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and impurity. (Zechariah 12:1 – 13:1)
Whether one believes in the Biblical prophets or not, it is clear that in this passage the speaker (the ‘I’) is God, since he “stretches out the heavens … who forms the human spirit within a person” (v. 1). He is warning of a future day, a terrible day when nations will be destroyed. But paradoxically the mourning and grief will not center in those nations facing destruction, but rather in Jerusalem, being rescued from destruction by a ‘one they have pierced’. Who would that be? Let the descriptions by Isaiah and the Psalmist of one being ‘pierced’ help you answer that question. Zechariah himself predicted his name. Yet the pierced one is still, by using the pronoun ‘me’, the same ‘I’ who stretched the heavens and forms the human spirit in a person. Pretty heady stuff.
Feast of Tabernacles, Hallel prayer & Jesus
This takes us full circle back to the Feast of Tabernacles. The website describing the Sukkot celebration in Bible times details the prayers that were sung by the pilgrims back then. It explains
The hallel prayer, a collection of songs of thanksgiving and praise to the Almighty, is one of the oldest and most original examples of traditional Jewish liturgy. It consists of the following chapters from the book of Psalms: 113-118
Therefore, the ending of the hallel prayer which pilgrims (including Jesus) sang on that Feast of Tabernacles when Jesus cried out about ‘Living Water’ was the following from Psalm 118
The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; (Psalm 118: 22)
The Feast of Tabernacles hallel prayer uncannily predicted the career and legacy of Jesus. Jesus used this very phrase to describe himself when challenged by the Jewish leaders just before his ‘piercing’. He saw himself as the stone rejected that would become the cornerstone. And it was sung every Feast of Tabernacles by devout Jewish pilgrims. Zechariah predicted that complete recognition of this would be accompanied by cataclysmic, even apocalyptic, events.
The ancient 3500 year old Feast of Tabernacles opens many layers of meaning, spanning history and theology, when considered through the person of Jesus Christ.
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, 6 “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.”
7 “Teacher,” they asked, “when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are about to take place?”
8 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 Gentilesuntil 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’
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Halloween is just around the corner, when we celebrate the macabre and the scary, with ghosts, skeletons and zombies ‘in costume’ being seen and heard. With this focus the vast majority of us are missing the real zombie coming to life. If we listen carefully we will even be able to hear it. This zombie has been dead a long time – almost 2000 years – but her coming to life was predicted even further back.
Last Halloween, I introduced the Dry Bones that Ezekiel saw 2600 years ago coming to life. Here is a quick re-cap of what he saw:
… the bones covered the valley floor. They were scattered everywhere across the ground and were completely dried out. … Suddenly as I spoke, there was a rattling noise all across the valley. The bones of each body came together and attached themselves as complete skeletons. Then as I watched, muscles and flesh formed over the bones. Then skin formed to cover their bodies, but they still had no breath in them…. Then he said … “Come, O breath, from the four winds” … They all came to life and stood up on their feet—a great army. (Ezekiel 37: 2-10)
So what were these dry bones that so Halloween-ishly transformed into zombies and then stood up into a vast army? We do not need to guess because Ezekiel explicitly wrote that:
Then [God] said to me, “… these bones represent the people of Israel. … I will open your graves of exile and cause you to rise again. Then I will bring you back to the land of Israel…. Then you will know that I, the LORD, have spoken, and I have done what I said. Yes, the LORD has spoken! … I will gather the people of Israel from among the nations. I will bring them home to their own land from the places where they have been scattered.” (Ezekiel 37: 11-21)
Even a cursory following of the news will put the tiny nation of Israel into our line-of-sight. From its remarkable United Nations declared re-birth in 1948, to its many wars in the subsequent decades, to the intractable conflict with Palestinians and the wider world – that vision which Ezekiel saw 2600 years ago is happening right in front of our eyes – even up to that detail of the ‘vast army’ standing on its feet. The Israeli army today is literally regarded as one of the most formidable in the world.
But to focus only on what you see in the news is to miss what you may hear. Because one important reason that made these ‘bones’ dry and dead was that for millennia the Jews had lost their language – Hebrew. But today we can literally hear its re-birth – if we listen.
Let me explain.
The Jews (or Israelites) have been conquered and sent into exile two times in her long history. The first exile and deportation was about 600 BC under the Babylonians and this exile lasted 70 years. The second exile was far more severe. The Romans in 70 AD sacked, destroyed and burned Jerusalem and sold the Jews into slavery across the Roman Empire. They were sent literally into the four corners of the world. This is why Jews today can be found in almost all countries of the world.
As Moses predicted 3500 years ago they have been living in host countries around the world since 70 AD, always in danger of overstaying their welcome.
In their complete destruction as a people they even lost their language – for centuries. Here is how Wikipedia summarizes the history of their Hebrew language.
Hebrew had ceased to be an everyday spoken language somewhere between the first and fourth centuries CE and survived into the medieval period only as the language of Jewish liturgy and rabbinic literature. Then, in the 19th century, it was revived as a spoken and literary language, and, according to Ethnologue, is now the language of 9 million people worldwide, of whom 7 million are from Israel.
The rebirth of Hebrew as a mother tongue after two millennia is an event unique in sociolinguistic history. It happened through a constellation of radical political and ethnic aspirations, dire economic forces, and educational circumstances that may never be repeated, but none of which are in any way ‘miraculous’. This course examines how it happened, through the eyes of those who made it happen and contemporary sociolinguists and historians, and draws conclusions for language policy in other developing societies.
In the dry words of a university course syllabus, reviving a language not spoken for 2000 years is ‘unique in sociolinguistic history’ – there is just no other example like this out there. Of course, this occurred from a lot of hard and strategic work on the part of some key people – not by a ‘miraculous’ event as our syllabus is quick to point out. But what should be considered at least potentially miraculous is that Ezekiel 2600 years ago foresaw a national re-birth of such a scope. Who else can put that on his CV?
Actually, someone else can – Jeremiah.
Jeremiah who lived about the same time as Ezekiel (ca 600 BC) but in a distant country from him (Ezekiel was living as an exile in Babylon while Jeremiah was in Jerusalem) wrote as if foreseeing the same phenomenon
I will build you up again,
and you, Virgin Israel, will be rebuilt. Again you will take up your timbrels and go out to dance with the joyful….
“Sing with joy for Jacob;
shout for the foremost of the nations. Make your praises heard, and say,
‘Lord, save your people,
the remnant of Israel.’ 8 See, I will bring them from the land of the north and gather them from the ends of the earth….
a great throng will return.
‘He who scattered Israel will gather them
and will watch over his flock like a shepherd.’ 11 For the Lord will deliver Jacob
and redeem them from the hand of those stronger than they. 12 They will come and shout for joy on the heights of Zion;
they will rejoice in the bounty of the Lord—… 13 Then young women will dance and be glad, young men and old as well.
I will turn their mourning into gladness;
I will give them comfort and joy instead of sorrow. (Jeremiah 31: 4-13)
Jeremiah foresaw a return from ‘the ends of the earth’, but with a weighting from ‘the land of the North’ which would be joyful, with singing, timbrels, dancing and gladness. Jeremiah wrote this in Hebrew – his native language. But soon afterwards came the first exile to Babylon and many Jews stopped speaking Hebrew in favor of Aramaic. Then with the rise of Hellenism, Hebrew continued its decline and many Jews became Greek speakers. Jesus spoke in Aramaic and the Jewish writers of the New Testament wrote in Greek. Then, with the second, more extensive shattering and exile, the Hebrew tongue went dead for over one thousand years – until our day.
I had the privilege of traveling in Israel recently. There were many monuments, archaeological sites and ruins to see in a land that has such an ancient and tumultuous history. But I didn’t just see dead stones but heard a language spoken unassumingly by common every-day people. I heard something ‘unique in sociolinguistic history’. Most of these were recent arrivals from Russia (‘the land of the north’ as per Jeremiah) but I also met Jews from ‘the ends of the earth’ – and they were learning & speaking Hebrew.
One evening in Tiberias by the Sea of Galilee I went out for a stroll with my camcorder on me. Join with me in my short video/audio clip. Witness the ‘event unique in sociolinguistic history’ in joyful dance and song. They were celebrating the close of Sukhot (Festival of booths) and the conclusion of the annual reading of the ‘Torah’ – the books of Moses.
These people I joined that night were not considering the irony of their sociolinguistic re-birth in the backdrop of all the Roman ruins and the now-dead Latin inscriptions, the seemingly invincible and permanent power and cause of their second demise. Nor were they even thinking of Jeremiah’s words in the midst of their celebration. But that’s OK because Jeremiah wasn’t writing to them! He explicitly tells us that
“Hear the word of the Lord, you nations; proclaim it in distant coastlands …(v.10)
Though Ezekiel specifically addressed the Jewish people in his vision of Dry Bones, his colleague Jeremiah wrote specifically to the ‘nations’ in ‘distant coastlands’ – that’s you and me. He wanted us, not them, to take note of their re-born celebrations and then reflect.
Because maybe this climate of our day comes from not looking, or in this specific case not listening, in the right place. After all, our leaders and the media, educated and resourced with the best our society can give them, are still always being caught off guard by events that take them by surprise, from the global financial crisis a few years ago, to the Arab Spring, to the rise of the Islamic State – they are always caught with their pants down so-to-speak. In comparison, these ancient prophets seem to have a much better record – almost as if they have some Inside Information. They do claim that God was speaking through them. That can be easy to claim and many charlatans past and present continue to make that claim, but this Old Testament team backed it up by predicting in black-and-white the far future with uncanniness, even numerically. Perhaps we need to dust off the writings of these 2000+ year-old prophets and hear their case. Checking their works carefully may send a far greater shiver down your spine than any costume will this Halloween.
Newsrooms are straining to keep up with the crises reverberating around our planet in recent days. The World Cup is a distant memory in the wake of these emergencies. ISIS pushing Iraq to the brink of splintering; the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 by Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine; to the juggernaut of conflicts – the bombardments between Hamas in Gaza and Israel leading to an ongoing ground war. Riots and demonstrations for both sides in this conflict are popping up around the world. We are witnessing these events take our world by storm.
I have been reading and listening to experts and statesmen trying to predict where these events will go and what the fallout will be. Perhaps you have too. It may be useful to hear also from another witness. He is not an expert in the traditional sense – he has no credentials, he is not a celebrity, nor does he head any State or agency. In fact, he has been dead for about 2700 years. Yet before he died he penned a very significant but highly controversial book. Academic tradition has it that he was sawn in half (!) because of the audacious themes in his book. He was a seer of sorts – a maverick who, though he had no army or following, authored the doom and the rise of many kings and states. Ancient yet timeless, his work was bizarre in that he purposefully wrote for a future audience.
The Sprouting Branch
Even for us today? You judge for yourself; here is how he starts a key excerpt of his book:
A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.…
Jesse was the father of King David (i.e. of Goliath fame) who founded the city of Jerusalem ca. 1000 BC. When these words were penned Jesse had been dead about 300 years but through David a royal dynasty from Jesse was ruling in Jerusalem. The maverick seer wrote that this dynasty, like a tree when felled by an axe, would one day be reduced to a ‘stump’, i.e., the kingdom would fall. (No wonder he was sawn in two with this kind of seditious writing against his state.) But then after this dynasty was ‘stumped’ a ‘Branch’ would ‘shoot’ up from that very same stump. This Branch would ‘bear fruit’. What or who would this Branch be? What about the ‘fruit’?
Our maverick seer was part of a very select squad who also wrote similarly seditious works. What was unique about this squad was that the members by-and-large never met. You can imagine the immense difficulty in coordinating a consistent theme with people you have never met. Look at the difficulties our political leaders are having in coordinating a consistent response to all the precipitous events today – and they communicate regularly. We know the members of this squad never met because they lived several hundred years apart. Separated through time they still managed to build a consistent theme of this Branch in their writings that was so important for us to know.
I have delved into what this squad wrote about the Branch. Why not invest 10-15 minutes to learn what they had to say. Because in their works you see:
It is worth our time to understand this because it is affecting our lives today – including these events now dominating headlines. How do I know? Because in this Branch excerpt the maverick seer continued seamlessly on and wrote how a Current of Events would flow from the Branch’scareer climax, flooding into the future. Here is how he put it:
In that day the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him, and his resting place will be glorious…
Jewish regathering today
The seer (by the way, his name was Isaiah) wrote that this Branch, or ‘Root of Jesse’, would have nations ‘rally to him’ in a future ‘day’ or time. When? He continued:
In that day the Lord will reach out his hand a second time to reclaim the surviving remnant of his people from Assyria, from Lower Egypt, from Upper Egypt, from Cush,from Elam, from Babylonia, from Hamath and from the islands of the Sea.
He will raise a banner for the nations and gather the exiles of Israel;
he will assemble the scattered people of Judah from the four quarters of the earth.
Ephraim’s jealousy will vanish, and Judah’s enemies will be destroyed;
Ephraim will not be jealous of Judah, nor Judah hostile toward Ephraim.
That ‘day’ for the Branch will be the same ‘day’ that the Lord ‘will’ for a ‘second’ time reclaim ‘his people’ from states all around the globe. Isaiah was quite clear who these people would be – the ‘exiles of Israel’, the ‘scattered people of Judah’.
Below is a historical timeline of the Jews (taken from a more in-depth article). You can see that they had a first re-gathering from a Babylonian exile about 530 BC (just after the short red section). But since Isaiah specifically foresaw a ‘second’ exile he was looking to the end of the whole timeline. This dispersion, inaugurated with the Roman sacking of Jerusalem in 70 AD was truly worldwide, and it lasted 1900 years. The return from this second exile is literally as Isaiah the seer wrote 2700 years ago – from ‘the four quarters of the earth’ (i.e. North, South, East & West).
When did this worldwide reclaiming from exile occur? Why is it ongoing right now! In fact, this is a major reason why there is so much turmoil in Israel and Palestine today and is the underlying reason why the rockets and ground warfare have been going on in Israel and Gaza these past few weeks.
Re-gathering to one nation
Below is a map showing the nations in the day Isaiah penned this excerpt. You can see that back then the Jews were divided into two rival kingdoms – Judah & Israel – rather like the Koreans today who are divided into two opposing countries – North & South Korea.
When Isaiah looked into the future and wrote
Ephraim will not be jealous of Judah, nor Judah hostile toward Ephraim
He meant that when the Jews re-assembled from this world-wide exile they would not be divided anymore, as in his day, but united into one nation. This is what has happened as this modern-day return from exile was triggered in 1948 when a United Nations resolution birthed one single modern state: Israel.
Israeli & Palestinian conflict
If you look closer at this map of the nations in Isaiah’s day you will see Philistia sandwiched between Judah and the Mediterranean Sea and Moab, Edom and Ammon directly to the East. Note the states in the corresponding places today and you will see that they are Gaza, the West Bank and Jordan. The West Bank was captured from Jordan in the six-day war of 1967 by Israel. Armed with this insight, we can make sense of the rest of Isaiah’s excerpt.
They will swoop down on the slopes of Philistia to the west;
together they will plunder the people to the east.
They will subdue Edom and Moab,
and the Ammonites will be subject to them.
When Isaiah saw the Israelites returning from that long, second, world-wide exile and foresaw the birth of the one modern Jewish state which would then ‘swoop down on the slopes of Philistia to the west’ he was envisaging an intense confrontation of the Israelis into Gaza – just like we are witnessing now. The ‘subduing’ of the people of Edom, Moab and Ammon is the modern-day Israeli control of the other Palestinian enclave – the West Bank. It is like Isaiah was 2700 years ahead of our current events.
The Branch: seen in the MH17 aftermath
But this return from world-wide exile and conflict in Gaza and the West Bank was to happen in the day that the Branch was to be a banner to peoples around the world, with nations rallying to him. What did Isaiah mean?
Below are photos of peoples around the world mourning the other great tragedy of this month – the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17.
Notice the common context in the photos though the mourners are not conscious of it, and we are apt to miss it because it has become such a familiar part of culture. We are witnessing peoples in diverse nations seeking comfort in the face of death in the context of churches, liturgies and prayers founded from the life and career of one unique person – Jesus of Nazareth – the Branch that Isaiah foresaw would one day be a banner for the nations. The MH17 memorial photos cry out as one instance of Isaiah’s vision of the Branch becoming ‘a banner for the peoples’, with ‘nations rallying to him’.
The Branch & The Re-gathering: Farfetched yet seen from Isaiah’s viewpoint
We may dismiss this by noting that there is nothing remarkable about funerals and liturgies in churches, for which Jesus is somehow a banner, since it is part of our heritage and has been so for several centuries. But in Isaiah’s day, 2700 years ago, that was hardly a foregone conclusion. In that day the world was a vast ocean of pagan idolatry with no tendency towards worship of one God, nor devotion to any redeemer figure. Nothing of the impact of Jesus’ career on the generations coming after him, which we now take for granted, would have been self-evident in Isaiah’s day. Living 700 years before Jesus, Isaiah saw past Jesus’ career to the impact that it would have on nations around the planet long after the Branch had completed that career. No one else back then, except for Isaiah and his squad, was betting that the die would be cast in that direction. And Isaiah explicitly timed the cresting of the Branch’s impact to that of another global current – the regathering of the Jews back to Israel and the resultant upheavals and bitter conflicts that this would cause. The two crises dominating our news this week – the grieving over the downing of flight MH17 and the conflict in Gaza/Israel – are vivid illustrations of this remarkable double-edged foresight coming to pass in our time.
Prophetic Overarching Themes, not random sayings
Perhaps you agree with me. Or perhaps you think I am reading way too much into Isaiah. The fact that these themes run through the rest of that squad tips it for me since they form multiple-sourced, consistent themes. Starting with Abraham, then Moses and down to Ezekiel & Jeremiah we see the theme for Israel. Starting at the dawn of human history, again to Abraham & Moses, then to David, Daniel & Zechariah there is a clear theme of a coming redeemer. I did not draw it from one random paragraph of Isaiah. It is like one Mind was writing through this squad of authors. At the minimum it is worth being informed of their themes.
Isaiah, The Branch, You & A Promise
But so what anyways? So what if Isaiah foretold the modern-day re-birth of Israel complete with the turmoil surrounding it? So what if he and the squad foresaw the global veneration (even if only cultural) of the coming Branch – Jesus of Nazareth? What difference does that make to you and me?
Isaiah never claimed to have innate powers of foresight. He was not a clairvoyant. He claimed that God – who created our planet and the universe, who is sovereign over all states, both Jewish and non-Jewish – revealed this to him. And if he was right about these things visible today then we have reason to take him seriously about his Source. He did not only write this little excerpt that we are looking at. He also wrote, as a mouthpiece for this God
“Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters;
and you who have no money, come, buy and eat!…
Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good,
and you will delight in the richest of fare.
Give ear and come to me; listen, that you may live.
I will make an everlasting covenant with you…
Seek the Lord while he may be found; call on him while he is near.
Let the wicked forsake their ways and the unrighteous their thoughts.
Let them turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on them,
and to our God, for he will freely pardon” (Isaiah 55:1-7)
Here is an ongoing invitation, through the pen of this maverick seer that this same God who controls destinies on a global and enduring scale is inviting you and me to come to Him, to listen to Him, receive pardon – and even find Him. If there is even a chance this seer was correct about the global events he foresaw, then he will be right about this invitation for us as well. An invitation on this scale warrants weighing Isaiah and the squad’s ‘Branch’ case. The case can be examined even to textual, historical and prophetic details.
Isaiah & Euphrates River today
Speaking of details, I did not finish this excerpt we started. Right after Isaiah wrote those lines about the Jews returning from world-wide exile while in conflict with those around them, he concluded with:
The Lord will dry up the gulf of the Egyptian sea;
with a scorching wind he will sweep his hand over the Euphrates River.
He will break it up into seven streams so that anyone can cross over in sandals. (Isaiah 11)
That is a rather extreme detail to be projecting down centuries. The reality is that water shortage & drought has become a great concern through that region in the last decades – somewhat in sync with the world-wide return from exile that started in earnest almost 70 years ago. But more recently, since ISIS has taken Northern Syria they control the mid-stream reservoirs of the Euphrates, setting them on a collision course with Turkey which controls the Upper Euphrates. Turkey has just now shut off the taps. While the world has been fixated on MH17 & Israel/Gaza, conflict over Euphrates water, brewing for several years now, has reached new heights as notified in a recent bulletin of the Middle East news outlet Al-Akhbar
The Turkish government recently cut off the flow of the Euphrates River, threatening primarily Syria but also Iraq with a major water crisis. Al-Akhbar found out that the water level in Lake Assad has dropped by about six meters, leaving millions of Syrians without drinking water.
…Violating international norms, the Turkish government recently cut off the water supply of the Euphrates River completely. In fact, Ankara began to gradually reduce pumping Euphrates water about a month and half ago, then cut if off completely two weeks ago, according to information received by Al-Akhbar.
The Euphrates is drying up! Perhaps it would be wise to keep our eyes looking through the lense that this maverick seer and his cohorts penned so many centuries ago that seem to stalk the events occurring in our day.
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:
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 (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-24602273)
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)
 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
Understanding our Times by considering Sam Harris’s Challenge
In my last post I commented on how Ariel Sharon’s funeral making global headlines is eerie when considered from the perspective of the Blessings and Curses on the Jews in the Torah – the Law of Moses. And prior to that I looked at Ezekiel’s (ca. 580 BC) Valley of Dry Bones vision of zombies coming to life as another thread in this theme of the Jewish dispersion and return that cuts continuously through both the Old and New Testaments. The dispersion has happened and the return is happening – the global media is reporting facets of it daily now. Hearing Canadian news coverage this week about Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s state visit to Israel is another example of this playing out on the modern-day global stage.
Well-known skeptic Sam Harris takes issue with this claim of predictive ability of the Biblical writers. Here is his take on the curses/blessings on the Jews given in the Torah:
Christians regularly assert that the bible predicts future historical events, For instance Deuteronomy 28:64 says “And the LORD will scatter you among all peoples, from one end of the earth to the other” … We are meant to believe that these utterances predict the subsequent history of the Jews with such uncanny specificity so as to admit of only a supernatural explanation.
He minimizes the Blessings&Curses by referring to only one phrase in that long discourse and then points out that this one phrase is so vague and unspecific that it hardly merits a supernatural explanation. He then throws out what he thinks is an impossible challenge.:
“But just imagine how breathtakingly specific a work of prophecy would be, if it were actually the product of omniscience. If the Bible were such a book, it would make perfectly accurate predictions about human events. You would expect it to contain a passage such as ‘In the latter half of the 20th century, humankind will develop a globally linked system of computers-the principles of which I set forth in Leviticus-and this system shall be called the internet” The Bible contains nothing like this. In fact, it does not contain a single sentence that could not have been written by a man or woman living in the first century. This should trouble you.” Sam Harris. Letter to a Christian Nation. p.60
Let’s consider this challenge from Harris by unpacking a rather bizarre prophetic foretelling given by Ezekiel around 587 BC. Perhaps also we can understand a little better the times we are living in. Some background in the history of that period may be helpful (link here).
Ezekiel’s Bizarre Drama of the Siege
We have seen how some prophecies, like the Passover and the Sacrifice of Abraham, are riddles that are acted out rather than spoken. Those two point to the death of Jesus by remarkably foretelling both the location and the time of year of that pivotal event. Ezekiel likewise acts a bizarre drama while giving the explanation for it. Here is what he is commanded to do as a prophetic utterance:
4 “Then lie on your left side and put the sin of the house of Israel upon yourself. You are to bear their sin for the number of days you lie on your side. 5 I have assigned you the same number of days as the years of their sin. So for 390 days you will bear the sin of the house of Israel.
6 “After you have finished this, lie down again, this time on your right side, and bear the sin of the house of Judah. I have assigned you 40 days, a day for each year. 7 Turn your face toward the siege of Jerusalem and with bared arm prophesy against her. 8 I will tie you up with ropes so that you cannot turn from one side to the other until you have finished the days of your siege. (Ezekiel 4: 4-8)
Ezekiel was commanded to remain bound on one side and then on the other for over a year! To give a little background, Ezekiel is writing from Babylon just before the Babylonians besiege Jerusalem (thus the reference to a siege). This siege lasted many months but finally Jerusalem was conquered in 586 BC by the Babylonians, the city was burned, the temple destroyed and the Jewish people sent to exile in Babylon. Ezekiel was destined to soon meet the captives brought from the siege of Jerusalem after he had acted out this prophecy.
But why were the Babylonians besieging Jerusalem? They had defeated the Jewish nation in a war in 606 BC and so the Jewish people had, in effect lost their independence that year. Most were permitted to remain in Judah, but some, like Daniel, were sent to Babylon in this first wave of deportation that occurred in 606 BC. The Jews in Jerusalem grudgingly swore allegiance and paid tribute to the Babylonians but then revolted against them. So the Babylonians came and laid siege to Jerusalem, mercilessly crushing it in 586 BC. The kings of David have never reigned again since that day!
Note how Ezekiel referred to the ‘House of Israel’ and the ‘House of Judah’. The Jews after Solomon, around 900 BC, had split into two political countries – Judah and Israel. This was a similar situation to Korea of today, which is one people group that is divided politically into the two countries of North and South Korea. The ‘House of Israel’ had already been conquered as a political entity around 722 BC by the Assyrians.
Unpacking Ezekiel’s Prophecy
In this acted drama, Ezekiel specified that there would be a period of 390 days + 40 days = 430 days, with each day representing a year (v. 5 & 6). So this is explicitly talking about 430 years to pay ‘for sin’. But where does that idea that such a payment for sin is required? The parting Blessings and Curses of Moses had said that if they sinned they would pay for their sin in being exiled from their land. This was the one sentence that Harris quoted. So Ezekiel was now prophesying from this principle rooted in Deuteronomy that they were to enter 430 years of exile.
The 360 day year
While we commonly use the 365.244 day solar year (the Gregorian calendar) there are other ways to denominate a year. Today the Muslim calendar is based on 12 lunar cycles resulting in a 354-day year. In ancient Egyptian, Babylonian, Indian and Greek civilizations a 360-day calendar was common, and it was the year length that Ezekiel’s contemporary, Daniel, used and is the basis of the prophetic year used through the books of the Bible. We will need to convert Ezekiel’s years to our solar years to understand his prophecy with respect to our calendar. But there is another twist to consider first.
Jeremiah’s 70 year prophecy
While Ezekiel was in Babylon prophesying 430 years his contemporary living through the siege in far-away Jerusalem, Jeremiah, had said:
8 Therefore the LORD Almighty says this: “… 11 This whole country will become a desolate wasteland, and these nations will serve the king of Babylon seventy years. 12 “But when the seventy years are fulfilled, I will punish the king of Babylon and his nation, the land of the Babylonians, for their guilt,” declares the LORD, (Jeremiah 25:8-12)
Jeremiah said 70 years … not 430. So which was it – 70 or 430? It turns out that in 539 BC the Babylonians were conquered by a Medo-Persian alliance. This was headed up by King Cyrus of Persia who founded the Persian Empire.
So the exiles of Jerusalem were allowed to return by a famous 538 BC edict of Cyrus, arriving back in 537 BC. From the initial deportation in 606 BC to 537 BC – Jeremiah’s prophecy of destruction of the Babylonians and return to Jerusalem in 70 years was fulfilled. Now this is precise, but not impressive. It would have been easy for editors of Jeremiah after the return from exile, to insert the ‘prophecy’ in his book to make sure a ‘fulfillment’ occurred. Since the earliest existing copies of these books are from the Dead Sea Scrolls from 200-100 BC we can never be sure that it did not happen this way. If this were all we had we would have to concur with Harris that it would be poor evidence of omniscient foretelling.
The Leviticus Principle
But do we not now also have a contradiction between Jeremiah and Ezekiel? They seem to be predicting mutually exclusive things – one an exile of 70 years and the other an exile of 430 years. It would be impossible for both to be right. Or is it? Because if you go to the ‘principles in Leviticus’ that Harris had asked for you will see the following:
if you reject my decrees and abhor my laws and fail to carry out all my commands and so violate my covenant, 16 then I will do this to you: … 17 I will set my face against you so that you will be defeated by your enemies; those who hate you will rule over you, and you will flee even when no one is pursuing you.
18 ” ‘If after all this you will not listen to me, I will punish you for your sins seven timesover.19 I will break down your stubborn pride and make the sky above you like iron and the ground beneath you like bronze…
21 ” ‘If you remain hostile toward me and refuse to listen to me, I will multiply your afflictions seven times over, as your sins deserve…
23 ” ‘If in spite of these things you do not accept my correction but continue to be hostile toward me, 24 I myself will be hostile toward you and will afflict you for your sins seven times over….
27 ” ‘If in spite of this you still do not listen to me but continue to be hostile toward me, 28 then in my anger I will be hostile toward you, and I myself will punish you for your sins seven times over…
40 ” ‘But if they will confess their sins and the sins of their fathers—their treachery against me and their hostility toward me, 41 which made me hostile toward them so that I sent them into the land of their enemies—then when their uncircumcised hearts are humbled and they pay for their sin, 42I will remember my covenant with Jacob and my covenant with Isaac and my covenant with Abraham, and I will remember the land. 43 For the land will be deserted by them and will enjoy its sabbaths while it lies desolate without them. They will pay for their sins because they rejected my laws and abhorred my decrees. (Leviticus 26: 14-43)
Here the LORD was saying, like in the Curses of Deuteronomy, that if they did not obey the Law they would be defeated by their enemies who would rule over them (v. 17). These provided the context for Jeremiah’s declaration of a 70 year exile which started with the first Babylonian deportation (606 BC) and ended when a Jewish remnant returned back to their land in 537 BC.
Then v 18 says ‘If after all this…’ (i.e. the chain of events from disobedience, conquest, exile and return) they still remained ‘hostile’ to God and did not ‘listen’ to his commands the punishment for sins would be multiplied seven times over. It is repeated explicitly in v. 21, 23 and 28. Events unfolded just that way. The Jewish people were supposed to return to renew their hearts which they never really did. Only a small remnant returned … they struggled for years to be motivated to rebuild the Temple which they grudgingly accomplished but few were interested in putting out the effort … Nehemiah brought another group 80 years later when the edict to rebuild Jerusalem was issued (which started the clock ticking to the coming of the Messiah). But as a people they continued to basically pursue their own interests, and are castigated by Nehemiah for the exploitation of the poor and intermarriage while Malachi (the last Old Testament book) is an impassioned plea for them to remain faithful in their marriage covenants and in their offerings to God, which they did not do. They remained hostile to Him.
So their punishment, according to the principle in Leviticus, was to be multiplied seven times over. Only after the full seven-times payment is made would God remember the covenant he had made with Isaac, Abraham and the land (v.42). What was that covenant? God had promised Abraham and Isaac that he would give them the land. In other words, only after the full seven-fold payment was made would they be allowed to claim and rule that land that God had originally promised to the Jewish patriarchs. When they returned by Cyrus’s Edict they only did so as a small vassal province in the Persian Empire. The Persians still ruled the land.
Leviticus, Jeremiah & Ezekiel Converge – in Modern Day History
With the insight gained from our ‘principle in Leviticus’ we can understand Ezekiel’s prophecy. He had predicted 430 years of exile for their sin. They paid 70 years (as per Jeremiah) which brought the ‘debt’ down to 430 – 70 = 360 years. This remainder was multiplied by seven (as per Leviticus) to get: 360 * 7 = 2520 years.
Let us now convert these to our solar years and put it on a timeline.
The Babylonian exile lasted from 606 BC -> 537 BC = 69 years. This was exactly as specified by Jeremiah if we convert his timeframe into solar years (70 years * 360/365.2422 = 69 Gregorian solar years of Jeremiah’s exile).
Ezekiel’s remaining seven-fold years would be:
2520 years * 360/365.2422 = 2484 Gregorian solar years of Ezekiel’s exile
Adding 2484 years to 537 BC (when the exiles returned and this seven-fold period started) we come to 1948 AD.
So what happened in 1948? That was the year Israel was re-born as a modern nation – an independent and self-ruled Jewish country. For the first time in 2500 years Jews had claim to their own country again. When Israel declared independence in 1948 it was immediately attacked by five surrounding nations. I know of no other nation in history surviving such a multi-front war within days of its birth. Ariel Sharon, whose funeral was marked just last week was one whose brazen military exploits were instrumental ensuring that it did survive. But even more remarkable, Ezekiel, with some ‘principles from Leviticus’, saw it 2500 years ago!
So let’s reflect. Sam Harris challenged the Bible to predict something for “the latter half of the 20th century”, using “principles from Leviticus”, and doing so would show it to be a “product of omniscience”. Harris leveled a prophetic challenge because he figured it was so impossible to meet that he never actually did his homework to check it. He thought that ‘within half a century’ was impossible enough to stymie all attempts. Ezekiel, with some principles from Leviticus, was bang on to the year starting about 2500 years ago, in predicting the re-birth of Israel in 1948, and in the process, managed to resolve a seemingly intractable contradiction with Jeremiah. I’d say that is pretty good. At the very least, whether we are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, atheist or something else this is something worth being informed about even as we all weigh the implications of this differently. In my next post I’d like to consider the confessions of Alan Greenspan, former chairman of the US Federal Reserve, as someone worth hearing out as you weigh the implications of Ezekiel’s (with some principles from Leviticus) uncanny abilities.
 537 BC is like -537. So -537 + 2484 + 1 = 1948 (the +1 is because there is no 0 on this number line, it goes from -1 to +1 (1 BC –> 1 AD) – in an interval of 1
We are now in the time of year where the stores are full of costumes of the dead, of spirits, of witches and the like. Yes, Halloween is coming and for many it’s the time to have cheeky fun at parties with role-plays or costumes of skeletons coming to life, or dead bodies walking around, all in good fun. Michael Jackson’s Thriller will be played, watched and danced to around the globe, because it’s perfect for Halloween.
But long before Thriller was conceived, and even long before Halloween itself was celebrated, an eccentric man penned some vivid images that fit perfectly for Halloween of today. One can’t help but wonder if Michael Jackson had not read these lines as he choreographed Thriller – yet they were written about 2500 years ago!
The Valley of Dry Bones (with skeletons and corpses too)
This eccentric man was given a tour in a valley ‘filled with bones’. Read how he described it:
… the bones covered the valley floor. They were scattered everywhere across the ground and were completely dried out. … Suddenly as I spoke, there was a rattling noise all across the valley. The bones of each body came together and attached themselves as complete skeletons. Then as I watched, muscles and flesh formed over the bones. Then skin formed to cover their bodies, but they still had no breath in them…. Then he said … “Come, O breath, from the four winds” … They all came to life and stood up on their feet—a great army.
A man whisked away to a valley full of bones which start to rattle and hum as they join together forming skeletons … and then dead flesh and skin starts to envelope the lifeless skeletons so that they become corpses. Then the wind blows wildly from all directions and the bodies all come to life and they stand up to become a great army.
This sounds like a script from a horror movie ready to open up at Halloween!
The Valley of Dry Bones – the Eternal Spirit’s prophetic message through Ezekiel
But the man who wrote this script was not interested in sending shivers down our spines. He was engaged in something much more serious. He claimed that this script was a message from God Himself. And remarkably, the events of history have played out such that this message was meant for us who are living today! How so?
The man in question is Ezekiel who lived ca. 550 BC and along with this vision (from Ezekiel 37 – read complete chapter here) he explicitly provided its meaning. He wrote:
Then [God] said to me, “… these bones represent the people of Israel. … I will open your graves of exile and cause you to rise again. Then I will bring you back to the land of Israel…. Then you will know that I, the LORD, have spoken, and I have done what I said. Yes, the LORD has spoken!’”
… I will gather the people of Israel from among the nations. I will bring them home to their own land from the places where they have been scattered. I will unify them into one nation on the mountains of Israel. One king will rule them all; no longer will they be divided into two nations or into two kingdoms. They will never again pollute themselves with their idols and vile images and rebellion, for I will save them from their sinful backsliding. I will cleanse them. Then they will truly be my people, and I will be their God. (Ezekiel 37:11-23)
In other words these bones that Ezekiel saw in a vision 2500 years ago represented the Jewish people. This is not my interpretation – Ezekiel explicitly said so himself. When Ezekiel wrote these words the Jews had previously been divided into two political nations but had now gone into exile to Babylon as a conquered and ruined people. Just as every bone, by definition, has previously been a living organ in a living body, but is now ‘dead’, the Jews of that day saw themselves as formerly alive but now ‘dead bones’. Then Ezekiel had this vision of their eventual return to life. The Jews in his day did return from the Babylonian exile a few decades after his vision, but he was not writing of that since it was a return only from Babylon, and they returned only as a province dominated within a vast Empire. They did not come alive as a nation.
The Return of the Jews
In his vision Ezekiel foresaw a return from the ‘nations’ and ‘places where they had been scattered’ back to that same land that they had been ejected from, where they would be ‘one nation’ with their own ‘king’ or ruler. That did not happen until thousands of years later when the modern state of Israel was forged from a United Nations resolution in 1948. Only then did the Jews finally get a self-governing nation with their own ruler. In the intervening decades Jews have literally been returning (which they call aliyah) from ‘nations’ all over the world where they have lived since being sent into their second exile beginning when the Romans conquered Jerusalem in 70 AD. Since 1948 more than 3 million Jews from over 90 countries (which is almost half of all the countries in the world) have arrived in Israel. For a nation of 7 million people, having 40% of the population immigrate from almost half the countries of our globe in the span of 65 years, after an exile of 1900 years, is nothing short of remarkable. What is even more remarkable is that Ezekiel ‘saw’ it in his vision 2500 years ago.
The Return – in context of Jewish History
The timeline below showing the last 3500 years of Jewish history illustrates this. Starting from the time of Moses the Jews have alternated between three different national dispensations indicated by the different color coding.
In the yellow periods, the Jews lived in the land promised to Abraham, but were not self-ruled from Jerusalem, their traditional capital. The first yellow period, that of the Judges, saw the Jewish people live independent from foreign powers, but without centralized rule, and with no Jerusalem.
This was followed by the green period, the golden age of Jewish history, where the dynasty of kings descending from David ruled from Jerusalem. But this ended in disaster when the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and forced the Jews into exile in Babylon – the first red period. This is the time that Ezekiel lived (as well as Jeremiah and Daniel), and the time when the Jewish people saw themselves as ‘dead bones’. Though they did return after a 70 year exile, they were not self-ruled from an independent Jerusalem. Rather they were provinces dominated within the successive Persian, Greek and Roman Empires. They were back to ‘yellow’.
This continued for over 500 years and ended when the Jews revolted against Roman rule but lost the revolt. Jerusalem was once again burned and destroyed, and the Romans this time exiled the survivors across the many nations in the larger Roman world. They were back to ‘red’ and they lived this way for almost 1900 years.
‘Dead Bones’ Coming Alive in Front of our Eyes
Until our day! With the re-birth in 1948 the dead bones started to rattle together into skeletons. With the subsequent gain of Jerusalem in 1967 as their capital, flesh and skin started to envelope the skeletons. And now every year thousands of Jews are returning from all the nations around the world. They are returning and making deserts bloom into lush farmland; they are returning and rebuilding ruined cities; they are learning Hebrew their ancient tongue; and more and more are considering again their ancient God revealed in the Hebrew Old Testament as Elohim and as YHWH. We can see the dead zombie coming back to life in front of our eyes, in the stages envisioned by Ezekiel those thousands of years ago. And just like Ezekiel described, it is happening with all the confusion, splitting and dividing between peoples, like the violence caused by the rushing of the ‘four winds’ of the compass. If you doubt me, just listen to the world news.
Isaiah predicts the Jewish renaissance too
It was not just Ezekiel who predicted this. Another Old Testament prophet, Isaiah, about two hundred years before Ezekiel saw that same day when (as he put it):
In that day the Lord will reach out his hand a second time to bring back the remnant of his people— those who remain in Assyria and northern Egypt; in southern Egypt, Ethiopia, and Elam; in Babylonia, Hamath, and all the distant coastlands.
He will raise a flag among the nations and assemble the exiles of Israel. He will gather the scattered people of Judah from the ends of the earth. (Isaiah 11:12-13)
Notice how Isaiah (see where he sits on the timeline) saw past the first time the remnant of exiles came back (the end of the first short red period) and predicted specifically of a second time when the remnants would be regathered “from the end of the earth”. He saw the end of the second ‘red’ period – the very period in which you and I are now living and can see unfolding with our own eyes.
So how did Ezekiel and Isaiah foresee this so spot on? How did Isaiah even know there was going to be a ‘second’ regathering? How could they foreknow that the Jewish people would survive as a distinct people group while living as exiles in these nations around the world? After all, I see here in Canada how the many immigrants lose their ethnic and language identity after only about three generations. The Jews kept theirs for millennia. Against those odds, the promise of an enduring people which was given to Abraham should long ago have been snuffed out.
Perhaps it really is true that this Elohim or YHWH, who, according to Ezekiel, gave this vision of dry bones, really is there, watching, working, and willing that things will unfold as He promised, even as it seems so impossible. The thought that that Spirit may really be working in our midst in just this way is almost spooky.
Sam Harris objects
But some of those who have reflected on this are unconvinced. Prominent among them is Sam Harris. Here is how he phrases his objection:
“But just imagine how breathtakingly specific a work of prophecy would be, if it were actually the product of omniscience. If the Bible were such a book, it would make perfectly accurate predictions about human events. You would expect it to contain a passage such as ‘In the latter half of the 20th century, humankind will develop a globally linked system of computers-the principles of which I set forth in Leviticus-and this system shall be called the internet” The Bible contains nothing like this. In fact, it does not contain a single sentence that could not have been written by a man or woman living in the first century. This should trouble you.” Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation. p.60
Harris derides the prophetic foretelling in the Bible as being merely coincidental. In his view, if you ‘predict’ something vague enough (regathering of Jews to Abraham’s Promised Land), eventually it will happen. He would be impressed if Ezekiel had predicted by timing it in the 20th century and linked that prediction back to Leviticus. That would be a Sign of Real Omniscience!
Unfortunately for Harris, he has not done his homework. Because Ezekiel, in another really bizarre setting, does make a timing prediction – to the 20th century – and, almost as if there is some Divine humor in addressing Harris’s taunt, links it back to … you guessed it – Leviticus. How? What kind of timing? We pick it up in a later post, and when you see it, it’ll send a shiver down your spine better than any scary Halloween spectacle can.
In my last few posts I have looked at how mankind and Lucifer fell from their initial created state. I then used the story of Pinocchio that has helped me to visualize and understand what God was hoping for His creation. But hope is one thing, an executed plan is another. Jepetto (the creator in Pinocchio) did not have a plan to redeem Pinocchio (it happened apart from him), and here the Pinocchio analogy falls short. In the Biblical account, God has a plan that He will execute. This plan has two parts: A Promise and a Curse. Here I look at the Promise and later I look at the Curse.
The Bible – Really a Library
To appreciate the significance of this Promise we must know some basic things about the Bible. Though it is a book, and we think of it as such, it is actually more accurate to think of it as a mobile library. This is because it is a collection of books, written by a diverse set of authors, over a time span that exceeds 1500 years, which today is bound up into one volume. This fact alone makes the Bible unique among the Great Books of the world. The different books of the Bible make statements, declarations and predictions that later books pick up on. If the Bible was written by just one author, or a group of authors that knew each other that should not cause us to take note. But the authors of the Bible are separated by hundreds and even thousands of years, writing in different civilizations, languages, social strata, and literary genres – yet their messages, allusions and predictions are picked up seamlessly by later authors or are fulfilled through facts of history verifiable outside the Bible. This makes the Bible unique on a whole different level – and knowing that we should take note. Existing manuscript copies of these books are dated to about 200 BC so the textual base of the Bible is better, by far, than all other ancient books of the world.
I gave a public presentation recently entitled Does God Exist? at McMaster University and will upload the whole presentation shortly. But I have included the first 10 minutes in the video clip below which covers the diversity of authors and the manuscript texts of the books in the Bible. View it to better appreciate the points I am making above.
The Gospel Promise in the Garden
We see this foreshadowing ability clearly in the Creation and Fall account right at the beginning of the book of Genesis in the Bible. In other words, though it is recounting the Beginning, it was written with the End in view. Here we see a Promise when God confronts Satan (Lucifer) and speaks to him in a riddle:
“… and I (God) will put enmity between you (Satan) and the woman and between your offspring and hers. He will crush your head and you will strike his heel.” (Genesis 3:15)
This is a Promise in riddle form – but it is understandable. Reading carefully you will see that there are five different characters mentioned and that this is prophetic in that it is looking forward-in-time (seen by the repeated use of ‘will’ as in future tense). The characters are:
Satan (or Lucifer)
The offspring of the woman
The offspring of Satan
And the riddle predicts how these characters will relate to each other in the future. This is shown below
God will orchestrate that both Satan and the woman will have an ‘offspring’. There will be ‘enmity’ or hatred between these offspring and between the woman and Satan. Satan will ‘strike the heel’ of the offspring of the woman while the offspring of the woman will ‘crush the head’ of Satan.
Deductions on the Offspring – a ‘he’
So far we have just made observations directly from the text. Now for some reasoned deductions. Because the ‘offspring’ of the woman is referred to as a ‘he’ and a ‘his’ we know that it is a single male human – a man. With that we can discard some possible interpretations. As a ‘he’ the offspring is not a ‘she’ and thus cannot be a woman – but the ‘he’ comes from a woman. As a ‘he’ the offspring is not a ‘they’, which it could have plausibly been, perhaps a group of people, or a race, or a team, or a nation. At various times and in various ways people have thought that a ‘they’ would be the answer. But the offspring, being a ‘he’ is NOT a group of people whether that refers to a nation or those of a certain religion as in Jews, Christians or Muslims etc. As a ‘he’ the offspring is not an ‘it’ (the offspring is a person). This eliminates the possibility that the offspring is a particular philosophy, teaching, technology, political system, or religion. An ‘it’ of these kinds would probably have been, and still is, our preferred choice to fix the world. We think that what will fix our situation is some kind of ‘it’, so the best of human thinkers through the centuries have advocated different political systems, educational systems, technologies, religions etc. But in this Promise the compass is pointed in a totally different direction. God had something else in mind – a ‘he’. And this ‘he’ would crush the head of the serpent.
Another interesting observation comes from what is not said. God does not promise the man an offspring like he promises the woman (we will see further what He promises there in the Curse). This is quite extraordinary especially given the emphasis of sons coming through fathers throughout the Bible. In fact, one criticism of the genealogies in the Bible by modern Westerners is that they ignore the blood lines that go through women. It is ‘sexist’ in our eyes because it just considers sons of men. But in this case here it is different – there is no promise of an offspring (a ‘he’) coming from a man. It says only that there will be an offspring coming from the woman, without mentioning a man.
Out of all the humans that have ever existed that I can think of, historically or mythically, only two have never had a physical father (this includes the Greek demi-gods who were sired by ‘gods’ like Zeus being with mortal women). The first was Adam, created directly by God. The second was Jesus who (the New Testament claim goes) was born of a virgin – thus no human father. Is Jesus being foreshadowed here in this riddle? This fits with the observation that the offspring is a ‘he’, not a ‘she’, ‘they’ or ‘it’. With that perspective, if you read the riddle some pieces fall into place.
‘Strike his Heel’??
But what does it mean that the serpent would strike ‘his heel’? I could never see it until I worked in the jungles of Cameroon. We had to wear thick rubber boots even in the humid heat – because the snakes there lay in the long grass and would strike your foot – i.e. your heel – and that would kill you. My first day there I almost stepped on a snake, and could have died from it. The riddle made sense to me after that. The ‘he’ would destroy the serpent, but the price he would have to pay, would be that he would be killed. That does foreshadow the victory achieved through the death of Jesus.
The offspring of the Serpent?
But who is his other protagonist, this offspring of Satan? Though we do not have space here to trace it out exhaustively, the later books speak of a coming person. Note the descriptions:
“… when their sin is at its height, a fierce king, a master of intrigue, will rise to power. He will become very strong, but not by his own power. He will cause a shocking amount of destruction and succeed in everything he does. He will destroy powerful leaders and devastate the holy people. He will be a master of deception and will become arrogant; he will destroy many without warning. He will even take on the Prince of princes in battle, but he will be broken, though not by human power. (Daniel 8: 23-25; written by Daniel in Babylon ca 550 BC)
A man, with an invisible power behind him will challenge the ‘Prince of princes’ but his head too ‘will be crushed’.
Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him … Don’t let anyone deceive you in any way, for that day will not come until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the man doomed to destruction. He will oppose and will exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshiped, so that he sets himself up in God’s temple, proclaiming himself to be God. (2 Thessalonians 2:1-4; written by Paul in Greece ca 50 AD)
Hmm … sounds like an echo of Lucifer’s challenge at the dawn of time. The old saying, ‘the apple does not fall far from the tree’ may apply here. And the last book in the Bible, many pages and thousands of years removed from the Promise in Genesis, predicts:
The beast, which you saw, once was, now is not, and will come up out of the Abyss and go to his destruction. The inhabitants of the earth whose names have not been written in the book of life from the creation of the world will be astonished when they see the beast, because he once was, now is not, and yet will come. This calls for a mind with wisdom. (Revelation 17:8-9; written by John on an island off Turkey ca 90 AD)
These later books (again note the diversity of authors, settings and eras they were written in) more explicitly speak of a countdown to a clash between the offspring of the woman and Satan’s offspring. But it is first mentioned in embryo-like form in this Promise of Genesis, at the very beginning of Biblical History, with details waiting to be filled in. So the climax of history, the countdown to a final contest between Satan and God, started long ago in the Garden is foreseen at that same beginning – the earliest Book. It could almost make one think that history is really His-Story.
Click here to see & hear a video presentation on this in a Christmas context.
In our modern information age we are rather inundated every day by so many ‘facts’ that we have difficulty in keeping track of them. So when is a ‘fact’ something significant that we should pay attention to, and when is it just trivial information? In Session 8: The Return of the King I mention the many facts that are used by scientists, through reason and observation, to make forecasts and predictions about the future. But sometimes, the significance of the facts escapes even the experts. I read not long ago that there are about 10 000 fully qualified (i.e. PhD and Dr.) economists who advise all the rest of the world (governments, banks, investors, your retirement funds) using economic facts to gain insight into future trends. Yet in spite of this impressive array of educated people who ask us to trust them with our economic well-being barely a handful of them ‘saw’ the housing market crash coming in the US in 2008. And even fewer ‘saw’ it coming like a crash. And very few ‘saw’ the glaring contradictions buried in the Euro when the currency was launched with such fanfare and confidence inspired by the best of human wisdom only a decade ago. The meanings of facts are often missed even by the best of us.
Puzzles at Jesus’ Trial
So it is with the trial of Jesus. Many people have seen the trial depicted in a film or read it in one of the gospel accounts. Yet very few seem to have noticed the paradoxes embedded in his trial, let alone grasped the meaning of them. There are several, but for now I would like to draw our attention to one in particular. Here is the trial of Jesus before the Sanhedrin (Jewish court in that day) recorded in the Gospel of Luke.
At daybreak the council of the elders of the people, both the chief priests and teachers of the law, met together, and Jesus was led before them. “If you are the Christ,‖they said, “tell us.”
Jesus answered, “If I tell you, you will not believe me, and if I asked you, you would not answer. But from now on, the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the mighty God.”
They all asked, “Are you then the Son of God?” He replied, “You are right in saying I am.”
Then they said, “Why do we need any more testimony? We have heard it from his own lips.” (Luke 22: 66-71)
Notice how in this exchange Jesus does not answer their question about his being the ‘Christ’. Instead, he refers to his being something totally different – the ‘Son of Man’. But his accusers don’t seem puzzled by that abrupt change of topic. For some reason they seem to understand him, though opposed, even though he does not answer their question about being the ‘Christ’. So why? And where does the ‘Son of Man’ expression come from and what does it mean?
The ‘Son of Man’
Some digging through biblical history reveals the answer. ‘Son of man’ comes from Daniel in the Old Testament who records a vision explicitly about the future, referencing a ‘son of man’. Here is how Daniel (ca 550 BC) recorded his vision:
As I looked, thrones were set in place, and the Ancient of Days took his seat. His clothing was as white as snow; the hair of his head was white like wool. His throne was flaming with fire, and its wheels were all ablaze. A river of fire was flowing, coming out from before him. Thousands upon thousands attended him; ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him. The court was seated, and the books were opened…
In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed. (Daniel 7:9-14)
In other words, the son of man depicted by Daniel was a powerful figure from heaven who would establish an eternal Kingdom that would encompass all peoples. Now reflect for a moment on the irony of the situation at Jesus’ trial. Here is Jesus, a peasant carpenter living in the backwater of the Roman Empire, with a ragtag following of lowly fishermen who at his recent arrest had just deserted him in terror, and he is now on a trial for his life. By referring to himself as the son of man he is calmly claiming before Caiaphas (High Priest back then) and his other accusers to be that person Daniel predicted. But Daniel wrote of the son of man ‘coming on the clouds of heaven’, taking world-wide authority and establishing a kingdom that would never end! That could not be more different from the actual situation that Jesus found himself in at his trial. It would seem almost ludicrous to bring up that title with him being in that situation.
Luke is guilty too
And yet it is not only Jesus doing this because Luke also does not shy away from recording this claim even though even at the time of his writing the prospects for Jesus and his fledgling movement would have appeared laughable to any knowledgeable reader of that day. In the decade of the 60’s in the first century when the Gospel of Luke was written, the movement was ridiculed by the elite, disdained by the Jews, and ruthlessly persecuted by the insane Roman Emperor Nero. Nero had the Apostle Peter crucified upside-down and Paul beheaded. It should seem beyond sane reason that Luke would keep that fantastic reference in the mouth of Jesus – and by writing it make it public for all their detractors to scoff at. But Luke was confident that Jesus of Nazareth was this same son of man of Daniel 7, and so, against all seeming odds, he records Jesus’ irrational (if it were not true) exchange with his accusers.
‘Son of Man’ – being fulfilled in our time
Now consider something. After Jesus gave his reply, and centuries after Luke recorded it in writing, some significant parts of the Daniel 7 son of man have clearly and identifiably been fulfilled by Jesus of Nazareth. Notice how Daniel 7 states of the son of man that “all peoples, nations, and men of every language worshiped him”. Though that was not true of Jesus two thousand years ago – look around now! Peoples from every nation and practically every language (and there are thousands of these) do worship him today. This includes former animists from the Amazon to Papua New Guinea, the jungles of India to Cambodia; Inuit in Greenland and the Arctic; from East to West and North to South this is happening right now on a global scale. For no one in all of recorded history is this even remotely plausible – except that very same Jesus of Nazareth. One may dismiss this with a ‘yes well that is due to the spread of Christianity’. Sure, hindsight is 20-20 but Luke would have had no human way to know how things were going to unfold in the centuries after 62 AD when he authored his book.
And worship, to be real worship, can only be given by a free will, not under coercion or by bribery. If Jesus was the son of man with Heaven at his command then he would have had the power back then to pick up rule by force, but by force he would never have been able to get true worship out of people. For that to happen people must be freely won over; wooed like a maiden by her lover. Thus for the complete prediction of Daniel 7 to even conceivably be fulfilled it requires a time of free and open invitation. This explains the period we now live in, between the First Coming and the Return of the King. This is a time when people can learn about and then freely choose whether they will worship him or not, and its partial fulfillment in our recent times is an indicator or sign that there is a basis to trust that the rest of it will also be fulfilled someday. At the very least it should raise our curiosity to see how the complete picture of the Coming King is woven through the Bible
And this is so relevant for you and me. Because if the rest of it does come true it will, in effect, smash our lives – in such a bigger way than the economic crash 2008 and its aftermath that is now concerning so many. So for the next while I hope you will join with me in tracing the development of the themes that Jesus referenced in the Old Testament, that pointed to his First Coming and also to his Return as a King. These themes are fascinating, are not difficult to follow, and in understanding them could open your eyes to see Jesus differently than you may ever have seen him.