In my previous post I’ve stated my thesis:
Biblical prophecy is intentionally designed to be difficult to understand before the time of fulfillment—but to be quite clear afterwards.
Let me explain my basis for concluding that.
To begin with, this principle is directly stated in both Testaments.
In the Old Testament, we find a description of Daniel receiving a prophecy:
1 At that time shall arise Michael, the great prince who has charge of your people. And there shall be a time of trouble, such as never has been since there was a nation till that time. But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone whose name shall be found written in the book. 2 And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. 3 And those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky above; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever (Dan 12.1-3).
Daniel is then told to “shut up the words and seal the book, until the time of the end” (Dan 12.4). So God’s intention, in this case, is that the prophecy not be generally distributed. So far, so good.
Then Daniel sees a vision of two men, one of whom asks the other, “How long shall it be till the end of these wonders?” (Dan 12.6b). To which the other responds
that it would be for a time, times, and half a time, and that when the shattering of the power of the holy people comes to an end all these things would be finished (Dan 12.7b).
Perhaps your immediate response is, “Huh?” “Time, times, and a half a time?” What kind of an answer is that? What does it mean?
Well, you’re in good company, because Daniel himself thought the same thing (Dan 12.8a), and he asked for an explanation (Dan 12.8b). And he was told, “Go your way, Daniel, for the words are shut up and sealed until the time of the end” (Dan 12.9).
In other words, “Never mind; I’m not going to tell you.”
And Daniel is the prophet!
And why is the meaning withheld from the very one who’s supposed to write about it?
Because it’s not for now; it’s for later.
None of your business.
Well, that’s intriguing. God has no intention that anyone, including even the prophet, should understand the prophecy at the time it was given. No one will understand it until it’s fulfilled. Then they’ll understand.
And that’s what God intended all along.
Well, that’s Old Testament. Got anything from the New Testament?
Well, as it happens, I do. Thanks for asking.
In his first epistle, Peter describes the glories of our salvation and the plan of God that brought it about. Along the way he notes that the Old Testament prophets weren’t able to understand those things the way we have been able to (1P 1.10). Specifically, he says, they were puzzled by the apparent conflict between the reigning King, the eternal Son of David (2Sam 7), and the suffering Servant, who was executed without a defense (Isa 53). How could both of those be true of the same person? (1P 1.11).
And Peter notes that God revealed to them “that they were serving not themselves but [us],” who would come later and see those prophecies fulfilled (1P 1.12).
So in these cases, God clearly intended the predictions to be obscure, puzzling.
I should say that I don’t think this was always the case. When Jeremiah prophesied that Judah would be in captivity in Babylon for 70 years (Jer 25.11) and would then return (Jer 29.10), he understood what he was saying, and he intended his hearers to understand as well. He even bought a piece of land and buried the deed (Jer 32.9-15) to show them the kind of confidence that they should have in the Lord’s keeping of this promise.
But it was not at all uncommon for God to give a prophecy that seemed incomprehensible at the time, and he did so intentionally.
Next time we’ll look at an example of such a puzzling prophecy, one that has since been fulfilled. By studying that example we’ll be able to see more concretely how confusing such a prophecy would be initially, but how perfectly clear it would at the time of fulfillment. And that insight may help us understand why God is speaking so obscurely in the first place.