The subject of prophecy is central to any major religion and this is certainly true of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Woven throughout its holy book are prophetic words which take many different forms but all share one thing in common. Whatever the content of the message, they all represent heaven’s effort to relay something to mortals far below on earth.
Prophecy can take the form of encouraging words. Over and over again we see the message “Be not afraid” (e.g. Luke 1:30) throughout both Old and New Testaments to strengthen the faith of those who were being tested. Angels who transmitted such messages would also remind their charges that God was with them like the angel who said to Gideon the Judge, “The Lord is with you, mighty warrior.” (Judges 6:12)
As we are well aware, prophecy also is present in the scriptures in the form of commandments. The Law given to Moses on Mount Sinai would certainly fall under this umbrella as would any divine ordinance or instruction. Whenever someone has been told what to do like Moses who was commanded to lead the children of Israel out of Egypt or Samuel who was told to anoint David as king we have examples of prophecy.
But prophecy can also appear in the shape of revelation, the communication to mortals of things that they wouldn’t otherwise know. The Trinitarian verses that we find particularly in the New Testament such as “Baptize them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19) relay to us that God is three-in-one, an idea that wouldn’t be readily apparent through nature.
It is through the medium of prophecy that we also learn intimate things like how God feels about certain matters. The prophet Zephaniah described how much God delighted in his people Israel saying, “He will rejoice over you with singing.” (Zephaniah 3:17) And of course we remember Jesus’ reflection on the heart of God when he expressed how he longed to gather the people of Jerusalem together as a hen gathers her chicks. (Matthew 23:37)
All of these examples are very prevalent modes of prophecy that we would recognize, yet it is one other form that we first think of when the term is mentioned. Though prophecy can be encouragement, commandments, revelations, and the communication of God’s feelings, what everyone usually identifies with prophecy is the most popular sense of the word we call prediction.
The study of prophecy most often takes the form of prognostication, the foretelling of the future which needless to say fascinates us more than anything else. The bible is filled with many predictions interspersed among the other modes of prophecy we have briefly highlighted. The student of the bible cannot help but be impressed by the many prophecies of future events that have come to pass often in a very specific way. From the words of Daniel who forecast with great detail the Greek Empire of Alexander the Great to the hundreds of Messianic predictions throughout the Old Testament, there is more than enough evidence to believe in divine inspiration. Perhaps we are most enamored by the predictive side of prophecy if not for anything else than it strengthens our faith.
While there are many prophecies that we can nod our heads at, there are also a number of others that are a little more bewildering. Some predictions have not yet come to pass, have been only partially fulfilled, and in some cases have apparently even failed altogether. What are we to do with those prophecies that might have missed the mark? Rather than sweep them under the rug as an aberration, we can consider them in some more detail and take a closer look at the subject of predictive prophecy in an attempt to explain what critics would outright call prophetic errors.
We can work our way throughout the Old Testament citing a number of apparent, if not real prophetic failures. Beginning in Genesis, a divine promise is made to Abraham: “Lift up your eyes from where you are and look north and south, east and west. All the land that you see I will give to you and your offspring forever. I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth, so that if anyone could count the dust, then your offspring could be counted.” (Genesis 13:14-16) It would be clear that the children of Israel did claim the land of Canaan as the prophecy foretold, but the problem in the text is the word forever. Anyone with a little knowledge of history knows that the Jews ultimately got booted out of Canaan by the Romans and for the past 2000 years have been exiled from their homeland.
An equally difficult series of passages gets us stuck on the same word. David was certainly a man after God’s own heart and the bible speaks well of him almost all of the time. The prophet Nathan addressed David and predicted, “Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever.” (2 Sam 7:12-16) What’s more, the Psalmist and the prophet Jeremiah said the same thing. (Psalm 89:3-4, 34-37 & Jeremiah 33:17) Yet, history has clearly shown us that the Davidic kingdom came to an end with the Babylonian Exile, and though there was a brief Jewish kingdom before the coming of the Romans it was certainly not of David’s line. Since the time of the Romans there has been naturally no kingdom at all, for the Jews have lived scattered among the nations without a leader of their own.
We proceed to an even more difficult passage than these concerning one of the less than faithful kings of Judah known as Ahaz. In the 8th century B.C., this king of Judah had become very fearful of the power of his northern neighbors, the kingdoms of Aram and of Israel. In a word of comfort, the prophet Isaiah said to him, “Be careful, keep calm, and don’t be afraid because of these two smoldering stubs of firewood (the kings of Aram and Israel.) [They] have plotted your ruin saying, ‘Let us invade Judah; let us tear it apart and divide it among ourselves.’ Yet this is what the Sovereign Lord says, ‘It will not take place, it will not happen.’” (Isaiah 7:3-7)
Perhaps Ahaz breathed a sigh of relief at this message. But if he had any faith at all, it was probably undone not so many years later, because we are told about the unfortunate events that happened to him and his kingdom in the Book of Chronicles. It is recorded, “The Lord his God handed him over to the king of Aram. The Arameans defeated him and took many of his people as prisoners and brought them to Damascus. He was also given into the hands of the king of Israel, who inflicted heavy casualties on him. In one day [the king of Israel] killed 120,000 soldiers in Judah.” (2 Chronicles 28:5-6) It is not clear if the editors of the Old Testament noticed the tension between these two passages, but we are left to wrestle with what seems like a major prophetic failure.
The Major Prophets also present puzzling predictions to us regarding the aftermath of the exile. Babylon was God’s instrument of punishment upon the people of Judah, but after it had accomplished this task, the prophets indicate that God was going to punish it as well. Both Jeremiah and Isaiah say this in their writings. The latter predicted, “Babylon … will be overthrown by God like Sodom and Gomorrah. She will never be inhabited or lived in through all generations; no Arab will pitch his tent there, no shepherd will rest his flocks there.” (Isaiah 13:19-20) But while the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah has been without question a heap of rubble for thousands of years, we cannot say the same for the great Babylonian Empire. If only this prophecy had been fulfilled we might have averted all of the struggles in modern times with the Gulf Wars and now ISIS. Historically it seems that there hasn’t been a time that this epicenter of civilization, the so called Fertile Crescent has not been inhabited. After the Babylonian Empire crumbled, the Medes and Persians took over and then it was under the domain of Alexander the Great. In New Testament times it was part of the Sasanian Empire and then during Europe’s Dark Ages it became the cultural and intellectual center of Islam – the Baghdad of 1001 Arabian nights. At least in some sense, the major Jewish prophets missed the mark on this one.
The same can be said of the city of Tyre for whom Ezekiel prophesied, “I will make you a bare rock, and you will become a place to spread fishnets. You will never be rebuilt.” (Ezekiel 26:14, 21) Yet both Tyre and the nearby biblical city of Sidon were alive and well at the time of Jesus, for he visited the region during his ministry and healed a Syrophoenician woman there.
While these prophecies are a bit confounding, we must ultimately wrestle with perhaps the biggest flop of them all found in the story of Jonah. This well known tale begins with God’s call for Jonah to preach to the Ninevites whose sin had gotten his attention. After some initial resistance on the part of Jonah and a three day detour inside of a whale, he finally came to the city and cooperated with the mission he was given. He went throughout the city and proclaimed, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.” (Jonah 3:4) After giving that message, the people repented of their sins and God decided to spare the city so that the foretold calamity never materialized. Rather than being overjoyed, Jonah became sullen and angry about what had happened.
We could go on presenting additional difficult passages to grapple with, but needless to say, they all confront us with what appears to be prophetic failure. So what are we to do with them? Rather than admit that they were in some way erroneous predictions, we may be tempted to explain them away, spiritualizing them or interpreting them with a much broader, perhaps poetic meaning, for clearly we cannot take them at face value and call them in any way credible. And while this approach can at times be legitimate, we need to explore other explanations that underpin the nature of prophecy.
Perhaps the most important of these explanations is the suggestion that inspired predictions such as we may find in the bible are more in the category of possibilities rather than definitives. That is to say, a prophecy of the future may be presented more as a likely scenario than as an immutable one. We could then say that various biblical forecasts are nothing more than likelihoods given that the parties involved in the prophecy continue on the course that they have been on without any sharp deviations from “business as usual.”
As a hypothetical example, we could propose a divine prophecy given to a hardworking teenager. While he is praying, he hears the words, “You will be a great surgeon.” At this point in his life, he hasn’t quite decided on his career, but he hears this message with the prediction of an important and influential future. How should he interpret it? How should he respond to it? Would he be justified in dropping out of school and heading down to the pond to fish for the next 15 years waiting for the prophecy to come to pass? Most of us would say of course not, for the prophecy has built within itself certain conditions without which it will never materialize. Without being said, the divine message implies that IF he continues to work hard and IF he enrolls in medical school and IF he continues to live a disciplined life, then this will be the outcome, the future that God wants for him. In this respect, prophecy presents to the recipient an ideal scenario, what the future may look like if the party involved remains on the straight and narrow path. It should not be interpreted as an absolute or fatalistic prognostication but one that is fraught with “ifs, ands, buts, and maybes.”
So whether stated directly or not, we can interpret the puzzling prophetic passages that have been sketched out as conditional predictions rather than definite forecasts of what will happen. This might allow us to make more sense of the prophecies we have touched on. Certainly God wanted the people of Israel to claim Canaan as its homeland and then abide in it indefinitely but what made that impossible was their repeated rebellion against him. It became necessary to punish them ousting them from the land of milk and honey for decades and then later many centuries at a time. The same can be said about the kingdom of David. While he was very faithful to God, his descendants were not necessarily so, and as a result what should have been a permanent monarchy could not be realized.
Undoubtedly, the conditional nature of inspired predictions is one explanation for why some fail to come to pass, but there are other fundamental reasons why a prophecy may flop. It is important to remember that the recipients of prophecies are mortals who by definition imperfectly transmit the original message from the heavenly source. Prophecy is far from an exact science, for those who speak in the name of God can only do so through the filter of their own person. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians bears this out when he says, “The spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets.” (1 Corinthians 14:32) Inspiration comes to the seer like a wind blowing in a ship’s sails, but the prophet has to flesh out what he is receiving. He does this through the filter of his own experience and understanding as he is “carried along” by the Spirit. The end result is a transcription that reflects the culture, the education, the beliefs, and also the biases of the one receiving the message.
The limitations of the prophet’s theology are certainly an encumbrance upon the message that God may wish to transmit. A prophet from a Catholic background would not easily be able to transmit a message that emphasized the importance of salvation by faith, and a prophet from a Protestant background would have a hard time communicating an inspiration that was geared toward the importance of works. So God must work within the restrictions of his messengers attempting to pass on what they can more readily receive and understand.
But it is not just the personal biases of the prophet that shapes the message that eventually appears on paper; the limitations of the physical brain also present a barrier to fully expressing the content coming from the divine source. By definition, the thoughts of God are far beyond our comprehension. They come to the prophet as a single compressed idea that needs to be unpacked and processed by the human mind. It is usually the case that human language cannot adequately transmit the full import of this heavenly thought. The best the prophet can do is put into feeble human terminology something which is transcendent.
The same can be said of the visions and dreams that the prophet experiences. Such images are often just a poor reflection of something the seer saw in the spiritual realm which may have no physical analog. As a result he offers descriptions to the best of his ability according to the constraints of his physical universe which may or may not cut it. What the prophet puts down on paper may be a jumble of images that though connected in a spiritual sense appear disjointed and like most prophecies can only be interpreted in hindsight. An example of this appears in Isaiah 40 where the return of the exiles from Babylon is linked to the coming of the Messiah and also to the glory of his kingdom, events which are separated by many hundreds if not thousands of years but which appear to the prophet in one instance when he is in the spiritual domain. We have come to identify such passages under the banner of a concept known as “progressive revelation” where it is recognized that the vision is multifaceted and unfolds over time, something that is undoubtedly not clear to the prophet when he perceives it.
It should be clear by now that some of the failed prophecies we have presented may well be explained by the limitations of the prophet himself. This may particularly be true of the story of Jonah. While it may be the case that the happy resolution to the story was just the result of a conditional prophecy that didn’t have to materialize, the behavior of Jonah throughout the narrative should make us raise an eyebrow regarding how well he transmitted the message that was given to him.
Of course we become suspicious of the prophet early on because of his failure to cooperate with God, but even after his arm is twisted and he begins to spread the message to the people of Nineveh, we may rightly question what he was saying. Nowhere in the story are we told directly what God wanted Jonah to say to the Ninevites; we are only informed in the opening verses that he was told to “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.” (Jonah 1:2)
Ultimately Jonah proclaimed, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be destroyed.” But was that his idea or God’s? When the people repented and the destruction predicted by Jonah never happened, he became angry and depressed. Perhaps he had wanted to see the city crumble after making a special trip to these Gentiles. He tells God that he was originally reluctant to go on this mission because he was aware of God’s mercy and compassion and perceived it might well be a waste of his time. It would seem that his own lack of love and his bias against these people clouded his message so that instead of just issuing a warning as most other prophets did he offered a definitive proclamation that there was no hope for the city. God ultimately rebukes the prophet saying, “Nineveh has more than a 120,000 people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?” (Jonah 4:11)
So prophecies may not pan out exactly as expected because of the intrinsic bias of the prophet who transmits the message according to his own limitations. But there is yet another important explanation for why divine predictions fail, and it has to do with the inspired source of the forecast rather than the recipient. That is to say that there may be inaccuracy on the part of the heavenly origin of the prophecy that is at fault for it not materializing as anticipated.
At first this may sound like an indictment against some imperfection in God which would certainly be impossible. But the suggestion is not that God has any flaw in predicting the future but that his heavenly servants, those myriads upon myriads of angelic beings do. While the angels are far more perfect than any mortal, they are nonetheless still limited and susceptible to mistakes though to a much smaller degree than we could relate to.
As should be clear from the scriptures, the angels are often very busy sending messages to mortals. From the angel in the Old Testament that appeared to Hagar in the desert and told her to return to Sarah to the angel in the New Testament that told Peter to get up and follow him out of prison, these heavenly beings are intimately involved in the affairs of men, giving them instructions and leading them on the right way. Rather than God himself, it is they who were responsible for the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai, for we are told by Stephen (the first martyr) that “the law was put into effect through angels.” (Acts 7:53) And we may infer that in many passages where divine instructions are given or words of encouragement are offered or predictions of the future are made, it is really these heavenly beings at work.
It is not that God is incapable of interacting directly with mankind, and certainly at times he does, but with a vast hierarchy of celestial servants, he clearly delegates many responsibilities to the angels as his representatives so that we see their prominent role in the scriptures.
When questioned about the time of the Second Coming, Jesus told his disciples, “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” (Matthew 24:36) What did he mean by this? Was he suggesting that only the Father knows because it is a well kept secret that he keeps to himself? No, Christ was indicating here that with the complexity surrounding the timing of the Second Coming, no one but the infinite God could possibly figure out precisely when it would be. Mere mortals as well as angels and even Christ himself (while limited by the physical life he took upon himself) could not predict it with any accuracy.
Of course angels could do a much better job of prognosticating this event than men but they only do so because they have a much greater intelligence and knowledge of divine laws than mere mortals. In essence, the predictions that angels make are not really different than the predictions made by men, for both are a result of understanding patterns and laws that govern the universe.
Particularly in the realm of science, men are able to predict events out far into the distant future. Human knowledge of astronomy allows for the projection of solar eclipses and asteroid trajectories even hundreds of years out. In much the same way, angels forecast what to us is much more nebulous, future political, economic, and social changes in the history of men. They do so through an understanding of behavioral patterns and spiritual laws that is beyond our comprehension.
Factoring strongly into an angel’s ability to predict the future is knowledge of the Sow and Reap principle. As men we can appreciate that if someone plays with fire, then he is likely to get burned, or if he goes out drinking every night, he is likely to lose his job, or if he studies hard in school, he is likely to succeed in life. Our heavenly caretakers see the implications and consequences of our actions in much greater detail and project out into the distant future what it should mean for the individual as well as for humanity collectively and so can have a good idea of what will transpire hundreds if not thousands of years in the future.
But though they are masters on the subject of human behavior and can foresee very likely scenarios that will develop in the future, they can still err and this is because man’s free-will can even surprise an angel. Though these heavenly beings know us much better than we do ourselves and can generally foresee our next move, at times even they can be tripped up by a certain level of unpredictability. And we can suggest this is one reason why prophecies sometimes fail or do not come to pass as expected.
Additionally, angels may make mistakes when they try to forecast the very distant future not unlike mere men. When we hear thunder and see clouds on the horizon, we can be fairly confident that a storm is coming. If we have some meteorological training we may be able to predict the weather for the coming week tracking faraway systems as they make their way toward us. But even the most expert in the field could not dare to forecast the weather with any reliability one month out even with all the tools of the trade. So many variables come into play which makes it impossible to hazard anything more than a guess. In principle the same is true of the angels who can prognosticate proximate events much better than far off events though naturally they are orders of magnitude better than us at any long range projection.
A good example of the predictive ability of angels can be seen through tracking the recurrent prophecy of the coming of the Messiah. From as early as Genesis there are allusions to Christ’s visit to earth and we see them throughout most of the books of the Old Testament. And if we look closely at them we see a steady progression of prophecies starting with vague references to the Messiah early on and culminating in very detailed predictions as the event becomes imminent.
In the Pentateuch written nearly 1500 years before the coming of Jesus we have a few basic sketches of Christ in his role primarily as king but also as prophet. At the end of Genesis, we have the prophecies of Jacob just prior to his death. He affirmed, “The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet until he comes to whom it belongs and the obedience of the nations is his.” (Genesis 49:10) The prophet Balaam echoed the Messianic expectation of kingship saying, “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near. A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel.” (Numbers 24:17) It was these early descriptions of the Anointed One that set the expectation among the Israelites of a coming ruler, one which they still envision to this day. But Moses also hinted that this great figure would be a prophet, for he said that after his own demise, “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own brothers. You must listen to him.” (Deuteronomy 18:15)
That is about all that was said of Christ in the Books of Moses, just general indicators of what role he would have at his coming. But about 500 years later, at the time of David, more details would emerge. The Psalmist wrote of his own sufferings which hinted at the potential suffering of the Messiah. He writes, “I am poured out like water, and all of my bones are out of joint. My heart has turned to wax; it has melted away within me. My strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth.” (Psalm 22:14-15) Of course all of these can be descriptions of the agonies of a man being crucified.
About 300 years later, the image of a suffering Messiah becomes even more forceful. Isaiah foretold details of the One who would endure affliction: “I offered my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who pulled out my beard; I did not hide my face from mocking or spitting.” (Isaiah 50:6) The prophet described Christ as one who was “marred beyond human likeness” and spoke of him as “despised and rejected by men.” (Isaiah 52:14)
Isaiah also provided other important details about the life of the Messiah indicating that he would be born of a virgin, (Isaiah 7:14) and his contemporary the prophet Micah was even able to target the place of his birth in Bethlehem. (Micah 5:2) The last Old Testament messages on Christ become even more specific in the words of Zechariah penned just 500 years before Jesus’ birth. There we learn how the Anointed One will come to his people “on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” (Zechariah 9:9) We are clued in to the betrayal of the Messiah for “30 pieces of silver” (Zechariah 11:12-13) and are alerted to his abandonment by his followers: “Strike the shepherd and the sheep will be scattered.” (Zechariah 13:7)
We can clearly see how as time approached the advent of Christ, the prophecies that emerged became more and more specific, and so we recognize that the angelic sources were continuously refining their expectations as time went along. But despite their well informed prognostications, it would seem that they might have missed the mark to some degree on the Messianic predictions. We see a strong theme in the writings of many of the prophets that describe the coming of the Messiah, the gathering of the exiles from the nations back to Israel, the establishment of a worldwide kingdom, and the ushering in of an unprecedented era of peace among all peoples. Of course from our Christian perspective it didn’t quite turn out this way, and precisely because it did not, Jews firmly reject Jesus as the Messiah to this day.
We could illustrate this theme from the mouths of a number prophets including Jeremiah who wrote, “The days are coming … when I will raise up to David a righteous Branch, a king who will reign wisely … In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety … The days are coming … when people will no longer say, ‘As surely as the Lord lives who brought the Israelites out of Egypt’ but they will say, ‘As surely as the Lord lives who brought the descendants of Israel up out of the land of the north and out of all the countries where he had banished them.’” (Jeremiah 23:5-8)
While Jeremiah describes the appearance of the Messiah and the gathering together of the children of Israel, Micah presents the whole picture: “But you Bethlehem … out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel … Israel will be abandoned until the time when she who is in labor gives birth and the rest of his brothers return to join the Israelites … He will stand and shepherd his flock .. They will live securely, for then his greatness will reach to the ends of the earth. And he will be their peace.” (Micah 5:2-5) Very succinctly, the prophet tells how Christ will be born in Bethlehem and that when he appears the scattered Israelites will come home from the nations in which they have been scattered. Then he will watch over them keeping them safe while his reign of peace extends around the globe.
In the previous chapter, Micah uses imagery that has become popular among even non-religious people who desire peace among the nations. He speaks of the peoples “beating their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks” while pilgrims continuously swarm to Jerusalem to pay homage to the king who has “gathered the lame” and “assembled the exiles.” (Micah 4:1-7)
Isaiah has similar words affirming, “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse … the wolf will live with the lamb …” (Isaiah 11) The prophet Zechariah who is very descriptive of the Messiah unequivocally links Christ’s appearance with the submission of the nations to his benevolent rule, for he says, “’For I am coming and I will live among you,’ declares the Lord. ‘Many nations will be joined with the Lord in that day and will become my people. I will live among you and you will know that the Lord Almighty has sent me to you.” (Zechariah 2:10-11) Later in the book, the prophet says that when the Messiah comes, “He will proclaim peace to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth.” (Zechariah 9:9-10)
It was also Zechariah’s firm expectation that when the Messiah appeared the Jews would have a prominent role in spreading knowledge of God to the peoples and educating them in the ways of the Lord as the reign of God overspread the earth: “In those days ten men from all languages and nations will take firm hold of one Jew by the hem of his robe and say, ‘Let us go with you, because we have heard that God is with you.’ (Zechariah 8:20-23) But clearly, it did not come to pass this way when Jesus visited us 2000 years ago.
That the Jews would be settled securely in their land in the advent of the Messiah seems to be a theme enjoyed by most all of the prophets. Amos predicted, “I will plant Israel in their own land, never again to be uprooted from the land I have given them.” (Amos 9:11-15) Ezekiel echoed that sentiment saying, “No longer will the people of Israel have malicious neighbors who are painful briers and sharp thorns … When I gather the people of Israel from the nations where they have been scattered … Then they will live there in safety and will build houses and plant vineyards.” (Ezekiel 28:24-26) And Zechariah strongly asserted, “Never again will an oppressor overrun my people, for now I am keeping watch.” (Zechariah 9:8) Unfortunately things didn’t go so nicely for the people of Israel at the coming of the Messiah, for within a century of his appearance they were booted out of their homeland only to live as refugees in foreign lands for nearly two millennia.
What are we to make of all of these prophetic flops? It is certainly possible that those heavenly beings that inspired these words made errors in judgment for though far advanced beyond human limitations, they are still not perfect. But it would seem unlikely that the sheer volume of these predictive “failures” is due to angelic error. Rather what seems more likely is that these supernatural beings were not offering mankind any definitive statements on the Messiah but were throwing out to us various potential scenarios or possibilities of what might come to pass as we have touched on earlier.
Early on, in the time of Moses, it was only clear to our angelic guardians that the Messiah would come and serve in the roles of prophet and king. 1500 years out, not much more could be said at the time. But then after observing the children of Israel in their chronic rebellion and hard-heartedness during their first few centuries in the land of Canaan, they could say more. Seeing a definite tendency to reject the commands of God and mistreat the messengers of God, the heavenly hierarchy could present to the Jews the real possibility that the Messiah would be rejected, abused, and likely killed. And so from the time of David this distinct scenario is found in the writings of the prophets, perhaps as a warning more than anything else.
From the time of David onward, it was as if two different possibilities were being presented to the people of Israel. On one end of the spectrum was a sober warning about the potential murder of the Messiah and on the other end was the potential glory of the Messianic kingdom. The latter was the ideal that the angels were trying to impress upon the people. It is what we could label as “Plan A” which though it never materialized is what God had wanted to take place. Indeed the original desire of God was that Christ would come and be hailed as king by his people. Then after embracing him as their Messiah, they would be his agents to spread the good news all over the globe extending his kingdom from Jerusalem to the uttermost parts of the earth and bringing with it an unprecedented peace. In this way salvation would come to the earth by a very different route than has ultimately transpired.
It was a salvation that would materialize through the words of Isaiah who spoke of Christ’s mission: “The Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners.” (Isaiah 61:1) The message that Jesus and his disciples spread throughout Canaan was intended to transform the Jewish nation and ultimately the world, for Isaiah also spoke of Israel as “a light for the Gentiles.” (Isaiah 49:6) And it was none other than the message of love which was intended to effect this transformation – the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount and everything else that Jesus taught in the gospels.
Isaiah envisioned the nations coming to Jerusalem to learn the ways of the Lord when he spoke of pilgrims streaming in from foreign lands saying, “Come let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.” (Isaiah 2:3) The prophet envisioned even remote locations receiving his divine instructions: “In his law the islands will put their hope.” (Isaiah 42:4)
Jesus did everything in his power to make this dream of God a reality when he walked among us 2000 years ago. He didn’t just sheepishly acquiesce to his pre-ordained fate, but he strove to make “Plan A” a reality for that was always the idyllic path. So he did everything in his power to convince the people to believe in him. Of course there were many miracles performed including one of his greatest just a few short months before his crucifixion. The raising of Lazarus who had been dead for four days was meant to send shock waves through the community and directly challenge the religious leaders to finally believe in him and his message.
Some have suggested that Jesus deliberately “stirred the pot” and was confrontational to his critics just to ensure that the Pharisees and Sadducees would hate him and arrange for his redemptive death, but this was far from Jesus’ intention. In tender words he addressed the Holy City saying, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were unwilling.” (Matthew 23:37)
Unfortunately because what God had originally desired did not come to pass, 2000 more years of war and bloodshed have elapsed and the human race has suffered much evil which might otherwise have been avoided had the Messiah been warmly received when last he visited us. And so now it is “Plan B” that has been realized, one that has undoubtedly brought salvation to humanity but in way that has been ultimately far delayed from the original intention. So we reinterpret the words of the prophets and expect the Messianic kingdom of peace at the next visit of Jesus, now quickly approaching at the end of this age. What might have been one integrated package has been broken into two parts with a long interlude in between.
Perhaps many prophecies remain cryptic to us because they never transpired as anticipated. And so we can speculate that if “Plan A” had come to pass, those various passages about a suffering Christ would have been obviated and would consequently become a mystery to us in the study of the scriptures. Undoubtedly we would have reinterpreted them much in the same way that the Jews do today, for they equate the “Suffering Servant” passage of Isaiah 53 with the historic struggle of the nation of Israel itself as opposed to any Messianic figure. In their theology it is unthinkable that the Christ should ever endure the fate that Christians have long acknowledged.
The realm of prophecy is a complicated one, and one for which we need to keep an open mind. We have shown through various examples that it is far more conditional and subject to the whims of human free-will than it is in any way etched in stone. Predictions of the future are more akin to possibilities and potential scenarios of what might come to pass, and usually it is up to us to choose the better of the paths that are presented to us.