The Bible, a prophetic book par excellence, is often misinterpreted. Its prophecies can seem fatalistic, or fear-mongering. But, when understood correctly, Biblical prophecy more than unravels the future—it also provides us with a clearer perspective on the present.
A prophet is a person who speaks on God’s behalf, affirming supernatural experiences and revelations. These experiences can be true, or deceiving. False prophets pretend that they have godly revelations, but their source of inspiration is not God. Some receive revelations from spirits pretending to be God’s messengers, from saints or the spirits of the dead. We thus deal with a chain of deception: the false prophet is himself deceived first and then he deceives others in his turn. The history of religions, including the history of Christianity, fully illustrates this phenomenon.
Prophets and “prophets”
There were, and still are, many false prophets who do not have authentic experiences with the supernatural. Their source of inspiration is mystical and consists of secret interpretations of mental and physical phenomena in which they are initiated and, naturally, “experts”: dreams, books, stars, letters and other “signs”. The word “mystical” includes certain attitudes and experiences which are connected to the Christian tradition. It also has positive connotations, because it describes the experience of the person believing unbelievable things, who has experiences with God, prays to God and understands His will in life’s experiences—without being a prophet. There are three types of mysticism: Jewish, Christian, and pseudo-Christian. Non-Christian mysticism is called occult or esoteric, these terms having practically the same meaning: mystical, secret, mysterious, initiatory.
Both categories of prophets—those who have had paranormal or parapsychological experiences and those who know how to “read” signs in various phenomena—fall under the general term ‘the occult’. The Greek word “esoteric” is used with the same meaning, and the inexplicable personal control some of these people have (or claim to have) on the world around them is called magic (witchcraft).
An interesting Biblical case is that of Balaam, a Syrian man used by God as a prophet, compelled to bless the Jewish people, despite the fact that, on an individual level, he had fallen into corruption. Magic claims that curses and blessings are sayings with hidden power that are fulfilled automatically and inexplicably if one only knows the recipe for the enchantment, and the predetermined gestures and words. Even if he did not believe in the power of the magical curse, because he knew the real God, Balaam adopted a kind of magic through which he hoped to manipulate God’s divine will. Thus Balaam’s divine service had become a magical incantation, and his case is a warning for all who today promote any liturgical practices close to magic of a black, white or grey variety.
In the Holy Scriptures these mysteries are referred to as “so-called gnosis” (“knowledge”), “hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition”. They are true wonders and secrets for the ones who do not know the truth revealed in the Bible. These have always been a plague, under different forms, for revealed religion, both for Judaism and for Christianity. From Jewish Kabbala to the questionable mysticism of certain Christian traditions and sects, mysticism has generated confusion in the minds of many between divine revelation and other, more dubious sources.
There are also false prophets who are merely victims of their own faith. To be more precise, they are victims of their own ignorance and self-suggestion. Many of them live at the imprecise limit between normality and psychiatric disorder. A highly active mystical imagination, hallucinations, a permanent state of mental excitement and “spiritual” exaltation, obsessive thinking, dreams and many factors have created “prophets”. These factors do not fall under the generic occult, but are purely mental phenomena.
Both those who have authentic experiences with deceitful spirits and those who believe they are able to read or manipulate the elements of the world, are usually for the most part honest but deceived people. Many engage in self-deception and refuse to see beyond their own senses and opinions. There is, however, a category of prophets that practice religious quackery. The source of their inspiration is neither Spiritism, nor uninvited appearances, nor magic, nor the darkness of the psyche, where the imagination is confused with reality. Their source of inspiration is found in their moral conscience, or lack thereof. These experts use their cleverness to fool the gullible. They play magic, like illusionist manipulators, who practice conjuring and other kinds of mischief for dupes. As prophets, they are mere inventors of supernatural experiences, which they mention in order to increase their credit and create income.
Although we have so far been distinguishing between distinct categories, real life, both throughout history and in the present, teaches us that there are no precise borders between the categories of false prophets. The false and the authentic, occultism and stupidity, faith and trickery, can blend together to varying degrees. For this reason, for the person interested in dismissing any dangerous falsehood, it’s not enough to check whether the experience of the claimed prophet is authentic and not made up. The question is whether this experience represents a revelation from God, or whether it comes from other sources.
In Eve’s case, it did not matter whether the spirit talking to her was Satan himself or a lesser devil, an angel who had fallen long ago or more recently, a disguised serpent or someone disguised as a serpent, if he had his abode in Heaven or outside it, or if it was a good or a bad hallucination. There was only one thing that mattered and that was the fact that God had already expressed His direct, clear and simple will—for man not to touch what did not belong to him. Even if the tempter pretended to be God himself, God had already spoken. Therefore, we are less interested in the exact sources of the false prophets’ inspiration, because their messages, even when they do not seem spiritually harmful, carry with them the danger of eternal damnation. Distinguishing the truly inspired prophets from the false ones, in addition to the other certainties we need today, brings us “hope and a future” (Jeremiah 29:11)
The Bible and the future
Starting with Moses, all the authors of the Bible were prophets: “All Scripture is God-breathed…” (2 Timothy 3:16). In a popular sense, the prophet is a fortune-teller, a herald of the future. In reality, however, prophecy is a supernatural gift God uses to talk to people in the most expressive way, about the knowledge of God, salvation, and our duty towards Him and our fellow man. The prophet is the one who speaks on behalf of God as His special messenger.
The priest serving at the altar and the church teacher explaining the Scriptures are also God’s people, but the prophet has a higher authority than these because the source of his message is supernatural. Some of the priests were also prophets (Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Zachariah). Some of the teachers of the Church and some of the disciples were also prophets, as were all the authors of the New Testament. The apostle Paul shows that the gift of prophecy is the greatest spiritual gift, and it is likely that all of the apostles had this gift. But it is not true that any bishop, pastor, teacher, or common saint, is a prophet.
The prophet is God’s messenger, who calls people back to the path of salvation and obedience to Him, often revealing hidden things from the past and the present, and even the future. Foretelling (prophecies about the future) is only part of a prophet’s message. There have been even greater prophets who did not make any prophecies about the future, such as Elijah, or John the Baptist.
In the popular sense of the term, a prophecy is the announcement of coming events, a prediction. This aspect of the prophetic revelation is, to this day, an incontestable proof of the origin and divine authority of the Bible.
Most of the prophets lived before Christ. From these, many have uttered and written predictive prophecies with a shorter- or longer-term view. In general, these prophets deal with Israel’s and other nations’ faith, up until the time of Christ. Some of these even go beyond Him, in the Messianic era. The prophets of the New Testament, mostly Jews, predicted both the future of the Jewish people and that of the Church, not only on a short term basis, but also sketches of the future stretching until Christ’s second coming, and even beyond that.
A simple classification of prophecies about the future is necessary because, in the popular understanding, there is much confusion. It is believed that the description of the future by a true prophet of God is infallible. But the Bible teaches us that, in principle, the prophecies about the future are conditional plans or promises of God, and that these promises—be they optimistic (blessings, good promises) or pessimistic (threats, curses)—can be thwarted by the attitudes of those involved (acc. Jeremiah 18:7-10; Luke 7:30).
However, there are many unconditional prophecies in the Bible. Yes, God made conditional promises but, at the same time, revealed the real future to the prophets, as only He could have known it beforehand, from outside of time.
False prophets may sometimes “guess” the future or foresee it in the same way that meteorologists and futurists do. On such a basis, financial and political speculations are made. We are all used to anticipating the future, according to our own abilities. Some of us are “luckier” at guessing correctly because of the simple fact that we are better informed.
Rebellious angels are intelligent and informed spirits, who can make much more precise forecasts than scientists. Furthermore, maleficent intelligences know that mere faith in such “revelations” can sometimes bring about the fulfilment of the “prophecy”. The psychological shock of a piece of news can transform it into a prophecy. When the deceitful spirit who had stolen the prophet Samuel’s identity revealed to king Saul that he would die on the battlefield the next day, the unfortunate king became the psychological victim of the devil. Trusting Samuel’s words, which had always come true, his conviction that he was destined to die weakened his energy. Hearing the “prophecy” brought him down. How could he keep on fighting? The demon fulfilled the prophecy by its mere utterance.
Such psychological manipulations have always been practiced and are still practiced today. If people with authority want to generate a crisis, they can do so by simply announcing it. Psychological manipulation and scientific prediction are ways of describing the future which have nothing miraculous in them.
Some read the hermetic verses of Nostradamus, a French magician and astrologist from the 16th century, and search them for current applications. After an important event, Nostradamus’ fans immediately “discover” in his twisted verses that he had “predicted” the event a long time ago.
In the same way, some “discover” in the Hebrew letters of the Bible, ordered by computer-applied Kabbalistic methods, that Hitler and Saddam Hussein had long been predicted to appear, thus manipulating Scripture. Instead of reading Scripture’s message, they transform the Hebrew text into a crossword puzzle in which, totally by coincidence or with a bit of wit, they can “read” the future turned present. Yet the true prophecies of the Bible are incomparably more interesting and more spectacular.
Fulfilled Bible prophecies
More than 2,000 years before Christ, God revealed the future to Abraham (Genesis 15:13-16). Hundreds of years before the Egyptian bondage, Abraham was warned that his descendants would be slaves in a foreign country for 400 years, after which they would be set free, not in a hurry, but with “with great possessions”. Genesis (chapter 37-50) tells the story of how the Israelites entered Egypt (1875 B.C.). Exodus (chapters 3-15) shows us how the Israelites ended up being slaves to the Egyptians and how God, through Moses, freed Israel from bondage, with great miracles, exactly on the day of the 430th anniversary of their entry into Egypt (Exodus 12:40-42); that is, in 1445 B.C.
Another old fulfilled prediction is Balaam’s prophecy (Number 24:15-24), made not long before the Jews conquered Canaan (1405 B.C.). He predicted that from Israel a “star” would be raised, or a “scepter” (a royal dynasty), which, after almost four centuries, actually happened. Jewish kings were to conquer the Moabites and Edomites and to completely wipe out the Amalekites, which was realised during the reigns of Saul and David (Deuteronomy 25:19, 1 Samuel 15). The Assyrians, who were weak back then, were to become so powerful, after a long time, that they would expand to the South and conquer even the Kenites (the Midianite tribe of Moses’ father-in-law). This prediction was fulfilled 700 years after the prophecy’s utterance, in the time of the great Assyrian conquests.
But the miracle of the prophecy does not stop here. God further announced, through Balaam, that the Assyrians would be brought to their knees. From afar, from the mysterious land of the Kittim, would come the ships of the new conquerors, who, in turn, were destined to perish. First came the Greeks from the sea, more than 1,000 years after Balaam’s prediction (acc. 1 Maccabees 1:1, 2), and in the same way came the Romans later (acc. Daniel 11:30), whose empire is now long gone.
Moses predicted that God would deliver the Israelites into their enemies’ hands, to be punished through wars and bondage, through their country being abandoned and them being hunted down and left to their own fears (Leviticus 26:17-38). But these predictions, which literally came about through the Assyrian and Babylonian deportations in the 8th-6th centuries B.C., do not represent Moses’ final prophecy. He also says that, in exile, the Jews were to repent, and God would renew the old covenant and bring them back to the long-abandoned country (Leviticus 26:39-45). This prophecy was largely fulfilled by the repatriation of the Jews and by the restoration carried out in the time of the great Persian emperors, beginning with Cyrus the 2nd, in the 6th-5th centuries B.C.
The prophecy was later repeated to a new generation of Jews (Deuteronomy 28). In both chapters, these prophecies are uttered in the form of conditional blessings and curses. What is shocking is the punctual fulfilment of both of them, at the right time but also separately, throughout history. As is the case for other nations, the curse was inherited along with the blessing, according to the entrusted responsibility.
Moses foresaw that Israel would distinguish itself through great climatic, material, physical, social, political and military blessings. It would come to be so rich that it would lend much, and always be ahead (Deuteronomy 28:12,13). Seeing as these blessings were fulfilled even while they were exiled, up to this day, seems to prove that the Jews have not been completely disobedient, as Christians are wont to describe them. But this same nation of Israel was threatened by Moses with terrible curses, which take up three times as much space in the Bible as the blessings.
The prophet repeats the threat of the exile (Deuteronomy 28:36), in which Israel would come to be despised by the nations (verse 37). A nation from afar, “from the ends of the earth”, with an incomprehensible language and ruthless faces, would come “like an eagle swooping down” (verses 49, 50) and besiege all the Jewish cities, up to the point where the besieged would be brought into a state of misery and dehumanisation, described in horrible detail (verses 52-57). Was the prophet referring exclusively to the Assyrian-Babylonian bondage? Or did he also foresee the “coup de grace” they would receive from the Roman legions, coming under the mark of the eagle, in repeated punishment expeditions, such as those under the emperors Titus (70 B.C.) and Hadrian (135 B.C.)?
Moses then foresaw the decrease of the Israelite population (verse 62) and described the coming deportations (verses 63-67), many centuries before. The nightmarish scenes of the prophecy culminate with the prediction that disobedient Israelites would return to Egypt from where they had been released. They would be willing to sell themselves as slaves to the Egyptians and nobody would buy them (verse 68). Here Moses no longer foresees an explicit repentance of the people. Certain interpreters foresee a last restoration of the Jews in the land of Israel, based on Paul’s prophecy (Romans 11). Could this be a fulfilment of the things Moses foresaw?
If not all the details of the prophecy match historical or current reality, let us nevertheless remember that what we are dealing with is a conditional prophecy. Here, curses take up much more space than blessings, and history proves that these have been fulfilled more frequently. This shows that, most of the time, the chosen people were disobedient.
Israel, however, is not the only sinful nation. Karl Barth saw in Israel a reflection of what it means to be chosen—but also judged—by God. Antisemitism, the classic hostility of the “gentiles”, comes exactly from this reflection. What did the apostles foresee in the case of those who, through Christ, had become the new chosen people? We find a summarized answer in Romans 11:11-12 and, like Moses’ promises and threats, it provides two options, because the real future is always the one we choose in the present.
In a nutshell, the prophecy of divine origin is the foundation of the Bible’s authority and gives it credibility through multiple proofs. The Bible deals with the mysteries of the past and the present, not only those of the future. The Bible rejects false prophecies and incomparably overshadows scientific predictions. It describes the future in the form of verifiable, conditional promises or threats. It also sketches the future in the form of unconditional predictions, which are also verifiable, although written in more veiled language—like Jesus’ parables, uttered only for those who have “ears to hear” (Luke 8:10).
Florin Lăiu is a specialist in biblical languages, and a theologian.