Prophecy and realism
[This post was created from a comment (#2940) in the How context contextualizes the language of hell thread.]
I too have enjoyed the interchange. What I appreciate about your reading of the texts is a strong concern for the redemptive-historical context, as well as the canonical context of the OT. I appreciate the historical ‘realism’, as you frame it, in your interpretation of prophecy. I think this is commendable.
You write, "realistic in the sense that I seek to understand how eschatological texts emerge from, refer to and describe the real historical experiences of the believing community." This is an important dimension to interpreting biblical prophecy. However, the eschatology of the OT, I would argue, transcends every historical event within the OT and its history as well. It is only with Christ’s coming, death, resurrection, and ascension that the Spirit is poured out, that Peter can announce that the "last days" (the eschaton) have arrived in Acts 2. Consider for example some classical eschatological texts: Dt.30 (the restoration of Israel in the latter days); Isaiah 2 (the eschatological exaltation of Mt. Zion); Jeremiah 30-33 (the eschatological restoration of Israel and Judah to the land); Ezekiel 38-48 (the battle of Gog and Magog and the eschatological temple); Daniel 2; 9; Zechariah 14. None of these promises were fulfilled (in their entirety) in the restoration from exile in 538 under Zerubbabel and Joshua. In fact, the post-exilic prophet Zechariah expected a yet future restoration to the land, an eschatological return from exile (Zechariah 8), the details of which history has unknown (in fulfillment, as I read it, of Isaiah’s grandiose descriptions of the second return from exile, as in 11:11ff.). In fact, both Haggai and Zechariah were responding in large part to the returnees disappointment with the trickling ‘restoration’ (which fell well below the ‘cosmic’ descriptions of the former prophets) and their discouragement with the rather meager reconstruction efforts in Jerusalem of the sixth and fifth century (see Haggai 2:3; Zechariah 4:10). Thus Zechariah affirms that God will carry out His good purpose for Zion. And it would seem that Zechariah affirms the restoration of both the house of Israel and the house of Judah (8:13), as did Ezekiel in chapter 37 and Jeremiah (and the fact that the promised restoration of northern Israel never found fulfillment in accordance to the (literal) promises of Isaiah, Hosea, Amos, etc. suggests a yet future restoration).
As you said, the restoration under Cyrus, et al. was incomplete, and the exile, in a sense, continued (more accurately, the covenant curses continued, as the post-exilic prophets made clear), even until the era of Christ (per the angelic message of Daniel 9), and, I would argue, beyond the first advent, to this day (where the people of God are scattered in the diaspora, cf. 1Pe.1:1). It is only in His second coming that the eschatological promises of the prophets will be fulfilled according to the apostle Peter (Acts 3:18-12). In fact, none of the promises of the prophets were fulfilled (in the eschatological sense) until Christ, the spirit of prophecy, came and fulfilled them (see Hebrews 11:39-40).
This is not to say that none of the OT promises and prophecies concerning the historical restoration of the nation were fulfilled (e.g., Jeremiah 29:10), but it is to say that the full promises of Deuteronomy 30, on which the prophets stood in their expectation of a full, national and spiritual restoration of Israel, remained only partially fulfilled, as the people’s repentance was only partial (e.g., Daniel 9:1ff; Nehemiah 9:1ff.). As the foundation of Moses and the Prophets had made clear, repentance was the crucial condition for restoration (Deut.30:1-3; Lev.26:14ff.; Jer.29:12-14; cf. Acts 3:19ff.). Thus when Christ came preaching the gospel, he declared: "Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand." A message that went, by and large, unheeded, and hence Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem and its impending destruction (Lk.19:41-44). Yet, I beleive, there was hope even then: "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not! Behold, your house is left unto you desolate. For I say unto you, Ye shall not see me henceforth, till ye shall say, Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord." I believe that the ‘till’ here is indicative of a future for ethnic Israel (as I understand the apostle’s ‘mystery’ concerning Israel in Romans 11).
You go on to say, "New Testament apocalyptic language is for the most part drawn from prophetic descriptions of judgment on Israel (especially the Babylonian invasion and exile) and on Israel’s enemies which do not involve supernatural occurences."
This is partially true. The judgment against the Assyrians in the Sennacharib invasion of Jerusalem was certainly supernatural. But more importantly, the language of the prophets, in so far as it applies to the Assyrian and Babylonian judgments of 722-586 BC and the restoration in the fifth and sixth century were not limited to these historical events, but pointed beyond themselves toward, and anticipated the great day of the Lord (see, for example, the ‘day of the Lord’ as both an historical event and a yet future eschatological event in Joel 1-2). Hence, the great battle of Armageddon is seemingly a recapitulation of Israel’s militaristic encournters of the past, as in Ezekiel 38-39 and Zechariah 12, and 14 (note also the two-fold eschatological battle in Rev.19 and 20).
The apocalyptic language that the NT takes up from the OT, I would argue, is taken by and large from prophecies that did not find fulfillment in 538 BC (nor in the Maccabean revolt, which, as you suggested, seems to figure very little into the NT eschatology). E.g., Joel 2; Amos 9:11-12 (hence not only Psalm 89; Haggai 2:20-23, but, where in the world are the northern tribes, when is the full ‘tent’ of David restored, as promised to him and his descendents in 2Samuel 7:8-11). The grand promises of Isaiah and repeated in the post-exilic prophet Haggai, for example, of the nations bringing their wealth to God’s holy mountain is taken up in John’s picture of the New Jerusalem in Revelation 21:24-26. And frankly, though I can understand a partial preterist position, the idea that Revelation 21-22 has been fulfilled in the conversion of the Roman Empire stretches, in my mind, both the prophecies themselves and the historical events that apparently fulfill them well beyond the strictures of an historico-grammatical exegesis (even within the colorful imagery of apocalyptic literature, e.g., how is God any more revealed or in closer fellowship with His people after Constantine than after Pentecost, as 21:2-3, 22 suggests?). Nor do I understand how Daniel 12:3 predicts a literal resurrection, and yet was fulfilled before Christ’s first advent.
"The cosmic language appears to denote not merely military defeat but substantial geo-political realignment, perhaps reflecting some sort of belief in heavenly counterparts to earthly powers. "
To be sure, especially in light of Daniel’s visions. I would also argue that this cosmic language anticipates the great coming day of the Lord, in light of which all historical events take on their true meaning and are rightly interpreted as the unfolding of God’s sovereign plan of redemption. So, for example, the coming judgment against the nation of Joel 1 anticipates the eschatological judgment of chapter 2. The restoration under Cyrus anticipates the full restoration under Christ (Daniel 9). The redemption of God’s people in the exodus anticipates the great latter day exodus, when the sons and daughters of Zion will be brought from the four winds and gathered to Jerusalem, where their enemies will never harrass them again, and God Himself will dwell among them fully and finally in the new heavens and the new earth (Isaiah 65:17ff.; cf. Rev.21-22).