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Do partially fulfilled prophecies prove the Bible wrong?

Do partially fulfilled prophecies prove the Bible wrong?
Posted on July 28, 2019  - By Dr. David Brooks

Isaiah 35 foretells that when God comes, the desert will be full of vegetation and have streams of water, people will be treated with fairness instead of injustice, the blind will see, the deaf will hear, and the lame will be able to leap. Jesus claimed to be God, and Christians believe He is — but when He came, only some of these things happened: He gave sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf, but the desert was still barren and dry. 

Zechariah 9 says that Israel’s king was going to come to Jerusalem humbly riding on a donkey and God would end war, establishing peace throughout the whole world. Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, but God did not end wars and establish worldwide peace. Again, Micah 5 says that God’s ruler would be born in Bethlehem and He would defend Israel from invaders. Matthew 2:5-6 said this referred to Jesus, but He did not protect Israel from invasion. 

For reasons like this, many do not believe that Jesus of Nazareth is God or God’s ruler who was predicted. How are we to understand prophecies that are only partially fulfilled? There are three possible perspectives on such Biblical prophecies.

1. What we thought was a prophetical fulfilment… was, in fact, not.

Of course, this is one way to look at such prophecies. And in the case of the three examples above, a person would conclude that Jesus was, therefore, not the Messiah. But it seems to many, including me, that Christ’s resurrection certifies that He is who He said He is, making him the descendant of King David who would be the Messiah who will rule the world. Therefore, this view is not convincing.

2. A part of the prophecy is literally fulfilled, the rest could be figuratively so.

So, from Isaiah 35, Jesus made the deaf hear literally, but the desert blossoming might mean that He made boring and useless lives joyful — which he does (John 10:10). In Zechariah 9, Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey and brought spiritual protection from Satan and sin for people all over the world (Colossians 2:14; Hebrews 2:14). In Micah 5, Jesus was born in Bethlehem and defends believers from spiritual attacks by our enemies (1 John 5:4-5). 

For reasons like this, many do not believe that Jesus of Nazareth is God or God’s ruler who was predicted

A strength of this interpretation is that it relieves a person of the fear that God’s Word is not true. Another strength is that Scripture uses figurative language often (e.g. God is not a literal rock in Psalm 18:2 or a bird in Psalm 91:4). However, one of the weaknesses of this interpretive method is that the interpretation is highly dependent upon a person’s imagination, so that there is no sure way to know what the prophet meant. Another weakness is that, if consistently applied, it does not acknowledge when the later aspect of the prophecy will be literally fulfilled. 

Yet another weakness of the second method is that, in theory, it does not acknowledge that prophets wrote of widely separated events in the same passage without any transition to indicate the different time periods, but sometimes history shows them to be inconsistent. For example, Isaiah 37:37-38 says that Sennacherib returned to Nineveh and was assassinated by two of his sons. His return was in 701 B.C. and the assassination was in 681 B.C. There is no evidence in the passage that 20 years passed between the return and his death, but history is clear on the different times. The assassination does not have to be interpreted figuratively to connect his death closely to his return.

3. If God fulfilled part of the prophecy, He will bring the rest to pass as well.

A third way to treat such predictions is to surmise that since God brought about a fulfillment of part of the prophecy, then he will bring about the rest later. An objection to this view is that some see this literalism as not being spiritual, but physical. The view is also accused of not recognising figurative language. In favour of the view is that since God fulfilled the early part of the prophecy literally, it is reasonable to evaluate the later part as being literal. A second reason for preferring this approach is that fulfilment of the early part means God is serious about the whole message and will accomplish it, and we may have confidence in what He says.

On Isaiah 35 with the third method of interpretation, Jesus would come to the world again, rule and establish justice for people worldwide, and nature would be transformed to be more like the Garden of Eden. In Zechariah 9, Jesus would come again, rule the world, and put an end to all wars. As for Micah 5, Jesus would come again and defeat His people’s invaders in the process of ending the wars mentioned in connection with Zechariah 9 above.

Many serious Bible-believers follow the second method, and many follow the third. Personally, I favour the third. It seems more consistent and does not disregard figurative speech as its detractors claim. It recognises that sin is what caused not only spiritual disaster that will be reversed, but that it also prompted literal and physical calamities. It therefore sees the world holistically: our lives involve both spiritual and physical realities. Thus, I expect God will complete the prophecies of Isaiah 35, Zechariah 9, and Micah 5. He will deliver his people and beautify the earth again.

Dr. David Brooks

About Dr. David Brooks

David Brooks is a senior professor of Hebrew & Old Testament at Criswell College, Dallas, where he lives with his wife and four children. Having been raised with an emphasis on international missions, he often accepts international teaching assignments while also teaching adjunctively at Dallas Theological Seminary.



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