How do the prophets describe the future?
These are some techniques the prophets use to describe the future. The prophet stands in his own
time in history and looks forward from that time. This is a totally different perspective from our
current viewpoint. The major historical events the prophet has in their future are merely dates in
distant history for us. Most of the examples in this study are from the Book of Isaiah, but other pre-exilic prophets use similar methods of predicting the future.
Look at history from the perspective of the prophet
From our perspective, time differences between different events can appear to be ignored, so
different events in history appear to be the same event. For example, in Isaiah the coming of Cyrus
and suffering servant are described together, but were actually 500 years apart. The promise of
Immanuel was during the reign of King Ahaz, but was fulfilled 700 years later.
Often in the prophets, it is impossible to tell when the future event is near, or far off. They are often mingled into one picture, so history and eschatology become one. Both are described as ‘the Day of the Lord’.
From the perspective of a pre-exilic prophet, the major future event looming ahead is the Exile. This is to Assyria for the northern kingdom of Israel, and to Babylon for the southern kingdom of Judah. The fall of Samaria, fall of Jerusalem, and the exile are the most frequently predicted events in the Old Testament.
Beyond the exile are three other events: the return of Israel to the land following the exile, the coming of the Messiah, and the final consummation, including the final judgement and eternal state of bliss. Looking ahead, the prophet will often move between these four events with little or no indication of any time periods between them. All four events are ‘the Day of the Lord’, which will happen ‘on that Day’.
Judgement from Isaiah’s perspective
Isaiah predicts God’s judgements coming at various times in history, all of which are described as ‘the Day of the Lord’. The judgements are coming in ever-increasing intensity, the earlier ones each being a foreshadowing of the final judgement. These include, the invasion by Assyria (especially 701 BC), the judgement on pagan nations, the exile in Babylon, and the final judgement.
Historical acts of judgement from earlier times in the OT are also used as pictures foreshadowing the future judgement. These include the flood, and Sodom and Gomorrah.
There is a connection between the near event and the far event. Judgement and deliverance is
coming soon, and should be understood as the breaking in of the end into history, giving prophecies
an urgency and making them relevant in all ages, whether for OT Israel, or for the church.
Salvation from Isaiah's perspective
Isaiah also predicts the coming of God’s salvation at different times in history. Again, all these are described as ‘the day of the Lord’. Predictions of salvation are also given in increasing intensity, with the earlier ones being a foretaste of the final age to come. Jerusalem will be delivered from Assyria (701 BC), Israel will be delivered from exile in Babylon through Cyrus. There will be a greater deliverance through the coming of God’s suffering servant, and finally the new heaven and new earth.
2. The Day of the Lord
The Day of the Lord is the time of God’s intervention in history. It overshadows all of human history, and is therefore always imminent. The eschatological Day of the Lord is final and universal, compared with the limited manifestations of it throughout history. For the prophets, they are the same event. The prophet does not distinguish the different events. So the events of 701 BC,
including both judgement and deliverance, foreshadow the greater judgement and deliverance on
the final Day of the Lord. Within a single oracle, the prophet will frequently move backwards and
forwards in time between an imminent historical judgement and the final Day of the lord.
In chapter 2, Isaiah predicts the final Day of the Lord. The series of oracles begin with a positive message of hope, only to be fulfilled in the days of the Messiah, while the historical context is eighth century Judah. He describes the wealth of Judah during the reign of Uzziah (2:7), then moves to predictions of ‘that Day’. This is on a larger level than the events in Judah in 701 BC or 586 BC, as he speaks of the day against the pride of the nations (2:12-17). He then moves the focus back to Judah giving a prediction of siege and famine (3:1-5), events which will happen more immediately in their history.
Chapter 13 contains prophecies against Babylon, specifically predicting the fall of Babylon, which happened in 539 BC. However these predictions are mingled with predictions of the final judgement making one overall picture of judgement. These predictions of dramatic overthrow of Babylon do not fit the way Cyrus peacefully took the city in 539 BC. Some of the language is quite apocalyptic, predicting the end of the world with the stars and sun no longer giving light (13:10), while others predict a violent overthrow of Babylon (13:18). Historically, Babylon gradually declined during Persian rule, and eventually became deserted a few centuries later, when it did become a haunt of wild animals.
Chapter 34 predicts doom on Edom. The historical Day of the Lord on Edom is a foretaste of the
final Day of the Lord. Edom is singled out as a representative of the nations. For Edom, the Day of
the Lord is now past, for other nations it is still to come. The prophecy against Edom becomes a
warning to all nations and a guarantee that the final day will come. The oracle begins with universal judgement on all nations (34:1-4), after which the focus moves to the day of vengeance on Edom (34:5-8). It then moves beyond the historical judgment on Edom to eternal burning (34:9-10), then back to Edom being deserted in a historical judgement (34:11-15).
Eschatology of the prophets
The prophets foresaw the ‘Day of the Lord’ which would inaugurate the messianic age. In this new
age of peace, there was no more weeping, disease, sin or death. There will be justice and
righteousness under the rule of the God’s king, the Messiah. There will be true worship in God’s
temple, the nations will come and join Israel’s worship. There will be amazing fruitfulness, wealth
Compared with the pessimistic Jewish apocalyptic, the prophets were realistic optimists. There was a downhill tendency when things are left to themselves. Both spiritually and physically, the natural tendency is for things to decay.
However, there is a second principle at work, that of rejuvenation. God is at work, bringing
salvation, allowing eschatology to intrude into history. This continues to happen through the Gospel
and the ministry of the church. The coming of the kingdom of God in the NT is often described by theologians as the ‘Now but not yet’.
3. Salvation is a new Exodus
The Exodus was the great event when God liberated his people out of bondage and slavery in Egypt
under the leadership of Moses. The past exodus from Egypt is used as a pattern for a future second
exodus. The prophet looks back to the exodus from Egypt, and uses the same language to predict
a second exodus will be far greater than the first.
God will deliver his people from slavery
This exodus comes on two levels: the exodus from captivity in Babylon under Cyrus the deliverer,
and the greater exodus from the captivity of sin achieved by God’s Servant the deliverer.
God will lead his people
The God who made a way through the Red Sea, will now do a new thing. He will make a highway
in the wilderness, and rivers in the desert (43:16-21). In the first exodus, God made a way through
the Red Sea out of Egypt. In the second exodus, God will make a way through the desert out of
Babylon. He will remove all obstacles (42:15), and will provide guidance.
God promises protection for this journey (43:1-2)
This is both on the journey back to the promised land, through the water, river and fire, as well as through the Christian life.
God will provide for his people
Following the first exodus, during the time in the wilderness, God provided manna, quails and water from the rock. In a similar manner, during the second exodus God will provide water and shade
(41:17-20). This is more than merely physical water, but a spiritual provision, the water in the desert becomes the living water of the spirit. “For I will pour water on the thirsty land and streams on the dry ground, I will pour my spirit on your descendants, and my blessings on your offspring” (44:3). In the Hebrew poetry, the physical water is parallelled with the pouring out of God’s spirit. The transformation of the desert looks ahead to the new creation in Christ, a spiritual renewal. This is a similar analogy used by Jesus when he talked about streams of living water (Jn 4:14).
It will be God’s servant will provide all the aspects of the exodus theme (49:8-11). He will deliver God’s people (v9a), he will provide for and protect his people (v9b-10a), he will guide God’s people (v10b) and he will make a way for God’s people through the desert (v11).
4. God’s future salvation described in terms of good times in the past
The description of the glorious future is described by references and allusions to the golden age of Solomon and the building of the temple. These give a picture of the future, which will be even better than the past. (60:5,7,11-13). The return from exile in Babylon, even though it is still in their future, is a picture of the greater salvation, which is also described as a return. The people of God from all corners of the world will be gathered to the promised land by the servant. (27:12-13). The holy mountain of Jerusalem looks ahead to the heavenly Mt. Zion, the dwelling place of God.
In the future, God will extend his hand a second time to gather people from four corners of earth, as from Egypt (11:11-16). The great event of the original exodus from slavery in Egypt, is used to look ahead to the greater exodus in the future.
5. The prophets describe the future using OT terms and types they are familiar with
These include the temple, the law, feasts, and the nation of Israel. For Isaiah the great worship of the future includes the temple, sacrifices and Jewish feasts, even though this appears to contradict the NT where there is no longer any need for a temple or sacrifices. Even in the new heaven and new earth, Isaiah describes the whole world keeping the Jewish feasts, new moon and Sabbath with priests and Levites (66:21-23). Ezekiel had a vision of restoration in the future as a huge temple and the whole land arranged around it. Ezekiel was a priest, so it is not surprising that he saw the ideal future in this way.
King David, God’s anointed one, the ideal king, whose heart was for God, foreshadows the Messiah,
the Son of David, the greater David.
6. The future is a reversal of the present
The negative will become positive. The present misery will be turned into a glorious future. War will be turned to peace, domination by enemies will be turned to power over enemies, the desert will be turned to a garden, poverty will be turned to prosperity, and injustice turned to righteousness.
In Isaiah chapter nine, Isaiah declares that the Lord raised enemies, the Arameans from the east, and Philistines from the west, to devour Israel (9:11-12). After Judah and Ephraim turn against each
other in war (9:20-21), the return is promised (11:11-12). In this reversal, Judah and Ephraim
become friends, and plunder the Philistines and Ammonites (11:13-14).
7. The future is time of covenant blessing
The future blessing is especially described as abundance and fruitfulness of the land, often in
exaggerated terms. The curse is turned into blessing, the grain is no longer for enemies, but eaten
in holy courts (62:8). In the new heaven and new earth (65:17-25), all the negative aspects of the
present will be ‘no more’ (v20), and be replaced with covenant blessing (v21-22), including a
reversal of the present order, when the lion will lie down with the lamb (v25).