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New Testament Eschatology -- Old Testament Background Continued


We have been taking a very brief look at the Old Testament use of a literary genre called Apocalyptics. This is a very poetic type of literature where cosmic language is often used to describe the destruction of a nation. In this post, we are going to look at some of the 'time statements' of prophecy, i.e., when they should take place.

The timing of the event is as much a part of the event as the description of what is going to happen. However, more times than not, the 'time statements' are given in real time. That is, they give a concrete (or dare I state 'literal') timetable about when something would take place. A lot of the time, however, people will try and use the proverb 'A day is like a thousand years to the Lord, and a thousand years is like a day' as a way of dealing with these time statements. But that is not always possible. In fact, more often than not, the prophecies come to pass exactly when they are said to. Here are just a few examples.
Genesis 7:1-4. When everything was ready, the LORD said to Noah, “...Seven days from now I will make the rains pour down on the earth. And it will rain for forty days and forty nights, until I have wiped from the earth all the living things I have created.”

Please note two things that the YHWH said to Noah: 1) it would start to rain in seven days and 2) it would continue to rain for forty days and nights. Now, to me, a very sensible question would be, 'How would Noah understand the time statements?' I think he would have understood them exactly the way we would today. And he wouldn't have been mislead.
Genesis 7.10-12. After seven days, the waters of the flood came and covered the earth...The rain continued to fall for forty days and forty nights.

Here, just a few short verses later, we have the fulfillment of that prophecy. This shows us that YHWH meant exactly what was said to Noah. Seven days equaled seven days. Forty days and nights equaled forty days and nights.

Another example can be seen from the book of Exodus. Moses has been going back and forth between YHWH and Pharaoh and YHWH has been sending various plagues to Egypt so that Pharaoh would release the Israelites. Finally, Moses comes to Pharaoh and says:
Exodus 11.4-5. 'This is what the LORD says: At midnight tonight I will pass through the heart of Egypt. All the firstborn sons will die in every family in Egypt, from the oldest son of Pharaoh, who sits on his throne, to the oldest son of his lowliest servant girl who grinds the flour. Even the firstborn of all the livestock will die.'

There are a couple of things here we should mention. First, is Pharaoh. The reason he is important is that he is a person outside the covenant family. If there was some sort of proverb about how YHWH used time, it would probably not be known to Pharaoh. Second, is the time itself -- 'at midnight tonight'. Why would YHWH, through Moses, give Pharaoh a specific time if there was some sort of different meaning of that time?

In other words, if I told my child that she needs to have her room cleaned up by four o'clock this afternoon or else she would be grounded, what type of motivation would it be if I really meant (or might really mean) some other time entirely? After a while of this type of double-standard, she would completely loose all confidence in me. I would be seen as...well...a liar. It would seem that I don't mean what I say. If I say that I want something done at a specific time, then that's exactly what I mean. The same thing appears in this passage. Through Moses, YHWH told Pharaoh that judgment would fall 'at midnight tonight'. YHWH didn't mean four o'clock tomorrow or 7:27 a.m. in two weeks. YHWH knew what YHWH meant. Moses knew what YHWH meant. And Pharaoh knew what YHWH meant. 'Midnight tomorrow' meant exactly midnight tomorrow as the fulfillment of this warning shows:
Exodus 12.29. And that night at midnight, the Lord struck down all the firstborn sons in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn son of Pharaoh, who sat on his throne, to the firstborn son of the prisoner in the dungeon. Even the firstborn of their livestock were killed.

Our last example is a couple of passages that deals with the Babylonian captivity:
Jeremiah 25.11. This entire land will become a desolate wasteland. Israel and her neighboring lands will serve the king of Babylon for seventy years.

Jeremiah 29.10. This is what the Lord says: 'You will be in Babylon for seventy years. But then I will come and do for you all the good things I have promised, and I will bring you home again.'

Here we see that a plain, 'normal', or human understanding of these two passages would lead us to believe that Israel would be in Babylon for seventy years. And we wouldn't be alone.
Daniel 9.1-3. It was the first year of the reign of Darius the Mede, the son of Ahasuerus, who became king of the Babylonians. During the first year of his reign, I, Daniel, learned from reading the word of the LORD, as revealed to Jeremiah the prophet, that Jerusalem must lie desolate for seventy years. So I turned to the LORD God and pleaded with him in prayer and fasting. I also wore rough burlap and sprinkled myself with ashes.

Here we see that the prophet Daniel understood Jeremiah's 'seventy years' to mean seventy years. With this understanding Daniel started praying and fasting on behalf of Israel, supposedly because the time was almost over. However, the angel Gabriel came and told him that the exile wouldn't be over until 'seventy sets of seven' (v.24). This shows us something else that is crucial to understanding New Testament eschatology: if something other than the plain, normal, human understanding of time is meant, YHWH reveals that. People aren't left to figure it out on their own. Over and over again, when YHWH gives specific time tables, they mean exactly what they normally mean unless YHWH states differently.

On last thing. We have looked at specific time signatures and found that, unless otherwise stated, they should be understood exactly the way humans understand time. However, there are some statements in the Bible that don't have specific time statements. Some prophecies have the elusive phrase, 'in the last days'. This phrase could mean the final days of a nation, the final days of a certain era (or age), or, perhaps, the final days of time itself. This term is more general and more specific time signatures aren't given. The goal for such a general statement is two-fold: 1) certainty that things will change; that the current situation will not last forever but; 2) it's also meant to keep the people prepared and looking.

Next time will conclude our very brief Old Testament eschatology background. Until then...

Peace be with you.



Ted M. Gossard said…
And I know what you say here, in my mind, does not contradict that.
Ted M. Gossard said…
Good to spell this out as you do here. I'm in agreement. Though I'm not convinced that the "days" in Genesis 1 are literal 24 hour days, thinking they are meant to be read as "day" in a poetic portrayal of God's creation of the world.
Odysseus said…
I agree. Some believe that the creation stories are older additions to Genesis. And the pattern, working on six 'days' and resting on the seventh 'day', was already established in the Hebrew culture. Therefore, when they editor wanted to tell how the Hebrews understood creation, 'he' followed the established order and had Elohim create in six 'days' and rest on the seventh. For some people, how one views the creation accounts is almost a litmus test for orthodoxy. But I think that misses the main point entirely. For me, the point of the creation story(ies) is that YHWH created everything, seen and unseen.

When we start looking too closely at the details, we miss that bigger picture. So many times (and I know because I used to study this way -- and still do sometimes) we start with the microscope when we need to be using the telescope -- one of the huge suckers. But I am learning that, before we get down to that level of study, we need to have a better understanding of the big picture. This includes the different languages, genres, history, peoples, etc. And then keep that in mind when we start breaking things down. If we start with the root of some word without the proper bird's-eye-view ... well ... we will probably miss the whole point of the story. Both types of study need to be done, but I think the proper order is the big picture first and then start moving through the layers to whatever depth you want. But each layer should compliment the previous layer. Does that make sense?

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