Thoughts on Bible prophecy: reading the future in Scripture

I just led a Sunday School class on the eighth chapter of Daniel. It got me thinking about Bible prophecy and what it means when prophecies are fulfilled. Just what are we supposed to learn from goats and rams with weird-looking horns that turn out to mean something that even Daniel could make no sense of? This chapter seems to have been entirely fulfilled by the reign of Syrian king Antiochus IV in the second century B.C. Or was it? Does it also refer to the final Antichrist? Can we find clues of what is still ahead for the world?

Twenty-five years ago, when I watched a lot of Christian television, I caught two consecutive shows on Bible prophecy. Each host commented on a lot of scriptures and pointed out current events. On that basis he conclusively proved the origin of the Antichrist. Trouble is, one proved he would be a European and the other proved he would be an Arab. How can both be fulfilled? What confidence can anyone have that either teacher comes even close to the truth?

From these, other programs, and things I have read over the years, I conclude that reading with the Bible in one hand, the newspaper in the other, and trying to predict the future is not rightly handling the word of truth. Teachers who do so have no credibility and give prophecy a bad name.

On the other hand, I do believe in predictive prophecy. Over and over, the Bible validates God’s right to expect worship and obedience with a statement that through his prophets he can proclaim the future. Their words will be fulfilled. Those of false prophets and those who follow other gods will not.

Daniel and other prophets wrote in symbols that are hard to grasp at least partly because God does not intend for anyone to figure out in advance what he’s up to. People will know that a prophecy is in the Bible. They must have faith that it will be fulfilled somehow. Only in hindsight will all the details fall into place.

Daniel had the vision in chapter 8 at the tail end of the Babylonian empire. At the time, Jerusalem and its temple were still in ruins. Twelve years later, the Persians overran Babylon and quickly decreed that all captive nations (including Judah) be repatriated. That decree fulfilled any number of previous prophecies.

But while the temple was still an abandoned hulk, Daniel’s vision looked forward to the desecration of another temple at the hands of a Greek-speaking king, and this ruin, unlike the first, would be unrelated to the peoples’ sins. The vision even specifies the time at which that as yet unbuilt temple would be reconsecrated.

Looking back, we can see that Antiochus IV sought to impose Greek culture on Palestine, which his father had wrested from Egyptian control. At the height of his persecution, he built a statue of Zeus in the temple and sacrifices swine to it. That sparked a guerilla campaign that resulted in defeat for Antiochus’ henchmen.

After winning the victory, Judas Maccabeus destroyed the offensive statue and reconsecrated the temple. Coincidentally, Antiochus died of an illness in another part of his kingdom, which fulfilled another part of Daniel’s prophecy.

Daniel 8:14 says that the horror would last for 2,300 evenings and mornings. There are two different ways of interpreting that. An evening and a morning make a day, so 2,300 days is approximately six years. On the other hand, sacrifices were offered every evening and morning–two sacrifices a day. If that’s the meaning, 2,300 evenings and mornings make 1,150 days, or about three years. Which is correct?

It doesn’t matter! From the time Antiochus began his persecution until his death and Judas’ victory was about six years. From the time he desecrated the temple by sacrificing swine until the reconsecration of the temple was about three years. God fulfilled Daniel’s prophecy right on schedule regardless of how one interprets the 2,300 evenings and mornings.

The Bible speaks of a coming time of terror such as the world has never seen before. It will be led by a demonic man known as the Antichrist. Jesus spoke about this time. The books of Daniel and Revelation tell how long it will last and how it will end. Will this Antichrist be European? Arab? Someone else entirely? When the tribulation begins, will it look anything like any of the descriptions in paintings, poems, novels, TV shows, movies, or any other form of communication over the past couple of millennia?

What does it matter? God is in control. He has warned humanity long in advance that his strength will be perfected in weakness. Many a prophecy in the Bible indicates that the Antichrist will trample on God’s people for a limited amount of time. That time will be short. God will rout and destroy the devil and his whole gang. Afterward comes God’s glorious and unlimited grace. Somehow, every prophecy will be fulfilled. Be content with faith and don’t worry about figuring out the details in advance.

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