In my last installment I considered the ways in which I think the book of Daniel confounds the idea that Biblical ‘prophecy’ describes what were already accomplished events with no actual insight into the future. For me, dating considerations for Daniel confirm the fact of futurist prophecy. I want to look next at the book of Zechariah as a means of understanding something about the nature of futurist prophecy.
In Matthew 27:9-10 the matter of Judas returning the 30 pieces of silver for which he betrayed Jesus and the priest’s use of the funds – purchasing the potters field as a burial ground for the poor, indigent, and misplaced because ‘blood money’ cannot be put into the temple treasury – is regarded as a fulfillment of prophecy. Thus regarded, Zechariah made the prophecy about 520 BC and it was fulfilled about 550 years later. The Apostle Matthew definitely had a futurist understanding of prophecy.
One cautionary/explanatory note. Matthew cites the prophet Jeremiah when he is clearly quoting the prophet Zechariah. Many find this extremely problematic. For myself, even if I thought Matthew mis-credited the passage, it would not destroy the authority of Scripture. But – for what it’s worth – almost no one in the First Century had copies of any portion of Scripture – absolutely no one had what you and I would call a complete Old Testament. Many Jews regarded all the prophets, Isaiah through Malachi, as one source and referred to it as the book of Jeremiah. This would not suit us but it suited them. At any rate – the passage in question is Zechariah 11:12-13.
The point I’d like to make is that the least of the matter is the amount of money mentioned in both passages or the use of the word ‘potter’ in both passages. If that were the extent of the similarities – it could be regarded as simply coincidental and, certainly, if we limit ourselves to the two verses Matthew cited, in verses 12-13 – Zechariah does not say anything that could be read as having the Messiah directly in mind. But – when you read the whole 11th chapter of Zechariah and understand the situation the prophet was dealing with and then add another element to come a bit later in the chapter, the whole thing seems SUPER prophetic. The more so if you place chapter 11 in the larger context of Zechariah’s ministry. For instance, take a moment to read Zechariah 3:8-10 to understand that people and events in the ministry of Zechariah – while involved in problems of their own, current to their time – also represented more important figures to come at a time when God would deal with iniquity in a final way.
So, let me describe a scenario – a time at which God’s people were under the care of bad shepherds who sell out the flock for money, power, - the usual kinds of things people sell out for. The context helps us understand these bad shepherds to be the elders, scribes, and priests – the very ones who should be good shepherds for Israel – but aren’t. Into this sad situation, God sends a prophet. The prophetic message of God’s servant lays bare the bad shepherding of the elders, scribes, and priests and shows the prophet willing to exercise better shepherding. But the people reject the servant/prophet’s message, plea and offer. The prophet then says – ‘Well, pay me what you think my ministry is worth.’ Said pay amounts to 30 pieces of silver (a month’s wage for a working man). But rather than lining the prophet’s (or anyone else’s) pockets, the money is tossed to the potter. A warning is given to the flock – now doubly doomed to slaughter – that God will raise up a REALLY bad shepherd for them. That shepherd turns out to be Rome. The REALLY bad shepherd arrives on cue.
OK – you tell me – did I just describe the ministry of Zechariah or of Jesus? In fact, the same description fits both perfectly. Rome gobbled up Israel while it was gobbling up the rest of that part of the world and the prophecy of Zechariah was vindicated.
But wait! There’s more. Rome came and afflicted Jerusalem after the rejection of Zechariah. But Rome came and made an extra affliction of Jerusalem after the rejection of Jesus – AD 70.
And still there’s more! Chapter 11 is not the end of the prophecy of Zechariah. Skipping over chapter 12 for a moment, but continuing to describe the events flowing out of the prophecy, we come to this in 13:1 – In that day a fountain will be opened for the house of David and for the inhabitants of Jerusalem, for sin and for impurity.
And there’s – you guessed it - MORE! In considering the bad shepherding done by the elders, scribes, and priests (read also Pharisees, scribes and Sadducees), the rejection of the REALLY GOOD SHEPHERD and the ministrations of the REALLY BAD SHEPHERD consequently raised up by God, after all the boiling, burning, smiting and bewilderment, we find this in 12:10, I will pour out on the house of David and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the Spirit of grace and of supplication, so that they will look on ME whom they have pierced; and they will mourn for HIM (note the opposition of personal pronouns!) as one mourns for an only son, and they will weep bitterly over him like the bitter weeping over a firstborn.
You see, it isn’t just that Zechariah mentioned 30 pieces of silver and a potter. For the real prophetic word of the prophet Zechariah to be fulfilled requires so much more than a questionable real estate deal conducted by priests with money returned by a remorseful Judas.
For what it’s worth – the prophecy of Zechariah DID have to do with people and events of the time. Zechariah had a ministry and he meant to conduct it and there were consequences for the people to whom the prophet was sent should they reject his ministry. Yes, it was about rebuilding the temple and yes, it was about the faults of those who should have been the shepherds of Israel at the time. But it was about the future doings of many nations as well as the present failings of one nation – Israel. And those present failings of Israel in 520 BC were only a smoky mirror image of their future failings in AD 30. Zechariah himself was a hazy image of Christ – as was the high priest, Joshua, in chapter 3, the bad shepherds of the people learned nothing in half a millennium and Rome served God’s disciplinary purposes both times.
And still, there was a bigger game afoot: redemption, a fountain for the cleansing of sins and the ultimate vindication of the REALLY GOOD SHEPHERD. This is what I mean when I say the Bible is a uniquely layered book and that prophecy is more than we realize. Or, we could settle for what could be argued to be a simple coincidental mention of a certain amount of money and a potter. But that would be a shame.
Does the Bible actually forecast the future? The answers are surprisingly varied among Christians. ‘Preterists’ say ‘no’ – that Biblical ‘prophecies’ refer to events that had already happened or were in the process of happening at the time the prophecy was made. There are varying levels of preterism – partial and full being the best catch all descriptions. The opposite of preterism is ‘futurism’ – that Biblical prophecies refer to events still in the future at the time the prophecy was made. A full preterist rendering of the book of revelation (and other New Testament apocalyptic material) will insist that it all relates to AD 70 and the destruction of Jerusalem by Rome. A futurist reading will insist that most of what is described in New Testament apocalyptic passages still waits to be fulfilled. If you recall a previous blog of mine, you know that I think both things are true in a sense. Historicism (of which there are also varying degrees) sees the same material as a description of ongoing historical processes – the beast is a description of the Satan inspired actions of earthly governments – active at the time – still active now and ramping up for one last rampage to come.
The fact is – the Bible is a uniquely layered book. Certainly, the prophets were dealing with the unjust behavior of kings, nations, and the citizens of Israel AT THE TIME. And yet – they, at least on the face of it, forecasted the Babylonian Captivity to come as a result of present behaviors persisting into the future. Even Nebuchadnezzar and Cyrus were mentioned by name – presumably before either man was born. Presumably? Enter another area of Biblical scholarship – Historical/Textual Criticism. Each book of the Bible as we have it is a compilation of multiple authors strung out over time and in addition to the major authors, there are no end to scribal additions, addendums, and editorial notes that, either purposely or accidentally in the process of generations of copying by hand, became part of the text. In this view, the book of Genesis has at least four major authors spread out over the centuries and the book of Isaiah at least three. If this view is true, then obviously material concerning the Babylonian Captivity, including the names of the major pagan kings, are to be viewed as later additions to the older prophetic works.
Just to make my own position clear, HOGWASH! If this makes me a simpleton, so be it. But let us consider something about the aforementioned ‘beast’ – a feature of both Old and New Testament Apocalyptic. In the Old Testament, the main source of material concerning ‘the beast’ is found in the visions of Daniel. (Don’t even ask me how many authors Daniel is supposed to have had!) The first time the idea crops up, the ‘beast’ terminology is not used. In chapter two, Daniel interprets Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of a gigantic statue as representing a series of four earthly kingdoms and some climactic event (a stone cut from the mountain but not by human hands rolling into and smashing the whole statue in the days of the fourth kingdom) It is nearly impossible NOT to understand the four kingdoms as Babylon, the Medo/Persians, the Greeks (Alexander the Great) and Rome – the big thing that God is going to do with the stone not cut by human hands then, happening in the days of Rome’s rule. The material is revisited and expanded upon in Daniel’s own vision of the beasts and the interpretation of that vision in chapters seven and eight. To this must be added Daniel’s extremely precise and accurate recitation of (presumably) future events in chapter eleven. If the Historical Critical view is to be held concerning Daniel then the bulk of this information must have been added much later than the ministry of Daniel. After all, we can hardly expect a man 500+ years BC to know the succession of kingdoms and events that will lead to the advent of Christ. That would be – humanly impossible. Exactly!
So, here’s the thing, Copies of Daniel (from small fragments to nearly whole manuscripts) were found in the Dead Sea Scrolls. The physical inscription of these copies date from as recent as 60 AD to as early as 125 B.C. Analysis of the vocabulary and grammar of the older copies indicates a scribe in 125 BC reproducing much older copies – probably with Hebrew originals – indicating MUCH older copies. If this is not clear – whoever copied the book of Daniel in 125 BC used letter forms, spellings, etc. not from his own time – evidence of copying something that came from an earlier era. And the specifics of that earlier Aramaic version of Daniel suggest that it was translated from an even earlier Hebrew version. But even if we only back up to 125 BC – the date of the copying of the oldest DSS Manuscript of Daniel – we are half a century before Rome Seizes the quarreling fragments of Alexander’s Empire AND – over the nearly 200 years of hand copying we have, despite the superficial differences in the structure of the letters and the spelling of words – no material is added. It’s all there as far back as we can go – at least 125 BC with solid evidence of much earlier iterations. If the Hebrew original is correctly inferred, we are essentially back to the time of Daniel himself.
So, I ask again – does the Bible actually forecast the future? Unless everyone screams ‘NO!’ I will write a second installment on prophecy soon.
I like covered bridges. Why? They are picturesque. They evoke memories from my childhood – when there were more of them. Almost all the covered bridges we used to cross Morgan County, Indiana creeks on are gone. Counties like Park County, Indiana and Ashtabula County, Ohio that maintain several covered bridges have made a tourist industry of them. I suppose, otherwise, the anachronistic structures would be too expensive and limited to keep. Limited – because the old ones are narrow one car at a time structures and the one car needs to go fairly slow while crossing too! Expensive because the old covered bridges are primarily wooden structures and thus require constant maintenance. Which – on the one hand, is funny because the point of the covered bridges in the first place was reducing maintenance! Unless the deck of a bridge is arched and domed, water will pool on it when it rains and it will decay. A less expensive proposition than arching and doming was to put an A frame roof over the bridge deck. The roof would shed the water. Since we hadn’t (and still haven’t) figured out how to get that roof to float in space (Still rooting for anti-gravity, in which case we won’t need bridges at all!) the roof required walls, the whole supported by the deck, i.e. ‘covered bridge’. The walls could be constructed with arches and connecting rods or wooden lattices that would increase the strength of the deck even as the roof protected it from the elements. The bridge deck lasted much longer and the maintenance on the roof was considerably easier and cheaper than the maintenance on the unprotected deck would have been. Win/win!
Then bridges began to be constructed of steel, concrete and asphalt. Not only are these materials more resistant to water damage, they made it comparatively easy to build arch and dome into the deck so it sheds water all on its own. No roof means no need for walls – at most a couple of concrete or steel guard rails to prevent any unfortunate from driving off the side on a dark icy night. As the new materials made stronger bridges, bridges could also be wider for two-way traffic and able to bear higher speed traffic. Better bridges and no need to maintain all that wood!
Which is why I was leery as my wife and I recently began the tour of Ashtabula County’s covered bridges. The first three we saw were frauds. One, billed as the shortest covered bridge in Ohio, is a foot bridge over a ditch I could still, at 63, jump across. Another, billed as the longest covered bridge in Ohio, is built on a state highway and is actually a thoroughly modern bridge to which a totally un-necessary, entirely decorative ‘cover’ structure has been added. A third, somewhere between the longest and shortest, is the same – a modern bridge with covered bridge themed décor. Fortunately, after that, the remaining dozen plus covered bridges were actual one lane, low speed, wood deck, integrated strength increasing wall architecture, honest to goodness covered bridges. We thoroughly enjoyed the tour despite my initial misgivings.
Perhaps I am a purist. But if I take the lid off a butter churn I don’t want to find a hidden mini-fridge full of plastic tubs of Blue Bonnet or Land O Lakes! I get why we have moved on from butter churns, covered bridges and other items featured in my childhood. You don’t need to humor me with pretenses! Well, maybe in just one instance. When one favorite bridge from my youth disappeared they knocked down the embankments that raised the bridge above flood levels and set a culvert in the resultant sump. A culvert! That’s not trading poetry for prose – it’s trading poetry for animal sounds! Now that I’ve got that out of my system –
Materials, construction techniques and efficiency aside – the purpose of the bridges remains the same – to give you a way across the gap and over the flood – to get you and yours safely where they could not go otherwise.
Much has changed for the modern church. Some of it I completely understand. Modern technology makes it possible to reach more people more easily and efficiently. Never mind the internet! I miss some of the period related aspects of the church of my childhood but I understand why we moved on. No need to humor ourselves with pretenses. Still, the functions of the church remain exactly the same. For one, there’s a gap between the world and the Kingdom. It’s a perilous gap. A bridge is needed.