Something like a quarter of the Bible is made up of what is known as prophecy. Bible prophecy is important because it reveals God's plan for the nations (in particular the nation of Israel) and for the world as a whole. Many of the Bible's specific and exciting prophecies have already come to pass (see below), and these remarkable fulfillments give strong evidence for the belief that the Bible is God's word. They also show that world history is indeed moving forward according to God's pre-determined plan.
The prophets were God’s messengers, called to bring His words to the people. They came from all walks of life – but what made them special was that God asked them to speak on His behalf.
The work of a prophet
We can think of their role as having two key aspects. First, they were divine commentators on the society in which they lived. They were preachers. They looked at what ordinary men and women were up to, and also what was unfolding on the national and international scale, and they interpreted it in the context of God’s plan for His people. If the people were doing wrong things, it was the prophets’ job to tell them, and to encourage them to reform.
Second, the prophets spoke about the future. They made clear predictions of what was going to happen and why. The Bible asserts that God is in control of human affairs and has a plan for our world. Bible prophecy provides evidence that this is true.
What would be the relevance of Bible prophecy today? First, it lets us know what God’s plan is for the future, and what we should do about it. Second, fulfilled prophecies from the past give evidence that God will be as good as His word. The Bible says that God plans to send His son Jesus back to the earth again to set up God’s kingdom on earth. That must sound pretty hard to believe on first hearing! But the amazing Bible prophecies of the past which have been fulfilled can give tremendous confidence that God will do as He says, and provide convincing evidence that the Bible is the word of God. Here are a few examples.
Prophecies about Jesus
Hundreds of years before his birth, the Bible predicted that Jesus would be born in Bethlehem, that he would be an amazing and unparalleled teacher, and that he would willingly die as a sacrifice for the world. These prophecies are detailed and specific, and if you examine the evidence it’s pretty inconceivable that Jesus deliberately ‘acted out’ these things to claim that he had fulfilled them. As far as I’m aware there are no equivalent prophecies, for instance, of Mohammed or some of the other leaders of religious movements.
Even the immense sufferings of Jesus on the cross were predicted in the Old Testament, hundreds of years before they happened. Here are two astonishing passages which portray Jesus’ passion (speaking of it as though it had already happened, even though it lay centuries ahead):
“He was despised and rejected by men;
A man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief,
And as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised,
And we esteemed him not …
But he was wounded for our transgressions;
He was crushed for our iniquities;
Upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
And with his stripes we are healed …
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
Yet he opened not his mouth;
Like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
And like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
So he opened not his mouth …
He was cut off out of the land of the living,
Stricken for the transgression of my people.
And they made his grave with the wicked
And with a rich man in his death,
Although he had done no violence,
And there was no deceit in his mouth.” (Isaiah 53v3,5,7-9)
“All who see me mock me;
They make mouths at me; they wag their heads;
‘He trusts in the Lord; let Him deliver him;
Let Him rescue him, for He delights in him!’ …
I am poured out like water,
And all my bones are out of joint …
My strength is dried up like a potsherd,
And my tongue sticks to my jaws;
You lay me in the dust of death …
They have pierced my hands and feet …
They divide my garments among them,
And for my clothing they cast lots.” (Psalm 22v7-8,14-19)
Every time you see a cross or some piece of Christian art or iconography (for instance on a stained glass window), it can serve as a reminder of the miracle that Jesus’ sufferings were predicted in the Old Testament hundreds of years before they happened.
Prophecies about the nations
Let’s move from the individual to the international level. The sequence, rise and fall of the Babylonian, Persian, Grecian and Roman empires was predicted, for instance (just take a look at Daniel 2). There are other nations and cities, too, whose fates have been similarly predicted – like Tyre, Edom, and so forth.
Let’s take one example to look at a little more closely – the fall of the Babylonian empire. The prophet Isaiah predicted its demise when the Assyrians were still in control – a hundred years before the Babylonians were even the dominant power in the Middle East!
“The oracle concerning Babylon … Wail, for the day of the Lord is near, as destruction from the Almighty it will come! … Behold, I am stirring up the Medes against them … And Babylon, the glory of kingdoms, the splendor and pomp of the Chaldeans, will be like Sodom and Gomorrah when God overthrew them. It will never be inhabited or lived in for all generations; no Arab will pitch his tent there; no shepherds will make their flocks lie down there. But wild animals will lie down there, and their houses will be full of howling creatures …” (Isaiah 13v1,6,17,19-21)
Notice the specifics here: the Babylonian empire (one of the greatest the world has ever seen) will be overthrown by the Medes (it was!), and that it would be completely rased. No one would live there again. We know from ancient travel accounts that the site of Babylon was shunned for centuries by wandering nomads (just as Isaiah predicts), and we have seen Saddam Hussein’s recent boasts of rebuilding Babylon come to nothing.
Here is a similar prophecy from Jeremiah, who lived at the peak of Babylonian power in the region:
“Thus says the Lord: ‘Behold, I will stir up the spirit of a destroyer against Babylon … and I will send to Babylon winnowers, and they shall winnow her, and they shall empty her land, when they come against her from every side on the day of trouble … Suddenly Babylon has fallen and been broken; wail for her! … Prepare the nations for war against her, the kings of the Medes ,,, and Babylon shall become a heap of ruins, the haunt of jackals, a horror and a hissing, without inhabitant … the broad wall of Babylon shall be leveled to the ground, and her high gates shall be burned with fire…’” (Jeremiah 51v1-2,8,28,37,58)
Again, clear and specific words which came to pass.
Prophecies about the Jews
But particularly impressive are those prophecies about the Jewish nation – that the Jews would be scattered and persecuted and be a proverb or byword through all nations of the world yet not be assimilated or lose their identity (how many other nations has that happened to?), and that God would bring them back to the land of Israel again. Once again, remarkable and specific detail is given, and within the last century we’ve seen clear evidence of those prophecies in action.
Here is a prophecy of some of the sufferings (like anti-semitism) that the Jews would experience, recorded as early as the fifth book of the Bible:
“And you shall become a horror, a proverb, and a byword among all the people where the Lord will lead you away … And the Lord will scatter you among all peoples, from one end of the earth to the other … and among these nations you shall find no respite, and there shall be no resting place for the soul of your foot, but the Lord will give you there a trembling heart and failing eyes, and a languishing soul. Your life shall hang in doubt before you. Night and day you shall be in dread and have no assurance of your life.” (Deuteronomy 28v37,64-66)
And here are two passages which predicted that the Jews, once scattered throughout the world in AD70, would be re-gathered to the land of Palestine again (an unparalleled event in world history – usually nations who are scattered like this are simply assimilated into their new cultures and environments). It is a great testimony to the word of God and to Bible prophecy, and is part of the evidence that Jesus’ return to the earth is near.
“Thus says the Lord God: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations to which you came … I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land.” (Ezekiel 36v22,24)
“Thus says the Lord God: Behold, I will take the people of Israel from the nations among which they have gone, and will gather them from all around, and bring them to their own land.” (Ezekiel 37v21)
These prophecies, made 2500 years before, were fulfilled in 1948 and 1967,
and are still being fulfilled today as more and more Jews return to Palestine.
In sum, Bible prophecy is an amazing phenomenon. Bible prophecies are not vague and general like the prophecies of Nostradamus, for instance, might be. They are specific, and many of them have been fulfilled. They give evidence that other key elements of God’s plan will indeed come to pass as He has said.