What do you think about when you think of prophecy? Do you think of beasts rising up out of the sea, or people sitting on their roofs waiting for the return of Jesus Christ, or shofars being blown in heaven, or crazy people with signs on the medians of boulevards, or preachers on the television talking about the Middle East?
What do you think about when you think of history? Do you think of a man dressed in a conservative suit talking about metaethnic boundaries and the formation of imperial nations under the stress of conflict with those of a different worldview? Do you think of someone writing obscure texts about the Prussianization of Chile’s army in the late 19th century? Do you think of musty books in a library that no one reads except for a few people with thick glasses and a far-off gaze?
What could possibly be the connection between these two very different genres of literature? In the Bible, depending on what version you have, there are some books that will be considered as historical books in many versions and prophetic books in others. These books: Joshua, Judges, 1st and 2nd Samuel, and 1st and 2nd Kings, are included as historical books in some versions (like the New King James, which I usually tend to quote from, simply because it’s fairly accessible, with a resting spot right next to my computer, and largely aligned with the M-Text). However, in the Tanakh (the Hebrew text) they are included as the “Former Prophets” as the first part of the Neviim section (“The Prophets”). Of course, those same books are also considered as the “Deuteronomic History” by those authors who wish connect the former prophets with the Law.
Despite my profound disagreements with those who would wish to posit that Deuteronomy was written late, in the divided kingdom period (960BC-723BC, or thereabouts), I do agree that the Former Prophets are profoundly related to the prophetic warnings to Israel made in Deuteronomy 28 (and Leviticus 26). I don’t plan on going over these verses in detail, but what they boil down to is God’s promise to bless Israel for obedience and curse them for disobedience. The history recorded in those books likewise follows a very moralistic ground for judging rulers. Rulers are judged based on whether they took away the high places, let them remain for the people to worship, followed in the sin of Jeroboam the son of Nabat, and other religious grounds rather than based on how economically or militarily successful Israel or Judah was during their reign, or what sort of alliances they had with neighboring states. In fact, foreign alliances would probably receive negative marks because of the resulting religious compromises that would result from foreign marriages, including building pagan altars.
The Former prophets contain a few prophecies that are fulfilled within other books. For example, Joshua pronounced the following (in Joshua 6:26): “Cursed be the man before the Lord who rises up and builds this city Jericho; he shall lay the foundations with his firstborn and with his youngest he shall set up its gates.” Lo and behold, when Hiel of Bethel rebuilt Jericho’s walls, that is precisely what happened (see 1 Kings 16:34). Likewise, there was a prophecy from a nameless “man of God” who said: “Behold, a child, Josiah by name, shall be born to the house of David; and on you he shall sacrifice the priests of the high places who burn incense on you, and men’s bones shall be burned on you.” And so it came to pass (2 Kings 23:15-16). These sorts of fulfilled prophecy within the course of the former prophets, and the way in which the former prophets demonstrated the predictable blessings and cursings of God on obedience and disobedience are meant to promote a view of history that views God’s authority as its most fundamental element.
In fact, the aspect of prophecy as history written in advance that serves as the connecting bridge between the two fields. Additionally, there is the tendency for both history and prophecy to be viewed as matters of dates and times, when in reality those are peripheral and unimportant matters to those who are the most adept students in the fields. Far more important than the names and dates are the trends and conditions, the accounts of the people involved, the processes by which nations and empires and dynasties rise and fall, the ways in which the wars of man bring misery to untold millions who mostly live and die in anonymity and obscurity, consigned to oblivion by histories that focus on supposedly glorious rulers who kill their own people by the thousand and million but who build luxurious buildings and palaces and generously give taxpayer money to musicians and artists to beautify those buildings with objects d’art and fill them with the sounds of the violin or coloratura.
A large part of the disrepute to which both history and prophecy fall is as a result of mistaken priorities as well as the way in which people are taught to focus on the wrong parts. Historians make lousy prophets, but self-appointed prophets make pretty lousy prophets too. In both history and prophecy there is the tendency to find some aspect that is appreciated and to run with it–to fill in the gaps, to provide a narrative that is plausible but not accurate rather than to admit what is known, and perhaps may never be known. Perhaps we would all be better off if we were able to handle the uncertainty, and embrace the common humanity we find looking forward and looking back, knowing that “plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose,” or, to translate Jean Baptiste Alphone Karr’s phrase into English, “the more things change the more they remain the same.” The more we look into either history or prophecy, the more we see ourselves. So long as we recognize that, and react with the proper humility about our own sagacity, let us not be deterred from either area of study.