Summary of Prophetic Expectations at the time of Jesus

 

 

The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus cannot be understood without reference to Jewish prophecy. These point to the coming of a "Kingdom of God" in which a divinely appointed figure known as the Messiah would participate. If Christian belief holds Jesus to be that Messiah, our understanding of him must be grounded in scriptural descriptions of the Messiah. Jesus himself would have been guided by this knowledge. We will summarize points of information drawn from prophetic scripture. This would comprise the picture of the final days as Jesus himself might have understood it.

First there is the cultural context in which the prophecies were made. We are talking of a religious culture going back to Moses, Jacob, and Abraham. The idea of contacting God predates civilized societies. Shamanic priests of many cultures seek to communicate with the spirit world, and especially the spirit of dead ancestors, to ensure happiness and prosperity for people living in their communities.

Yahweh, God of the Hebrew people, is identified as an ancestral spirit in his first meeting with Moses: "I am the God of your forebearers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob." (Exodus 3: 6) Later, this God is identified as the agent of deliverance from Egypt. Before giving the Ten Commandments, God says: "I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery." (Exodus 20: 2)

God thus becomes a character in history who has power over nature. Yet he favors the Jews above other peoples. His identity reflects a composite of memories which include both the exodus from Egypt and the promise to Abraham and his descendants that they would possess the land of Canaan.

A cult was established for the worship of Yahweh. An order of priests descended from Aaron conducted rituals at the Temple. A monarchy sanctioned by God was created, first, in the person of Saul and, then, of David, Solomon, and their descendants. Additionally, there were holy men called prophets who spoke under divine inspiration. Their utterances represented direct communication between God and his people. The truth of these statements was believed absolute. Unlike the kingdoms of other peoples which trusted in earthly riches and might, the Jewish nation lived under the rule of God's representatives.

When alphabetic writing spread through Middle Eastern societies in the early part of the 1st millennium B.C., this technology became a useful tool for recording national memories. Memories of the world's creation and of God's contact with the patriarchs and with Moses were written down. Then came the chronicles of kings, the history of the Jewish nation. History was an important type of written work. Then the art of writing was joined with the tradition of prophecy.

Amos, the first writing prophet, carried the story of past history into the future. As a prophet of God, he was believed to be presenting a message that came from God. God knew the entire story of his creation; and so those who spoke in his name were presumed to be presenting a true picture of how the future would unfold.

These are some cultural assumptions which underlay prophetic scripture. The scripture itself assumed a certain life under a succession of authors. By the time that Jesus lived, scriptural expectations had been accumulating for over eight centuries. I would compare them with a dramatic script. In assuming the role of Messiah, Jesus had to follow that script in all its complexities.

Jesus' conscious efforts to fulfill the prophetic scriptures affected world history. From a historical standpoint, it is important to know how the scriptures created by the Old Testament prophets motivated Jesus. It is important to know the particular scriptural elements which gave rise to the idea of the Kingdom of God.

Here are some of them:

1. The two kingdoms which succeeded the kingdom of David and Solomon were surrounded by hostile neighbors. On their own, it seemed that these nations would be swallowed up by foreign empires. The prophets imagined that, on the "Day of Yahweh", God would intervene in earthly affairs and allow the Jews to defeat their earthly enemies.

2. Amos conceived another outcome. On the Day of Yahweh, he said, God would intervene to defeat both the Jews and their neighbors. Yet, God would allow the Jewish nation to rise again in power and glory. The idea of the Jews suffering immediate defeat but later being restored is also found in Hosea, Micah, Zephaniah, Isaiah and Jeremiah. It replaced the earlier, simpler conception of the "Day of Jahweh".

3. Amos introduced the idea that only part of the Jewish population would participate in the national restoration: those found pleasing to God. The bad people would perish in the period of God's wrath. There would be a "sifting" of people on moral grounds. This idea is picked up by Ezekiel, who imagines that persons with marked foreheads will be saved from destruction; and by Malachi, who describes the process of judgment in terms of refining precious metals.

4. Amos declared that God would judge individuals on the basis of ethical conduct rather than performance of rituals. Animal sacrifices could not win God's favor. God prefers the gifts of righteousness, justice, and mercy.

5. Isaiah and Jeremiah related the prophecy of national destruction and redemption to events happening in their own time. For Isaiah, living in the 8th century B.C., Assyria posed the chief threat to Israel and Judah. For Jeremiah, living a century later, Babylon under Nebuchadnezzar assumed that role. In both cases the prophets advised the Jews not to resist the enemy but accept their fate as representing God's will. These two prophets gained prestige from the fact that their prophecies later came true. Assyria and Babylon did, in fact, conquer the two Jewish kingdoms.

6. While Amos had mentioned "rais(ing) up the tabernacle of David that is fallen", Isaiah advanced the idea of national restoration. He said that the restored kingdom would be a "Kingdom of Peace". Isaiah was the first prophet to mention the "Messiah". That person was God's "anointed" one, a descendant of David, who would rule over the Jewish kingdom after it was restored. The idea of a Messiah, David's descendant appointed by God to rule his kingdom, is repeated by the prophets Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Haggai, Zechariah, and Ezra.

7. Isaiah also declared that the restored kingdom of David would be boundless and everlasting. (Isaiah 9:7) This is the first hint of an eternal kingdom, emphasized by prophets such as Daniel.

8. Isaiah wrote that the coming of God's kingdom would be accompanied by miraculous events in nature. Wild animals would suddenly be tamed. Both man and beast would become peaceful. Ezekiel described a spring of miraculous waters that gushed up beneath a corner of the Temple and flowed to the Dead Sea, reviving fish in that sea and nourishing trees on its banks. Their leaves would never wither.

9. Jeremiah spoke of a new covenant that God would make with Israel. Its laws would not be written on paper but in people's hearts. God would forgive sins and not seek punishment. There would be a new spiritualized kingdom.

10. Jeremiah said that the Gentiles, too, would have a place in God's kingdom. That idea is further developed in Second Isaiah. If others nations worshipped Yahweh, that meant that he was a universal God rather than the god of a particular nation. Nature, too, obeyed this God.

11. Ezekiel foresaw that the Temple would be a miraculous, wonderful, supernatural place. Jerusalem would become a perfect city.

12. In Ezekiel are found visions of a clash between alien armies and armies of God. He imagines that Jerusalem is surrounded and attacked by evil forces, especially from the north. These armies are destroyed on Mount Zion. In the Apocalypse of Enoch, the attackers are identified as Parthians and Medes from the east.

13. Second Isaiah stressed the universality of Yahweh, creator of the universe. Miracles occurring in nature testify to his unique power.

14. The 53rd chapter of Isaiah presents a portrait of God's suffering servant, Israel, whose miserable experiences during the period of exile are intended to glorify God among the Gentiles. This servant is a pitiful sight: "despised" among men, "pierced for our transgressions", "led like a sheep to the slaughter", silent before his accusers "like a ewe that is dumb before the shearers", "assigned a grave among the wicked", God's "tortured servant ... who had made himself a sacrifice for sin ... and in his hand the Lord's cause shall prosper. After all his pains he shall be bathed in light."

15. At the end of the Book of Isaiah, the writer speaks of creating "new heavens and a new earth." Here God's kingdom becomes entirely supernatural. This scheme of divine intervention no longer relates to human history but replaces it.

16. Haggai and Zechariah reverted to the idea that a Kingdom of God ruled by a descendant of David would follow the present time. Because previous prophets had added supernatural and miraculous features to the Kingdom, Zerubbabbel was unable to live up to expectations.

17. Malachi added to Jewish prophecy the idea that before the "great and terrible day of the Lord", God would send the prophet Elijah back to earth to "reconcile fathers to sons and sons to fathers." The generation then living would have a last chance to repent of its sins.

18. The prophet Joel envisioned that the Kingdom of God would be preceded by a period when the world would be spiritualized. Earthly things would dissolve in spirit. Young people would prophesy and old people dream dreams. God would pour out his spirit on all humanity as strange portents appeared in the sky.

19. Joel also allowed anyone who called on the Lord by name to be saved in the period just before God's kingdom would arrive. The idea of last-minute repentance and salvation is picked up in the Apocalypse of Enoch.

20. The author of the 24th through 27th chapters of Isaiah mentioned a miraculous feast prepared on Mount Zion - "a banquet of rich fare for all the peoples, a banquet of wines well matured". It is a meal to be enjoyed in the Messianic kingdom. Jesus gave his followers a preview of this feast.

21. Isaiah 24-27 included heavenly beings in the scenario of events preceding the final days. God would punish "the host of heaven" as well as earthly kings, placing them together in jail. They are fallen angels, a Zoroastrian innovation.

22. Isaiah 24-27 referred to another Zoroastrian concept in the words "thy dead live, their bodies will rise again." This is the resurrection of the dead, an event which will take place when the Kingdom of God arrives. Later prophets such as Daniel, Enoch, Ezra, and Baruch also mention this event. The concept is accepted by religious innovators such as the Pharisees, and also by Jesus.

23. Zechariah 9-14 added several details appearing in the four Gospels. We see, for instance, the victorious king (Jesus) riding into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey. We hear about the "worthless shepherd" who abandons his sheep and the flock being scattered. We read about the inhabitants of Jerusalem "look(ing) on him whom they have pierced" and "wail(ing) over him as over an only child." And, of course, the "thirty pieces of silver" have an obvious reference.

24. Zechariah 9-14 mentioned the "fountain ... (of) living water" which would "remove all sin and impurity." John the Baptist removed sin by immersion in water.

25. On the Day of the Lord, wrote Zechariah 9-14, "the Lord shall become king over all the earth." God himself would rule this Kingdom on earth.

26. Zechariah 9-14 referred to "a great panic" which would occur before the Day of the Lord. The wealth of surrounding nations, horses and camels, and all other beasts in their armies would be destroyed while a group of the faithful survived in Jerusalem. Such passages describe the "pre-Messianic tribulation" - a period of extreme suffering which would occur before the Kingdom arrives. This is a theme also found in Malachi. The Book of Daniel associated the tribulation with the suffering that took place when the Greek emperor Antiochus Epiphanes IV desecrated the Temple in Jerusalem. The Apocalypse of Enoch referred to family members attacking one another "in senseless rage".

27. The Book of Daniel tied the Kingdom's appearance to a succession of political empires: Babylon, Media, Persia, and the Greek Seleucid empire. After these foreign empires had come and gone, an everlasting kingdom would be established. Daniel's vision beheld a human figure to whom "kingly power" was given. Its moral superiority is seen in its human representation whereas the previous empires were represented by beasts.

28. Daniel conceived the Messiah to be a "son of man" rather than a descendant of King David. He would be a supernatural figure, "coming with the clouds of heaven", who would be presented at the throne of God. Daniel's is the definitive characterization of the Messiah as "Son of Man", whom Schweitzer calls a "heaven-sent ruler in the Kingdom of God".

29. The 12th chapter of Daniel contains two concepts which are critical to scenarios of the final days: the pre-Messianic tribulation and the resurrection of the dead. At the time when the archangel Michael appeared "there will be a time of distress such as has never been since they became a nation till that moment. But at that moment your people will be delivered, every one who is written in the book: many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth will wake, some to everlasting life and some to the reproach of eternal abhorrence." (Daniel 12: 1-2)

30. The Apocalypse of Enoch presents the situation of souls waiting for the last judgment to take place as God's kingdom arrives. Fallen angels are held prisoner in a pit above a blazing fire. The righteous dead are waiting in another place. The time of the Kingdom's arrival depends upon how fast the number of allotted spaces in heaven can be filled with souls.

31. The Apocalypse of Enoch offers the following scenario of events in the final days: (a) an attack on Jerusalem by evil kings of the east, (b) the great tribulation, (c) resurrection of the dead, (d) arrival of the Son of Man (Messiah) from heaven, (e) the Last Judgment, conducted by the Son of Man, (f) the Son of Man seated on the throne of God's kingdom ruling a domain inhabited by the righteous ones among the resurrected dead, supernaturally transformed survivors of the last generation, angels, and other heavenly host as the wicked endure everlasting punishment. Wisdom conceived as a heavenly creature comes down to earth to inhabit this supernatural Kingdom.

32. The Psalms of Solomon revives the idea that a descendant of David will rule God's kingdom as Messiah; however, because the kingdom is to be everlasting, this Messiah would be a supernatural character. It was unclear how he would also be David's descendant. While the resurrected dead would participate in this Kingdom, only the righteous would be resurrected. The unrighteous dead would stay dead.

33. The apocalypses of Baruch and Ezra offered a solution to the problem of a Davidic Messiah in a supernatural kingdom. There would be two kingdoms. The first kingdom would be ruled by the descendant of David. Those in the last generation who had survived the tribulation would be transformed into supernatural beings. The Messiah who was David's descendant would rule over this kingdom for 400 years (according to Ezra). Then the Messiah and all inhabitants of this kingdom would die. After seven days of cosmic silence, a second kingdom would come into existence. Since this is God's kingdom, God alone would be its ruler and judge. The dead would be resurrected. God's eternal reign would begin.

Writing over a period of eight centuries, the prophets expressed different versions of the process by which the Kingdom of God would be established on earth. In its totality, Old Testament prophecy creates an expectation of divine intervention in human affairs. It creates a scenario of events in the final days when the tumultuous events of human history are replaced by a condition of permanent perfection not unlike the replacement of life by death. However, it is believed that the resurrected human beings, like Christ, will continue to "live" in God's supernatural kingdom. They will become angel-like beings.

We are interested to see how Jesus interpreted the prophetic scriptures. Schweitzer argues that Jesus brought about the Kingdom by fulfilling scriptural conditions. Once certain conditions were fulfilled, the Kingdom arrived. To understand Jesus' motivation it is important to know which conditions needed to be fulfilled. The two main conditions were: the prior appearance of Elijah and the experience of the pre-Messianic tribulation.

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