I used to take a consistently futurist approach to biblical prophecy. Whether I was looking at Jeremiah’s lengthy word of judgment against Babylon in Jeremiah 50-51, Ezekiel’s panoramic vision of a rebuilt temple in Ezekiel 40-48, Jesus’ Olivet Discourse in each of the Synoptic Gospels, or John’s vision of the “Beast” and the “Harlot” in Revelation 17-19, I would always assume a literal interpretation of the text, and, because of my commitment to its inspiration, I would always assume that it must have referred to events still to come in the future, thousands of years after it was given, since it obviously hadn’t yet been fulfilled. A futurist reading, I thought, was the only faithful approach to such passages.
It took me several years to realize that my commitment to futurism was ironically based in the same underlying prejudice as the allegorical school. As different as those two approaches are in their outworking interpretations, the same controlling agenda which caused Origen and Augustine to spiritualize whole books of the Old Testament causes today’s student of Scripture to project every seemingly unfulfilled prophecy into the future. That underlying prejudice, that controlling agenda, arises from the psychological need to erase discrepancies when our perceptions conflict with our strongly held beliefs. This is what psychologists call cognitive dissonance, the exegetical equivalent to what we witnessed just last year in the interpretive gymnastics of Harold Camping and his followers. The “perception” in this case is the apparent non-fulfillment of prophecies with explicitly time-sensitive content; the “belief” is our faith in the authority of Scripture. The problem, though, is that if we really believe in the authority of Scripture, then we are warned not to change the meaning of the text into something it never intended to say.
The primary question for the interpreter of biblical prophecy must be centered on the authorial intent and the public meaning which the prophetic word would have carried in the period in which it was given. To put it otherwise: Our first duty with biblical prophecy, no less than with any other genre of Scripture, is to interpret it with reference to its own time. This doesn’t mean that all biblical prophecy must of necessity refer to past events, but that the language of all biblical prophecy must have been readily understandable to the people of its own time. Otherwise it could be liberally reinterpreted according to the changing paradigms of every successive generation. Thus, the true interpretation is not necessarily the one which carries the most perceived value or spiritual application in the twenty-first century, but rather the one which best explains the prophetic language as it would have been understood by its original audience. But again, if we really believe in the authority of Scripture, then we should always assume that the interpretation arrived at through the inductive process will be the one with the most Spirit-filled application for our own time, regardless of our expectations.
As simple and as self-evident as this is, it’s remarkable how often it is either forgotten or ignored. The besetting sin of futurist interpreters, in their approach to prophetic passages throughout Scripture, is their deeply felt need to liberate the text from the embarrassing constraints of its own time. Such interpreters are not really interested in understanding what the text would have meant in its original historical context, but only in what it can be seen to mean for our own time. Thus, where Jeremiah pronounces a retributive judgment on Babylon and its king for their treatment of Judea, or where Ezekiel foresees a rebuilt temple after the regathering of his people from exile, or where Jesus predicts the son of man’s coming within the generation of his listeners, or where John predicts the sudden destruction of the great city which reigned over all the kings of the earth in his own day—in all of these cases futurists feel the need to lift the fulfillment of the prophetic text out of the immediate future of the original audience and into our future, in order to thereby save the text from the reproach which, upon the assumption of a literalist reading, would undoubtedly come upon it. Where was the bloody, violent, and absolute destruction which Jeremiah pronounced on Babylon? Where was “the coming of the son of man” in the lifetime of Jesus’ listeners? Where, indeed, was the fulfillment of all of the cataclysmic events foreseen by John in the book of Revelation?
When confronted with such unpleasant difficulties, futurists see two basic options: either (a) we admit that the text was uninspired, unathoritative, and glaringly wrong in its predictions about the future, or (b) we project it into the future and thereby protect its inspired status. So like Peter in Gethsemane, we unsheathe our swords and cut away! But like Peter in Gethsemane, futurists fail to consider that there might be more alternatives than the two extremes of denying our master or plugging our ears and fighting to save face. Are we sure we understand what the prophecies are all about? As a true post-Enlightenment Westerner, I used to be committed to a literalist reading of all biblical prophecy, giving very little room for metaphorical, symbolic or hyperbolic modes of speech; but I have since come to realize that such a commitment rarely does justice to the intention of the biblical prophets themselves.
Before we can even contemplate the possibility of other alternatives, however, we must face the music; we must learn to take the text on its own terms, whatever the outcome. When prophecies with historical detail and context such as Jeremiah 50-51 aren’t “fulfilled” in a rigidly literal, meticulous sort of way, the futurist assumption is that we should simply lift the prophecy from its stated context and postulate a future one-to-one fulfillment. But if our primary aim is to handle such passages with exegetical integrity, as indeed it should be, then we simply cannot ignore the specific indicators of historical context and authorial intent. Jeremiah was not speaking against a nation that did not exist at that time or a king who had not yet been born. No, he speaks against a contemporary nation and its king for the evil which they had committed against Judah in the years 599-586BC, which Jeremiah himself witnessed and documented at length. Exegesis demands this conclusion.
To claim, on the other hand, that this passage must speak of a future period, because several details of the prophecy did not play out exactly as described, is a decidedly eisegetical move. Instead of reading the text inductively and asking the appropriate questions of authorial intent and public meaning, the futurist view relies entirely on a deductive process of elimination, looking outside of the prophecy and imposing one’s own set of criteria for what it can and can’t mean based entirely on what did and what did not in fact occur thereafter. Such an abstract a priori has absolutely nothing to do with what the text itself would have meant in the world in which it was written, but has everything to do with maintaining a particular theological construct despite all the evidence to the contrary. If it didn’t happen, just project it into the future. It must not have meant what it said. The original audience probably didn’t get it. The prophet himself probably didn’t get it. But we get it.
By thus lifting the passage out of its own world of meaning and supplying another we lose all anchorage with the only context in which the text itself makes sense. This is not exegesis. Genuine exegesis is committed to listening to the text on its own terms, whatever the outcome. And if history does not play out exactly like the passage said it would, then we should ask the question why. Perhaps we’ve misunderstood the content of the prophecy, or perhaps something transpired afterwards which altered the terms of the prophecies’ fulfillment. In the case of Jeremiah 50-51, I suspect that Nebuchadnezzar’s apparent change of heart may have had something to do with it (cf. Dan 2:47; 3:29; 4:2-3, 34-37; 7:4). Remember, the God of the prophets regularly speaks about what will happen if humans presently respond in such and such a way; he does not speak in an abstract vacuum of time and space about what will happen regardless of the present human response. The whole point of prophecy is to produce a response, a change; and if all men responded then no prophecy of judgment would ever come to pass (cf. Jer. 18:7-11).
In other words, we are not bound to reject the truth of biblical prophecy by remaining faithful to the text. But then, even if we can’t find a solution to every text in which this problem appears, it’s a much more honest display of faith in the authority of Scripture to first take the text at its own terms, and then to say “I don’t know” in reply to the question of fulfillment, than to try to save face by suggesting the text actually refers to something else, something easier to get our hands around. That’s not true faith; it’s doubt in disguise. And that is why I am no longer a futurist.