Of Predictions and Prophecies

Two dangers to which members of our society—and perhaps members of many another society—have been prone is the eagerness to know the future, and dismay and disillusionment when the reality of the future does not play out as expected. That makes predictors of the future in high demand and always at risk.

Experience also teaches us that most predictors of the future do not know what they are talking about and are highly susceptible to failure. That probably explains why the oracles of history and modernity are sphinx-like in their pronouncements, offering up vague prognostications whose insightful value can only be appreciated after the ensuing events occur and are appropriately explained—or explained away.

In modern times our most prolific prognosticators are sports-wizards who tell you before the season begins and as it evolves who will be the champions and who the losers. Not far behind are the political experts who make a living pronouncing who will win in the next elections, hoping greatly that their predictions will take the energy out of the doomed candidates and make the prophecy self-fulfilling. Also high on the list in recent decades are the economic gurus who predict with assurance and precision everything from jobless numbers to economic growth to interest rates.

Some of these last are actually becoming reliable after a sort in terms of how consistently wrong they are. An oft-cited economist from Standard and Poors comes to mind, who you can now generally count on getting his jobless predictions backwards. I am reminded of Raymond F. DeVoe, Jr., who generously remarked that, “Economists use decimals in their forecasts to show that they have a sense of humor.” (Raymond F. DeVoe, Jr., The DeVoe Report, February 7, 1996) Economists love to produce charts with erratic lines displaying the recorded past and smooth lines presenting their forecasts. These are helpful in that you can be sure that the future will look nothing like the lines of predicted future performance. It would be wise to keep in mind the observation of Alex Pollock concerning the recent recession, “Among the many losses imposed by the bubble is a well-deserved loss of credibility on the part of central bankers and economists.” (Alex Pollock, “2007 Bust: How Could They Not Have Known?”, Real Clear Markets, September 21, 2011)

All of this is not to say that it is impossible to predict the future. There are certain trends that can be predicted within tolerable levels of probability, such as that flooding the money supply will usually produce inflation, that you get less of what you tax (be that income, jobs, investment, or healthcare, for example), or that the Yankees will before long win another World Series.

Aside from acting upon reasonable probabilities based upon experience, good data, and rational analysis, it is safe to say that man cannot reliably predict the future. We can learn from history, because although history never repeats itself it can teach us lessons. In the world of human action there is nothing new that is wholly new. All of this, however, is in the realm of managing risks and probabilities, something that we all have to do every day just in order to act. Nevertheless, while we expect certain things to happen, none of us on our own can know what will happen.

God can and does know. He sees it all, and He is never surprised. God’s omniscience is not limited by time or place. Moreover, our loving and generous Father shares or withholds from us knowledge of the future, depending upon our need. God has shared with me enough glimpses of the future to help me prepare and be prepared for when the events arrived. Yet many is the difficult experience of life that I am glad to have had and learned and grown from, looking at the experience in the past, that I am not sure that I could have mustered the courage to face had I known with any clarity that it was coming. God withholds from most of us knowledge of our manner of death, all the while equipping us with the knowledge that we need in order to live well.

There is much that God does want us to know about the future, our individual future as well as mankind’s future, to aid us in our daily living, to give purpose and direction to daily activities that might otherwise seem pointless or even hopeless, or to elicit from us extra efforts and undiscovered talents. From the beginning of time our Father has sent to us prophets, fellow humans like ourselves, to whom He has revealed prophecies important to His children. The prophet Isaiah brought comfort to Ahaz, the king of Judah, when his land was invaded. He prophesied that the invasion would fail and to encourage him offered the sign of the coming of the Messiah and His miraculous virgin birth (see Isaiah 7:14-16).

Amos was another such prophet, who declared, “Surely the Lord God will do nothing, but he revealeth his secret unto his servants the prophets.” (Amos 3:7) That is why Jesus Christ has sent us new apostles and prophets in our day, to inspire, counsel, comfort, uplift, and in many ways aid us by divine guidance in the difficult times in which people always live, we no less than God’s children in the past.

We need, however, to keep in mind the point that while God’s prophecies are reliable and never fail our loving Father is careful to tell us what we need while withholding what were better that we not yet know. That can leave room for misinterpreting God’s prophecies and assigning to them meanings and dressing them up with interpretations not included by God in the vision. When the prophecy is fulfilled in ways that vary from our own predictions and expectations it is not the prophecy of God that has failed but rather our own unwarranted assumptions.

Throughout ancient scriptures there were many prophecies of Christ’s mortal ministry as well as of His triumphal second coming. Many have confused the two, and such confusion led more than some to reject the Messiah when He walked among them in the land of Judea and Galilee. Jesus Christ fulfilled all that was prophesied for thousands of years about His mortal ministry, including His sacrifice and death. Yet many—but not all—eyes and ears were closed to Jesus because He did not fulfill mistaken expectations and traditions. A similar pattern is playing out today as the hour approaches for the Savior’s return.

Inasmuch as God sees all, there is much that He sees and knows that He could not possibly explain to men bounded by the extent of their own experiences. How would God explain to an ancient people some of the most common of daily happenings in our technological world? And certainly we are as far removed from the realities of heavenly experience as the ancients were from our daily 21st century experience. That is to say that God’s prophecies can be fulfilled in ways far beyond human expectation or even imaginings prior to their fulfillment.

When I was a missionary in 1979, I knew of the prophecy that the gospel of Jesus Christ would be preached to all nations, and I firmly believed it. Yet I did not have the slightest clue as to how missionaries would ever be allowed beyond the Iron Curtain. Little did I know that in less than a decade those barriers would come down peacefully and that the Soviet Union itself would cease to exist. Knowing of the prophecy allowed many to prepare. That preparation did not require knowledge of how God would work upon the nations to bring about His purposes.

I thank God for His ancient and modern prophets, and for the prophecies He has shared and continues to reveal, great and small, glorious and helpful. As the prophecies unfold, my plan is to adjust my expectations to the unfolding reality of God’s work and take comfort in knowing that all will be fulfilled as God continues to reveal to those who will listen everything that they will need to know.

(First published April 7, 2013)

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