Millennial madness isn't anything new. Folks have been arguing since the apostolic era about what the prophetic literature of the Scriptures means and how it's to be applied—if at all—to various events of the past through to the present and into the future. Seldom, however, is the first hermeneutical step ever discussed (on the street, at least). How is this stuff supposed to be read?
I sat under Professor Richard Pratt as a seminarian, and he had some suggestions worth entertaining. I had a few "aha" moments in his Prophets class, but the principles of reading he lays out are not without their potentially unintended negative consequences. You can read his address, where a lot of the following material was taken, over here.
First, Pratt argued, we need to stop flattening biblical prophecy into the entirely modern notion of "a prophet made a prediction, so it must therefore come true." Scripture does not portray prophecy in this way (implicit conditions are attached everywhere). That is, the prophets of old were fully aware that any intervening historical contingency could radically change the direction of their prediction. Failing to understand this is a failure to understand the very nature and motivation of the prophets themselves. This leads to not only multiple and contradictory interpretations (e.g., dispensationalists versus the rest of the church's dogmaticians throughout history), it also feeds the skeptics' fire, giving them ample cause to fault the biblical texts, however wrongly they may be in so doing.
Consider the following passage, which is obviously conditional, and (Pratt thought) paradigmatic: "'If you have a willing attitude and obey, then you will again eat the good crops of the land. But if you refuse and rebel, you will be devoured by the sword.' Know for certain that Yahweh has spoken" (Isa 1:19–20).
The challenge Pratt wanted to lay before us was simply this: to see that the Old and New Testament predictions are latent with conditions—expressly implied or no. Once we come to terms with how to read the prophets, Christians may no longer misuse them to bolster their arguments for the legitimacy of the New Testament writings—thus inadvertently perpetuating disbelief (e.g., McDowell), and skeptics might no longer waste their breath picking at the text with faulty assumptions. It's give and take, to be sure. But until fervor for Hal Lindsey sags, along with his Left Behind, I suppose that we'll have to practice patience.
Prophecy was often God's way to incite his people to repent (to change the direction they're heading and to follow his way). In the case of a bad omen (i.e., destruction's coming your way), repentance was the condition that had to be met in order for that prediction to be staid. The opposite is equally true: in the case of a good omen, unrepenant wickedness would result in a forfeit of the predicted blessing.
Sound familiar? Let's look at Jeremiah 18:1–10:
"Yahweh said to Jeremiah: 'Go down at once to the potter’s house. I will speak to you further there.' So I went down to the potter’s house and found him working at his wheel. Now and then there would be something wrong with the pot he was molding from the clay with his hands. Then he would rework the clay into another pot as he saw fit. Then Yahweh said to me, 'I, Yahweh, say, "O nation of Israel, can I not deal with you as this potter deals with the clay? In my hands, you, O nation of Israel, are just like the clay in this potter’s hand." There are times, Jeremiah, when I threaten to uproot, tear down, and destroy a nation or a kingdom. But if that nation that I threatened stops doing wrong, I will forgo the destruction I intended to do to it. And there are times when I promise to build up and establish a nation or a kingdom. But if that nation does what displeases me and does not obey me, then I will forgo the good I promised to do to it.'"
According to this text, Yahweh, Israel's covenant Lord, has intentions for the prophecies his prophets utter. The point of them doesn't allow for this static notion that pictures prophets walking around uttering absolute statements about the future. Prophets were emissaries from the heavenly court; their job was to prosecute the covenant. The people knew well enough that if the demanded stipulations were (or were not) met, then the word of the prophet would come to pass accordingly. But what about Deuteronomy 18:17–22? That text refers to the prophets' hearers and their need to discern the intentions of the prophet so they can determine the validity or the falsity of the prophet themselves (more on this to come in part 3).