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Do Prophecies Prove Anything?

Christopher Buck | Jun 11, 2018

PART 34 IN SERIES Figuring Out Prophecy

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.

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Christopher Buck | Jun 11, 2018

PART 34 IN SERIES Figuring Out Prophecy

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.

We’ve all heard about false prophecies—but what about the true ones? True prophecies are genuine prophecies—the ones that actually do fulfill a real vision of the future.

Of course, prophecies are capable of being fulfilled by multiple claimants, and may be fulfilled more than once. It takes faith and discernment to discriminate between true and false claims to fulfillment.

The false prophecies we have looked at so far in this series of essays were often written after the fact. Generally speaking, true prophecies are more general in nature. As a rule, the more detailed and specific the prophecy is, the more dubious it may be, and thus require extra scrutiny.

True prophecies come true when a true prophet, who speaks truth to power, proclaims that prophecy has been fulfilled. Scholars of religion call such a declaration a “truth-claim.” The truth or falsity of a given truth-claim cannot be objectively determined, generally speaking—instead, if a claim is widely accepted by the followers of a Faith, then it’s usually regarded as true.

Some prophecies—especially the militant ones—have even served as cannon fodder for revolutionary leaders and the revolutions they lead.

To guard against misinterpretation, the reader must first determine whether a prophecy is literal or figurative, and therefore symbolic.

A given discourse may be literal speech, or figurative speech, or both. Typically they are mixed in the discourse itself. Literal speech—when the speaker intends his or her words to be taken at face value—means there is really no interpretation involved, much less needed. In literal discourse, the words mean what they say, and the words say what they mean.

Figurative discourse is different. Again, the words mean what they say—but they don’t always say what they mean. For instance, consider the following statement of Jesus:

And he said unto them, Go ye, and tell that fox, Behold, I cast out devils, and I do cures to day and to morrow, and the third day I shall be perfected. – Luke 13:32.

Here, Jesus is speaking of King Herod. Jesus calls Herod at a “fox.” Obviously, Jesus did not mean this literally. Readers intuitively understand that Jesus is speaking metaphorically. In other words, Jesus uses a metaphor.

As applied to King Herod, “fox” is widely understood as referring to the King’s character, which we understood as cunning, clever, sly, wily, crafty, tricky, shifty, sneaky, slippery, artful, devious, evasive, duplicitous, false, deceitful, underhanded, untrustworthy, dishonest, and treacherous. That interpretation, however, may be off-base. As one scholar puts it:

In seeking to understand what Jesus said, the critical question for the translator is what idea he [Jesus] conveyed to his hearers by his use of the metaphor “Herod is a fox.” In particular, what was the point of similarity which Jesus was drawing between a fox and Herod? …

Jesus did not intend his hearers to understand that Herod was sly, when he responded to the report that Herod wanted to kill him. Rather, he was commenting on Herod’s ineptitude or inability to carry out his threat. Jesus questioned Herod’s pedigree, moral stature, and leadership, cutting him down to size and putting him in his place. …

This conclusion is in line with the understanding of metaphor known as conceptual metaphor theory, where the metaphor “Herod is a Fox” is seen as an extension of a more basic metaphor, “People are Animals.” In the Old Testament there is another extension of the basic metaphor “People are Animals”, namely “The King is a Lion” (see, for example, 2 Sam 17.10; Prov 19.12; 20.2; 28.15), showing that this is a recognized metaphor in biblical Hebrew.

It is therefore very likely that when Jesus referred to Herod as “that fox”, those he was speaking to would have the usual basic metaphor for a king in mind, and would immediately recognise that by using the metaphor “Herod (The King) is a Fox”, Jesus intended to convey that Herod was in extreme contrast to someone who conformed to their normal concept of a king, “The King is a Lion.” – E.A. Hermanson, “Kings are Lions, but Herod is a Fox: Translating the Metaphor in Luke 13.32,” The Bible Translator, pp. 235, 237. 

Baha’u’llah taught that prophecies are a “test,” such that only the pure in heart can truly perceive the nature of the prophecy itself and the truth of its fulfillment. In The Book of Certitude, Baha’u’llah wrote:

Know verily that the purpose underlying all these symbolic terms and abstruse allusions, which emanate from the Revealers of God’s holy Cause, hath been to test and prove the peoples of the world; that thereby the earth of the pure and illuminated hearts may be known from the perishable and barren soil. From time immemorial such hath been the way of God amidst His creatures, and to this testify the records of the sacred books. – Baha’u’llah, The Book of Certitude, p. 49.

So, rather than proving prophecies true, the prophecies prove whether or not the reader’s understanding is true. That is to say, the purpose of true prophecies, according to Baha’u’llah, “hath been to test and prove the peoples of the world.”

This leads us to an important question: why are metaphors used in scriptures, anyway? According to Hermanson, “metaphor is often used because it is the most precise way in which the author can express what he or she wants to say, and not only for rhetorical effect.”

With these interpretive principles in mind, the next article will consider the return of Jesus. What “return” actually means is best understood by what it does not mean, as Abdu’l-Baha explained:

But let us return to our original theme. In the Holy Books and Sacred Scriptures there is mention of a “return”, but the ignorant have failed to grasp its meanings and have imagined it to refer to reincarnation. For what the Prophets of God meant by “return” is not the return of the essence but of the attributes; it is not the return of the Manifestation Himself but of His perfections.

In the Gospel it is said that John the son of Zacharias is Elijah. By these words is not meant the return of the rational soul and personality of Elijah in the body of John, but rather that the perfections and attributes of Elijah became plain and manifest in him. – Abdu’l-Baha, Some Answered Questions, newly revised edition, p. 333..  

So return is not reincarnation. In the next essay in this series, we’ll explore what return really means.

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  • Christopher Buck
    Jun 22, 2018
    BRENT POIRIER: Thanks for your comments and references. I agree with everything you say. This would be a worthy topic for a Baha'i Teachings article, or even a series! Would you agree that, for the most part, the prophecies of Jesus are primarily symbolic in nature, while the prophecies of the Baha'u'llah are fairly direct and explicit? For our readers, can you briefly summarize the most important prophecies of Baha'u'llah that have been fulfilled?
    Jun 22, 2018
    In John 16:12 Jesus said that the Promised One would make prophecies. Baha'u'llah claimed to fulfill this verse, and stated where He did so:
    Here Abdu'l-Baha confirms prophecies made by Baha'ullah. As He there says, "There are many other prophecies ... especially in the Epistle to the Shah of Persia, all of which prophecies have come to pass."
    So one of the values of prophecy is that they contain what Baha'is call "The Greater Covenant," the promise of the succession of the Manifestations of God, each Prophet of God promising the next. Another value to prophecies is ...that their fulfillment provide a means for demonstrating that a Prophet is a true Prophet.
  • Jun 11, 2018
    If a true prophecy were too specific, it would deny free will. I believe that prophecies often describe logical consequences that will occur when certain conditions are met. For example, the Revelation of St. John describes, in symbolic terms, what happens when a civilization collapses. The writer was certainly aware of previous civilizations that collapsed - Babylon and Egypt - and was in beginning of the collapse of the Roman Empire. It is coming true again now.
    • Kathryn Vickers
      Jun 22, 2018
      Could you please give the chapter and verse in Revelation that you are referring to? Thanks kindly!
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