The Purpose of Predictions, Part 1
Dear Church Family,
On Sunday mornings at 9:15-10:15 am in the sanctuary, we have Sunday school for all ages. We are using a video series called “He Gave Us Prophets,” combined with teaching and discussion, in order to better understand, interpret, and apply the prophets of the Old Testament. If you’re interested in reviewing the video lessons that we are using for this class, you may find them online here: https://thirdmill.org/seminary/course.asp/vs/HGP. Also, if you’re interested in reviewing the summaries that I’ve been writing in these weekly emails, you may find those on the HCPCA church website here: https://www.hillcountrypca.org/pastors-blog/category/he-gave-us-prophets.
Continuing with these reviews, here is a summary of some of the things that we learned and covered in our most recent Sunday school class.
Overview of Lesson #7a – Divine Sovereignty, Predictions & Contingencies
Most people think that the purpose of prophecy is to tell us about future events; however, that is not so. Prophets made predictions in order to encourage God’s people to respond in a particular way, in order to shape the future.
By way of introduction to this topic of the purpose of predictions, it’s important that we begin with a basic understanding of God’s sovereignty. And, when thinking about God’s sovereignty, it’s helpful to think about the ways in which God does not change (His immutability) and the ways in which God interacts with His creation in history (His providence).
- God’s Immutability
We may summarize the ways in which God does not change (or is immutable) under four headings.
- God’s Character – all of the attributes of God that we know from Scripture are always true of Him. He is all wise, all powerful, perfectly holy, just, good, and truthful. In these things, God never changes. He is the same yesterday and today and forever (Hebrews 13:8).
- God’s Covenants – When God enters into covenant with His creation and makes promises, He seals that covenant by way of an unbreakable oath (Hebrews 6:16-17). With Him there is not variation or shifting shadow (James 1:17).
- God’s Counsel – God has an unchangeable plan by which He governs all creation and time, all of history. He has declared the end from the beginning and whatever He has planned, the Lord will do it (Isaiah 46:9-11). He works all things after the counsel of His will (WSC 7; Ephesians 1:11).
- God’s Commandments – As a reflection of God’s perfect holiness, the moral law as summarized in the Ten Commandments is eternal and never changing. Created in God’s image, His law is written upon man’s heart (Romans 2:14).
2. God’s Providence
Divine providence may be defined as God’s “preserving and governing all His creatures, and all their actions” (WSC 11). But, we should never think of God’s works of providence in fatalistic terms. Where immutability speaks of the ways in which God does not change, God intimately interacts with His creation to carry out His providential plan and work. Another way of saying this would be to say that God is the “first cause” of His immutable plan; while at the same time, He uses secondary causes to carry out His providential plan.
The Westminster Confession of Faith summarizes it like this: “Although, in relation to the foreknowledge and decree of God, the first cause, all things come to pass immutably, and infallibly; yet, by the same providence, He ordereth them to fall out according to the nature of second causes, either necessarily, freely, or contingently” (WCF 5.2). In addition to teaching how God is the first cause of all things (Acts 2:23), this portion of the Confession also teaches that there are three basic categories of secondary causes that God employs to order all things according to His providential plan:
- Necessarily: physical laws of nature (Genesis 8:21-22; Jeremiah 31:35), e.g., seasons, gravity, etc.
- Freely: decisions of rational creatures (Deuteronomy 19:4-7), e.g., choosing to flee to a city of refuge.
- Contingently: if/then possibilities (Revelation 3:1-3; Jonah 3:4-10), e.g., repentance or rebellion.
That third kind of secondary causes (contingencies) helps us to better understand the role of human response (obedience or sin, repentance or rebellion) in God’s dealings with His people. While the prophets believed that God’s eternal plan would be accomplished, they also believed that God’s plan involved human choice and response.
Predictions & Contingencies
The opening verses of Jeremiah 18 play a key role in confirming the importance of human response (or contingencies) in the predictions of the prophets. First, the Lord tells Jeremiah to go down to the potter’s house and observe him making a vessel out of clay at his wheel (Jeremiah 18:1-3). There, Jeremiah observes the vessel is spoiled in the hand of the potter, so the potter remakes the vessel into another vessel (Jeremiah 18:4). Afterward, the Lord interprets Jeremiah’s observation (Jeremiah 18:5-10):
5 Then the word of the LORD came to me saying,
6 “Can I not, O house of Israel, deal with you as this potter does?” declares the LORD. “Behold, like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in My hand, O house of Israel.
7 “At one moment I might speak concerning a nation or concerning a kingdom to uproot, to pull down, or to destroy it;
8 if that nation against which I have spoken turns from its evil, I will relent concerning the calamity I planned to bring on it.
9 “Or at another moment I might speak concerning a nation or concerning a kingdom to build up or to plant it;
10 if it does evil in My sight by not obeying My voice, then I will think better of the good with which I had promised to bless it.
In this passage, we learn of the integral role that human response (contingencies) makes in the Lord’s declarations through the prophets (predictions). If the Lord declares a judgment against a nation, but that nation turns from its evil, the Lord will relent from His judgment. If, on the other hand, the Lord declares a blessing upon a nation, but it does evil and disobeys the Lord, the Lord will not bless as He has promised.
A clear example of how the predictions of a prophet are affected by the response of the people may be found in the book of Jonah. Jonah’s message to the city of Nineveh was straightforward: “Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown” (Jonah 3:4). In response to Jonah’s prediction, the people of Nineveh believed in God and the king of Nineveh called for the whole city to repent, saying, “Who knows, God may turn and relent and withdraw His burning anger so that we will not perish” (Jonah 3:5-9). In response to the people’s repentance, the Lord did indeed relent and did not destroy the city (Jonah 3:10).
This insight into the nature and importance of contingencies (human choice) helps us to read and better understand the writings of the prophets. It also helps us to see the importance of our own choices – as individuals and as a church. While confessing that God sovereignly and providentially governs all things, there are consequences to every decision that we make so we must seek to make wise choices.
It also teaches us about how God lovingly disciplines His people based upon their obedience or disobedience to Him. While confessing that God sovereignly and providentially governs all things, God disciplines His children according to their repentance or lack of repentance (2 Peter 1:10-11).
Finally, this insight teaches us about the importance of prayer. The Lord truly does respond to the prayers of His people; therefore, we should pray for divine intervention (2 Samuel 12:21-23).
The Lord be with you!
– Pastor Peter M. Dietsch