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Rabbi's Commentary What Prophecy Is — and Isn't

Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein

July 15, 2010

Dear Friend of Israel,

Christians often ask me about the Jewish view of prophecy. Just what is prophecy? Some might say that it is like predicting the future — studying the Bible, piecing together its words like a puzzle in order to determine the time and the place certain events will occur.

But there is another view that I believe is more biblical. Prophecy is God's way of revealing Himself at a particular time in history to people. God, in His transcendence, enters into the natural order and speaks to people, often using individuals to do so. It is one of the vehicles of communication between God and man. The classic case of prophecy is the Ten Commandments — God speaking to the people of Israel directly at Mount Sinai.

A prophet's role, in this view, is to cut through hypocrisy by bringing God's word into a world that has gone astray. Think of the 58th chapter of Isaiah. There, the prophet goes to the people and says, in effect, "if you've been fasting, but you're not getting the salvation you expect, then ask yourself why." Fasting, he tells them, isn't just abstaining from food. It's not just refraining from drinking water. A real fast, Isaiah tells them, is "to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter — when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood" (Isaiah 58:7).

The idea that we can predict the future is tempting. It has led some, for example, to name the precise date and hour of the dawning of the "end times." But while Jewish thought addresses matters like this, it is vaguer in doing so. We approach the subject with great humility, treading lightly in the belief that certain knowledge of such things belongs to God alone.

Of course, though we may not be privileged to know the exact time when events will happen, we do know that history clearly shows God's hand at work. The formation of the modern state of Israel, the reunification of Jerusalem after the 1967 Six Day War, the return of Jews to Israel from "the four corners of the earth" — none of these events are accidents. There is a difference, however, in saying that we are living in a time when events seem to point to the end of days, and saying that we know definitively when the events leading up to the end of days will occur.

My friends, as we go through our day-to-day lives, let us do so prayerfully and with humility. Let us plan for our and our children's future, doing our utmost to help others and improve the world we live in now while preparing ourselves spiritually for the world to come. And let us all pray for the day when God will bless His children with the most precious gift of shalom, peace.

Yechiel Eckstein

Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein


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