“This [thing from the Bible] is that [something from modern headlines].” The end times are here, they tell us. And they’ve been telling us that at least since the Manichaeans in the third and fourth centuries. In case you thought it was something rather new, a phenomenon of modern times, calling current events fulfillments of biblical prophecy is an ancient pastime. People have been doing it for millennia.
In Biblical Exegesis in the Apostolic Period, Richard Longenecker says some communities believed they were “the final generation of the present age, living in the days of ‘the messianic travail’ before the eschatological consummation.” They read many passages of the Bible as if those verses exclusively concerned them. Longenecker quotes W.H. Brownlee as saying of the Pesher method of interpretation, “everything the ancient prophet wrote has a veiled, eschatological meaning.” Pesher is an Aramaic word meaning “solution” or “interpretation.”
In other words, the community that wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls (found at Qumran, thought to be the work of the Essenes), believed they were the last generation. And they saw things in the Bible, or rather it was revealed to the Teacher of Righteousness (their cult leader), as coded messages for their time. When Isaiah or Habakkuk or some other prophet wrote, their words contained messages that the prophet could not possibly understand. Prophecy was sort of a telegraphic process in which God dictated messages the prophets faithfully wrote down without comprehension. Only in the last days would anyone understand what these verses of the Bible meant.
All of this should sound painfully familiar. If you are on Facebook, you see people using this method. When I was a college student and was first drawn to faith in Jesus, I got caught up briefly in hysteria about “the rapture.” One night, driving into downtown Atlanta, I pulled my car over on the side of the interstate and stared at a huge, red moon close to the horizon. Was this Joel’s saying, “the sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood”? I attended a campus Bible study at Georgia Tech where we were in Daniel 9 almost every week. I had come to believe in Jesus for my own reasons, but the campus minister told me Daniel 9 was the surest proof Jesus was Messiah and God — since Daniel predicted right down to the day when he would be crucified.
I’ve seen in my lifetime modern versions of Pesher interpretation including things like: Russia is where anti-Christ will come from, Gorbachev has the mark of the beast, Islam is where anti-Christ will come from, China is where anti-Christ will come from, the moons this year are the final ones of this present age, America has been denounced by the “harbinger,” and many more.
Certain verses in the Bible have encouraged this sort of movement. There are places in the prophets of ancient Israel where we read about information being “sealed” for a future time. Isaiah says, “Bind up the message, Seal the instruction with My disciples” (8:16). Habakkuk and Daniel speak similarly. Some interpreters have taken this to mean that the message would be lost until a future generation could understand it. In the examples I gave above, prophecy “experts” could deduce connections in the headlines to predictions in the Bible. They viewed the Bible as a sort of Nostradamus depository.
In the Dead Sea Scroll community, things were at least a little more sophisticated. In their commentary on Habakkuk, they said, “God told Habakkuk to write the things that were to come upon the last generation.” Their founding leader, the Teacher of Righteous, claimed to have received direct revelation to decode some of the verses. Like Joseph in Genesis 41, he believed the interpretation could only come from God, not human cleverness.
Pesher, or “end times prophecy forecasting,” is a method much loved by some religious folk and much despised by others. It has to be disconcerting for those who believe in it to see its methods fail repeatedly. I guess some keep hoping that one day they will hit on the right combination. Among the ancient Jewish modes of reading, this one seems the least sophisticated. It has gained the least traction in Judaism since the time of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
A sharp contrast with Pesher is the way of reading the prophets commended in the writings of Abraham Joshua Heschel (Prophets, God in Search of Man). Rather than being about forecasting, the prophets received impressions of the thoughts and emotions of the God who is involved in our pain, who observes our crimes as well as our less-frequent saintly acts, and who paints for us a picture of a better world. The prophets seem a lot more like social preachers than fortune tellers.