When working in the planning office, I was regularly asked what was going to happen to a particular development proposal. I had to answer that I was a planner and not a fortune-teller and that I could not make predictions. I could indicate whether there were particular concerns regarding a proposal, and whether I thought it was likely to be approved, but I could never anticipate or predict the response of the planning committee – or even on occasion, of senior officials in the department.
But this concern to know what was going to happen was natural enough, and in times of uncertainty is wholly understandable. When our outlook ceases to be predictable and when the normal way of doing things gets upset or the social and economic and political boundaries of what is expected are changed, sometimes radically, then it is not surprising that there should be an element of confusion and even disquiet.
But the forecasts of our experts are not predictions or exercises in fortune-telling. They may be informed guesses based on existing information and knowledge – or even understanding – of how things work. But when events outrun our ability to handle the information that we have, or when a mass of new information becomes available but cannot be assessed, then even the most expert is made to look incompetent. I always regretted the opprobrium heaped on the hapless weather forecaster who on the basis of existing information predicted that there would be no gales that evening: just before the ‘hurricane’ struck the south of England. He never recovered his reputation, so far as I know and even now is still quoted as an example to be avoided.
Yet there are things that we do have, and the bible has plenty in its turn. First of all, it describes the human condition and presenting life being what later philosophers described as ‘nasty, brutish and short.’ It does not gloss over human progress, art, education, science or technology. ‘Man’s inhumanity to man’ is presented with a minimum of sentimentality. But it also presents a series of pictures of God, who has created and who loves that which He has created: deeply, personally and extravagantly. So much so that He has committed the best that He has and is for our rescue from the excesses that we inflict on ourselves.
But then there are the accounts of how He has communicated with humanity, and the frustrations He has encountered in this relationship. Among these accounts are promises of blessing to those who will live according to His loving purposes and the effects of abandoning these promise for self-contrived lifestyles. These are words of prophesy – which may speak of the future but are far more interested in the present and how the people are to respond to God’s message.
In Jesus we have the fullest picture that it is possible to receive and respond to, and Jesus Himself gave warning of how godless, evil and self-determined lifestyles were going to work themselves out. He also made a solemn promise to return to the earth, even as He had left it.
Yet one thing that He does not give us in any part of the bible, is to provide timescales. There are only signs of the times, which are there for the attentive but not for speculators. And how we are to interpret and apply the sometimes obscure imagery is itself moot. There is a sense in which some aspects of the fore-tellings of scripture are best understood in retrospect, such as those in the gospels which understand writings of the old testament as being fulfilled in and by Jesus. But there are others which are frankly sealed up and are hidden from our understanding. When we need them they will be there, and our eyes will be opened at the right moment to see them.
Right now the task before us is to get on with the job in hand: in maintaining our lives with one another and in prayer with the Lord. There is still an ample supply of things of simple kindness to which we can apply ourselves and as we do so, it is highly likely that we will see things in a greater and wider context. This is not so much a prediction, and far less a prophesy. More a reasoned expectation – but when the Lord speaks to us, I am sure that we will know it.