A Book of Prophecy
People are interested in the future. They search for reliable predictions concerning many subjects, from weather forecasts to economic indicators. When they act on such forecasts, however, they are often disappointed. The Bible contains many predictions, or prophecies. How accurate are such prophecies? Are they history written in advance? Or are they history masquerading as prophecy?
THE Roman statesman Cato (234-149 B.C.E.) reportedly said: “I wonder that a soothsayer doesn’t laugh when he sees another soothsayer.”1 Indeed, to this day many people are skeptical of fortune-tellers, astrologers, and other soothsayers. Often their predictions are couched in vague terms and are subject to a wide variety of interpretations.
What, though, about the Bible’s prophecies? Is there reason for skepticism? Or is there a basis for confidence?
Not Just Educated Guesses
Knowledgeable people may try to use observable trends to make accurate speculations regarding the future, but they are never right all the time. The book Future Shock notes: “Every society faces not merely a succession of probable futures, but an array of possible futures, and a conflict over preferable futures.” It adds: “Of course, no one can ‘know’ the future in any absolute sense. We can only systematize and deepen our assumptions and attempt to assign probabilities to them.”2
But the Bible writers did not simply “assign probabilities” to “assumptions” about the future. Nor can their predictions be dismissed as obscure statements open to a wide variety of interpretations. On the contrary, many of their prophecies were uttered with extraordinary clarity and were unusually specific, oftentimes predicting just the opposite of what might be expected. Take as an example what the Bible said in advance about the ancient city of Babylon.
To Be ‘Swept With the Broom of Annihilation’
Ancient Babylon became “the jewel of kingdoms.” (Isaiah 13:19, The New American Bible) This sprawling city was strategically located on the trade route from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean Sea, serving as a commercial depot for both land and sea trade between the East and the West.
By the seventh century B.C.E., Babylon was the seemingly impregnable capital of the Babylonian Empire. The city straddled the Euphrates River, and the river’s waters were used to form a broad, deep moat and a network of canals. In addition, the city was protected by a massive system of double walls, buttressed by numerous defense towers. Little wonder that its inhabitants felt secure.
Nevertheless, in the eighth century B.C.E., before Babylon rose to the height of its glory, the prophet Isaiah foretold that Babylon would be ‘swept with the broom of annihilation.’ (Isaiah 13:19; 14:22, 23) Isaiah also described the very manner in which Babylon would fall. The invaders would ‘dry up’ its rivers—the source of its moatlike defense—making the city vulnerable. Isaiah even supplied the name of the conqueror—“Cyrus,” a great Persian king, “before whom gates shall be opened and no doors be shut.”—Isaiah 44:27–45:2, The New English Bible.
These were bold predictions. But did they come true? History answers.
‘Without a Battle’
Two centuries after Isaiah recorded his prophecy, on the night of October 5, 539 B.C.E., the armies of Medo-Persia under the command of Cyrus the Great were encamped near Babylon. But the Babylonians were confident. According to the Greek historian Herodotus (fifth century B.C.E.), they had enough provisions stored up to last for years.3 They also had the Euphrates River and Babylon’s mighty walls to protect them. Nonetheless, on that very night, according to the Nabonidus Chronicle, “the army of Cyrus entered Babylon without battle.”4 How was that possible?
Herodotus explains that inside the city, the people “were dancing and making merry at a festival.”5 Outside, however, Cyrus had diverted the waters of the Euphrates. As the water level sank, his army sloshed along the riverbed, with water up to their thighs. They marched past the towering walls and entered through what Herodotus called “the gates that opened on the river,” gates carelessly left open.6 (Compare Daniel 5:1-4; Jeremiah 50:24; 51:31, 32.) Other historians, including Xenophon (c. 431–c. 352 B.C.E.), as well as cuneiform tablets found by archaeologists, confirm the sudden fall of Babylon to Cyrus.7
Isaiah’s prophecy about Babylon was thus fulfilled. Or was it? Is it possible that this was not a prediction but was actually written after the fact? Really, the same could be asked about other Bible prophecies.
History Masquerading as Prophecy?
If the Bible prophets—including Isaiah—merely rewrote history to look like prophecy, then these men were nothing more than clever frauds. But what would be their motive for such trickery? True prophets readily made it known that they could not be bribed. (1 Samuel 12:3; Daniel 5:17) And we have already considered compelling evidence that the Bible writers (many of whom were prophets) were trustworthy men who were willing to reveal even their own embarrassing errors. It seems unlikely that men of this sort would be inclined to commit elaborate frauds, disguising history as prophecy.
There is something else to consider. Many Bible prophecies contained scathing denunciations of the prophets’ own people, which included the priests and rulers. Isaiah, for example, decried the deplorable moral condition of the Israelites—both leaders and people—in his day. (Isaiah 1:2-10) Other prophets forcefully exposed the sins of the priests. (Zephaniah 3:4; Malachi 2:1-9) It is difficult to conceive why they would fabricate prophecies that contained the sharpest censures imaginable against their own people and why the priests would have cooperated in such a ruse.
In addition, how could the prophets—if they were nothing more than impostors—have pulled off such forgery? Literacy was encouraged in Israel. From an early age, children were taught how to read and write. (Deuteronomy 6:6-9) Private reading of the Scriptures was urged. (Psalm 1:2) There was a public reading of the Scriptures in the synagogues on the weekly Sabbath. (Acts 15:21) It seems improbable that an entire literate nation, well versed in the Scriptures, could have been deceived by such a hoax.
Besides, there is more to Isaiah’s prophecy of Babylon’s fall. Included in it is a detail that simply could not have been written after the fulfillment.
“She Will Never Be Inhabited”
What would become of Babylon after its fall? Isaiah foretold: “She will never be inhabited, nor will she reside for generation after generation. And there the Arab will not pitch his tent, and no shepherds will let their flocks lie down there.” (Isaiah 13:20) It may have seemed odd, to say the least, to predict that such a favorably situated city would become permanently uninhabited. Could Isaiah’s words have been written after he had observed a desolate Babylon?
Following the takeover by Cyrus, an inhabited Babylon—albeit an inferior one—continued for centuries. Recall that the Dead Sea Scrolls include a copy of the complete book of Isaiah that is dated to the second century B.C.E. About the time that that scroll was being copied, the Parthians took control of Babylon. In the first century C.E., there was a settlement of Jews in Babylon, and the Bible writer Peter visited there. (1 Peter 5:13) By that time, the Dead Sea Scroll of Isaiah had been in existence for the better part of two centuries. So, as of the first century C.E., Babylon still was not completely desolate, yet Isaiah’s book had been finished long before then.*
As foretold, Babylon eventually became mere “piles of stones.” (Jeremiah 51:37) According to the Hebrew scholar Jerome (fourth century C.E.), by his day Babylon was a hunting ground in which “beasts of every type” roamed.9 Babylon remains desolate to this day.
Isaiah never lived to see Babylon become uninhabited. But the ruins of that once powerful city, about 50 miles [80 km] south of Baghdad, in modern Iraq, bear silent testimony to the fulfillment of his words: “She will never be inhabited.” Any restoration of Babylon as a tourist attraction might lure visitors, but Babylon’s “progeny and posterity” are gone forever.—Isaiah 13:20; 14:22, 23.
The prophet Isaiah thus did not utter vague predictions that could be made to fit just any future happening. Neither did he rewrite history to make it appear as prophecy. Think about it: Why would an impostor risk “prophesying” something over which he would have absolutely no control—that mighty Babylon would never again be inhabited?
This prophecy about Babylon’s downfall is but one example from the Bible.* Many people see in the fulfillment of its prophecies an indication that the Bible must be from a source higher than man. Perhaps you would agree that, at the very least, this book of prophecy is worth examining. One thing is certain: There is a vast difference between the hazy or sensational predictions of modern-day soothsayers and the clear, sober, and specific prophecies of the Bible.
There is solid evidence that the books of the Hebrew Scriptures—including Isaiah—were written long before the first century C.E. The historian Josephus (first century C.E.) indicated that the canon of the Hebrew Scriptures had been fixed long before his day.8 In addition, the Greek Septuagint, a translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek, was begun in the third century B.C.E. and was completed by the second century B.C.E.
For a further discussion of Bible prophecies and the historical facts documenting their fulfillment, please see the book The Bible—God’s Word or Man’s?, published by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc., pages 117-33.
[Blurb on page 28]
Were the Bible writers accurate prophets or clever frauds?
[Picture on page 29]
The ruins of ancient Babylon