How to Read a Prophetic Time Clock

Non-literal Time References
in the Book of Isaiah
Copyright 1999 by Robert L. Garringer


Preterists insist that the prophets never spoke of events that were distant as if they were near. So, for preterists, it is an open and shut case that Jesus must have come in the first century because the New Testament was written then, and it stated repeatedly that He was coming soon.

They theorize that He came invisibly as a Judge of Israel and a Deliverer of the Church when Jerusalem and the Temple fell in A. D. 70.

The Resurrection of Saints, the Eternal Salvation, and the Kingdom were all expected to be imminent as well. So preterists have worked out an elaborate system in which the Resurrection, Judgment Throne, etc. are all figurative ways to describe the implications of Jerusalem's first-century destruction. The New Testament is loaded with references to these eschatological events.

So preterists are left clinging to the idea that first century Christians consistently spoke and wrote in figures of speech that were rarely if ever given any concrete explanation. In the back of their minds, those early believers are supposed to have registered "when Jerusalem falls" every time they heard "He is coming in the clouds," "The dead in Christ shall rise first," "He will sit on His throne...All the nations will be gathered before Him," etc.

The plausibility of this understanding of New Testament eschatology is highly questionable in itself, but the appeal to the more plausible literalness of imminent time-frame references in Scripture lends some strength to the preterist position. So the preterist case stands or falls on the prophetic-time issue.

How accurate is this belief that the imminent tone of biblical prophecy must correspond to an imminent fulfillment? We will turn to Isaiah for an answer to this question.

In another place, I have argued that Isaiah wrote of the fall of Babylon in radically urgent and clearly imminent terms even though the prophesied event would not happen for at least another two hundred years. [A Response to John Noe and A Reply to His Measured Response]

Now we will see that the prophet wrote with even more urgent language of the deliverance of Israel from bondage. This deliverance can be taken as a description of the end of bondage in ancient Babylon accomplished after Babylon's fall to Persia, two centuries after Isaiah.

The more likely meaning, however, is that the prophet was anticipating a Messianic Deliverance, not yet accomplished in futurist theology but seven hundred years away even in the preterist system.   In any of these scenarios, it is clear that the prophet spoke of a very distant event as if it were imminent.

Words of Hope in Times of Distress

Isaiah wrote at a time when Judah's most recent antagonist was Assyria. (52:4) He told the people that the episode of Assyria's threat would soon end, (10:12, 16) but because of their persistent sin, Isaiah gave them no hope of escaping the coming Babylonian conquest. (39:5-7) This fall to the Babylonians would come about two hundred years later.

As all the prophets, however, Isaiah promised an eventual glorious deliverance for God's chosen people. The promise is heralded in language that applies to the restoration of Israel in historical times under Ezra and Nehemiah. (44:28) Yet, consistently, a more wonderful deliverance by the coming Messiah is in view. (4:2-6; 9:6-7; 11:1-11)

 As we have indicated, Israel's salvation from her enemies was at least two centuries away at the time Isaiah announced it. This gap must be expanded even more when the Messianic element is included--over seven centuries to a preterist who believes that all prophecy was fulfilled at the time Jerusalem fell--more than twenty-seven centuries in the view of prophetic futurists. Yet look at how the prophet speaks of the time element involved:

"My righteousness draws near speedily, my salvation is on the way...The ransomed of the Lord will return. They will enter Zion with singing...The cowering prisoners will soon be set free; they will not die in their dungeon...for a brief moment I abandoned you, but with deep compassion I will bring you back...I hid my face from you for a moment." (51:5, 11, 14; 54:7,8)

We can say here what preterists say of the contemporaries of Christ and the apostles: That generation, upon encountering these prophecies, would have expected that all would be accomplished within their lifetime, especially when they heard or read "they will not die in their dungeon..." (51:14)

Are These Words Messianic?

In context, Isaiah's promise implies much more than the historical restoration of Israel.

1. The Context of Isaiah 51:5, 11, and l4

Isaiah 51: 4 reads, "Listen to me, my people; hear me, my nation: The Law will go out from me; my justice will become a light to the nations."

In full, verse 5 reads, "My righteousness draws near speedily, my salvation is on the way, and my arm will bring justice to the nations.  The islands will look to me and wait in hope for my arm."

Verse 6 ends with the statement, "My righteousness will never fail."

This is followed a few lines later, in verse 8 with, "But my righteousness will last forever, my salvation through all generations."

After a brief recitation of God's acts of deliverance in the past, the passage continues with the joyous words of verse 11, "The ransomed of the Lord will return. They will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads. Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away."

Isaiah then scorns Judah for its lack of faith and ends with the promise of verse 14, "The cowering prisoners will soon be set free; they will not die in their dungeon, nor will they lack bread."

Isaiah is speaking of a salvation that is to come to all nations, not Israel only. The promised deliverance will result in a state of eternal contentment.

In the next section, we will see exactly what Isaiah means by a righteousness that lasts forever and a salvation that endures through the generations.

2. The Context of Isaiah 54:7, 8

These verses read in full, "For a brief moment I abandoned you, but with deep compassion I will bring you back. In a surge of anger I hid my face from you for a moment, but with everlasting kindness I will have compassion on you, says the Lord your redeemer."

A certain and immediate relief is implied in the prophet's words. Yet as he goes on to explain the phrase, "everlasting kindness," used in verse 8, the reader cannot avoid the clear Messianic nature of the promise:

"To me this is like the days of Noah, when I swore that the waters of Noah would never again cover the earth. So now I have sworn not to be angry with you, never to rebuke you again. Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken, nor my covenant of peace be removed, says the Lord, who has compassion on you. O afflicted city, lashed by storms and not comforted, I will build you with stones of turquoise, your foundations with sapphires." (54:9-11)

He is promising never to destroy Jerusalem again. He goes on to say:

"If anyone does attack you, it will not be my doing; whoever attacks you will surrender to weapon forged against you will prevail, and you will refute every tongue that accuses you." (54:15, 17) (See also Isaiah 52:1.)

It is logically impossible to fit this promise from God into the period between the fall of Jerusalem in 590 B. C. and the fall of Jerusalem in A. D. 70. Otherwise, God's promise will not have been kept.

Further Evidence of the Messianic Nature of the Promise

The next chapter confirms that Isaiah was speaking of Messianic conditions:

"Surely you will summon nations you know not, and nations that do not know you will hasten to you...This will be for the Lord's renown, for an everlasting sign, which will not be destroyed." (55:5, 13)

Then another imminent time reference in this Messianic context is given in chapter 56, " salvation is close at hand and my righteousness will soon be revealed...I will give them an everlasting name that will not be cut off...And foreigners who bind themselves to the Lord to serve Him...these will I bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer...I will gather still others to them besides those already gathered." (56:1, 5, 8)


Just because a prophet speaks as if an event is about to happen, we need not expect an immediate result. In another place, I have suggested reasons, some of them obvious, for God using non-literal imminent language in prophetic predictions. [Response to Noe] But whatever the reasons may be, the existence of this practice is clearly evident in the writings of Isaiah.

He spoke of events that were most likely Messianic and therefore at least seven centuries away. Yet he said that they were drawing near speedily, on the way, coming very soon, being accomplished in a brief moment, and being close at hand and soon to be revealed.

Even if one were to doubt or deny, the Messianic aspect of fulfillment, nearly two centuries would be a minimum lapse of time between prediction and the actual accomplishment of the prophesied deliverance.

It is imperative, in light of this evidence, that preterists stop insisting that imminent language implies imminent fulfillment in either the Old or New Testament.

Just as imperative is their recognition that this evidence leaves the whole preterist tower teetering toward what I believe is an inevitable collapse.