prophecy and history

Prophecy cannot be prevented, but history is constantly rewritten. Prophecy is more reliable than history, even though it happens before the events even take place. Prophecy and history are related but are on opposite ends of the historical scale.

I never considered prophecy and history to have a connection other than one talks about what hasn’t happened yet and the other talks about what has already happened. It wasn’t until I read part of an article recently where the person made a statement that “of course prophecy isn’t history” and I felt like someone had slapped me in the face. This comment stopped me dead in my reading tracks. I couldn’t continue until I had thought through such a claim.

What is history?

We think of history as what happened in the past that was recorded for us. The problem with that definition is that it begs some basic questions. Who did the recording? Whose side of the historical equation were they on? History, after all, is written by the winners and conquerors. Is the history we are reading the original account or is it an interpretation of someone else’s account or possibly even the 15th retelling of an old account that has been translated and retold many times by many cultures?

We all know that keeping a story pure is difficult to do from one telling of the story to another, even if the author of the story is the teller. Details tend to slip in and out of the story, and slight changes in perspective creep into the narrative. When I write about a war between my country and my country’s worst enemy, who do you think will either look like the victim or the conquering hero? I can assure you it will be my country. Does that make what I have said right or wrong? That is up for debate. It is extremely difficult not to slant a narrative based on your own allegiance. Being completely unbiased is almost impossible. Even the words we choose to tell the stories in history change how people will feel and what they will understand about what happened.

Historians vs. prophets

With that said, who would you rather tell you the history of a people, a historian or a prophet? What are the unique qualifications of each? The historian has been to college and has spent years studying in the field and reading ancient texts and learning about what we know of culture and attitudes of those who are long dead and buried. There is a lot historians can contribute to society and our knowledge of the past.

Now look at what a prophet has as unique qualifications. A prophet is trained by God. Not only is the past, present, and future revealed to him through revelation, but he receives the information directly from the source of truth Himself. Whereas a historian will try to tell you what happened politically or economically that caused a nation to go to war or to decline, a prophet will tell you about the spiritual health of the people and how that caused their prosperity or their downfall.

Here is an example of a prophet’s interpretation of a shift in power between the Nephites and the Lamanites in the Book of Mormon. In Helaman 4:11 – 13, the Lamanites have come into the land of the Nephites and have taken over almost all of their cities. The Nephites have been driven back into a few strongholds in the north and it doesn’t look good for their future. Here is how the prophet explains why the Lamanites were able to win this war.

11 Now this great loss of the Nephites, and the great slaughter which was among them, would not have happened had it not been for their wickedness and their abomination which was among them; yea, and it was among those also who professed to belong to the church of God.

12 And it was because of the pride of their hearts, because of their exceeding riches, yea, it was because of their oppression to the poor, withholding their food from the hungry, withholding their clothing from the naked, and smiting their humble brethren upon the cheek, making a mock of that which was sacred, denying the spirit of prophecy and of revelation, murdering, plundering, lying, stealing, committing adultery, rising up in great contentions, and deserting away into the land of Nephi, among the Lamanites—

13 And because of this their great wickedness, and their boastings in their own strength, they were left in their own strength; therefore they did not prosper, but were afflicted and smitten, and driven before the Lamanites, until they had lost possession of almost all their lands.

To recap, the reason the Nephites couldn’t hold onto their own lands was because of their personal wickedness. They knowingly rebelled against the teachings of the prophets. Some dissented and went over to the Lamanites while some just chose to stay put but deny the spirit of prophecy and revelation. They persecuted their fellow members of the church, even smiting them on the cheek. They gave into the pride of their hearts and oppressed the poor. They mocked that which was sacred and committed many great sins. For all these reasons, the Lord left them in their own strength to defend themselves as best they could. Historically speaking the Lord had shown them over and over again that if they would obey Him and keep His commandments He would fight their battles for them and they would win over their oppressors. It was only when they rejected God that they were left on their own to suffer the consequences.

Why rely on the prophets?

Notice the difference between what a historian would have given us and what a prophet gave us. A historian couldn’t have told us anything beyond the possible political or economic reasons for war, while the prophet was able to tell us the spiritual state of the people that brought about the war. They are talking on two different levels. It is a natural law that when the people repent their repentance is followed by prosperity and growth. When they rebel against God their lives and civilization fall into ruin.

This is what happens when a prophet tells us about something that happened in the past. They look at the condition of people and explain it in terms of relative righteousness or wickedness. This is, after all, how the Lord views us. God knows that righteousness brings with it the blessings of heaven, just as wickedness brings suffering and sorrow. This is where the “prophecy is not history” comment comes in.

What is prophecy?

Remember that God knows the future of all things from the very beginning. There isn’t anything God does not know in regards to what will become of us in the future. He knows what will happen to our societies, what will happen in our wars, who will win and who will lose, and how we will all behave from moment to moment between now and the end of time. He knows who will be born and where they will be born. He knows the circumstances of each birth. There is literally nothing He does not know.

So when a prophet says that God will do such and such, is that the same as history? I think it is even better than history. It is telling us the truth, how something really will be in the future. Sometimes the prophets tell us what will bring about an event, but often we are left to believe, without proof, that an event will take place. When we were told in the scriptures that a restoration of Christ’s church would take place we were not told that it would happen at the hands of a young boy who would exercise his faith in some verses from the Book of James in the New Testament. The Nephites knew from prophecy that his name would be Joseph, but those in the New Testament times didn’t know that. At least we have no record that they knew it.

All that was promised by the Lord about the coming forth of His church and kingdom in the last days has been unfolding just as the prophets have foretold it would. It is up to the historians to fill in the blanks and show how all the pieces of evidence support what the prophets said would happen. But if a prophet prophesies then it has to come to pass because that knowledge is coming from He who knows all things. The prophets cannot be wrong in their prophecies. They are not predictions because they are not guesses. They are statements of fact that certain things will take place in the future. Prophecies are always correct and always happen just as the Lord says they will happen.

Final Thoughts

Usually when the prophets tell us what will happen in the future they tell us what will happen based on the future we choose. If we repent then future A will be ours. If we continue down the road to ruin then future B is what we will claim for ourselves. The Lord gives us the choice to travel either road, but He tries to make sure we understand exactly what each choice will give us in the end. He does have as the final goal our happiness. But He will not force us to be happy. That is something we have to choose for ourselves.

History pieces together what happened in the past and tries to explain events. The perspective is always based on the person, political climate, and current knowledge of the day. But prophecy is always correct, and it is always based on what causes events rather than just the events themselves. The Lord is far more concerned with what causes things to happen than the resulting events. We need to start seeing life like He does. Perhaps if we were more concerned about our futures we would be more careful about how we behave in the present.