Hindsight Prophecy

January 27, 2009 | 13 comments

Higher critics would claim that any suspiciously accurate revelations in the scriptures were probably put in afterwards.

I believe in revelation and prophecy myself. I also believe in the authority of canonized scriptures and take them on face value. I tend to think the notion that scriptural prophecies were included after the fact is ridiculous.

But I got to thinking. What would be the value of hindsight prophecy? Why would we want God to reveal his prophecy of an event after it had already happened?

No sensible person would reject more of the Word of God just because he didn’t think it was pragmatically useful anymore. Anything the Almight says, we want to hear. Remember ‘A Bible, a Bible, we already have a Bible’?

Hindsight prophecy affirms that an event was part of God’s plan. We know this in general but hindsight prophecy makes it particular, just as patriarchal blessings often take the general promises and make them particular to you.

Hindsight prophecy helps us to understand why an event happened, or what its meaning was to God. Hindsight prophecy helps us to understand God’s workings in history and his purpose in history just as much as normal prophecy does.

Those are my thoughts. Y’all?

Comment warning.

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13 Responses to Hindsight Prophecy

  1. NoCoolName_Tom on January 27, 2009 at 11:37 am

    I believe in accurate predictive prophecy, but I also believe that a prophet is meant to be a prophet to his own people. Thus, I can easily believe that Isaiah prophesied about the events surrounding the reigns of Hezekiah and other kings of Judah during the Assyrian invasion and even warned his people about the coming storm of Babylon, but I personally agree with many higher critics that the use of the name “Cyrus” is an interpolation. It is simply too far in the future – what use would the people of Judah have for it? Far more possible to me is that the name was put in by a later scribe into a messianic prophecy in an attempt to gain favor with Cyrus (and it worked). So while I agree that a prophet can see into the future, I also don’t really see the point for seeing something so far and so detailed that has no benefit to the prophet’s own people. It’d be like President Monson getting up in Conference and warning us about the fall of the Australian Empire through the stupidity of it’s Kazakhstani dictator Temirzhon Akhmetov – it’d be awesome but actually rather useless to the Church right now.

  2. NoCoolName_Tom on January 27, 2009 at 11:56 am

    Awesome idea on hindsight revelation, though! Both for its own coolness, but also for being the result of refusing to let such an idea destroy the credibility of the Bible. I don’t know if you accept such an idea (I’m still working on it, but it feels surprisingly good to me), but if you do, I think it’d be interesting to apply such an idea to the latter-day scriptures (in fact we almost do that already with JS’s prophecy of the Civil War when we place it in the context of the political situation of 1830s America). In fact, couldn’t the Book of Moses and the Book of Abraham be considered “hindsight” prophecies in part?

  3. Adam Greenwood on January 27, 2009 at 12:04 pm

    Good point about Cyrus. I’ve wondered some of the same thing about some of the Columbus and American Revolution prophecies in the Book of Mormon.

  4. Rob M on January 27, 2009 at 12:54 pm

    I believe Paul accurately predicted the appearance of such “higher critics” as having itching ears, refusing to endure sound doctrine (2 Tim 4:3) — isn’t that convenient?

    Like #1, I don’t believe that foretelling the future is the primary role of the prophet. Instead, I think we benefit much more from (seemingly mundane) warnings to repent and from the prophet’s testimony of the Savior, which after all is the essence of prophecy (Rev 19:10).

    Even accurate prophecies of future events – like D&C 87 – will never be the basis of any testimony that can withstand the hardships we will all eventually have to endure. I have no doubt that such fat-hearted, heavy-eared critics will also fail to recognize the significance of more substantial prophecies like those in the Bible that foretell of the restoration of all things.


  5. NoCoolName_Tom on January 27, 2009 at 2:06 pm

    We should probably be kinder to the “higher critics”. I forget who said it, but it is probably impossible to find two worse words to describe historical or source criticism than “higher” and “criticism”; the term itself invites problems from the popular definitions of these two words. Most of the higher critics that I have read and met have been Christians and Jews who are active in their faith. Most of them adapt their faith to hold fast to what is important and reject what is not. I would not classify them as fat-hearted or heavy-eared. I see most of them as people who are straining to hear as much as possible from the Bible itself and are usually surprised to find the Bible saying something different than what tradition says it should.

    We often do the same thing in many modern Mormons’ approach to Joseph Smith – we try to put him in historical context, understand who he was on his terms instead of ours, and try to tear down the spurious traditions that have built up around him to reveal the real person inside. We then re-adjust our our faith from what we learn, much like Adam is describing in the OP about the possibilities and implications of accepting the claims of late insertions as still being divinely inspired.

  6. Brian Duffin on January 27, 2009 at 3:03 pm

    I prophecy that Adam Greenwood will write a post with the title, “Hindsight Prophecy.” Now how about that hindsight prophecy?

  7. Rob M on January 27, 2009 at 3:33 pm

    That’s a good point, Tom (#5). Most “higher critics” (which I place in quotations only because I’m not sure what Adam meant, not as an attempt at sarcasm) would certainly consider their efforts to be noble and truth-seeking. I believe, however, that we should distinguish the efforts of faithful churchgoers to filter faith-promoting (or damaging) rumors from the efforts by skeptics to minimize the voice of the Lord’s prophets.

    The vast majority of such efforts might subjectively be considered truth-seeking endeavors, but the real intent of the inquiry is manifest by the seeker’s willingness to obtain the final answer from God. Within the church specifically, we all need to study gospel concepts and engage every question thoughtfully. Any failure to do so would be spiritual negligence. But so many questions end up becoming mental exercises with no satisfactory conclusion. I believe a testimony of the Book of Mormon and of divine revelation will lay so many questions to rest. Still, well-meaning individuals will lose their way pondering trivial questions that are eternally unimportant. Others would certainly use perceived discrepancies as a crude syringe for injecting doubt into the hearts and minds of the very elect.

    Whether or not the prophecy of Cyrus is entirely genuine or was manufactured centuries later does not affect my testimony of the Bible as the word of God (as far as it is translated directly), and certainly does not dissuade me from a testimony of the divinity of Christ. If, however, a detractor would have me believe that the Book of Mormon account of Joseph of Egypt’s prophecy of the boy prophet was self-serving propaganda—or convey any similar lie in varying degrees—I can rely on my own testimony of the restored gospel and disregard their contentions.

    As applied to members of other faiths seeking answers to their own questions about the authenticity of Biblical prophecies, I say: Come listen to a prophet’s voice.

  8. kevinf on January 27, 2009 at 5:55 pm

    Adam, apart from the Cyrus example that NCNT mentions in # 1, what are some examples of what you perceive to be “hindsight” prophecies?

    To some extent, the Book of Mormon probably contains a few. The one that springs to mind for me is the inclusion of the Small Plates of Nephi with the rest of Mormon’s record, and Moroni’s brief additions.

    Not very specific in the actual text, but quite clear when we add the details from the revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants.

  9. Adam Greenwood on January 27, 2009 at 7:44 pm

    I would hesitate to call any scriptural prophecies hindsight prophecies. But if some of them are, I can still see why they might be worth our while.

  10. Kaimi on January 27, 2009 at 11:14 pm


    I think that some statements that are commonly criticized as hindsight prophecy include statements in the Book of Mormon about Jesus’s future birth; about Columbus’s discovery of America; about the discovery and translation of the Book of Mormon itself (by Joseph, the son of Joseph).

    Those are all framed as future events in Nephi’s visions; yet they had all already taken place by the time of Joseph Smith’s translation.

    The criticism commonly focuses on the level of detail in these prophecies (such as the translation by a Joseph, son of Joseph).

  11. Desert Fox on January 28, 2009 at 8:38 pm

    To a non-believer, hindsight prophecy is nothing more than a straw-man: it has no legitmacy or persuasive power to convince.

    For example, most non-members will consider it self-serving that the Book of Mormon prophetically predicts that the latter-day seer will be named Joseph; and oh by the way the “author” of this prophetic book will also be named Joseph Smith. From a non-member’s perspective, a real prophet announces “future events” and not backward looking ones. From a non-member’s perspective, this prophecy simply conditions “believers” to embrace the orthodoxy of, and the boundries for, the proposed belief system

    However, for the believer, this prophecy is yet another thread supporting and reinforcing belief, although it has essentially no value in proving the authenticity of the event by itself. And yet the believer can marvel that God can fast-forward and reverse through time like a TIVO machine to extract and forsee events in such granular detail as the name of a future seer thousands of years from the date of that prophecy.

    And so faith is the lense that transforms a charleton’s cheap trick, into an awe inspiring witness from the Almighty. It all depends on your perspective.

    An interesting question is whether prophets are always “right” when they prophecy. Zelf, Adam-God, and other revealed “mysteries” sometimes seem like over anxious examples of prophets (perhaps) missing the mark, or conflating personal desires and wishes with independent and unbiased “truth.”

  12. Adam Greenwood on January 29, 2009 at 10:01 am

    Desert Fox,
    why should we be concerned about the ‘value to convince’ of hindsight prophecy? I don’t think that would be the point.

  13. Ellis on February 1, 2009 at 3:09 pm

    Prophecy is the key to the past.


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