In the Bible, God, rather than speaking to people directly, chooses specific people through whom he reveals his commands as well as knowledge. These people are Prophets. The Prophets come from all sorts of backgrounds and it is clear that most of them don’t ask to be Prophets. It isn’t clear why God chooses certain people to be Prophets. They can be priests, kings, or shepherds. The main criteria is that they are devoted to him. They aren’t always all that willing. Often God has to threaten his Prophets to get them to deliver his messages. Jonah actually runs away rather than deliver God’s message at first and gets swallowed by a fish (sometimes translated as a whale).
In most cases, the Prophets are not given “oracles” which are visions of the future. Rather, they are given messages to give to people. Usually these are threats of destruction should those in power not change their ways. God often starts by explaining the wrath he will “pour out” on the people for their wickedness, followed by extolling his own faithfulness to them and how his anger will eventually subside and he will restore them.
The goal of prophecy in the Bible is not to tell people what is going to happen but to bring people back to faithfulness to the one God.
A few books of the Bible do contain visions of the future. For example, Jeremiah predicts the service to Babylon will last 70 years which depending on your interpretation is from about 605 BC to 539 BC. (Most prophecies are in multiples of 7.) The last three chapters of Daniel contains a very detailed prophecy about future events starting with the Persian take over of Babylon, the rise of Alexander the Great, and the subsequent Greek empires in Syria and Egypt which vie for power over Palestine.
Most Biblical scholars believe that the prophecy in Daniel was written after the fact in around 170 BC.
Does that mean that the Bible doesn’t predict the future? Well, it’s complicated.
Unlike the Greeks, who developed abstract philosophies about God and nature, in the near east theology was told through stories. One way of talking about the nature of God is through what is called apocalyptic literature. These appear in the book of Daniel as well as Revelation.
The detailed history in Daniel is intended not to show how good prophets are at predicting the future but is a theological statement about God’s control over history. The way the prophecy is presented says: God has this all planned out, God is in control.
That is certainly something that Jews at the time of the Greek Selucid empire in AD 170, when they were being oppressed and their temple worship desecrated, needed to hear.
The book of Revelation, meanwhile, is about the end of the world but is addressed to first century Christians who are being persecuted. Many scholars agree that the “beast” mentioned in the book is the Emperor Nero, who was one of the first emperors to persecute Christians and may have had Peter and Paul executed.
The book of Revelation is intended to convince Christians to hold on in the face of persecution by presenting the Roman State as being backed by the Devil (symbolized as the Dragon). Of course, Revelation is widely applicable to many eras where Christians have been persecuted by the state, not only the Roman Empire, and it is just as true now as it was then. It says to Christians, don’t give in, otherwise you will be giving in to Satan, and you will be rewarded for hanging on and staying faithful to Christ.
Letting people know what is going to happen in the future is, in general, not as important as the message to stay faithful or to repent and return to God. Hence, all the prophecies have this in mind.
One exception might be Jesus’ prediction of the destruction of the temple. Many scholars assume that this prediction was inserted when the Gospels were written after the temple’s destruction in AD 70, but I believe Jesus did predict it.
For the skeptics, this would not have been hard to do at the time given the rocky relationship between Rome and Judea. It was only, in my opinion, because many Jewish people living there wrongly believed that God would protect the temple, that the restoration was permanent, that they ignored the warning. The same happened before the 1st temple was destroyed. People were told that God would protect the temple. Jeremiah said otherwise and was ignored.
The prediction has one primary function: it tells Christians that the temple is no longer God’s residence, but rather He resides within Christ. Thus, it tells people that they must turn to Christ, not the festivals and sacrifices of the temple, for salvation. Christ is the “cornerstone the builders rejected” of the new temple, which exists now in Heaven where it is accessible to all who “call on the name of the Lord.”
If Biblical prophecies of the future are actually written after the fact, does this mean that the Bible is not true?
I think what it means is that God is not concerned with our knowing the future. It is we who so desperately want to know because of our anxieties about it. God rather wants us to be faithful to him, and that is what the Biblical prophecies are trying to tell us. Through all the adversities that unfold in history we must stay true to him, the prophets tell us, for God is in control of it all.