“Soon” in the Old Testament
Preterists argue that prophetic statements in the New Testament (NT) such as “soon,” “near,” or “at hand” limit the fulfillment of such prophecies to, at most, a forty-year generation as proclaimed by Jesus in Matthew 23:35-36; 24:34; etc. Futurists sometimes counter that, in the Old Testament, such time-statements do not always mean near-in-time, and are sometimes fulfilled a long time after the prophecy—much longer than a single generation. Thus, they argue, when Jesus said He was coming “soon” in Revelation, that could have meant thousands of years later.
When we carefully study the context in the OT, we see that this words soon or similar expressions are sometimes used differently than in the New Testament. In the OT soon is often associated with contingencies or tend to be relatively open-ended. But in the New Testament, imminence statements are used in a definitive, self-limiting sense. There are over 100 imminence statements in the New Testament that limit its fulfillment as clearly as language will allow: “must shortly take place,” (Revelation 1:1; 22:6), “the time is near” (Revelation 1:3; 22:10); “before some standing here taste death” (Matthew 16:28); “about to take place” (Matthew 3:7; 16:27; Luke 21:36); “before the disciples have finished going through the towns of Israel” (Matthew 10:23); “this generation” (Matthew 14:34); “these last days” (Hebrews 1:2); “the end is at hand” (1 Peter 4:7); “it is the last hour” (1 John 2:18); “When YOU see Jerusalem surrounded by armies” (Jesus speaking to his disciples in Luke 21:20-24); etc.
There are no imminence statements in the New Testament that allow fulfillment thousands of years into the future. Scripture interprets Scripture. The prophetic imminence statements in the New Testament are clearly define each other as the time of the generation of Jesus’ contemporaries. “Soon” statements in the Old Testament are less definitive.
Let’s consider some of the passages from the OT.
Deuteronomy 4:25-27. In this passage Israel is threatened with its soon destruction and scattering. Depending on when this was fulfilled, in round numbers the Assyrian dispersion was 800 years away, the Babylonian dispersion 1000 years away, and the Roman destruction 1500 years away! MY RESPONSE: This passage is qualified by the contingency “IF” Israel acts corruptly (vs. 25). So, this passage can easily be understood as a warning rather than a prophecy about definite time of fulfillment. Thus, it can reasonably be understood as: “Your demise will follow as soon as you forget the covenant and act corruptly.” CONCLUSION: No problem for the preterist view.
Deuteronomy 32:35 uses “near/at hand” concerning God’s vengeance against Israel. MY RESPONSE: This passage is qualified by specific reference to the “latter end” (Deuteronomy 31:29; 32:20, 29), as well as numerous contingency “if’s” beginning in chapter 28. Jesus places the Days of Vengeance (Deuteronomy 32:35, 41 43) as being fulfilled in his own day in conjunction with the destruction of Jerusalem (Luke 21:22). Jesus and the writers of the New Testament confirmed Deuteronomy 32:5, 20 (crooked and twisted generation at Israel’s end) as being fulfilled in the first-century generation (Matthew 12:38-39, 42; 16:4; 17:17; 24:3, 14; Luke 9:41; 11:29-32; Romans 10:19; Philippians 2:15). Thus, “near/at hand” is not about a specific time of fulfillment, but the rapidity of judgment is Israel should become unfaithful, which she did in the first century. If Jesus and the writers of the New Testament said that these things in Deuteronomy were fulfilled in the first century generation, we believe them. CONCLUSION: No problem for the preterist view.
Isaiah 10:24-26. “Therefore, thus says the Lord God of hosts: ‘O my people, who dwell in Zion, be not afraid of the Assyrians when they strike with the rod and lift up their staff against you as the Egyptians did. For yet a very little while my fury will come to an end, and my anger will be directed to their destruction. And the Lord of hosts will wield against them a whip.’” MY REPSONSE: Most commentaries indicate that this prophecy, given by Isaiah in about 740 BC (or even somewhat later), is about the failed Assyrian attack on Jerusalem in 701 BC. The Assyrians conquered the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 722 BC, and then headed to Jerusalem. These attacks on Israel and Judah were promised because of their sins. But Judah was spared this time as God had mercy and 185,000 Assyrians perished at the hands of God at the gates of Jerusalem, apparently because of disease (2 Kings 19:35). CONCLUSION: No problem for the preterist view.
Isaiah 46:13. “Listen to me, you stubborn of heart, you who are far from righteousness: I bring near my righteousness; it is not far off, and my salvation will not delay.” MY RESPONSE: There are different interpretations of this passage. If it describes God’s salvation from the Assyrian invaders in 701 BC, it was within a generation from the time of Isaiah’s writing just prior to that date. If it describes Israel’s deliverance from their captivity in Babylon by Cyrus, its fulfillment was 160-200 years from the time of Isaiah’s writing. Albert Barnes Notes on the Bible says, “His righteous and true character would be manifested to them so plainly and clearly that they would be able no longer to doubt. It would not be remote in time, or in place, but it would be so near that they could see it.” Wesley’s Explanatory Notes suggest that the nearness of the fulfillment refers to the time between captivity by the Babylonians till their return from captivity—about 70 years. CONCLUSION: No problem for the preterist view.
Isaiah 56:1. “Keep justice and do righteousness, for soon my salvation will come.” When would God’s righteousness come? Most commentators interpret this passage, and those following through Isaiah 66:24, as being about the return of the exiles from Babylon during 539-536 BC, before the rebuilding of the temple in 520 BC (Isaiah 64:8-12). This date compares to the date of Isaiah’s writing between about 740-684 BC. So, fulfillment was about 160-200 years later. MY RESPONSE: I would argue that Isaiah is speaking more generally. Note that in the following verse (56:2) Isaiah says, “Blessed is the man who does this, and the son of man who holds it fast, who keeps the Sabbath, not profaning it, and keeps his hand from doing any evil.” Thus, while specific fulfillment was to come 160-200 years later, Isaiah is applying salvation to those in any generation who are faithful. CONCLUSION: No problem for the preterist view.
Jeremiah 48:16 “The calamity of Moab is near at hand, and his affliction hastens swiftly.” Moab’s calamity occurred five years after the destruction of Jerusalem, 23 years distant from the prophecy. MY RESPONSE: This time frame would certainly be consistent with Jesus’ “this generation” prophecy (Matthew 24:34; Luke 21:36). CONCLUSION: no problem for the preterist view.
Ezekiel 7:2-9. “An end has come upon the four corners of the land. Now the end is upon you, and I will send my anger upon you. . . the day is near, a day of tumult, and not of joyful shouting on the mountains. Now I will soon pour out my wrath upon you. . . .” MY RESPONSE: Ezekiel was writing about 597 BC from Babylon and was predicting the final destruction of Jerusalem in 586. CONCLUSION: No problem for the preterist view.
Ezekiel 36:8 – “But you, O mountains of Israel, shall shoot forth your branches, and yield your fruit to my people Israel; for they will soon come home.” MY RESPONSE: Here is a prophecy of return from Babylonian captivity. It was fulfilled, according to Gill’s Exposition, about 40 or 50 years later in 539-536 BC. So, it too, is consistent with Jesus’ “this generation” prophecies (Matthew 24:34; Luke 21:32). This prophecy was ultimately fulfilled in Jesus, but that does not harm the initial fulfillment time-line of “soon.” CONCLUSION: No problem for the preterist view.
Ezekiel 30:1-4 — “For the day is near; it will be a day of clouds, a time of doom for the nations. A sword shall come upon Egypt,” etc. MY RESPONSE: Futurists assume that this is still future because of the language of “all nations.” But this language is typical hyperbolic judgment language found throughout the Old Testament. Clearly, this Day of the Lord is a judgment against a specific nation, namely Egypt. We can be certain of this because just a few verses later we see that the judgment of God will be at the hand of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon. So, this happened in that generation! It was indeed NEAR. CONCLUSION: No problem for the preterist view.
Joel 1-3. “Alas for the day! For the day of the Lord is near, and as destruction from the Almighty it comes. Is not the food cut off before our eyes, joy and gladness from the house of our God?” (Joel 1:15-16) “Put in the sickle, for the harvest is ripe. Go in, tread, for the winepress is full. The vats overflow, for their evil is great. Multitudes, multitudes, in the valley of decision! For the day of the Lord is near in the valley of decision.” (Joel 3:13-14) MY RESPONSE: It is common in Old Testament prophecy to jump back and forth between near and far future events. We know that the passage about the Lord pouring out his Spirit (Joel 2:28-32) was fulfilled in the first century. We know the time of fulfillment with certainty because Peter said it was being fulfilled in his day (Acts 2:14-20). However, in Joel 1 and 3 we find a prophecy about God judging the “nations” (Joel 3:2), which means those who have mistreated Judah. In this prophecy, God was to overthrow the Tyrians, Zidonians, Philistines, Edom, and Egypt. These things were fulfilled long ago in Old Testament times. CONCLUSION: No major problem for the preterist view.
Obadiah 1:15. “The Day of the Lord is near upon all the nations.” MY RESONSE: Futurists argue that this prophecy was not literally “near” because it seems to foretell the final day of earth’s history. Yet scholars have long debated the date of the composition of Obadiah and the time period of its fulfillment. The context of Obadiah is clearly judgment against Edom, most likely for participating along with Babylon in the destruction of Judah in 586 BC. (Psalm 137 and Ezekiel 35:1-15, as well as Jewish tradition, explicitly mention the Edomites’ involvement in this catastrophe.) Obadiah’s prophecy has clearly been fulfilled since Edom no longer exists. Since the context of Obadiah is specifically judgment against Edom, then “upon all nations” must be viewed as hyperbole or a general statement about God protecting his people against all enemies, rather than a statement about the final day of earth’s history. Indeed, the Bible speaks elsewhere that the earth will abide forever (Psalm 78:69; 104:5; 148:3-6; Ecclesiastes 1:4; Ephesians 3:21). CONCLUSION: No problem for the preterist view.
Habakkuk 2:3. “For still the vision awaits its appointed time; it hastens to the end—it will not lie. If it seems slow, wait for it; it will surely come; it will not delay.” Habakkuk was written in the period 609-598 BC and closely resembles Jeremiah. Thus, “the end” in view must be the coming destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians and the exile in 586 BC. However, the writer of Hebrews (10:37) uses this verse in Habakkuk to teach that the AD 70 Parousia was imminent. So, Habakkuk 2:3 could have a double fulfillment meaning. Or, better, the writer of Hebrews used this passage in Habakkuk as an example of the next and final judgment on Old Covenant Israel in AD 70. CONCLUSION: No problem for the preterist view.
Zephaniah 1:14, 18. “The great day of the Lord is near, near and hastening fast. . . In the fire of jealousy, all the earth shall be consumed.” Futurists assume that the day of the Lord describes the end of history. But as already pointed out, elsewhere the Bible assumes that the “earth abides forever” (Psalm 78:69; 104:5; 148:3-6; Ecclesiastes 1:4; Ephesians 3:21). Further, the language of the earth being consumed is Hebraic apocalyptic language about Gods’ judgments, and not about literal destruction of the planet (Example: Isaiah 13). There are actually several different “days of the Lord” in the Old Testament. Zephaniah, like Habakkuk, was also a contemporary of Jeremiah, and thus describes Jerusalem’s destruction by Babylon (a day of the Lord) being near. That judgment was a mere 25 years or less away, or so. CONCLUSION: No problem for the preterist view.
Haggai 2:6-9. “Once more, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth. . . The latter glory of this house shall be greater than the former, says the LORD of hosts. And in this place, I will give peace.” MY RESPONSE: Futurists incorrectly assume that this is in the far distant future, being solely Messianic. While there is a hint of a future final restoration in Christ, Haggai’s ministry was based on the expectation that God was renewing his covenant promises to Israel when He brought them back into the land from captivity in Babylon during 539-536 BC and rebuilding the temple by 515. This is particularly clear in verses 2:20-23 where Zerubbabel, governor of Judah at that time, is the chosen instrument of God for the resurgence of Judah. CONCLUSION: No problem for the preterist view.
Malachi 3:1. “Behold, I send my messenger and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple.” MY RESPONSE: This is clearly Messianic, being fulfilled 400 years hence. Futurists argue that “suddenly” means “soon,” but that is incorrect. According the Reformation Study Bible, “This word is almost always associated in Scripture with an unhappy and calamitous circumstance (Number 12:4; Isaiah 47:11; cf. 2 Peter 3:10).” So, it is not a time reference. CONCLUSION: No problem for the preterist view.
See also my article “Soon in Revelation”: https://prophecyquestions.com/soon-in-revelation/