Henry Gratten Guinness was a member of the poor, non-brewing branch of the family. In the mid-19th century he was a noted Christian preacher. He also had an interesting line in prophecy interpretation. It is claimed that he forecast both the Balfour Declaration and the establishment of the State of Israel, by identifying the dates 1917 and 1948 as significant for the end of the ‘times of the Gentiles’. Question, ‘when does prophecy interpretation cease to be good theology?’ Answer: usually when it’s done in advance of the event. O.K. that’s my answer; I know a lot of people would disagree. But, asking as a Christian, what’s the evidence from scripture?
No doubt people will correct me but I can thinkof only one Old Testament prophecy where the actual day of fulfilment was given. Not to Abraham: the 400 years, a pretty vague term that could be understood as four generations, was extended by 40 years because the Israelites were faithless (apart from three, Moses, Joshua and Caleb). Some false prophets, such as Hananiah, made claims, “within two years …” didn’t happen. (Jer. 28)
The prophet I have in mind is Jonah. After giving the big fish indigestion Jonah did as he was told, went to Ninevah and walked through the city shouting, “Forty days more and Ninevah shall be overthrown” That’s a fairly specific promise. Did that happen? No, not because Jonah spoke falsely but because the people, led by their king, repented. Prophecy is intended to change us.
Guinness apparently believed that the three prophecies in Daniel, Ezekiel and Revelation all pointed to the same year as the end of the Gentile times, 1917, although see below. According to Guinness’ system the papacy became an empire during the sixth century and was absorbed among the secular powers of Europe in the newly united Italy. He identified the Latin church as the 4th empire of Daniel.
Does it work? Certainly we can subtract 1260 from 1888, the date Grattan Guinness published his book, and find ourselves in the first flush of the Muslim conquest. But, having referenced Persia as one of the three earlier empires in Daniel, Guinness’s speculations ignore the East. The only empires he reckons with are those in Daniel. Looking for ten kingdoms he contents himself with averages over the period, and includes alongside the newly united kingdom of Italy, the empires of Britain, Germany, Austria, France, Spain and Portugal. He excludes ‘The northern nations’ because ‘territorially (they) belong to the Greek and not to the Roman empire, (though subject to it in its golden days)’.
To be fair to Guinness he does tell us not to ‘to attempt any prediction of the specific events which may be expected to occur in these years of crisis in the near future’. Also being fair, we might point out that 1917 was only one of a number of years he identified as of interest. They were, in order – 1887, 1889, 1893, 1898, 1906, 1915, 1923, 1933 and 1934. Whilst warning against too precise definition Guinness seems to have expected an event of ‘Jewish elevation and restoration’ and involving somehow ‘the cleansing of the sanctuary’; the date (approximate, of course), 1889, or possibly 1893 or 1906.
Henry Grattan Guinness’ work in Christian ministry deserves our respect, and there is much in his book to challenge us. But this kind of prophetic analysis and its modern equivalents does no service to the faith. And it doesn’t help in meeting the church’s challenge in our mission of peace and goodwill. Speculating on the date of the millennium, or the second coming, or the tribulation (already happened and happening!), distracts we Christians from our job of living out the good news about Jesus. Speculating on how soon he might come is not in the diary; being about his work is.