Much of the prophecy of the Old Testament involves the punishment of rulers and nations for various transgressions committed. So, of course, most of those prophecies are fulfilled within the time period covered by the Old Testament. It is, however, important to note that the books of the Old Testament are written across a broad expanse of time. So when the majority of prophetic books written prior to the Babylonian captivity of Israel prophecy the Babylonian captivity, for instance, it still offers evidence of the miraculous nature of these writings. Or when the prophet Jeremiah says that the Babylonian captivity will last for 70 years, and then decades after his death, the prophecy is fulfilled, the prophecy is proven.
The typical stance critics will take is that these prophetic books were either written or heavily edited after the events they claim to prophecy, so that the prophecies would appear to come true. If the prophecies they make are not correlated by archaeology or other historical sources they are assumed to be unfulfilled.
The motivation for writing prophecies back into the text is suspect, but even assuming this is true, there are two fairly compelling prophecies that are not so easy to simply explain away.
The first is Isaiah 53. The description it gives of the New Testament Jesus is stunningly accurate, describing his life and ministry, his brutal crucifixion and the events surrounding it, his burial and resurrection, and his ascension and glorification.
More than this, however, it elucidates a succinct and accurate description of the New Testament doctrine of the substitutionary sacrifice Christ made for human sin:
English Standard Version (ESV)
4 Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
5 But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.
6 All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
One cannot excuse this as a later revision of the text for two reasons. The first is that this was and is a religious text for the Jews who would be strongly motivated not to have the Christian Jesus even hinted at in their texts. It would be easy enough to check the Jewish transmission of the Tanakh against the Christian transmission of the Old Testament and identify the divergence. No such divergence exists.
Perhaps more compelling is the fact that there exists at least one text of Isaiah from the Dead Sea Scrolls that predates Jesus, and this passage is present and unaltered.
The second prophecy that is difficult to explain away is the prophecy of Daniel.
The book of Daniel contains two separate visions illustrating the course of history over a period of several centuries. In these visions, four powerful empires are seen, each superseding the last in domination of the known world. In the first vision, the kingdoms are part of a statue with a head of gold, chest and arms of silver, torso of bronze, legs of iron, and feet of clay.
Daniel then interprets that the head of gold represents the kingdom of Babylon in all its beauty. The chest and arms of silver a second kingdom, the torso a third, and the legs a fourth. Daniel goes on to describe how the fourth kingdom of iron will become brittle (hence the feet of clay) and eventually break into factions. A great stone is seen crushing the statue, which represents the coming of the Messiah.
The second vision is essentially the same story illustrated in a different way. Daniel has a dream in which he sees a succession of four beasts rising out of the ocean, each replacing the other in turn. The first is a lion with wings, an obvious allusion to Babylon. The second is a bear with four ribs in its mouth. The third is a leopard with four wings and four heads. Finally a great beast, unlike any other animal, rises from the sea with teeth of iron and crushes everything in its path. After all of these, the Messiah comes.
Those Christians who believe in the inspiration of the Bible traditionally interpret these visions to represent the four great kingdoms of the Near East starting with Babylon’s dominance in Iran from about 620 BCE to 539 BCE then the Medo-Persian Empire from about 550 to 330 BCE then the Alexandrian Empire from about 336 to 286 BCE and finally the Roman Empire during which time Jesus came (ergo, the Messiah). Since both visions have the coming of the Messiah indicate the dissolving of the final empire, it is telling that the rise of Christianity was largely responsible for the eventual decline of the Roman Empire.
The prophecies are uncomfortably close to the truth, all things considered, especially since the manuscript evidence suggests that these prophecies were written well prior to Alexander the Great.
A more liberal interpretation is that the first empire was the Babylonians, the second and third empires are the Medes and the Persians (thus breaking what was essentially a single empire into two, despite the fact that these empires co-existed, and in both visions the empires succeeded one another) and that the last empire of iron – the great beast – is Alexander the great.
Even if this is true, it is still difficult to explain how Daniel could have predicted these four empires at all, especially when one takes into account how easily the apocalyptic symbolism could be matched with the actual nature of the empires mentioned. Alexander the Great is a Leopard with four wings, symbolizing how quickly he conquered the surrounding empires. The four heads of the leopard could easily refer to the dividing of his empire into four parts. What conservative scholars take to be Rome was described thusly:
English Standard Version (ESV)
40 And there shall be a fourth kingdom, strong as iron, because iron breaks to pieces and shatters all things. And like iron that crushes, it shall break and crush all these. 41 And as you saw the feet and toes, partly of potter's clay and partly of iron, it shall be a divided kingdom, but some of the firmness of iron shall be in it, just as you saw iron mixed with the soft clay.42 And as the toes of the feet were partly iron and partly clay, so the kingdom shall be partly strong and partly brittle. 43 As you saw the iron mixed with soft clay, so they will mix with one another in marriage,[a] but they will not hold together, just as iron does not mix with clay.
This is a fairly accurate overview of Roman history, beginning with an iron rule crushing and then dominating the surrounding empires with their military might, and then gradually becoming brittle until it dissolved.
One could dismiss it as guesswork and coincidence – as many do - but it is thought provoking none-the-less.