Do we know what time it is?
Several things made the prophets unique. The first was his or her sense of history. The prophets were the first people to see G‑d in history. We tend to take our sense of time for granted. Time happens. Time flows. As the saying goes, time is G‑d’s way of keeping everything from happening at once. But actually, there are several ways of relating to time, and different civilizations have perceived it differently.
There is cyclical time: time as the slow turning of the seasons, or the cycle of birth, growth, decline and death. Cyclical time is time as it occurs in nature. Some trees have long lives; most fruit flies have short ones; but all that lives, dies. The species endures, individual members do not. Kohelet contains the most famous expression of cyclical time in Judaism: “The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises. The wind blows to the south and turns to the north; round and round it goes, ever returning on its course . . . What has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”
Then there is linear time: time as an inexorable sequence of cause and effect. The French astronomer Pierre-Simon Laplace gave this idea its most famous expression in 1814 when he said that if you “know all forces that set nature in motion, and all positions of all items of which nature is composed,” together with all the laws of physics and chemistry, then “nothing would be uncertain, and the future just like the past would be present” before your eyes. Karl Marx applied this idea to society and history. It is known as historical inevitability, and when transferred to the affairs of humankind it amounts to a massive denial of personal freedom.
Finally, there is time as a mere sequence of events with no underlying plot or theme. This leads to the kind of historical writing pioneered by the scholars of ancient Greece, Herodotus and Thucydides.
Each of these has its place, the first in biology, the second in physics, the third in secular history; but none was time as the prophets understood it. The prophets saw time as the arena in which the great drama between God and humanity was played out, especially in the history of Israel.