The Old Testament prophets: „Does Biblical Prophecy Fail?” Prophecy 101

Bio from here – http://www.tms.edu/FacultyIntroduction

Michael Grisanti is Professor of Old Testament at The Master’s Seminary where his scholarly interests include Deuteronomy, Old Testament theology, biblical ethics, the prophets, and the history of Israel. He has been actively involved in ministries around the world, which have brought him to Colombia, Honduras, Albania, France, Israel, Italy, Japan, Jordan, Russia, and Ukraine. For several years, he taught at Central Baptist Theological Seminary.

 Grisanti has contributed to The New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis,Eerdman’s Dictionary of the BibleBible Knowledge Key Word Study Set, and the Baker Handbook to the Bible. He wrote the forthcoming commentary on Deuteronomy in revised The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, and the forthcoming volume on the prophets in the Handbook on Old Testament Exegesis series.  He co-authored The Word and the World: An Introduction to the OT (B & H). He has also served as editor or co-editor of The Bible Version Debate: The Perspectives of Central Baptist Theological Seminaryand Giving the Sense: Understanding and Using Old Testament Historical Texts. He has written numerous articles on Old Testament topics which have been published in Bibliotheca SacraThe Master’s Seminary Journal, and the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society.
  • Professor of Old Testament
  • B.A., Pillsbury Baptist Bible College
  • M.Div., Central Baptist Theological Seminary
  • Th.M., Central Baptist Theological Seminary
  • Ph.D., Dallas Theological Seminary

Biblical Studies Symposium with Dr. Michael Grisanti

A lecture that helps us understand some of the more difficult parts of the Old Testament- The prophets. The points Dr. Grisanti answers are:

  1. To get a better understanding of prophetic passages, a part of the Bible believers find difficult to understand
  2. Not all statements of biblical prophets about the future are going to find fulfillment in the way it’s stated
  3. To understand why some prophetic predictions are not fulfilled and why nonfulfillment does not deny anything about God’s character as the all powerful God. It is not a question about His ability.
  4. To better handle the word of truth in prophetic literature through some of the key issues discussed

Published on Oct 3, 2012 by  The Liberty University School of Religion’s Biblical Studies Symposium hosted Dr. Michael Grisanti on September 17th, 2012. Dr. Grisanti, co-author of The World and the Word, joined us from the Master’s Seminary for the day. He addressed students and faculty in the Towns Alumni Lecture Hall on the topic of „Does Biblical Prophecy Fail?”

Here are some extensive NOTES from the Symposium:

I. Some basic issues in prophetic literature.

Of all the sections of the Bible, many believers struggle with understanding prophetic passages. It is also a section of the Old Testament where the debate rages. Since we live in challenging times and we have a biblical anticipation of God’s plan for the future, we want to understand God’s intention for the end times. Tonight I want to focus on only one primary issue that affects our understanding of the message of the prophets. And that is the issue of conditional predictions.

A. Key terms – Conditional and Contingent Predictions

Here are some key terms I want to talk about. In general, something that’s conditional is not guaranteed. Conditional love, for example is love that is dependent on  what someone else does. Unconditional love, like God’s love is not impacted by conduct. So, conditions introduce an „if” or a „maybe” to a statement, or a promise. The ideas „contingency” or „contingent” are near synonyms of conditional. If it is contingent, it depends on something else for it to take place. So, in what way do these terms „conditional” or „contingent” play a role in the prophetic statements? After all, don’t all prophetic promises or predictions find fulfillment? If a biblical prophet is speaking on God’s behalf, then, what’s the question? Aren’t all predictions either pointing to the Messiah, or providing information about an event on a prophetic calendar? As much as I am grateful for God bringing history to pass, through predictions made through Old Testament prophets, which I am totally confident in, a careful study of Old Testament predictive passages actually demonstrates that the function of these predictions is not just to affirm promises that God gave that these will happen, although that’s an important part of it.

B. Important Distinction: Forthtelling and Foretelling

Forthtelling – For years scholars have recognized a key distinction in prophetic writings between forthtelling and foretelling, or preaching and predicting. A majority of prophetic passages involve the biblical prophet addressing his immediate audience. The forthtelling, or preaching, which is often future oriented, the forthtelling or preaching by a prophet usually falls into two categories:

  1. First, he indicts God’s people for committing covenant treachery. They have betrayed their covenant Lord from the inside out. 
  2. Second, the prophet exhorts his fellow israelites to repent, or face covenant judgment, or cursing. Then finally he looks to future restoration after Israel experiences the promised judgment and repents of the rebellion.

The prophets are preaching to change lives. They are not just preaching to provide eschatological data. That’s part of what they do, but not all that they do. In a much smaller number of passages, the prophets provide detailed statements about what God will do in the future. Scholars have offered various estimates of how much of what a prophet declares involves long range predictions- 5% to, I would suggest 20-30% of the Old Testament prophetic passages deal with a more distant prediction. Just as an example: Think about the prophet Amos. Amos 1:1-9:10 focuses primarily on Amos’s immediate audience and the issue of their covenant disloyalty promises judgment. Only the last five verses (Amos 9:11-15) give attention to the distant future. And, we need to keep that in mind as we understand the prophets.

In addition to revealing God’s future intent, these predictions also give weight to God’s call for repentance. The idea is that it wasn’t just a hortatory (encouraging) function, that what God predicts isn’t just taking up space. What God predicts is meant to drive God’s people to repentance. While prophetic predictions can function i what’s called performatively, that is referring to something that God will unilaterally bring to pass, they can do that. A lot of predictive discourses are dynamic in tending to change the hearer’s personally. So, oracles of salvation present good news, providing incentive, motivating change. And then, judgment oracles presented the bad news are deterrents to refusing change.

Keep in mind that a number of prophetic statements concerning the future are not guaranteed to take place. They may have a built in conditionality, or contingency. We’ll spend more time at the end of this session to study how to sort out what might be conditional  and what is sure to find fulfillment. And also be sure to recognize that not all predictive statements involve predictions about the distant future. Prophets focus a great deal of their preaching in waiting and charging their current audience to repent from their rebellion and embrace the covenant relationship that the Lord offered them.

II. Where does the Bible Talk about Conditional Language?

Let’s examine some biblical passages that offer these conditional passages of contingency or conditionality  in prophetic literature(8:40):

Jeremiah 18:7-10 is a primary one: If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned. And if at another time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be built up and planted, 10 and if it does evil in my sight and does not obey me, then I will reconsider the good I had intended to do for it. In Jeremiah 18, the Lord sent the prophet to the potter’s house to  provide an object lesson, for Jeremiah’s audience, then and now in verses 1-2. As the prophet was forming the clay into a certain kind of a jar, it didn’t meet his expectations. So, he shaped that same clay into a different jar.

The Lord’s object in this lesson was that just as the potter had the authority to reshape the clay in the kind of a jar the potter wanted, the Lord was able to carry out His will with Israel- directing their steps, demanding their allegiance, punishing their treachery, or blessing their obedience. Just like the potter who determines the shape of the clay will take, as the Creator and as the sovereign of Israel, Yahweh has absolute authority to determine the destiny for His chosen people, as well as any nation.  That brings us to the verses that describe God’s freedom to change the direction of intentions for His subjects- see above Jeremiah 18:7-10. I will relent occurs twice in the passage. The net Bible translates this verb as ‘cancel’. Scholars are reluctant to translate it „changing My mind”, because some see that as contradicting Numbers 23:19- God is not human, that he should lie, not a human being, that he should change his mind. Does he speak and then not act? Does he promise and not fulfill? Remember that Jeremiah 18 is given under the Mosaic covenant, which connects blessings with obedience, curses with disobedience)

photo via http://www.faughnfamily.com

via http://www.faughnfamily.com

So, if we’re going to interpret biblical prophecy correctly, it’s important to understand that God’s intention sometime depends or is contingent upon the behavior of mankind. Not all prophetic predictions will come to pass. That understanding and realization raises a couple of other important points (12:00):

  1. While some predictions have explicit conditions, and there are a handful of them in many predictive passages- conditions are either implicit or totally unstated. In these cases, where there is no explicit statement on condition, one cannot assure from the form of the statement  whether it’s conditional or unconditional. For this reason, the recipient of such a message, at times does what is appropriate, declaring, „Who knows? The Lord may be gracious,” like in 2 Samuel 12:22 and in some other passages. In the book of Jonah, for example, there is no indication of God’s pronouncing judgment on Niniveh had a „maybe” clause. On the other side of the coin, Nathan’s announcement on the impending death of the child born to Bathsheba is an example of one that turned out being unconditional. The child, despite David’s repentance and grief passed away. But, still he acted as if there was hope. He prayed as if there was hope, but God’s will was for the child to pass away. As you can see, the conditional nature of a prophetic prediction  is not always clearly signaled in the passage. And that makes it challenging for us. 
  2. This is very important: The issue of conditionality’s or a contingency of  predictive statements never, NEVER represent a debate about what God CAN do. The biblical prophecy never questions God’s ability or power to bring to pass what they predicted. However, in many cases, they left room for a different outcome, especially if the conditions that had provoked the prophecy in the first place to change. In other words, it indicates the outcome of a prophecy is conditioned by the response of the people to the prophetic word. This does not indicate nay kind of failure on the part of God’s word. Indeed, God indicates in Jeremiah 18 that this conditionality is part of His sovereign will and relates to the sovereign right to do such things. And, I would suggest to you that a biblical prophet, when he announced a prediction, knowing that there’s this built in conditionality, would have regarded that as a word from God, and the listeners would have been challenged to accept it as having divine authority behind it, and something to be taken very seriously. (16:00)
  3. There’s some other indications of contingency in these verses. These are passages that have the word ‘perhaps’ in them: Ezekiel 12:3 there is this unknown feature, sometimes ‘perhaps’ was offering a condition. Since most of the Old Testament predictions take place against the back drop of the Mosaic covenant, they draw on that paradigm of blessing for obedience and cursing for disobedience Leviticus 16, Deuteronomy 28. So, consequently, outside of certain bedrock predictive realities, prophetic declarations of judgment and blessing that drew on the authority of the Mosaic Covenant possesses an element of built in contingency. If God’s people repented, God would spare them from promised judgment.If they rebelled, He would change blessing to cursing. The fact that a prophet of God declares a prediction does not bind God to bring about the fulfillment. Whether or not He fulfills a predictive statement ultimately depends on His character and will, and expectation of the subjects, and whether they choose to obey.

photo via http://www.ubdavid.org

So, while recognizing presence of  contingency or conditionality in almost all predictive prophecies that are couched against the backdrop of the Mosaic Covenant, let’s clarify some terms:

  1. A conditional prophecy represents a scenario that may or may not take place, depending on the response of the people. When I talk about conditional prophecy I am not saying that every predictive statement should have a „maybe” at the beginning- a significant degree of question.
  2. With unconditional prophecy, however, the fulfillment depends exclusively on the character of God, the basis of its realization.

How do we determine if a given prediction is conditional and will not take place, or it has some kind of unilateral nature, and can be expected as something that will happen.  Some predictions will come to pass exactly as predicted and I hope you will see that this prophetic conditionality is a biblical idea. God Himself leaves room in His intentions for mankind, depending on human conduct. Having said that, recognizing the issue of conditional prophecy leads to another passage we need to understand correctly. The issue of contingency and prophetic conditions written about in Jeremiah 18, and some other passages, may look like it comes into conflict with a true or divinely authorized prophecy, given in Deuteronomy 18.

Deuteronomy 18:21-2221 You may say in your heart, ‘How will we know the word which the Lord has not spoken?’22 When a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the thing does not come about or come true, that is the thing which the Lord has not spoken. The prophet has spoken it presumptuously; you shall not be afraid of him.

In this passage, Moses provides a simple two fold test when trying to determine whether or not a prophet spoke with God’s authority. (1) His message cohered with the rest of scripture and (2) any predictions he made came to pass. Whenever a prophet made a prediction, the failure of that prediction to come to pass was an absolute verdict about the prophet’s lack of  divine authority. While the fulfillment of the prediction, by itself did not prove the authenticity of the prophet, failed prophecies served as an unmistakable occasion of his treachery.

Critical scholars resolve this tension by regarding the Deuteronomic traditions as contradictory to the later biblical traditions. Deuteronomy 18 is out of place, and so, they get rid of it that way. Evangelicals generally view this prophetic criterion as a rule to which there are only rare exceptions. Some evangelicals would suggest that one should assume that Moses and his audience realized that unqualified predictions had implied conditions. If this dynamic was well known, then He would not have to repeat it explicitly when he offered his criterion in Deuteronomy 18. The point is, they would assume this conditionality is present. They would have understood that that whole idea of conditionality was assumed in the conversation. On the one hand, it’s quite clear that Moses’s prophetic test winds up taking into consideration the concept of conditional language, as we see in Jeremiah 18. And the fact that Yahweh was known as a God who relents from promised punishment in dozens of OT passages, that fact would provide the theological rationality to this understanding. It’s based in the character of God.

On the other hand, the passage seems to suggest that more often than not , especially in a short or near term, prophetic predictions by a true prophet would come to pass. Also, the criterion for fulfilled prophecy that would be most appropriate for short range prediction, rather than for those of the distant future. It would be hard to apply the test of Deuteronomy 18 to something beyond a prophet’s lifetime.

Having talked about the idea of contingency, and having looked at Jeremiah 18 and Deuteronomy 18, that they’re not in conflict with one another, that they cohere with one another, to look at additional examples of conditional prophecy. (24:00)

IV. Commonly Cited Examples of Conditional Prophecy

What do we do with those passages that have no explicit conditions?

A. Implicit conditions in the ministry of Jonah. Jonah 3:4- „In 40 days, Nineveh will be demolished.. ‘ No condition given. On two separate occasions the Lord commanded Jonah to preach against Nineveh. Jonah’s message sounded something like this: The clock is ticking and you people are doomed for sure. However, the people of Nineveh, and including their king, listened to Jonah’s message and repented of wickedness, acting out that sorrow, by putting on sackcloth and fasting. In light of this development, Yahweh had compassion on them, and did not bring upon them the destruction He had threatened in chap. 3:10, where it says, the Lord relented from this prophesied destruction. Now, the absence of any conditions embedded in the decree that God made to Jonah, does not preclude the contingency or the conditionality of the declaration. The possibility of the contingency or conditionality are part of the prophetic condition. Jonah’s response to Yahweh’s original command to preach to the Ninevites seemed to indicate belief in the implicit conditionality of this function. One of the purposes of the book of Jonah is to demonstrate  that Yahweh was able to exercise  His sovereign will, and even to modify His fulfillment of a prophetic declaration in spite of His great mercy and the repentance of a people to whom He gave His message of judgment.

B. The prophetic denunciation of King Ahab. In 1 Kings 21 Naboth, an Israelite from Jezreel refused to sell his vineyard to King Ahab. Queen Jezebel arranged for Naboth’s death, through deception and the King would have to go claim now his land, that had been a covenant stewardship, the land was a gift to Naboth from God. In the wake of that treachery, that involved land given by God Himself, Yahweh told Elijah, the prophet to tell Ahab in 1 Kings 21:19-22: 

 You shall speak to him, saying, ‘Thus says the Lord, “Have you murdered and also taken possession?”’ And you shall speak to him, saying, ‘Thus says the Lord, “In the place where the dogs licked up the blood of Naboth the dogs will lick up your blood, even yours.”’”

20 Ahab said to Elijah, “Have you found me, O my enemy?” And he answered, “I have found you, because you have sold yourself to do evil in the sight of the Lord. 21 Behold, I will bring evil upon you, and will utterly sweep you away, and will cut off from Ahab every male, both bond and free in Israel; 22 and I will make your house like the house of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, and like the house of Baasha the son of Ahijah, because of the provocation with which you have provoked Me to anger, and because you have made Israel sin.

However, when they had heard the prophetic denunciations, as he acted out his repentance by tearing his clothes and putting on sack cloth and fasting; in response to that the Lord told Elijah: “Do you see how Ahab has humbled himself before Me? Because he has humbled himself before Me, I will not bring the evil in his days, but I will bring the evil upon his house in his son’s days.”  Eventually, Ahab did die in battle and the dogs did lick up his blood- at a different place, in Samaria, not Jezreel. But, the Lord did not bring an end to Ahab’s dynasty with him. It happened with 2 kings, 2 sons later. This change in God’s promise of judgment on Ahab indicates that God is willing to make national prophecies conditioned on human response.

C. God gives Hezekiah additional years of life

2 Kings 20:1-6 = Isaiah 38:1-6 And Isaiah the prophet the son of Amoz came to him and said to him, “Thus says the Lord, ‘Set your house in order, for you shall die and not live.’” Fairly cut and dry. Hezekiah asks God to remember his life and reign that was characterized by faithfulness, and he wept bitterly in verses 2-3. But, even before Isaiah has left the building, the Lord sent Isaiah back to tell Hezekiah of his grace and provision, and of 15 additional years of life in vv.4-6. Hezekiah’s request that God give him additional years of life was the human occasion of God granting Hezekiah request. Isaiah’s original statement was not a false prophetic declaration. But, one that God in His wisdom changed. (28:00)

D. Huldah’s prophecy of Josiah’s death

2 Kings 22:15-20 – 18 But to the king of Judah who sent you to inquire of the Lord thus shall you say to him, ‘Thus says the Lord God of Israel, “Regarding the words which you have heard, 19 because your heart was tender and you humbled yourself before the Lord when you heard what I spoke against this place and against its inhabitants that they should become a desolation and a curse, and you have torn your clothes and wept before Me, I truly have heard you,” declares the Lord. 20 “Therefore, behold, I will gather you to your fathers, and you will be gathered to your grave in peace, and your eyes will not see all the evil which I will bring on this place.”’” So they brought back word to the king.  Then we have the prophetess Huldah’s prophecy of Josiah’s death. Huldah said that Josiah would die in peace, but he died in a battle with the Egyptian army. Bob Chism contends that if we view Huldah’s prediction as performative- like a prediction, then we must conclude that Huldah’s prediction is an unfulfilled prophecy. If we regard the prophecy as implicitly conditional, and allow for human freedom, we can conclude that Josiah’s decision to become embroiled in international politics compromised God’s ideal. Even so, the promise was fulfilled i its essence for Josiah, for Josiah went to the grave without having to see Jerusalem’s downfall.

This is one of those examples that may not be, to me, a good example of conditional prophecy. After a lengthy announcement of the horrible disaster that would come upon Judah in chapter 22:15-19, Huldah tells Josiah he will die in peace. Huldah promises Josiah specifically that he will not go through this devastation. And, although there are predicitons that seem to be essentially other than totally fulfilled, Huldah’s prediction does not seem to be one of them. It makes good sense that Josiah’s death before the defeat of Jerusalem was the very privilege that Huldah had in mind. At the time of his death, Judah was still intact as a nation. Josiah did not have to experience the terrible tragedies to come upon the nation. In addition to this, Chronicles expands the incident and points out Josiah died in battle because he didn’t listen to those words from the mouth of God. We know that Yahweh sometimes uses foreign rulers to sometime carry out His plans. Apparently Josiah was rejecting the idea that Yahweh was sending the Egyptians or the Babylonians and jumped in the way.

E. Ezekiel’s Prophecy of the Babylonian Conquest of Tyre and Egypt

Ezekiel 26:3-14 – Three Panels.

In Ezekiel 26 God declares to Nebuchadnezzar that He will destroy and vanquish the city of Tyre, up in the land of modern Lebanon. However, 16 years later, Ezekiel receives another declaration in which the Lord promises Egypt to Nebuchadnezzar instead. Ezekiel 29:17-21. Did the first prophecy fail? That Nebuchadnezzar would utterly destroy Tyre? And, why doesn’t the penalty of Deuteronomy 18 apply to the prophet, because is happened in the near term? Now, although Nebuchadnezzar did beseech Tyre for 13 years, Chism suggests that his inability to conquer the fortress of Tyre- there was a mainland city and an island fortress. Nebuchadnezzar was predominantly able to conquer the mainland fortress, but the island fortress was untouched. Chism suggests that Nebuchadnezzar’s ability to conquer the island fortress of Tyre represents a non fulfillment of this prediction. In other words, the prediction in Ezekiel 26 was contingent, or conditional. Ezekiel himself writes, the Lord promised Nebuchadnezzar an abundance of spoils from Egypt, because of the siege of Tyre had not generated the expected plunder. Beyond that, Nebuchadnezzar invaded Egypt in 568-567 B.C. there is debate considering the impact of that invasion.

In addition to the ideas that Ezekiel’s 2 oracles against Tyre demonstrate the conditional narrative of predictive prophecy, another possibility is the language of the oracle in Ezekiel 29 involves hyperbolic or stereotypical language. The idea is that the language of destruction is meant to talk about the demise of Tyre as a power, not through the art of destruction. If so, the language that refers to the demise of Tyre does not anticipate all of the details, but, a central idea essential for fulfillment. The problem with this suggestion is that the graphic language and instruction in Ezekiel 26 which at least anticipates, at least the demise of Tyre as an independent city- which did not happen as a result of Nebuchadnezzar’s siege.

Another possibility is that Ezekiel 26:3-14 anticipates that other nations besides Nebuchadnezzar will serve as God’s instrument of judgment upon Tyre. As demonstrated in the text below, the first and third panels focus on „they”, the nations destroying Tyre with the middle section focusing on Nebuchadnezzar’s role and the destruction of Tyre. So we have these 3 panels.

My transcribing ends at the 35:00 minute mark. There are another 45 minutes of the symposium left. To watch the rest of it queue the start button at the 35 th minute.

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