by Dan Appel
The Bible’s Theology of Prophecy with Examples
In the first installment of this two-part series on the conditional nature of Bible prophecy, we looked at the topic in general terms. Now we will look specifically at the Bible’s understanding of the subject.
The Bible carefully delineates the conditional nature of prophecy and is replete with descriptions of examples of the conditional nature of its prophecies; for example, the aforementioned Jeremiah 18:1-10. While God is specifically addressing prophecies concerning nations and kingdoms as regards Bible prophecy in this passage, it is not because the principle applies only to nations.
The whole of Deuteronomy 28 addresses the conditional nature of Bible prophecy – in this case, prophecies concerning Israel and her future – and is designed to be placed in apposition to all of those passages – promises and threatenings – where God apparently without equivocation describes the future of Israel.
Probably the most egregious example, from the prophet’s perspective, of this principle working out is the story of Jonah. God goes to great lengths to convince the prophet to go to Nineveh with a very unequivocal message: “In 40 days I am going to completely destroy Nineveh.” Period. No conditions. No “ifs,” “ands,” or “buts.”
Jonah was understandably reluctant to deliver this message to the headquarters of the most powerful nation on earth – known for impaling its enemies on poles via convenient orifices and leaving them there to eventually die and decompose. But God, in very creative fashion, finally persuaded his prophet to take his message. For 40 days Jonah preached throughout the length and breadth of Nineveh, proclaiming his message of doom on every street corner and from every high and prominent place. Then he climbed a hill, built himself a shelter, and waited to watch the fireworks – apparently hoping for a Sodom and Gomorrah redux.
Unpredictably, Nineveh repented. “When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God repented of the evil which he had said he would do to them; and he did not do it.” In other words, God changed his mind because circumstances changed.
Jonah was not pleased!
How much different from Jonah will we sound if, with the proverbial egg all over our prophetic faces, the things we so punctiliously predict fail to materialize after all we have written and spoken with such certainty?
God goes on to explain to Jonah that he is a God of mercy who reserves the right to change any prophetic prediction if circumstances change.
Other examples of the conditionality of Bible prophecy include:
Josiah – his peaceful death is predicted by Huldah in 2 Chronicles 34:26-28, but he dies from battle wounds suffered in fighting at Carchemish (2 Chronicles 35:20-24)
Eli – God promised Eli that his house would be priests for God forever, then withdrew that promise when circumstances changed (1 Samuel 2:30,31)
Hezekiah – God’s prophecies of Jerusalem’s destruction in the days of Hezekiah were not fulfilled because the people repented (Jeremiah 26:18,19). Isaiah’s prophecy that Hezekiah would die soon of his present sickness was not fulfilled when God changed his mind in response to Hezekiah’s prayers (2 Kings 20:1-6).
Ahab – God promised through Elijah to punish Ahab, then relented when Ahab repented (1 Kings 21:17-29);
Israelites who left Egypt – God promised to bring the Israelites who came out of Egypt to the promised land (Exodus 6:8), but did not do so because of changed circumstances (Numbers 14:30-34);
Ezekiel – God promised to destroy Jerusalem, which happened in 586 B.C., then promised that this terrible punishment would never be repeated (Ezekiel 5:9,10). Unfortunately, it did occur again in A.D. 70, because Israel’s circumstances changed.
Aaron – God promised Aaron and his sons a perpetual priesthood that would last forever (Exodus 40:15; Numbers 25:13.) Yet the Levitical priesthood was replaced with the Melchizedekian (Hebrews 7).
The conditional nature of prophecy is based on the characteristics of God he most prefers as a description of who he is: namely that he is a God who is . . . merciful and gracious, . . . slow to anger and rich in unfailing love and faithfulness, . . . show(ing) this unfailing love to many thousands by forgiving every kind of sin and rebellion. Exodus 34:6
J. Barton echoes this sentiment by his statement: “God is no changeless, impersonal force but reacts rather, in a living way, to the responses that are made by human persons . . . It is not that God’s standards, His decrees, or His nature are changeable; it is, in fact, the very immutability of the character of deity which necessitates the application of differing aspects of His fixed principles, in accordance with such changes as may be exhibited by fickle men. Prophecy in particular has been designed by God for moral ends, so as to motivate men into conformity with divine holiness. Should men, therefore, seek to take advantage of its holy assurances, toward non-moral ends (e.g. as in Jeremiah 7:4, 8-10, or Micah 3:11), change becomes then not only possible but inevitable. J. Barton Payne, Encyclopedia of Biblical Prophecy, 1973, p. 62
F. Furman Kearley affirms this when he says, “. . . one of the chief purposes, if not the most significant purpose, of prophecy was to motivate men to repent of sin and turn toward God so He might bless them instead of punish them. Since this was the purpose of prophecy, it was essential that the prophetic pronouncement of punishment or blessing be conditional – i.e., depending upon the reaction of the hearers. . . . Mankind, then, needs conditional prophecies because of his own contingencies and vacillations. What can be said of men as individuals also applies to entire nations. Nations, as a whole, can be righteous when promised certain blessings, but then turn evil; or they can be evil when threatened, and then repent and become righteous. Thus, conditional prophecies are well suited to the nature of both individuals and nations.” F. Furman Kearley, The Conditional Nature of Prophecy: A Vital Exegetical and Hermeneutical Principle, p. 13
Certain hermeneutical principles grow out of this understanding of prophecy:
1. Whenever God speaks of blessings or punishments concerning a nation, an organization, a movement or an individual, that statement should be regarded as conditional even if no expressed condition is stated, unless it is an overarching prophecy, such as the final triumph of God over the forces of evil.
2. Conditional prophecies are not limited just to the contemporaries of the prophet, but may extend for many generations.
3. God’s ultimate plans relating to his sovereignty and scheme of redemption are not conditional but often his means to accomplish these plans are, because they are almost always contingent on the behavior of humans.
4. The conditional nature of prophecy means that any given prophecy may be: fulfilled exactly as stated; delayed in its fulfillment; altered in its fulfillment; or repealed.
An Important Question Raised by the Concept of Conditional Prophecy
While not comprehensive, the following list contains most of those standards used by Bible believers to determine whether a modern prophet is to be considered as speaking for God. As will be seen, none of them addresses or precludes the subject of conditional prophecy.
Test 1. Isaiah 8:20 – "Check their predictions against my testimony," says the LORD. "If their predictions are different from mine, it is because there is no light or truth in them.”
This test states is that it is to be expected that what God’s prophet says will be coherent and consistent and agree in principle with what he says elsewhere.
Test 2. Matthew 7:20 – A person, same as a tree, is identified by the kind of fruit that he produces.
This test states that:
A. The life of the prophet must be worthy of God's personal representative in the trend of the life as a whole, rather than judged by any occasional good deed or misdeed.
B. The influence of the prophet's life and messages upon individuals and the church as a whole must be good.
Test 3. Jeremiah 28:9 – A prophet who predicts peace carries the burden of proof. Only when his predictions come true can it be known that he is really from the LORD.
What this verse does not say is as important as what it does say.
The verse does not state that if what the prophet predicts does not come true, he/she is not a prophet. Only that if what he/she predicts does come to pass that he/she has passed one of the tests of being a prophet.
It is also reasonable to assume that the prophecies of a true prophet are specific enough that it would take a miraculous gift to give them.
Test 4. 1 John 4:1-3 – Dear friends, do not believe everyone who claims to speak by the Spirit. You must test them to see if the spirit they have comes from God. For there are many false prophets in the world. This is the way to find out if they have the Spirit of God: If a prophet acknowledges that Jesus Christ became a human being, that person has the Spirit of God. If a prophet does not acknowledge Jesus, that person is not from God. Such a person has the spirit of the antichrist.
This test of a prophet merely recognizes the truth of John 1:14, which tells us that a prophet who truly represents God believes and teaches that Jesus is the incarnation of God, manifest as man – God, as the Word, the Creator, the source of life and the light of humanity, entered human history in the form of a person, a human, and lived among us.
A sage aphorism tells us “not to believe everything we are told.” To that could be added, “nor should we believe everything we think.” One of the hardest things for any of us to shed is our “a priori” (prior) assumptions when we set out to study and understand God’s word to humanity, the Bible. Nowhere is this statement truer than when we open prophetic books, ancient and modern.
Longing for certainty in this uncertain world, we want to understand Bible prophecy. To know that someone knew ahead of time what will happen gives us comfort and reprieve from the fear that maybe we are nothing more than passengers on a lonely planet in a galaxy soaring through an endless universe, going nowhere, with no purpose and no reason for our existence. In a world where so much is slippery and ill-defined, it would be nice to know that there is a God who knows the future and can reveal it to us.
We thus find it easy to assume that God intended to tell us much more in prophecy than he may have intended and to believe that every prophecy, especially those concerning our own future, will always come true.
God’s slant on prophecy, on the other hand, opens our eyes to a whole new adventure in life – a life not built on the dubious accuracy of detailed prophetic charts and carefully crafted prophetic theories, but on a daily walk with the God who holds the future and who will restore his kingdom on earth.
That is a prophecy we can bank on!