Robert B. Chisholm
We often think a biblical prophecy is genuine only if it comes to pass, as Deuteronomy 18:21–22 seems to support: “When a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the LORD has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously.” But using this passage to explain the nature of all biblical prophecy is inaccurate. Prophecies sometimes did fail—by God’s design.
Micah’s Postponed Prophecy
In the late eighth century BC, the prophet Micah, like his contemporary Isaiah, confronted the people of Jerusalem with their sin. He told the city’s corrupt leaders that the threatening Assyrian army would destroy the city: “Therefore because of you Zion shall be plowed as a field; Jerusalem shall become a heap of ruins, and the mountain of the house a wooded height.” Yet this threatened destruction didn’t happen. God spared the city, miraculously delivering it from the Assyrians (Isa 37:36–37).
Several decades later, the prophet Jeremiah warned the leaders of the same city that judgment was coming. The priests and false prophets arrested him, seeking to execute him for treason. But the people and the elders protested, and in doing so they give us insight into Micah’s earlier prophecy and into the way prophecy works:
Micah of Moresheth prophesied in the days of Hezekiah king of Judah, and said to all the people of Judah: “Thus says the LORD of hosts, ‘Zion shall be plowed as a field…’ ” Did Hezekiah King of Judah and all Judah put him to death? Did he not fear the LORD and entreat the favor of the LORD, and did not the LORD relent of the disaster that he had pronounced against them? But we are about to bring great disaster upon ourselves (Jer 26:18–19).
According to the elders, Hezekiah’s positive response to Micah’s prophecy prompted the LORD to relent, and the disaster was averted. Micah’s prophecy was conditional. To explain what happened here, we need to think about the nature and function of prophecy.
Predisposed to Forgive
Prophecy typically consists of exhortation (forth-telling) and prediction (foretelling). Prophets confronted the people with their sin and exhorted them to change their ways. Then they offered predictions of what judgment might befall the people if they didn’t repent. Yet God didn’t desire to carry out the predicted judgment—after all, He takes no delight in the death of sinners (Ezek 18:23, 32; 33:11). God explains it clearly in Jeremiah 18:7–8: “If at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, and if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I intended to do to it.” The LORD may pronounce judgment, but if people repent, He will alter His plan and show mercy.
Failure to follow through on a threat doesn’t mean God is unreliable—it means He is merciful. God is predisposed to forgive sin. He gives people a glimpse of where disobedience will take them so they—and He—won’t have to go there.
Conditional Prophecy: The Exception or the Norm?
The account of the eighth-century BC prophet Jonah provides another example of a conditional prophecy being postponed by repentance. Jonah journeyed to Nineveh and announced, “Yet forty days and Nineveh shall be overthrown” (Jonah 3:4). Without knowing if the threat was conditional, the Ninevite king declared, “Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish” (Jonah 3:8–9). To Jonah’s dismay, God did relent, sparing the city (Jonah 3:10).
Rather than rejoicing in God’s mercy, Jonah explained that this was why he had run away from God’s call to begin with. He recognized that God typically relents from judgment. “That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish,” he complained, “for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster” (Jonah 4:2).
However, repentance doesn’t give people the excuse to live as they please. Repentance buries sin, and with it the threatened judgment. If people dig up that sin, they unearth the judgment with it. The Ninevites returned to their sinful ways, and the city was destroyed in 612 BC. Micah’s prophecy likewise came to pass: The people of Judah returned to their sinful ways, and in 586 BC, the Babylonians destroyed the city.
Unconditional Prophecy as a Litmus Test
The Bible demonstrates that some prophecies are conditional; they are designed to cancel themselves out by encouraging people to repent. The prophetic test given in Deuteronomy 18:21–22 is limited in scope. It applies to short-range prophecies, not prophecies of the distant future—people needed to know at the time if a prophet could be trusted. It appears that a true prophet put his authority to the test by making a short-range prediction (e.g., 1 Kgs 22:28).
Furthermore, the test would work only in cases where an unconditional prophecy was in order, not in cases where judgment was meant to prompt repentance. This explains why the Israelites didn’t reject Micah as a false prophet when his prophecy did not come to pass. People knew that the test from Deuteronomy did not apply in his case.
Biblical prophecy may seem replete with threats and warnings, but ultimately these passages illustrate God’s mercy and patience. God warns sinners of approaching judgment, gives them a chance to repent, and then relents from judgment when they do. Yet He is also just—if His people abuse His mercy and return to their sinful ways, He will send judgment.
Pick up Robert B. Chisholm’s Handbook on the Prophets at Logos.com/ChisholmHandbook