why Biblical prophecies fail

Throughout the Bible there are failed prediction prophecies. I am not referring to prophecies that just were not clear prophecies in the first place (such as Matthews’ “fulfillments”). I am not also talking about prophecies that were fulfilled in an unexpected way (like a Messiah that dies on a Cross instead of leading a revolution). Instead, some prophecies of the future say that one specific thing would happen but something entirely different happens.

Sometimes the Bible gives reasons for the prophecy failure. In Jonah we read about God’s plans to destroy Nineveh:

Jon 3:4 And Jonah began to enter into the city a day’s journey, and he cried, and said, Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.
Jon 3:5 So the people of Nineveh believed God, and proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them even to the least of them.

Jonah is preaching on behalf of God, the people believe God (meaning that they believe God would destroy Nineveh in 40 days) and they repent of their ways in an effort to change God’s plans. This is explicitly stated. The king of Nineveh proclaims:

Jon 3:8 But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and cry mightily unto God: yea, let them turn every one from his evil way, and from the violence that is in their hands.
Jon 3:9 Who can tell if God will turn and repent, and turn away from his fierce anger, that we perish not?

The king was not certain but he expected that God would change His mind about destroying Nineveh. The text states that God also repents (as predicted by the king):

Jon 3:10 And God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God repented of the evil, that he had said that he would do unto them; and he did it not.

In Jonah, we see a prophecy of the future (one believed to be true by the people) which subsequently does not happen, and the people attribute it to God seeing the people’s repentance. Not only that but Jonah himself had a feeling that God was subject to change the outcome of future prophesied events based on the actions of people:

Jon 4:2 And he prayed unto the LORD, and said, I pray thee, O LORD, was not this my saying, when I was yet in my country? Therefore I fled before unto Tarshish: for I knew that thou art a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repentest thee of the evil.

The entire Jonah incident is an illustration of the principle laid out in Jeremiah 18:

Jer 18:7 At what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up, and to pull down, and to destroy it;
Jer 18:8 If that nation, against whom I have pronounced, turn from their evil, I will repent of the evil that I thought to do unto them.

This verse makes very clear that sometimes God’s expectations change. God thinks to punish a people, the people repent, and then God repents of the evil that He “thought to do unto them”. Because the future is not set, when God predicts the future it can still change if people change.

Sometimes there are prophecies in the Bible that fail for no apparent reason:

Eze 26:7 For thus saith the Lord GOD; Behold, I will bring upon Tyrus Nebuchadrezzar king of Babylon…
Eze 26:8 He shall slay with the sword thy daughters in the field…
Eze 26:12 And they shall make a spoil of thy riches,
Eze 26:14 And I will make thee like the top of a rock: thou shalt be a place to spread nets upon; thou shalt be built no more…

Ezekiel is very clear about God’s prophecy. God is angry with Tyre. God commissions a particular person (Nebuchadrezzar) to destroy them in the present time (not hundreds of years later). Nebuchadrezzar is given a long list of undeniable harms that he will do unto Tyre. But then, none of it happens:

Eze 29:18 Son of man, Nebuchadrezzar king of Babylon caused his army to serve a great service against Tyrus: every head was made bald, and every shoulder was peeled: yet had he no wages, nor his army, for Tyrus, for the service that he had served against it:
Eze 29:19 Therefore thus saith the Lord GOD; Behold, I will give the land of Egypt unto Nebuchadrezzar king of Babylon; and he shall take her multitude, and take her spoil, and take her prey; and it shall be the wages for his army.
Eze 29:20 I have given him the land of Egypt for his labour wherewith he served against it, because they wrought for me, saith the Lord GOD.

God makes no apologies. Nebuchadrezzar did not get “wages”. He fought endlessly and did not prevail. The prophecy then changes and Nebuchadrezzar is redirected towards Egypt. The prophecy against Tyre never was fulfilled. Historically, we know the prophecy against Egypt also failed. There does not seem to be a stated reason why this failed. But we might be able to gain insight from Judges:

Jdg 1:2 And the LORD said, Judah shall go up: behold, I have delivered the land into his hand.

Jdg 1:19 And the LORD was with Judah; and he drave out the inhabitants of the mountain; but could not drive out the inhabitants of the valley, because they had chariots of iron.

In Judges, God’s prophecy again fails. The text states that this is because the enemy “had chariots of iron”. But we should note that the Bible shows God sucking people alive to hell (Num 16:32) and striking individuals dead (Act 5:5). God could have just killed the charioteers. Why didn’t God just kill His enemies to fulfill his prophecy?

When reading the Bible, it becomes apparent that God’s preference for prophecy fulfillment is through human beings. When Zacharias questioned naming John the Baptist the name “John”, God just made Zacharias mute until he obeyed (Luk 1). God did not force his mouth to say “John”, and Zacharias could have still named John something else (presumably). But Zacharias preferred naming his son sensibly. God used pressure to fulfill His will.

Likewise, Cyrus was prophesied to rebuild the temple. God “stirred” him up by showing him prophecy of the Jews. What king wouldn’t “fulfill” a prophecy about himself that was over 150 years old? That kind of action engenders incalculable political clout. Cyrus makes fast work of his benevolence:

Ezr 1:2 Thus saith Cyrus king of Persia, The LORD God of heaven hath given me all the kingdoms of the earth; and he hath charged me to build him an house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah.
Ezr 1:3 Who is there among you of all his people? his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem, which is in Judah, and build the house of the LORD God of Israel, (he is the God,) which is in Jerusalem.

This is mirrored in archeology on an inscription known as the Cyrus Cylinder:

From [?] to Assur and [from] Susa, Agade, Esnunna, Zamban, Me-Turnu, Der, as far as the region of Gutium, the sacred centers on the other side of the Tigris, whose sanctuaries had been abandoned for a long time, I returned the images of the gods, who had resided there [i.e., in Babylon], to their places and I let them dwell in eternal abodes. I gathered all their inhabitants and returned to them their dwellings.

So Cyrus fulfilled prophecy for political gain.

But what happens when people fail God or third parties show unpredicted behavior. God makes a prophecy and people either do not live up to God’s expectations, downright refuse to cooperate, or a third party acts differently than expected (maybe Tyre fights longer and harder than predicted). Is God required to force that prophecy to come true? If God promises to bless someone, and that person decides to commit suicide the next hour, is God required to force the individual to stay alive just to make the blessing a reality?

Also, if God promises to give a people a land and God’s people are not innovative enough or do not fight hard enough, then is God required to intervene? The Bible records several of these types of failed prophecies. God is not required to go out of His way to force a prophecy to come true in spite of the actions of man. God might just let a prophecy fail and move on.

In other words, God makes prophecies but is not required to use all possible means to make that prophecy come true. Sometimes God lets prophecies fail (and records it in the Bible). This is not because God couldn’t fulfill prophecy. This is because God prefers to work through human beings, and human beings are fickle creatures.

The Calvinists, who believe God controls all things and knows all events in the future, have no response for obviously failed prophecy.

About christopher fisher

The blog is meant for educational/entertainment purposes. All material can be used and reproduced in any length for any purpose as long as I am cited as the source.
This entry was posted in Bible, Calvinism, God, Jewish History, Omnipotence, Open Theism, Prophecy, Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to why Biblical prophecies fail

  1. Martin says:

    Hi Christopher,

    I’ve been reading your blog over the last couple of weeks… You certainly gave me food for thought…

    However, I have a question about this article…

    From Deuteronomy 18:20-22:

    20 But the prophet, which shall presume to speak a word in my name, which I have not commanded him to speak, or that shall speak in the name of other gods, even that prophet shall die.
    21 And if thou say in thine heart, How shall we know the word which the LORD hath not spoken?
    22 When a prophet speaketh in the name of the LORD, if the thing follow not, nor come to pass, that is the thing which the LORD hath not spoken, but the prophet hath spoken it presumptuously: thou shalt not be afraid of him.

    The above passage made it very clear the fate of prophets who prophesied something under the name of the Lord, and which didn’t come to pass (under the law of Moses). Plainly stated, someone that uttered a prophecy that didn’t come to pass was to be put to death…

    My question is: What would have happened in a case where the Lord commanded someone to proclaim a prophecy – and for whatever reason (as mentioned in your article) it didn’t come to pass? It would seem to me that person would have really gotten the shaft on this… Or is there another explanation?



    • Sir,

      Thank you for the consideration. We should view God as we would a father. If my father said that he was going to take me to Disneyland, but then I hit my sister or threw a tantrum, would any normal person believe that my father was still obligated to take me to Disneyland? Would anyone fault him for a wrong prophecy if he never did take me to Disneyland?

      I did not actually quote the entire summary of Jeremiah 18. But it is clear that God’s promises (his predictions) are a two edged sword. God blesses those He curses and curses those He blesses. That is, depending on their change in behavior. The Bible does not treat God’s future proclamations as if they were set in stone:

      Jer 18:7 At what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up, and to pull down, and to destroy it;
      Jer 18:8 If that nation, against whom I have pronounced, turn from their evil, I will repent of the evil that I thought to do unto them.
      Jer 18:9 And at what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to build and to plant it;
      Jer 18:10 If it do evil in my sight, that it obey not my voice, then I will repent of the good, wherewith I said I would benefit them.

      As human beings we understand these concepts. If my father says he will discipline me when he gets home (these are hypotheticals, I live in my own home) but when he gets home he sees that I have mowed the lawn, cleaned the house, and vacuumed the carpet then he might repent of what he said he would do.

      In the same fashion, we should understand when prophecies fail that sometimes the conditions have changed. Sometimes people just did not cooperate. A coworker told me about a father who used his connections to get his son a six figure job, but the son quit after a minor misunderstanding with an admin person. The father then flexed his power to re-secure that job for the son, but the son just never showed up. What person would fault that father if before all these events the father said to his son: “I will secure you a six figure job”. In fact, the only way we would fault the father for being wrong is if the father knew the outcome before it happened.

      When the Bible talks about stoning false prophets and this was an occurrence that did happen, it was not about circumstances in which there were obvious reasons for the failed prophecy. Moses was not stoned to death for telling the Israelites that they would see the Promised Land. Here is Moses speaking:

      Deu 1:1 These be the words which Moses spake unto all Israel…
      Deu 1:8 Behold, I have set the land before you: go in and possess the land which the LORD sware unto your fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to give unto them and to their seed after them…

      Deuteronomy 1 is all about why this prophecy failed: the people did not believe God:

      Deu 1:34 And the LORD heard the voice of your words, and was wroth, and sware, saying,
      Deu 1:35 Surely there shall not one of these men of this evil generation see that good land, which I sware to give unto your fathers,

      The commandments of God had to be viewed through the lens of common sense, just like all laws. Jesus explains this about even the Sabbath:

      Luk 6:9 Then said Jesus unto them, I will ask you one thing; Is it lawful on the sabbath days to do good, or to do evil? to save life, or to destroy it?
      Luk 6:10 And looking round about upon them all, he said unto the man, Stretch forth thy hand. And he did so: and his hand was restored whole as the other.
      Luk 6:11 And they were filled with madness; and communed one with another what they might do to Jesus.

      In this passage, Jesus heals a cripple’s hand. The Pharisees go berserk because Jesus was “working” on the Sabbath. He was violating their “no exception” (woodenly literal understanding) of the text. But Jesus points out that even the Old Testament provides exceptions:

      Joh 7:22 Moses therefore gave unto you circumcision; (not because it is of Moses, but of the fathers;) and ye on the sabbath day circumcise a man.
      Joh 7:23 If a man on the sabbath day receive circumcision, that the law of Moses should not be broken; are ye angry at me, because I have made a man every whit whole on the sabbath day?

      On top of this, Jesus points to saving the life of an animal as being another unwritten exception to the Sabbath.

      Mat 12:11 And he said unto them, What man shall there be among you, that shall have one sheep, and if it fall into a pit on the sabbath day, will he not lay hold on it, and lift it out?
      Mat 12:12 How much then is a man better than a sheep? Wherefore it is lawful to do well on the sabbath days.

      Jesus was critiquing those who saw the words of the Old Testament as woodenly literal. But the laws were rules and the exceptions should be obvious. When Christians say we should not kill, most people understand that war and selfdefense are excepted. Even in the case of theft, the Bible points out exceptions:

      Exo 20:15 Thou shalt not steal.

      Pro 6:30 Men do not despise a thief, if he steal to satisfy his soul when he is hungry;
      Pro 6:31 But if he be found, he shall restore sevenfold; he shall give all the substance of his house.

      So is stealing to feed yourself immoral? No. But you should still pay restitution.

      The Bible actually gives us a few examples of false prophets. In Kings we have two prominent examples of false prophets (I do not know of a Biblical example of any being explicitly stoned to death). The first example results in a slaughter, the second we are unsure:

      1Ki 18:40 And Elijah said unto them, Take the prophets of Baal; let not one of them escape. And they took them: and Elijah brought them down to the brook Kishon, and slew them there.

      The false prophecy involved was that their false God would “light a fire”. Remember “prophecies” are not necessarily future predictions. In this case the false prophecy was just an unanswered request contrasted to an answered request.

      In 1 Kings 22, we see God feeding lies through 400 false prophets:

      1Ki 22:23 Now therefore, behold, the LORD hath put a lying spirit in the mouth of all these thy prophets, and the LORD hath spoken evil concerning thee.

      Their false prophecy was that King Ahab would prevail, but he died. Both 1 Kings 22 and 2 Chronicles 18 do not tell us what became of the false prophets. They may have been killed, although God originated the false prophecy. Per Ezekiel:

      Eze 14:9 And if the prophet be deceived when he hath spoken a thing, I the LORD have deceived that prophet, and I will stretch out my hand upon him, and will destroy him from the midst of my people Israel.
      Eze 14:10 And they shall bear the punishment of their iniquity: the punishment of the prophet shall be even as the punishment of him that seeketh unto him;

      In summary, we should look at predictions through normal human understanding. No one calls Jonah a false prophet although his prophecy was wrong. We rightly understand circumstances change. The false prophets we do see are the ones who do not have God on their side (demonstrably). If you think I am missing examples of false prophets being punished in the Bible, I am eager to see them.

    • As a follow-up, the Sabbath texts are extremely relevant because it also held a death penalty sentence:

      Exo 31:15 Six days may work be done; but in the seventh is the sabbath of rest, holy to the LORD: whosoever doeth any work in the sabbath day, he shall surely be put to death.

      So here is a law that holds the death penalty but exceptions were assumed and never articulated.

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