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.