Rationalizing unfulfilled prophecyDecember 15, 2008 — Deacon Duncan
In sharp contrast to the standard ancient Greek view of prophecy, inspired prophecies in the Old Testament (and, I would add, at least one in the New Testament, see Ac 21:10-11, cf. 26-33) are not always fulfilled, at least not in the exact way they were originally prophesied.
For example, Jeremiah prophesied that Jehoiakim would die a dishonorable death. It is said that no one would mourn for him and that his corpse would be dragged around and thrown outside the gates of Jerusalem, left unburied to decompose in the sun (Jere. 22:18-19, cf. 36:30). Not only this, but it was prophesied that no descendent of his would sit on the throne (Jere. 36:30-31). As it turned out, however, Jehoiakim received a proper burial and his son succeeded him as king (2 Kg. 24:6). What are we to make of this?
Dr. Greg Boyd, the author lists a few more examples of prophecies that did not turn out as predicted, including the razing and eradication of Tyre that Nebuchadnezzar was promised by God but that did not actually happen.
Something similar is true of Jeremiah’s prophecy to Zedekiah. Jeremiah declares to Zedekiah that the Lord says “You will not die by the sword” but will rather “die peacefully.” The Lord adds that people will mourn his death (Jere. 34:4-5). As it turned out, however, Zedekiah was captured by the Babylonians, had his eyes plucked out and died in prison (Jere. 52:8-11). What’s most interesting is that both the prophecy and the record of events revealing that it wasn’t fulfilled are included in the same book, demonstrating that Jeremiah and/or the compilers of this work weren’t at all bothered by the fact that the prophecy didn’t come to pass.
Perhaps most impressively, in Ezekiel 26-28 we find a lengthy prophecy against the city of Tyre. It is said that Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, would utterly defeat Tyre, killing its inhabitants, plundering all its wealth and leveling all its walls so that it ends up being flat as a rock. Indeed, it is prophesied that it would virtually vanish from the earth and never be found again. Well, it didn’t quite happen that way, as Goldingay notes.
Nebuchadnezzar did lay siege to Tyre, but, while he did gain some control of the city, it was “nowhere near as decisive as Ezekiel had implied” (Old Testament Theology, Vol. II, 83). The city wasn’t completely conquered and laid flat until Alexander did this several hundred years later.
Because his campaign failed, Nebuchadnezzar failed to get much of Tyre’s wealth. So, says Goldingay, Yahweh made “ a new decision.” He decided to turn Egypt over to him in order to repay him for his expenses in his “vain effort” to take Tyre (Ezek. 29:17-20; Goldingay, ibid., 84). The amazing thing is that this campaign also seems to have failed! Nebuchadnezzar invaded Egypt, but “the achievement did not amount to conquest” (op.cit.).
That’s a problem for Christians because one of the two signs Moses gave Israel for detecting false prophets was that Israel was not to believe in any prophet whose predictions failed to come to pass (Deut. 18).
How does Boyd address this problem? First of all, by misdirection.
In sharp contrast to the standard ancient Greek view of prophecy, inspired prophecies in the Old Testament… are not always fulfilled…
The phenomenon of unfulfilled prophecy tells us a lot about how different ancient Hebrews viewed prophecy from the way ancient Greeks viewed it and the way most today view it… At the very least, it seems to me the Open View of the future can accommodate unfulfilled prophecies much easier than the classical view in which all facts about the future are eternally settled and known by God as such.
Notice, at the beginning and end of the article, Boyd sets up the assumption that pagan Greeks are responsible for the notion that genuine prophecies ought to come true. By projecting the Deuteronomic test onto pagan Greeks, and avoiding any reference to Deuteronomy, Boyd divorces the Judeo-Christian tradition from any need to see “inspired” prophecies actually come true. The Greeks, in effect, become the scapegoats for disappointed prophetic expectations. “Oh, you thought things were supposed to turn out the way God said they would? What are you, some kind of pagan?”
Next, Boyd proposes a kind of “free will” excuse for the mismatch between the prediction and the actual result. But this is more than just an ordinary excuse, because he also couples it with the Chutzpah Defense.
Goldingay is impressed with the fact that Ezekiel and/or the compilers of this work seem totally untroubled by these“unfulfilled” prophecies. He surmises that this is due to the fact that, despite Ezekiel’s strong emphasis on divine sovereignty, he accepts that “human beings exercise real freedom in the world and do not have to cooperate with God’s will.” The prophecies announce God’s plan, but as Goldingay repeatedly emphasizes, a plan is not an unalterable script. When humans resist his will, Yahweh “reworks the plan” rather than coercively bulldoze over them (op. cit.) When the Old Testament speaks of a divine plan therefore, “this is not a design for the detail of history…but an intention for the present context.”
I love the Chutzpah Defense. If a thing is obviously wrong, then it must be right, because the author would never have admitted something so obviously wrong. Therefore the record does not show the prophets as being wrong, therefore the prophets must be right somehow, even when their predictions are completely different from what actually happened. Or in other words, the prophets ignored the contradiction, so we should too. That’s chutzpah.
The free will defense, of course, has some serious problems. How many other prophecies are going to fail to come true, due to human non-cooperation? Why, in fact, do any prophecies get fulfilled, except by pure coincidence? (Hmm, there might be a hint of some kind there…) Who is really running the show here? The free will defense puts some serious limitations on God’s ability to exercise sovereignty over the affairs of men. And that’s fine if you want to say God’s sovereignty is contingent on human cooperation, but then you ought to admit that the Bible is wrong whenever it declares that God’s sovereign will is not contingent.
The free will defense does more than compromise God’s omnipotence, however. It also compromises His omniscience. Why predict a future that you know will never happen? If you’re an all-seeing, all-knowing God who controls the future or at least understands what it’s going to be, wouldn’t your prophetic air-time be better spent on predictions that were actually going to come true? Or does God not understand the human heart well enough to anticipate the degree to which man’s cooperation will be present or absent?
Finally, the free will excuse is inconsistent with itself. If God is indeed intervening in human affairs to the point of sending prophets to give commands to kings, and to dictate military objectives and strategies, does it really make sense to portray God as a deity Who thunders, “THUS SAITH THE LORD…um, if it’s okay with you guys, that is…”?
I don’t think Boyd is really delving too deeply into such issues. His goal is to rationalize the failed prophecies with the idea that Bible prophecies are—in some sense—a true and reliable guide to life. But that makes an assumption that isn’t necessarily true: that the Bible is God’s Word.
The contradictions and inconsistencies in the Old Testament prophecies ought to tell us something, but instead of blaming Greeks and searching for some deep (and chutzpah-laden) significance, we ought to just remember the simple and inescapable principle that the truth is consistent with itself. Real world events failed to be consistent with Bible prophecy simply because Bible prophecies are not the truth. They’re just men trying to wrap themselves in the cloak of divine infallibility, and to lord it over others under the guise of prophetic authority.