Question: Are there biblical examples of prophets which evangelical interpretations of Deuteronomy 18 would cause one to have to reject as true prophets?

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Question: Are there biblical examples of prophets which evangelical interpretations of Deuteronomy 18 would cause one to have to reject as true prophets?

There are several examples in the Bible where a true prophet prophesied something which did not happen as he stated

Be careful in how you apply Deut. 18:22, for you threaten to reject some true prophets in the Bible! There are several examples in the Bible where a true prophet prophesied something which did not happen as he stated.

Jonah

Perhaps the clearest example is found in the story of Jonah, who was told by God to prophecy to the people of Nineveh. Jonah eventually did what he was told and prophesied the simple clear prophecy that the people would be destroyed in 40 days (Jonah 3:4). The time frame was clear and no loopholes were offered, just imminent doom. The scriptures state explicitly, however, that the people repented of their sins and that God changed his mind, sparing the city.

Jonah was "displeased ... exceedingly" and "very angry" (Jonah 4:1) about God's decision, perhaps because it made Jonah look bad. In spite of what might look like an "incorrect" prophecy, and in spite of Jonah's obvious shortcomings, he was clearly a prophet of God, delivering the precise message that God had given him, but it was ultimately the conditional nature of prophecy that determined the outcome.

Ezekiel

The prophet Ezekiel provides another example of how true prophets may prophesy things that do not happen exactly as one might expect. In Ezekiel chapters 26, 27, and 28, we read that Tyre (a fortified island city) would be conquered, destroyed, and plundered by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. The riches of Tyre, it was stated, would go to Babylon (Ezekiel 26:12). Nebuchadnezzar's army did lay siege to Tyre, and its inhabitants were afflicted, apparently so much that they shaved their heads bald, exactly as prophesied in Ezekiel 27:31. However, the 13-year Babylonian siege apparently was not quite as successful as Ezekiel had predicted, perhaps because the land-based tactics of Babylonian sieges were less effective against a fortified island city with significant maritime power. The result of the siege may have been a compromise or treaty rather than total destruction and plunder, for (Ezekiel 29:17-20) reports that the predicted plundering did not take place. Almost as if in compensation, the Lord now announces that He will give Egypt to the Babylonians, which is the theme of chapter 29 (Ezekiel 29:17-20):

17 And it came to pass in the seven and twentieth year, in the first month, in the first day of the month, the word of the LORD came unto me, saying,
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:
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.
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. (emphasis added)

Tyre is no more, but its complete destruction did not occur during the Babylonian siege, and the Babylonian army did not get the riches of Tyre as has been prophesied. It is Ezekiel himself who reports this "prophetic failure."[1]

The purpose in raising this example is not to question the wisdom of the Lord, nor the truthfulness of the Bible, but to point out that an overly critical attitude and a black-and-white application of Deut. 18:22 may reject even true, Biblical prophets. If we try hard enough to find reasons to reject a prophet, we will surely succeed, but we must beware lest we judge unwisely and reject those whom God has sent and anointed.

Jeremiah

Another example to consider is the prophet Jeremiah—a great and inspired prophet—who prophesied that king Zedekiah would "die in peace" (Jeremiah 34:4-5). Critics could argue that this prophecy did not prove to be true, for Zedekiah saw his sons killed by the conquering Babylonians and was himself blinded and put in prison, where he died in captivity—not in peace (Jeremiah 52:10-11). Of course, the point is that he would not be killed by the sword, but die of natural causes—albeit in prison—yet to the critics, it may look like a case of a false prophecy. This case is certainly less clear-cut than the prophecy of Ezekiel discussed above, yet also serves to warn us against harsh judgments.

Eli the Priest

In 1 Samuel 2:27-30 there is an extraordinary reversal of prophecy by the Lord himself. God had previously prophecied that Eli's family "should walk before me for ever" as his designated priests in Israel. There apparently were no explicitly stated conditions or stipulations for this prophecy. However, due to the wickedness of Eli and his sons that prophecy became void:

30 Wherefore the Lord God of Israel saith, "I said indeed that thy house, and the house of thy father, should walk before me for ever": but now the Lord saith, "Be it far from me; for them that honour me I will honour, and they that despise me shall be lightly esteemed."

Nathan

Other examples include Nathan:

In 2 Samuel 7:5-17, we read that the prophet Nathan unequivocally prophesied to David that through his son Solomon the Davidic empire would be established "forever," that the children of Israel would dwell in the promised land "and move no more," and that the "children of wickedness" would no longer afflict them. These things are quite clearly stated. No conditions are attached to these promises, none whatsoever.[2]

Yet this prophecy, interpreted literally, clearly did not prove successful. Again human sin or choice will affect whether God will choose to bless or punish a people. This is implicit in all such prophecies.

Samson

Finally, there are the words of the angel who spoke to Samson's mother:

In Judges 13:5, it is recounted that an angel promised Samson's mother that Samson would "begin to deliver Israel out of the hand of the Philistines." No matter how liberal or expansive one wants to be with the facts of Israelite history (as recorded in the Bible or elsewhere), and while it is true that Samson at the end of his life did do some damage to the rulers of the Philistines, there is no way it can reasonably be concluded that Samson fulfilled this prophecy.
Not only did Samson fail to even "begin" to free Israel from the Philistines, but (1) there were times when he consorted with Philistine women, (2) he married a Philistine, (3) he himself never even led any Israelite troops against the Philistines, and (4) the Philistines eventually humiliated him.
Moreover, and most importantly, Israel actually lost ground to the Philistines during Samson's tenure. Judges 13-16 illustrates Philistine encroachment into Hebrew territory. The Samson narrative documents the eastward expansion of the Philistines by mentioning the Philistine presence in Timnah and Lehi, both in the strategic valley of Sorek (Achtemeier 1985:787-791). This Philistine expansion worsened the land shortage that eventually forced the Danites to migrate northward.
Of course, the nonfulfillment of Judges 13:5 can be attributed to Samson's failure to live according to his Nazarite calling. In addition to his sexual liaisons, he married a Philistine, ate unclean food, drank wine, and allowed his hair to be cut. Therefore, it could be said that the angel's prophecy was nullified by Samson's behavior. However, the angel placed absolutely no conditions on his promise that Samson would begin to deliver Israel from the Philistines. He simply declared that Samson would do so.[3]

Question: Do prophets primarily predict future events?

"Foretelling" the future is a relatively minor aspect of prophecy

Foretelling the future is often what people mean when they speak of "prophecy." But, this is a relatively minor aspect of prophecy for biblical and modern prophets. More importantly, "the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy" (Revelation 19:10). Like biblical prophets, a modern prophet expends more time and energy bearing witness of Christ than foretelling the future. "Of vastly greater importance" than future-telling, noted conservative Old Testament scholar R.K. Harrison, "was the moral and religious content of the prophetic utterance, and its ability to recall to the minds of the hearers the obligations of the Covenant relationship. The truth belonged...to the content, where alone it could be tested and shown to be the veritable word of God."[4]

In the minority of cases in which a prophet is engaged in "foretelling," rather than some other aspect of the prophetic mission, it may take one of at least three forms:

  1. As a sign to the unbelieving and comfort to the believers. One example from modern LDS history is the prophecy mentioned in the 1857 Deseret News editorial addressed to Stephen A. Douglas—("That you may thoroughly understand that you have voluntarily, knowingly, and of choice sealed your damnation, and by your own chosen course have closed your chance for the presidential chair, through disobeying the counsel of Joseph which you formerly sought and prospered by following..."). These are probably the rarest type.
  2. As a timeline to the church or to individuals, to tell us where we are falling behind in preparation for things to come (signs of the times) or to help us not worry about something that is still a long ways off (e.g., "Be not soon shaken in mind or be troubled,...as that the day of Christ is at hand" [2 Thessalonians 2:2]). Such examples are likewise relatively rare in scripture.
  3. By far the most common example are prophecies given as part of a call to repentance, or included with instructions regarding behavior. Such prophecies are always conditional, whether explicitly or implicitly, since God offers them to encourage and spur us to obedience—there is little reason to send a prophet or cry repentance if the punishment for disobedience cannot be averted by improved behavior (Jeremiah 18:, discussed above).

Notes

  1. This example comes from Daniel C. Peterson, "Review of Decker's Complete Handbook on Mormonism by Ed Decker," FARMS Review of Books 7/2 (1995): 38–105. off-site
  2. Michael T. Griffith, "Vindicating Prophecy: Why the Anti-Mormon View of Prophecy Is Invalid," in One Lord, One Faith (Horizon Publishers, 1996).
  3. Michael T. Griffith, "Vindicating Prophecy: Why the Anti-Mormon View of Prophecy Is Invalid," in One Lord, One Faith (Horizon Publishers, 1996).
  4. Harrison, 756.