Conditional elements of biblical prophecy help us to see a sovereign God who is interested in the salvation of an estranged humanity.
Gerald A. Klingbeil
Every reader of the Old Testament has come across prophecies that were not fulfilled in their original Old Testament context, nor in the New Testament. One example is the description of the future glory of Jerusalem after the exile as described in Isaiah 60 to 66. Compared to the humble beginnings of Jerusalem in the time of Sheshbazzar, after the return from the Babylonian exile in 537 B.C., or during Ezra and Nehemiah’s time nearly a hundred years later, the prophetic descriptions in Isaiah appear to be quite different—much more fundamental and majestic.
Other examples of this type of biblical prophecy can be found in Ezekiel 40 to 48, involving the description of a future temple. This temple never became a reality. While there are hundreds of fulfilled prophecies in the Old Testament, some prophecies were—apparently—never fulfilled. How does this harmonize with the New Testament statement found in 2 Peter 1:19: “We have the prophetic word confirmed, which you do well to heed as a light that shines in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts” (2 Peter 1:19).”1 Will not the true prophet (and thus his or her prophecy) be confirmed when such prophecies are fulfilled, as can be so aptly seen in the narrative of Micaiah and the prophets of Baal before Jehoshaphat and Ahab (1 Kings 22)?
The Nature of Biblical Prophecy
The prophetic texts of the Old Testament are much more comprehensive and wide-ranging than our 21st-century concept of prophecy. The modern understanding of a prophet focuses almost exclusively on the element of predicting the future. In the Old Testament, however, not all the prophets spoke about future events or eschatological happenings. Most of the Book of Haggai is built around the reconstruction of the temple. The prophet challenged and encouraged the people to rebuild the temple; there are only a few references to the future of Israel and the glory of the reconstructed temple (Haggai 2:6–9, 22).
The Pentateuch contains a very helpful definition—a prophet is someone who speaks on behalf of God to His people or to the world in general (Deut. 18:18–20; 1 Kings 22:14); that is, the prophet is the Lord’s mouthpiece. One can find similar terms and concepts in the surrounding religions, although it appears that biblical prophecy was more comprehensive than its extra-biblical counterpart. The prophetic word for the world and God’s people did not always involve predictions concerning the future. Most of the Old Testament prophets spent a lot of time talking about social justice, the lack of ethics (Amos 2:6–16; 4:1–3; Isa. 1:2–20; 5:1–30; Jer. 5; 7), and religious formalism (Isaiah 58; Jeremiah 2; 11; Ezekiel 14; Hosea 2; 5; Amos 4:4–13). To speak on behalf of God without being called and empowered by Him was considered a grave sin. False prophets, therefore, were to be killed (Deut. 18:20).
The fulfillment of the divine word, spoken through the prophet, was one of the important indicators of true prophecy (Deut. 18:21, 22; Jer. 28:9; Eze. 13:6; 33:33), albeit not the only one. And it is precisely here that the issue of unfulfilled prophecy comes in. Considering the biblical standard for evaluating prophets, does not the mere fact that some of the prophecies included in the Book of Isaiah (or of any other prophet, for that matter) were not fulfilled disqualify these prophets from being authentic, divinely called mouthpieces of God? The biblical concept of conditional prophecy provides a solution to this critical issue.
The principle of conditional prophecy is well explained by the prophet Jeremiah. In Jeremiah 18, God instructs the prophet to visit the potter down the road. Jeremiah visits the potter’s workshop and observes the molding, shaping, and reshaping that characterize the work of a potter. It is precisely this action of molding and reshaping that God utilizes to explain the principle of conditionality in biblical prophecy, focusing upon the human element and response involved in human history.
“‘The instant I speak concerning a nation and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up, to pull down, and to destroy it, if that nation against whom I have spoken turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I thought to bring upon it. And the instant I speak concerning a nation and concerning a kingdom, to build and to plant it, if it does evil in My sight so that it does not obey My voice, then I will relent concerning the good with which I said I would benefit it’” (Jer. 18:7–10).
Thus, the fulfillment of a prophecy is, to a certain degree, dependent upon a particular human response. The best example of this principle can be found in the Book of Jonah. The divine message that Jonah communicated to the people of Nineveh was clear and left no margin for negotiation: “‘Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’” (Jonah 3:4). However, the Ninevites repented (3:6–9), and after 40 days Nineveh still stood. This lack of fulfillment also explains, at least partly, the strong reaction of the prophet Jonah in this matter (4:1). After all, fulfillment of prophecy was one important indicator to distinguish a true prophet from a false prophet. How would he stand before the Ninevites (and perhaps even before his own people) if the word of the Lord, which he proclaimed, was not fulfilled?
Another example for a conditional prophecy is the revoking of the pronouncement of Hezekiah’s imminent death found in Isaiah 38:1 to 22 in which God, through the prophet Isaiah, first tells Hezekiah that he will die, but then adds another 15 years to the king’s life because of Hezekiah’s earnest entreaties.
It should be noted, however, that not all prophecy is conditional. General prophecy concerned with individuals or a particular people can contain conditional elements that are dependent on the human response in a particular historical setting. Apocalyptic prophecies, on the other hand, particularly apocalyptic time prophecies, are always unconditional. These prophecies deal with the history of humanity and the final advent of the kingdom of God. They are not dependent on human responses; they will be fulfilled, no matter how human beings respond.
Conditional prophecy involving individual lives or corporal entities underlines the important theological concept of human freedom. God did not create robots, and, although He is sovereign in His acts and designs, He accommodates human responses in His prophetic master plan.
Prophecy and the Messianic Kingdom
The basis for the special relationship between the Lord and His people Israel was the covenant that was solemnly established on Mount Sinai (Exodus 19–24). However, this particular covenant was based upon earlier divine promises (and conditions) given to the patriarchs (Gen. 12:1–3; 15:5, 13–16; 17:1–8; 26:1–6, 24; 28:10–15; etc.). While Israel was primarily a faith community, it was also a political/national entity that received important covenant promises (Deuteronomy 26–28). These promises were dependent on Israel’s faithfulness. Many of these promises were connected to the land of Canaan—the Promised Land. Yet, the covenant stipulations did not include only blessings but also curses in case Israel did not remain faithful.
Sadly, the history of Israel after the conquest during the period of the judges and the united and divided monarchy is a history of rebellion, religious apostasy, short periods of reformation, and continued spiritual (and political) decline. At the end of the eighth century B.C., the northern kingdom, known as Israel, disappeared—destroyed by the Neo-Assyrian conquerors. Less than 150 years later, the same fate befell Jerusalem—this time at the hands of the Babylonians. During all this time, God sent prophets with calls for repentance and religious, social, and political reform. However, the reforms were short-lived and limited. The prophetic messages of these prophets often included messages of hope and the promise of a future restoration (Isaiah 27; 32:1–8; 40; 44:1–5, 24–28; 48:12–19; 49:8–26). Generally, these promises were conditional, based on a wholehearted return of the nation to God. Some of these promises involved the inclusion of other nations among the covenant remnant (Amos 9:11, 12; Isa. 56:6–8), the centrality and power of Zion and Jerusalem (Micah 4:1–13; Isa. 2:1–4; Zech. 8:20–23), and the establishment of the Messianic kingdom here on earth as outlined in Isaiah 60 to 66. This Messianic kingdom would still have included sinners, the birth of children, and the death of old people.
Unfortunately, Israel did not live up to the conditions included in the prophetic messages. The postexilic community, therefore, did not fully experience the blessings of the Messianic kingdom, which included the coming and the death of a universal Messiah, the Resurrection, the destruction of the wicked (Isa. 25:8; 26:19; Zech. 12), and, finally, the establishment of the universal reign of God (Zechariah 14). Comparatively few Israelites returned from the exile when given the opportunity (Ezra 2:64). Only a few put their heart into the rebuilding of the temple, so God had to raise up the prophets Haggai and Zechariah to encourage the remnant in this project (Ezra 5:1, 2; 6:13–18). Only a few were attentive to Scripture around the time of Jesus. They did not, await the biblical Messiah as portrayed in Scripture, but rather a popular Messiah who would drive out the Romans. As a result, many (although not all) of the promises for the returning Jews were not fulfilled because the conditions stipulated by God were not met. These prophecies, however, were to be fulfilled in principle, though not in detail, on a larger scale in the future.
“The failure of Israel made impossible the fulfillment of these prophecies according to the original intent. Nevertheless, the purposes of Jehovah will move forward to their complete fulfillment. . . . The purposes of God instead of being accomplished through Israel, the chosen nation, will be accomplished through the Christian church.”2
God spoke in biblical times through prophets. These prophets addressed religious and social issues, admonished people to greater faithfulness, and at times made predictions for the future. One major element to distinguish between true and false prophets concerned the fulfillment of their prophecies, a concept firmly established in the biblical text. However, many prophecies, concerned with a particular historical context, involved conditions that required a response from the human participants in the covenant. Obedience and disobedience were key elements in these conditional prophecies, as were rebellion and repentance. A very helpful biblical narrative that illustrates the principle of conditional prophecy is Jonah’s mission to Nineveh.
Though some of the writings of the prophets contain sections describing the future Messianic kingdom to be established after the return from the Babylonian exile, these promises were also conditional—dependent on Israel’s obedience. Because of the lack of true obedience, these prophecies were not or were only partly fulfilled in postexilic Israel. Unlike general prophecy, apocalyptic prophecy is not characterized by conditional elements, since it expresses God’s sovereign design to save and to judge the world.
God’s Word still stands firm (Isa. 40:8) and will accomplish its purpose (55:11). The conditional elements of biblical prophecy help us to see a sovereign God who foremost is interested in the salvation of an estranged humanity and who respects the free will of human beings. It is this same God who sent His Son in the “fullness of time” (Gal. 4:4) and who will also make certain that the prophetic timetable will be fulfilled in due time.
Gerald A. Klingbeil, DLitt, is Associate Editor, Adventist Review and Adventist World, and Research Professor of Old Testament and Ancient Near East Studies, Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, U.S.A.
NOTES AND REFERENCES