Why is it that some prophecies in Scripture don't come to pass as predicted?

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There is an interesting class of prophecies in Scripture that apparently are not fulfilled, or don't come to pass. Now, the classic example of this is in the book of Jonah, where Jonah goes to the city of Nineveh, when he finally gets there, and says, "Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown," in fulfillment of God's command to him to go and warn of coming judgment, coming condemnation on Nineveh. The people of Nineveh are not told that if they repent they will be spared. The king and the people surmise that perhaps this might be the case, and they decide to call a fast and, on the hope that if they repent, that God may relent of the judgment that he intended to do to them. They find, in fact, that that is what happens. And then you're left asking the question, "Was God's prophecy of judgment on the city of Nineveh true or not?" And in this case of prophecies of threatened judgment, because of this principle that we see in Jeremiah 18 that leads some people to talk of this kind of prophecy as a conditional prophecy, what I think we actually see is that God's intention is accomplished. God intends, by way of the word of warning through Jonah, to stir up the repentance of the Ninevites so that he may treat them in kind with mercy instead of judgment. It is interesting that in the case of the book of Jonah, God does not just rain fire from heaven. He could. They're already wicked. They're already guilty. They're already deserving of judgment. So when Jonah shows up and says, "Yet forty days, and Nineveh will be overthrown," he attaches a time period. And it's interesting to ask the question: Why is there a time period between the announcement of God's judgment and the foretold experience of God's judgment? It seems to me that that's an indicator that God's purpose here is to give them an opportunity to repent. He initiates the relationship. He initiates the contact by issuing the word of warning so that there will be an opportunity to repent, when he could have just rained fire had he so chosen. He didn't. His desire was to stir up their repentance. It's also interesting to see Jonah's response to what happens to the Ninevites in chapter 4 of the book of Jonah. After the people repent, and God relents from his fierce anger, Jonah says effectively, I knew this is what you were going to do. This is why I fled to Tarshish in the first place, because I knew what kind of God you are: slow to anger, abounding in compassion, steadfast in love. Basically, you love to forgive sinners. That's why I left in the first place. Not because God told him, "I'm sending you there to preach this message with the result that they will repent," but God told him, "Go and preach judgment," and Jonah knew the character of God. So Jonah, it seems, knows that God's intention in this instance is to stir up their repentance, which means that God's word accomplishes what it was intended to accomplish. If I could use an analogy, when I warn my children, my young children, not to play in the street, and I threaten them with judgment, so to speak, if they disobey that command, my purpose in issuing that warning is not done in hopes that they will disobey my command and play in the street, and then I will have the opportunity to punish them; that's not my desire. My desire in stating the warning is to establish the boundary of prohibition so that they will heed my call and not do what I have prohibited in that instance. In a similar fashion, God's taking the initiative with these people who, like all of the rest of us don't deserve it, is done so for the purpose of stirring up their repentance so he may relate to them in kind. It's not the only kind of prophecy that there is. There are prophesies of unilateral direct fulfillment by God, and prophesies where God says he's going to directly do something through this or that person, and it is unconditionally fulfilled. But there are some examples of prophesies, like this one, where it seems that the condition attaches, and the point of the threat of judgment or the promise of blessing hinges on either continued obedience on the one hand, or repentance on the other. So, there's a principle that's announced to us in Jeremiah 18 whereby God effectively says, "If I threaten judgment on a nation or a people and they repent, I will withhold the judgment that I intended to do to them." And the flipside is stated as well, "If I promise blessing on a people or king or a nation, and they cease obeying my commands, then I will bring judgment where I had formerly promised blessing." And this principle then seems to get worked out in such a way that this condition is explicitly stated here, and apparently is carried out in other passages in ways that are implicit, specifically in contexts where God is threatening judgment or promising blessing, and probably the classic example is in the book of Jonah, where God sends Jonah to announce judgment on the people of Nineveh. Jonah does this and the people of Nineveh repent, invoking this criterion of human repentance, which it seems is what God was trying to stir up in their hearts in the first place.

Answer by Dr. Rob Lister

Dr. Rob Lister joined the faculty of the Talbot School of Theology in 2006 (M.Div, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, B.A., The Citadel, and Ph.D., The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary).