Question

In Deuteronomy 18:20-22 it says that anyone who gives a prophecy that does not come true is a false prophet. Doesn't that make Jonah a false prophet? And in Hosea, God seems to be talking out of both sides of his mouth. First he says he's going to destroy Ephraim, then he says he isn't. Which is it? How can we trust his Word if he can't even talk straight?

Answer

In both questions there is a similar problem: If God says (through a prophet) that he's going to do something, then he either says (through the prophet) that he isn't, or in fact he does not do it, then either God is fickle or the prophet is a false prophet, right? Well, no. There are some important things we must understand about the nature of Old Testament prophecy, and when we do, then both of these situations will make sense. God isn't double-talking, and his prophets are true.

To begin, look at what God himself has to say about his prophetic announcements:
"If at some time I announce that a nation or kingdom will be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned. And if at another time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be built up and planted, and if it does evil in my sight and does not obey me, then I will reconsider the good I had intended to do for it" (Jer. 18:7-10).
  1. God makes an announcement that a nation will be uprooted, etc. That is what prophets often announced, isn't it? Jonah's prophecy fits this case - he simply announced that Nineveh would be overturned.
  2. God calls that announcement a warning. If the people repent, God will relent.
  3. Therefore, God's prophetic judgments are actually prophetic warnings: "This is what you'll receive if you don't repent."
  4. God announces that a nation will be built up.
  5. But if that kingdom does evil and does not obey God, He will reconsider and not do the good he had promised.
  6. Therefore, God's prophetic promises are actually prophetic incentives. "This is what you'll receive if you continue in faithfulness."
Do you see what is happening here? The prophets are not so much making singular predictions about the future as they are trying to motivate God's people by giving them a picture of what the future might look like for them. That is God's explicit purpose in making such announcements - he said so explicitly in this passage.

Sometimes the conditional nature of prophecy is explicit. For example, consider Isaiah 1:19-20: "If you are willing and obedient, you will eat the best from the land; but if you resist and rebel, you will be devoured by the sword."

At other times, God confirms with an oath that no matter what happens, the prophecy will come about. For example, consider Ezekiel 5:11: "Therefore as surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord à I myself will withdraw my favor; I will not look on you with pity or spare you."

But many times there is neither an explicit condition nor an explicit confirmation given. What then? If we assume that God's words in Jeremiah 18:7-10 describe a categorical condition, then we must conclude that all unqualified predictions carry with them implicit conditions. We should assume the prophetic announcements to be conditional, even if not explicitly stated.

The response of several Old Testament characters shows us that they assumed just such implicit conditions. Look at the king of Nineveh in Jonah. In response to Jonah's direct proclamation of doom, the king declared a fast. Why did he do this? "Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish" (Jon. 3:9). Even though Jonah's prophecy spoke of certain destruction, it was in fact implicitly conditional. The king of Nineveh understood it to be so, and indeed he was correct, for God saw their repentance and "had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened" (Jon. 3:10).

Again, in Joel, after a long and dreadful description of the destruction that awaited God's people, the prophet called his people to repentance, saying, "Who knows? He may turn and have pity" (Joel 2:14). There was a possibility that God might relent, though it was not assumed.
Another example is when the prophet Nathan told David that Bathsheba's first child would die. David prayed and fasted for the child until it died as Nathan had foretold. Why did he pray and fast? David said, "I thought, 'Who knows? The Lord may be gracious to me and let the boy live'" (2 Sam. 12:22). Even though in this case Nathan's words came true, David assumed there was a possibility of events turning out other than had been prophesied - another instance of implicit conditions. We may conclude, then, that even if not explicitly stated, prophecies carried with them implicit conditions. Repentance might bring relief from the threat of punishment, and disobedience might prevent promised blessings.

So, in answer to the question about Jonah: No, Jonah was not a false prophet. God relented because of the people's repentance, in accord with the principle he stated in Jeremiah 18:7-10.

How, then, can one identify a false prophet, if prophecies don't necessarily have to come true? Well, we just have to factor in the possibility of how the people given the prophecy respond to it. If a prophet predicts doom, and the people continue on in their evil with no change, and the prophecy still doesn't take place, then we can assume he was a false prophet. But if they do repent and it doesn't take place, then we know God relented, and that the prophecy had its intended effect: it motivated the people to action.

In Hosea, the prophet is warning Ephraim (the northern kingdom of Israel) of the punishment to come if she does not repent: she will be destroyed and sent into exile. In this case, destruction means exile - Israel will no longer exist as an independent nation. At the same time, the prophet is making promises of restoration. Hosea 3:4-5 mentions both: Israel will live without a king (in exile); afterwards, they will return and seek the Lord and their king. But Israel remained unrepentant, so she received the threatened punishment. This is much of what chapters 4-10 describe. But then, in chapter 11, God again declares his love for Ephraim. Though they have been exiled (in that sense destroyed), he will not utterly destroy them so that they completely cease to exist. Rather, he will gather them from exile in Egypt and Assyria, and they will resettle in their homes (Hos. 11:11). Even the many threats of her destruction might have been averted if she had repented: "Woe to them, because they have strayed from me! Destruction to them, because they have rebelled against me! I long to redeem them but they speak lies against me. They do not cry out to me from their hearts but wail upon their beds" (Hos. 7:13-14).

Is God speaking out of both sides of his mouth? No. He is threatening punishment (including exile) for their evil, but promising afterwards to restore a remnant if they repent and return to him.

Answer by Kent Muhling

Kent Muhling is a missionary currently serving in Japan with Asian Access.