A Journey with Jonah – 5
“The Failure of Prophecy”
I remember the time 35 years ago when I was asked to teach a course on Prophecy at a family Camp in Ontario. The text book had been selected for me. It was Hal Lindsey’s book, “The Late Great Planet Earth.” I read the book in preparation for the course. The further I read, however, the more incredulous I became. I concluded the book and realized I could not use this book to teach about prophecy, because I could not agree with most of what he wrote.
But I understood later what had caused him and others like him to develop this strange set of ideas about the future. It was his rather unusual way of looking at his Bible. He had the idea that every prophecy of the Old and New Testaments would have to be fulfilled, if God were to be true to His word.
The dilemma was that there are hundreds (600 Lindsey said) of Old Testament prophecies that never came true. “Not to worry” says Hal Lindsay, “they will all come true in the near future”. That is the way that he and many like him have answered the problem, “What do we do when biblical prophecies do not come true?”
Jonah: a classic case
The book of Jonah has a glaring example of a prophecy that did not come true. This is what Chapter three reads like:
3 The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, 2 “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” 3 So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. 4 Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” 5 And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.
6 When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. 7 Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: “By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. 8 Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. 9 Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.”
10 When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.
This chapter tells us of the second chance that God gave to Jonah to serve as his prophet. The message he is to preach is starkly simply. One sentence. “Forty days and Nineveh shall be destroyed.” Very specific and to the point. The place is Nineveh. The time is 40 days. The fate is destruction.
Now that is an exception to the way prophesy was done in the Ancient Near East. In that ancient world prophecies were usually very vague with multiple layers of possible meanings. The oracle would say to a king, enquiring if he should go to war, “Go! There will be a great victory.” But the oracle would fail to tell WHO would get that victory. Often the prophecy was misleading and dangerous.
But this prophecy in the book of Jonah is precise. “Forty days and Nineveh shall be destroyed.” The city is not “Some city” but it is clearly identified. It is Nineveh. Its fate is described, but not in general terms, “something bad will happen”, but Nineveh will be “destroyed”. The time line is precise, not “one day” but in “forty days”.
And yet by the end of the chapter that prophecy fails to come true. In fact it is cancelled. The prediction failed to come true. Why? Because Jonah was mistaken? No. Had he misunderstood the message? No. He had given the message just as God gave it to him. It simply happened that God decided not to fulfill that prophecy.
Of course this very act of God made Jonah furious. But not because it made Jonah look bad. Jonah is not concerned with his batting average as a predictor. He has no ego involvement in his success ratio. He is angry because he hated Nineveh and wanted the verdict of judgment to fall on his foes. But Jonah had been a prophet long enough to know that God had this bad habit of not going through with what he had threatened or with what He had promised. Jonah knew that God would change his mind at the drop of a hat.
In fact, Jonah says, this is why I ran away in the first place. (4:1-2) “I knew,” he says, “that you would change your mind.” Jonah understands what prophecies are. He knew that prophets are not in the predicting business, but in the warning business.
What is Prophecy?
The question needs to be asked, “What is prophecy?” Well it easier to say what it is not.
It is not foretelling the future. Prophecies are not predictions of inevitable futures. Prophets do not get Crystal balls that give them a glimpse into the future. They do not get messages from God that spell out the future before it happens. They are not fortune tellers.
Others, however, would say, right! they are not foretellers. They are simply preachers who make guesses about the future. Like political commentators they make educated guesses about trends they see happening. But that’s not the truth either.
What is a prophet? He is the spokesman for God into the affairs of our human life. He is the announcer of two ways that lie before the nation, or the two ways that lie before the person he is speaking with. And he is the describer of the destinations towards which those two roads run.
A prophet is a sign post stuck right in the middle of a highway. He is a road block in the way, asking people to take a detour. He is a stop sign asking people to stop before they go any further, and think about where they are going. He is a sign post with two arms, with one arm that says, “The Kingdom of God in this direction”, and the other arm reads, “Danger and Destruction ahead.”
Prophets existed to tell their people that their current behaviour was silently begetting damnation. If they kept on traveling down the way they were headed, they would end up, to quote E. Stanley Jones, “with hell on their hands.” So prophets stood in the highway, flagging down the traffic, letting them know there was a safer way to go. Of course many times the prophets got run over! It was never easy to be a prophet!
Let me read you the words of Douglas Hall, a Canadian theologian.
“Christian Faith wishes not so much to know what is going to happen as to influence it. Christians have inherited this orientation from the prophetic tradition of ancient Israel. The prophets were not soothsayers or diviners. Their vocation rather, was to comment upon the present in such a way as to illumine what sort of future it was silently begetting, and to bear witness to an alternative future which could be hoped for and worked for through the pursuit of another course here and now. Their prophesying had, in other words, a strongly ethical thrust. They intended to say to Israel: The future that is the logical consequence of the paths that you are presently treading is contrary to the intentions of God; but the pursuit of different goals today could alter your tomorrow.”
Let me give you the same truth in the more eloquent words of Robert Frost:
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could…
Then took the other as just as fair
But having perhaps the better claim
because it was grassy and wanted wear….
I shall be telling this with a sigh
somewhere ages and ages hence,
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by
And that has made all the difference.
Prophets too describe two roads that diverge from one another, and explain the impossibility of traveling both. Elijah on Mount Carmel says “Baal or Yahweh”. Jesus says “we cannot serve two masters”. We have to make a choice. Prophets describe the way of sin, and draws out its consequences. They also describe the way of holy living, and draws out its consequences.
For a prophet is not interested in predicting the future, he is interested in changing the future. He says to his audience,
There are two futures.
There are two fates.
The way you are living now is leading you to judgment.
Keep on the way you are going and life will fall apart on you.
But there is another alternative.
Choose God and choose good, and that road will lead to life.
Turn around, and your future will be very different.
At the end of one road God stands as Judge.
At the end of the other road stands God as our friend.
Choose this day then whom you will serve.
For, as I have said, God in not interested in a prophet predicting the future, he is interested in using the prophet to change the future. God has evaluated the moral life of a people and through his prophet tells them of the future that their present behaviour is creating. And so in the clearest terms the prophet God sends threatens them with doom. If the people believe him, and change their ways, they will be saved from that grim future. But, if they do not change, then they will reap what they have sown.
Isaiah chapter 7 includes a promise of a virgin being with child, whose name would be “Emmanuel” meaning “God is with us.” But King Ahaz wants nothing to do with such a sign. So chapter 8 tells us that Isaiah went home to the prophetess and she bore a son and they called his name “Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz” which means” Destruction is coming fast!” If not “A” then “B”!
A prophet is not interested in predicting the future, he is interested in changing the future. This is the reason that every prophecy is a call to repentance. It is trying to avert the future that has already been sown.
In the book of Jonah, the reluctant prophet only announces one future – doom. But he knows that God always has two futures in mind, and the sullen prophet doesn’t approve.
There are hundreds of prophecies that never came true and never would come true in both Old and New Testaments. God changes his mind when people change their ways.
So why do I bother telling us this? For several reasons.
1) There are books and articles about the future that are rather silly and need to be read with more than a grain of salt. There are popular novels on the end times that are selling by the millions that create more fear and confusion than help. There are no blueprints of a guaranteed future within the scriptures. Do not believe those who are too precise about that unpredicted world. They are not prophets, they are more like astrologers.
2) But there is a second reason for these words. God has not predetermined the future of any person. God has placed some of the responsibility for our own eternal welfare slap dab in the middle of our own hands. You and I get to influence our own destiny in life and in eternity. We too get to “choose this day whom we will serve.” As the ancient Ninevites had a choice, which influenced the outcome for them, God so governs His universe that our choices are allowed to have their own consequences, for good or for evil.
3) There is a final reason for these words. You and I, and the entire Church of Jesus Christ need to act in the role of the prophets today. We have been called by the Lord Jesus Christ to engage in a prophetic ministry to the world. We are to speak with enough clarity that those who guide the nation’s affairs understand the consequence of the choices they make. And like prophets we are to intercede for the nations of our world as though their salvation depended upon it, for that may be more true than we dream. (Recently the G8 nations met and “Live-8” has pleaded with them to put the poverty of the African continent high on their agenda. The church needs to add its voice to that of the rock musicians. To be concerned about gay rights & abortion may have its place, but to be silent or complicit in the face of war, and global poverty, and global HIV and Aids, is to fail our calling as a prophetic church!)
And we need to be prophets in the life of God’s Church, so that cowardice does not keep us from speaking words of caution and concern when God’s church begins to drift down wrong roads. The prophets of God have always spoken the word of God to the church of God, because if it heads down dead end streets, the world does not have a prayer of being redeemed.
But we also need to serve as prophets in our own lives. We need to examine the present trajectory of our own lives and ask the question, “Where am I headed? What will be the consequences of the way I am living?” This was Paul’s counsel, “Let a person examine themselves…. If we would judge ourselves, we would not need to be judged by God.”