11.2 The Nature Of Prophecy
This raises the question of the nature of prophecy. I suggest that
prophecy is often conditional even though the conditions may not
be stated or recorded; and that it could even be that some prophecy
therefore does not have a fulfilment, because those conditions aren’t
met. There are other prophecies which will surely come true, but
whose initial fulfilment is not possible because of a lack of human
fulfilment of the conditions; but when these are fulfilled, then
it will come true in principle, if not in every exact detail. There
are other prophecies which are simply unconditionally going to come
true. If Ezekiel’s prophecies about the temple were in this category,
all the links with the restoration period would be purely incidental.
This is a position I cannot accept.
I wish to suggest that the Ezekiel temple prophecies may
be a purely conditional prophecy, which will not now come true in
that Israel were disobedient. This would then allow us to be more
comfortable with the passages in Hebrews which speak as if the system
of sacrifices has finished for all time. It would also enable us
to sit more comfortably with the Ezekiel passages which speak of
the sacrifices offered in that temple as actually achieving forgiveness
of sins (Ez. 45:15,22,25,17). They are not just ‘pointing back’
as teaching aids to the Lord’s work; they are framed as actually
enabling, by their blood, forgiveness. It may be, however, that
the Ezekiel prophecies had an intended and possible fulfilment at
the time of the restoration under Ezra, but this was nullified by
Israel’s lack of response; and therefore, at least in principle,
the prophecies had their fulfilment delayed until the second coming.
This enables the prophecies to fit in with others which speak of
some kind of centralised worship system after Jesus returns (e.g.
Is. 2:2-4; 56:7) (1). The lesson that
comes out of all this is the extent to which God is willing to work
with us, to tailor His purpose according to how far we are prepared
to work with Him, and in that sense to allow Himself to be limited
by us. There could be no greater inspiration to a maximal commitment
to His purpose and His work.
11-2-1 Conditional Prophecy
The idea of conditional prophecy is best expressed through actual
Samson “shall be a Nazarite unto God from the womb to the day
of his death” (Jud. 13:7). But he wasn’t- he touched dead bodies
and his hair was shaven. The prophecy was evidently conditional.
God told Israel straight in Jud. 10:13: “Ye have forsaken me,
and served other gods: wherefore I will deliver you no more”.
But they begged Him, and He did. And likewise in Hosea, He said
He would give them up completely, but just couldn’t bring Himself
to do it (2).
Amos preached the message of coming judgment upon Israel and
then due to his prayer, averted it. Days / months later perhaps,
he added to the record of his prophecies: “The Lord repented
for this: It shall not be, saith the Lord” (Am. 7:1 cp. 3; 7:4
cp. 6). The prophesied sending of fire and grasshoppers upon
Israel was recorded, but then averted by Amos’ prayer.
Daniel prophesied in clear enough language that Nebuchadnezzar
would surely be driven away from among men and live as an animal.
But he goes on to plead: “Wherefore, O King, let my counsel
be acceptable unto thee, and break off thy sins” (Dan. 4:27),
as if to say that no matter how definite and categoric the prophecy
of punishment, it was after all conditional, even though the
conditions weren’t even hinted at within the actual prophecy.
If Judah kept the feasts properly, there would be no more invasions
(Nah. 1:15). But those invasions were prophesied as definitely
going to happen.
God sent His prophets to appeal to Israel for repentance. They
could have lead to repentance. But Israel would not.
The marriage feast was totally ready and waiting for the Jewish
people; they could have had it. But they didn’t want it, and
so the course of human history was extended. Therefore finally
God sent His Son. The Lord Jesus Himself was amazed that no
other man had achieved the work which He had to; and therefore
He clad Himself with zeal and performed it (Is. 41:28; 50:2;
59:16 cp. Rev. 5:3,4). God knew that salvation in the end would
have to be through the death of His Son. But there were other
possible scenarios for the repentance and salvation of mankind,
which no man achieved. And so, as in the parable of the servants
sent to get fruit from the vineyard, there was left no other
way but the death of God’s only Son.
The plague upon cattle was clearly prophesied as going to happen
at a specified time: “The Lord appointed a set time, saying,
To morrow the Lord shall do this thing”; but it was conditional
upon Pharaoh refusing to let Israel go (Ex. 9:1,2,5). He could
have complied, and therefore the plague wouldn’t have happened.
And yet the prophecy is so specific that it would seem that
this conditionality just didn’t exist. But it did. Pharaoh had
a real choice whether or not to obey God’s word.
David would never want a man to sit upon his throne (Jer. 33:17);
and no conditions to this are specified. And yet even within
Jeremiah it is apparent that because of the failure of Judah’s
leaders, there would indeed come a time when there would be
“none to sit upon the throne of David” (Jer. 22:30; 36:30).
Yet if the Jews had done righteousness in Zedekiah’s
time, then instead of the Babylonians entering the gates of
Jerusalem there would have been “kings sitting for David upon
his throne” (Jer. 22:4 RVmg.). But this condition is not mentioned
in the promises to David in 2 Sam. 7 nor in the apparent blanket
statement of Jer. 33:17.
And God is unashamed about this feature of His dealings with
men. Thus He told Eli: “I said indeed that thy house…should
walk before me for ever: but now the Lord saith, Be it far from
me; for them that honour me I will honour” (1 Sam. 2:30).
“O Zedekiah…Thou shalt not die by the sword: but thou shalt
die in peace: and with the burnings of thy fathers…so shall
they burn odours for thee” (Jer. 34:5) mentions no conditions.
But consider the words of Ez. 12:13 about the same man: “My
net also will I spread upon him, and he shall be taken in my
snare: and I will bring him to Babylon…yet shall he not see
it, though he shall die there” [i.e. he would be made blind
before arrival]. The surrounding verses give an accurate prophecy
of how Zedekiah was captured whilst fleeing from Jerusalem.
And the same is said in Jer. 32:4; 38:17. It surely has to be
recognized that the ‘prophecy’ that Zedekiah would die in peace
was conditional upon his obedience to the word of Jeremiah-
even though those conditions aren’t recorded (although they
are implicit surely).
Statements which appear to be prophecy can actually be understood
as commands. This is what I submit the ‘prophecy’ of Ezekiel’s
temple amounted to. Consider how Hos. 11:12 states that Judah
is faithful whereas the ten tribes are not. Yet the rest of
Hosea stresses how they were both equally wicked (Hos.
4:15; 5:5; 6:4,10,11; 12:1,2); quite apart from Ez. 16 making
the point that eventually Judah were more wicked than Israel.
Surely “Ephraim compasseth me about with lies... but Judah... is
faithful” (Hos. 11:2) must surely be an appeal for Judah to
be faithful. A statement becomes a command, and this is
how Ezekiel is speaking when he speaks about the temple; this
is how it ought to have been, and the way in which
he constantly harks back to Israel’s previous failures confirms
- The frequent predictions of judgment upon Israel were effectively
calls to repentance, whereby the predicted judgment need not actually
happen. The more Israel resisted the call, the more they were
as it were tightening the bands which the prophetic word had laid
around them: "Now therefore be not mockers, lest your bands
be made strong; for I have heard from the Lord God of hosts a
consumption, even determined upon the whole earth" (Is. 28:22). Thus Jer. 6:2 appears to be a specific prophecy of future destruction in Jerusalem: "The comely and delicate one, the daughter of Zion, will I cut off" (RV). But the preceding verse is in fact a call for the "daughter of Zion" to "Flee for safety out of the midst of Jerusalem" (Jer. 6:1 RV). If they had obeyed that call, then the prophecy of cutting off wouldn't have come true. Note in passing that this is the basis for the Lord's command to flee out of Jerusalem in the "last days" of AD70 and before His return to earth. The prophecies of destruction within Jerusalem had [in AD70] and will yet have an element of conditionality about them. Hence the appeal of Jer. 6:8,26 to the "daughter of Zion" to "be instructed" and to mourn in repentance; if this had been done, in Jeremiah's time, in AD70 and if it will be done in our last days, so many prophecies of certain judgment will not in fact be fulfilled.
Likewise Moses ‘prophesied’ that Ephraim would “push the people
[Gentile inhabitants of the land] together to the ends of the
earth / land” (Dt. 33:17). And yet Hos. 7:8 cp. Ps. 106:34-36
criticise Ephraim for failing to push the people out
of the land. Moses’ prophecies about the tribes sound like predictions;
but they were actually commands which those tribes had the freewill
to obey or not.
Philip prophesied by the Holy Spirit about Paul: “So shall
the Jews at Jerusalem bind the man that owneth this girdle,
and shall deliver him into the hand of the Gentiles”. They “shall”
do this, he said. And many other prophets said the same (Acts
20:23). “And when we heard these things, both we, and they of
that place, besought him not to go up to Jerusalem” (Acts 21:11,12).
Those brethren evidently understood the word of prophecy as
conditional- its’ fulfilment could be avoided by Paul not going
to Jerusalem. Indeed, there were prophecies that said he should
not go up to Jerusalem (Acts 21:4). Yet Paul went,
knowing that if he died at Jerusalem then the will of God would
be done (Acts 21:14). All this surely shows that prophecies
are open to human interpretation; they can be seen as commandment
(e.g. not to go to Jerusalem), but it all depends upon our perception
of the wider picture.
If Israel would receive it, John the Baptist was the Elijah
prophet. The course of fulfilment of prophecy was conditional
upon whether John succeeded in turning the hearts of Israel
back to the fathers or not; on preparing them for the great
and terrible day of the Lord. Brethren as varied as John Knowles
and Harry Whittaker have all recognized in their expositions
that the Kingdom could have come in the 1st century
had Israel received John as Elijah. But they would not. And
so another Elijah prophet is to come in the last days and prepare
Israel for her Messiah. “If ye are willing to receive him, this
is Elijah which is to come” (Mt. 11:14 RVmg.) says it all. The
Elijah prophet who was to herald the Messianic Kingdom could
have been John the baptist- if Israel had received him.
But they didn’t, and so the prophecy went down another avenue
of fulfilment. It could be that Mal. 4:6 implies that there
is still the possibility that even the latter day Elijah messianic
Kingdom- for then, their days would be multiplied “as the days
of heaven upon the earth / land” (Dt. 11:21). This is surely
the essence of the NT idea of the Kingdom of Heaven coming upon
earth at the Lord’s return.
Mark Vincent discerns how David thought that the bringing of
the ark to Zion could have been its’ final homecoming-
although Solomon his son let everything down in reality: “[“Arise
O Lord into thy rest” in Ps. 24:8 alludes to “Rise up, O Lord”
in Num. 10:35]…The words which Moses had to utter each time
the ark journeyed through the wilderness would no longer be
needed, for the ark had at last reached its final destination.
This is why the Psalm says “Arise O Lord into thy rest”.
David and his people hoped that the ark had come here for ever,
and that God would dwell among and reign over His people for
eternity. Alas, because of the wickedness of Israel, this was
not to be” (Exploring The Psalms , Birmingham: CMPA,
2001, p. 144).
“Now have I chosen and sanctified this house, that my name
may be there for ever: and mine eyes and mine heart shall be
there perpetually” (2 Chron. 7:16). But this was conditional
on Israel remaining in covenant relationship, for if they sinned,
He would cast the temple out of His sight (:20).
There were prophecies about Timothy which had gone before,
or “led the way to thee” (1 Tim. 1:18 RVmg.). But Paul had to
encourage Timothy to fulfil them, to make them come real and
true for him. Likewise the fearful and timid Jeremiah was told
“I have made thee this day a defenced city…be not dismayed”
(Jer. 1:17,18). He had to live out the potential personality
which God had enabled him to have.
On the other hand, prophecies of judgment can come true at
any time if there is the required ‘condition’ of disbelief and
disobedience. Hence Paul warns Israel: “Beware therefore, lest
that come upon you, which is spoken of in the prophets, Behold,
ye despisers, and wonder, and perish…” (Acts 13:40). The prophecy
didn’t have to come true for them; but they should
“beware” lest it did.
The entire promises to Abraham and the fathers depended for
their realisation upon human obedience: “If ye hearken to these
judgments, and keep, and do them, that the Lord thy God shall
keep with thee the covenant and the mercy which he sware unto
thy fathers” (Dt. 7:12). That covenant was initially given in
terms which omitted direct reference to any conditions for fulfilment.
But it would be ‘kept’ by God if His people ‘kept’ His ways.
The promises that God would multiply the seed of Abraham were
conditional also; if Israel separated themselves from
the peoples of the land, then He would “multiply
thee, as he hath sworn unto thy fathers” (Dt. 13:17). The strength
of God’s grace also makes some of His promises ‘conditional’
in a different sense; thus He had promised Reuben and Manasseh
that they could return to their possessions only when the others
had possessed the land (Dt. 3:20). This condition never happened-
yet they were allowed to return. And our very salvation from
death and the consequences of sin is in a sense another example
of this kind of thing.
Along similar lines, consider God’s statement that the whole
people of Israel would have been left in the wilderness and
now allowed to enter the land, if Gad and Reuben refused to
cross the Jordan river (Num. 32:15). But this would have broken
the Divine promise of Num. 14:31 that all those under 20 would
enter the land. Even that promise, therefore, had unstated conditions
attached to it. And yet God had yet another option- if they
refused to go over Jordan, then they would forfeit their land
and receive a different inheritance (Num. 32:30). The complexities
of these conditions are of course beyond us, because we are
seeing only a part of the working of God’s infinite mind. The
point is, there are conditions attached to God’s promises which
aren’t always made apparent to us.
God’s promise that Israel would never again see Egypt was also
conditional, and thus capable of being broken- as He Himself
observed in Dt. 28:68: “The Lord shall bring thee into Egypt
again with ships, by the way whereof I spake unto thee, Thou
shalt see it no more again”.
Some prophecies are dependent on prayer for their fulfilment.
Take Is. 62:1: “For Zion’s sake will I not hold my peace, and
for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until the righteousness
thereof go forth as brightness”. But this is dependent upon
prayer: “I have set watchmen upon thy walls, O Jerusalem…ye
that make mention of the Lord, keep not silence, and give him
no rest till he make Jerusalem a praise in the earth”
(:6,7). The prophecy that “I will not rest” was dependent for
fulfilment upon the faithful continuing to pray and thereby
not giving Him rest. Of course, they pray from their own freewill;
there is the possibility they won’t pray, and thereby, surely,
there’s the possibility the statement “I will not rest” is purely
conditional on our prayers…?
The Olivet prophecy spoke of the time being shortened for the
elect’s sake. And it seems this happened- for 1 Cor. 7:29 RV
says that “the time is shortened”. Perhaps this is why it was
intended that there be 40 years from AD33 [the crucifixion]
to the destruction of the temple; but this period was “shortened”
by at least 3 years “for the elect’s sake”. And the situation
in the 1st century is evidently typical of ours today in these
last days. They were to pray that their flight be not on the
Sabbath or in the Winter, i.e. that the abomination that made
desolate would not be set up at those times (Mt. 24:20). Clearly
prayer affected the exact chronology of events and thereby the
fulfilment of prophecy.
It was solemnly decreed that “seven times” would pass over
Nebuchadnezzar, and his portion would be with the beasts of
the earth (Dan. 4:16) (3). And
yet Daniel pleads with Nebuchadnezzar to repent and thereby
avoid this experience: “Therefore, O king, be pleased to accept
my advice: Renounce your sins by doing what is right, and your
wickedness by being kind to the oppressed. It may be that then
your prosperity will continue" (Dan. 4:27 NIV). He himself
understood his own prophecies as having a fulfilment changeable
in accordance with human repentance.
Hezekiah’s sons were to be eunuchs in Babylon (2 Kings 20:18).
But Manasseh wasn’t- because he repented, and because this prophecy
was conditional? The condition isn’t recorded, but it doesn’t
mean it wasn’t there.
“Neither will I make the feet of Israel move any more out of
the land which I gave their fathers; only if they will observe
to do according to all that I have commanded them” (2 Kings
21:8). And yet there were prophecies given before this stating
that an apostate Israel were to go into captivity, e.g. into
Egypt by ships (Dt. 28:68). These prophecies were clearly conditional,
although that conditionality isn’t stated within them.
Amos 4:12 sums it up: “Therefore thus will I do unto thee,
O Israel: and because I will do this unto thee, prepare to meet
thy God, O Israel”. Thus God will do- but therefore,
repent so that it won’t happen. There is an allusion here to
God in an Angel coming to meet Moses to slay him, but he repented
and thereby changed the purpose / will / intention of God (Ex.
"Let mine outcasts dwell with thee Moab”, God pleads in
Is. 16:4. But the rest of Is. 16 is about the awful judgment
that will fall upon Moab (Is. 16:12,14). The text doesn’t say
so, but it’s apparent enough- that if Moab was not merciful
to the Jews fleeing the Assyrian invasion, then they would face
a like judgment. But that judgment was conditional upon Moab’s
Josiah was prophesied as dying in peace- but he didn’t (2 Kings
22:20). There were unrecorded or even unspoken conditions in
this prophecy that we don’t know.
When Israel left Egypt God “led them on safely, so that
they feared not” (Ps. 78:53). But they did fear (Ex.
14:10-12). Surely we must read in some conditions here- God’s
care for them was such that they need not have feared, but they
failed to discern His care and power and therefore they did
“The Lord would not destroy Judah for David his servant’s sake,
as he promised him to give him alway a light, and to his children”
(2 Kings 8:19). This sounds as if God wouldn’t destroy Judah
because He understood His promises to David as implying that
this wasn’t possible, in that his descendant must always be
reigning on the throne. But because of the increased level of
Judah’s sin, eventually God did destroy Judah. His understanding
of the promise / prophecy in that sense changed.
Because of Sarah’s faith, “therefore sprang there...so many
as the stars of the sky in multitude” (Heb. 11:11,12). Those
promises to Abraham had their fulfilment, but conditional on
Abraham and Sarah’s faith. Gen. 18:18-20 says that the fulfilment
of the promises was conditional on Abraham teaching his children
/ seed the ways of God. Those promises / prophesies were “sure”
in the sense that God’s side of it was. Rom. 4:18 likewise comments
that Abraham became “the father of many nations” precisely
because he believed in this hope. Yet the promise /
prophecy that he would be a father of many nations could sound
as if it would have happened anyway, whatever. But it was actually
conditional upon Abraham’s faith. And he is our great example
exactly because he had the possibility and option of not
believing in the hope he had been offered.
When Hezekiah studied the words of Micah, “did he not fear
the Lord, and besought the Lord, and the Lord repented him of
the evil which he had pronounced against him” (Jer. 26:19).
Those words of Mic. 3:12 had their fulfilment annulled
or delayed thanks to Hezekiah’s prayer and repentance. Likewise
Jonah’s prophecy that in 40 days Nineveh would be destroyed,
unconditionally, was nullified by their repentance. One wonders,
too, about the prophecy of Ez. 29:10-14: “Behold, therefore
I am against thee, and against thy rivers, and I will make the
land of Egypt utterly waste and desolate, from the tower of
Syene even unto the border of Ethiopia. No foot of man shall
pass through it, nor foot of beast shall pass through it, neither
shall it be inhabited forty years. And I will make the land
of Egypt desolate in the midst of the countries that are desolate,
and her cities among the cities that are laid waste shall be
desolate forty years: and I will scatter the Egyptians among
the nations, and will disperse them through the countries. Yet
thus saith the Lord GOD; At the end of forty years will I gather
the Egyptians from the people whither they were scattered: And
I will bring again the captivity of Egypt, and will cause them
to return into the land of Pathros, into the land of their habitation;
and they shall be there a base kingdom”. This has never yet
had a fulfilment. One wonders whether it was not averted by
some kind of prayer or repentance? Or has its fulfilment been
delayed [for Ezekiel speaks as if this was soon to come about
in his time] until some time around the Lord’s return? Notice
that at the time of this forty year desolation, a Messiah figure
was to arise in Israel- “In that day will I cause an horn of
the house of Israel to bud forth” (Ez. 29:21 RV). There are
some other examples of prophecies which may not have had a fulfilment
in Ez. 26:7-14 cp. 29:17-20.
The Lord’s prophecy that the believer receives fathers, mothers,
houses, lands etc. only has its fulfilment insofar as the ecclesia
is willing to share these things and relationships with its
members (Mt. 19:29). But the condition of the fulfilment was
not explicitly stated.
God Himself recognizes that His own categoric statements can
work out a totally different way or even be annulled by human
behaviour. Take Dt. 28:68: “The Lord shall bring thee into Egypt
again with ships, by the way whereof I spake unto thee, Thou
shalt see it no more again”. This latter phrase meant they would
not go back there; and yet, God says, they will go back there.
In the parable of Mt. 18:32-35, the Lord frankly forgave the
heavily indebted man. There was no mention of any conditions.
But when that same man refused to forgive his debtor, he was
brought back into court, the debt was re-instated and he was
eternally imprisoned until he paid every bit of it. The frank
forgiveness of the debt, the ‘release’ from it, was actually
conditional on him being forgiving to others subsequently. But
that condition wasn’t mentioned.
In Jeremiah’s time, “If ye do this thing indeed, then shall
there enter in by the gates of this house kings [an intensive
plural for ‘the great King’- Messiah] sitting upon the throne
of David…he and his servants” (Jer. 22:4). But the gates were
to be burnt with fire, because Israel “would not”. Likewise
Jer. 17:20-26: If they had kept the Sabbath etc. as
required, then the temple would have been a joyous
centre of worship. The language is clearly to be connected with
other descriptions of the Messianic Kingdom. Lk. 12:49 speaks
of how the Lord wished that the fire He came to kindle had already
bee kindled. This may be an allusion to a common Latin saying
at the time: Nemo accendit nisi ipse ardet, 'No one
can kindle another unless he himself burns'. In this case Jesus
is likening Himself to a fire which ignites others; and yet
He so wished that someone else had earlier come and been Messiah.
Some of the Messianic passages describe Him being amazed that
there had been no man, and He Himself therefore dressed for
action and did the Messianic duty. It is an essay in His humility
that He should have held such a view. It also reflects how there
had been previous opportunities for Messiah to come.
- Balaam understood the 'last days' to be when the Davidic dynasty
would arise (Num. 24:14 cp. Is. 2:2; Mic. 4:1)- and so I take
this as another indication that in some sense, Solomon could have
been the Messiah of the 'last days'.
The vessels of the temple were to be taken to Babylon- so says
Jer. 27:22 plainly enough. But if the false prophets
had repented and prayed, the vessels would not be taken to Babylon
(Jer. 27:18). Prayer changes things, even the [apparently] expressly
stated intention of God.
God told Abimelech that he would surely die, with evident allusion
to God’s judgment of Adam; no conditions were stated. But later,
it became apparent that the death penalty was conditional upon
his not releasing Sarah (Gen. 20:3,7).
It was promised to the family of Aaron that the priesthood
would be theirs for a perpetual statute (Ex. 29:9). And yet
the family of Eli, a descendant of Aaron (1 Kings 2:27; 1 Chron.
24:3), were told that they were to be cut off as they had abused
the priesthood. The promise of Exodus was therefore conditional,
although the conditions weren’t laid down. Indeed, just because
of this fact, the Levites often assumed that they were acceptable
just by reason of who they were.
The prophets often make absolute statements, which are then
qualified by conditions. Take Am. 5:2: “The virgin of Israel
is fallen; she shall no more rise...there is none to raise her
up”. This sounds final. She shall no more rise up. But Amos
continues later in the chapter: “Seek ye me, and ye shall live
[be ‘raised up’]”. And he repeats it three times (Am. 5:4,6,14).
And so the prophecies of Ezekiel about the temple may seem definite,
but this is not to say that conditions are not built in to their
The lack of qualifying statements is not only seen in prophecies
relating to nations. “Honour the Lord with thy substance…so
shall thy barns be filled with plenty” (Prov. 3:9,10) appears
to be an unconditional offer of material prosperity in response
to human obedience. But this is not always so. There are conditions
to this promise; the righteous sometimes suffer. Likewise “There
shall no evil happen to the just” (Prov. 12:21). There are no
Divine footnotes or conditions or explanations in the actual
text in these places. We are left to read these in, from our
wider reading of God’s word. And so it is with many other prophecies
which seem to be determinate predictions of what will happen;
there may well be unspoken preconditions and wider issues in
the Divine programme which must be taken account of.
In the context of the restoration from Babylon, Zech. 8:12
prophesied: “For the seed shall be prosperous; the vine shall
give her fruit, and the ground shall give her increase, and
the heavens shall give their dew; and I will cause the remnant
of this people to possess all these things”. But we know that
in reality, Judah were not obedient to the heavenly vision of
Ezekiel, and therefore Judah’s agriculture was not
blessed in this way; the vines cast their fruit, and the fruit
of the ground was destroyed (Hag. 1:6,11; Mal. 3:10,11). The
reason was that Zech. 8:12 was conditional- upon Zech. 8:16,17:
“These are the things that ye shall do [i.e. to bring these
prophecies about]; Speak ye every man the truth to his neighbour;
execute the judgment of truth and peace in your gates: And let
none of you imagine evil in your hearts against his neighbour;
and love no false oath: for all these are things that I hate,
saith the LORD”. But Judah abused each other, and didn’t fulfil
the conditions for the prophecy.
Zech. 8:19 is another example: “Thus saith the LORD of hosts;
The fast of the fourth month, and the fast of the fifth, and
the fast of the seventh, and the fast of the tenth, shall be
to the house of Judah joy and gladness, and cheerful feasts;
therefore love the truth and peace”. Without loving truth, these
feasts would not be joyful to the Jews who had returned. The
prophecy was conditional.
Ps. 2:10 exhorts: “Be wise now therefore, O ye kings”- for
then, the implication is, the judgments upon the nations will
be averted. “Then shall he speak unto them in his wrath, and
vex them” (Ps. 2:5) is therefore conditional- his wrath “may
be kindled” unless the Son is kissed / accepted (Ps. 2:12 RVmg.).
Thus God’s latter day programme is flexible- for if the Son
is accepted, His wrath need not be kindled.
The principle is summed up in Jeremiah 18. It has been truly
commented about this chapter: “Whenever a piece of pottery turned
out imperfect the potter would take the clay and make
it into something else. God says that this is the principle
behind His actions. If He says He is going to build up a nation
but the nation disobeys Him the prophecy will not be fulfilled.
Equally, if He says He is going to destroy a nation and the
nation repents, He will not carry out His intention”. Hence
if Israel turned from their way, " I may repent me of the
evil, which I purpose to do unto them" (Jer. 26:3). Earlier
Israel had known God's breach of promise, the altering of His
purpose, in that those who were to enter Canaan actually didn't
Jehoiakim was not to be buried but his body thrown out to the
elements, like an ass (Jer. 22:18,19; 36:29-31); but the idiom
of “he slept with his fathers” (2 Kings 24:6) may imply that
he had a more normal burial.
The disciples expected the second coming within a generation
of the Lord’s death (Mt. 26:18; Lk. 21:32; Phil. 4:5; 2 Tim.
4:6; 1 Pet. 4:7; Rev. 1:3); and note the use of words indicating
imminence: ‘shortly’, ‘immediately’, ‘a little while’. Could
it not be that if Israel had accepted Jesus as Son of God, the
Kingdom could have come then? Even after His death, had they
believed the witness of the apostles and repented for what they
had done, the Kingdom could have come then. Of course God foreknew
this would not happen; but the disciples looked forward to it
as a distinct reality and possibility. This possibility is more
fully discussed in Harry Whittaker, Revelation Appendix
1. Revelation itself seems to read as if when "Babylon"
was judged and destroyed by the day of the Lord, then the Kingdom
would be established on earth. It seems that it was possible
that the Roman empire be destroyed by the Lord's return; but
instead the prophecy was delayed, and now "Babylon"
must apply to some latter day system, which had an earlier incarnation
in the Roman empire which could have been its final
fulfilment but wasn't.
On a more earthly level, Heb. 13:18 seems to imply that the
more they prayed and the more Paul lived honestly, the sooner
he would be released from prison: “Pray for us: for we are persuaded
that we have a good conscience, desiring to live honestly in
all things. And I exhort you the more exceedingly to do this,
that I may be restored to you the sooner” (RV). Thus prayer
can hasten things, given certain preconditions are fulfilled.
So it is in our experiences, and so it may be with the Lord’s
Paul told the Ephesian elders that wolves would enter the flock
and work havoc. But therefore, he told them, “take heed...”
(Acts 20:29,30). His prophecy, certain of fulfilment as it sounded,
didn’t ‘have’ to come true. Likewise the Lord categorically
foretold Peter’s denials; and yet tells him therefore to watch,
and not fall into the temptation that was looming. Peter didn’t
have to fulfil the prophecy, and the Lord encouraged
him to leave it as an unfulfilled, conditional prophecy. He
warns him to pray “lest ye enter into temptation” (Mk. 14:38)-
even though He had prophesied that Peter would fail
Jonah said that within 40 days, Nineveh would be destroyed.
There were no conditions stated. But the ‘prophecy’ went unfulfilled
because Nineveh repented. The nature of conditional prophecy
and the huge value placed by God upon human repentance is reflected
in Mal. 2:2: “If ye will not hear, and if ye will not
lay it to heart, to give glory unto my name… then will
I send the curse upon you, and I will curse your blessings;
yea, I have cursed them already, because ye do not lay it to
heart”. God had already cursed the priests, He had made
that statement. But the whole point of Malachi’s appeal
was that the priests would repent, and thus the curse that had
“already” been pronounced would not come into operation.
Note that God isn’t saying: ‘If you don’t
repent, beware, I will curse you’. He had already cursed
them, but at that late stage, even then, He was willing to change
His word- if they repented. It was exactly the same with Nineveh.
Indeed, many of the OT appeals to repentance and outlines of
judgment to come are of this nature. That judgment had already
been decreed. But the power of the repentance appeals is that
even so, God is so sensitive to genuine repentance that He is
willing to go back on His own word. It’s a great encouragement
not only to personal penitence, but to perceiving the deep significance
of the repentance of others, and accordingly framing our personal
attitudes and judgments concerning them.
The tension within Almighty God is reflected in His words of
prophecy- He predicts what will happen, but then says there
is a way it needn’t happen. Thus “When I would have healed Israel,
then the iniquity of Ephraim was discovered” (Hos. 7:1). God
set up a situation whereby He would have saved them but then
they sinned and disabled His plan.
The Lord stated that the sickness of Lazarus “is not unto
death, but for the glory of God” (Jn. 11:4). That sounds like
a predictive statement. But it seems to have been conditional. For
one thing, that sickness did lead to the death of Lazarus. But notice
the Lord’s later comment to Martha when her faith wavered
in the possibility of immediate resurrection for Lazarus: “Said
I not unto you, that if you would believe, you would see the glory
of God?” (Jn. 11:40). But the Lord isn’t recorded as
actually having said that. What He had said was that the sickness
of Lazarus would reveal the glory of God. But He had intended Martha
to understand the conditionality of that statement- i.e. ‘If
you can believe Martha, Lazarus can be saved from that sickness
and its effects, and thus glory will be given to God’. But
again, we see the Lord’s grace. She didn’t have that
faith. She was concerned that even the taking away of the grave
stone would release the odour of her brother’s dead body.
But Jesus didn’t say ‘Well Martha, no faith on your
part, no resurrection of Lazarus, no glory to God this time’.
By grace alone, He raised Lazarus. He overrode the conditionality.
And so it must happen so often, and so tragically unperceived, in
our lives. The concept of conditional prophecy opens up a significant
window into the tension facing the Lord Jesus as He approached the
cross- indeed, throughout His ministry. So much depended upon Him.
If He had failed, so much would simply not have come true as God
intended. Rev. 5:5 stresses how the Lamb alone, through His sacrificial
death [hence the figure of a lamb] was able to open the seals, and
thus enable history as God intended to unfold. Indeed, the sealed
scroll can also be understood as the book of life, whose opening
was only made possible by the Lord’s death. This had as it’s
basis the language of Dan. 12:4, where Daniel sealed the book. Rudolf
Rijkeboer comments: “Daniel’s prophecy of the seventy
year-weeks takes us to the time of the Messiah, but not really beyond.
How things would continue would depend on the Saviour, if He was
victorious. That he would be victorious was… by no means a
foregone conclusion. It depended totally on the Saviour’s
own free will… while the scroll remains sealed… that
particular future is not going to happen at all!” (4). In
this sense we understand that through the cross, the pleasure or
‘intention’ of God would be furthered by Messiah’s
‘hand’ through His crucifixion (Is. 53:10).
The actual date of the Lord’s return is conditional on various
things- e.g. the repentance of Israel, the spread of the Gospel
into all the world, and some level of spiritual development being
reached within the brotherhood. This fact, when meaningfully recognized,
means that the whole network of ‘prophecies’ in the sense of descriptions
of future events are of necessity flexible and re-schedulable in
their fulfilments. For the things upon which the Lord’s return are
conditional, are all matters of human freewill. It is a function
of human freewill as to when Israel repent and when we take the
Gospel into all the world. And therefore the prophecies relating
to end time events must of necessity be capable of delayed or re-oriented
fulfilments. We are not, therefore, wise to preach our views of
their possible fulfilments as ‘the Gospel’. And this is surely why
‘prophecy’ in the sense of predicting end time events did not feature
in the apostolic witness. The vision will in one sense “not delay
/ tarry” (Hab. 2:3 RV). And yet the same verse speaks of how it
does “tarry”. Perhaps in a human sense it delays, but not from God’s
perspective. “It hasteth toward the end” (Hab. 2:3 RV) could imply
that things are speeded up in their fulfilment in the very end time;
for the elects sake the days until the second coming are shortened
(Mk. 13:20). And yet things are also delayed- the bridegroom tarries
/ delays, to the point that many realize that the Lord has delayed
His coming, and begin to act inappropriately. One reconciliation
of these paradoxes could be that some prophecies are speeded up
in their fulfilment because of the elect would otherwise lose their
faith; and yet other prophecies seem to be delayed in fulfilment
because of the unspirituality of others. The possibility of changing the fulfillment of prophetic time periods is to be found in Hab. 3:2: "In the midst of the years revive..."- i.e. please, God, do it immediately rather than waiting until the end of days. The Lord's prediction that some would not taste death until they saw God's Kingdom coming with power (Mk. 9:1) sounds more naturally like a prediction of His coming to establish the Kingdom in that generation (the application to the transfiguration seems somewhat forced in that "not taste of death until" is a strange phrase to use about an event which happened the next week). The fact His coming was delayed because of human paucity of response doesn't make Him a false prophet- once it is appreciated that some prophecies are conditional.
Thus it cannot be denied that many Bible prophecies are conditional.
However, there seem various types of conditional prophecy, which
we will now exemplify.
(1) However it must
be said that all these prophecies are also capable of a symbolic
fulfilment, understanding the house of God to be the community of
believers, and Gentiles being accepted into it through Christ, thereby
offering up “spiritual sacrifices”. Is. 2:2-4 especially must be
read in its context. The rest of the chapter, and indeed the whole
prophecy, beseech Israel to act as they should as “the house of
the Lord” in view of their future glory. Gentiles would come to
worship in God’s house, i.e. in the community of His people, and
therefore they ought to live the Kingdom life themselves. Thus following
straight on from the prophecy of how Gentiles would come to “the
house of the God of Jacob”, there is an appeal in 2:5 for the “house
of Jacob” to walk in God’s ways themselves.
(2) This is discussed
in more detail in ‘Bible
Paradoxes’ in From Milk To Meat.
(3) The LXX has
“seven seasons [i.e. Summer / Winter] shall revolve over him”-
meaning he was to suffer for the tell tale three and a half years,
of which Daniel further speaks in his prophecies of the 1260 days
suffering of Israel- as if their punishment was a sharing in that
of the Babylon they had so come to love.
(4) Rudolf Rijkeboer, Jesus'
Last Message (Voorburg, Holland: De Broeders In Christus, 1998)