For various reasons, prophecies sometimes don’t happen. Sometimes (perhaps often, especially from untested prophets) they’re false, sometimes (perhaps usually, at least in the Bible) they’re conditional; sometimes (also perhaps usually, and often in the Bible) we misunderstood them because they’re almost always partial; and sometimes (probably often in the Bible) their time remains partly or fully in the future.
Now, the above paragraph addresses readers who believe that God continues to provide prophetic direction to his people today. These prophecies are for our lives as individuals or communities, not for new doctrine). But the rest of this article addresses instead why some biblical prophecies haven’t happened. After all, these prophecies were given a long time ago! All the same reasons can be given for biblical prophecy anomalies as for the contemporary ones addressed above. The Bible even records false prophecies, albeit without endorsing them; e.g., Jeremiah 28:11.
The Nature of Prophecy
Most fundamental to the question is the nature of prophecy as it’s presented in the Bible. Prophecies are usually linked by kind of event, not arranged by a chronological timeline. Thus, in Joel 1—2, a locust invasion is depicted with the imagery of an invading army. This is foreshadowing the ultimate day of the Lord (Joel 1:15; 2:1-2, 11, 31). The next chapter, however, goes on to depict a real invasion in an ultimate day of God’s judgment. (Joel 3:9-17, esp. v. 14)
Likewise, on Mount Horeb the LORD instructs Elijah to carry out three special missions: anoint Hazael as Aram’s king; anoint Jehu son of Nimshi as Israel’s king; and anoint Elisha as Elijah’s prophetic successor (1 Kings 19:15-16). Elijah does in fact call his successor Elisha, but Elisha appoints Hazael and delegates another prophet to anoint Jehu. (1 Kings 19:19-21, 2 Kings 8:12-15, 2 Kings 9:1-10). The missions were carried out, but Elijah’s role in two of the three cases was indirect.
It’s not that these sorts of anomalies escaped ancient Israelites’ notice; they simply were accustomed to the ambiguous and unusual nature of prophecy. Ancient Israelites knew that prophets tended to be strange. (see e.g., 2 Kings 9:11; Jeremiah 29:26; Hosea 9:7; cf. Acts 2:13; 1 Cor 14:23), Everyone knew that inspiration or even divine command could lead to unusual behavior (1 Samuel 10:5-6, 10; 1 Kings 20:35-27; Isaiah 20:3; Jeremiah 13:4, 7; Ezekiel 36:1; Hosea 1:2). Sometimes a prophet would be confronted and have to wait until God gave the answer to speak it (Jeremiah 28:11-12).
There were other times when God would even command someone to do something and expect them rightly to resist. (Jeremiah 35:5-8, 14) And other times God could raise someone up, knowing in advance how the person would fail, and planning for a successor once that successor was mature. (1 Samuel 8:7-18; 10:24; 15:28-29; 16:13-14)
Inexact & Conditional Prophecies
Prophecies didn’t have to be exact. Agabus’s prophecy in Acts 21:11 is not precisely how things played out, but it communicated the basic expectation. Contrary to what some people say, prophecies had that flexibility in the Old Testament, too (e.g., Isaiah 37:29, 36). In fact, before the exile, most books of prophecies were in poetry; Hebrew poetry reveled in metaphor and symbolic imagery. Sometimes prophets used diverse images for judgment when the basic thrust was simply that judgment is coming. Sometimes they used poetic imagery to prophesy glory when ultimately God planned even greater glory than the original imagery could contain (compare Ezekiel 40—48 with Revelation 21:1—22:5, esp. 21:22). At other times, of course, prophecies could prove very precise in matters of detail (e.g., 1 Samuel 10:2-5). (I could give examples of this happening today in my life as well as in my wife’s.)
As prophets sometimes pointed out, prophecies themselves are normally conditional, whether or not this is stated; sometimes, then, they will not come to pass if people turn from their current ways (Jeremiah 18:7-11; cf. also Ezekiel 18:21-32). That’s why Jonah was so upset when God relented of his warning to judge Nineveh (Jonah 3:9—4:2). Nations could escape promised judgments, or could lose promised blessings, by turning from their behavior. In the same way, an individual’s repentance could cause promises of judgment to be deferred (1 Kings 21:29; 2 Kings 22:19-20).
Some of the ambiguity has to do with the unusual ways that God, though foreknowing the future, intersected with the free choices of time-bound mortals. Some today argue that the future is “open” and thus God foreknows only what he specifically ordains; others, that God knows the infinite number of possible futures and charts out the most important outcomes accordingly; others, including (I think) myself, that God foreknows the future, but works with humans on their level (divine “accommodation,” some church fathers called it; cf. e.g., 1 Samuel 8:7).
Theologians also debate the degree to which God directly causes things—from activating creation and then “intervening” only occasionally, to micromanaging subatomic particles. (Most stop short of deism; on the one hand, with no intervention, and on the other, God directly causing evil actions. Some would affirm that God knows every sparrow that falls yet protest that he is not shooting them down with a BB gun.) This is not the place to try to resolve these questions. This place is simply to note that there are a variety of options to consider when addressing what we tend to envision as unfulfilled prophecy.
Limited Insights, Misinterpretations
The gift of prophecy itself was also fallible in its execution. Not because God errs in speaking, but because prophets may err in hearing. Happily the Bible is time-tested; of the prophets of Jeremiah’s generation, for example, only Jeremiah’s prophecies proved true and made it into the Bible. That God would guard his Word for subsequent generations, however, didn’t prevent the actual experience of distinguishing true and false prophets from sometimes being messy on the ground.
Jeremiah appealed to the succession of prophetic voices and warned that the burden of proof is on the prophet of peace (Jeremiah 28:8-9). But Jeremiah stood virtually alone against a majority of supposed prophets (e.g., Jeremiah 5:13, 31; 6:14; 8:11; 14:13-15; 23:9, 15-16, 21, 26, 30-31; 27:9, 14-18; 29:8), who affirmed the people’s theologically-grounded conviction that, since they were God’s people and godlier than their enemies, God would surely protect them (e.g., Jeremiah 7:4). Prophesying against God’s temple or people sounded to them like blasphemy (e.g., Jeremiah 20:2; 26:8-9)! In some parts of the world, many erroneous prophets today make similar promises of blessings and blissful futures in this world for God’s people instead of warning of the corruption and folly among God’s people that itself merits divine discipline.
Moreover, even genuine prophets could make wrong assumptions or misinterpret what the Lord was saying; Nathan had to backtrack on an assurance once the word of the Lord actually came to him (2 Samuel 7:3-5). This was true because prophets “prophesy in part,” just as teachers “know in part” (1 Corinthians 13:9); our knowledge in this age is limited (13:9-12). That’s why John the Baptist heard of Jesus’s works and then questioned who Jesus was (Matthew 11:2-3//Luke 7:18-20); John had rightly heard from God that the coming one would baptize in the Spirit and in fire (Matthew 3:11//Luke 3:16), but he had not heard from God about there being two comings. What John heard from God was right, but John’s inference was wrong because he, like all prophets, had only a piece of the larger picture.
In a similar way, prophets revealed to Elisha, “Do you know that your master is going to be taken from you today?” “I know,” he replied, “be quiet.” This happened in a couple different towns, but Elisha, more mature as a prophet, held his peace until Elijah broached the subject with him. After a chariot of fire swept Elijah to heaven, the prophets thought that God’s Spirit had deposited Elijah’s body somewhere and wanted to go looking for him. They had some revelation but were much less mature and complete in their knowledge (2 Kings 2:3-6, 16-18).
Likewise, people prophesied to Paul in every city what awaited him in Jerusalem (Acts 20:23), but he knew (also by the Spirit) that his mission was clear (20:22). Some said to him “through the Spirit,” i.e., prophetically, that he shouldn’t go to Jerusalem (Acts 21:4). After another prophecy of what awaited him (21:11), all his friends present—probably including Agabus the prophet and Philip’s four prophetic daughters—urged Paul not to continue on this road. Paul maintained his mission, however, until his friends desisted and conceded, “Let God’s will be done” (21:12-14).
How could the detractors warn Paul not to go “through the Spirit,” yet it be God’s will for Paul to go? Surely God the Father and the Spirit are better coordinated than that (Romans 8:27)? But prophetic knowledge is partial; the believers’ partial knowledge through the Spirit of what Paul would face (cf. Acts 20:23) and their love, also from the Spirit, motivated them to urge Paul not to go (21:4). Given their limited knowledge, it was even right for them to urge Paul not to go.
But Paul had a higher level of prophetic knowledge concerning his own mission and nothing would stop him from fulfilling it. We know from his letters that Paul sometimes had to correct prophets, reminding them not to abuse their inspiration, to control it in the right way, and to recognize a higher level of order (1 Corinthians 14:30-33, 37-38). Paul worked on a higher level of inspiration and from a more mature perspective than typical local prophets (1 Corinthians 14:37-38).
The Lord’s Return
I won’t survey here the history of failed predictions by prophecy teachers who use what I call “newspaper hermeneutics” to interpret biblical prophecies. Their approach to the text is almost completely wrong-headed, so we should not be surprised by their high proportion of failed guesses (for details, see my Revelation commentary [Zondervan, 2000], pages 23-26, 61-65; such debacles are also chronicled in, e.g., Dwight Wilson, Armageddon Now! [Baker, 1977] and Richard G. Kyle, The Last Days are Here Again [Baker, 1998]). In these cases, it’s not biblical prophecies that have failed, but modern interpreters working in almost complete isolation from ancient context.
But, in Scripture itself, what about Jesus’s apparent promise to return within a generation? Or, to use common scholarly language, the “delay of the parousia”? I cannot address this at length here, and I address it in my commentaries on Matthew (Eerdmans, 2009) and Revelation (already noted). Particularly helpful here is Ben Witherington’s book Jesus, Paul, and the End of the World (InterVarsity, 1992).
Scholars approach this question from a variety of angles. N. T. Wright, for example, construes all of Mark 13 with reference to the temple’s destruction in A.D. 70; Jesus comes figuratively in judgment on the temple. My understanding is different. Related to what I have already noted about prophecy usually viewing events according to their kind rather than their chronology (remember Joel’s day-of-the-Lord-portending locust plague), I believe that the temple’s destruction provided a foreshadowing of greater judgment to come, but did not complete it.
Again, prophetic blending of events by kind is not unusual in the Bible. For example, the geographically diverse origins of Jewish believers on Pentecost, the conversion of an African official from the southern ends of the earth, and the gospel reaching Rome all foreshadow in Acts the greater fulfillment of the gospel reaching the ends of the earth, announced in Acts 1:8. Likewise, Matthew incorporates end-time material from Mark 13 to turn the mission instructions for the Twelve (Matthew 10) into a model for missions relevant until the end of the age (cf. 10:23), albeit with a few subsequent adjustments (Matthew 28:19). One of the proposed theological solutions to the final sequence of events in Daniel 11—12, which seems to leap from a very exact depiction of the Maccabean era to the resurrection of the dead, is to think in terms of deferred eschatology, possibly by coalescing the image of different abominations.
Unlike N. T. Wright, whom I do greatly esteem, I do see Jesus’s future return addressed in Jesus’s eschatological discourse, especially in Matthew’s Gospel. In the context of Matthew 25 (and also the reuse of the same imagery in 1 Thessalonians 4:13—5:9), Matthew apparently does envision Jesus’s still-future coming in Matthew 24:27-31, 36-51 (a section largely parallel to Mark 13). But Matthew, who may be writing after the temple’s destruction in 70, offers clearer guidance than Mark for distinguishing between the devastation of 70 and the ultimate day of judgment that it portends. In Matthew 24:3, the disciples ask two distinct questions: “When will these things be?” (i.e., the temple’s destruction, 24:1-2), and, “What will be the sign of your coming and of the age’s end?”
In light of this introduction, Jesus’s discourse addresses both topics, while moving back and forth between them. Clearly the sacrilege in the holy place that will produce desolation involves the events leading up to 70 (24:15-20). As for signs of the end, Jesus specifically disavows signs of the end as the sorts of regular historical events that his contemporaries often cited as signs of the end (24:6-8). He also included that proclaiming the good news among all peoples would be a prerequisite for the end (24:14). However, for anyone waiting to repent until a “sign” comes, they will wait too late. When the Son of Man’s sign appears in heaven, Jesus is returning (24:30).
The temple’s destruction was part of “these things” to be fulfilled within a generation (24:34); Jesus’s return would happen at an hour known to no one but the Father—not even the Son (24:36). Jesus explicitly reveals that at that time he himself did not know the schedule of his return. Yet the fulfilled destruction of the temple within a generation (found not only in Mark but implied in probably even earlier “Q” material in Matthew 23:38//Luke 13:35) assures us that the promise of Jesus’s coming, also, will ultimately be fulfilled.
This depiction, then, comports well with the larger New Testament tension of the already/not yet, which is the ultimate example of having to distinguish blended prophetic events. Jesus fulfilled more prophecies than his contemporaries expected for a Messiah—God’s own coming, David’s Lord, the ultimate suffering servant, and the like. Yet he did not liberate Israel from the nations, as they expected, because they read a wrong chronology into biblical promises.
He would begin the restoration with a foretaste, such as healing, deliverance from demons, and establishing his cosmic rule spiritually. But then he would remain at the Father’s right hand until the Father subordinated his enemies under his feet (Psalms 110:1). There would thus be two comings. Likewise, the time of the witness to the nations predicted in Isaiah would happen between the comings, not as a result of the Messiah’s coming, which would judge the nations. Prior prophecy did not provide all the details, and especially a timeline; some features would be understood fully only once the prophecies came to pass and filled in the lacunae in our knowledge (especially, again, of timelines).
Reasons for Long Delay?
Still, no one anticipated such a long interim period. Those of us who have been converted since the first century (I assume that none of my readers is more than 1915 years old) can be grateful for this delay, in God’s providence, but God has presumably also been taking into account an important factor that he specified in advanced. Jesus said that the good news must be preached among all nations before his return (Matthew 24:14). Despite the Great Commission of Matthew 28:18-20, however, Jesus’s followers have never completely fulfilled this mission. Some generations were quite committed and effective; for many other generations of church history, however, we may thank God for sovereignly keeping the church from killing itself off. That is, a key condition has not yet been met.
Moreover, based on Old Testament prophecies about Israel turning to the Lord, early believers in Jesus expected God to bring about the consummation once the Jewish people recognized Jesus as their Messiah (Acts 3:19-21; cf. Matthew 23:39; possibly Revelation 11:13), although the time remained unknown (Acts 1:6-7). But in Romans 11 Paul suggests that God had sovereignly allowed Israel’s hardness to delay that time, to give Gentiles time to repent. (When I speak of Israel’s hardness, this does not mean that God did not welcome a significant remnant; the contrast is with “Israel as a whole” [Romans 11:26], and Paul undoubtedly wanted his own ministry among the Gentiles to provoke his people to repentance.)
Once the full measure of the Gentiles had come in, the Jewish people as a whole would be saved (Romans 11:25-26). (I translate “Israel as a whole” because this is how Jewish people in Paul’s era employed Paul’s phrase that is often translated “all Israel”; it didn’t necessarily mean every individual Jewish person.) From the rest of the context of Romans, it is clear that this salvation would come through turning to Christ (e.g., 3:9-26). My understanding of Romans 11 is that Paul believed that when the Jewish people saw the promised biblical influx of Gentiles worshiping Israel’s God and observing biblical morality, they would recognize that God was fulfilling his promises through Jesus and would embrace Jesus.
Unfortunately, despite billions of Gentiles who have now professed faith in Israel’s God, Paul’s solution never succeeded—because it was never really tried. Paul warned Gentile Christians not to boast against the Jewish branches (Romans 11:18)—precisely what much of Gentile Christendom did during the subsequent history of Christian anti-Semitism (e.g., the Inquisition of Jewish converts, the drowning of converts in baptism to prevent recanting, etc.) The situation has been changing in the past generation, and many believers hope that God is finally bringing about some of these biblical expectations.
But rather than complaining about the Lord’s return being delayed, we should be participating in God’s end-time plan needed to bring it about. The good news going to all the nations is a key biblical prerequisite for the end (Matthew 24:14; 28:19-20; Acts 1:8; Romans 11:25-26; cf. Revelation 5:9; 7:9). That is likely why 2 Peter urges us to be “looking for and hastening the day of God” (3:12). God wants everyone to have opportunity for repentance (cf. 2 Peter 3:9).
Fulfilled Prophecies: The Bigger Picture
When exploring prophecies that did not happen the way we expected, it is important not to miss the larger picture. The Bible includes some unambiguous prophecies that clearly precede their fulfillment, would have been unimaginable in their day, and yet have been dramatically fulfilled, some within our own living memory. While we may debate about some fulfillments, other fulfillments are absolutely clear, clear enough to invite solid faith in a faithful God.
On the usual date of Deuteronomy and Jeremiah, both predicted in advance the regathering of Judah after exile. No one had historical reasons to expect a large-scale regathering after such large-scale exiles as the Assyrians or Babylonians conducted. Yet the Medo-Persian king Cyrus instituted a new policy, a policy also attested archaeologically in the Cyrus Cylinder, of sending peoples back to their locations of origin. This was a dramatic vindication of the true biblical prophets’ message.
Compare also the humanly unexpected survival of the Jewish people as a distinct people in contrast to the fate of surrounding peoples such as Philistines, Moabites, Ammonites, Amalekites, and so forth. This is not a minor detail or a conditional prophecy. It suggests a surprising connection with the people through whom God introduced long-term monotheism into the world. Today over half the world’s population is at least officially monotheistic (largely Christians and Muslims).
I could talk further about fulfillment in Christ’s coming and what we can say on even purely historical grounds about that, but this post is already inordinately lengthy and I have addressed this question elsewhere (particularly the latter point in my Historical Jesus of the Gospels [Eerdmans, 2009]).
In the first century, the tiny church of God might have seemed destined to vanish like so many other religious sects of the day, especially when it became an object of official persecution in Rome under Nero (and in a more widespread way in some subsequent centuries). How is it that John envisions members from every people group before God’s throne (Revelation 7:9)? Think also of the other Jewish messianic sects in Judea and Galilee.
It seems more than coincidence that:
• This is the only one in that period that outlived the death of its founder, and the only one that persists to this day
• Only Jesus’s movement claimed that he rose from the dead, with witnesses prepared to die for that claim
• Jesus’s movement claimed that they experienced the promised Spirit, on a scale exceeding even that of the Old Testament prophets
• Only Jesus’s movement claimed that he had sent them to the Gentiles
• Not only did they go to the Gentiles, but they had great success
Sometimes the church has spread to new regions even as it was dying or being suppressed in others. Over the course of the last century, we have witnessed the greatest shift in the Christian population in history. As Daniel Carroll Rodas and I noted in the introduction to Global Voices (Hendrickson, 2013, p. 1) “Many estimate that in 1900 … 16.7 percent of Christians lived in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. By 2010 it was 63.2 percent, and by 2025 it will be nearly 70 percent.” In the past half-century, evangelicals on these continents have multiplied roughly twelve times over, and already represent more than 80 percent of evangelicals in the world, far outnumbering those in the West.
Who would have believed it when a Jewish Christian prophet exiled to the island of Patmos had the audacity to prophesy the ultimate downfall of the empire who had banished him there? Who would have believed his vision of believers from every nation and language and tribe (Revelation 5:9; 7:9)? Who could have imagined the good news being proclaimed among all peoples (Matthew 24:14)? People in the Roman empire knew of India, China, of Africa at least as far south as Tanzania, and other far-flung locations. Yet at the time they probably constituted far less than one-tenth of one-percent of the Roman empire.
Believers in the first century could look back on fulfilled promises of judgment against the great empires of Assyria and Babylon; the tiny people of God nevertheless remained. Today, as well, we can see God’s faithfulness in history, despite the frequent unfaithfulness of God’s people. Certainly Rome fell, but the faith some of its rulers tried to crush has spread among more peoples than ever before.
The prerequisite of spreading the good news has continued to advance, especially thanks to missions movements in Asia and elsewhere. (Proportionately speaking, Western Christians of the present generation are lagging behind, although that was untrue in many recent generations.) If we are eager to witness the consummation of God’s promises, we are invited to participate in their fulfillment. We may do so—provided our vision is not for our own comfort, but for meeting the world’s need and fulfilling our Lord’s honor.