What to Do When Prophecies Fail

A number of ministers and public figures in the Charismatic Church give public prophetic words and predictions. Many expect prophets to make these kinds of predictions. Agabus did in Acts 11:27-30. It’s biblical.

While I can think of many personal prophetic words and predictions that have come to pass, it is difficult for me to think of specific prophetic predictions that have come to pass for a nation or a people group. This is probably because I don’t follow “national” prophetic words closely. But even though I don’t follow them closely, I can think of a number of cases where public prophetic words did not come to pass.

You may be aware of these cases too: A well known minister will make a specific prediction. The prediction will not come to pass (or seem to not come to pass). Many will then call for that leader to repent or accuse that leader of being a false prophet.

These are difficult events to process.

Ministers have given me highly specific prophetic predictions that have come to pass. I have also received highly specific prophetic predictions that did not come to pass.

Sometimes both predictions came from the same minister.

How should we think about prophetic predictions that don’t come to pass?

Conditional Prophecy

I have heard several well known prophetic ministers make the point that all New Testament prophecy is conditional. They argue that every single prophetic word may or may not come to pass based on the behavior of the recipient(s). Every prophecy has implicit or explicit conditions that must be met for it to come to pass.

They would argue that every disaster can be avoided by repentance and faith. They would argue that every blessing can be forfeited by disobedience and unbelief. There is some biblical basis for this view, and I would agree that most prophecy is in fact conditional.

When God speaks to us, He speaks with grace. He assumes that we will respond to Him in obedience and faith. Any of us can forfeit God’s promises and blessings on our lives if we turn away from God. Almost every prophecy to a believer will naturally assume that the recipient will continue in their relationship with God.

However, God does make unconditional prophecies. The arrival of the Messiah was not subject to change. It was not a conditional prophecy. God has plans for us and for the world that He will carry out regardless of our behavior. It may not always be obvious which is which, but clearly, God’s universal plans for the nations and the end of time will not be changed by individual or corporate behavior. Christ is coming back to rule and judge regardless of what we do.

Conditional Prophecy in Scripture

Isaiah

There are many examples of conditional prophecy in Scripture. Isaiah prophesied that King Hezekiah would die (See 2 Kings 20:1-10 and Isaiah 38). Nothing in this prophecy stated that there were conditions to this prediction or decree. The prophecy simply predicted that it would happen.

In those days Hezekiah was sick and near death. And Isaiah the prophet, the son of Amoz, went to him and said to him, “Thus says the Lord: ‘Set your house in order, for you shall die and not live.’ ” Isaiah 38:1

King Hezekiah cried out to God. God heard King Hezekiah’s prayer and spoke to Isaiah again. He told Isaiah that He had heard Hezekiah’s prayer and that Hezekiah would live for many more years.

And the word of the Lord came to Isaiah, saying, “Go and tell Hezekiah, ‘Thus says the Lord, the God of David your father: “I have heard your prayer, I have seen your tears; surely I will add to your days fifteen years. Isaiah 38:4-5

Clearly, Isaiah’s first prophecy and the prediction was conditional. The same could be true of the prophecies we receive. It is possible that we as individuals or as the body of Christ in a church or in a nation can cry out to God and change the outcome of the future. It is possible for prophetic predictions to fail to come to pass because of our prayers or because of our disobedience.

However, this does not completely absolve prophets of accountability. In this example, God told Isaiah that the prediction would not come to pass beforehand. This is important. God promised that He would not do anything without revealing it to His servants the prophets.

Surely the Lord God does nothing, Unless He reveals His secret to His servants the prophets. Amos 3:7

God makes the body of Christ aware of what He is doing. God told Isaiah that this prediction would not come to pass and why.

What if God hadn’t told Isaiah? Isaiah would have told Hezekiah that he was going to die. Hezekiah would have prayed. God would have spared Hezekiah and Isaiah’s word would not have come to pass. Isaiah would be confused. Hezekiah might be confused. They would assume that Isaiah got the prediction wrong. God spared Isaiah and Hezekiah that confusion by telling Isaiah that the prophecy had been changed in a timely fashion.

Jonah

Jonah contains another example of conditional prophecy. In this example, it was a national word. Jonah prophesied, “Yet forty days and Ninevah will be overthrown” (Jonah 3:4b). Again, there are no conditions stated. This message is prophesied as if it will invariably happen. But Ninevah repented in hope that God would relent. God did. God chose not to punish Ninevah. He told Jonah that He would relent. Jonah was not surprised that the prediction he gave did not come to pass. God told him beforehand (Jonah 4:5).

Conditional Prophecy Does Not Absolve Inaccurate Prediction.

God looks after the reputation of His people. If a prophet gives a public, high profile word, God will watch after it. God will tell His people when and if their behavior changes the outcome of the prophetic word. The fact that many or most prophecies are conditional does not absolve inaccurate prediction.

If people’s behavior changes the outcome of a prophetic word, God will not hide it from us. He can let us know before the prediction proves inaccurate. I am not saying that we will know in every case. Many people give so many prophetic words it would be impossible to keep track of them all. But for large, national or global level words, we should be able to know when God has changed the outcome before that prophetic word falls to the ground.

How Should We Respond?

If we give a prophetic prediction, we should be open to God changing His mind. We should have an open ear to hear God tell us that He will do something different because of His people’s actions.

If we give a public prophetic prediction and it doesn’t come to pass then we should admit that we missed something. Maybe we got the initial prediction wrong. Maybe we didn’t hear God telling us that His people’s behavior changed the outcome. We should be honest about that.

If we receive a personal prophetic prediction we should be mindful of any conditions. If the prediction doesn’t come to pass we should ask God why. Maybe we took a wrong step along the way. Maybe someone else did. Maybe something changed in prayer. Maybe the prophetic minister got it wrong. This can be a difficult discernment process, but it’s one that we need to go through.

If we hear a national or global prophetic prediction, we should pursue God’s best, acknowledging that many prophecies are conditional. If the prediction does not come to pass, we should question the minister. Did God tell them beforehand that it was not going to come to pass? Did they prophesy a new word that overturned the first? If not, they should be willing to admit that they may have gotten it wrong.

What if they Got it Wrong?

No minister is perfect. This is true across the Church with every gift and every calling. Prophets are not perfect. In the Old Testament, prophets had to be perfect because only a few people had the Holy Spirit. Today, we all have the Holy Spirit and the church discerns God’s voice and Spirit together. (See Joel 2:28 and 1 Corinthians 14:29.)

Now, we judge prophecy, and we forgive error. We deal harshly with false teaching and false prophecy (prophecy that points to a different god), but we are gracious with poor or erroneous prophecy. We correct it, and we restore the minister who made the error. In order for this process to go as it should, the minister who made the error needs to be honest about it. They will likely lose some respect. Some believers may never trust them again. But it will be the right thing to do.

Check out my post on Processing Prophetic Words and Art Thomas’ articles, How to Discern Prophetic Dreams and Identifying False Prophecy, for more on how to judge prophecy.

Conclusions

Judging prophecy can be difficult. Sometimes prophets in the Bible seemed wrong when they were right. Sometimes prophets in the Bible seemed right when they were wrong. We should tread carefully and lightly, with prayer and humility. We should not be eager to catch people in error. We should be eager to prophesy, eager to hear prophecy, and eager to judge and test all things. We want the prophetic in the body of Christ to grow in purity and in power.