Much Prophecy is Conditional
Prophecy is giving a message from God or the Lord Jesus to another person or persons, and that the main reason for prophecy is God’s love for us. God wants a relationship with us, and He wants to show His love for us and desires us to love Him.
We now need to examine an aspect of prophecy that is very important, and not well understood by most Christians: when a prophecy is spoken to people about them personally, it is almost always conditional in nature. The fulfillment of the prophecy often depends on the attitude and actions of the one to whom the prophecy is given. This is different from the generally accepted teaching that when God declares something, it is “set in stone,” and will absolutely come to pass. If you are one who has believed that a true prophet of God is defined by the fact that his prophecies always come to pass, you should carefully read this chapter, and also Appendix B, “False Prophets and False Prophecies.”
Certainly there are prophecies from God that are “set in stone” and will come to pass exactly as God spoke them, but not all prophecies are that way. Prophecies spoken to individuals or groups about what will happen to them in the future are usually conditional upon the actions and attitudes of the people addressed. God gave us free will, and He responds to the free will decisions we make. What makes the prophecy conditional is there is an unspoken “if ” in the prophecy. In other words, the prophecy has a condition in it.
Another way to look at the conditional nature of prophecy is to remember that prophecy is an expression of God’s love for people, and that many times in prophecy God is calling us to greater things, rather than just announcing what will happen in the future, as if He would then gloat when it happened. Take the prophecy Jonah gave to the people of Nineveh: “…Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned” (Jon. 3:4b). Anyone reading the book of Jonah sees that Jonah’s prophecy did not come to pass. Nevertheless, Jonah was a true prophet. Furthermore, had the prophecy been fulfilled as spoken without being conditional, then what would have been the point? To tell thousands of people they were going to die in 40 days? No, there is another explanation.
The prophecy of Jonah, and other prophecies to people, often have an unspoken “if” clause. When the “if” is expressed, the prophecy looks like this: “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned if you do not change.” God is expressing His love via a prophecy that calls people to greater things. The prophecy gives people a chance to rise up and walk in a godly fashion before Him. The people of Nineveh did, and therefore God’s prophecy was not fulfilled. Of course, sometimes a prophecy of good is spoken, but the people turn to evil. Those prophecies are also conditional, and the good that was foretold often does not come to pass.
There are many times when the “if ” of revelation or prophecy is clearly spoken.  For example, in Genesis 20, Abimelech of Gerar had taken Abraham’s wife Sarah to be his wife. He did this not knowing that Sarah was married to Abraham, because Abraham had told him Sarah was his “sister.” God said to Abimelech: “Now return the man’s wife, for he is a prophet, and he will pray for you and you will live. But if you do not return her, you may be sure that you and all yours will die” (Gen. 20:7). In this case, God said “if ” you do not return her you will die, but how would the revelation have looked were there no “if”? God would have just announced that Abimelech would die because he had taken another man’s wife, and then He would have changed the revelation if Abimelech repented and returned Sarah to Abraham. God can change a revelation or a prophecy, and in this chapter we will see many examples of Him doing so when the people who received the prophecy changed their behavior.
There are two primary reasons why it is important to know that prophecy is so often conditional. The first is to build and maintain faith in God and His prophets. People who do not realize that prophecy is conditional may have their faith shaken if a particular prophecy does not come to pass or if they see a prophecy in the Bible that did not come to pass. For example, a person operating under the premise that true prophecy must come to pass as spoken is forced to say that Jonah was a false prophet. But we know that Jonah was a true prophet of God. If a particular prophecy is not fulfilled, we should examine the prophecy and the situation to see if the reason that it was not fulfilled had to do with a shift in the situation.
The second reason it is important to know that prophecy can be conditional is that people need to know that their behavior can affect whether or not a prophecy comes to pass. A Christian who is walking with the Lord needs to continue in faith, prayer, and an obedient lifestyle. On the other hand, a disobedient person who receives an undesirable prophecy can repent, in which case the prophecy that he had received may either not be fulfilled (just as Jonah’s prophecy to the Ninevites was not), or changed (as we will see in Hezekiah’s case).
Jeremiah Sets Forth the Conditional Nature of Prophecy
In the book of Jeremiah, God reveals the conditional nature of prophecy, and He compared His working with people with a potter working with clay. Please read the following section of Jeremiah carefully, because Christians have misunderstood it for centuries.
(1) This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD:
(2) “Go down to the potter’s house, and there I will give you my message.”
(3) So I went down to the potter’s house, and I saw him working at the wheel.
(4) But the pot he was shaping from the clay was marred in his hands; so the potter formed it into another pot, shaping it as seemed best to him.
(5) Then the word of the LORD came to me:
(6) “O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter does?” declares the LORD. “Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.
(7) If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed,
(8) and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned.
(9) And if at another time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be built up and planted,
(10) 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.
(11) “Now therefore say to the people of Judah and those living in Jerusalem, ‘This is what the LORD says: Look! I am preparing a disaster for you and devising a plan against you. So turn from your evil ways, each one of you, and reform your ways and your actions.”
Many people think that the lesson the potter and the clay teaches is that God can do anything He wants to with people. However, that is not the case. In fact, the lesson is actually the opposite. The potter knew what he wanted to make from the clay, but when he tried to make it, it was “marred” in his hand (v. 4). The clay was uncooperative, and would not take the shape the potter had in mind. The potter did not mar the clay, it was marred in itself. This is a common occurrence in pottery, as every experienced potter knows.
In order for the potter to form his idea out of clay, the lump of clay must cooperate. It is not unusual for a potter to try to make a vase or pot and have the clay seem not to want to form into that shape. In that case the potter simply does what the potter in Jeremiah did thousands of years ago: he collapses the pot and starts over, often with a new idea.
People and clay are a lot alike, and God, the ultimate potter, works with us like a potter does with clay. God has an idea for our lives, but often we are uncooperative, and will not take the shape He desires for us. What does God do? He does His best to work with our free will and make something different out of our lives. The reason God had Jeremiah go to the potter’s house was to teach Jeremiah that the way God works with people depends on what the people are willing to do.
After the verses about the potter and clay, verses 7-10 explain the way God works with people as they exercise their free will. In verse seven, God gives a prophetic message that a kingdom is to be torn down. If prophecy were inflexible and final as stated, then that would happen: the fate of the nation would be sealed. But wait! In verse eight God says that if, in response to the prophecy, the nation repents and turns from evil, then He will not follow through with what He planned to do. Similarly, in verse nine, God gives a prophecy that a nation would be built up and “planted,” i.e., established. However, if the nation becomes evil and disobedient, like a piece of clay that will simply not take the proper shape, then God cannot follow through with the good He had prophesied about that nation, but has to change His plans. After all, God cannot force people to be obedient. Thus is it clear that whether or not a prophecy is fulfilled depends on the people to whom it is given.
The lesson of the potter is applied to Judah and Jerusalem in verse eleven. In Jeremiah’s time, God’s prophets had been giving prophecies that Jerusalem would be destroyed. There are many examples in Jeremiah alone, but one will suffice.
(5) “Announce in Judah and proclaim in Jerusalem and say: ‘Sound the trumpet throughout the land!’ Cry aloud and say: ‘Gather together! Let us flee to the fortified cities!’
(6) Raise the signal to go to Zion! Flee for safety without delay! For I am bringing disaster from the north [i.e., from Babylon], even terrible destruction.”
(7) A lion has come out of his lair; a destroyer of nations has set out. He has left his place to lay waste your land. Your towns will lie in ruins without inhabitant.
Even though God had prophesied that Judah would be destroyed for her sin, it is clear from the potter example in Jeremiah 18 that God, in His amazing grace, was telling Judah that if they repented they would not be destroyed after all. Sadly, Judah did not repent or change her evil ways. In an astounding show of stubbornness, the Judeans decided to continue in their ungodly ways. They said:
“…It’s no use. We will continue with our own plans; each of us will follow the stubbornness of his evil heart.”
We know from both the Bible and secular history that Judah did not repent, and that they were destroyed by Babylon “from the north,” just as God had said.
The important thing for us to learn in this study is that if Judah had repented, God would have relented and saved the country, and His prophecies of their destruction would not have come to pass. Thus, in the record in Jeremiah 18, God specifically shows us two types of prophecies that may be conditional: prophecies that foretell disaster, and prophecies that promise blessings. These prophecies are spoken to people, and are usually conditional.
Prophecies That Changed
We are now going to examine a number of prophecies in the Bible that were spoken but not fulfilled. These examples clearly reveal the conditional nature of prophecy, and help us see that God is doing much more than just predicting the future when He gives a prophecy. He is calling people to Himself and working to build the fellowship between God and man. This section is long because the information is new and challenging to most people, and therefore many examples are given to establish the truth of the point. If you understand the concept, and do not want to read all the examples, skip down to the next section, “Prophecies That Did Not Change.”
God gave Samuel the revelation that Saul would be king over Israel (1 Sam. 9:17). That revelation became prophecy when Samuel spoke it to Saul (1 Sam. 10:1). The implied part of the prophecy is that both Saul and his descendants would reign over Israel. There would have been no reason for the prophet to speak that, because that was simply the way kingdoms work: after the king dies, a descendant becomes king. Yet Saul disobeyed the Word of God, and Samuel delivered a prophecy that modified the original prophecy, stating that Saul’s kingdom would not endure. The original prophecy was conditional upon Saul’s obedience to God.
1 Samuel 13:13 and 14
(13) “You [Saul] acted foolishly,” Samuel said. “You have not kept the command the LORD your God gave you; if you had, he would have established your kingdom over Israel for all time.
(14) But now your kingdom will not endure; the LORD has sought out a man after his own heart and appointed him leader of his people, because you have not kept the LORD’s command.”
Upon receiving the prophecy that his kingdom would not endure, one would think that Saul would have repented in dust and ashes and prayed fervently to have God’s blessing restored. Not so. Saul continued to sin, and Samuel confronted him again.
1 Samuel 15:23, 26-28
(23) “For rebellion is like the sin of divination, and arrogance like the evil of idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the LORD, he has rejected you as king.”
(26) But Samuel said to him [Saul], “I will not go back with you. You have rejected the word of the LORD, and the LORD has rejected you as king over Israel!”
(27) As Samuel turned to leave, Saul caught hold of the hem of his robe, and it tore.
(28) Samuel said to him, “The LORD has torn the kingdom of Israel from you today and has given it to one of your neighbors—to one better than you.”
Notice that in verse 28 God had torn the kingdom from Saul “today.” This is very important. God is longsuffering. He puts up with a lot of disobedience on the part of His servants, but He has His limits. Saul had disobeyed before, often grievously. But this disobedience regarding the Amalekites was the last straw. God removed His holy spirit from Saul, who then became afflicted by demons (1 Sam. 16:14). Saul still acted as king, but without God’s blessing, while David won the hearts of the people. Even Jonathan, the crown prince and next in line to be king, realized that the kingdom had passed from Saul, and said to David, “…You will be king over Israel…” (1 Sam. 23:17).
The peace in David’s lifetime
David had done many wonderful things for God, and so He sent Nathan the prophet with the following message for David: “…I will also give you rest from all your enemies…” (2 Sam. 7:11). There is no doubt that Nathan was a true prophet of God, and if the paradigm of most Christians is right—that a prophecy once spoken will absolutely come to pass, then David would have had rest from his enemies for the rest of his life. However, we know that prophecy spoken to people is often conditional upon what they do after they receive it, and that was the case with David. He did not continue steadfastly in the ways of God. After David committed adultery with Bathsheba and had Uriah murdered, God changed His prophecy to David. He sent Nathan again, but with a different message: “Now, therefore, the sword will never depart from your house…” (2 Sam. 12:10a).
The phrase, “Now, therefore” alerts us to the fact that there has been a change in the prophetic message, and we see that played out through the rest of David’s life. He had to fight his own son, Absalom, to keep the throne, squash the rebellion of Sheba the Benjamite (2 Sam. 20), and battle the Philistines (2 Sam. 21:15).
Another good example of the conditional nature of prophecy can be seen in the life of Solomon. David wanted to build a temple for God, but God told him that Solomon would build the Temple, and also that “…I [God] will establish his kingdom.” The prophet Nathan foretold the establishment of Solomon’s kingdom.
2 Samuel 7:12 and 13
(12) When your days are over and you rest with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, who will come from your own body, and I will establish his kingdom.
(13) He is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. 
These prophetic words seem very final. However, Solomon got to the point in his life where he did great evil in the eyes of God and broke commandment after commandment. God commanded that the king not amass silver and gold, but Solomon received 666 talents (more than 49,000 pounds) of gold a year (Deut. 17:17; 1 Kings 10:14). God commanded that the king not amass horses or get horses from Egypt, but Solomon had thousands of horses, many of them from Egypt (Deut. 17:16; 1 Kings 10:26-29). God commanded that the king not have many wives, but Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines (Deut. 17:17; 1 Kings 11:3). God commanded that no Israelite marry a pagan woman, but Solomon married “Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Sidonians, and Hittites” (1 Kings 11:1 and 2). God commanded all Israel to stay away from idolatry (which was the first of the Ten Commandments), but Solomon worshipped Ashtoreth and Molech, among other pagan gods (1 Kings 11:5). Solomon “did evil” in the eyes of God (1 Kings 11:6), and after much sin, a different prophetic word came to him:
1 Kings 11:11
So the LORD said to Solomon, “Since this is your attitude and you have not kept my covenant and my decrees, which I commanded you, I will most certainly tear the kingdom away from you and give it to one of your subordinates.
Because Solomon disobeyed and turned from the commands of God, the kingdom, which God prophesied He would “establish,” was torn from David’s line. Only two tribes, Judah and Benjamin, became the kingdom of Judah. The ten northern tribes became their own kingdom, Israel.
Rehoboam’s deliverance from Shishak
Solomon abandoned God and, as a result, the kingdom was torn from him. Sadly, his son Rehoboam did not learn from his father’s mistakes and continued in his profligate ways. He and his people further abandoned God, and as a result God’s protection was taken away. Shishak, Pharaoh of Egypt, came and attacked Jerusalem. When the prophet Shemaiah foretold that God would abandon the kingdom of Judah to Pharaoh Shishak, everything seemed lost.
2 Chronicles 12:1 and 5
(1) After Rehoboam’s position as king was established and he had become strong, he and all Israel with him abandoned the law of the LORD.
(5) Then the prophet Shemaiah came to Rehoboam and to the leaders of Judah who had assembled in Jerusalem for fear of Shishak, and he said to them, “This is what the LORD says, ‘You have abandoned me; therefore, I now abandon you to Shishak.’”
The proclamation that God would abandon Israel to the Egyptians seemed final, but the leaders of Israel understood its conditional nature and did not consider it the “final word.” They humbled themselves before God, and as a result, the prophecy concerning Judah was not fulfilled. God sent Shemaiah back with a new prophecy that even foretold “deliverance.”
2 Chronicles 12:6 and 7
(6) The leaders of Israel and the king humbled themselves and said, “The LORD is just.”
(7) When the LORD saw that they humbled themselves, this word of the LORD came to Shemaiah: “Since they have humbled themselves, I will not destroy them but will soon give them deliverance. My wrath will not be poured out on Jerusalem through Shishak.”
In this case, the fact that the leaders of Judah understood the conditional nature of prophecy saved their kingdom. Had they believed that the first prophecy from Shemaiah could not be changed, they would not have humbled themselves and repented as they did.
Disaster on Ahab
In 1 Kings 21, the evil King Ahab, husband to the infamous Jezebel, did nothing while an innocent man and his family were murdered by executive order. Elijah the prophet came to Ahab with a word from God.
1 Kings 21:21 and 22
(21) “I am going to bring disaster on you. I will consume your descendants and cut off from Ahab every last male in Israel—slave or free.
(22) I will make your house like that of Jeroboam son of Nebat and that of Baasha son of Ahijah, because you have provoked me to anger and have caused Israel to sin.”
As evil as he was, Ahab realized he was in serious trouble. Elijah foretold disaster on “you,” i.e., Ahab, and also on his “house.” The “houses” of Jeroboam and Baasha whom Elijah mentioned, both former kings of Israel, had been totally destroyed. Ahab knew he was doomed if something did not change, and he acted decisively:
1 Kings 21:27-29
(27) When Ahab heard these words, he tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and fasted. He lay in sackcloth and went around meekly.
(28) Then the word of the LORD came to Elijah the Tishbite:
(29) “Have you noticed how Ahab has humbled himself before me? Because he has humbled himself, I will not bring this disaster in his day, but I will bring it on his house in the days of his son.”
When Elijah foretold Ahab’s disaster, Ahab did not shrug his shoulders and say, “Well, the word of God has come. I’m history.” No, he understood that prophecy could be conditional, and thought that if he changed his behavior, the Word of God might change. In his case, it did, and God told Elijah that He would not bring disaster on Ahab as He had said, but would delay it until the reign of Ahab’s son. We can only speculate what would have happened if Ahab’s son had also repented and lived a godly life, but the chances are that the prophecy would have been altered again. As it was, Ahab’s son, Ahaziah, died childless after falling out a window, and his brother Joram took over the throne. Joram also did evil in the eyes of God, and Jehu, a commander in the army, killed him and destroyed the house of Ahab, fulfilling the prophecy that destruction would come in the “days of his son.”
Another example of God changing His revelation when people act decisively is in 2 Kings 20. Hezekiah, king of Judah, was very sick. The prophet Isaiah came to him and said, “…Put your house in order, because you are going to die; you will not recover” (2 Kings 20:1). As final as that prophecy from Isaiah sounded, Hezekiah did not give up. He prayed and wept, and God spoke again to Isaiah.
2 Kings 20:5a
“Go back and tell Hezekiah, the leader of my people, ‘This is what the LORD, the God of your father David, says: I have heard your prayer and seen your tears; I will heal you…
Hezekiah was healed, even as the second word from God said. The original prophecy that Hezekiah would die was not fulfilled, and he lived another 15 years.
Another good example of the conditional nature of prophecy is in the book of Jonah. The prophet Jonah delivered the following message to the citizens of Nineveh: “…Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned” (Jon. 3:4). Although the people of Nineveh had been wicked and the prophecy was clear, the king of Nineveh knew not to simply give up, sit back, and await destruction. He knew that prophecy could be conditional, and so he commanded everyone in his kingdom to repent, fast, and “call urgently on God” (Jon. 3:8). The king even commanded that the animals in the kingdom be made to fast. He then gave his reason for these commands:
“Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.”
Although the king had no guarantee that his kingdom would be saved if the people humbled themselves, he knew that if they did not, the prophecy would certainly come to pass and Nineveh would be destroyed. Some prophecies, even when given by a genuine prophet, are not the final word. In the case of Nineveh, the word of God spoken in prophecy changed.
When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened.
The NIV text above is a weak translation. First, the phrase “had compassion” is better translated “repented” as it is in the KJV (the NRSV actually has “changed his mind”). This is very important. We said at the opening of this chapter that, in effect, most prophecies spoken to people had an unspoken “if ” clause. It can be clearly seen here. When God saw that the people of Nineveh repented and turned from their evil ways, then He “repented.” God changed His word when the circumstances changed.
Also, although the NIV has the word “threatened,” there is no evidence in the Hebrew text that all God did was “threaten” the Ninevites. God plainly stated that Nineveh would be overthrown. The Hebrew is clearly translated in many versions, the King James being one of them, and it is worth quoting.
Jonah 3:10 (KJV)
And God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God repented of the evil, that he had said that he would do unto them; and he did it not.
It is worth noting, however, that the translators of the NIV have picked up the heart of what God did. Although with words He clearly stated that Nineveh would be overthrown, in His heart He did not want that to happen. His words were a “threat,” even though they were not voiced that way, because He intended to change if the Ninevites did. When they repented, He did not bring upon them the destruction that Jonah had so boldly proclaimed. The prophecy of Jonah, that Nineveh would be destroyed in 40 days, was never fulfilled.
Still another example of the conditional nature of prophecy is the prophecy of Huldah the prophetess concerning Josiah, king of Judah. Josiah had been very aggressive in restoring the worship of the true God in Judah. Under his reign, the Temple was repaired, and in the process, the scrolls containing the Word of God were found. The previous king had been ungodly, and the Law had been grossly neglected. Josiah had the scrolls read to him and was alarmed at his people’s disobedience to the Law. He sent a messenger to the prophetess to hear from God what would happen to his kingdom because the Law had been so neglected. Huldah said that the kingdom would suffer disaster, but not at that time. Concerning Josiah himself she said:
2 Kings 22:20 (NASB)
“Therefore, behold, I will gather you to your fathers, and you will be gathered to your grave in peace, neither shall your eyes see all the evil which I will bring on this place.’” “So they brought back word to the king.
Josiah had received a blessing from God. He would be “gathered to his fathers” a phrase almost always used of a peaceful death. Furthermore, it would be “in peace.” However, Josiah disobeyed God and entered into a war with Pharaoh Neco, king of Egypt. The Pharaoh was traveling north through Judah to fight the Babylonians and did not want to go to war with Josiah. In fact, when Josiah came out with his armies, Pharaoh tried to get Josiah to leave him alone.
2 Chronicles 35:20-22
(20) After all this, when Josiah had set the temple in order, Neco king of Egypt went up to fight at Carchemish on the Euphrates, and Josiah marched out to meet him in battle.
(21) But Neco sent messengers to him, saying, “What quarrel is there between you and me, O king of Judah? It is not you I am attacking at this time, but the house with which I am at war. God has told me to hurry; so stop opposing God, who is with me, or he will destroy you.”
(22) Josiah, however, would not turn away from him, but disguised himself to engage him in battle. He would not listen to what Neco had said at God’s command but went to fight him on the plain of Megiddo.
Josiah was so intent on fighting Pharaoh that he paid no attention to God. He even disguised himself so he could fight without being recognized as the king of Judah, so that there would be no chance Pharaoh Neco could protect him by telling his soldiers not to fight the king. His bold disobedience put him in danger, and he was shot by an arrow and died slowly, miles from the battleground.
2 Chronicles 35:23 and 24a
(23) Archers shot King Josiah, and he told his officers, “Take me away; I am badly wounded.”
(24a) So they took him out of his chariot, put him in the other chariot he had and brought him to Jerusalem, where he died…
Josiah disobeyed God and entered into battle, and died as a result. What about the prophecy that he would be gathered to his fathers and die in “peace”? Like other prophecies, it was conditional upon obedience to God. Had Josiah not disobeyed and entered into a war he had no business fighting, he would have died in peace just as Huldah foretold. But because Josiah disobeyed God, the words of Huldah, who was a genuine prophetess of God, did not come to pass.
There is an important lesson that we should learn from Josiah. The prophecy that he would die “in peace” did not make him invincible, as if he could then do anything no matter how foolhardy, and live through it. The prophecy would have been fulfilled if he had lived wisely, in obedience to God. Similarly, if a Christian receives a prophecy of blessing, he usually must be wise and godly to see it fulfilled in his life.
Another clear example of the conditional nature of prophecy is in the book of Jeremiah. Zedekiah was the last king of Judah before the Babylonian captivity. He had the chance to save his kingdom by surrendering to Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, but he did not surrender. When Nebuchadnezzar’s army surrounded Jerusalem, Zedekiah made a proclamation that everyone in the city was to free his slaves (Jer. 34:8-10). The slaves were supposed to be released every seven years, as the Law of Moses declared (Exod. 21:2), but the people of Judah had been disobedient in that area. It blessed God when Zedekiah released the slaves, and He sent Jeremiah to tell the king that even though Jerusalem would be burned and he would be captured, he would die in peace.
Jeremiah 34:4 and 5
(4) “‘Yet hear the promise of the LORD, O Zedekiah king of Judah. This is what the LORD says concerning you: You will not die by the sword;
(5) you will die peacefully. As people made a funeral fire in honor of your fathers, the former kings who preceded you, so they will make a fire in your honor and lament, “Alas, O master!” I myself make this promise, declares the LORD.’”
The word from God was that Zedekiah would “die peacefully” and people would make a funeral fire for him. However, before long the people of Judah “…changed their minds and took back the slaves they had freed and enslaved them again” (Jer. 34:11). They also sinned in many other ways. Because of the wicked sin of Zedekiah and the people of Judah, Jeremiah was sent back to the king with a different message:
Jeremiah 34:17, 19-21
(17) Therefore, this is what the LORD says: ‘You have not obeyed me; you have not proclaimed freedom for your fellow countrymen. So I now proclaim ‘freedom’ for you, declares the LORD —‘freedom’ to fall by the sword, plague and famine. I will make you abhorrent to all the kingdoms of the earth.
(19) The leaders of Judah and Jerusalem, the court officials, the priests and all the people of the land who walked between the pieces of the calf,
(20) I will hand over to their enemies who seek their lives. Their dead bodies will become food for the birds of the air and the beasts of the earth.
(21) I will hand Zedekiah king of Judah and his officials over to their enemies who seek their lives, to the army of the king of Babylon, which has withdrawn from you.”
God had said that Zedekiah would die “peacefully” and that people would make a fire in honor of him and lament for him. But after his grievous sin, God spoke a different word—that he would be handed over to his enemies. Had Zedekiah repented in sackcloth and ashes like Ahab and others had done, perhaps the word from God would have changed yet again. However, he continued in his wicked ways and the second word from God was fulfilled:
Jeremiah 52:10 and 11
(10) There at Riblah the king of Babylon slaughtered the sons of Zedekiah before his eyes; he also killed all the officials of Judah.
(11) Then he put out Zedekiah’s eyes, bound him with bronze shackles and took him to Babylon, where he put him in prison till the day of his death.
Zedekiah could have died in peace as the first prophecy said, but he, like many others, abandoned his godly acts and turned to wickedness, so instead of being fulfilled, the first prophecy was set aside by a later prophecy. The last thing Zedekiah saw before the Babylonians blinded him was his sons being put to death, and then, blinded, he was taken in chains to Babylon where he died in prison. Dying in a prison blind and in chains is certainly not dying “peacefully,” as Jeremiah’s original prophecy stated. This record in Jeremiah is more evidence that much prophecy is conditional in nature and based on the attitude and actions of the believer.
Prophecies That Did Not Change
What follows are two examples of people praying to God so that the prophecies they received would be altered, but they were not, and came to pass as spoken. Just because prophecy is often conditional does not mean it always is. Nevertheless, the preponderance of examples in the Word of God teach us that if we receive a prophecy we do not want to come to pass, we should do all that we can to alter the prophecy.
The death of David’s child
David committed adultery with a woman named Bathsheba, who became pregnant and gave birth to a son. While the son was very young, but not a newborn, God gave the following prophecy to David:
2 Samuel 12:14b
…the son born to you will die.
After the prophecy was given, the child became sick. David pleaded with God to spare the child. He fasted and “…spent the nights lying on the ground.” However, the child died anyway, at which point David washed, went to worship, and then ate. This confused the servants, who wondered why David did not fast and weep after the death of the child, and they asked him about it.
2 Samuel 12:22
He answered, “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept. I thought, ‘Who knows? The LORD may be gracious to me and let the child live.’
David understood that even though God had given a prophecy that the child would die, there was a chance he might live. He prayed and fasted, asking God to alter the consequences of his sin. The fact that David fasted, wept, and spent the nights lying on the ground, is an indication that he knew that the prophecy of the death of the child was not absolutely set in stone, but might change. In this case, however, the prophecy came to pass as spoken.
Jesus in Gethsemane
One of the most startling examples of the conditional nature of prophecy involves Jesus Christ. On the night of his arrest, he went to the Garden of Gethsemane and prayed three times that he would not have to die. The prayer recorded in Mark is very telling:
“Abba, Father,” he said, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.”
Jesus began his prayer by saying that everything is possible for God. What he had in mind was obvious from his next statement—that perhaps God could change what had been foretold about the death of the Messiah. Jesus boldly asked God, “…Take this cup from me….” What was Jesus asking for? He was asking God to change things so that he would not have to be tortured and die. This shows that Jesus clearly understood the conditional nature of prophecy. He knew that even though his death had been foretold, that did not necessarily mean it was absolutely set in stone, and he prayed to see if there was any way that redemption could be accomplished without his death. The fact that he prayed three times showed how badly he wanted to avoid being tortured and crucified. However, in this case, there was apparently no way God could bring about the redemption of mankind except by the death of Jesus, and Jesus humbly accepted that fact and died for our sins. What a Savior!
This chapter has shown that many prophecies are conditional in nature. Just because someone receives a prophecy does not mean that things cannot change in the future. If a Christian receives a prophecy that states he will have financial deliverance and blessing in his life, he should not think that he can then behave any way he wants to and still be financially secure. Or if a Christian gets a prophecy stating that he is called of God to be the leader of some great endeavor or ministry, he better not think that his position is secure and that God will continue to promote and support him even if he turns from Him. In most cases, the fulfillment of any prophecy that a Christian receives is conditional on continued obedience to God. In the same vein, a Christian should not think that because of past evil behavior he can never receive God’s blessing on his life. It would be difficult for a Christian to be as wicked as King Ahab, but God changed the prophecy even for him when he repented.
It is important to note that God does not desire to be seen as a God whose words have no impact because they change all the time. What God says will indeed come to pass unless there are powerful circumstances for them to change. In that light, although there are many examples showing that prophecy can be conditional, there are many more prophecies in the Word of God that were fulfilled as spoken.
1. A few examples are: Deuteronomy 15:4-6, 28:1-9; 1 Samuel 7:3, 12:25; 1 Kings 3:14, 6:12, 11:38; Isaiah 1:18-20; Jeremiah 12:14-17.
2. This prophecy will ultimately be fulfilled in Jesus Christ. The “throne” of Solomon’s kingdom will eventually, and then everlastingly, be occupied by Jesus.