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an expanded commentary on the Gospel of Matthew

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Digression 22: 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. 

1 Conditional Prophecy

The idea of conditional prophecy is best expressed through actual examples: 

  • 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, Tomorrow 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 this.
  • 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”. Indeed, the long list of blessings in Dt. 28 were given by God perhaps knowing at the start that they would never be realized- "It shall come to pass, if you shall hearken diligently unto the voice of the Lord" (Dt. 28:1). God gave such detailed blessings for obedience even though they would never be realized by Israel. Likewise He gave such detailed plans for the temple in Ez. 40-48- even though the envisaged, possible scenario never came about because Israel chose to be disobedient.
  • Isaiah warned Judah not to mock God's word "lest your bands be made tighter" (Is. 28:22). There were various potential degrees of punishment for Israel, and their realization depended upon Judah's response to God's word.
  • 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. 4:24).
  • 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 fear.
  • “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 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.
  •  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 fulfilment.
  • 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 (Num. 14:34).
  • 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 return.
  • 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 under temptation.
  • 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 its 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 fulfilment 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 my   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) p. 39.