During my Bible College studies, I came across a journal article with the heading: ‘When Prophecy Failed’. It freaked me out. The author discussed a scenario in biblical history when a prophet delivered a word from God, but then apparently it didn’t happen, so the people re-interpreted the word to suit the new circumstances.
As I sat there amongst the lofty bookshelves of the theological library, scouring the article I felt increasingly sick.
It went against everything I had been taught. Wasn’t THE Word of God ‘living and active’? Powerful like a sword and purging like a fire, ‘smashing rocks to pieces’, speaking the universe into being and bringing life to the dead? Didn’t the word of the Lord never return void but always fulfill what it had been sent for? How could this be?!
Could God’s word fail? His predictions not come to pass? What did it mean for God to be sovereign? When God speaks, is that a guarantee that it will always happen?
Or are God’s words too weak such that circumstances could overcome them? Or perhaps he could forget what he said? Or worse still, could God lie? The possibilities sent me reeling.
The thing I didn’t understand at the time was God’s purpose in speaking of the future. He is not some fortune teller or crystal fairy, predicting things to come to show off his prophetic prowess. The primary reason he speaks is to call us to walk with him in seeing his kingdom come in our lives and the lives of others.
The problem of course is that once he speaks to us – flawed, sinful us – the game changes. No matter how pure, how powerful; how accurate his words may be, they can only be effective if they are received in faith and obedience. A holy God partnering with an unholy humanity means that some sort of resigned fatalism can never be an option.
Let me give you an example.
Some time in the 11th Century BC, Saul was chosen by God to be the first king of Israel. He was filled with the Spirit and powerfully anointed to establish the kingdom and deliver Israel from the Philistines (1 Samuel 9:16). The future was full of promise for Saul.
However, read on. The story ends badly. For this strapping young man loaded with potential, God’s words ultimately failed.
How could that happen? After all God chose him – and he had all those prophecies.
Nothing amiss with God’s prophetic promises, but everything wrong with Saul’s heart. The Scriptures tell us he rebelled against God and rejected the word of the Lord (1 Samuel 15:11,23). The tragic result? His kingdom was removed and prophecy failed – at least for Saul.
When God speaks of prophetic destiny, it is with the understanding that his promises are conditional upon our response. It’s a two-way street. We are completely free to reject what he says. That’s the privilege of free will.
If we do reject his word – either through abject disobedience or by a passive lack of co-operation – God’s words cannot fulfill their purpose. That’s why Moses wasn’t able to enter the promised land. It’s why Jerusalem didn’t flourish after the exile. It’s why the Israelites were ‘divorced’ from God for their spiritual adultery. In every case God’s words ‘failed’.
The choice is ours.
But the profound beauty of this story is that while we may fail, God never will.
It is in the midst of the troubling conundrum of Saul’s failure that God reaffirms his deep faithfulness. To all appearances it seemed God had changed his mind… Saul was no longer king – those promises could no longer come to pass.
But as the passage goes on to describe; God is not a man that he should lie or change his mind (1 Samuel 15:29). God is still committed to his word, even when we don’t play our part. His words are a reflection of his character – he cannot deny them.
So what does God do?
He transfers his words to a person whose heart is willing to receive them. David is appointed as the new king – one who would go on to establish the kingdom and powerfully fulfill destiny.
Ultimately God’s words come to pass. In the mystery of his incredible sovereignty, God works to see his words realised – somehow. But the question is, will we be the ones to see them fulfilled? That one’s up to us.
God is not human, that he should lie, not a human being, that he should change his mind. Does he speak and then not act? Does he promise and not fulfill? (Numbers 23:19)
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