Prophets and prediction: when conservatism and Bible clash

In this post I will examine and criticise a passage from Alec Motyer’s writing on the Old Testament prophets.  I do this not because I think Motyer is a poor scholar, but because I find his presentation an interesting example of how even the most conservative scholars risk allowing their existing ideas1  to take precedence over the evidence of the biblical text.

The section I am interested in comes from his article: Alec Motyer,  ‘Prophet,’in  Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, Walter A. Elwell ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1997). It is thus intended not as deep scholarship but an introduction for beginners. In the section headed “The Function of the Prophet”, Motyer writes:

It is sometimes said that prophets are not foretellers but forthtellers. As far as the OT is concerned, however, the prophets are forthtellers (declaring the truth about God) by being foretellers (predicting what God will do). Prediction is neither an occasional nor a marginal activity in the OT; it is the way the prophet went about his work, under the inspiration of God. Not only the actual evidence of the books of the prophets, wherein the gaze is uniformly forward, supports this contention but also a key passage like Deuteronomy 18:9–15, which explains the function of the prophet in Israel: the surrounding nations are revealed as probing into the future by means of a variety of fortune-telling techniques (vv 10, 11); these things are forbidden to Israel on the ground of being abominable to the Lord (v 12); Israel’s distinctiveness is maintained in that the nations probe the future by diviners, whereas the Lord gives Israel a prophet (vv 13–15). Elisha (2 Kgs 4:27) is surprised when foreknowledge is denied him; Amos teaches that foreknowledge is the privilege of the prophets in their fellowship with God (Am 3:7). But prediction in Israel was totally unlike prognostication among the nations, for in no way was it motivated by a mere curiosity about the future.

This begins sensibly enough, as a warning that the neat slogan which explains that the biblical prophets are not foretellers but forthtellers is simplistic. Of course, in this Motyer is quite correct. The prophets often do look to the future. They consistently warn of danger threatening people who consistently transgress God’s standards. They also often point to glorious future hope. My beef with Motyer is that he calls this future focus “prediction“. The term is useful to Motyer (I think) because it links his point with traditional language about prophecy. This is a comfortable point for a conservative scholar to make – his article will be less threatening to its likely readers, sounding more like the many sermons and TV religious gurus they have heard speak about biblical prophecy.

But is he right? Do the prophets predict? Or do they rather warn and encourage? Prediction, insofar as it is different from mere warning, implies saying in advance that a certain event will happen. Is this what the prophets in the Bible do? It often seems so, the messages God gave them often involve future events. Thus when God commissions Jonah the second time he instructs: “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” (Jonah 3:2) This Jonah does. (Jonah 3:3) The message he proclaims is:  “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (Jonah 3:4) But, if this message is intended by God as a prediction, then God is mistaken, for Nineveh is not overthrown in forty days. It is turned upside down, almost immediately, by Jonah’s message, in repentance. But ironically, this repentance leads to God sparing Nineveh (Jonah 3:10).

This is quite clear. Either God’s message is a prediction – in which case it is false, or it is a warning – in which case it succeeds.

Motyer does not cite Jonah, rather he focuses on Elisha (2 Kgs 4:27) and Amos (3:7). The first (like my example) is a narrative, Elisha, in the verse Motyer cites, states that God has hidden and not revealed to him [the child’s death]. Do Elisha’s words suggest that he understands his role as predicting such events? Or could it be rather that having given the miraculous child as a reward Elisha feels God “ought” to have warned him of the coming disaster? In Amos 3:7 the prophet declares: “Surely the Lord GOD does nothing, without revealing his secret to his servants the prophets.” Verse seven however is not the point of the passage, that comes in verse  eight: “The lion has roared; who will not fear? The Lord GOD has spoken; who can but prophesy?” Amos’ point is not that Prophets are predictors, but that prophets must declare the message God gives them, even when the warning is of destruction. As we saw in the example from Jonah, what God “plans” is not always what God does!

  1. This originally read “their preconceived ideologies” this was falsely polemic and not what I intended, thanks to Jerry Shepherd’s comment below I have edited it. []

4 comments on “Prophets and prediction: when conservatism and Bible clash

  1. Deane Galbraith

    It makes the test of a true prophet in Deut 18:22 a little difficult to implement, no?

    1. tim

      Thank God!

  2. Chris Haven

    What would you say about daniel’s prophecies (statue, beasts, 70 weeks)? Even if we reject a futurist/dispensational reading (as I do) it seems Daniel is predicting future events for the purpose of encouraging God’s people through the tribulations of the intertestamental period. Perhaps you would not “count” Daniel since he is in the writings section of the Hebrew Bible? Curious your thoughts.

    1. tim

      Yes, I think Daniel is different from the prophetic books, one of the ways it is different is the interest in prediction. The traditional way to name the difference is to classify Daniel as “apocalyptic”. OTOH since there are apocalyptic elements present in some of the prophetic books perhaps it is useful to think of it as late prophetic. Either way I don’t see Daniel as typical of the prophets.

      If I were arguing positively (for what I think) above, instead of negatively (complaining about what Motyer wrote, I would say that prediction is not the main concern of the prophets, indeed they seldom predict. Warning is one of their major concerns. But it, along with encouragement, both serve their purpose which is by communicating God’s view of things to change the behaviour of the people of God.

      So e.g. the concern for prediction in Is 41:21ff. is not aimed at the Babylonian idol worshipers, but at Judeans who need encouraging to remember that God is in control (even though it does not seem like it). Cyrus is the proof of this.