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The Failure of Prophecy

by Tom Stewart
May 1, 2003

"Charity [Greek, agape, love] never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail"
(1Corinthians 13:8).

The Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians of our sublime necessity of Love as the loftiest goal of the followers of the God Who Is Love (1John 4:8, 16). In no way did Paul intend to demean the value of prophecy, for he counseled the Romans, "Having then gifts differing according to the Grace that is given to us, whether prophecy, let us prophesy according to the proportion of Faith" (Romans 12:6). Following his exposition "concerning Spiritual Gifts" (1Corinthians 12:1), Paul advertised the greater excellence of Love. "But covet earnestly the best gifts: and yet shew I unto you a more excellent way" (12:31). After extolling Love-- the mainspring of motivation for the Saints-- he again reminded us that to prophesy, i.e., to forthtell or preach the Word of God and Its prophecies, still subordinates to Love in importance. "Now abideth Faith, Hope, Charity, these three; but the greatest of these is Charity" (13:13). The New Testament testifies that True Love is heartfelt obedience to God. "If ye Love Me, keep My Commandments" (John 14:15). And, equating True Love with obedience has always been the position of the Creator throughout the ages. "37 Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt Love the LORD thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. 38 This is the First and Great Commandment. 39 And the Second is like unto it, Thou shalt Love thy neighbour as thyself" (Matthew 22:37-39).

Why then would the Apostle Paul say,
"Whether there be prophecies, they shall fail" (1Corinthians 13:8)? In context, Paul was emphasizing the insufficiency of all things without the presence of Love. "1 Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not Charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. 2 And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all Mysteries, and all Knowledge; and though I have all Faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not Charity, I am nothing. 3 And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not Charity, it profiteth me nothing" (1Corinthians 13:1-3). Though it is monumentally important to "preach the Word" (2Timothy 4:2), our best effort at preaching the Word of God and Its prophecies pales in comparison to the sufficiency of the Love of God. "9 For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. 10 But when that which is Perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away" (1Corinthians 13:9-10). Surely, we are waiting for the Perfection that comes from the soon appearing of the LORD Jesus Christ at His Second Coming; but, even more immediate, the Love that God has always demanded His people to exercise is the Perfection that "never faileth" (13:8) and is the maturity of the Saints who understand the "First Principles of the Oracles of God" (Hebrews 5:12) and have "put away childish things" (1Corinthians 13:11).

Does Paul's statement,
"Whether there be prophecies, they shall fail" (1Corinthians 13:8), relieve a prophet or prophecy from the necessity of accuracy in fulfilment? "When a prophet speaketh in the Name of the LORD, if the thing follow not, nor come to pass, that is the thing which the LORD hath not spoken, but the prophet hath spoken it presumptuously" (Deuteronomy 18:22). A true prophet of God is always accurate as to the time and circumstances of the fulfilment of a prophecy, e.g., a prophesied judgment; however, a return to loving obedience seems to be the only exception that the Sovereign God has mercifully allowed in withholding the execution of a divinely prophesied judgment-- and, no recipient of that mercy would find reasonable objection to their unexpected stay of execution, as in the case of Nineveh. "4 And Jonah began to enter into the city a day's journey, and he cried, and said, Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown. 5 So the people of Nineveh believed God, and proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them even to the least of them. 6 For word came unto the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, and he laid his robe from him, and covered him with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. 7 And he caused it to be proclaimed and published through Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles, saying, Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste any thing: let them not feed, nor drink water: 8 but let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and cry mightily unto God: yea, let them turn every one from his evil way, and from the violence that is in their hands. 9 Who can tell if God will turn and repent [change His mind], and turn away from His fierce anger, that we perish not? 10 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. 1 But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was very angry. 2 And he prayed unto the LORD, and said, I pray Thee, O LORD, was not this my saying, when I was yet in my country? Therefore I fled before unto Tarshish: for I knew that Thou art a Gracious God, and Merciful, Slow To Anger, and of Great Kindness, and repentest Thee of the evil [the Judgement of Death]" (Jonah 3:4-10; 4:1-2).

If God is willing to set aside promised judgments when men repent of their sins, turn from their wicked ways, and return to the path of loving obedience, then all True Saints should pray for divinely sanctioned failures of prophesied judgments.
"7 At what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up, and to pull down, and to destroy it; 8 if that nation, against whom I have pronounced, turn from their evil, I will repent of the evil that I thought to do unto them" (Jeremiah 18:7-9). And, in the name of defending the credibility and integrity of the prophecies of God, we should never become so attached to our perception of their fulfilment that we would sulk like Jonah, should Nineveh repent. "14 Again, when I say unto the wicked, Thou shalt surely die; if he turn from his sin, and do that which is lawful and right; 15 if the wicked restore the pledge, give again that he had robbed, walk in the statutes of life, without committing iniquity; he shall surely live, he shall not die. 16 None of his sins that he hath committed shall be mentioned unto him: he hath done that which is lawful and right; he shall surely live" (Ezekiel 33:14-16). In other words, a prophesied judgment may mercifully fail, if there is a return to love by the condemned prisoner. "As I live, saith the LORD GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his way and live: turn ye, turn ye from your evil ways; for why will ye die, O house of Israel?" (33:11). Therefore, if a prophesied judgment has been truly authorized by God and it has actually failed, then the Almighty has sovereignly and mercifully withheld or forestalled the prophesied judgment due to the repentance and change of heart of the condemned. "And all the inhabitants of the Earth are reputed as nothing: and He doeth according to His Will in the Army of Heaven, and among the inhabitants of the Earth: and none can stay His hand, or say unto Him, What doest Thou?" (Daniel 4:35).

Remember, it is the Glory of God when He demonstrates mercy to His people.
"18 Who is a God like unto Thee, that pardoneth iniquity, and passeth by the transgression of the remnant of His heritage? He retaineth not His anger for ever, because He delighteth in mercy. 19 He will turn again, He will have Compassion upon us; He will subdue our iniquities; and Thou wilt cast all their sins into the depths of the sea" (Micah 7:18-19). If we would judge all prophecies in the Spirit of Love, we would rejoice in the failure of prophecy, if God would be glorified by the addition of souls to His Kingdom, the return of the wayward to loving obedience, and as long as it would accomplish the greatest good for the Kingdom of God. "And the Spirit and the bride say, Come. And let him that heareth say, Come. And let him that is athirst come. And whosoever will, let him take the Water Of Life freely" (Revelation 22:17).

Throughout the years, this writer has seen the failure of prophecy more than once, and has come to the understanding of rejoicing in the prolonging of the days of Mercy that have been sovereignly allowed by a Gracious God for the Salvation and Reclamation of souls for His Kingdom.
"4 What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it? 5 And when he hath found it, he layeth it on his shoulders, rejoicing. 6 And when he cometh home, he calleth together his friends and neighbours, saying unto them, Rejoice with me; for I have found my sheep which was lost" (Luke 15:4-6). And, rather than sulking in a bitterness of not receiving the result of an expected event or blanching in a mortification of what others would think of the writer's lack of spiritual discernment, he has found it more appropriate to rejoice. "Rejoice in the LORD alway: and again I say, Rejoice" (Philippians 4:4). In the end, we must stand alone before God. "Holding forth the Word of Life; that I may rejoice in the day of Christ, that I have not run in vain, neither laboured in vain" (2:16).

"10 And He saith unto me, Seal not the sayings of the prophecy of this Book: for the time is at hand. 11 He that is unjust, let him be unjust still: and he which is filthy, let him be filthy still: and he that is Righteous, let him be Righteous still: and he that is Holy, let him be Holy still. 12 And, behold, I come quickly; and My Reward is with Me, to give every man according as his work shall be" (Revelation 22:10-12).


[Please see our article, "How to Identify a False Prophet" ---New Window for additional background on evaluating prophets and prophecy. "For the Elect's Sake" ---New Window analyzes how time can be held still, turned back, or sped up with Joshua's Long Day, Hezekiah's Sundial, and the 4th Trumpet Judgment. (Think how that can affect the fulfillment of prophecy.) And, a Prophecy-Time Continuum is evaluated in our article, "In the Third Day: The Fulfillment of Bible Prophecy" ---New Window to see how "The Shoe Can Drop At Any Time," concerning the events surrounding the soon return of the LORD Jesus Christ. "If there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things" (Philippians 4:8).]

Tom Stewart

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