A Prophet Is Not a Predictor of the Future

Common to the thinking both in the ancient world and in the Old Testament is the understanding that a prophet serves as the spokesperson for the deity.1 On the surface this not only sounds indisputable but would seem transparent to anyone. Nevertheless, many Bible readers think that prophecy has a more expansive purview. They consider prophets to be individuals who foretell what is to come, predicting the shape of future events. The first job, then, in this section is to qualify that idea with important nuances and perspectives.

I contend that we make a serious mistake when we think of prophecy as prediction. This is true, first, because prophecy does not just deal with the future. Instead, analysis shows that prophets offered God’s messages concerning the past and the present as much or more than they spoke about the future. Second, they were engaged not in telling the future but in revealing God’s plans and purposes (offering a viewpoint that at times extended into the future).2The difference can be appreciated by considering the example of a course syllabus.

When I hand out my course syllabus on the first day of class, I have given the students very specific information about the future. For example, I might indicate that on March 16 we will talk about Isaiah. Despite that specificity, when I do so, I am not engaging in prediction; I am announcing my plan. The odds are good that I will indeed talk about Isaiah on the stated day, but that is because I have developed a plan, am committed to my plan, and am generally in control of my plan.

The idea of the syllabus is not to tell students the future but to help them participate in the course, follow my plan, and hopefully succeed in the course by doing so. Telling the future is not involved, and my syllabus cannot possibly be described as prediction because I am in control of the results. For prediction to be a suitable description, I would have to have no role in causation. That is, if I can make something happen, then it would be inaccurate to say that I predicted it.

When we extend this distinction to prophecy, we can immediately see that prediction would be an unusable word. The prophet could not be said to predict because he is only passing on God’s words—it is not the prophet’s idea. Moreover, nothing that God says could legitimately be labeled prediction because God is always involved in causation. God is acting and consequently cannot be said to predict. As an example, in Daniel 11, the text is not predicting the history of the Hellenistic period. The events listed there are being read out of the Book of Truth (Dan 10:21), which contains the decrees of God. God decrees the course of history; he does not predict the future.

Another important distinction to be considered is that which exists between telling the future and forecasting future developments. In 2017 Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, spoke at Georgetown University. He said that sometime in the coming administration the world would face a serious pandemic—a “surprise outbreak.” In 2020, three years later, the world was locked down by the COVID-19 virus. Did he know the future? No, he was working with trends, data, and astute, informed observations. Was he a prophet? We cannot rule out the possibility that he was inadvertently serving as a mouthpiece for God, yet he was unaware of it and did not introduce his message with “thus says the Lord.” Nevertheless, prophecies can be uttered without the speaker knowing that that is what they are (Caiaphas in Jn 11:4951). I am not suggesting that Fauci’s words should be considered technically prophetic. Rather, this serves as an example of how an insightful forecaster working with data can anticipate a future scenario.

As another example, in 2019 I was speaking with someone knowledgeable in economics, and they stated with conviction that the stock market was due for a major adjustment. March 2020 saw the NYSE lose 30 percent of its value. There is nothing mystical about these examples, and they do not depend on divine revelation or the work of the Spirit. They reflect accurate assessments based on trends, data, and observation. Nevertheless, examples like these prompt us to ask how much of what the prophets said involved these same sorts of observations and assessments. Couldn’t any spiritually aware person look at Israel’s unfaithfulness, factor in the covenant curses, observe the threat posed by the Babylonians, and become confident of what the future held?

Perhaps they could, but the prophets claim more, and the people credited them with more than just astute human discernment. Though God’s revelation to the prophets (and to all those involved in producing Scripture) gave full play to human agency (individual perspectives on events and their own particular style of speaking or writing), prophets claimed a divine prompting, a divine endorsement for what they communicated employing their own agency. They were believed to speak in the Spirit, and that is how they understood their role and how their contemporaries perceived them.

Even when the future that they unfolded could have been derived from and supported by trends, data, and observation, they appealed to an authority outside themselves. Modern forecasters can only appeal to the logic of their data, not to an authority, and several forecasters with the same data can project different future scenarios. The prophets offered a bona fide message from God. That is, prophecy reflected a spectrum of agency, human and divine working in tandem in often undecipherable and undetectable ways to produce divine communication in human garb. These prophets made the radical claim of participating with the Spirit.

The role of the true prophet was to see through divine eyes and speak with a divine voice. The very fact that the exercise of the gift required validation demonstrates that the audience could not consistently verify that there was divine agency from simply listening. At one level, the results would be proof. But the intention of prophecy was not just to prove a particular future outcome; it was to lead the people to repentance and renewed faithfulness. That should have happened out of conviction rather than waiting for the actual future to unfold.

Consequently, even as we accept the premise that they received their message from God, we should nevertheless recognize that their messages often look more like forecasting than like the pronouncements of an entranced fortuneteller. At the same time, even though we can identify more of the forecaster in the prophets’ role, we are not therefore reducing the prophets to insightful cultural commentators—they speak a word from God. Yet, those words are not random factoids about the future. They logically connect to the covenant and to historical circumstances of the Israelites.

Taken from The Lost World of the Prophets by John H. Walton. Copyright (c) 2024 by John H. Walton. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press. www.ivpress.com