Prophecy and Prediction
Prophecy is a difficult topic in modern religious culture. It is not that the topic itself is so complicated, only that we bring so many preconceptions and assumptions to it. We are so used to hearing the term "prophecy" equated to "prediction of the future" in popular thinking and language that we assume this is what biblical prophecy is about.
The Bible itself seems to support this idea of prophecy, especially in the Gospels’ use of Old Testament prophetic passages to connect Jesus with God’s self-revelation throughout Israel’s history. Without much careful study, it is easy to assume that Matthew’s "fulfillment" passages, for example, are presenting a prediction-fulfillment relationship between Old Testament prophecy and the coming of Jesus (2:17, 23, 4:14, 13:14, etc., cf. Luke 4:21, John 19:36). Yet, more careful analysis of these passages reveals something else at work in the Gospels beyond simply connecting historical prediction with historical fulfillment (for an example, see Nazareth and the Branch). That suggests that we may be imposing our own assumptions and preconceptions about meaning onto the biblical text.
Early church tradition perpetuated this understanding in its use of the Old Testament. On the one hand, this was the way the early church preserved the Old Testament as Christian Scripture in the face of strong anti-Jewish polemic that even shows up in the New Testament (Galatians, for example). On the other hand, it established a precedent for dealing with Old Testament prophecy that still overshadows the study of biblical prophecy and makes it difficult to hear or understand many prophetic texts apart from the assumed prediction they contain (see Hearing Old Testament Advent Texts). This, combined with the popular notion of "prophets" as predictors of the future, exemplified in people like Jean Dixon or our fascination with Nostradamus, produces a modern notion of what biblical prophecy is that seriously misunderstands the role of prophets as religious leaders in the Old Testament.
An Old Testament prophet's role was not to predict the future. The prophet's primary role was to communicate the truth about God, to warn His people of their accountability to God and of the impending consequences of their actions whether positive or negative (for example, Jeremiah 35:15). The prophecy was not for the future but for the present. The prophets served to call the people to accountability to the covenant that they had made with God. Their primary role in Israel was to be "covenant mediators," to call the people to live out the torah, the covenantal provisions to which they had agreed at Sinai and had renewed under subsequent leaders (Josh 24, 1 Samuel 7, Neh 9, etc.). As God had covenanted with them to be their God, they had covenanted to be his people (Exodus 6:7, Deuteronomy 5:6, Jeremiah 7:23, etc.). In some way, all prophetic activity between Samuel and Malachi addressed that overarching concern as its primary focus. The prophets read historical events in light of the covenant, and interpreted those events in terms of the people's accountability to the covenant.
Prophets did speak of future events even in the category of "prediction." But that "prediction" was not done solely for its own sake and was not absolute prediction, as if what they said must of necessity unfold apart from any ability of God to respond to human decision (see God’s Foreknowledge, Predestination, and Human Freedom). And it was not generally for the far distant future, but for the immediately impending future that they could change by their actions or to which they could respond as people of God in their own present.
Prediction was a means to call the people to faithful response to God. Even when the prophets warn of judgment, that judgment was not absolutely decreed, as evidenced by the numerous calls to repentance scattered throughout prophetic judgment speeches.
Such calls to repentance would have little meaning if there were no possibility that the consequences of which the prophet warned could be averted. In the Book of Jeremiah, where the prophet was totally convinced that the people would not respond or change in any way (13:23, 17:1), Jeremiah still held out the hope that a future different than the one he sadly predicted could come (4:1-4):
4:1 If you return, O Israel, says the LORD, if you return to me, if you remove your abominations from my presence, and do not waver, 4:2 and if you swear, "As the LORD lives!" in truth, in justice, and in uprightness, then nations shall be blessed by him, and by him they shall boast. 4:3 For thus says the LORD to the people of Judah and to the inhabitants of Jerusalem: Break up your fallow ground, and do not sow among thorns. 4:4 Circumcise yourselves to the LORD, remove the foreskin of your hearts, O people of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem, or else my wrath will go forth like fire, and burn with no one to quench it, because of the evil of your doings.
There are even hints of different possibilities for the future in Amos, which contains the most unmitigated judgment speeches in the Old Testament (for example, Am 5:4).
5:4 For thus says the LORD to the house of Israel: Seek me and live;
Indeed, we have several specific examples of just such a scenario in prophetic books. A prophet warned of impending consequences of certain actions. The people responded to the prophetic preaching, repented, and turned to God. And as a result the course of history did not track according to what the prophet had forewarned. Two major examples of this are Micah’s prophecy of the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of the Assyrians (Micah 1, 3:12) and Jonah’s prediction of the destruction of Nineveh "in forty days" (Jonah 3:4). Neither event transpired, because in both cases the king and the people repented and turned to God and God "changed his mind" to avert the promised consequences.
That strongly demonstrates that the primary category for prophetic literature should not be "prediction of the future." A prophet was given insight (inspiration) into how God works in the world and what God’s people need to do to respond faithfully. That prophetic word to the people was itself part of the "response" to God’s self-revelation. However, the prophet then translated that understanding about God into the historical arena in which he lived, using the circumstances, language, metaphors, cultural allusions, poetry, nearly anything available to communicate that message (including some rather unusual actions, such as walking around naked and barefoot for 3 years, as in Isaiah 20:1-4).
All those things become the vehicle for the message. And the vehicle is not the same thing as the message. The heart of the prophetic message, then, is not the historical details that are the vehicle. The prophetic message is about God and the people's faithfulness, or unfaithfulness, to Him. The historical and cultural details are the vehicle, the medium, of the message. The historical aspects were not totally incidental to the message, because they were the arena in which the message was understood, proclaimed, and heard, even the cause for the message in many cases. But finally, the historical circumstances, even the predictions, were not the heart of the message and certainly not its purpose. The prophets spoke about God; that is, they spoke theology, cast in the circumstances of historical event. They read history in light of God's covenant with his people, and then translated the message about God back into the historical context in which the people were living (for an example of such "prophecy " that is not translated back into historical event, see the section on "apocalyptic eschatology" in Doomsday Prophets).
That leaves the possibility that sometimes the prophets got the details wrong when they translated the message about God and accountability into the historical arena. That does not suggest that the message of the prophets, what they understood about God, His work in the world, and how His people should respond to Him is ever "wrong" in Scripture! That is a function of inspiration and, I think, is the only way that "inerrant" can legitimately be applied to Scripture (which is how, for example, the Manual of the Church of the Nazarene uses the term, describing how Scripture functions).
But it does suggest that sometimes, when the prophets translated the message about God and the people's accountability to the covenant into specific historical predictions, they were wrong about the way they read history, and they were wrong about their specific predictions about future historical event. There is ample evidence of this in the biblical traditions (for example, see Ezekiel and the Oracle against Tyre). They could be wrong, both because the details were not the message and because history is not predetermined. History is contingent upon human decisions and how God responds to those human decisions. History moves in dynamic ways that cannot always be predicted (see God’s Foreknowledge, Predestination, and Human Freedom and The Problem of "Natural" Evil). At the same time we can affirm that certain courses of events lead to certain consequences. There is more than adequate biblical evidence to support this perspective, if we are willing to hear it beyond our assumptions and already formulated beliefs (see Criteria of False Prophets).