God promised Abraham’s descendants the land of Canaan forever (Gen 13:15), yet from time to time they have been denied it. Jeremiah declared that Nebuchadnezzar would render Hazor an uninhabited desolation forever (Jer 49:30-33), yet by the second century B.C.E it was once again a centre of population1. The Hebrew Bible contains a number of similarly absolute divine declarations that did not have the eternal consequences they imply, or so it appears. Sometimes these absolute promises are even apparently incompatible, as when Isaiah declared that Israel, having been saved with an everlasting salvation, would be free from shame forever (Isa 45:17), yet Jeremiah promised her everlasting humiliation (Jer 23:38-40). Similarly, Isaiah declared that Zion (and Edom) would become a wilderness forever, the cities and palaces of Judah forsaken and left to thorns and flocks (Isa 32:1-20). However, then he promised that the Spirit would move to restore the wilderness (Isa 32:14-15) and the redeemed would rebuild the ancient ruins (Isa 58:12) so that forsaken and deserted Zion would become a pride forever.
There are three principal reasons for such apparent prophetic inconsistency. The first is the latitude in the Hebrew word used to express the concept of forever, `olam. The coastlines act as a boundary for the sea forever (Jer 5:22), yet we know that occasionally the sea floods. God claims, through Isaiah, to have remained silent forever (Isa 42:14) and yet that is not the picture the bible portrays. This word can certainly mean eternal, as in ‘the eternal God’ (Gen 21:33)2, yet neither it, nor its Greek equivalent, means exclusively that. The ideas of an extreme point in time or a protracted period better convey the general sense of the word. As the only Hebrew tenses, perfect and imperfect, do not equate to past or future, whether that time / period had already gone (as at Isa 46:9) or had yet to come is determined by their setting3. Thus, questions such as whether Isaiah proclaims an eternally valid salvation or an ancient form of salvation (Isa 45:17), and whether the psalmist recalls ancient judgements or everlasting judgements (Ps 119:52) have to be weighed in the context of the passage. Of course, the two meanings are not necessarily mutually exclusive.
The second source of unfulfilled prophecies is inherent in those that are judgemental in nature. The great I Am judges as is. Therefore, when God renders judgement, as when Jonah assured the Ninevites, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (Jonah 3:3-4), the words portray a future outcome that is certain at the moment of judgement. Had Nineveh done nothing then the city would have fallen. However, that future was not unalterable. Flexibility existed, but only in accord with God’s will. Hence, the prophetic promise of eternal destruction was only ever as certain as a nations unwillingness to repent. Prophetic judgements are context specific, change the circumstances enough, e.g. by repentance, and the judgement may no longer apply. This context specificity has a significant side effect, for it means that a judgement rendered in the past is likely to apply to any similar circumstances that occur in the future, whether or not it originally took effect. Hence, whilst everything else might change, the word of God persists (Isa 40:6-8).
The third source of apparent prophetic inconsistency concerns the nature of a new creation (see Chapter 21). At times of new creation the regular progression of days and Sabbaths that marked the passage of time ceased to exist. The calendar, at least as Israel understood it, ended and started again with day one. Thus the history, or perhaps histories is more appropriate, of Israel comprise a series of epochs, each bound by its own new creation and last days. Faced with an absolute sentence of death the nation would die, to be born again as a new creation. In each such epoch, the last days rendered the old void and made all things new. The eternal word of God transcended the process and God’s judgements still stood, but many of them lost their power with the end-time death of the objects to which they applied. Thus, the city over which God proclaimed ‘you will be a ruin forever’ would remain so until the end of time. However, once time started again, then a new city could legitimately be built, not as a re-build of the old, but as a new creation.
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1 A. F. Rainey, “Hazor,” ISBE, 2:636-638.
2 Allan MacRae, “1631a ?????? (?ôl?m),” TWOT, 672-73; “6409 ??????”, DBL
3 Samuel R. Driver, A Treatise on the Use of the Tenses in Hebrew, (3rd ed. revised and ed.; Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1892), 2-4.