“will die.” It is a common Christian teaching that if a prophecy is given but does not come to pass, the one who gave the prophecy is a false prophet and, at least in Old Testament times, would have been put to death. That teaching is in error. We must remember that God is love, and prophecy is just one expression of that love. Therefore, many prophecies are actually warnings of what will happen in the future if things do not change, and if they do, then the prophecy will be changed or will simply not come to pass as spoken. Thus, many prophecies are conditional, and change if the conditions change. God says specifically in His Word that if He says something to a person, but the person changes, the outcome will be different from what He originally said (Ezek. 33:13-16). He says the same thing in Jeremiah about whole nations. If God speaks disaster to a nation, but it repents, He will not bring the disaster, and vice-versa (Jer. 18:7-11).
Samuel was not a false prophet when he told Saul he would be king over Israel (1 Sam. 10:1) and then circumstances changed and God took the kingship away (1 Sam. 13:14; 15:26). Nathan was a true prophet of God and prophesied that David would have peace in his kingdom (2 Sam. 7:11). But then David sinned by having Uriah killed and committing adultery with Bathsheba, so the prophecy changed, “Now, therefore, the sword will never depart from your house” (2 Sam. 12:10). Nathan also told Solomon that God would establish his kingdom (2 Sam. 7:12). But when Solomon turned from God that prophecy was nullified, and God said He would tear the kingdom away from Solomon (1 Kings 11:11).
Rehoboam, Solomon’s son, was not a godly person, and the prophet Shemaiah told Rehoboam that God would abandon him to Shishak, Pharaoh of Egypt (2 Chron. 12:5). But Rehoboam and the leaders of Judah repented, so God said that instead of destroying them, He would deliver them (2 Chron. 12:7). Isaiah was not a false prophet even though he told Hezekiah he would “die, and not live,” but Hezekiah prayed and humbled himself, and God gave him more years (2 Kings 20:1-6). Elijah was not a false prophet just because what he said to Ahab did not come to pass—circumstances changed when Ahab humbled himself before God (1 Kings 21:20-29).
Josiah was a godly king, so God sent Huldah the prophetess and told him he would be gathered to his grave in peace (2 Kings 22:20). But Josiah became proud and involved himself in a war he had no business being in, and was killed in the war (2 Chron. 35:23-24). His circumstances changed so the prophecy did not apply. Zedekiah was similar to Josiah in that he did some godly things, so God sent Jeremiah with the prophecy he would die peacefully (Jer. 34:5). But then Zedekiah gave into the pressure of ungodly men, and God pointed out that he and the leaders of Judah disobeyed Him (Jer. 34:17-21). Eventually, Zedekiah’s children were killed while he watched, then he was blinded and taken in chains to Babylon, where he died—hardly a “peaceful” death (Jer. 52:11). Jonah prophesied that Nineveh would be destroyed in 40 days, but the people of Nineveh repented and God did not bring the prophecy to pass. But Jonah was not a false prophet simply because what he said did not come to pass—everyone knew the circumstances changed (Jonah 3:4-10).
Also, it seems clear that prophets were not considered false prophets if they spoke the word that God gave them and it was about the time of the End and it did not come to pass. If that were the case, most of the “minor prophets,” John the Baptist, Paul, and others would be false prophets. God has the time of the End under his control, and He seems to keep putting it off. About 800 BC, Joel said the End was near; close at hand (Joel 1:15; 2:1; 3:14). More than 700 years before Christ, Isaiah said the End was near, in “a very short time,” and it draws near speedily (Isa. 13:6; 29:17-18; 51:3-6). Around 600 BC, Zephaniah said the End was near and coming quickly (Zeph. 1:7, 14, 15), and about that same time Ezekiel said the same thing (Ezek. 30:3). Obadiah (late 500’s BC?) said the end was near (Obad. 1:15), and Haggai, around 520 BC, said the End was “in a little while.” John the Baptist said it was near (Matt. 3:2). Paul said “the time is short,” the End is “almost here,” “near,” and “soon” (Rom. 13:12; 16:20; 1 Cor. 7:29; Phil. 4:5). James said the coming of the Lord was “near” and the Lord was “standing at the door” (James 5:8-9). Peter also said it was near (1 Pet. 4:7), and 1 John 2:18 says that “this is the last hour” (1 John 2:18). Hebrews says it is in a little while (Heb. 10:37), and Revelation says the End will happen soon and is near (Rev. 1:1, 3; 22:6, 20). It has now been thousands of years since those words were spoken, and people have tried many creative ways to make the “time problem” go away by saying things like, “Since the End for you is the day you die, it is always ‘near.’” But those explanations are not convincing because no one the prophets were speaking to thought the prophet said, “The Day of the Lord is near,” but meant, “You are going to die soon.” The biblical prophets were not “false prophets” because their prophecies about the time of the End did not come true. God, for His own reasons, kept pushing back the time of the End—He kept changing the circumstances. The point is that just because a prophecy does not come to pass does not mean the prophet was a false prophet; there are many reasons prophecies don’t come to pass.
Biblically, a false prophet is a person who gets information from a demonic source and/or leads people away from the true God, and the Old Testament said to put those people to death (Deut. 13:1-5). In fact, Deuteronomy clarifies what a false prophet is by specifically pointing out that even though the prophecy given by the false prophet comes to pass (which most people think would qualify him as a “true” prophet) the false prophet must be executed. Deuteronomy makes it very clear that simply giving a prophecy that comes to pass does not make someone a true prophet of God.
It is important to realize that false prophets are not “false” because what they say is wrong. They are “false” because they do not represent the “true” God. Balaam was a prophet who stood against God, yet everything the Bible records him prophesying was true (Numbers 22:1-24:25). The Devil knows the facts of a situation and is not shy about using his prophets to reveal it. The woman with the spirit of divination spoke the truth about Paul and his companions, which would make her a true prophet in some people’s eyes, but she was a false prophet and spoke via a demon, ultimately turning people away from Paul and the truth he presented (Acts 16:16).
Deuteronomy 18 contains a significant section about prophecy. Unfortunately, many translations add to the text to supposedly help clarify it, but what they add actually is not the truth of what God is trying to say. For example, the NIV84 says that a prophet who presumes to speak in God’s name things God did not command him to say “must be put to death.” However, the Hebrew text does not say he is to be “put to death,” the Hebrew text is much better translated as the KJV, NASB, Rotherham, and some other translations say it: “shall die.” The translation, “must be put to death” is not what the Hebrew text says, but rather is an assumption about what it means.
The words, “shall die” do not indicate the means of death. A study of the phrase reveals that sometimes it means, “shall be put to death,” as the NIV84 translators assume it means, but it can also mean, “shall die” in a purely factual sense. There are many examples showing the two ways this phrase can be translated. For instance, Deuteronomy 17:12; 22:25 and 24:7 are uses of the phrase when it clearly means “execute” or “put to death,” and 1 Samuel 2:34; 1 Kings 14:12 and Proverbs 15:10 and 19:16 are places where it simply means to die (every human “shall die,” so the obvious meaning is that the false prophet shall die before his natural time. There is, however, also the overtone of everlasting death, because false prophets will not be in the Resurrection of the Righteous). Since the phrase “shall die” is not conclusive, we must study the context and scope of Scripture to discover what meaning it has in any given verse.
Also, to determine what God says about prophets whose prophecies do not come to pass, we need to read the text carefully—especially because prior false teaching may have prejudiced our mind as to what the text says. Note carefully what Deuteronomy says to do when a prophecy does not come to pass: “If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the Lord does not take place or come true, that is a message the Lord has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously. Do not be afraid of him” (Deut. 18:22 NIV84). If a prophet speaks something that does not come to pass, the people should simply “not be afraid of him.” When we put verse 22 together with Deuteronomy 13:5 and 18:20, an interesting picture develops. If a prophet speaks to people with the intent of leading them away from God, he “must be put to death.” On the other hand, if a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord and the prophecy does not come to pass, perhaps it is conditional. How would the people know? In any case, the people should not be afraid of him and, if he is a false prophet, he “shall die.”
The Bible has examples of prophets who spoke prophecies that were not from God and who died. One is in the book of Jeremiah. Nebuchadnezzar’s army had attacked Judah and taken people and material goods back to Babylon. Jeremiah had foretold that the Babylonian captivity would last 70 years (Jer. 25:11-12). However, another prophet, Hananiah, challenged Jeremiah and said that the captivity would be two years or less (Jer. 28:3). How were the people going to know the truth? As it turned out, Hananiah died that year, while Jeremiah lived and his prophecy came to pass (Jer. 28:15-17).
Hananiah turned out to be the false prophet, and he died before the two-year time period ended. He died, fulfilling the words of Deuteronomy that he “shall die,” but he was not executed by the people. Eli and Amaziah were priests, but it can reasonably be assumed from the culture and their position that they prophesied at least occasionally, and both of them also died of unnatural causes without being executed (1 Sam. 4:18; Amos 7:17).
It is very important when considering this subject of true and false prophets to realize that the Bible does not have even one example of a prophet being executed when his prophecies did not come to pass. That, combined with the fact Deuteronomy does not require a prophet whose prophecy did not come to pass to be executed, is very strong evidence that just because a prophecy does not come to pass does not mean the prophet was a “false prophet” or should have been executed under Old Testament law.
On the other hand, the Bible does have examples of prophets who were put to death when they led the people to worship other gods. Elijah had the 450 prophets of Baal put to death, and Jehu had the prophets of Baal executed (1 Kings 18:40; 2 Kings 10:18-31).
It is worth mentioning that true prophets were sometimes executed or imprisoned because they challenged the political system of the time. John the Baptist was imprisoned and eventually executed for telling the truth to a king who did not want to hear it. Jeremiah foretold the destruction of Jerusalem and was imprisoned for speaking against the city (Jer. 26:11). Micaiah was imprisoned when he spoke against the king of Israel long before it was known whether what he said was right or wrong (1 Kings 22:27). Asa, king of Judah, threw Hanani the prophet in prison for reproving him (2 Chron. 16:7-10). Amaziah, king of Judah, threatened to kill a prophet if he did not stop his prophetic reproof (2 Chron. 25:15-16), and there were other leaders, such as Jezebel, who killed the prophets of God for political reasons of their own (1 Kings 18:13).
From the evidence in Scripture, it is wrong to conclude that if a prophecy does not come to pass, the prophet is a false prophet. True prophets can speak prophecies that do not come to pass for a number of reasons: because of the conditional nature of prophecy; because the people who receive the prophecy do not do what is required for it to be fulfilled; or because a prophecy sometimes focuses more on the “take home message” than specific details, so sometimes details do not work out exactly as the prophet stated (as in the prophecy of Agabus; Acts 21:10 versus Acts 22:22-24; 26:21).
In contrast, Scripture reveals that false prophets can give prophecies (and do signs and wonders) that are accurate and do come to pass. However, false prophets will ultimately lead people away from God and His written Word whether what they say comes to pass or not. Psychics and mediums do this consistently. They are “spiritual” people, but they are not spiritual in the godly sense of the word. They are in contact with demons, but usually they, and the people they advise, do not know it. This is just one more reason why each Christian needs a good understanding of the Bible. When we know the truth set forth in the Bible, we know when we are being led away from it. If we do not know it, we can ignorantly be led away from God and into sin.
The student of prophecy who understands the above information realizes the complexity of prophecy. Both false prophets and genuine prophets can speak prophecies that are factually correct and/or come to pass. Similarly, both false prophets and genuine prophets can speak prophecies that are not factually correct or do not come to pass. Therefore, looking at whether or not a prophecy comes to pass is not the ultimate test of a true prophet. It is an indicator, especially over time, but it is not conclusive. By having an understanding of how prophecy works, we will not fall into the trap of castigating or ostracizing a true prophet who had a prophecy not come to pass, or accepting into our Christian ranks a false prophet whose words have come true.