Prophecy in the Bible is one of the most misunderstood genres. It is popular to view prophecy as an exercise in predicting the future. People will try to decipher all of the hidden meanings in Daniel, Revelation, or some other book. But the purpose of Biblical prophecy was typically focused on transforming the original audience into who God wanted them to be.
Let's look at a few Bible stories to see how prophecy worked.
Jonah went to Nineveh and prophesied that God would destroy their city in forty days. The people of Nineveh responded by believing in God, fasting, and repenting. The story goes on to say, "When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it" (Jonah 3:10 ESV). God relented from his prophetic declaration to destroy the city because the people changed.
Or another story.
When the Israelites built the Golden Calf, God told Moses that He was going to unleash His wrath on the Israelites and consume them. Moses responded by pleading with the Lord: "Turn from your burning anger and relent from this disaster against your people"(Exodus 32:12 ESV). The story continues, "And the Lord relented from the disaster that he had spoken of bringing on his people"(Exodus 32:14 ESV). The Lord once again relented from a disaster that He declared He would bring about. This time, the punishment was averted by the prayers of a righteous man and not the repentance of the people, but there is no way to get around the prophetic declaration of the Lord did not happen.
And another story.
Jeremiah went to the rulers of the house of Judah at the beginning of the reign of Jehoiakim and gave a prophecy that actually showed them and shows us how prophecies from God actually work. There is an explicit condition stated in this prophesy unlike the unspoken condition we saw in the two previous stories. Jeremiah proclaimed to them, "Mend your ways and your deeds, and obey the voice of the Lord your God, and the Lord will relent of the disaster that he has pronounced against you" (Jeremiah 26:13 ESV). God overtly told them that He would not inflict the punishment that He pronounced on them if they would change, turn back to Him, and obey Him. They were not destined to the fate of the prophesied disaster of being conquered by Babylon. God followed His initial prophecy of punishment with a prophecy of hope.
This statement of hope is an unspoken idea that is contained within every prophecy of punishment. God always responds graciously to sincere repentance.
With this in mind, the way we view prophecy throughout Scripture should change. The purpose of prophecy is not for us to get hung up on the future predicting nature of prophecies. That exercise leads to massive speculation and fruitlessness. We need to focus on the life-changing nature of prophecies.
Jonah was sent to declare God's wrath on Nineveh so that they would repent and begin to follow God. Jeremiah did the same with the royal court of Judah; however, they did not repent and they were inflicted with the prophesied punishment. Both prophecies had a conditional nature to them. Prophecies need to be viewed as instructional messages from God.
We could say that God's prophecy of punishment on the Israelites at the time of the Golden Calf and the Ninevites during the time of Jonah were failed prophecies because the declared punishment didn't occur. But they were actually successful prophecies because they brought about repentance.
God's plan doesn't change, but the path to His plan adjusts based upon the faithfulness or faithlessness of people. Who will He use? Who will He punish? Will He relent His disaster? Will He unleash His blessings?
Which brings me to a question to ponder. Will I turn to God, be faithful, obey Him, and let Him use me to bring about His will?