When I was a Christian, one of the biggest reasons I had for believing the Bible was that it contained actual prophecy — or so I thought. I mean, if a book gave specific, detailed prophecies that no one could have guessed, and then they came true, wouldn’t that be good reason for believing that God may have had something to do with that book? How could a mere human accomplish such a thing? And it’s not just that the Bible sometimes got it right, it always got it right — or so I believed.
According to the Bible, a good test of whether or not someone is a true prophet is the accuracy of their prophecy. Makes sense, I suppose. Just as chefs are judged on the quality of their cooking, so prophets should be judged by the quality of their predictions. In the case of chefs, no one claims that God is required to make them great. But if you could show that someone was a true prophet, that would be fantastic evidence that God might be speaking through them. An unreliable prophet, on the other hand…:
when a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the Lord has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously. You need not be afraid of him.
— Deut 18:22
An inaccurate prophet is no prophet at all, in other words. He does not speak for God. This is a great litmus test for anyone claiming to have divine revelation. It was my belief that the Bible passed this test with flying colors… but does it?
When the Bible Gets It Right
When I was a Christian, one of prophecies that always stood out to me was that of King Josiah:
And behold, a man of God came out of Judah by the word of the Lord to Bethel. Jeroboam was standing by the altar to make offerings. And the man cried against the altar by the word of the Lord and said, “O altar, altar, thus says the Lord: ‘Behold, a son shall be born to the house of David, Josiah by name, and he shall sacrifice on you the priests of the high places who make offerings on you, and human bones shall be burned on you.'”
— 1 Kings 13:1-2
This is a very specific prophecy. While there’s no timeline given, the prophet says that someone in David’s line would be born who would use that altar to sacrifice false priests and that the man’s name would be Josiah. In 2 Kings 23, this prophecy comes true about 300 years later! This was a prophecy that always stuck in my mind as being too marvelous for any mere mortal to accurately predict — surely God had inspired that prophet!
But as it turns out, the 300 year time difference is misleading. 1 and 2 Kings are just two halves of the same book. The same authors that wrote or compiled 1 Kings 13 also wrote or compiled 2 Kings 23. Therefore, there’s no way to know if that prophet ever existed, much less that he actually gave a prophecy concerning a king who would come 300 years later. In other words, this doesn’t really count as evidence of a true prophecy. Maybe the event really happened, but since both the event and the fulfillment were recorded in the same book, there’s no good reason to take it at face value.
There are other examples we could look at as well, but I think the point comes across. Just because something at first blush appears to be an actual prophecy, it may not be upon closer examination. Still, while this might indicate that the case for the Bible’s inspiration isn’t as strong we first suspected, this would not have caused me to question its inspiration when I was a believer. I would have needed something bigger.
When the Bible Gets It Wrong
Jeremiah 33:17 says this:
“For thus says the Lord: David shall never lack a man to sit on the throne of the house of Israel”
When I was growing up, this prophecy was sometimes referred to as a prediction of Christ. Hebrews 1:8 says that the throne was preserved for Jesus, and Acts 2:29-31 says this:
“Brothers, I may say to you with confidence about the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. Being therefore a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would set one of his descendants on his throne, he foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption.”
So the literal kingdom of Judah is not what Jeremiah is talking about, according to these passages. Jeremiah was foretelling a time in which Jesus would sit on the throne of an eternal, spiritual kingdom as David’s descendant. But is that really what Jeremiah intended?
If you look at the following verse, Jeremiah 33:18, you see this:
“…and the Levitical priests shall never lack a man in my presence to offer burnt offerings, to burn grain offerings, and to make sacrifices forever.”
Can verse 17 still be taken figuratively in light of verse 18? According to books like Hebrews, Jesus became the new high priest forever when he was crucified and rose from the dead. So could that be the application of this particular prophecy? No. Jeremiah specifies that the priests would be Levitical — in other words, they would be of the tribe of Levi, which is the only tribe that was allowed to offer sacrifices. Jesus was not of that tribe. Hebrews gets around this problem by linking Jesus’ priesthood to the way God allowed priests before Moses was given the law — they were granted priesthood based on their caliber, not on their lineage. Hebrews refers to this as the “order of Melchizedek,” since Melchizedek was the most prominent person mentioned in the OT to have this honor. Refer to Hebrews 7 if you’d like more info on this.
It’s very difficult to take verse 18 figuratively, and when taken at face value it’s false. Levitical priests do not offer sacrifices today, and haven’t for a very long time. And since it’s hard to take verse 18 figuratively, it’s hard to take 17 figuratively as well. Once again, it fails as a prophecy because Israel is not a monarchy and there hasn’t been a Davidic king in over 2500 years.
When you’re an inerrantist, as I was, it’s hard to know what to do with this information. Do problems like this mean the entire Bible is wrong, or just that particular book? It turns out there are many more problems littered throughout the Bible. We’ll talk about one more in this post, but for more information, feel free to check out the links listed on the home page.
A very clear example is found in Matthew 2:14-15 where we’re told that when Joseph and Mary fled with the infant Jesus to Egypt, it was to fulfill a prophecy from Hosea 11:1, “out of Egypt I called my son.” However, when you read the passage in Hosea, it says this:
When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.
And from there, Hosea talks about Israel’s unfaithfulness to the Lord in serving after Baal, etc. Obviously, Hosea is talking about the nation of Israel, and there’s no reference at all to any future event, much less the Messiah. Matthew appropriated this text when he (apparently) created the story of Jesus’ family fleeing to Egypt. Matthew calls this a prophecy, but the original text is anything but. So many of the Bible’s prophecies fall apart in this way when researched.
While actual prophecy fulfillment would go a long way in supporting the notion that the Bible is inspired, in practice, it just doesn’t work out that way. Not only do the apparent prophecies get weaker upon inspection, but some of them are simply false. So if accurate prophecies should make us think the Bible is inspired, what should inaccurate prophecies make us think?