The Bible is filled with prophecy, and much of it is for the end time. Many Christians look into the prophecies of the Bible, and especially the books of Daniel and Revelation, trying to figure out exactly what will occur next on the world scene and when.
To better understand prophecy, and especially to understand whether prophecies can fail, we first must understand why God gives prophecies.
Why prophecies of punishment?
What is God's purpose in prophecy? Is He eager to exact punishment?
"'Repent, and turn from all your transgressions, so that iniquity will not be your ruin. Cast away from you all the transgressions which you have committed, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit. For why should you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of one who dies,' says the Lord God. 'Therefore turn and live!'" (Ezekiel 18:30-32).
Prophecies that seem to fail
Fulfilled prophecy is a proof of God and the Bible, and the Bible warns about false prophets. Strangely, though, God is not upset when one of His prophecies doesn't come about exactly as He first stated it. In fact, God gives us an example of a prophet who was upset when his prophecy seemed to fail. God tried to help him see the bigger picture.
When Jonah finally went to Nineveh—a brutal enemy of Jonah's people—he reluctantly warned them, "Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!" (Jonah 3:4).
Then an all-too-rare event occurred. The pagan people of Nineveh believed the God of Israel. The king proclaimed, "But let every man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and cry mightily to God; yes, let every one turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. Who can tell if God will turn and relent, and turn away from His fierce anger, so that we may not perish?" (Jonah 3:8-9).
"God relented from the disaster that He had said He would bring upon them, and He did not do it" (Jonah 3:10). This displeased Jonah, but not God. God wanted Jonah—and us—to see things as He sees them. Many prophecies are conditional—God wants us to repent so He can relent of the prophesied punishment.
What did Paul mean, "Whether there are prophecies, they will fail"?
In the famous "Love chapter" the apostle Paul wrote: "Love never fails. But whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away" (1 Corinthians 13:8-10).
The main point here is that love is eternal and that prophecies and other gifts are only temporary. Even those prophecies that do come to pass are temporary, because once they come to pass, they become history. However, showing love and exercising vigilance ("watching" ourselves) can result in eternal benefits and protection from the tragic events at the end of the age (Luke 21:36).
The word fail can be misunderstood in this passage. The word fail has a narrower meaning now than it did when the King James Version was written, and unfortunately the New King James Version retained that reading. A better modern translation is, "Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end" (1 Corinthians 13:8, New Revised Standard Version).
Also, when considering whether prophecies fail, it's important to note that there is a big difference between the actual prophecies given in the Bible and the human interpretations and predictions that are based on applying those prophecies to world events. God's Word is sure, but we must not think that our specific interpretation is the only way a prophecy can be fulfilled. Far too many students of prophecy have fallen into that trap.
Good news: prophecies that will come to pass
When we point out sins and the prophesied punishment they will bring, we pray and hope these prophecies won't have to come to pass. But we know the overall framework of prophecy will come to pass. And that is good news! The end of all the prophecies tells of Jesus Christ's return and the establishment of the peaceful and prosperous Kingdom of God.
Read more about the wonderful world beyond today's troubles in the last couple of chapters of our booklet You Can Understand Bible Prophecy: "The Millennial Reign of Jesus Christ" and "Beyond the Millennium." You need this encouraging good news!