The Failed Prophecy Test: Not Tried and True, But a Tyred Old Argument
by Jeff Lindsay
favorite argument against Joseph Smith as a prophet is the “one
bad prophecy and you’re out” test allegedly found in
Deuteronomy 18:22. The KJV text for that verse reads:
a prophet speaketh in the name of the LORD, if the thing follow not,
nor come to pass, that is the thing which the LORD hath not spoken,
but the prophet hath spoken it presumptuously: thou shalt not be
afraid of him.
doesn't exactly say that one mistake makes a false prophet. James L.
Mays, editor of Harper's Bible
Commentary (San Francisco: Harper
and Row, 1988, p. 226), writes:
in the names of other gods is easily rejected, but false prophecy in
God's name is a more serious matter. This dilemma requires the
application of a pragmatic criterion that, although clearly useless
for judgments on individual oracles, is certainly a way to evaluate a
prophet's overall performance.
I explain on my
LDSFAQ page about prophets and prophecy,
the problem with applying Deut. 18:22 to a single, individual
prophecy is that some prophecies can be fulfilled in complex ways
that were not anticipated by the hearers. Moreover, God sometimes
appears to reverse certain prophecies, as He says He is free to do in
of the Bible should note, therefore, that when one chooses to use the
“one strike” rule as a club, it can bludgeon genuine
biblical prophets. Consider the story of Jonah, told by God to
prophesy to the people of Nineveh. Jonah prophesied that the people
would be destroyed in 40 days (Jonah 3:4) — no loopholes were
offered, just imminent doom.
changed things, however, when the people repented and He chose to
spare them —much to the chagrin of that imperfect (yet still
divinely called) prophet. Jonah, in fact, was "displeased ...
exceedingly" and "very angry" (Jonah 4:1) about this
change from God, perhaps because it made Jonah look bad.
spite of an "incorrect" prophecy and in spite of the
obvious shortcomings of Jonah, he was a prophet of God and the Book
of Jonah in the Bible is part of the Word of God. Yet if that text
had been lost, only to be restored by Joseph Smith, perhaps as part
of the Book of Mormon, it would be assaulted as the most damning
evidence against Joseph Smith.
imagine how the critics would dismiss the Book of Jonah as being
evil, contradictory, ludicrous, anti-Biblical, unscientific, and
unchristian (of course, there are plenty already who reject it as it
is, unable to believe major parts of the story).
prophet Ezekiel provides another example of how true prophets may err
or give prophecies of uncertain accuracy. In Ezekiel chapters 26, 27,
and 28, we read that Tyre (a fortified island city) would be
conquered, destroyed, and plundered by King Nebuchadnezzar of
Babylon. The riches of Tyre would go to Babylon (Ezek. 26:12).
army did lay siege to Tyre, and its inhabitants were afflicted,
apparently so much that they shaved their heads bald, as prophesied
in Ezek. 27:31. However, the 13-year Babylonian siege apparently was
not quite as successful as Ezekiel had predicted, perhaps because the
land-based tactics of Babylonian sieges were less effective against a
fortified island city with significant maritime power.
result of the siege may have been a compromise or treaty rather than
total destruction and plunder, for Ezekiel 29:17-20 reports that the
predicted plundering did not
take place. Almost as if in compensation, the Lord now announces that
He will give Egypt to the Babylonians, which is the theme of chapter
29. Here are verses 17-20:
And it came to pass in the seven and twentieth year, in the first
month, in the first day of the month, the word of the LORD came unto
Son of man, Nebuchadrezzar king of Babylon caused his army to serve a
great service against Tyrus: every head was made bald, and every
shoulder was peeled: yet had he no wages, nor his army, for Tyrus,
for the service that he had served against it:
Therefore thus saith the Lord GOD; Behold, I will give the land of
Egypt unto Nebuchadrezzar king of Babylon; and he shall take her
multitude, and take her spoil, and take her prey; and it shall be the
wages for his army.
I have given him the land of Egypt for his labour wherewith he served
against it, because they wrought for me, saith the Lord GOD.
Tyre was eventually destroyed, but its complete destruction
apparently did not occur during the Babylonian siege, and certainly
the Babylonian army did not get the riches of Tyre as has been
prophesied. It is Ezekiel himself who reports this "prophetic
failure." (The analysis above is derived from an article by
Daniel C. Peterson in Review
of Books on the Book of Mormon,
Vol. 7, No. 2, 1995, pp. 49-50.)
Pyle in email correspondence also commented on Ezekiel's prophecy of
course, my favorite part of the prophecy against Tyre is the part
found in Ezekiel 26:14 and 27:36, where the Lord states that Tyre
would "not be rebuilt" and "exist no more forever."
course, after it was left unconquered by the Babylonian armies, it
eventually fell to the Greeks under Alexander and was destroyed by
then, the city which was never to be rebuilt forever rose again to
wealth and power in 125 BCE! During the Roman period, the city rose
to even more prominence and had a Christian community living in the
mainland portion. Muslims reduced the city to ashes in 1291. It was
rebuilt again sometime after this. In 1983, it had an estimated
population of 23,000.
prophecy stated that the place would "be a bare rockface for
spreading nets and would never be rebuilt" but today, the place
has become a fairly important maritime center.
those who refuse to believe that Tyre still exists today, pictures
can be see at http://tyros.leb.net/tyre/index.html.
Note that there are many buildings ―
it has been rebuilt. A literal interpretation of Ezekiel's prophecy
coupled with a belief in Biblical inerrancy leads to obvious
of our Evangelical critics was aghast that I would suggest that
Ezekiel had an error in a prophecy. He attempted to refute my
arguments above with an appeal to a modern commentary which claims
Ezekiel nailed the prophecy and that Tyre no longer exists:
think that you are walking on dangerous ground when you say that
Ezekiel's prophecy about the utter destruction of Tyrus, or Tyre, was
not fulfilled (Ezekiel 26). Read from Clark's Commentary, a
work written by a good man of God.
please explain to me why Joseph Smith was not a false
prophet, in accordance with Deut. 13 and 18, when he prophesied that
the American Civil War would directly, or indirectly, affect
"ALL" the nations of the earth. Did it affect the
Kingdom of Siam, or Ethiopia, or hundreds of other nations? In
Ezekiel 26, the true prophet was very, very specific about what would
happen to Tyrus, and Tyre no longer exists.
here we have a nitpicking argument about Joseph Smith’s use of
the word “all” as if the Bible weren’t full of much
more questionable examples, like all the world going to be taxed in
is the relevant passage from Clark’s commentary for Ezekiel 26
is the prophecy concerning Tyre, comprehending both the city on the
continent and that on the island, and most punctually fulfilled in
regard to both. That on the continent was razed to the ground by
Nebuchadnezzar, b.c. 572, and that on the island by Alexander the
Great, b.c. 332.
at present, and for ages past, this ancient and renowned city, once
the emporium of the world, and by her great naval superiority the
center of a powerful monarchy, is literally what the prophet has
repeatedly foretold it should be, and what in his time was, humanly
speaking, so highly improbable ―
a Bare rock, a place to spread nets on!
punctually fulfilled”? Not exactly. And was Tyre made forever
“literally … a bare rock” in perfect, literal
fulfillment of Ezekiel’s prophecy? It’s an absurdly
ignorant blunder, yet in spite of the evidence I presented for Tyre’s
survival, a fabled Christian commentary trumps all evidence,
including the voices of Tyre’s many thousands of inhabitants.
are just a bare rock, now go away and don’t spoil my paradigm
of perfect ancient prophecy in an infallible book that eliminates all
need for dangerous modern prophets and prophecy.
me add some additional witnesses to Tyre’s ongoing existence.
Though as fallible as any prophet, Wikipedia
has a great deal of truth, and its article on Tyre includes photos
and abundant documentation to review. It certainly creates a
plausible case that Tyre has long been more than a bare rock. See
Here are two photos of modern Tyre from that page:
it’s more than a bare rock.
purpose in discussing the prophecies about Tyre is not to question
the truthfulness of the Bible. (I believe it is true, to the degree
it has been translated and preserved correctly, and that we must
to understand it properly, as we must with all scripture and all
prophecy. That also means we need to understand its potential
limitations.) My primary purpose in discussing Tyre is to point out
that an overly critical attitude and a strict application of Deut.
18:22 may reject even true, Biblical prophets.
we try hard enough to find reasons to reject a prophet, we will
surely succeed ―
but beware lest we judge unwisely and reject those whom God has sent
and anointed, even though they be mortal and fallible.
for Tyre never being rebuilt, I think it's fair to mention that
Hebrew writers used extreme words like "never" or "all"
or "forever" in a rather loose way. Tyre was "never"
to rebuilt and animal sacrifices were to continue "forever"
— but these expressions can best be understood as figures of
speech rather than absolutes.
if we're going to take the reasonable, thoughtful path of
understanding the Bible rather than looking for apparent flaws to
condemn it out of hand, we should extend the same courtesy to the
Book of Mormon and the words of modern prophets.
example to consider is the prophet Jeremiah ―
a great and inspired prophet ―
who prophesied that king Zedekiah would "die in peace"
(Jer. 34:4-5). Critics could argue that this prophecy did not prove
to be true, for Zedekiah saw his sons killed by the conquering
Babylonians and was himself blinded and put in prison, where he died
in captivity ―
not in peace (Jer. 52:10-11).
course, the point is that he would not be killed by the sword, but
die of natural causes ―
albeit in prison ―
yet to the critics, it may look like a case of a false prophecy. This
case is certainly less clear-cut than the prophecy of Ezekiel
discussed above, yet also serves to warn us against harsh judgments.
LDS critics attempt to condemn Joseph Smith using a standard that
would, if applied to Ezekiel, Jeremiah, and Jonah, also condemn the
Old Testament as a fraud.
Smith made some amazingly correct prophecies: predicting in 1832 that
a civil war would erupt, beginning in South Carolina, with Great
Britain to be involved; prophesying that tobacco is harmful to human
health and giving a dietary code with nutritional principles much
like the modern "food pyramid;" predicting his own
martyrdom; prophesying of the global success that the restored Church
would experience, with persecutions; predicting that the Saints would
become established in the Rockies; and predicting other important
events relative to Native Americans, the United States of America,
the Church, future calamities, many details related to specific
of these fulfilled prophecies are discussed in detail on my LDSFAQ
that have been fulfilled.
The prophetic nature of the Book
is also noteworthy. Even mundane passages such as the physical
description of Nephi's journey through the Arabian
serve as validated prophecies, in a sense, for none of the many
accurate details in the text could have been fabricated in 1830 based
on what was then known about Arabia, and the "direct hits"
(e.g., the place Bountiful and the burial site named Nahom) serve as
supporting (but not absolutely “proving”) Joseph Smith as
are statements Joseph made that appear problematic when evaluated as
prophecy. Some prophecies that are said to be false or incorrect by
critics are based on hearsay or unreliable sources or are based on
incorrect interpretations of what is said, but some are more complex
I think we can state that it is improper to claim that Deut. 18:22
rules out Joseph Smith as a prophet of God. Indeed, the excessive and
errant use of Deut. 19:22 is a tyred old argument, in my opinion —
one that finally needs to be retyred.
Jeff Lindsay has been defending the Church on the Internet since 1994, when he launched his
LDSFAQ website under JeffLindsay.com. He has also long been blogging about LDS matters on
the blog Mormanity (mormanity.blogspot.com). Jeff is a longtime resident of Appleton,
Wisconsin, who recently moved to Shanghai, China, with his wife, Kendra.
He works for an Asian corporation as head of intellectual property. Jeff and Kendra are the parents of 4 boys, 3 married and the the youngest on a mission.
He is a former innovation and IP consultant, a former professor, and former Corporate Patent
Strategist and Senior Research Fellow for a multinational corporation.
Jeff Lindsay, Cheryl Perkins and Mukund Karanjikar are authors of the book Conquering
Innovation Fatigue (John Wiley & Sons, 2009).
Jeff has a Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering from Brigham Young University and is a registered US
patent agent. He has more than 100 granted US patents and is author of numerous publications.
Jeff's hobbies include photography, amateur magic, writing, and Mandarin Chinese.