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MormanityThe Failed Prophecy Test: Not Tried and True, But a Tyred Old Argument
by Jeff Lindsay
A 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:
When 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.
This 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:
Prophecy 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.
As 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 Jeremiah 18:7-10.
Students 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.
God 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.
In 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.
Just 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).
The 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).
Nebuchadnezzar's 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.
The 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:
17 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 me, saying,
18 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:
19 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.
20 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.
Yes, 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.)
D.C. Pyle in email correspondence also commented on Ezekiel's prophecy of Tyre:
"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."
Of course, after it was left unconquered by the Babylonian armies, it eventually fell to the Greeks under Alexander and was destroyed by his armies.
But 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.
The 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.
To 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 problems.
One 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:
I 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.
Then 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.
Hmm, 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 Luke 2.
Here is the relevant passage from Clark’s commentary for Ezekiel 26 regarding Tyre:
Such 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.
And 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!
"Most 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.
You 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.
Let 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 Wikipedia’s article, “Tyre, Lebanaon.” Here are two photos of modern Tyre from that page:
Sorry, it’s more than a bare rock.
My 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 frequently struggle 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.
If 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.
As 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.
But 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.
Another 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).
Of 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.
Many 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.
Joseph 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 individuals, etc.
Several of these fulfilled prophecies are discussed in detail on my LDSFAQ page, prophecies that have been fulfilled. The prophetic nature of the Book of Mormon is also noteworthy. Even mundane passages such as the physical description of Nephi's journey through the Arabian peninsula 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 evidences supporting (but not absolutely “proving”) Joseph Smith as a prophet.
There 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 or uncertain.
However, 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.
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