Sunday, October 12, 2014

Do ALL Positive Prophecies have to come true? The Perspectives of Jeremiah Chapter 18 and Chapter 28

The Book of Jeremiah appears to present two distinct perspectives on positive prophecies.

In the vision of the Clay in the Hands of the Potter from Chapter 18 which I have discussed at length here and here, Jeremiah appears to say that ALL prophecies are conditional.

7One instant I may speak concerning a nation and concerning a kingdom, to uproot and to demolish and to destroy.ז. רֶגַע אֲדַבֵּר עַל גּוֹי וְעַל מַמְלָכָה לִנְתוֹשׁ וְלִנְתוֹץ וּלְהַאֲבִיד:
8And when that nation repents of its evil for which I spoke concerning it, I will repent of the evil that I thought to do to it.ח. וְשָׁב הַגּוֹי הַהוּא מֵרָעָתוֹ אֲשֶׁר דִּבַּרְתִּי עָלָיו וְנִחַמְתִּי עַל הָרָעָה אֲשֶׁר חָשַׁבְתִּי לַעֲשׂוֹת לוֹ:
9And at one instant I may speak concerning a nation and concerning a kingdom, to build and to plant,ט. וְרֶגַע אֲדַבֵּר עַל גּוֹי וְעַל מַמְלָכָה לִבְנוֹת וְלִנְטוֹעַ:
10And it will do what is evil in My eyes, not to hearken to My voice, I will repent of the good I said to benefit it.י. וְעָשָׂה הָרַע בְּעֵינַי לְבִלְתִּי שְׁמֹעַ בְּקוֹלִי וְנִחַמְתִּי עַל הַטּוֹבָה אֲשֶׁר אָמַרְתִּי לְהֵיטִיב אוֹתוֹ:
(Source Chabad.org)

G-d states that he will repent, or more literally "change" so to speak, from both an evil prediction and an good prediction based on the people's actions. This is the approach of both Malbim and Shadal.



Shadal states that G-d can decree something good on the nation and if the nation goes back, transforming her ways from the [the good] way it was before [to evil ways], then G-d will transform his positive decree, completely changing the situation of the nation [for the bad].

Malbim is a bit more hopeful, emphasizing the fact that any act of destruction on G-d's part is really a positive act to ultimately improve the person.

גם השבירה הוא כדי לתקן ולהיטיב וזה רמז במה שאמר להיטיב אותו שהיה לו לומר להיטיב לו, שרצה לומר בכונת הנמשל שמתנחם על הטובה ותכלית ההתנחמות הוא כדי להיטיב את האיש ולהחזירו למוטב.

However, fundamentally the Malbim still agrees that G-d will "change his mind" about doing the good that was originally planned for the people since the people have changed for the bad.

The Radak interprets the verses quite differently in a way that I believe is not the simple pshat.

לבנות ולנטוע -פירש וכן עשיתי שבניתים ונטעתים ואחר כך עשה הרע ונחמתי והוצרכנו לפירוש הזה, לפי שצריך להפריש בין שתי המדות האלה, כי הרעה לא תחול אם יעשו תשובה, אבל הטובה תחול על כל פנים, כיון שיעדה האל אבל לא תעמוד אם יעשו הרעה, כמו שאמר ירמיהו לחנניה בן עזור ויש רמז בענין הזה, כי ברעה אמר:

According to the Radak, G-d must perform the positive prophecy even if the people have changed for the bad. The good prophecy might be short-lived in such a case but it will occur nevertheless. The reason for this, the Radak states is the existence of a second perspective on prophecy later in the Book of Jeremiah, the showdown between Jeremiah the Prophet and Hananiah the son of Azzur the prophet in Chapter 28.

1And it came to pass in that year, in the beginning of the reign of Zedekiah king of Judah, in the fourth year in the fifth month, Hananiah the son of Azzur, the prophet who was from Gibeon, said to me in the house of the Lord before the eyes of the priests and all the people, saying:א. וַיְהִי | בַּשָּׁנָה הַהִיא בְּרֵאשִׁית מַמְלֶכֶת צִדְקִיָּה מֶלֶךְ יְהוּדָה בַּשָּׁנָה הָרְבִעִית בַּחֹדֶשׁ הַחֲמִישִׁי אָמַר אֵלַי חֲנַנְיָה בֶן עַזּוּר הַנָּבִיא אֲשֶׁר מִגִּבְעוֹן בְּבֵית יְהֹוָה לְעֵינֵי הַכֹּהֲנִים וְכָל הָעָם לֵאמֹר:
2So said the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel, saying: I have broken the yoke of the king of Babylon.ב. כֹּה אָמַר יְהֹוָה צְבָאוֹת אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לֵאמֹר שָׁבַרְתִּי אֶת עֹל מֶלֶךְ בָּבֶל:
3In another two years, I will restore to this place all the vessels of the house of the Lord, that Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon has taken from this place and brought to Babylon.ג. בְּעוֹד | שְׁנָתַיִם יָמִים אֲנִי מֵשִׁיב אֶל הַמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה אֶת כָּל כְּלֵי בֵּית יְהֹוָה אֲשֶׁר לָקַח נְבוּכַדְנֶאצַּר מֶלֶךְ בָּבֶל מִן הַמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה וַיְבִיאֵם בָּבֶל:
4And Jeconiah the son of Jehoiakim the king of Judah and all the exile of Judah coming to Babylon, I will restore to this place, says the Lord, for I will break the yoke of the king of Babylon.ד. וְאֶת יְכָנְיָה בֶן יְהוֹיָקִים מֶלֶךְ יְהוּדָה וְאֶת כָּל גָּלוּת יְהוּדָה הַבָּאִים בָּבֶלָה אֲנִי מֵשִׁיב אֶל הַמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה נְאֻם יְהֹוָה כִּי אֶשְׁבֹּר אֶת עֹל מֶלֶךְ בָּבֶל:
5And Jeremiah the prophet said to Hananiah the prophet before the eyes of the priests and before the eyes of all the people standing in the house of the Lord.ה. וַיֹּאמֶר יִרְמְיָה הַנָּבִיא אֶל חֲנַנְיָה הַנָּבִיא לְעֵינֵי הַכֹּהֲנִים וּלְעֵינֵי כָל הָעָם הָעֹמְדִים בְּבֵית יְהֹוָה:
6And Jeremiah the prophet said, "Amen! So may the Lord do. May the Lord fulfill your words that you have prophesied, to return the vessels of the house of the Lord and all the exile from Babylon to this place.ו. וַיֹּאמֶר יִרְמְיָה הַנָּבִיא אָמֵן כֵּן יַעֲשֶׂה יְהֹוָה יָקֵם יְהֹוָה אֶת דְּבָרֶיךָ אֲשֶׁר נִבֵּאתָ לְהָשִׁיב כְּלֵי בֵית יְהֹוָה וְכָל הַגּוֹלָה מִבָּבֶל אֶל הַמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה:
7But, hearken now to this thing that I speak in your ears and in the ears of all the people.ז. אַךְ שְׁמַע נָא הַדָּבָר הַזֶּה אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי דֹּבֵר בְּאָזְנֶיךָ וּבְאָזְנֵי כָּל הָעָם:
8The prophets who were before me and before you of old, and prophesied concerning many lands and great kingdoms for war and for evil and for pestilenceח. הַנְּבִיאִים אֲשֶׁר הָיוּ לְפָנַי וּלְפָנֶיךָ מִן הָעוֹלָם וַיִּנָּבְאוּ אֶל אֲרָצוֹת רַבּוֹת וְעַל מַמְלָכוֹת גְּדֹלוֹת לְמִלְחָמָה וּלְרָעָה וּלְדָבֶר:
9The prophet who would prophesy for peace, when the word of the prophet would come, the prophet whom the Lord had truly sent would be known.ט. הַנָּבִיא אֲשֶׁר יִנָּבֵא לְשָׁלוֹם בְּבֹא דְּבַר הַנָּבִיא יִוָּדַע הַנָּבִיא אֲשֶׁר שְׁלָחוֹ יְהֹוָה בֶּאֱמֶת
(Source Chabad.org)

In this story, Hananiah, who is described throughout as "the prophet" just like Jeremiah, challenges Jeremiah's predictions of doom and gloom. The setting is the time of King Zedekiah after King Jehoiakim has been killed and his son and heir to the throne, Jeconiah, has been deposed from the throne by Nebuchadnezzar and exiled to Babylon together with the Cheresh U'Masger, the upper echelon of Jewish thinkers and leaders. Nebuchadnezzar has installed Zedekiah, Jehoiakim's older brother as the puppet ruler, and Judah is itching for a rebellion to throw off the yoke of Babylon, return the exiles, and restore the glory of the Temple and monarchy. 

Jeremiah for years has been beseeching the people to submit to the yoke of Babylon, actually wearing a yoke around his neck. The prophet Hananiah brings a more positive message. The yoke of Babylon has been broken and in two short years the temple treasures will be returned and the rightful king, Jeconiah, will be restored. How does one distinguish between these two competing prophecies?

Jeremiah gives a clear, unequivocal response. He wishes Hananiah's prophecy would be proven true. And if it would, this would in no way, contradict Jeremiah's predictions of bad since a bad prophecy can in fact be overturned and change if the people change. But Hananiah's prophecy since it was a prophecy of peace, MUST come true. If it does not, then it is clear proof that Hananiah is an impostor, a false prophet.

The chapter ends with a definitive conclusion to the showdown.


15And Jeremiah the prophet said to Hananiah the prophet: The Lord did not send you, and you assured this people with a lie.טו. וַיֹּאמֶר יִרְמְיָה הַנָּבִיא אֶל חֲנַנְיָה הַנָּבִיא שְׁמַע נָא חֲנַנְיָה לֹא שְׁלָחֲךָ יְהֹוָה וְאַתָּה הִבְטַחְתָּ אֶת הָעָם הַזֶּה עַל שָׁקֶר:
16Therefore, so said the Lord: Behold I send you off the face of the earth; this year you shall die, for you have spoken perversion against the Lord.טז. לָכֵן כֹּה אָמַר יְהֹוָה הִנְנִי מְשַׁלֵּחֲךָ מֵעַל פְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה הַשָּׁנָה אַתָּה מֵת כִּי סָרָה דִבַּרְתָּ אֶל יְהֹוָה:
17And Hananiah the prophet died in that year, in the seventh month.יז. וַיָּמָת חֲנַנְיָה הַנָּבִיא בַּשָּׁנָה הַהִיא בַּחֹדֶשׁ הַשְּׁבִיעִי:
(Source Chabad.org)

Hananiah is proven to be a false prophet and less than a year after his prediction of a glorious return in two years time, Hananiah is dead.

It is for this reason, that the Radak felt it necessary to interpret chapter 18 in a way that is less than the simple understanding of the verses. Based on Chapter 28, it is clear that when referring to real prophets, good prophecies MUST come true. Bad prophecies are conditional on the behavior of the people who can always do Teshuva to transform their fate.

What of Shadal and Malbim who have already interpreted in Chapter 18 that even predictions for the good can be changed to evil based on the actions of the people?

Both Malbim and Shadal emphasize that the reason that the good prediction of Hananiah must come to true is in order to prove that he is a true prophet. It is not that ALL positive prophecies must come true. It is that a positive prophecy coming true precisely as predicted is the method utilized to PROVE the veracity of a true prophet.

The Malbim explains.

אך שמע נא וכו' הנביאים וכו' -הנה רוב הנביאים נבאו נבואת פורעניות, כי תכלית שליחת הנביא הוא להודיע את העם הרעה שעתידה לבא עליהם כדי שישובו בתשובה, ולבעבור זה היה ה' שולח נביא, אבל לא לבשר טובות העתידות לבא בזמן קרוב, שלמה יודיעם זאת על ידי נביא, ולא יצוייר שישלח את הנביא להודיע יעוד של טובה רק אם נצרך לזה כדי להחזיק את הנביא, שהנביא יוחזק לנביא אמת אם יתקיימו יעודיו אשר יעד, כמו שאמר: וכי תאמר בלבבך איכה נדע את הדבר אשר לא דברו ה', הדבר אשר ידבר הנביא בשם ה' ולא יהיה הדבר וכו' הוא הדבר אשר לא דברו ה', וזה דווקא אם נבא יעוד טוב, משאם כך ביעודים הרעים כשלא יבואו לא יכזב הנביא, כי יוכל להיות שישתנה הגזרה אם ישובו בתשובה...

הנביא אשר ינבא לשלום -
רצה לומר אם תראה שנביא ינבא לפעמים נבואה טובה, זה הוא רק על התכלית כדי שבבא דבר הנביא יודע הנביא, הוא לצורך הנביא עצמו להחזיק אותו לנביא אמת שיודע כי שלחו ה' באמת, רצה לומר ואם כן אתה שבאת לבשר בשורה טובה, אם שלחך ה' לזאת. על כן הוא כדי שבבוא הבשורה תודע לנביא אמת ואם כן צריך אתה להמתין עד שיהיה כדבריך כי אז יודע שאתה נביא, ועתה עדיין אין נבואתך מוחזקת.

The purpose of prophecy according to Malbim is not to predict the future but to shape the future. Therefore, true prophets rarely predict positive events. This is especially true of positive predictions that are for the near future. Prophets might bring positive messages for a distant messianic era. But they will rarely make a positive prediction with a short event horizon. This is because their job is to mostly focus on what the people are doing wrong that needs improving. It is like the rabbi giving a sermon in a shul. He will rarely say, "Guys, you are doing great!" This has little positive purpose. Rather, he will focus on areas of improvement.

Therefore a true prophet will really only make a positive prediction about a near term event to prove his veracity as a prophet. In addition, because of the possibility for Teshuva, a prophet can only be proven based on his positive prophecies. A negative prophecy that does not come true can always be attributed to the people's transformation and would not cast a doubt on the mission of the prophet.

It is for this reason that in the showdown with Hananiah, Jeremiah's response was to wait it out. Hananiah at that moment could neither be proven or disproven. But if his prophecy did not come true in the two year window he gave, then certainly he would be proven to be a false prophet.

Similarly, Shadal says based on Abravanel that the only reason that Hananiah's positive prophecy in this case MUST come true is because it he is contradicting negative predictions by many other verified prophets. When trying to determine who is the true prophet, a positive prophecy must come true.


Both Malbim and Shadal believe that the fundamental perspective on prophecy is that of Chapter 18. G-d is the potter molding the fate of his people. The job of the prophet is to assist in molding the people by giving long term prophecies, usually negative but sometimes positive in nature, that can help mold the people. Chapter 28 is talking either about the stage when the prophet is still being verified as a true prophet or when the prophet is challenging the prophecies of other established prophets who preceded him. To prove the prophet, his positive predictions MUST come true. But once he is established as a prophet this is no longer the case, since predicting the future is really not the prophet's primary job description. His job is to change the people.

Radak, on the other hand, believes that Chapter 28 is the fundamental source. All positive prophecies MUST come true. No exceptions. The actions of the people could minimize the duration or affect of the positive vision but the vision must occur nevertheless. This could be based on the idea which is stated in the Talmud Berachot 7a, that when G-d makes a prediction for good, it can never return empty handed. It is like a parent who promises his child a reward for good behavior. Even if the child then do something bad, he must follow through on his promised reward. He can then punish the child in a different way later, but to take back the promised reward could cause the child to lose faith in the truthfulness of the parent.

In my next post, I will focus on the opinions of Rambam and Ramban about the nature of positive prophecies. I welcome your constructive feedback in the comments to this posting.

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