The message God gave His people through the prophets was, “Return to Me.” Zechariah provides a good summary statement of the message of the prophets and how previous generations responded, when he pleads to the people of his day, “Be ye not as your fathers, unto whom the former prophets have cried, saying, Thus saith the LORD of hosts; Turn ye now from your evil ways, and from your evil doings: but they did not hear, nor hearken unto me, saith the LORD” (Zech. 1:4).
God had a message of impending judgment for backsliding Israel but often attached to it was a message of hope if only they word turn to Him. Because of this exception, there are some prophecies in the Bible that in a sense do not come to pass, or perhaps it would be better to say these prophecies had a conditional aspect based on the response of the people. God explains in Jeremiah 18:7-10:
At what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up, and to pull down, and to destroy it; If that nation, against whom I have pronounced, turn from their evil, I will repent of the evil that I thought to do unto them. And at what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to build and to plant it; If it do evil in my sight, that it obey not my voice, then I will repent of the good, wherewith I said I would benefit them.
This conditional aspect of prophecy was even true of Gentile nations. For instance, Jonah prophesied “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown” (Jonah 3:4); however, we know from Jonah 3:10 that Nineveh was not overthrown after forty days because God “saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God repented of the evil, that he had said that he would do unto them; and he did it not.” In fact, it was because Jonah, in his bad attitude, understood this principle of God’s merciful response to man’s repentance that he grew angry, saying to the Lord, “I knew that thou art a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repentest thee of the evil” (Jonah 4:2).
This conditional aspect of prophesied doom is also true of individuals. Elijah prophesied of Ahab’s doom in 1 Kings 21:21-22; however, “it came to pass, when Ahab heard those words, that he rent his clothes, and put sackcloth upon his flesh, and fasted, and lay in sackcloth, and went softly” (1 Kings 21:27). Because Ahab humbled himself before the Lord, the Lord postponed the determined evil so that it would be after Ahab’s days (1 Kings 21:28-29).
As a nation and as individuals, we too have prophecies of judgment hanging over us if we are not obeying the Lord, but if we turn to Him, the Lord may relent of the evil determined for us (Psa. 9:17). Like the nation of Nineveh or king Ahab we may postpone earthly punishment only for future generations to suffer it (the book of Nahum gives God’s punishment on Nineveh more than a century after Jonah’s preaching). The only way for us to avoid punishment is to turn to the Lord.
If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land. 2 Chronicles 7:14