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Regarding prophecy, the Zondervan Encyclopedia states:

Sometimes one feature of a prediction may involve a condition though the prediction as a whole is unconditional.

The conditional nature of a prophecy is not necessarily explicit. That is, there may be no "unless" or "if" in the original prophecy, no indication that the prophecy is avoidable or could potentially be delayed or altered.

A clear example of this is Elijah's prophecy regarding King Ahab.

1 Kings 21:19 reads:

Say to him, ‘This is what the LORD says: “Haven’t you committed murder and taken possession of the property of the deceased?”’ Then say to him, ‘This is what the LORD says: “In the spot where dogs licked up Naboth’s blood they will also lick up your blood – yes, yours!”’” (1 Kings 21:19 NET)

However, Ahab humbles himself, and thus it is proclaimed that the judgment will not fall on Ahab himself, but on his house later on. The prophecy is fulfilled when Jehu has the body of Ahab's second son thrown into Naboth's field (2 Kings 9:26). Thus the prophecy is fulfilled, although not on Ahab himself as originally predicted, but in its altered form.

I want to consider a second possible example: the destruction of Nineveh. Jonah prophesied that the city would be destroyed in 40 days, but God relented in view of the city's repentance. However, Nineveh was eventually destroyed as prophesied by Nahum.

Can Nineveh's destruction be viewed as a fulfillment of Jonah's prophecy, delayed or altered in some fashion by the response of the Ninevites? Or should the eventual destruction of Nineveh be seen as a fulfillment of Nahum's prophecy alone, and completely unrelated to Jonah's prophecy?

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  • "למה זה תשאל לשמי" - Witty name! I don't ask ... – user34445 Dec 27 '16 at 19:57
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Many questions about prophecy arise from a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of prophecy.

God is timeless. Prophecy is a timeless perspective about what is happening within time. Therefore, Prophecy's purpose is neither to be predictive (forward looking in time), nor to be historical (looking backward in time) being outside of time, but absolutely appears as both to observers within time.

Assuming readers are familiar with the principle of prophetic contingency laid down in [Jer 18:7-10], YHWH decrees:

If at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, and if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I intended to do to it. And if at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, and if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will relent of the good that I had intended to do to it.

This means that YHWH is not a cosmic dictator peering into time with respect to prophetic outcomes, but in His sovereignty chooses to consider the free will of man.

In [Jonah 3:4] decrees:

Jonah began to go into the city, going a day's journey. And he called out, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be הָפַךְ haphak H2015 (overthrown / turned from / transformed)!

Yet [Jonah 3:10] says:

When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it.

This shows a clear example of the principle of [Jer 18:7-10] at play. No disaster befell Nineveh within the 40 days but indeed the city was transformed in that period as Jonah said it would, because the people listened to Jonah and repented. The wicked rebellious city of Nineveh was replaced with a righteous city, except that this transformation occurred not because of disaster but because of repentance.

Interestingly, Nineveh eventually fell back into its wicked ways after the time of Jonah (and after the 40 days), and so ultimately did experience the disaster YHWH prophesied.

So in the end, both possible senses of the prophecy came to pass which suggests that even contingent prophecies come-to-pass in accordance with YHWH's will.

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Jonah 3:3 says Nineveh was an exceeding great city. This means that at the time of writing, the author already knew that the city was not destroyed. The solution is written at Jonah 4:11, where God retracts the prophecy, out of pity for the people of Nineveh:

Jonah 4:11: And should not I spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle?

Whether the final destruction of Nineveh was actually prophesied by Nahum or simply recorded by him, the destruction must not be regarded as a delayed fulfilment of Jonah's prophecy.

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