In 2 Kings 3:18, Elisha prophesied that God would hand Moab over to the kings of Israel, Judah, and Edom. At the end of the chapter, however, it is made clear that this did not actually happen. Deuteronomy 18:21 implies Elisha was not speaking the words of God in this instance (even though he claims he was). Do you have any comments on this? -- Andy Ezeilo (London)
You are right: Deuteronomy 18 insists that the predictions of the true prophet will be fulfilled. Yet let us look more closely at the text. 2 Kings 3:24 reads, "And the Israelites invaded the land and slaughtered the Moabites." 3:25 shows that all the Edomite towns were destroyed except one. So the Lord did hand Moab over to Israel. 3:27 indicates that after the king of Moab sacrificed his firstborn son on the city wall, Israel withdrew. Finally, 2 Kings 8:22 shows the consequence of Israel not pressing the battle: Edom was in a continual state of rebellion against Judah.
Please consider another passage which I think will help you as you wrestle with this and other passages. 2 Kings 8:7-15 records a prophecy that could easily make even the most careful Bible reader do a double-take:
"Elisha went to Damascus, and Ben-Hadad king of Aram was ill. When the king was told, 'The man of God has come all the way up here,' he said to Hazael, 'Take a gift with you and go to meet the man of God. Consult the LORD through him; ask him, "Will I recover from this illness?'' ' Hazael went to meet Elisha, taking with him as a gift forty camel-loads of all the finest wares of Damascus. He went in and stood before him, and said, 'Your son Ben-Hadad king of Aram has sent me to ask, "Will I recover from this illness?" '
"Elisha answered, 'Go and say to him, "You will certainly recover"; but the LORD has revealed to me that he will in fact die.' He stared at him with a fixed gaze until Hazael felt ashamed. Then the man of God began to weep. 'Why is my Lord weeping?' asked Hazael. 'Because I know the harm you will do to the Israelites,' he answered. 'You will set fire to their fortified places, kill their young men with the sword, dash their little children to the ground, and rip open their pregnant women.'
"Hazael said, 'How could your servant, a mere dog, accomplish such a feat?' 'The LORD has shown me that you will become king of Aram,' answered Elisha. Then Hazael left Elisha and returned to his master. When Ben-Hadad asked, 'What did Elisha say to you?' Hazael replied, 'He told me that you would certainly recover.' But the next day he took a thick cloth, soaked it in water and spread it over the king's face, so that he died. Then Hazael succeeded him as king.' "
If this passage has been translated correctly, then the prophet is aware of two possible futures, and it is as though he is making two predictions: one that Ben-Hadad will live, another that he will die. The difference depended on the exercise of Hazael's free will -- which Elisha knew would be exercised to make himself king in Ben-Hadad's place.
You referred to Deuteronomy 18, the scripture specifying that a prophet is from God only if his prediction is fulfilled. This is true, but it is not the entire truth about God and prophecy. Please read Jeremiah 18:1-10. Here we see that, even though the Lord may have prophesied disaster, repentance in some cases can avert the disaster. (For an actual example of this, see Jonah 3-4. The prophet assumed there would be no repentance -- yet to his shock, and that of his fellow Israelites, the Ninevites repented!)
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