Was Jonah a False Prophet?
You have stated, based on Deuteronomy 18:20-22, that Jehovah’s Witnesses are false prophets because they claim, as an organization, to speak in God’s name and because they have on several occasions made date-specific predictions of events that have not come to pass. If that is all it takes to be labeled a false prophet, would we not have to consider Jonah to be a false prophet as well? After all, he made a specific prediction of the destruction of Nineveh in 40 days, and yet the destruction did not come to pass (Jonah 3:1-10). In what way is this different from what the Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses has done? Your position seems inconsistent.
It’s true that I have often made the statement that the organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses is a false prophet. It makes claims to the status of a prophet, as seen, for example in the April 1, 1972 Watchtower magazine, p. 197:
“So, does Jehovah have a prophet to help them, to warn them of dangers and to declare things to come?
IDENTIFYING THE “PROPHET”
These questions can be answered in the affirmative. Who is this prophet? … This “prophet” was not one man, but was a body of men and women. It was the small group of footstep followers of Jesus Christ, known at that time as International Bible Students. Today they are known as Jehovah’s Christian witnesses.”
The claim has also been made, in the book, Survival Into a New Earth (1984) p. 109:
“Jehovah had a work for them to do … He put his “words,” his message, into the mouth of his servants for them to proclaim earth wide.”
This statement from the Survival book uses biblical language that is used repeatedly to describe the means by which prophets of God, including the Messiah, would receive the messages they were to proclaim (Deuteronomy 18:18; Isaiah 51:16; Jeremiah 1:9).
These are only a few examples of such claims. Even more to the point, claims have occasionally been made regarding their failed dates stating that God was the source of the prediction. For example, the mastheads of every issue of Awake! magazine from 1988 through the October 22, 1995 issue contained the following statement:
“Most important, this magazine builds confidence in the Creator’s promise of a peaceful and secure new world before the generation that saw the events of 1914 passes away.”
So their prophecy of Armageddon arriving during the lifetimes of those who were alive in 1914 was presented, not as mere speculation or prophetic interpretation, but as the promise of the Creator Himself. In addition to that prophecy, statements were made regarding specific events to occur in 1914, 1918, 1925, within months of 1941, 1975, and within the 20th century. Some of these predictions were attributed to God as the source; none came to pass.
More examples of quotations from JW publications making such claims to prophetic authority, along with documentation of many failed predictions, can be found in the document, The Watchtower’s Record, which can be downloaded from the “Resources and Links” page of this website.
This evidence would certainly appear to brand Jehovah’s Witnesses as false prophets according to the Bible’s teaching at Deuteronomy 18:20-22, which says:
“But the prophet who presumes to speak a word in my name that I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that same prophet shall die.’ And if you say in your heart, ‘How may we know the word that the LORD has not spoken?’- when a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the LORD has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously. You need not be afraid of him.” (Quoted from the English Standard Version of the Bible)
When confronted with information of this sort, a fairly standard response by Jehovah’s Witnesses is to cite the case of Jonah. After all, Jonah spoke in the name of God, and he delivered a prophecy of Nineveh’s destruction, but the city was not destroyed. Since no Bible believer would call Jonah a false prophet, the JW believes that he has successfully washed away the application of Deuteronomy 18:20-22 by finding what appears to be a counter-example.
And that’s really the first problem with the argument. It’s a common tactic of JW argumentation to attempt to neutralize a text of Scripture that appears to contradict their doctrine by finding a counter-example to the application. There are several examples of such reasoning that I could cite, but they are off the topic of this question, so I will allow the case of Jonah to serve as an example of what I’m talking about.
In the process of normal interpretation of the Bible, we occasionally run into situations where one text appears in some way to contradict another text. In such cases, the task of the person who believes the Bible to be a revelation from God is to find out how the two texts actually harmonize - or at least do not contradict. Looking at the story of Jonah and the statements at Deuteronomy 18, we come to the text trying to understand how the two work together in a harmony, how we can understand one in light of the other while still preserving our understanding that God has revealed both and that He does not contradict Himself.
However, in speaking with JWs on this topic, it seems to me that their interest is simply in neutralizing the Deuteronomy text because it is inconvenient for them. They are, in effect, trying to wash away the clear meaning of the verses because if taken at face value, their organization does indeed fit the criterion laid out there for a false prophet. If, however, they can show that a biblical character that is clearly not a false prophet fits the same criterion, then the text is effectively neutralized with regard to their own false prophecies. They are then left to “pick up the pieces,” in effect, by coming up with an interpretation of the Deuteronomy text that fits their position, but in most conversations, this won’t even come up, since the topic at hand is that of the Watchtower’s false prophecies, not the specific meaning of Deuteronomy 18.
This is not a correct way of interpreting Scripture. Our aim in understanding biblical passages should never be to wash away the meaning of a text; rather it should be to understand it in harmony with the rest of the Bible. Clearly, Jonah was not a false prophet. God gave him a message and he delivered it faithfully (though reluctantly). That is what a true prophet does. The key to being labeled as a false prophet is, as Deuteronomy says, to be “the prophet who presumes to speak a word in my name that I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods.” Jonah did not do that. However, the means for detecting the word that the Lord has not spoken is also prescribed in the same passage of Deuteronomy: “when a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the LORD has not spoken.” At first blush, it does appear that this may be what happened in Jonah’s case - he predicted the destruction of Nineveh within 40 days, and Nineveh was not destroyed.
The answer lies in putting the two phrases together. The failure of a prediction is given as the indicator of the word that the Lord has not spoken, but in the case of Jonah, this indicator is not necessary - we are explicitly told in the text of Scripture that Jonah’s message did not originate with himself, but with God. It was God who told Jonah to proclaim that Nineveh would be destroyed in 40 days. Therefore, Jonah is, by definition, not a false prophet. He spoke the actual message given him by God. If we consider that message to be a failed prophecy, then we must attribute the failure to God, not to Jonah. Was God mistaken? Did He lie? These are not even remote possibilities, in either the mind of the Jehovah’s Witness or of the Bible-believing Christian. If God said it, then it was true. And yet Nineveh was not destroyed, as Jonah said it would be. How can this be?
The answer is found in a principle stated by God through the prophet Jeremiah, to be found at Jeremiah 18:7-10:
“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.” (ESV)
These statements were made in the context of God comparing Himself to a potter and Israel to the clay in the hand of the potter, and yet He does not confine these words to Israel only, but states the principle in a general way as relating to any nation or kingdom. And what He states is that if He declares the destruction of a kingdom, and the nation turns from evil, then He will spare that nation - exactly what happened in the case of Nineveh! This principle must be understood as implicit in any prediction of destruction against a nation or a people that God makes through His prophets. There is always an opportunity when God declares judgment to avoid that judgment through repentance. Really, if this were not the case, what point would there be in declaring the judgment in advance? Why send a prophet at all, if there was no possibility of escaping destruction?
So Jonah’s message of destruction against Nineveh did not fail. It was a true prophecy, given the terms under which God has plainly stated that such prophecies are made. The opportunity to repent was not explicitly stated by Jonah (or, possibly, was simply not recorded), but was still implied in the message because that is how God operates in such situations.
Now, what about the failed predictions that have been made by Jehovah’s Witnesses? I don’t think any Witness will seriously argue that God inspired the many failed dates that they have advanced. Rather, these will typically be attributed to misinterpretations made by the leaders of the organization made out of eagerness to see the full establishment of God’s Kingdom on earth. However, remember the claims they have made as to their own status, and even as to the specific dates predicted. These predictions have been couched in language such as “the Creator’s promise,” “Jehovah’s prophetic word,” and “God’s dates, not ours.” It seems clear that the JW leadership is presenting its own ideas and interpretations as originating with God, and that is exactly what Deuteronomy 18 presents as the essence of false prophecy: “the prophet who presumes to speak a word in my name that I have not commanded him to speak.”
Nor is the situation between Jonah’s prophecy and those of the JW organization truly comparable. The fact that destruction did not come to Nineveh can be attributed to their mass repentance. There has been no mass repentance as a result of the JW message. No nation, much less the majority of the world, has turned to God. Quite the contrary, the world has moved farther away from God in recent years. From the viewpoint of JW theology, the world has become ever more deserving of destruction.
For the Watchtower to appeal to the account of Jonah in order to justify their prophetic failures, they would have to demonstrate that there was a change in the world situation involving widespread repentance that justified God’s showing mercy. To my knowledge, they have never tried to make such a case. Nor could they do so very easily, since they have had numerous prophetic failures, and would have to explain each one. Further, their theology would allow for only one type of response that would correspond to the repentance of Nineveh, and that would be a vast majority of the world’s population becoming Jehovah’s Witnesses (since they could only turn to God through his organization). Obviously, that has not happened. Rather, the Watchtower has termed its prophetic failures as “mistakes.”
Jonah’s prophecy was not a mistake; it was a success. It accomplished its purpose, which was to bring about repentance. Really, Jehovah’s Witnesses are like Jonah only to the extent of their having a bad attitude – rather than rejoice over God’s mercy, Jonah went outside the city and sulked because destruction did not come as expected, much as JW’s eagerly wait for the destruction of everyone who does not belong to their organization.