Was Jonah a false prophet?

The topic of prophecy can be confusing. Are there modern day prophets who give extra-biblical prophecy today? This is a topic that couldn’t possibly be covered exhaustively in a short blog article. However, something needs to be said in part because the subject comes up often especially with Mormons who believe that Joseph Smith and their church Presidents are modern day prophets like in the Old Testament.

First we should recognize that if a prophet who spoke on behalf of God got it wrong, he had committed an act that the Bible says deserved death, “But the prophet who dares to speak a message in My name that I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods—that prophet must die.” Deut 18:20

BUT on the other hand… If there are examples of true prophets in the Bible who did get it wrong, then there would be a legitimate argument that while 100% prophetic accuracy was the goal, it did not always happen that way in practice. That would give a major pass to modern day prophets and their prophecies.


Let’s look at the Jonah example:

God told Jonah… “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you” (Jonah 3:2).

So then… Jonah began by going a day’s journey into the city, proclaiming, ‘Forty more days and Nineveh will be demolished’ (Jonah 3:4).

So what did Nineveh do… “The Ninevites believed God. A fast was proclaimed, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth” (Jonah 3:5).

They city was not destroyed in 40 days. Then Jonah was a false prophet, right? At the very least this prophecy was incorrect, right? Wrong.


The reason God told Jonah that He was going to destroy the city was because of the city’s great “wickedness” (cf. Jonah 1:2). But when Nineveh was confronted with their sin, they repented, clothed themselves in sackcloth, and started a fast 1 verse after Jonah pronounced God’s judgment on them. Pretty amazing.

God tells us that if He pronounces judgment on a city and the city repents, He will show mercy (cf. Jer 18-7-10). This is called conditional prophecy. If the city is not repentant it will be destroyed. The good news is that Nineveh repented immediately, and she was spared. The nature of this conditional prophecy is explicitly stated at the end of Chapter 3, “God saw their actions—that they had turned from their evil ways—so God relented from the disaster He had threatened to do to them. And He did not do it.” Jonah 3:10 Jonah rightly spoke what God commanded. The pronouncement of judgment had its intended affect–repentance. Then God showed mercy. What a great God we serve!

What about Balaam or Caiaphas? Did they not pronounce prophecies that came true? Certainly they were not 100% correct.

Geisler and Nix say it better than I can so I’ll quote them, “It should be noted in this connection that occasionally the Bible contains true prophesies from individuals whose status as men of God is questionable, such as Balaam (Num 24:17) and Caiaphas (John 11:49). However, granted that their prophecies were consciously given (in the case of Caiaphas it would seem that the prophecy was given unwittingly), these prophets were not writers of Bible books, but were merely quoted by the actual writer. Therefore their utterances are in the same category as the Greek poets quoted by the apostle Paul (cf. Acts 17:28; 1 Cor. 15:33; Titus 1:12).

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12 replies
  1. Jon says:

    Why do you call it conditional prophecy when Jonah 3:4 does not have any condition? Can any prophecies be called “conditional prophecy” or how do you know which ones are and which are not?

    • Gil Gatch says:

      You bring up a good point. The fact that the condition isn’t explicit in this one verse is the reason why there is confusion.

      1) Why did God pronounce His judgement? We look back to Jonah 1:2 “because its wickedness has come up before me.” This statement alone shows us that the implication is God is judging on a condition of the city’s wickedness. In contrast, Isaiah’s prophecy about the coming of King Cyrus was not conditional. It was a prophecy fulfilled by definition. King Cyrus was prophesied to come and he did.

      2) The last verse of Chapter 3 explains God’s condition again as to make sure there is no confusion, “God saw their actions—that they had turned from their evil ways—so God relented from the disaster He had threatened to do to them. And He did not do it.”

      3) Lastly we can look to other scripture to gain a better understanding of these prophesies, “7 At one moment I might announce concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will uproot, tear down, and destroy it. 8 However, if that nation I have made an announcement about turns from its evil, I will relent concerning the disaster I had planned to do to it. 9 At another time I announce that I will build and plant a nation or a kingdom. 10 However, if it does what is evil in My sight by not listening to My voice, I will relent concerning the good I had said I would do to it” (Jer 18:7-10).

      So it’s clear that the decision to act against a city is conditional on the city’s wickedness. This time the pronouncement had the desired affect–they repented. Maybe this is odd and confusing because this is a rare case where a city became contrite and worshiped God when faced with their sin.

      The greatest lesson here is that God is more concerned with our change in heart towards him than giving us what we deserve-destruction. This is the New Testament theme as well. Repent and follow Jesus and the destruction that we deserve will be stopped and God will show us mercy. What a wonderful truth!

      • tearfang says:

        The logic you seem to be applying is that if a prophecy is one of doom/(bad things) for a city(?which can perhaps be extended to any group of ppl?) then it is automatically conditional…

        Do you agree with that characterization?
        What does that imply for prophecies in the book revelation, is the apocalypse, or maybe certain parts of it conditional?

  2. toby says:

    But . . . you have a guy saying that god’s going to destroy a town in 40 days. People react and do stuff and it doesn’t happen. So . . . how do you know the guy wasn’t just a charismatic nutball and the place wasn’t going to be destroyed anyway?

    Would you not call jonah a nutball? First he says he talks to god, then has some guys throw him overboard a ship during a storm, and then he is swallowed by a “great fish” and somehow is able to breath and not be digested in its guts for three days. This guy is not a reliable source for driving directions let alone prophecy. read the next chapter and apparently he’s suicidal as well. there is absolutely no reason to believe any of this. The only reason you do is that it’s in bible. That’s it. You throw rationality out the door and just believe it blindly. If Benny Hinn said that god came to him and said that he would make the continent of africa sink in to the ocean in 40 days if they didn’t straighten up and then in 40 days it didn’t, would you believe his prophecy and be awed?

    • Gil Gatch says:

      Toby this is a deeper study of what a prophet is. Prophets weren’t just random people. They were recognized by their community has being true mouthpieces of the almighty God. This was confirmed in different ways either by prophetic tests or miraculous signs.

      Your pose another question of canonicity. If you really want to learn more about it, Geisler and Nix have a volume entitled “A General Introduction to the Bible” that is incredibly thorough on the topic. I highly recommend it to help answer all your questions in detail. It is impossible to go through all there is on this subject here.

  3. Robert says:

    How come God saw what the Nazis were doing and and then didn’t threaten to destroy them if they didn’t turn from their evil ways? I guess it’s because the Nazis were devout Christians killing in the name of Jesus. Right?

    • Stephen B says:

      I guess that’s something to do with free will, Robert. With the Nazis’ free will to kill millions of people over-ruling the free will of their victims not to be killed.

      Though why that free will thing didn’t apply a few thousand years ago when God supposedly slaughtered millions of people himself, I don’t know. He could interfere then, but not now. Maybe all the cameras scared him off.

    • S. Robertson says:

      The Nazis were NOT Christian’s a true christian does NOT commit murder. The Holocaust was predicted in the Bible if you know where to look there were warnings. God took them home – death is not the end. Then he punished the Nazis and the nation of Germany for what they had done. The allies also had to take a share of guilt as they had given the Jews no place to run too. Thus Israel was born anew and became a nation in one day and God has comforted his people – the survivors and protected them and against the odds they have survived and won every war since 1949 with Supernatural Help!


  4. moose says:

    if i say i will eat lunch at mcdonalds in august, then eat lunch at mcdonalds on august 30–would that become a fantastic fulfilled prophecy?–that would be about as amazing as the so called prophecies in the holy bible

  5. Robert says:

    Yeah, it’s easy to make accurate predictions and prophecies when you write them after the incidents have already taken place. What’s so funny is that almost every Bible commentary freely admits that this is what actually took place. The Book of Daniel was clearly written in the Second Century BCE. However Bible believers think Daniel was written in the Fifth Century BCE by someone with magic glasses that could see into the future. Silly.

  6. Bruce says:

    I also do not accept the “conditional” argument and I find a lot of things going on with the book of Jonah. Jesus said these things were given to us for examples and John 1:3 says there is nothing made that was not made by God, which would include examples of false prophets. Jonah’s father is a true prophet and this is how Jonah knows he is to be God’s example of a false prophet and of course this gives Jonah an idea of how to avoid his fate, after all who wants to be known for thousands of years as a false prophet, especially if your father is a true prophet. There is so much more to this book that it would fill a book by itself, but can’t do that here, so here is my conclusion.

    When does the word unto mean until? Unto means to, except when it is the sign of an infinitive, then it means until. The word Tarshish is an infinitive because no one knows where it is even to this day. This means Jonah wanted to flee up to the time of Tarshish. This opens up a door that leads to the Door. The Door is Jesus, of whom the volume of the Book is written about. Jonah wants to flee to the time of Jesus to avoid being labeled a false prophet. The rest of the story is too long for a post but if you follow the directions given in Proverbs and by Jesus you will be on His Way. You must be taught by God.

    • S. Robertson says:

      Do your homework – Tarshish – The same place-name occurs in the Akkadian inscriptions of Esarhaddon (the Assyrian king, d. 669 BC) and also on the Phoenician inscription on the Nora Stone, indicating that it was a real place. Where he was fleeing to wasn’t the point – the point is you can’t hide from God.


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