Charge: Concerning a conference in 1856 Mrs. White declared: “I was shown the company present at the conference. Said the angel, ‘Some food for worms, some subjects of the seven last plagues, some will be alive and remain upon the earth to be translated at the coming of Jesus.’” All who were alive then are now dead. This prediction was not fulfilled.
Must we therefore conclude that Mrs. White is not a true prophet? That is the question before us.*
It may come as a surprise to some to think that God's promises of blessing and His threats of judgments are conditional. But the Scriptures are explicit on this. Listen to these words:
“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.” Jer. 18:7-10.
The Bible presents a number of illustrations of the application of this principle set forth by Jeremiah. Indeed, we may be thankful for Jeremiah's words; they help us rightly to understand some texts of Scripture that might otherwise seem to indict the divine claims of certain prophets. Let us cite two instances that illustrate both parts of Jeremiah's statement. The first is a
* The prediction was first published in 1856 as a part of one of the articles comprising Testimony for the Church No. 2. It is also found in Spiritual Gifts, volume 4, page 18 (second pagination), published in 1864. It is referred to in 1860 in Spiritual Gifts, volume 2, page 208. Currently the prediction appears in Testimonies, volume 1, pp. 131, 132.
divine threat to bring judgment upon a nation. We give in parallel columns the threat of judgment and its reversal:
|“So Jonah arose, and went unto Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceeding great city of three days' journey. And Jonah began to enter into the city a day's journey, and he cried, and said, Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” Jonah 3:3, 4.||“So the people of Nineveh believed God, and proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them even to the least of them.” “And 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.” Jonah 3:5, 10.|
Someone may interject that Jonah's prediction was patently not intended by God to be understood in an unqualified sense, else what would have been the Lord's purpose in sending him to preach to the Ninevites. Only two comments are needed:
1. To contend that something should be implied in a prediction is to agree with the very reasoning we are here setting forth.
2. So far as the written record is concerned Jonah was sent to preach only a message of judgment. That God might forbear to bring judgment if they did repent, the Ninevites seemed not to be sure: “Who can tell if God will turn and repent, and turn away from his fierce anger, that we perish not?” Jonah 3:9. Furthermore, if Jonah had preached repentance and thus the possibility of deliverance, he would have had no reason to feel that he had “lost face” when the dire forecast failed to be fulfilled,
We give now a promise of blessing and its reversal:
|“And God spake unto Moses,” “Say unto the children of Israel, … I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and … ye shall know that I am the Lord your God, which bringeth you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians. And I will bring you in unto the land, concerning the which I did swear to give it to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob; and I will give it you for an heritage.” Ex. 6:2, 6-8.||“And the Lord spake unto Moses and unto Aaron, saying, How long shall I bear with this evil congregation, which murmur against me? … Say unto them, … your carcases shall fall in this wilderness; and all that were numbered of you, according to your whole number, … doubtless ye shall not come into the land, concerning which I sware to make you dwell therein…. And ye shall know my breach of promise.” Num. 14: 26-34.|
How clearly these parallel passages on the promise to Israel illuminate the words of Jeremiah! Said the Lord to Israel, “Ye shall know my breach of promise.” The alternate reading in the margin would state it thus: “Ye shall know my altering of my purpose.”
Again, take the words of “a man of God” who came to Eli to declare judgment against him because of the vile conduct of his sons. This “man of God” asked Eli if he remembered the promise that the Lord made to his family “when they were in Egypt in Pharaoh's house,” that they should serve as God's priests. Then he follows with this reversal of the promise:
“Wherefore the Lord God of Israel saith, I said indeed that thy house, and the house of thy father, should walk before me for ever: but now the Lord saith, Be it far from me; for them that honour me I will honour, and they that despise me shall be lightly esteemed. Behold, the days come, that I will cut off thine arm, and the arm of thy father's house, that there shall not be an old man in thine house.” 1 Sam. 2:30, 31.
Have sincere Bible students been disturbed by these reversals of God's decrees? No. Or have they in any way lost confidence in the claims of the Bible prophets because their prophecies failed of fulfillment? No. And why? Because in view of Jeremiah's words they read into each prediction an implied qualifying clause:
1. “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown”—if the Ninevites do not repent.
2. “I will bring you in unto the land, concerning the which I did swear to give it”—if ye will keep My covenant. (See Ex. 19:5, 6, where the Lord, speaking to Moses en route to Canaan, inserts the qualifying “if.”)
3. “I said indeed that thy house, and the house of thy father, should walk before me for ever”—if ye will walk in the ways of righteousness.
If it is proper—and it is—to add to these predictions a qualifying clause, why is it not proper to do so with Mrs. White's 1856 prediction?
The conditional character of Bible predictions may be explained on the altogether reasonable ground that God, though sovereign, is not arbitrary. He does not deal with men as if they were lifeless objects on a chessboard to be moved about exclusively at His will. He mysteriously holds in check, as it were, His own plans oftentimes, because He will not override the free will of man. That is what gives to divine predictions their conditional quality, and that is what caused God to speak of “my breach of promise,” or “my altering of my purpose.”
Well-known Bible commentators have written of this:
“God's unchangeable principle is to do the best that can be done under all circumstances; if then He did not take into account the moral change in his people (their prayers, &c.), He would not be acting according to His own unchanging principle.”—Jamieson, Fausset, Brown, Commentary, Notes on Jeremiah 18:8.
“God's promises are as conditional as his threats. It would be neither just nor merciful to us for God to continue his favours unabated after we had departed from him. The removal of them is a wholesome warning to us. It springs naturally from the personal relation of God to his people, one which depends on reciprocal sympathy.”—The Pulpit Commentary, Notes (Homiletics) on Jeremiah 18:7-10.
“These verses [Jer. 18:7-10] contain what may be called God's decree by which the whole of his conduct towards man is regulated. If he purpose destruction against an offending person, if that person repent and turn to God, he shall live and not die.
“If he purpose peace and salvation to him that walketh uprightly, if he turn from God to the world and sin, he shall die and not live.”—Adam Clarke, Commentary, Notes on Jeremiah 18:7-10.
The Bible reveals that God's predictions, through His prophets, are affected not simply by the wicked repenting, or the righteous backsliding, but also by the supplication of a righteous man who is continuing in his righteousness, Here is the inspired record of
what the prophet Isaiah forecast for King Hezekiah, and of the reversal of that forecast:
“In those days was Hezekiah sick unto death. And the prophet Isaiah the son of Amoz came to him, and said unto him, Thus saith the Lord, Set thine house in order; for thou shalt die, and not live. Then he turned his face to the wall, and prayed unto the Lord, saying, I beseech thee, O Lord, remember now how I have walked before thee in truth and with a perfect heart, and have done that which is good in thy sight. And Hezekiah wept sore. And it came to pass, afore Isaiah was gone out into the middle court, that the word of the Lord came to him, saying, Turn again, and tell Hezekiah the captain of my people, Thus saith the Lord, the God of David thy father, I have heard thy prayer, I have seen thy tears: behold, I will heal thee.” 2 Kings 20:1-5.
That the free will of man may nullify a prediction is clearly revealed by all experience in the life of David. Here is an instance in which turning from righteousness to wickedness, or vice versa, is not involved, but simply the free operation of a man's will in the light of a prediction. David, with some loyal warriors, was in the city of Keilah. He heard that Saul was planning to come up against him and trap him in the walled city. David wished to make certain of Saul's plans and also whether the townsmen of Keilah would deliver him over to Saul. The record declares:
“Then said David, O Lord God of Israel, thy servant hath certainly heard that Saul seeketh to come to Keilah, to destroy the city for my sake. Will the men of Keilah deliver me up into his hand? will Saul come down, as thy servant hath heard? O Lord God of Israel, I beseech thee, tell thy servant. And the Lord said, He will come down. Then said David, Will the men of Keilah deliver me and my men into the hand of Saul? And the Lord said, They will deliver thee up.” 1 Sam. 23:10-12.
No more unequivocal prediction could have been given to David. But did Saul come down and did the dwellers in Keilah deliver up David? The next verse informs us:
“Then David and his men, which were about six hundred, arose and departed out of Keilah, and went whithersoever they could
go. And it was told Saul that David was escaped from Keilah; and he forbare to go forth.” Verse 13.
The Lord might have said to David, Saul “will come down,” and the people of Keilah “will deliver you up,” provided you do not flee. But the record does not include this “provided.” David simply exercised his free will and fled with his men, hence Saul “forbare to go forth.”
We find in this nothing unusual. Why should Saul go down if David had fled? And certainly the people of Keilah could not deliver up David if he had fled. That is obvious! This is another way of saying that the free will of man may cause a divine prediction to be unfulfilled. But none of us find in this fact any reason for doubting divine predictions.
The righteous who backslide exercise their free will. The wicked who turn to righteousness exercise their free will. The man who prays, like Hezekiah, exercises his free will—the right of a child of God to petition his Father. The action of man's free will is the key to unlock the mystery of the conditional quality of divine predictions. Not until men have sinned away their day of grace, and thus closed their probation and their right further to exercise their free will in defiance of God, will the judgments of God descend upon a sinful world to consume it completely. Thus will the ultimate purpose of God be carried out and His sovereign plan and will find full and unhampered expression.
The Scriptures reveal that one of the reasons why God seems to us to be slow in carrying out His plan and promise to create a new earth for the righteous is because He desires to give men a little longer time in which to exercise their free will to flee from the wrath to come. Peter thus answers those who would doubt the certainty of God's promise to bring an end to this world of evil simply because time has tarried:
“The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that
any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.” 2 Peter 3:9.
Peter also declares that the children of God may hasten the Advent by exercising their free will. There is something that we can do about bringing the Advent nearer. We read, “Looking for and hasting unto the coming [margin, “hasting the coming”] of the day of God” 2 Peter 3: 12. Commentators have observed on this text:
“St. Peter seems to represent Christians as ‘hastening the coming [literally, “presence”] of the day of God’ by working out their own salvation, and helping to spread the knowledge of the gospel (Matt. xxiv. 14), and so rendering the long-suffering patience of God no longer necessary.”—The Pulpit Commentary, Notes (Exposition) on 2 Peter 3:12.
“God appoints us as instruments of accomplishing those events which must be first before the day of God can come. By praying for His coming, furthering the preaching of the Gospel for a witness to all nations, and bringing in those whom ‘the long-suffering of God’ waits to save, we hasten the coming of the day of God.”—Jamieson, Fausset, Brown, Commentary, Notes on 2 Peter 3:12.
That the coming of Christ is related to an action of men's free will—the preaching of the gospel by Christ's followers—is clearly revealed in our Lord's prophecy as to the time of His coming: “And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come.” Matt. 24:14.
Thus it is evident that if the free will of man is so vitally related to the second coming of Christ, both as regards the unbeliever anti the professed children of God, any prediction concerning it would have to be tempered and qualified by that fact. Now listen to the words of Mrs. White in the decades following the 1856 vision. In 1868 she wrote:
“The long night of gloom is trying, but the morning is deferred in mercy, because if the Master should come, so many would be found unready. God's unwillingness to have his people perish, has been the reason of so long delay.”—Testimonies, vol. 2, p. 194.
In 1896 she wrote:
“If those who claimed to have a living experience in the things of God had done their appointed work as the Lord ordained, the whole world would have been warned ere this, and the Lord Jesus would have come in power and great glory.”—Review and Herald, Oct. 6, 1896, p. 629.
In a sermon preached on Sabbath, March 28, 1903, at the General Conference, she declared:
“I know that if the people of God had preserved a living connection with Him, if they had obeyed His Word, they would to-day be in the heavenly Canaan.”—General Conference Bulletin, 35th Session, March 30, 1903, p. 9.
In the last volume of her Testimonies, published in the year 1909, she penned these solemn lines:
“If every watchman on the walls of Zion had given the trumpet a certain sound, the world might ere this have heard the message of warning. But the work is years behind. While men have slept, Satan has stolen a march upon us.”—Page 29.
That Mrs. White clearly understood that there is a conditional quality to God's promises and threatenings—as Jeremiah declared—and that the conditional feature in forecasts regarding Christ's Advent involves the state of heart of Christ's followers, is revealed in these words from her pen:
“The angels of God in their messages to men represent time as very short. Thus it has always been presented to me. It is true that time has continued longer than we expected in the early days of this message. Our Saviour did not appear as soon as we hoped. But has the Word of the Lord failed? Never! It should be remembered that the promises and the threatenings of God are alike conditional….
“Had the whole Adventist body [after the disappointment in 1844] united upon the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus, how widely different would have been our history!
“It was not the will of God that the coming of Christ should be thus delayed. God did not design that His people, Israel, should wander forty years in the wilderness. He promised to lead them directly to the land of Canaan, and establish them there a holy, healthy, happy people. But those to whom it was first preached, went not in ‘because of unbelief.’ Their hearts were filled with murmuring, rebellion, and hatred, and He could not fulfill His covenant with them.
“For forty years did unbelief, murmuring, and rebellion shut out ancient Israel from the land of Canaan. The same sins have delayed the entrance of modern Israel into the heavenly Canaan. In neither case were the promises of God at fault. It is the unbelief, the worldliness, unconsecration, and strife among the Lord's professed people that have kept us in this world of sin and sorrow so many years.”—MS. 4, 1883. Quoted in Evangelism, pp. 695, 696. (See also Appendix F, p. 586.)
These words from Mrs. White harmonize with what we have already discovered of the ways of God toward man, that man's free will plays an awesome part in the operation of the plans of God for this earth. This is one reason why we must give an account for our deeds—the expression of our free wills—in the final day of God!
When we examine Mrs. White's unfulfilled prediction of 1856 in the light of the conditional character of divine predictions and unfulfilled Bible prophecies, how quickly the problem before us disappears. We cannot hold Mrs. White to a more rigid and inflexible standard than we would Bible prophets.
In this connection someone may call to mind Deuteronomy 18:22: “When a prophet speaketh in the name of the Lord, if the thing follow not, nor come to pass, that is the thing which the Lord hath not spoken, but the prophet hath spoken it presumptuously.” This text, taken alone, proves too much; it indicts certain Bible prophets as well. We believe that Deuteronomy 18:22 is to be understood, even as any other lone text, in the context of all Scripture. Other scriptures reveal that there are qualifying factors that operate in relation to a prophet's predictions, particularly where the free will of man may be involved. That would not be so likely where a prophet is seeking to perform some “sign” or “wonder” to prove his claim to being a prophet. (See in this connection, Deuteronomy 13:1, 2.) We have an illustration of true and false prophets in regard to a “sign” or “wonder” in the case of Elijah and the priests of Baal. The free will of the people was not a factor. Both the priests of Baal and Elijah made claims to represent divinity. But only Elijah could cause to “come to pass” the “wonder,” the appointed “sign.”
Only one possible question remains to be answered. Someone may enquire: By thus explaining Mrs. White's 1856 vision have you not undermined the certainty of all prophecy? In reply we would remind the inquirer that his faith in the prophecies of the Bible is not undermined by the fact that certain of these prophecies were not fulfilled. We are not presenting a new theory regarding the predictions of the prophets in order to explain Mrs. White's prediction as we do; we are simply calling attention to certain scriptures that explicitly state that certain predictions were not fulfilled. Lovers of the Bible have had no doubt as to the dependability of its prophecies even though the record is clear that some of them were not fulfilled. Why should it be necessary to conclude that doubt is being cast on all the predictions of the prophets simply because we declare that Mrs. White's 1856 prediction is similar to certain unfulfilled predictions of Scripture?
Let us never forget that if a divine prediction is unfulfilled, if God displays a “breach of promise,” the guilt lies with us, His willful children. Well does Mrs. White declare, in a letter dated December 7, 1901:
“We may have to remain here in this world because of insubordination many more years, as did the children of Israel; but for Christ's sake, His people should not add sin to sin by charging God with the consequence of their own wrong course of action.”—Evangelism, p. 696.