Promise, Prophecy and Prediction
The "promised" land is not the "predicted" land. "I promised your fathers that…" is not the same as "I predicted to your fathers that…" "As I promised your fathers…" is not the same as, "As I predicted to your fathers…"
The words intersect at various points in some contexts but to equate them is to confuse them—they're very distinct in meaning. A teacup-reader can predict without promising and a lover can promise without predicting. One who predicts, "Princess Diana will be killed in an airplane crash" is not promising; he is predicting. A girl who says to her young man, "I will love only you until I die" is not predicting; she is promising.
One who predicts speaks only of conditions of the future but one who promises engages the present while embracing the future. That is, a prediction may be completely independent of the one predicting but a promise inescapably involves the one promising. The character and integrity of one making a prediction is irrelevant but the character and integrity of one making a promise is far from irrelevant. The one who merely predicts is not involved in bringing about what it is that he predicts but the one who promises is very much involved in fulfilling the promise.
The two words unavoidably have a future reference—you don't predict the past or promise what has already occurred. It's because the two words do have a future reference that they're often confused.
We characteristically use the word "prophesy" as equivalent to the word "predict"; that is, to prophesy is to tell of future things. This is a legitimate modern use of the word since that's what the populace has chosen to do, but that use is also found in the OT. For examples, see Ezekiel 12:27 and 2 Chronicles 18:5, 11, 14, 16-17.
But while that is one legitimate use of the word a "prophet," one who "prophesies," is much more than a foreteller. The Hebrew word suggests a forthteller, one who speaks forth the word of God or a god and as you can see from the characteristic usage of the word in the Bible it has little to do with prediction.
Ezekiel is told to prophesy to a valley filled with dry bones and then to the wind (which in the text stands for the Spirit of God). What he prophesies (speaks forth) is the command of God with the result that the bones come together, they are clothed with flesh and the wind comes breathing life into the corpses (Ezekiel 37:4-10). But in that section he isn't predicting or even promising—he as God's spokesman is commanding. When the vision is interpreted it turns out to be God's promise of national restoration at some time in the future.
Often the prophets prophesied of the condition of the nation's heart and of the repentance to which God was calling them. Zechariah 1:4; 7:4-14 and Haggai 1:2-11 illustrate. It's true, of course, that the prophetic rehearsal of God's past goodness and faithfulness related to the future as well as the present but the future element is often left unexpressed and in the background.
Nevertheless, because prophetic teaching and speech related to the nation's ongoing life with the God who made promises within the covenant, the future was always implied or taken for granted. Since God's changeless purpose was to come to its completion in and under Jesus Christ the entire movement of history had a future goal. And since that completion was the promise of God then all prophetic teaching is to be understood as part of and contributing to the fulfilment of that overarching purpose. Therefore prophecy has an underlying promissory element and a future look.
Suppose a prophet in the OT said, "This is what Yahweh says, 'Many years from now I will raise up a virgin-born child called Jesus of Nazareth and in and through him I will begin a new creation.'" It would make sense to say this was a prophecy and a promise and therefore predictive in nature but to call it a prediction—end of story—reduces and can distort it. To do that takes a consequential truth and makes it central. What is central is that someone speaking by the Spirit of God delivers God's promise which, because it is a promise has a predictive element.
The same would be true about a threat of judgment. The judgments of God must be taken within the parameters of a single plot and purpose, they serve God's final goal even while they deal with current moral, social and political situations. God's judgment on Assyria (see the book of Nahum) is part of God's dealing with the human family in light of his ultimate goal. When a prophet prophesies the fall of Nineveh it is no mere prediction, it is the inevitable outworking of God's overarching commitment to the human family as he rescues the oppressed from Nineveh and demonstrates his righteous purpose. To say the prophecy has a predictive element is manifestly true but to call it a prediction strips the entire picture of essential elements and (depending on how we present our case) suggests something like crystal-ball gazing and teacup-reading.
©2004 Jim McGuiggan. All materials are free to be copied and used as long as money is not being made.
Many thanks to brother Ed Healy, for allowing me to post from his website, theabidingword.com.