People turn to select passages in the Bible in order to say that everything is predestined by God. But I just open the Bible at random and point to 99.9% of the rest of it to show the opposite. The whole thing is full of human choice after human choice after human choice. In fact, the Bible is consistently clear that many of the choices being made are against God’s wishes and desires for humanity. Nearly the whole Bible communicates free will, which means that we should frame any passages that seem to communicate otherwise into this larger view—we shouldn’t let the few confusing passages rewrite the entire Bible.
Now because we obviously don’t have time to address every free will passage in the Bible, let’s go ahead and address some of the most poignant stories that make our case, starting with a failed prophecy.
There’s a new worship song that came out that I really love. However, my mind gets stuck on a particular lyric in the chorus that says, “You never lost a battle and you never will.” Now I understand the sentiment the song is relating and the song is completely appropriate in the light it means to paint God. God can do all things and win any battle He engages in. Amen.
But that isolated statement makes me think of the strange story in 2 Kings 3 where kings from Israel, Judah and Edom go to war with Moab and lose. Why is this story strange? It’s not because God’s people lost a battle—that had happened several times before when the conditions for battle were inappropriate by God’s standards. Rather, it’s strange because Elisha prophesied that they would win this battle.
The stage had been set. Prophetic words Elisha had given leading up to the battle had come true. By all means, they should have won! But when the King of Moab decided to sacrifice his son to his false god in front of his attackers, the Bible says that, “there came great wrath against Israel. And they withdrew from him and returned to their own land” (2 Ki 3:27).
What do we do with such a passage? Was God wrong? Was God not strong enough to beat this false god or the Moabite army or its king?
No, of course not. Rather, this story is a glimpse into the incredible power of free will. It was prophesied by a mega-prophet that Moab would lose this battle. But when the battle heated up Israel decided to give up and leave. If they had they used their free will to keep fighting, they would have won as prophesied, because God cannot lose. But they got scared, and so they gave up and lost, making a legitimate prophecy look like a false one. They did not walk into the destiny that God had painted for them. They chose a different path.
So has God lost a battle? Well, on one hand no, because like the song says correctly, God can’t lose a battle. He is undefeatable and would have been undefeated in this battle had the battle continued on. But did God lose this particular battle? Well, sort of, since the free will agents who were to carry out the fullness of His prophetic word bailed on seeing the prophecy to completion. But ultimately that loss is pinned on humanity, not God.
This is a tough story and it should be getting our attention. Had God had his way, certain things would have happened. But due to free will God didn’t have His way and it upset His very prophetic word. Our choices are very free and very powerful.
When we believe this, we start to see that prophetic words can be derailed by free will more often than we thought. For example, when God turned Israel over to the nations as a punishment for their sins, He had to clarify through the prophet Zechariah that the nations made God’s judgment more severe than it was supposed to be (Zech 1:15). As strange as it sounds, Israel suffered more than God had predicted they would in exile, because the surrounding nations in their free will came down harder on them than God expected them to. Of course, in His omniscience God knew this variable was there, but it seems He expected their free will to be enacted less severely.
As another example, God prophesied throughout Ezekiel 26 that Nebuchadnezzar would essentially destroy and plunder Tyre. While this attack did happen, the destruction and plunder fell quite short of what Ezekiel had prophesied. Even Ezekiel had to note this was the case three chapters later. He then prophesied that because of this, God was going to let Nebuchadnezzar plunder Egypt instead (Ezek 29:18-20). Here we find God accommodating His prophetic words to make up for the ways in which free will derailed them from coming to their full fruition.
While many would be afraid to admit it, in light of the stories listed above, pastor and theologian Greg Boyd boldly points out that,
The phenomenon of failed prophecies, which is far from rare in the OT [Old Testament], demonstrates both that God does not meticulously control the agents he uses and that the assumption that God is always certain his particular plans will be realized is misguided. This is not to suggest that God can never guarantee his plans will succeed. Nor is it to even deny that God can usually guarantee his plans will succeed. And even in cases where variables are such that the all-knowing God sees that a particular plan may not succeed, Scripture makes it clear that God has contingency plans in place.Greg Boyd (Boyd, Gregory A. The Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Interpreting the Old Testament’s Violent Portraits of God in Light of the Cross. Vol. 2, Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2017, p. 901.)
Humanity is predictable, but their free will is strong enough to change those predictions. But at the same time all unpredicted actions are not unknown by God, for He is omniscient. Israel may have lost a prophesied victory, but God knew that even this was a possibility when He prophesied it.