Whenever I teach my Prophets course, a burning question that students have is how we might be able to tell false prophecy from true. Although not all churches and Christian traditions believe that prophecy continues today, the question is still relevant even for them. After all, God’s word might come through a sermon or a passage from Scripture speaking into our lives. How many have treasured ‘promises’ felt to be from God about finding a spouse, having children, being healed of illness, only to be disappointed when they remained single or barren, or continued to struggle with ill-health? How many felt God’s guidance to take a job, buy a house or do something in relation to questions they were struggling with at the time, only to find that the job went pear-shaped, the house was a total mistake and the promises turned out not to be true. Since prophecy or hearing God’s word always involves people (others or ourselves), the danger of making a mistake, misleading ourselves or deliberately twisting the message to suit ourselves is always present.
I used to think that it was easy in OT days because God sent His prophets and there was no mistaking His word, but false prophecy was no less a problem then than it is now. The human heart is deceitful and Israel likewise struggled at times to know God’s will and ways. The OT, however, gives us some criteria for discernment. First, Deut 18:20-22 says that if a prophecy does not come true, it was not from God. As an aside, the exception to this is prophecy that is contingent on human response (e.g. Jonah’s prophecy of Nineveh’s destruction did not come true because the people repented, and God was willing to forego judgement). However, to return to Deuteronomy, this first principle does not sound terribly helpful, since one must wait until after the date that the prophecy refers to. Nevertheless, it is still an important criterion and in a number of cases, it is needed so we don’t feel confused. To return to my earlier contemporary examples, if we thought God had promised something which in the end didn’t come true, many of us feel disappointed and let down by God. It is helpful to remember that if it didn’t happen, it was never from God in the first place. It was not God who let us down, but we deceived ourselves. This principle is also helpful for those Christian contexts that still believe in God giving prophecy or words of knowledge today because it helps evaluate someone’s prophetic ministry. If a so-called ‘prophet’ in the church keeps saying things that don’t come true, the church should question whether the person really has the gift of prophecy. It should also challenge present-day practices of prophecy, which are often so many general statements about God’s love and grace: seemingly safe sayings but also impossible to validate. Let us remember that OT prophecy was, more often than not, a challenge to sinful behaviour rather than encouragement.
The second principle given to us is in Deut 13:1-5. If prophecy leads us to serve other gods (v.2) or if a prophet ‘counsels rebellion against the Lord’ (v.5 NASB), we should not listen to it even if it comes true. What does this mean? One example would be occult practices that provide information about the future, but which confirm one in the view that occultism is an acceptable practice (it yields results), even though God has specifically prohibited it (Deut 18:10-14). There are, however, much more subtle instances, where a prophet is not inciting an audience explicitly to serve other gods, but the effect of following the prophecy ends up leading people away from God’s will.
An incident that demonstrates both principles is the story of Hananiah and Jeremiah in Jeremiah 28. Judah is under the thumb of Babylon and has experienced the first siege of Jerusalem leading to a wave of exiles taken into Babylonian captivity (597 BC). We know from history that in another ten years, there will be a second siege of Jerusalem that will end in the destruction of the city and the temple and the majority of the people and leadership will be taken into exile (587 BC). In this interim, the question is whether this first wave of exile is a sign of worse to come or a temporary setback. Hananiah, who turns out to be a false prophet, argues that within two years God will reverse this misfortune (Jer 28:3-4). Jeremiah, on the other hand, is convinced that captivity is for the longer term (Jer 29:4-10). While we have the benefit of hindsight that Jeremiah was right, how could people at the time know whom to believe? How does Jeremiah handle the situation?
First, note that Hananiah’s answer seems like the ‘safe’ option as it is a positive affirmation of God’s care for His people, yet as readers we know today that he was wrong. Giving a positive message isn’t necessarily safe or innocent. Jeremiah reminds everyone that prophets in the past predominantly challenged people (v.8), so prophecies of peace (much as we would like to hear them), are more suspect and need affirmation in the form of being fulfilled (v.9 cf. Deut 18:18-22). Secondly, Jeremiah’s estimate of Hananiah’s prophecy is that he ‘counselled rebellion against the LORD’ (NASB) and will therefore die (v.16), which echoes the same language found in Deut 13:5. False prophets did not necessarily drop dead then or do so now, neither are we called today to execute them, nevertheless, God’s verdict here signals how serious the issue is: a matter of life and death. False prophecy leads to the spiritual death of God’s people and should be stopped.
At first glance, it seems puzzling how to understand the saying that Hananiah counselled rebellion against the Lord when he affirmed God’s love and care for His people! Here, we need to step back and consider the history of Israel and Judah. They have repeatedly turned away from God, worshipped other gods, trusted in foreign alliances instead of the Lord and neglected the worship of the true God so much so that the temple fell into disrepair. Social injustice was ripe, care for the weak and vulnerable non-existent. The same message of coming judgement is repeated by the prophets generation after generation. The northern kingdom has already fallen to Assyria in 722 BC (2 Kings 17) and Jerusalem barely escaped being sacked by the same power in 701 BC. However, in this latter instance, Hezekiah trusted the Lord, so God saved him and his people in the city (2 Kings 18-19). Now a hundred years later, the next great empire, Babylon is knocking on the door. In the meantime, there has been no lasting repentance and turning to the Lord. The false prophets appealed to God’s love and grace. Hasn’t He chosen Israel-Judah? Did He not place His temple in their midst and thereby demonstrate His presence among them? What harm could come to them? The message of grace lulls the people into a sense of false security, so they have no motivation to examine their deeds and repent of their lifestyle and false beliefs. In fact, Hananiah’s prophecy confirms that everything is alright between them and God and there is no need for any soul-searching. This is what is meant by counselling rebellion.
Discernment of prophecy then is not easy. It is not simply an adherence to a set of rules that can be applied automatically and without thinking. Discernment requires a knowledge of God’s will (revealed in Scripture and in Christ), an honest look at our motives and heart and a willingness to seek the Lord. To put it differently, discernment and hearing from the Lord requires ongoing commitment to integrity and godly living in relationship with God, otherwise we will deceive ourselves and collect Bible verses and advisors who repeat what we want to hear.
Despite the sobering reality of these thoughts, I want to conclude on a note of hope. A friend of mine shared her story of how she struggled with her chosen profession to the point where she told God that she could not carry on and gave it up. But the Lord had other plans for her and after a while she found herself back in the same career. She realised she had made a mistake and God had given back her job. God is not out to get us or trip us up. If our hearts seek Him, then even if we misunderstand Him or listen to advice or prophecy that turns out not to be true, He is gracious to set us back on His path. The psalmist says it beautifully, ‘The steps of a man are established by the LORD, and He delights in his way. When he falls, he will not be hurled headlong, Because the LORD is the One who holds his hand.’ (Ps 37:23-24 NASB).
Dr Csilla Saysell
Lecturer – Old Testament