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"The Visions They Prophesy Spring From Their Own Imagination; It Is Not From the Mouth of the Lord" - Knud Jeppesen

On False And True Prophets in the Old Testament



There is no specific word for the meaning of "false" in connection with "prophet" in the Hebrew Old Testament. There were prophets who "dreamed lies" and who misled the people with their "wild and reckless falsehoods" (Jer. 23:32), but they are referred to as prophets just like the other prophets the people was to be guided by.

It is not until the Greek translation of the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah in Septuaginta that discriminations between the prophets are made whereby some are referred to as pseudo-prophets; but there are very few examples of this. Not even in the warning which precedes the prophecy quoted in the heading above are they referred to as pseudo-prophets:

"Do not listen to what the prophets say, who buoy you up with false hopes" (Jer. 23:16).

On "the wicked folly of the prophets" whose "inspiration comes from themselves" (Ezek. 13:3), Ezekiel said:

"Oh, false vision and lying divination! Oh, those prophets who say, 'It is the very word of the Lord', when it is not the Lord who has sent them; yet they expect their words to control the event" (13:6).

This means that it is the prophetical preaching which is false when they reported "visions which were not from the mouth of the Lord", or when "the Lord had not sent them". It is from his word and deed the prophet shall be judged; one cannot prima facie single out who is false and who is true.

Two Criteria

Of course, the authors of the Old Testament have contemplated how to distinguish between the prophets who preached falsely and those who preached truthfully:

"The prophets who preceded you and me from earliest times have foretold war, famine, and pestilence for many lands and for great kingdoms. If a prophet foretells prosperity, when his words come true it will be known that the Lord has sent him." (Jer. 28:8-9).

Or: "When the word spoken by the prophet in the name of the Lord is not fulfilled and does not come true, it is not a word spoken by the Lord. The prophet has spoken presumptuously; do not hold him in awe." (Deut. 18:22).

This means that two decisive criteria had to be taken into consideration if one wanted to know whether a prophet was true or false:

1. The prophet had to appear or have had visions in the name of the Lord.

2. The prophecy had to come true.

The latter seems to be particularly important when it comes to prophecies of peace, shalom. There were prophets who irresponsibly said, "All is well", when nothing is well (Jer. 6:14;8:11), and one had to beware of these prophets. No cure was to be found in their preaching. The prophet who in the name of the Lord foretold misery and misfortune, however, would sooner or later be right. If the time had not yet come, one could rest assured that eventually there would be so much evil, that misery necessarily had to come. An example of this is given below.

What Can Change the Fulfillment?

But there was no rule which said bow long to wait for the fulfillment of the prophet's words and at the same time to maintain that his prophecy was true. The criterion of fulfillment is in practice difficult to maintain since a prophetical preaching, as a rule, requires an immediate approval or rejection:

"Come back, keep peace, and you will be safe; in stillness and in keeping quiet, there lies your strength. But you would have none of it" (Isa. 30:15).

The criterion of fulfillment of the prophecy may be dismissed if the reaction of the listeners is conversion:

"But if the nation which I have threatened turns back from its wicked ways, then I shall think better of the evil I bad in mind to bring on it." (Jer. 18:8).

An example of this was the great city of Nineveh which was convinced by Jonah's preaching (Jonah 3:10); the result of which was, incidentally, to the great displeasure of the prophet himself (Ch. 4).

Sometime at the end of the 8th century the prophet Micah announced that because of the leaders' sinful behaviour: "Zion shall become a ploughed field, Jerusalem a heap of ruins, and the temple hill rough heath" (Micah 3:12).

This, however, did not take place at the time of Micah; an explanation is given in the Book of Jeremiah. With direct reference to this prophecy of Micah it is told that Hezekiah, king of Judah, and all the people of Judah had turned unto the Lord; "they showed reverence for the Lord, and they sought to placate the Lord, so the Lord relented and revoked the disaster with which he had threatened them". (Jer. 26:l9).

And Micah was not regarded as a false prophet because of that; on the contrary, his preaching stayed with the people even at the time when Jerusalem still existed. His prophecy of doom was remembered as a possibility which had not yet taken place and which in the following decades still hung over the Judeans like a threatening thundercloud. More than one hundred years after the death of Micah, when Jerusalem had been destroyed by the Babylonians, one could - among other things - find the reason to the disaster in his preaching: It took place because of the leaders' sinful behaviour. That's what made the preaching truthful -not the disaster itself.

References to the Story of Salvation

But, on the other hand, one could then just as well maintain that the salvation prophecies in the Micah collection could be understood as something which had not yet taken place. This is the case for what is said about Bethlehem: "out of you [Bethlehem] shall come forth a governor for Israel" (Micah 5:2).

But how was one prima facie to decide whether a prophet was granted God's authority and had been given visions from Rim?

There was no problem in concluding that a prophet was "false" if he preached that the Israelites should worship other gods, therefore we shall disregard this situation. The thing is, rather, as we have seen, that there were prophets who preached falsely in the name of the Lord. A prophet who would say, "God's peace" was not necessarily a man of God. And the reverse situation: a true prophet was a special emissary of God, someone you had to listen to even if he was commissioned to preach a disaster.

The Lord, whom the prophet represented, was a God who said, "I make the light, I create darkness, author alike of prosperity and trouble" (Isa.  45:7). The prophets knew of a "story of salvation" to which they could refer to: God was he who at the Exodus from Egypt "dried up the sea, the waters of the great abyss, and made the ocean depths a path for the ransomed" (Isa. 51:10). As such, it was reasonable to rely on Him.

But God was not bound to follow the hitherto revealed patterns:

"See how the first prophecies have come to pass, and now I declare new things; before they break from the bud I announce them to you." (Isa. 42:9).

There are still some "hidden things which you did not know before." (Isa. 48:6). The problem was how to be sure that "the new things" came from God.

An Argument Between Two Prophets

In Jer. 28 we read about Jeremiah's dramatic encounter with another prophet, Hananiah, who appeared to be a liar. Both prophets claimed they preached what the Lord had told them.

Jeremiah performed deeds whereby be was able to illustrate his prophetic message. He carried a wooden yoke to show the size of power over Israel as exercised by Nebucbadrezzar, king of Babylon.

But his counterpart, the prophet Hananiah, broke Jeremiah's wooden yoke in order to illustrate his own prophetic words:

"These are the words of the Lord: Thus will I break the yoke of Nebucbadrezzar king of Babylon; I will break it off the necks of all nations within two years" (Jer. 28:11).

Jeremiah went away and later returned, now carrying a yoke of iron. He brought with him a new message from the Lord:

"You have broken bars of wood; in their place you shall get bars of iron ... I have put a yoke of iron on the necks of all these nations, making them serve Nebucbadrezzar king of Babylon." (Jer. 28:14).

We, who read the Bible more than 2,500 years after the event, know that Jeremiah was the true prophet. And the immediate posterity soon realized that Jeremiah, through his prophecy, had the ability to make predictions. Shortly after, Hananiah died, just as Jeremiah bad threatened:

"...you have led this nation to trust in false prophecies. Therefore these are the the year, because you have preached rebellion against the Lord". (Jer.28:16).

The Spiritual Condition of the Listeners

But what criterion would we have had if we had been present in the temple of the Lord on the day when Jeremiah and Hananiah yelled at each other?

Would we have interpreted Jeremiah's deed, to replace the broken yoke of wood with one of iron, as anything but a clever trick? Rather, would we not have been inclined to believe Hananiah, who predicted immediate homecoming, rather than believing Jeremiah who predicted that the people who were not yet in Babylon would end up there as prisoners as well ?

As to the wording, the text does not indicate any difference in the two prophets. Apparently, there was no help to be found if one wanted to yield to one preaching and torn one's back on the other. Objectively, both preachings seem to hold visions of the future which could be contained within the known conception of God.

Consequently, when it came to prophets and their preaching, it was not easy to tell truth from falsehood, not even at the time of the Old Testament. The truth was not revealed from the prophet's behaviour; the truth was not even revealed from the very words of the prophet.

It was "false" that Jerusalem was to be destroyed at the time of Isaiah and Micah but "true" at the time of Jeremiah -  and yet all three prophets were "true". It was right and true to refer to Zion "For instruction issues from Zion, and out of Jerusalem comes the word of the Lord" (Isaiah 2:3; Micah 4:2). But the very words: "the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord!" (Jer.  7:4) could very well have been lying words which one should put no trust in:

"You gain nothing by putting your trust in this lie. You steal, you murder, you commit adultery and perjury, you burn sacrifices to Baal, you run after other gods whom you have not known; then you come and stand before me in this house, which bears my name, and say 'We are safe'; safe, you think, to indulge in all these abominations" (Jer. 7:8-10).

This means that the verity of the prophets also depends on the spiritual condition of the listeners.

To Consider the Prophecy

The test of truth - if any at all - consisted in serious consideration: Could what was being said really be the words of the Lord, the will of the Lord in the present situation? When considering live prophecy, it is here necessary that one does not think of the words of the Lord as something abstract which supplies eternally valid truths since in effect "quotes" of the words of the Lord (as indicated above) may well be lying and false prophecy in the present situation.

The question remains: when is what one hears really the words of the Lord? Was the preaching of the prophet heard in the reality which the present listeners were part of? The inhabitants of Jerusalem, for instance, if they immediately wanted to know the real, true message of the Lord, had to address this difficult issue already while they were listening to the words of Hananiah and Jeremiah.

Later, when it became apparent that Hananiah had spoken falsely and Jeremiah truthfully, it was probably too late to decide for the right side and say that Jeremiah's "these are the words of the Lord" was more truthful than the "false" prophet Hananiah's "these are the words of the Lord".