May 30, 2021 - Prophets

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Today we’re going to talk about prophets and prophecy. What exactly is a prophet? In the ancient Near East outside the Bible, evidence for prophets comes mainly from Mari (in eastern Syria) and Assyria (in northern Iraq). Near Eastern prophets functioned as divine advice-givers to government leaders. They announced the will of the gods and how to stay on their good side. A significant percentage of prophets at Mari were women. Evidence from court prophets at Mari and in Assyria indicates that prophecy was not passed down and expanded through long periods of oral tradition. They wrote it down promptly (sometimes in the presence of witnesses), and delivered what the prophet said to the king.

The Hebrew term for prophet, nabi’ means “one who is called”. A prophet functions as a mediator, a person who serves as a channel for 2-way communication between God and humankind. Israelite prophets often find themselves, not merely speaking to humans on behalf of God, but also interceding with God on behalf of humans. Abraham pleads with God for Sodom; Moses intercedes after the Golden Calf incident, when God swears to destroy the people; Amos pleads on behalf of the Northern Kingdom when God shows him 2 hideous visions of judgment.

Abraham is the first person God calls a prophet (Genesis 20:7), in a direct message to Abimelech king of the Philistines. Why does God call him that? Abraham has no audience or revelation. Yet he is the prophet of the one true God in an almost completely pagan world.

Moses is the quintessential prophet. God speaks to him, he communicates God’s word to the people, and he pleads with God on behalf of the people. Unlike any other prophet except Samuel and Deborah, Moses also leads the nation and functions as a legislator, and unlike any prophet other than Elijah and Elisha, he also performs miracles. In Deuteronomy 18:15, Moses predicts that God will raise up a prophet like him in the future, whom the people are commanded to obey. (We understand this passage to be a Messianic prophecy, but what Moses says goes for all prophets.) Deuteronomy ends with the observation that there has never since arisen a prophet like Moses. (Depending on when this passage was written down, this statement might sound like a negative judgment on Samuel, Elijah, and all the others. It’s not intended to be!)

In Judges 4:4, Deborah is called by the term “prophetess” (nabi’ah); other than Deborah, only Huldah (to whom King Josiah goes for the word from God in 2 Kings 22) and Isaiah’s wife (Isaiah 8:2) are called by this term. Not only does Deborah perform the role of judge/arbitrator, she also relays the command from God to General Baraq to attack the Canaanites.

Samuel is a transitional figure; he is the last of the judges (as leader of the nation), and first of the classic prophets who fit a recognizable role. Samuel arises at a time where we are told “The word of YHWH was rare in those days; there was no frequent vision” (1 Samuel 3:1). But YHWH lets none of Samuel’s words “fall to the ground” (or “remain unfulfilled” – 1 Samuel 3:19). During his career, we also hear of bands of ecstatic prophets (e.g. 1 Samuel 10) with no designated role in society. Even King Saul prophesies as one of these on 2 occasions.

In the reign of David, we first begin to encounter court prophets, among whom I count both Nathan and Gad. Ahijah, however, appears suddenly as an outsider prophet to announce that God would tear the kingdom in 2 (1 Kings 11). After him come 2 more outsider prophets, Elijah and Elisha, who clearly are depicted as having bands of followers. King Ahab has 400 prophets of YHWH in his court at this time, but only Micaiah confronts the king with hard truth.

In the 8th century BC, we have the first OT literary prophets, some of whom appear to be outsiders (like Hosea and Amos), but some are temple personnel (such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Habakkuk). Unlike previous prophets, the literary prophets appear largely as “talking heads” with few clues about the specific situations to which they delivered God’s word. Amos is arguably the first literary prophet. Amos gives us more content, but less context, than any prophet since Moses. He is the first prophet to give us book-length, orally-composed poetry.

With Amos, we see the first ethical challenges to the status quo on a nationwide scale beyond the issue of idolatry. These prophets are best described as covenant lawsuit prosecutors. They testify (as if they were in court) that Israel has broken the provisions of God’s covenant with them, and they announce the coming fulfillment of the curses they have brought upon themselves by breaking those provisions. But almost every one of the literary prophets also sees “light at the end of the tunnel”, that is, blessing after judgment.

Deuteronomy 13 and 18 give 2 criteria to distinguish false prophets from true ones: false predictions, and advocacy of alien gods. The issue, which does not appear to have been an issue in Moses’ day, surfaces during the Divided Monarchy. We find the issue in 1 Kings 18 with the prophets of Baal. We also find it in 1 Kings 22, in Jeremiah 23, and in Jeremiah 28-9.

Both Jeremiah and Ezekiel slam the false prophets of their day, who give false hope to the people. In Jeremiah 23, we read, “Thus says the Lord of hosts: Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you; they are deluding you. They speak visions of their own minds, not from the mouth of the Lord. They say to those who despise the word of the Lord, It shall be well with you, and to all who stubbornly follow their own hearts they say: Nothing bad shall come upon you.” “Behold, I am against the prophets, who steal my words from one another...who use their own tongues and say: Says the Lord.”

One of the key tests of a false prophet is false prophecy, predictions that do not come true (Deuteronomy 18:21-22). But if a prophecy does not come true in the short term, does that mean that it is false? Not necessarily. What if the prophecy is about the distant future, like prophecies of the Messiah? Only where there is positive disproof (such as a time limit) can we say that a prediction was a false prophecy. The issue is whether or not a prophecy truly comes from God. The prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18 spoke in the name of a false god, so even if they made any predictions that came true, these prophets were to be rejected as false (Deuteronomy 13:1-3).

Moses gives the advance warning, but false prophecy does not become a hot-button issue until the time of Jeremiah and Ezekiel. One classic example is Jeremiah 28:1-17, where a prophet predicts in YHWH’s name that the Judeans who had just been taken into exile will come home within two years. God says of such prophets in Jeremiah 29:9, “They are prophesying a lie to you in my name: I did not send them.” And those exiles did not come home as predicted.

The first recorded case of false prophecy is the court prophets of Ahab, who prophesy in the name of YHWH that Ahab will win if he goes up to battle at Ramoth-Gilead (1 Kings 22:6). Micaiah declares that these prophets are channeling a lying spirit who was sent to deceive Ahab into dying in battle (1 Kings 22:20-23). Micaiah lays down the acid test of his word: “If you (Ahab) truly return in peace, YHWH has not spoken by me.” (1 Kings 22:28) In the following battle, Micaiah is proved true, and Ahab’s court prophets are conclusively proved false.

Jeremiah’s prophecy that King Jehoiakim of Judah will be buried “with the burial of an ass” (Jeremiah 22:18-19) is an interesting case, because we have no confirmation that it was fulfilled. The Bible records Jehoiakim’s death, but says nothing about how he was buried, unlike previous kings. One might ask, however, whether this prophecy was likely to have been preserved if it had proven false. It is more likely to have been preserved if it came true.

Sometimes, Biblical prophecies will be preserved even when they seem not to have come true, because the predictions get reinterpreted. That itself becomes part of the challenge in understanding prophecy. Sometimes it takes a prophet to tell us when a prophecy has been fulfilled. But a prophecy like Jeremiah 22:19 seems hard to misunderstand, and comes with a clear time limit. If we had outside evidence that Jehoiakim was dumped outside the city, critics would allege that the prophecy was written after the fact. Here, it’s more likely that the prediction was kept because it proved true, even though we have only the Bible’s strong track record to go on.

Isaiah predicted that Babylon would become a wasteland that would never be rebuilt (Isaiah 13:19-22). Babylon did not become a wasteland immediately, but the prophecy was gradually and eventually fulfilled beyond the time of Isaiah or whatever time to which one may assign this prophecy.

But how do we explain Ezekiel’s prophecy that Nebuchadnezzar would destroy Tyre (Ezekiel 26:1-14)? In Ezekiel 29:17-20, God himself declares that Nebuchadnezzar’s army got no plunder from Tyre, so God announces that he will give them the land of Egypt instead as payment for their labors. It would be easy to mistakenly conclude from Ezekiel’s first prophecy that Nebuchadnezzar would do the whole job of destruction (which wasn’t finished until Alexander). Ezekiel includes this second prophecy in his book to correct this misunderstanding.

Sometimes, Biblical prophets give prophecies that may not have appeared to be true at first. In Haggai 2:21-23, God says to Zerubbabel, governor of post-exilic Judah, that he will “shake heaven and earth” and “overthrow the throne of kingdoms.” On that day, God says to Zerubbabel, “I will make you like a signet ring, for I have chosen you.” When did this happen? Haggai’s audience may have heard these words to mean that Zerubbabel would soon become the world-ruling Messiah. Only when this meaning did not pan out did Judah figure out that this prophecy must have been for a day of the Lord at the end of time.

In the NT, we have John the Baptist, the first prophet in 400 years. Jesus says that among those born of women, there is no one greater than John. John’s words burned with authenticity. He lived what he preached, and people knew it was from God. After John, people say, “John did no miracle, but all things John said about this man [Jesus] were true.” (John 10:41) The only other prophets named in the NT are Agabus (Acts 11), Anna the prophetess (Acts 2), and the 4 daughters of Philip (Acts 21). Notice how many of the NT prophets are women! The prophecy of Joel is being fulfilled: “your sons and your daughters shall prophesy.”

What about prophets and prophecy today? Prophecy is one of the NT gifts of the Spirit in 1 Corinthians 12:10, but Paul teaches us that in worship, “Let 2 or 3 prophets speak, and let the others judge / weigh” what they say (1 Corinthians 14:29). John urges his audience to “Test the spirits, whether they are from God.” (1 John 4:1) Much of today’s prophecy is not prediction but exhortation, and can be judged according to what God has already spoken in our canonical Bible. As for predictions, we need to be careful to name God as the one who has spoken them, lest we be proved false.

A lot of people we know today claim that a living prophet and apostles are essential parts of God’s true Church. They say, “We have a living Prophet and Apostles to guide us in these latter days.” They quote Amos 3:8: “Surely the Lord God does nothing without revealing his secret (literally “inside scoop”) to his servants the prophets.”

Such claims deserve a reasoned response. Jesus says about prophets, “You will know them by their fruits.” (Matthew 7:15-20) The issue is not the followers, but the prophets themselves, particularly the founders of a church or religion. As I have discussed in my book The Historical Jesus and the Historical Joseph Smith, if prophets prove themselves to be untrustworthy, particularly if they deceive their followers about facts on the ground, or if we can’t trust them to tell us the truth about what happened yesterday, how can we trust them to give us revelations from God?

The same is true for reported predictions by these prophets. We must check whether or not these predictions proved to be true, and whether the predictions themselves were reliably reported; if no such prediction was made, the issue becomes moot. I will grant to cases of potentially false predictions the same benefit of the doubt that I give to the Biblical prophets.

Even Jesus’ predictions were misunderstood. When he says, “This generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place,” is he talking just about his predictions that the Temple will be destroyed, or is he saying that his return will also happen within the same time frame? Because I trust Jesus for many other reasons (the most important being his resurrection), I believe that we must avoid confusing the destruction of the Temple, the defiling of the holy place, and his return. The same is true where Jesus says, “Some standing here will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:27) Is Jesus talking about his return? I think he’s talking about his Transfiguration, which happens soon thereafter.

A good modern test case of prophecy is the reported prediction by David Wilkerson back in 1986: “I see a plague coming on the world and the bars and church and government will shut down. The plague will hit New York City and shake it like it has never been shaken. The plague is going to force prayerless believers into radical prayer and into their Bibles and repentance will be the cry from the man of God in the pulpit. And out of it will come a Third Great Awakening that will sweep America and the world.”

There are some intriguing parts of this reported prediction: a plague on the world that shuts down bars and church and government, and shakes New York City. However, I’m not seeing many signs of repentance, and it remains to be seen whether any massive revival ends up being produced by this plague. Plus, there is the question whether there is proof that Wilkerson (who died several years ago) actually made this prediction in these exact words.

In the past 20 years, I have seen 2 cases of public prophecies that someone will be elected to national office which have not come true. Such false predictions do not mean that the rest of what they have to say is false, but it does mean that their source is the flesh rather than God.

But even if a prophet’s predictions all come true, there remains the issue of which God is being proclaimed. A limitless number of gods who started out as human beings, does not in my opinion fit the Biblical requirements for the teaching of a true prophet of the one true God. By contrast, in Jeremiah 31, God says he will make a new covenant with Israel and Judah. What God announces is new, but Jeremiah doesn’t give us a new God or any teaching that is not consistent with what God has already said in the sources we can trust.

What about the scripture from Amos, “Surely the Lord God does nothing without revealing his secret to his servants the prophets”? How often do we find this to be true? Surely this was true in Amos’s day: God did not exile the entire nation of Israel or of Judah without first giving them loud, clear, and timely warnings. But God does not appear to have sent warnings of Covid-19, or 9/11, or of our major world wars. Even claimed prophecies of the American Civil War can be questioned as to whether they are genuine, or whether they were specific enough to warn God’s people in a timely manner. And when major deceivers threaten to deceive God’s Church, does God always give us warnings or intelligence that we can take action on?

It is always a sober and serious matter to speak for God. We do well to rigorously test the spirits as we examine the claims of prophets who claim to speak for God, while being cautious about their predictions where we don’t know the whole story.

Has God appointed anybody today to be the prophet who leads God’s Church? We have no evidence that God has done so or was ever planning to do so. The NT church was not led by such a prophet. They were led by “the apostles and elders,” and we only see them get called into action once, in Acts 15. Jesus appointed Peter, not to be an ongoing leader, but to be Christ’s authorized representative to identify and unpack his genuine teaching until God’s word, the foundation of the apostles and prophets, was complete. We can respect those who have been chosen to lead the major units of God’s Church today, but we must not regard them as prophets. They and their decisions must be tested against God’s word as our ultimate authority.

On our next broadcast, we’re going to be talking about temples and priesthood. Were they a part of God’s Church in the NT? And are they necessary as a part of God’s true Church today? Join us as we explore these questions next time on Biblical Words and World!