Commentary on Deuteronomy 18:15-20
Prophets are a rather complicated gift.
According to Deuteronomy 18:15-20, they were a gift from God to the people who needed to hear what God had to say but were reduced to a state of abject terror at the sound of the divine voice. To enable communication to continue, God will send a prophet “like Moses” who will act as the mouthpiece for God: “I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to [the people] everything that I command” (verse 18b).
Such figures are vital to the wellbeing of the people, and the narratives of the prophets demonstrate just how difficult it was both to wear the mantle of the prophet and to hear the prophets’ words. The word of God is hard to bear.
The authentic word of God is also quite difficult to discern, particularly when there are competing messages. The admonition of verse 20 highlights the problem of the false prophet: “But any prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, or who presumes to speak in my name a word that I have not commanded to speak — that prophet shall die.” Thus, the price for prophesying falsely is clearly articulated, just how the human recipients of the false prophet’s message are to know the message is not from God is less clear.
It might be a simple matter if false prophets were those who spoke for gods other than Yahweh, but it is also possible that a false prophet might claim to speak for Yahweh. Indeed, Micah in 1 Kings 22 claims that the other prophets have been intentionally deceived by God in order to trick the king, which shows that even a prophet who speaks in the name of God and believes that he or she is speaking a true message can be a false prophet.
The text does contain other clues for how one might judge between one prophet and another. God will call prophets “like Moses” and presumably their messages will correspond to the Mosaic law. One might also consider the characteristics of Moses himself: one who was both an advocate for the people before God and also an obedient servant of God, speaking faithfully on behalf of God to the people. Love of God and God’s people might be said to set the true prophet apart from the false. The text also mentions that the true prophet will be “from among your own people” (verse 15), however, Balaam (Numbers 22-24) speaks an authentic message from God and is not of the people of Israel. Also the people of Samaria viewed the prophet Amos as an outsider because he was from Judah and presumed to proclaim a message to them.
Although it is outside the verses selected for the lectionary this week, verse 22 presents one technique by which to separate the true prophet from the false: “If a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord but the thing does not take place or prove true, it is a word that the LORD has not spoken.” The limitation of such a method is obvious: one can generally discern what was the correct path in retrospect. The problem is how to decide what is the true word of God in the moment, when the matter is pressing and the choice must be made.
The problem is that the words of the true prophets are quite often the last thing that people want to hear, something that King Jehoshaphat of Judah seemed to realize in 1 Kings 22, the narrative of the prophet Micah, a narrative mentioned above as well. When all the other prophets confirmed the two kings in their proposed course of action, Jehoshaphat asked, “Is there no other prophet of the Lord here of whom we may inquire” (verse 7)? Prophets in the Old Testament were known to pronounce judgment on the very foundations of the people’s beliefs.
Jeremiah 18:18 reports the efforts of Jeremiah’s opponents to plot against him because they viewed Jeremiah as a threat to the religious life of the people. They say: “Come, let us make plots against Jeremiah — for instruction shall not perish from the priest, nor counsel from the wise, nor the word from the prophet…let us not heed any of his words.” The basis for their refusal to listen to him and to go and act against him is that he is speaking outside and against the legitimate religious authorities. Although Jeremiah says on numerous occasions that the authorities are corrupt, his was just one voice, one perspective on the proper conduct and beliefs of the people of God. Even the book of Deuteronomy represents just one view among many, albeit a view that has come to be seen as authoritative.
Preaching this text could take a preacher in any number of directions. It is a helpful lens through which to view many of the stories of the prophets we find in the Old Testament and can provide an opportunity to talk about how difficult it would have been to hear and recognize the word of God. It is all to easy to condemn the people of Israel and Judah for failing to listen to the prophets, and this text can give a congregation some understanding of the struggles associated with recognizing a true prophet.
Most people and communities have a hard time hearing the words that demand a drastic change of belief or practices, and so the tendency is to ignore such words of judgment or to dismiss them as the words of a false prophet. We find layers upon layers of difficulty before us in our effort to discern the word of God in our midst, and yet the task is of the utmost importance.
The task of determining God’s word to us requires a great effort on our part and a willingness to listen for the word that challenges all that we hold dear and believe to be true. The word of God is, indeed, difficult to bear and to hear, but the alternative — being cut off from God, unable to look beyond our human limits and see God’s dream for us — is untenable.