Commentary on Deuteronomy 18:15-20
“How can you tell a true prophet from a false prophet?”
Spending my sabbatical year teaching at the Mekane Yesus Seminary in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, I encountered questions that I’ve never encountered in an American seminary classroom. Prophets? In my experience, prophets are people like Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel — strange, charismatic figures whose words continue to inspire and convict us, but who are safely confined to the biblical era. We might speak of exceptional people like Martin Luther King, Jr. as prophets, but such people are few and far between.
But for my Ethiopian students, the question was a real and urgent one. There are many people who claim to be prophets in the Ethiopian churches, and those around them need to know whether they are trustworthy or not.
One student, a middle-aged, wise pastor, said that when he was young, a self-proclaimed prophet told him and a certain young woman that God wanted them to marry one another and that if they didn’t, they would die. “We looked at each other,” he went on, “and we said, ‘No, we’re not going to get married.’ We married other people and both of us are still alive.” The whole class laughed.
How can you tell a true prophet from a false prophet? The question was just as urgent for the audience that our text from Deuteronomy addresses. After Moses — the pre-eminent prophet — dies, how will the people know the will of God? They cannot consult sooth-sayers and mediums like the nations around them do, as the passage before this one makes abundantly clear (Deuteronomy18:9-14). So how will they know who speaks for God?
“The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet” (Deuteronomy 18:15). God promises not to abandon the people to their own devices. The passage was probably originally a validation of the line of prophets that arose in Israel over the centuries (Nathan, Elijah, Elisha, Huldah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, etc.). From time to time, God would call a prophet to speak God’s word to the people. This passage, however, came to be understood over the centuries as an eschatological promise. The promised prophet (singular) was understood to be a person that would come during the messianic age.
This eschatological expectation is apparent in a confrontation between John the Baptist and the religious authorities. When John announces the kingdom of God, the priests and Levites ask him, “Who are you?” and he says, “’I am not the Messiah.’ And they asked him, ‘What then? Are you Elijah?’ He said, ‘I am not.’ ‘Are you the prophet?’ He answered, ‘No’ … They asked him, ‘Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?’” (John 1:20-21, 25). When Moses and Elijah appear with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration, they are not so much representations of the Law and the Prophets as they are the two figures that were expected to appear at the end of the ages, to herald the Messiah.
This eschatological expectation does not seem to be at the heart of the matter, however, in the Deuteronomy passage. The issue is not the end of the ages, but the present time, when in the muck and mire of everyday life, the people need to know who speaks for God.
Perhaps the question is as relevant for us as it was for those ancient Israelites and for my present-day Ethiopian students. Who speaks for God? There are lots of people who claim to speak for God today: prosperity preachers, self-help gurus, radio and TV preachers, religious bloggers galore, and even you, working preacher, who gets up Sunday after Sunday to proclaim God’s Word in your particular time and place.
Who speaks for God? How do you distinguish between a true prophet and a false prophet? Deuteronomy gives us some guidance. Anyone who speaks in the name of other gods is obviously a false prophet (18:20). But false prophets are usually more subtle than that. Anyone who speaks a prophecy that doesn’t come true is a false prophet (18:22). The problem, of course, is that often we need to make a decision in the moment and can’t wait to see what becomes of the prophet’s (or preacher’s) word.
Still, if we take the larger witness of the Old Testament prophets seriously, there are some other things we can say (and this is what I said to my Ethiopian students).
- The true prophet does not seek to be a prophet. From Moses’ long protest against God’s call in Exodus 3 to Jeremiah’s objection that he is “only a boy” (Jeremiah 1:6), no prophet in the Bible wants to be a prophet. It is something, instead, that they do because they cannot avoid God’s call. When Jeremiah tries to keep silent, he cannot (Jeremiah 20). Even when Elijah runs away, he cannot escape God’s presence (1 Kings 19).
- The true prophet seeks neither self-promotion nor riches. Naaman the Syrian is healed of leprosy by Elisha’s word in 2 Kings 5, but Elisha will not accept any payment or gift. Many of the prophets put aside pride and dignity in order to engage in bizarre sign-acts, walking naked in the streets of Jerusalem (Isaiah 20) or lying prone on the ground for weeks on end (Ezekiel 4).
- The true prophet speaks God’s word, not his or her own (Deuteronomy 18:18). Over and over again, the prophets declare, “Thus says the LORD.” And they most often speak words that are uncomfortable, to say the least — words of judgment for their own people. True, they also speak words of comfort and hope, but almost always on the other side of judgment. The prophets are not advocates of the power of positive thinking. Their hope rests on God alone, not on their own power or worth.1
- The true prophet bears a “family resemblance” to what has come before. The prophets speak new words into new situations. “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” (Isaiah 43:18-19). The Holy Spirit moves in new and unexpected ways. Nevertheless, if the prophet’s words contradict what we already know of God from Scripture, then they (and the prophet) should be suspect.
- The true prophet (and the false prophet) is known by his or her “fruit.” Jesus warns, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:15-16). Does the prophet (or preacher) lead others to be disciples of Jesus or of themselves? Does his or her preaching lead to repentance and transformation or to complacency and self-absorption?
Who speaks for God? The answer requires discernment and prayer. Scripture gives us some guidelines, and there are more than what I have listed here. In all that we do, of course, as we hear and study God’s Word, and as we are given the great privilege and the responsibility to proclaim it ourselves, we must do so with a healthy dose of humility, pointing always to Jesus, our great prophet, priest, and king.
1 This is perhaps too easy a target for condemnation, but in a particularly bizarre episode, Joel Osteen, appearing on Oprah Winfrey’s “Lifeclass,” leads the audience in “I am” statements — having nothing to do with Christ but only with themselves: “I am strong! I am confident! I am secure! I am talented! I am blessed! I am victorious!” One can only imagine how furiously Jeremiah or John the Baptist would respond. See the video at http://www.oprah.com/oprahs-lifeclass/Positive-Declarations-from-Pastor-Joel-Osteen-Video.