When Most Prophets are Wrong—1 Kings 22

When God gives a promise, we are right to believe it with all our hearts. Some biblical promises, though, are about collective judgment or impending hardship. These promises, too, we must take to heart so we may prepare for them (Gen 41:30, 36; 2 Kgs 8:1). This perspective may not appeal to a generation accustomed to having speakers cater to our wants as consumers. We need, however, to break that consumer habit when it comes to God, who is not an employee of a service industry.

Sometimes we idealize the past, say, the time of Elijah. Sometimes we idealize the future, expecting everything to get better just around the corner. Things do sometimes get better, especially when people turn to the Lord, but we need to be discerning about glowing promises concerning the future.

It is possible to live in a generation where a consensus of people speaking for God declares that everything is well, that we are now on the right track, and that everything is about to get better. There are some circles in my country today where that seems to be the dominant message. One would expect God’s spokespeople to communicate what God is saying, not just what people want to hear. One would also expect them to hear from God directly and not to just follow the trend of other prophets they respect.

Unfortunately, leaders themselves are vulnerable to being misled. If we do not immerse ourselves in God’s voice in Scripture, we can sometimes miss the voice that is genuinely God’s when His Spirit speaks to us. That happened in Jeremiah’s day: the consensus of prophets was that everything would be well with God’s people; God would defend them from their enemies, who were far worse than they (Jer 6:14; 8:11). Among the prophets, Jeremiah stood virtually alone, for years, in warning the nation of coming judgment. Jeremiah was an outlier; who would believe his ornery preaching against the consensus of prophets that God would defend His special people? The consensus of prophets, however, was illusory; too many were stealing God’s words from one another (Jer 23:30).

We encounter the same sort of setting in 1 Kgs 22, back in the time of Elijah the prophet. There all the king’s court prophets unanimously promise that King Ahab will win back the city he is trying to capture (22:6). Yet the God-fearing King of Judah, King Jehoshaphat, is uncomfortable with their unanimous message. That he wants to inquire from a prophet of the LORD (22:7) suggests that he recognizes that the prophets on Ahab’s payroll are not speaking for God alone. King Ahab seems to view prophets the same way that some people view “positive confession”: speak what is positive in the Lord’s name and so help bring it to pass. Without a genuine message from God’s Spirit, however, that is a sure formula for false prophecy (cf. Lam 3:37).

Ahab’s false prophets use symbolic gestures just like true ones do (1 Kgs 22:11). They claim to speak in the LORD’s name, just like true ones doe (22:11-12). Formal features do not distinguish the false prophecies from true ones; only truth can do that. But Jehoshaphat insists on hearing an independent witness, so Ahab reluctantly summons the prophet Micaiah, who consistently confronts Ahab with unpleasant messages (22:7-9). Why should Ahab believe this isolated, grumpy prophet who prophesies coming judgment on Ahab, when despite Micaiah’s past prophecies Ahab remains alive? Micaiah will just put a damper on confidence for the battle!

Ahab’s messenger thus warns Micaiah what the consensus of prophets is, and invites him to speak accordingly (22:13). It is easy to hear what we want to hear, whether under political pressure or favor or personal desire. Micaiah at first seems to echo the other prophets (22:15), yet in such a way that it seems clear that he does not believe it (22:16). Micaiah is committed to speak what he hears from God (22:14). Thus Micaiah prophesies that the king will die (22:17), and that God himself, as a means of judgment, ordained a false message for Ahab’s prophets in order to lure him to destruction (22:19-23). Not every feeling of inspiration that anyone has is from God’s Spirit.

As far as Ahab is concerned, this is just characteristic, contrarian Micaiah, trying to oppose him (22:18). Moreover, Zedekiah, one of the other leading prophets, strikes Micaiah, challenging him. Why should anyone suppose that Zedekiah, a renowned royal prophet, heard wrongly whereas isolated Micaiah heard correctly (22:24)? Micaiah informs him that he will know when the Lord’s true word comes to pass, and Zedekiah has to hide in a time of judgment (22:25). The king takes precautions to forestall any bad luck from Micaiah’s prophecy (22:26-27), as if Micaiah rather than the LORD is the source (22:28). (Against what others sometimes suppose, those who prophesy judgment may not personally want it to happen; Jer 28:6; Luke 19:41-44.) Yet Micaiah’s word comes to pass (1 Kgs 22:34-37), as does an earlier prophecy of Elijah that had been deferred for a time on account of Ahab’s remorse (22:38; cf. 21:19, 27-29).

Not all dreams are from the Lord (Jer 23:27, 32); some messages come only from people’s own minds (23:26, 36). It is often easier to get popular by telling people what they want to hear (2 Tim 4:3) and then attributing the corporate emotional thrill to God’s anointing. Yet cheap thrills from rhetoric alone are not the same as the stirring power of the true word of the Lord in one’s heart (Jer 5:14), and imitations of prophetic form are not the same as the true word of the Lord (Jer 23:28).

The biblical solution is not to throw out the baby with the bathwater, to discard Micaiah or Jeremiah along with the prophets who curry favor. The biblical solution is to use discernment (1 Cor 14:29; 1 Thess 5:20-22). Even Israel’s false prophets could have become true prophets had they truly feared and heeded God first (Jer 23:21-22).

Consensus of people genuinely seeking God is important (Acts 15:28; 1 Cor 14:29), but when a generation becomes too corrupted by its own desires we must heed instead the transgenerational succession of the true prophetic word (Jer 28:8). If prophets have been announcing judgment for a land and no major transformation has occurred, then the burden of proof is on prophets who prophesy peace (28:9).

It is too easy to go along with what others tell us, rather than stand for what God alone is saying. One true prophet who believed another prophet’s “white lie” ended up paying for this error with his life (1 Kgs 13:11-25). Let us immerse ourselves in what we all can agree is God’s Word—Scripture—so we will rightly discern God’s voice when He speaks to us in other ways. Otherwise, we may follow an entire generation toward destruction, silencing the erratic yet genuine voices that warn of less pleasant realities.

Seek the common good (89-second video)

The video appears here; the text follows if you prefer to read it

https://youtu.be/X7o_IJe-GHM

Sometimes religious people, like some other people, have wanted to be in charge of society. Of course, in a democracy we’re all responsible for public welfare and should work for our society’s good, including in working for justice and truth in the public square. We should intelligent articulate and advocate for values that will help people, and the more people who share these values, the healthier society can be. But theocracy like existed at times in ancient Israel is not the model God has given us for our period in salvation history. Instead, Paul asks in 1 Cor 5:12, “What do I have to do with judging those outside?” Moreover, as many ethicists point out, New Testament writers speak of us as resident aliens, harking back to the Israelites’ experience in exile. God’s people in the Persian empire were a minority in a pluralistic society; although some hated them (consider the book of Esther), God often blessed them with favor and wisdom. As the Lord commanded his people in Jer 29:7, “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (NRSV).

When you have to stand alone

“Wrap up your garment for action. Get up and tell them everything that I myself command you. Don’t be scared of them … Today I myself have established you like a fortified city, an iron pillar or a bronze wall against the entire land—against the kings of Judah, its leaders, its priests and the land’s people. They’ll fight you but won’t overpower you, for I myself am with you to keep you safe” (Jer 1:17-19)

Have you ever felt like you had only a few allies in sharing Christ with others, or in standing for something that is true? We hear a lot about “community” these days, and community is a wonderful blessing. But what happens when you are in a setting where most people disagree with your faith or ignore a clear message from God?

Jeremiah’s situation was worse than that. He was nearly alone in proclaiming God’s message. The other prophets of his day were encouraging the people that because God was their God he wouldn’t judge them. Jeremiah thus had to stand alone with the unpopular message of impending judgment, while all the other prophets told everyone what they wanted to hear. Jeremiah had to let God’s people know that they were breaking God’s covenant, and that God would judge them—though someday God promised a new covenant that they wouldn’t break. Jeremiah did have a few allies—Baruch the scribe, who wrote his prophecies, and a foreigner, Ebed-melech from Africa.

But he was mostly alone, and most people didn’t like him. He also couldn’t feel comfortable simply taking life easy like many around him. “Because your hand was on me, I had to keep to myself, for you filled me with your fury of judgment,” Jeremiah complained (Jer 15:17).

God had been patient with his people for a long time, but finally he was getting ready to discipline them. In fact, once they were exiled and had to learn to live in a pagan environment, they would learn to value the true God who was their only hope for the future. But why did Israel deserve punishment so much?

Scripture told them that they were supposed to love God wholly—and thus abstain from other gods (Deut 6:4-5). Because of this whole-hearted devotion to God, they were to meditate on his Word always. They were supposed to talk about his commands at home and when outside (a nice Hebrew way of saying, wherever they were), and when they lay down and when they got up (a nice Hebrew way of saying, all the time; 6:6-9). God warned them not to forget, when he blessed them in the land, that he had liberated them from slavery (6:10-12). But now his people had done just that—abandoning him, the source of flowing water, and digging broken water tanks for themselves that couldn’t even hold any water (Jer 2:13).

For the most part, only the priests and especially scribes were literate. Only they could teach God’s law to the people. Yet the literate people themselves neglected the law (Jer 5:4-5; cf. Isa 29:11-12), and the people followed their traditional customs without even realizing that they had forsaken the teaching of God’s Word. The entire nation had become corrupt (Jer 5:1-5), and someone needed to call the people back to the truths of Scripture.

This meant that history was at a very serious juncture. Israel was called to be a light to the nations (Isa 42:6); if they were blind (42:18-20), God’s light could be extinguished in the world. Jeremiah thus stood as a lone voice in a pivotal moment of history, like Noah or Abraham before him. Later, Jesus similarly called people prophetically to truth; in his day, the religious leaders knew the Bible but interpreted it through traditions that missed God’s heart (Mark 7:6-8, 13). In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus’s own disciples continually fail to understand his mission, appearing spiritually half-blind (8:17-18), even falling asleep just before his arrest. Jesus had to stand alone for the truth of his mission, while planting and nurturing the seeds of the future.

Paul was not quite so alone—he usually had a circle of colleagues who helped him—but sometimes Paul also had to go against others’ convictions to stand for the truth. That’s why Gentile Christians don’t have to be circumcised today! Near the time of his death, Paul laments that the Roman province of Asia, where he had expended his labors most successfully, had turned away from him (2 Tim 1:15), though even there some were not embarrassed by his arrest (1:16). Paul entrusts the future there especially to Timothy, who must pass the message on to others (2:1-2). In antiquity men often married in hopes of having a male heir. Timothy was the son that Paul had never had (1:2; 2:1); Paul said he had no one like him, totally devoted to Christ’s concerns (Phil 2:20-22).

Like Jeremiah, Paul never lived to see all the fruit of his labors. Yet his letters survived him as a source of renewal to the church ever since. Likewise, although even the remnant of Judah disobeyed God’s message and dragged Jeremiah with them to Egypt, the next generation recognized Jeremiah as a true prophet of the Lord. Generations after him recognized that God fulfilled his promises given through Jeremiah (2 Chron 36:22; Ezra 1:1; Dan 9:2). From Jeremiah’s day onward, Israel never again turned to physical idols.

When Jeremiah was young, Judah experienced revival. In the ancient world, peoples often preserved foundation documents in the masonry of temples, and that’s where workers found the neglected book of the law (2 Kgs 22:8). When King Josiah, now twenty-six years old, heard the law read by the court scribe, he didn’t make excuses for the people or try to explain away the message in light of how God’s people had long been living. He didn’t turn it into a daily devotional reading as if merely reading it fulfilled its purpose. No, he ripped his royal cloak in mourning, recognizing that God’s people were headed for certain judgment. Then he sent to the prophetess Huldah to hear God’s message for his generation (22:11-13). God blessed his moral reform and delayed judgment, but by this point Israel was too enmeshed in sin for judgment to be turned back permanently (22:15-20).

Josiah died young, and his successors were not committed enough to God to continue his devotion to God’s book. It fell to Jeremiah to summon his generation back from the brink of destruction. Though by the end of his life it looked like Jeremiah had failed, his message was vindicated and ultimately it prevailed; God’s word did not return empty. Eventually Jeremiah’s book even made it into the Bible; he was the only prophet of his time and place who told the truth.

Today we have Bibles but we often interpret them by how the rest of the church is living, instead of interpreting how people are living in light of the Bible. Will you stand firm to make a difference for God in your generation? Even if you have to stand virtually alone? You can succeed if you walk with God and know, as God told Jeremiah, “I’m with you to help you” (Jer 1:19).

Who really speaks for God?—1 Thessalonians 5:21

Paul closes his first letter to the Thessalonians with a series of exhortations. Paul no doubt designed these exhortations particularly for the believers in Thessalonica, but they relevant for us today also. (Ancient writers sometimes listed a series of exhortations; in this case, Paul is adding some concise advice after finishing the main part of his letter.) I will focus especially on Paul’s exhortations concerning prophecy, in their wider ancient Christian context, but many of these principles also apply when we evaluate teachings.

Paul’s exhortations in 1 Thessalonians 5:12-22

Paul’s closing exhortations include supporting and heeding God’s workers among them (5:12-13a), remaining in unity (5:13b), giving each member of the body what they need (admonition, encouragement, or help, 5:14) and being patient and kind with everyone (5:14b-15).

Paul then lists a trio of exhortations related to a worshipful heart: always rejoice, continue in prayer, and give thanks in every situation (5:16-18). Such an approach to life demonstrates faith in God who guides our lives. Of course, these are general summaries, not meaning that a person is never sad. Elsewhere Paul does value grieving with those who grieve (Rom 12:15) and himself grieves whenever he thinks of the fallen state of his people (Rom 9:2-3). He feared for a friend’s safety (2 Cor 7:5) and was deeply concerned for the churches (2 Cor 11:28-29; 1 Thess 3:5). Nevertheless, joy is characteristic of life in the Spirit (Gal 5:22) and of much worship (e.g., Ps 9:2; 27:6; 32:11; 33:3).

Then Paul turns to what might be another trio of exhortations, the third of which might raise two related issues. We must not “quench” the Spirit (1 Thess 5:19); we must not despise prophecies (5:20); we must evaluate them (5:21), embracing what is good and rejecting what is evil (5:21-22).

The verb that Paul uses to warn against “quenching” the Spirit originally (and usually still) referred to putting out a fire. This suggests to us that the Spirit sometimes moves God’s people in astonishingly dramatic ways; even more clearly, it warns us that our resistance can hinder the Spirit’s work. We can do this in ways such as preferring our old patterns of doing things to what God is now doing, or by deliberate disobedience.

Discerning prophecies (1 Thess 5:20-22)

The next exhortation likely suggests one of the Spirit’s key ways of working: “Do not despise prophecies” (5:20). As we see in 1 Corinthians 14 and in light of the Old Testament, God moved some of those listening to him to deliver his message to others. Whereas this may have sometimes been practiced in small groups of prophets in the Old Testament (e.g., 1 Sam 10:5-6, 10), God had now poured out the prophetic Spirit so widely starting at Pentecost (Acts 2:17-18) that such prophecy was widespread among the early churches (compare 1 Cor 14:1, 5, 26-31).

The verb translated “despise” implies contemptuously looking down on something as being too insignificant, or beneath one’s dignity, to consider. The Old Testament and Jewish tradition often associated the Spirit with prophetic inspiration, so “quenching the Spirit” (1 Thess 5:19) may be expressed here especially by demeaning prophecy (5:20). Probably the Thessalonian Christians were not the only ones tempted to ignore prophecies; Paul warns the Corinthian Christians to zealously seek to prophesy, as well as not to forbid tongues (1 Cor 14:39). (See further http://wp.me/p1MUNd-l9.)

Nevertheless, not all prophecies or messages supposedly from God really were (cf. 2 Thess 2:2). Moreover, we may hear something from God yet fallibly misunderstand and/or miscommunicate it: we know and prophesy only in part (1 Cor 13:9; cf. 2 Kgs 2:3, 5, 15-16; Matt 11:3; Acts 21:4).

One must therefore “test all things” (1 Thess 5:21). Paul elsewhere speaks of evaluating everything, so we may discern God’s will (Rom 12:2; Phil 1:9-10); he urges us to evaluate especially ourselves (1 Cor 11:28; 2 Cor 13:5; Gal 6:4). He also exhorts prophets in local congregations to corporately evaluate the prophecies they have given (1 Cor 14:29), and may speak of a special gift of such discernment (12:10).

Having evaluated messages, we should embrace what is good and reject what is evil (5:21-22). These final warnings may apply specifically to prophecy. But even if these last two warnings are more general rather than referring specifically to prophecy, in this context the principle would certainly apply to prophecy also.

Often in the Old Testament, senior prophets such as Samuel or Elijah and Elisha mentored groups of younger prophets, helping them grow in discernment (cf. 1 Sam 19:20; 2 Kgs 4:38; 6:1-3). Here, however, Paul addresses a congregation of believers that is only several years old; the “safety net” for prophecy in this case thus involves not the discernment of senior prophets but rather a sort of peer review. Here those most sensitive to the Spirit’s voice listen together for God’s leading (1 Cor 14:29). The corporate hearing of all the churches was also valuable (1 Cor 14:36). Paul could function in the senior prophet role himself (14:37-38), but was not with them to supervise everything, and sometimes these young believers needed correction. Today we still need to practice discernment about whatever message claims to be from God, whether it is with prophecies or teachings.

Discerning prophets in Scripture

First John, concerned about false teachers who have left the community of believers, warns that believers must “test” the spirits to discern false prophets (1 John 4:1). Whereas Paul’s instructions to churches required evaluating genuine believers’ prophecies, this passage addresses full-fledged false prophets from the spirit of “antichrist” (4:1-6). First John offers various means of discernment, both doctrinal (Jesus is the Christ, 2:22-23; Jesus Christ has come in the flesh, 4:2-3; Jesus is God’s Son, 4:15; fidelity to the apostolic witness to Jesus, 4:5-6) and moral (continued fellowship with God’s people, 2:19; keeping his commandments [2:3-6], especially by loving other believers, 2:9-11; 3:10; 4:7-8, 20). Articulating the right view about Christ and faithfully loving one another are both signs of being true followers of Christ; wrong views about Christ, or failure to truly love one’s fellow believers, are signs of a false prophet.

Of course, John was addressing a specific situation. We also read of false prophets who deliberately make up falsehoods to exploit God’s people financially or sexually (2 Pet 2:1-3). Others prophesy in Jesus’s name, apparently believing in what they are doing (Matt 7:22), but are damned because they do not bear the good fruit of obedience to Jesus’s teachings (7:16-23). A person can even prophesy genuinely by the Spirit and yet not be a godly person, simply moved because the Spirit is strong in the ministry setting where they find themselves (1 Sam 19:20-24). What matters most before God—and how we will know who is from God—is not a person’s gifts but his or her fruit.

A very early Christian document that is not in the New Testament gives even more detailed advice. Chapter 11 of the Didache urges Christians to initially welcome visiting apostles and prophets. If, however, an alleged apostle or prophet does not live by the Lord’s ways, for example by seeking for money or gifts for oneself, that person is a false prophet.

Ultimately, in distinguishing a true message from God from a false one (or at least one distorted by human misinterpretation), any given message must be evaluated by a larger context of what God has said. God’s word did not start with any of us nor come to us alone (1 Cor 14:36). God will not contradict what he has already spoken, so everything may be safely tested by Scripture. Further, as noted above, others who listen to God should also be able to recognize whether something is truly from God or not.

Discerning messages today

Because not everyone understands Scripture the same way, careful interpretation is important (see e.g., http://www.craigkeener.com/why-it-is-important-to-study-the-bible-in-context/; “The Bible in its Context” free at http://www.craigkeener.com/free-resources/).

A difficulty sometimes harder to resolve by “objective” means is how we recognize who else is truly listening to the Spirit to help evaluate messages. In settings where falsehood has become widespread, the true prophetic voice may be in the minority whereas those who all speak the same message may be false prophets (1 Kgs 22:6-25; Jer 5:13, 31; 14:13-15; 20:6; 23:9-31; 26:7-8, 11, 16; 27:9, 14-18; 28; 29:8, 31; 32:32; 37:19; Ezek 13:2-9). Nevertheless, even here the true prophetic voice stands in continuity with earlier prophetic voices (Jer 7:25; 25:4; 26:5; 28:8; 29:19; 35:15).

Even though some regarded prophecies of judgment against God’s people as blasphemous (Jer 26:11), the burden of proof rested with those who told people what they wanted to hear (28:8-9). “Prophets” can get popular telling people what they want to hear, such as that judgment is not coming (Jer 6:13-14; 8:10-11; 14:13-16; Ezek 13:16; Mic 3:5), or that God does not mind their sexual behavior or popular idolatry (Jude 4; Rev 2:14, 20).

To give an example, a few decades ago prosperity teacher Charles Capps declared that judgment would not come on America, since it had 100 million Christians who spoke in tongues. During the same period, Pentecostal preacher David Wilkerson was warning that judgment was coming on the United States. Which one was more accurately hearing what the Spirit was saying?

Certainly we know what people in the United States want to hear and want they do not want to hear, whether it comes from the political right or the political left. People were incensed when Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson, from the political right, pronounced judgment on the United States for sexual sin; people were no less incensed when Jeremiah Wright, President Obama’s former pastor, pronounced judgment on this country for exploiting others. One reason for the public outcry in both cases was that the speakers apparently pronounced judgment after the fact (even if they had also been doing it beforehand); another may have been that it was felt insensitive to the many innocent people who suffered when the tragic events came.

Nevertheless, it also seems clear that it is easier to become popular by preaching what satisfies people’s “itching ears” (2 Tim 4:3). Is it possible that preachers who promote extravagance, or preach a god who does not care about injustice, or promise that believers will not suffer, and so forth, gain followers by satisfying what people want to hear? Is it possible that God’s heart is grieved, as in Jeremiah’s day, by the proliferation of false messages in his name?