They were false prophets because their ‘imaginary’ prophecies were not fulfilled. Unlike most genuine prophets they weren’t unpopular nor were they shunned, as Jeremiah was. They were included in the company of Priests and Kings. They regularly prophesied and were celebrated for their ecstatic utterances. They were part of the fabric of Israel’s national life and culture, confirming God’s continuing protection and goodness to the people – or so they said.
The prophet of the Lord, Jeremiah, gives false prophets a thorough lambasting. To some, he declares their days will be shortened, to others exile and loss, but to all stern reproof for not speaking in God’s name when claiming they were – “they have spoken in my name lying words that I did not command them.”
What then, was the nature of their prophetic ministry? Why did Jeremiah spend considerable energy repudiating their words of comfort and protection from encroaching enemies?
In short, the false prophets were giving false hope.
They were saying good times were ahead when, in actual fact, good times was the last thing on the agenda for their foreseeable future. Exile was decreed to them – back to Egypt (in a sense) – in the form of Babylon.
Jeremiah did speak of restoration and a restoring of God’s goodness to the people and the land – “I will restore the fortunes of my people.” And it was Jeremiah who spoke of a new covenant, wherein the Law of God would be written on the hearts of his people – not stone tablets. Jeremiah wasn’t a pessimist, but neither was he an optimist in regards their current fortunes and future. His sure hope was that God would one day revive and restore his people – but not before sorrow, loss and exile. “There is hope for your future, declares the Lord.” But in the meantime, they would face 70 years of exilic judgment. He was consequently imprisoned because the King and the nation didn’t like what he said – “why do you prophesy and say …”
False prophets tell people what they want to hear and for so doing are popular, and likely prosperous.
Because they wanted to satisfy the people, they made up what God didn’t say. But the King and the people loved it – ‘away with the doomsayer Jeremiah,’ they demanded.
It is easy to see false prophets as Rasputin-like, with glowering eyes, questionable intent, and crafty words ensnaring God’s people. But nothing could be further from the truth – they were popular, celebrated, invited into the halls of influence and power. What they said made the people happier – although, it should be noted, not for long. They accused Jeremiah of “not seeking the welfare of the people, but their harm.” They wanted the people to hear only good news – laudable in one sense, but deceptive in another.
Has anything changed?
Paul the apostle prophetically warned Timothy, “the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions.” We could add prophets to this.
A false prophet in the age of the church and the Spirit is unlikely to be saying things that are wildly unorthodox or heretical; they are likely to be like the prophets of Jeremiah’s day who appealed to the needs and desires of the people.
They aren’t always immoral, unethical, and heterodox – although false prophets can be all these things. But they only speak the positive, the palatable, the immediately satisfying. They are unlikely to challenge and convict with God’s word, as this is perceived as being negative and abusive (and when we go down that road, no discipling is possible).
We are so enmeshed in the therapeutic, the emotive, the sought-for expression of our ‘true’ selves, we are seldom any longer capable of being corrected, much less rebuked.
A prophet, worth his salt, won’t always say things we like.
Agabus didn’t get the memo from the ministry of ‘feel-good.’ He spoke of chain and pain when speaking to Paul. And Jesus told Paul how much he would suffer for him – hardly very encouraging.
Would we allow for a ‘word’ that told us our future had dark days in it, but that God would work it for his glory and our maturation?
The point being: we have to be able to take both. Sometimes things aren’t going to get better, although if we allow the Holy Spirit access to our inconvenience, we will – get better, that is.
For every three encouraging words we need one that stops us in our self-oriented tracks, calls us to account, and reminds us of the lives of Jesus, Paul and the saints (God’s church).
We are promised God’s goodness and difficult days. A false prophet only takes account of the former.