Killing false prophets: Wanna bring it back?

Fake prophets can be really destructive. But killing them is the easy way out.

When the LORD explained to Moses how his prophets were gonna work, he wasn’t messing around.

Deuteronomy 18.17-22 KWL
17 “The LORD told me, ‘What they say is correct, 18 so I’m raising up prophets for them—
from among their family, like you, and I put my words in their mouth.
They speak to the people everything I command them.
19 When anyone doesn’t listen to my words which my prophet speaks in my name,
I myself demand accountability from that person.
20 However, the prophet who presumes to speak in my name what I’ve not commanded them to speak,
or what was spoken in the name of other gods: This prophet dies.
21 When you say in your heart, “How can we identify a word which wasn’t spoken by the LORD?”:
22 When the prophet speaks in the LORD’s name, and it’s not my word—
it’s not something the LORD’s spoken; it won’t come to anything.
The prophet spoke it in pride. Don’t fear them.’ ”

True, we don’t execute false prophets anymore. Not because, as some dispensationalists would put it, we don’t live under the Law anymore; we live under grace. (And that grace apparently extends to con artists and manipulative people who’d convince you they’re true prophets, then proceed to ruin your lives and rob you blind.)

Nope, it’s because of separation of church and state. The government isn’t to interfere with any religion, including the fake stuff. As history has proven time and again, when it comes to religion, governments and politicians can’t be trusted to determine what’s real and what’s fake. To keep ’em from persecuting and destroying true religion, we have to self-police the frauds. But lest we go overboard ourselves, it means we don’t have the power to execute ’em.

Where does that leave us? Well, when they’re fraudulent in the area of prophecy, they’re frequently fraudulent in many other areas of their lives. Including areas where our governments can criminally prosecute them. The state can get ’em for fraud; the feds can get ’em for tax evasion.

And when they haven’t crossed that line, but are obviously fake prophets, Christians need to stop giving them free passes, nor covering up for their misdeeds. We’re supposed to expose such misdeeds. Ep 5.11-14 Broadcast far and wide that these fakes can’t be trusted; that they’re poison and cancer to our churches; that they ruin our Christian sisters and brothers for their own gain, drive some of ’em away from the church or even Jesus, and give pagans an excuse to mock us. Our tolerance level for fakes should be way lower than it is.

I know; Christians are supposed to do grace, like our Father. That’s why we’re to personally forgive these frauds when they wrong us. Be kind and loving to them. But put them into positions of authority thereafter? As far as leadership is concerned, that’s where we need to treat them as if they’re dead. They need to be “killed” from any list of potential leaders we might have: Power corrupts ’em too easily, and isn’t safe in their hands.

Akháv’s 400 fake prophets.

To give you a better sense of false prophets run amok, it’s best to jump straight to the most well-known false-prophet story in the bible. So important it’s in there twice; 2 Chronicles retold it (and quoted parts of it) from 1 Kings.

It’s when Israeli king Akháv ben Omrí (KJV “Ahab”) convinces Judea’s king Yehošafát ben Asá (KJV “Jehoshaphat”) to help him reconquer one of the cities of the Golan Heights, which was occupied by the nearby nation Aram (KJV “Syria”—and yes, nowadays it’s part of Syria).

1 Kings 22.1-5 KWL
1 Three years continued without a battle between Aram and Israel.
2 It was in the third year King Yehošafát of Judea went down to Israel’s king.
3 Israel’s king told his slaves, “You know how Ramót-Gilád is ours?
Yet we do nothing to take it from Aram’s king’s hand.”
4 Israel’s king told Yehošafát, “Will you go with me to battle for Ramót-Gilád?”
Yehošafát told Israel’s king, “Like me, like you.
Like my people, like your people. Like my horses, like your horses.”
5 Yehošafát told Israel’s king, “When it’s morning, please ask for the LORD’s word.”
2 Chronicles 18.1-4 KWL
1 Yehošafát became greatly rich and glorious, and became an in-law to Akháv.
2 After some years Yehošafát went down to Akháv, to Samaria.
Akháv sacrificed many sheep and cows for him and for his people.
He incited Yehošafát to go up to Ramót-Gilád—
3 Israel’s king Akháv told Judea’s king Yehošafát, “Will you go with me to Ramót-Gilád?”
Yehošafát told him, “Like me, like you.
Like my people, my people; and your people go to battle.”
4 Yehošafát told Israel’s king, “When it’s morning, please ask for the LORD’s word.”

A little backstory: Ramót-Gilád (Gilád is what the Golan Heights were called back then; Ramót literally means “heights”) had ping-ponged back and forth between Aram and Israel. Though Israel and its breakaway tribes Judah, Benjamin, and Simeon (collectively “Judea”) hadn’t always got along, Akháv had recently married off his niece Atalía to Yehošafát’s son Yorám. So now they were family, and Akháv used this state visit as an excuse to rope Judea into the war. After all, Ramót-Gilád was an Israeli city, and disagreements aside, weren’t they all Israelis?

Yehošafát agreed, but one catch: He wanted to hear from the LORD about it. The kings were both nominal followers of the LORD (though Akháv was previously a hardcore Baalist, and had recently relapsed into despotism by letting his wife kill a guy for his vineyard 1Ki 21), and Yehošafát wanted to first make sure this whole Aramean occupation wasn’t actually the LORD’s idea.

Wise move, but Akháv kinda overplayed his hand by not just bringing in a prophet or two: He brought in 400 of ’em. Seriously.

1 Kings 22.6-12 = 2 Chronicles 18.5-11 KWL
6=5 Israel’s king assembled the prophets; about 400 men.
He told them, “Do we go to Ramót-Gilád, to battle, or stop?
They said, “Go up. Our master God puts it into the king’s hand.”
7=6 Yehošafát said, “There’s no prophet here to witness for the LORD? Let’s consult him.”
8=7 Israel’s king told Yehošafát, “One man witnesses. Consult the LORD through him—but I hate him.
For he doesn’t prophesy good for me, but evil: Mikáyhu ben Yimlá.”
Yehošafát said, “Don’t say that, King.”
9=8 Israel’s king called to one eunuch and said, “Quick: Mikáyhu ben Yimlá.”
10=9 Israel’s king, and Judea’s king Yehošafát, sat down, each man to a throne, dressed in cloaks,
at Samaria’s gate, the threshing-floor entrance. All the prophets prophesied before them.
11=10 Chidqiyyá ben Khenana made himself iron horns and said, “The LORD says this:
Gore Aram with these till they’re destroyed.”
12=11 All the prophets prophesied like this, saying, “Go up to Ramót-Gilád.
Be successful. The LORD puts it into the king’s hand.”

You’ll find a lot of commentators complain, “Real prophets don’t act like this.” It’s because these commentators have little personal experience with prophets… and obviously haven’t read the rest of the bible. God demanded some really freaky behavior of his prophets. Not “occasionally, just to make a point”: Regularly. Rarely do you find a prophet in the scriptures who doesn’t get weird. Even in little ways, like Samuel never cutting his hair, or Elisha shaving his head. Go dig around your bible and find one; all it means is the bible skipped describing the weirdness. There’s just something about getting regular downloads from God: It makes a person care so much about God’s message, they hardly care how they look. But I digress.

Likewise the commentators complain about the number of prophets. It’s nearly the same number as the Baalist prophets whom Elijah killed, 1Ki 18.19, 40 and they suspect there’s something iffy about that. Indeed there is: When we have prophets confirm one another, we kinda want them to confirm one another independently, not in a crowd. Peer pressure is too likely to distort the verification process. Crowds too easily turn into mobs.

What got Yehošafát’s spider-sense tingling was, of course, knowing Akháv. If you ever got to know the guy, you’d realize there was still a whole lot of pagan in him. When you tell such people you wanna hear from the LORD, and instead of one reliable prophet he drums up 400 guys, it looks like he’s overcompensating. Plus, these guys didn’t refer to YHWH/“the LORD” by name; just adonay/“my master” (KJV “the Lord,” but not capitalized) which could mean any master. They didn’t start claiming it was the LORD till Yehošafát objected he specifically wanted to hear from the LORD. As if to say, “Oh… yeah, he’s who we meant.”

Spiritual discernment doesn’t take a whole lot of effort sometimes. An iffy source who’s trying way too hard to convince you, telling you precisely what you’d like to hear, trying to overwhelm you with a big crowd: All reasonable red flags.

1 Kings 22.13-16 = 2 Chronicles 18.12-15KWL
13=12 The messenger who went to call Mikáyhu spoke to him, saying, “Look:
The prophets speak good for the king with one mouth.
Now your message must be like one of their messages. Speak good.”
14=13 Mikáyhu said, “By the LORD’s life, if it’s a message the LORD God speaks to me, I speak it.”
15=14 Mikáyhu came to Israel’s king.
The king told him, “Mikáyhu, do we go to Ramót-Gilád, to battle, or stop?”
Mikáyhu said, “Go up. Be successful. The LORD puts it in your hand.”
16=15 The king told Mikáyhu, “How many times must I put you under oath?
Tell me nothing but the truth, by the LORD’s name.”

Yeah, this bit’s weird. Mikáyhu’s first statement—“I swear to God I only say what he tells me”—he entirely undoes with his first statement to Akháv, which was precisely the same thing the fake prophets were saying. What happened to that fist-pumping God-fearing statement that every preacher loves to quote? Didn’t he just take the LORD’s name in vain?

The popular interpretation is Mikáyhu was being sarcastic: Standing before Akháv, he recited the 400 prophets’ claim in a mimicking, mocking tone. But the scriptures don’t tell us Mikáyhu’s tone; the only tell us Akháv believed he was lying. Also weird, ’cause we already know Akháv didn’t wanna hear Mikáyhu’s actual message.

Me, I suspect Mikáyhu realized Akháv was the prophet-killing sort. He’d kill for a vineyard; of course he’d kill any prophet who got in the way of his war plans. So Mikáyhu lost any bravado he might’ve had, weaseled out, and told Akháv what he wanted to hear in order to spare his own life. But Mikáyhu was the kind of guy who annoyed Akháv so much, the king lost his cool, dropped all the subterfuge he was trying to pull for Yehošafát, and demand the truth so he could prove Mikáyhu had it in for him, just like Akháv described. Because rage makes people stupid like that.

And fear nullified Mikáyhu’s prophecy. Because Mikáyhu began by caving to pressure and repeating what the other prophets had said, Yehošafát didn’t take him seriously, didn’t heed his warning, and joined Akháv in the battle with Aram. And—spoiler—nearly got killed in so doing.

1 Kings 22.17-23 = 2 Chronicles 18.16-22KWL
17=16 Mikáyhu said, “I see all Israel scattered on the hills,
like a flock which has no one to shepherd them.
The LORD said, ‘No masters for them! Return each man to his house in peace.’ ”
18=17 Israel’s king told Yehošafát, “Didn’t I tell you?
He doesn’t prophesy good for me, but evil.”
19=18 Mikáyhu said, “So hear the LORD’s word. I see the LORD sitting down on his seat.
Heavens entire army stands round him, at his right and left hand.
20=19 The LORD says, ‘Who’s buggering Akháv, Israel’s king, so he attacks and fails at Ramót-Gilád?’
Ohe says, ‘I’ll do it like this,’ and another says, ‘I’ll do it like this.’
21=20 A spirit comes, stands before the LORD’s face, and says, ‘I’ll bugger him.’
22=21 The LORD says to it, ‘How?’
It says, ‘I go out and become like an untrue spirit in the mouths of all the prophets.’
The LORD says, ‘Go bugger him. You’ll also be successful. Go and do so.’
23=22 Now look: The LORD puts an untrue spirit in the mouths of all these prophets of yours.
The LORD speaks evil upon you.”

If the word “bugger” strikes you as crude, it’s ’cause the word tefattéh/“open his hole” (KJV “persuade [him]”) is crude. Translations tend to nice it up, just in case any kids are reading the bible. But putting Mikáyhu’s words in an appropriately crude way makes you realize why Akháv and his fake prophets responded with so much outrage. (It also explains why Yehošafát didn’t take Mikáyhu seriously. Prophecies without love turn into nothing. 1Co 13.2)

This passage confuses determinists, who think it’s proof that God’s secretly behind all the evil in the cosmos. No; it’s only proof God was behind Akháv’s downfall, as his prophet Elijah warned him in the previous chapter of 1 Kings. 1Ki 21.20-26 The king wouldn’t take his God seriously, and settled for fraudulent prophets instead of the real thing. Fine; God worked with that to depose his wayward king.

1 Kings 22.24-28 = 2 Chronicles 18.23-27 KWL
24=23 Chidqiyyá ben Khenana went up and punched Mikáyhu in the jaw.
He said, “Is this how the LORD’s spirit goes from me to bring a message to you?”
25=24 Mikáyhu said, “Look, you’ll see—on the same day when you go hide in a room inside a room.”
26=25 Israel’s king said, “Take Mikáyhu. Bring him back to Amon the mayor and Yohaš the king’s son.
27=26 Say, ‘The king says this: Put this man under house arrest.
Give him prison-bread to eat and prison-water to drink till I return in peace.”
28=27 Mikáyhu said, “If you return in peace, the LORD didn’t speak by me.”
He said, “Listen, everyone!”

By the end of the chapter we see the end of Akháv. Killed in battle, just as Mikáyhu and Elijah prophesied.

At the same time, this is the last we see of Mikáyhu. He was no false prophet, but we don’t know what became of him: Freed, or imprisoned the rest of his life for treason. Or killed in vengeance by Akháv’s heirs, who had as little respect for the LORD and his prophets as their father.

That’s the historical context of the Old Testament. There was no such thing as freedom of speech. That’s a right we Americans take for granted, but in Moses’s and Mikáyhu’s day, you could be killed if what you said displeased the wrong person.

God wants us to correct some stubborn people sometimes. Some of ’em get downright murdery when we call them on their misbehavior. Prophecy requires us to take big risks. And often the least risky thing we can do is give a false prophecy: Tell the people in power, the leaders of our society, exactly what they wanna hear. Still true.

A true prophet’s life hung by a slender thread. A fake prophet’s life was considerably better.

Today’s 40,000 fake prophets.

Still is. All you need do is tell people exactly what they wanna hear. Tell them their actions have no consequences. Their wishes are God’s commands. That God wants ’em to be happy, healthy, and prosperous; leave out anything which says God guarantees no such things in this life, but only the life to come. And they’ll bless you, praise you, buy your books, watch your TV shows, donate to your ministry, and make you as wealthy as a basketball player.

Or if you’d rather preach hellfire and brimstone, by all means do so—but only to people’s enemies. Tell ’em the world is hopelessly wicked, beyond saving, and needs to be shunned. But tell them they’re the good ones, so God’ll reward them for their personal sacrifice. All they need do is follow a very easy inventory of no-nos. And they’ll likewise bless you, praise you, starve themselves and their children, empty their banks and inheritances, and make you wealthy. And may even forgive you if you don’t particularly practice what you preach.

Do such people deserve the death penalty? Of course they do. They’re robbing people, robbing God, destroying lives, and making it so nobody trusts real prophets. Pagans figure every prophet is fake, and nobody really speaks for God. And a sizable number of us Christians concur.

But unlike Old Testament times, we live in a land where true prophets don’t endanger their lives. Being a false prophet isn’t the easy way out. In fact it’s got its own struggles. It’s far easier for your sins to be exposed, because both skeptical pagans and the Holy Spirit are aiming to expose you.

I should also point out there are three categories of fake prophets we encounter nowadays: There’s the heretic prophet, the wrong prophet, and the con artist.

Heretic prophets. These’d be the fake prophets who aren’t entirely aware they’re wrong. Most heretics think they do understand God; they’re just not following the mainstream. They think they do hear God; they’ve just never learned how to tell the difference between the deceptive spirits and the real thing. You know, like Chidqiyyá and Akháv’s other prophets.

In some cases I wouldn’t be surprised if they do sometimes hear God, like Balaam. It’s just they’re a little too selective about what they’ll listen to. Much like those Christians who pick and choose which scriptures to follow, based on their own personal prejudices, these heretic prophets will pick and choose which of God’s messages to heed or share. If they don’t feel like giving to “the undeserving poor,” it doesn’t matter if the Holy Spirit orders them to give; they’ll insist it can’t be God instructing them, and ignore him.

That’s what makes ’em so horribly wrong. While meanwhile they’ve convinced themselves they’re perfectly fine.

In the category of “heretic prophets” I also include prophets of other religions. Like Hindu prophets who claim they understand God, Jewish prophets who claim God showed them this or that, Muslim prophets (who deny the title “prophet,” since Muhammad was supposed to be the last one) who claim they have the skinny on God’s will, or Mormon presidents who claim “prophet” as their title. If it doesn’t jibe with Christ Jesus, it doesn’t matter how well-behaved these prophets may be. They don’t know God as well as they think they do.

Wrong prophets. I sometimes call ’em “presumptive prophets”: They’re earnestly trying to follow Jesus, and they do actually hear the Spirit, but in their zeal they misinterpreted him and gave a false prophecy.

Once they realize their error, they’ll be begging everyone’s forgiveness for it. Other times they’ll harden their hearts and turn into heretic prophets. It all comes down to whether they’re humble or arrogant.

In the meanwhile, be patient with them. Forgive them. Encourage them to get a little more maturity before they try to make prophetic statements. They need oversight: Mature Christians who keep ’em accountable and double-check them before they repeat these mistakes.

Graceless Christians take Moses’s statement, apply it to these people strictly, give ’em no room to learn and make mistakes, and insist they’re not really prophets at all. By their standards, Samuel’s childhood mistake that the LORD’s voice was actually the head priest’s 1Sa 3.4-10 would’ve disqualified him from any future prophecy. Jonah’s declaration that Nineveh would perish, Jh 3.4 since it was nullified by God, Jh 3.10 would mean the book of Jonah shouldn’t even be in the bible. Their standards of infallibility are just bonkers.

The reality is people make mistakes. We don’t kill people for making mistakes. We give ’em grace. It’s what living under grace means.

Con artists. Last, and worst, are the total fakes. People who may not even believe in God. They’re just putting on a show, hoping to make some dough. Think Elmer Gantry, or Steve Martin’s character in Leap of Faith, or if you prefer reality, check out the documentary about Marjoe Gortner sometime.

Thing is, if you read Elmer Gantry, or watch those videos, you’re gonna notice a common theme in the background: God quietly does his own thing in spite of them. Sincere people will go to a con artist’s revival, but have an actual God-encounter. The con man will try to explain it away as entirely psychological; they may even use it to justify their fraudulent behavior. “People believe it, and it seems to do ’em some good, so what I’m doing may not be good, but it certainly isn’t evil.” Whatever helps ’em sleep at night.

But yeah, it’s evil. And they’ll answer to God for it.

Our duty as Christians: Watch out for the fakes. Of any stripe. Warn people away from them. Where appropriate, get ’em to apologize or repent. Where necessary, sic the authorities on them.

And don’t forget to love your enemies. Mt 5.44 The goal is never to destroy them, but stop their evil, turn ’em around, and get ’em to really listen to the real God.