Killing false prophets: Wanna bring it back?

Moses ben Amram was gonna die before the Hebrews entered Canaan, so Deuteronomy tells of his last address to them before they entered that land. He reminded them of the LORD’s commands, had ’em reaffirm their covenant with him, then died.

Up to this point, Moses had been the Hebrews’ primary prophet. If you wanted to know God’s will, and God didn’t tell you directly, you went to Moses. (Or even if God did tell you directly, you double-checked with Moses.) Moses’s death meant people were understandably anxious about losing God’s main spokesperson, but Moses reminded them he was far from God’s only spokesperson.

Deuteronomy 18.15-22 NRSV
15 The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet. 16 This is what you requested of the LORD your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly when you said: “If I hear the voice of the LORD my God any more, or ever again see this great fire, I will die.” 17 Then the LORD replied to me: “They are right in what they have said. 18 I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command. 19 Anyone who does not heed the words that the prophet shall speak in my name, I myself will hold accountable. 20 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 the prophet to speak—that prophet shall die.” 21 You may say to yourself, “How can we recognize a word that the LORD has not spoken?” 22 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 prophet has spoken it presumptuously; do not be frightened by it.

Yep, the LORD decreed the death penalty for false prophets. Which was kinda necessary at the time: The LORD was Israel’s king, his commands were the law of the land, and a lot of them were life-and-death decrees. And you can’t have a phony spokesperson make life-and-death decrees in his name. It’d kill and ruin people. So false prophets got the death penalty.

True, we don’t execute false prophets anymore. Not because, as some dispensationalists claim, we no longer live under Law but grace. Nor because, as cessationists claim, God stopped doing prophecy. Nope; it’s because of separation of church and state. The LORD is not the United States’ king; our Constitution is the law of the land, and the Supreme Court sorts it out instead of prophets.

So prophets no longer make life-and-death decrees. You’re entirely free to heed them, or not. Yeah, false prophets can still destroy people’s lives; they can start cults and sucker swaths of minions into obeying them, and enforce their decrees within the cult community. But they’re no longer the highest authority in the land: You can call the cops on them. You can sue them. If they’re frauds as prophets, they’re nearly always frauds in every other area of their lives, including finances and taxes and stuff the civic government can prosecute. If they committed or suborned murder, the state can execute them.

If they haven’t crossed legal lines, but they’re still obviously false prophets, we pretty much have one recourse: Prove they’re false, and broadcast our proof widely. We’re supposed to expose such misdeeds. Ep 5.11-14 Warn everybody away from ’em: They can’t be trusted; they’re poison and cancer to our churches; 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.

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. Don’t lie about them, nor slander them. Accept their apologies when they make ’em.

But put them into positions of authority thereafter? Nope. They’ve proven they can’t be trusted. They need to be removed from any list of potential leaders we might have. Power corrupts ’em too easily, and isn’t safe in their hands. No “rehabilitation process” should ever put ’em back in charge. Our tolerance level for fakes should be way lower than it is.

Ahab’s 400 false prophets.

To give you a better sense of how bad things can go, even when there’s a civic government which can function independently of the prophets, it’s best to jump right to the best-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.

In the mid-800s BC, King Ahab ben Omri of Samaria convinced King Jehoshaphat ben Asa of Jerusalem to help him reconquer one of the cities of the Golan Heights, which was occupied by the nearby nation of Aram (KJV “Syria”—and yeah, today it’s part of Syria).

1 Kings 22.1-5 NRSV
1 For three years Aram and Israel continued without war. 2 But in the third year King Jehoshaphat of Judah came down to the king of Israel. 3 The king of Israel said to his servants, “Do you know that Ramoth-gilead belongs to us, yet we are doing nothing to take it out of the hand of the king of Aram?” 4 He said to Jehoshaphat, “Will you go with me to battle at Ramoth-gilead?” Jehoshaphat replied to the king of Israel, “I am as you are; my people are your people, my horses are your horses.”
5 But Jehoshaphat also said to the king of Israel, “Inquire first for the word of the LORD.”
2 Chronicles 18.1-4 NRSV
1 Now Jehoshaphat had great riches and honor; and he made a marriage alliance with Ahab. 2 After some years he went down to Ahab in Samaria. Ahab slaughtered an abundance of sheep and oxen for him and for the people who were with him, and induced him to go up against Ramoth-gilead. 3 King Ahab of Israel said to King Jehoshaphat of Judah, “Will you go with me to Ramoth-gilead?” He answered him, “I am with you, my people are your people. We will be with you in the war.”
4 But Jehoshaphat also said to the king of Israel, “Inquire first for the word of the LORD.”

A little backstory. Ramoth-gilead is what the Golan Heights were called back then. גִּלְעָ֑ד/Gilád was the site where Jacob ben Isaac and Laban ben Bethuel had sworn to not bother one another, Ge 31.46-50 and רָמֹ֣ת/ramót literally means “heights.” The territory had ping-ponged back and forth between Aram and Israel. Though the kings of Samaria and Jerusalem hadn’t always got along, Ahab had recently married off his niece Athaliah to Jehoshaphat’s son Joram, so now they were family. Ahab used this state visit as an excuse to rope Jerusalem into his war. After all, Ramoth-gilead was Israeli land—and disagreements aside, weren’t they all Israelis?

Jehoshaphat agreed, but one catch: He wanted to hear from the LORD about it.

Both kings were nominal followers of the LORD, though Ahab was previously well-known as a notorious hardcore Baalist. He’d recently relapsed into despotism by letting his wife kill a guy for his vineyard 1Ki 21. So, an iffy follower at best, and Jehoshaphat understandably wanted to be sure the LORD was on board with this whole Aramean war idea. Wise move… but Ahab overplayed his hand by not just accommodating Jehoshaphat with one prophet or two. He brought in an army of them.

(I’ll just quote 2 Chronicles here on out. 1 Kings 22.6-28 is nearly word-for-word the same.)

2 Chronicles 18.5-6 NRSV
5 Then the king of Israel gathered the prophets together, four hundred men, and said to them, “Shall we go to battle against Ramoth-gilead, or shall I refrain?” And they said, “Go up, for God will give it into the hand of the king.” 6 But Jehoshaphat said, “Is there not here another prophet of the LORD of whom we may inquire?”

Biblical commentators complain about this number of prophets. It’s nearly the same number as the Baalist prophets whom Elijah executed, 1Ki 18.19, 40 so 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 en masse. Peer pressure is too likely to distort the verification process. Crowds too easily turn into mobs.

What got Jehoshaphat’s spider-sense tingling was, of course, knowing Ahab. If you ever got to know the guy, you’d realize there was still a whole lot of pagan in him. When you say you wanna hear from the LORD, and instead of one reliable prophet he drums up 400 guys, it looks like he’s overcompensating. Plus notice these guys didn’t initially refer to יְהוָ֨ה/YHWH, “the LORD,” by name; it was “God will give it.” (In 2 Kings, “the Lord will give it” 1Ki 22.6 KJV —not the LORD, capitalized, specifically meaning YHWH, but אֲדֹנָ֖י/adonáy, “my Master,” which could mean any master.) They didn’t start naming the LORD specifically, till Jehoshaphat stated he wanted to hear from the LORD specifically. As if to say, “Oh… yeah, he’s who we mean.”

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: These are all reasonable red flags.

2 Chronicles 18.7-11 NRSV
7 And the king of Israel said to Jehoshaphat, “There is yet one man by whom we may inquire of the LORD, Micaiah the son of Imlah; but I hate him, for he never prophesies good concerning me, but always evil.” And Jehoshaphat said, “Let not the king say so.” 8 Then the king of Israel summoned an officer and said, “Bring quickly Micaiah the son of Imlah.” 9 Now the king of Israel and Jehoshaphat the king of Judah were sitting on their thrones, arrayed in their robes. And they were sitting at the threshing floor at the entrance of the gate of Samaria, and all the prophets were prophesying before them. 10 And Zedekiah the son of Chenaanah made for himself horns of iron and said, “Thus says the LORD, ‘With these you shall push the Syrians until they are destroyed.’” 11 And all the prophets prophesied so and said, “Go up to Ramoth-gilead and triumph. The LORD will give it into the hand of the king.”

You’ll find a lot of commentators complain, “Real prophets don’t act like this.” Um… yeah they do. These commentators clearly 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. Zedekiah ben Chenaanah was acting just as weird as any real prophet. But I digress.

2 Chronicles 18.12-15 NRSV
12 And the messenger who went to summon Micaiah said to him, “Behold, the words of the prophets with one accord are favorable to the king. Let your word be like the word of one of them, and speak favorably.” 13 But Micaiah said, “As the LORD lives, what my God says, that I will speak.” 14 And when he had come to the king, the king said to him, “Micaiah, shall we go to Ramoth-gilead to battle, or shall I refrain?” And he answered, “Go up and triumph; they will be given into your hand.” 15 But the king said to him, “How many times shall I make you swear that you speak to me nothing but the truth in the name of the LORD?”

Yeah, this bit’s weird. Micaiah’s first statement was basically “I swear to God I only say what he tells me.” But he entirely undid it with his first statement to Ahab, in which he repeated the fake prophets. 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 Micaiah was being sarcastic: Standing before Ahab, he recited the 400 prophets’ claim in a mimicking, mocking tone. But the scriptures don’t tell us Micaiah’s tone. The only tell us Ahab knew he didn’t mean it.

What’s also weird is Ahab’s response, “Dammit, tell me the truth.” He didn’t wanna hear the truth. But he probably didn’t wanna expose this to Jehoshaphat.

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

2 Chronicles 18.16-22 NRSV
16 And [Micaiah] said, “I saw all Israel scattered on the mountains, as sheep that have no shepherd. And the LORD said, ‘These have no master; let each return to his home in peace.’ ” 17 And the king of Israel said to Jehoshaphat, “Did I not tell you that he would not prophesy good concerning me, but evil?” 18 And Micaiah said, “Therefore hear the word of the LORD: I saw the LORD sitting on his throne, and all the host of heaven standing on his right hand and on his left. 19 And the LORD said, ‘Who will entice Ahab the king of Israel, that he may go up and fall at Ramoth-gilead?’ And one said one thing, and another said another. 20 Then a spirit came forward and stood before the LORD, saying, ‘I will entice him.’ And the LORD said to him, ‘By what means?’ 21 And he said, ‘I will go out, and will be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.’ And he said, ‘You are to entice him, and you shall succeed; go out and do so.’ 22 Now therefore behold, the LORD has put a lying spirit in the mouth of these your prophets. The LORD has declared disaster concerning you.”

The NRSV has “entice him,” but the original text has תְּפַתֶּה֙/tefatté, “open his hole.” It’s a deliberately crude word, implying the lying spirit buggered Ahab. Now you see why Ahab and his fake prophets responded with so much outrage. And possibly why Jehoshaphat ignored his message, even though he requested it: Prophecies without love turn into nothing. 1Co 13.2

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

2 Chronicles 18.23-27 NRSV
23 Then Zedekiah son of Chenaanah came up to Micaiah, slapped him on the cheek, and said, “Which way did the spirit of the LORD pass from me to speak to you?” 24 Micaiah replied, “You will find out on that day when you go in to hide in an inner chamber.” 25 The king of Israel then ordered, “Take Micaiah, and return him to Amon the governor of the city and to Joash the king’s son; 26 and say, ‘Thus says the king: Put this fellow in prison, and feed him on reduced rations of bread and water until I return in peace.’ ” 27 Micaiah said, “If you return in peace, the LORD has not spoken by me.” And he said, “Hear, you peoples, all of you!”

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

At the same time, this is the last we see of Micaiah. 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 Ahab’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 Micaiah’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 in our culture, often the least risky thing we can do is give a false prophecy: Tell the people in power, the leaders of our society, the presidents of the United States, 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 us our wishes are God’s commands. Our actions have no consequences. God wants us to be happy, healthy, and wealthy. Leave out anything which says God guarantees no such things in this life, but only the life to come. And people will 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 never condemn Christians for our hypocrisy and apathy. Only rebuke our enemies. Tell us the world is hopelessly wicked, beyond saving, and needs to be shunned. But tell us we’re the good ones, so God’ll reward us for our personal sacrifice. All we need do is follow a very easy inventory of no-nos. And people will likewise bless you, praise you, starve ourselves and our children, empty our 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 conclude 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.

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 these people and their fans, but stop their evil, turn ’em around, and get ’em to really listen to the real God.