God cares a lot about how people choose to represent Him. And yet somehow we believers don’t spend a lot of time examining the complexities of the “false prophet” problem.
I ended up in Jeremiah 23 for my Bible study today, and what strikes me about that chapter is God’s deep, deep anger. False prophets are speaking in His name, claiming that their dreams and visions and messages are from the Lord – but God is clear that He has sent no such dreams or visions or messages. He says in 23:21-22:
I did not send these prophets,
yet they have run with their message;
I did not speak to them,
yet they have prophesied.
But if they had stood in my council,
they would have proclaimed my words to my people
and would have turned them from their evil ways
and from their evil deeds.
What strikes me the most is that not only do these prophets offer lies, but that they also explicitly claim to have received God’s counsel. In other words, they lie not only about their message, but about the way in which it was received; they misrepresent their relationship with God, claiming intimacy where none exists in order to give their messages credence.
This recurring theme pops up throughout the Old Testament. Deuteronomy calls down the death penalty on those who claim to speak in the name of the Lord but do not. And God reprimands Job’s friends in the book of Job for, essentially, misrepresenting Him (Job 42:7): they must depend on Job (who has “spoken what is right”) to restore them to the Lord through intercessory prayer.
We see this warning in the New Testament, too. Jesus cautions the disciples against false prophets, and 1 John encourages believers to practice discernment in determining what is, or is not, from God. Even Revelation ends with the warning that no one may add to, or subtract from, God’s word as it is revealed in the book.
For this reason, I suspect most of see false prophets as manipulators: as hooded and cloaked deceivers, rubbing their hands together gleefully as they concoct a “holy” and “divinely-inspired” message designed to delude the masses. We want to view them as inherently malicious monsters, ones who know full well the Word of God and who choose instead to make up their own message and veil it with divine credibility.
In some cases, that’s probably true. In other cases, I wonder.
I suspect some who misrepresent God have, at least initially, good intentions. Although Job’s friends don’t qualify as prophets, they certainly felt spiritually qualified to “read” Job’s situation and to interpret what God was saying through it. It seems from the Bible that they are coming from a place of genuine care, at least at the start; they’re not deliberately trying to mislead Him about God’s word or God’s nature. And yet, they do.
I suspect some false prophets may simply lack discernment. I doubt 1 John would be warning believers to test the spirits without cause; it’s possible that some believers misinterpret signs and visions and assume them to be from the Lord when they are not.
And some false prophets? Well, they deliver the message people want to hear. As God condemns false prophets in the Jeremiah chapter, he points out that they promise peace and no harm to the people. This encourages the Israelites to remain set in their ways; it prohibits their growth and maintains the status quo.
My point is here that it’s much easier to misrepresent God in our speaking than we might imagine. When we omit or avoid uncomfortable things, when we cherry-pick the Word to serve our own ends, when we – sometimes out of ignorance – speak on God’s behalf without knowledge or insight, when we use our relationship with Him to give our own wants or desires credibility, or when we feign to know what He is thinking or feeling, we’re heading into dangerous territory.
Whenever we have the opportunity to talk to anyone about what God thinks, what God wants or intends, or what He has revealed to us, it’s wise to double-check before we lead anyone – including ourselves! – astray. Anything that we say must be in accordance and agreement with the Word, and beyond that, must give way to repentance, to renewal, to life.
The word that creates stasis, that is invented by the human mind, that prevents change, that grows from impulse and self-centered desire has nothing to do with God. Keeping that in mind, it’s best to be careful when we decide to speak on His behalf.