THE prophets of the Lord met their greatest problem and their most dangerous opponents in the persons of the false prophets. In the Old Testament there were swarms of these, and they were always in the majority. The Bible teaches us that the downfall of the people of Israel was occasioned by their listening to the false prophets instead of heeding the messengers of the Lord. All spiritual calamity is caused by listening to the wrong things, accepting falsehood and so becoming deceived.
The false prophets were hardly ever called this but usually described as prophets. They prophesied in the name of the Lord and frequented His Temple. Many of them attended the schools of the prophets and were familiar with the scriptures. They experienced spiritual ecstasies, did symbolical acts and spoke convincingly: the large majority of the people accepted them unquestioningly as speaking for God. They could tell the crowds that they had had wonderful dreams and seen marvellous visions; they spoke about the future with confidence, and they were listened to with appreciation and pleasure.
The true prophets are hardly ever distinguished as such, but just like the others they are called prophets, or prophets of the Lord. They were often quite alone and always in the minority. Happily most of what the false prophets said has long ago been forgotten. Hardly anything of their work has been preserved as have the prophecies of the true prophets. Therefore it is not difficult for us to discern between the false and the true prophets of the past . If, however, we had been their contemporaries, would we have been able so to discern? The question is not irrelevant, for each generation has its share of prophetic utterances demanding discernment, and the problem of distinguishing between true and false speaking in the Lord's name will become more and more important as we approach the coming of the Lord.
Prophetic speech is speaking in the name of God and on His behalf -- in other words, what we call preaching. The prophets were preachers; they all spoke on the Lord's behalf, they all introduced their messages with: 'Thus saith the Lord' and they all had some kind of association with a profession of faith in Him. (I am not thinking of heathen prophets, the prophets of Baal and Ashera and such like. These were quite different and easy to distinguish.) What was not easy for the contemporary people of God was to discern between true and false messages in the Lord's name, for those speaking all seemed so convincing, and all sought support from the promises of God's Word.
The prophets Ezekiel and Jeremiah especially give us an insight into their continuous conflict with the false prophets, revealing how often their own inspired messages were countered by these deceived men. Ezekiel emphasises that these so-called 'colleagues' prophesied out of their own heart (see Ezekiel 13:2 and 17). They spoke because a situation arose where they felt that they must say something. This does not sound so unreasonable, especially when we remember that the situation in which the people found themselves was often catastrophic, calling for some word from the Lord. Yet they did not get direct contact with Him but spoke out of their own heart, and this was the basic reason for the way in which the people were led astray. It stands in complete contrast with the words of Jesus. He never spoke out of His own heart, but only said what He had heard the Father say. Paul did the same: "As of God, in the sight of God, speak we in Christ" (Danish -- "Out of God we speak in Christ before the face of God") (2 Corinthians 2:17).
WORDS can be extremely dangerous. We not only influence others but also ourselves by what we say. It often happens that it is our words which form our thoughts and opinions, whereas they should spring from and express them. Having spoken in this way, we are apt to become bound by our own words, and then our wrong opinions take hold on us and we become prisoners to them. From this state of bondage we are all too ready to continue bombarding other people with our words. The prophets of Ezekiel's day followed their own spirit, without having seen anything from God (Ezekiel 13:3). Today we would say that they spoke subjectively, that is to say from their own feelings and the imagined inspiration of their own senses. Far too often we hear a talk which begins with: 'I feel that ...' and continues with some thin discourse which has little or no [61/62] substance. Surely to follow your own spirit becomes the same as preaching yourself, drawing attention to yourself, whereas Paul said plainly: "We preach not ourselves" (2 Corinthians 4:5). He knew, as we should also know, that God frowns on this kind of preaching.
Ezekiel tells us that these prophets saw vanity and prophesied lies, even while they were using the orthodox formula: 'the Lord saith' (Ezekiel 13:6). The amazing thing is that they themselves expected that their words would be confirmed by the Lord. They were acting in what we would call 'good faith'. They were not aware that the Lord was not with them. They were subjectively convinced that they spoke on the Lord's behalf and that He would act in accordance with their words. That was why they spoke with such confidence, the people being persuaded by their very earnestness.
Jeremiah gives us the basic description of the difference between true and false prophets. As to the latter he says: "They speak a vision of their own heart, and not out of the mouth of the Lord" (Jeremiah 23:16). This corresponds to what Ezekiel had to say about subjective preaching, which sprang from the prophet himself and not from God. In order to attract the attention of their hearers, these prophets often said: "I have dreamed, I have dreamed" (Jeremiah 23:25). This made people listen with wrapt attention, captivated by these strange and attractive men who had had such a marvellous experience as a dream in which the Lord had spoken to them. 'What more can we ask for?', they said to one another. 'If it was a dream it must surely be from heaven.'
BECAUSE these false prophets spoke out from themselves according to the situation in which they were found, they spoke the kind of words that the people wanted to hear. In the time of Jeremiah and Ezekiel, God's people were in the most acute crisis condition. Jerusalem was besieged by Nebuchadnezzar, and they wanted to know how it would turn out. What should the prophets say? Their own heart, their own spirit, urged them to proclaim to the people some good news that the Lord was about to intervene. This was the kind of message that the people's desperate plight demanded and it was naturally what they all wanted. What is more, their reasoning suggested that the Lord simply must intervene -- He could do no other. Firstly because the remnant of Judah who were left in the land were beset by heathen, and surely God would never let such a remnant be given over into the hands of idolaters. Then Jerusalem was God's chosen city which could therefore never be overthrown. Finally, and most important of all, it was the place where stood His holy Temple, the house which Solomon had built, the house which had been filled with God's glory. Was not the mercy seat there in the Holy of Holies? Had not the Lord Himself promised that when the people were in need and prayed towards that house, then He would hear and would deliver? What else could the prophets proclaim but an optimistic assurance that for His name's sake, the Lord would intervene and repeat the marvellous deliverance which He had given when the Assyrians besieged the city in the time of Hezekiah? They wanted to say it and the people wanted to hear it and would have no patience to listen to anything other than this man-made 'gospel'. Before we hastily condemn them, should we not ask ourselves if under such conditions we would be able to discern and reject this message of deliverance as utterly false? Would we perhaps be beguiled by the wrong use of the name of the Lord?
Remember, it was God's people and not the heathen who welcomed this kind of ministry. It was they who allowed the false prophets to hold their attention and gain their popularity as fine preachers. They enjoyed hearing what in their own hearts they would have liked God to say. When Jeremiah stood up boldly among them and said: "Trust ye not in lying words, saying, The temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord are these" (Jeremiah 7:4), who could accept that this was the true word of the Lord? Not one of them. How could he say that it was not the temple of the Lord when their past history and their present reasoning told them that it was?
Jeremiah also said: "The prophets prophesy lies in my name; I sent them not, neither have I commanded them, neither spake I unto them: they prophesy unto you a lying vision, and divination, and a thing of nought, and the deceit of their own hearts" (14:14). He advised the people: "Hearken not unto the words of the prophets that speak unto you saying, Ye shall not serve the king of Babylon; for they prophesy a lie unto you" (27:14). Who was prepared to accept such a message? Nobody! In their eyes, Jeremiah was a traitor who, in its most desperate situation, [62/63] deprived the nation of both courage and hope. Like Ahab of old they said: "There is one man by whom we may inquire of the Lord. but I hate him; for he doth not prophesy good concerning me, but evil" (1 Kings 22:8). So they acclaimed the prophet Hananiah as a real spokesman for the Lord, and greatly enjoyed his dramatic promise of deliverance when he took the bar from off the prophet Jeremiah's neck and broke it (28:10). No hasty reply came from Jeremiah. He just went quietly away and waited until he had fresh instructions from the mouth of the Lord. His experience was sadly like to that of the Lord Jesus who later prophesied among these same people of Israel: "Because I say the truth, ye believe me not" (John 8:45).
THE reason why Jeremiah so differed from the prophets of his time was that, unlike them, he "stood in the council of the Lord, that he should perceive and hear his word; he marked his word and heard it" (23:18). He was a man who sought quietness in the Lord's presence, a man who waited on God and listened to Him. He knew that his own thoughts would not be the same as God's thoughts and that his own ways would be different from God's ways, so he neither listened to the people nor to his own ideas, but made it his business to keep close to the Lord and be sensitive to His voice. Others could make themselves popular by telling the people what they wanted to hear, but he could only seek the mind of God and then proclaim it. God's thoughts were so diametrically opposed to what the people thought and wanted, that nobody would listen to Jeremiah.
"The prophet that hath a dream, let him tell a dream; and he that hath my word, let him speak faithfully. What is the straw to the wheat? saith the Lord. Therefore I am against the prophets, saith the Lord, that steal my words everyone from his neighbour. Behold I am against the prophets, saith the Lord, that use their tongues and say, He saith. Behold, I am against them that prophesy lying dreams, saith the Lord, and do tell them, and cause my people to err by their lies, and by their vain boasting: yet I sent them not, nor commanded them; neither shall they profit this people at all, saith the Lord" (23:28-32). As we have already said, words can be very dangerous. If such words purport to come from the Lord they are the most dangerous of all unless, of course, they are truly from Him and not just human opinions. Those of us who speak to others in the name of the Lord truly carry a very heavy responsibility. The fact that some of those prophets were sincere did not alter the case at all; they were false prophets. deceiving themselves and leading others astray.
WHAT can we say about the true prophets? Firstly that they were all men who trembled before the Lord and His word, men who were quick to listen and slow to speak. Moses would rather not have accepted God's call; Jeremiah also asked to be excused; while Isaiah cried: "Woe is me for I am undone" (literally, 'I am silenced'). None of them were masters of the word of God, but all were mastered by it. As men with contrite hearts and humble spirits, they constantly stood in the council of the Lord. When we compare ourselves with them, we may well ask whether we are at all competent to speak in the Lord's name. Have we become professionals, glib talkers, polished preachers? Do we write or speak because we like to do so, because others invite us do so, or under divine constraint? Would we prefer to be silent? We need to beware of being carried along with the tide of the many who readily speak and write in the name of the Lord today.
There were times when Jeremiah determined never to preach again, but the Lord overrode his decisions and sent him out again with the fire burning in his bones. Elijah wanted to hand in his resignation and was ready to run away. The angel of the Lord, however, met him and led him to the mount where he was re-commissioned and sent back to the task. Amos refused to call himself a prophet at all -- he was a dresser of sycamore trees. None of these men wanted to speak. That is probably why they were the very men to do so.
So again I ask, What about us who have been so ready to speak and write on spiritual matters? We must take nothing for granted in our ministry. Paul trembled at the responsibility of the task. He understood that even the forming of the message, that is the right choice of words, was of the utmost importance. 'Pray also for me that I may preach it with the right words,' he appeals, 'for you cannot preach the gospel with words taught by man's wisdom, but only with words which the Spirit teaches' (1 Corinthians 2:13). Since, then, not only the content of the message but also its expression in words is the responsibility of the man who speaks on God's behalf, we certainly need earnest prayer before we speak. [63/64] We need to spend more time in God's council chamber and we need to speak when God gives a message and not just when people want to hear us, to speak as 'in the sight of God'. It may well be that we shall use less words when we so speak, but they will be true and life-giving. Above all we need much closer communion with Him who is Himself the Word.