Messianic Education Trust
(Deut 16:18 - 21:9)

D'varim/Deuteronomy 18:21   And when you shall say in your heart, "How will we know the word that the L-rd has not spoken?"

View whole verse and interlinear translation ...

This is the middle verse of three dealing with the perennial problem of false prophets. It seems today that the world is full of false prophets: speaking about imminent financial collapse, stability or upsurge; predicting social collapse, freedom or liberation; proclaiming political disaster, gridlock or triumph. They can't all be right; frankly, on most occasions, none of them are right. Richard Elliott Friedman ties the two together: "It is one of the Bible's central and most difficult questions: how does one tell a true prophet from a false one?" Notice Friedman's use of tense: he doesn't ask how the Israelites told the difference in Bible times; he asks how the people of G-d tell the difference now and throughout time.

The question we have sounds awkwardly framed, as though the people are expecting false prophecy. Wouldn't it have been better to ask it the other way round: how can we know that this is true word from G-d? The Who Is ...

Ramban: Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman of Gerona or Nachmanides (1194-1270 CE), Spanish rabbi, author and physician; defended Judaism in the Christian debates in Barcelona before making aliyah
Ramban points out that as well as asking, "How do we know whether this is a false prophet who should be put to death", the people should also have asked, "How can we know when an oracle is spoken by the L-rd and we must obey it?" Before answering that, let's consider what a false prophet or prophecy is.

Gunter Plaut provides a modern summary: "The Torah distinguished between two types of false prophet: one, who sincerely yet mistakenly spoke in G-d's name; and the other, who prophesied in the name of a false god. The Sages of the Talmud examine the matter in rather more detail (b. Sanhedrin 89a-b). First of all they identify three cases where a true prophetic message is not delivered correctly: firstly, that the prophet does not proclaim the Word of G-d which he has received, he withholds or changes it; secondly, that someone pays no attention to what the prophet proclaims, treating it as superfluous; or thirdly, that a prophet himself acts contrary to what he proclaims. Then the Sages also identify a false prophet or prophecy, another three possibilities: firstly, someone proclaims a message from G-d that he has not received at all, presumably an un-true or made up message; secondly, someone proclaims a message that he was not charged to deliver, so it might be true, but someone else was supposed to deliver it; or thirdly, that even if true, he proclaims it in the name of a heathen god, rather than as from The Name ...

HaShem: literally, Hebrew for 'The Name' - an allusion used to avoid pronouncing the Tetragrammaton, the so-called 'ineffable' name of G–d

It is clearly important to know whether someone who claims to be a prophet and speaking on behalf of HaShem really is a prophet or not. Moshe tells the people. "If the prophet speaks in the name of the L-RD and the oracle does not come true, that oracle was not spoken by the L-RD" (D'varim 18:22, JPS), which is all very well, but as Jeffrey Tigay points out, "the people could hardly suspend judgement about the authenticity of every prophecy until its outcome was clear." If you are supposed to be obeying G-d, in real time, waiting until it is all over is far too late. Richard Friedman emphasises that "the question was how to know at the time of the prophecy whether it is from G-d." One way to interpret Moshe's words might be to look at the past record of a prophet. In the case of Samuel, the Bible reports that, "Samuel grew up and the L-RD was with him: He did not leave any of Samuel's predictions unfulfilled. All Israel, from Dan to Beersheba, knew that Samuel was trustworthy as a prophet of the L-RD" (1 Samuel 3:19-20, JPS). That's an impressive reputation and track record. Yet in spite of his correct predictions about the fall of Jerusalem, Jeremiah's words were rejected: "When Jeremiah had finished speaking all these words to all the people -- all the words of the L-RD their G-d, with which the L-RD their G-d had sent him to them -- Azariah son of Hoshaiah and Johanan son of Kareah and all the arrogant men said to Jeremiah, "You are lying! The L-RD our G-d did not send you to say, 'Don't go to Egypt and sojourn there'!" (Jeremiah 43:1-2, JPS). Friedman again: "Even then, people's inclination seems to be to disbelieve the true prophets. As soon as he gives a prophecy that the people do not like, the psychological point is that people miss the obvious and turn instead to the comfortable."

Rabbi Who Is ...

Hirsch: Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888 CE), German rabbi, author and educator; staunch opponent of the Reform movement in Germany and one of the fathers of Orthodox Judaism
Hirsch brings us back to the question: "how does one authenticate a prophet in general, when his proclamation is not contrary to the Torah, by what can his prophecy be recognised as not coming from G-d?" The Ramban answers that "The prophet must confirm that he is 'like Moshe', either by performing signs or by accurately predicting the future." The Torah does tell us that Moshe was concerned as to whether the Israelites would recognise his authority - "But behold, they will not believe me or listen to my voice, for they will say, 'The L-RD did not appear to you'" (Shemot 4:1, ESV) - and that HaShem gave him two signs to show the people to demonstrate that he had been sent by HaShem: "Aharon spoke all the words that the L-RD had spoken to Moshe and did the signs in the sight of the people. And the people believed" (vv. 30-31, ESV). Just to be sure, the Ramban qualifies his acceptance, adding that "not everyone who performs a sign is to be believed, unless he was already known to the people as someone whose wisdom and pious behaviour, greater than anyone else of his generation, made him worthy of receiving prophecy. If such a person performs a sign, we are commanded to heed him." Hirsch, on the other hand, at least concedes, "it is only at the first time that he comes to the people as a prophet with a message from G-d that he has to legitimise his position by a miracle, or by prophesying the advent of an occurrence which does then occur, but he has by no means to continue to legitimise any further declarations he makes in the name of G-d."

So it appears, then, that a prophet may be expected to show a sign in order to confirm that he really is a prophet. In the same way, so that the people exercise their duty not to listen to a false prophet, it would also appear that they can ask a prophet - at least once - to show a sign to prove that he is a prophet before they accept his authority and ministry. That brings us to Yeshua. Matthew records it in narrative - "The Pharisees and Sadducees came, and to test Him they asked Him to show them a sign from heaven" (Matthew 16:1, ESV) - while John reports speech: "The Jews said to Him, 'What sign do You show us for doing these things?'" (John 2:18, ESV). Yeshua responds to them in no uncertain terms: "This generation is an evil generation. It seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah" (Luke 11:29, ESV), even going so far in Matthew as calling them "an evil and adulterous generation" (Matthew 12:39, ESV). Why should this be - if they are simply exercising due diligence, why should they attract Yeshua's anger? Perhaps this is because Yeshua has already shown many signs - "the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them" (Luke 7:22, ESV)1 - and the Jewish leaders or authorities are refusing to accept them unless they see them with their own eyes, on demand. Perhaps it is because they have already rejected some of the miracles that He has performed, "When the Pharisees heard it, they said, 'It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this man casts out demons'" (Matthew 12:26, ESV). Perhaps Yeshua senses the state of their hearts, that they do not really want to believe who He is or accept His authority: "I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in My Father's name bear witness about Me, but you do not believe because you are not part of my flock" (John 10:25-26, ESV).

While we are perhaps not in the position to ask and demand signs from G-d in that way today, we are nevertheless enjoined by Scripture to take due care before allowing people to exercise a prophetic ministry. John tells us, "Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world" (1 John 4:1, ESV). This is a warning, I believe, that applies to charismatic and non-charismatic congregations alike; anyone who is to be given any authority or credibility in preaching, teaching or exhorting a congregation must submit to a level of inspection. I think this is a duty incumbent upon all church leaders; certainly "not to quench the Spirit or to despise prophecy" (1 Thessalonians 5:19-20), but taking a measured line to guard the congregation against wrong input that could cause harm. The two most important criteria here must be consistency with Scripture and steadiness of character, witness and ministry. Rav Sha'ul tells the Corinthians, "Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. If a revelation is made to another sitting there, let the first be silent" (1 Corinthians 14:29-30, ESV). I believe this gives us a right to expect a certain minimum sense of order, so that strangers can be checked, that words can be heard and tested before being shared, and that the flock is not confused. It seems reasonable that G-d, who is "not a God of confusion but of peace" (v. 33, ESV), will Himself cause His prophets to operate in the same way that He does. Then the people will know that the L-rd has spoken.

1. - Notice that in both Matthew and Luke this reply that Yeshua gives to John's disciples (Matthew 11:5, Luke 7:22) comes before the incident where the sign is demanded (Matthew 16:1, Luke 11:29). A canonical approach requires that we take seriously the sequencing of these narratives, so that it is valid to say 'before' in this context.

Further Study: Jeremiah 28:1-17; 2 Kings 20:8-11; Romans 12:4-8

Application: If you "earnestly desire to prophesy" (1 Corinthians 14:39), are you equally earnest about desiring proper order and safety for the flock? We must be prepared to submit to a due process as part of our submission to G-d.

Comment - 18:44 16Aug15 Tom Hiney: Interesting point. Discerning a true or false prophecy is challenging. We cannot take ourselves too seriously. We are entitled to expect that God will guide us at the time and let us know what we are receiving or giving.

© Jonathan Allen, 2015

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