How easy was it for the ordinary Israelite to differentiate true prophets from false prophets?
There is a scriptural basis indicating a divine approval to ask questions of our spiritual leaders regarding their authority. Deut 13:14 implores that: “you must enquire, probe, and investigate thoroughly”; the impact of false prophecy is treated most seriously and incurs a high penalty; the divine command is given to ‘put to death’ people who engage in such actions, even if they are members of your own family (Deut 13:5-8). On the flip side, we read that if a person opts not to listen to a true prophet of God, then God will personally call them to account (Deut 18:19). How, then, can the people of God establish a true prophet from a false prophet?
For the ordinary Israelite, it is a conundrum of their own making; for the early patriarchs of the Judeo-Christian canon, revelation came directly from Yahweh, until the people themselves asked at Mt Horeb for an intermediary:
For this is what you asked of the LORD your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly when you said, ‘Let us not hear the voice of the LORD our God nor see His great fire anymore, or we will die’ Deut 18:16.
Thus, God’s revelation and soteriological plan was placed into the hands of a deeply flawed, prone to sin, fallen people, and their prophets; it is likely that Yahweh foresaw the problem, and set in place a way to circumvent the issue. The people who claimed to speak for God, be they true prophets or otherwise, displayed character flaws and failings, that did not prevent the course of God’s grace in history.
The danger of labelling a ‘false’ and a ‘true’ prophet, is that language use predisposes us towards attaching meanings of ‘good’ and ‘evil’. There is scriptural evidence to suggest that even a false prophet acts in a manner that has little effect on God’s plan, or even facilitates it further. The text of 1 Kings 13 gives us the contrast between the two prophets; it also highlights that God’s true gift or prophecy is given a finite timespan in the individual; this perhaps illustrates that God never intended for his revelatory powers to be fully manifest in a fallen race of people, until Jesus.
Returning to the text, from v11, we encounter the Old Prophet from Bethel. He states in v18 that he too is a prophet; it is likely that the Old Prophet faithfully proclaimed the word of the Lord, yet the finite gift of prophecy is no longer with him. He believes himself subject to a divine agent, who seemingly returns to him at the dinner table. He displays no malintent towards the Prophet from Judah, quite the opposite, as he seeks to offer hospitality; however, this goes against the command given to the Judah prophet: i.e if he eats bread or drinks water in that land he will surely die. Therefore, the Prophet from Judah dies from accepting the hospitality, and inadvertently fulfils the prophetic foretelling he himself recieved. This is a key text to my argument.
A second example arises in the 1 Kings 22, where according to the prophet Micaiah, an angel is sent from Yahweh to entice Ahab’s assault on Ramoth Gilead; the angel, with Yahweh’s approval, becomes the agent of misinformation in the mouths of Ahab’s prophets. This indicates that God is ultimately the engineer behind false prophecy too, but that this ‘false’ prophecy is in fact a ‘good’ act; after all, it secures the destruction of one of the most evil characters in Israel’s history.
In both these examples the two ‘false’ prophets prove to be ‘true’ prophets in that they meet the divine criteria found in Deut 18- that a prophecy is truly from God when it comes to pass, the way it comes to pass can be instigated by both ‘true’ and ‘false’ prophets. A prophetic oracle spoken in contradiction to another prophetic oracle does not imply a ‘false’ prophecy. This confirms God’s hesed, in that, those who should be put to death for engaging in ‘false’ prophecy may, indeed, be engaging in ‘true’ prophecy and therefore escape judgement.
Although eventual fulfilment is a deciding factor in determining ‘true’ prophecy, scripture indicates that sometimes events will unfold as prophesied; however, if this fulfilment compels people to follow other gods, then it is ‘false’ prophecy.
Deuteronomy distinguishes between prophecy and sorcery, and between a prophet and ‘one who foretells by dreams (Deut 13:1); but either may announce miraculous signs, and they may even come to pass, but if they motivate others to turn from God then they are false prophets.
Certain distinguishing factors are present in the Biblical ‘true’ prophets: the preface Thus says the LORD; the gift not being always accessible; the person or the message is often not well received; engagement in strange, perhaps even immoral, behaviours are all notable but in each case their reputation is established enough that people listen to them (implying that some of their prophetic activities have previously borne fruit). Some receive visions, some complete symbolic gestures, but the method of delivery is ultimately unimportant.
To summarise, the Biblical prophets do have hallmark traits that indicate their standing as true prophets, yet these traits could be replicated in others and their prophetic utterings may even have come to pass; however, this only occurred when those action were not merely self-serving but truly aligned with God’s plan for humanity.
Beyond this, anyone who did not implore obedience toward the God of Israel was a ‘false’ prophet.