Even though the Old Testament does not use the term "false prophet, " it is clear that such "professional prophets" existed throughout much of Israel's history and that they were diametrically opposed to the canonical prophets. Scripture, however, regarded them as mere imitations of the genuinely appointed prophets of God.
Distinguishing Marks of False Prophecy and False Prophets. It was the Septuagint translators who introduced the term pseudoprophetes [yeudoprofhvth"] ("false prophet") ten times where the Hebrew text simply used the generic term nabi [ayib"n] ("prophet") ( Jer 6:13 ; Jeremiah 26:7-8 Jeremiah 26:11 Jeremiah 26:16 ; 27:9 ; 28:1 ; Jeremiah 29:1 Jeremiah 29:8 ; Zech 13:2 ). But the Hebrew text nevertheless still made the same point with the whole battery of negative descriptions.
False prophets prophesied lies ( Jer 6:13 ; 27:14 ; Zech 13:3 ), deceived the people with their dreams ( Jer 29:8 ), prophesied by the alleged authority of Baal ( Jer 2:8 ; 23:13 ), threatened the lives of the true prophets ( Jer 26:7 ), and dared to speak when they had not stood in the council of Yahweh and received a word directly from the Lord ( Jer 23:18 ). Typically, their prophecies promised peace when there was no peace to be had ( Jer 6:14 ; 8:11 ; 14:3 ; 23:17 ; Jeremiah 28:2 Jeremiah 28:11 ; Ezek 13:10 ; Micah 3:5 ), for their visions were drawn out of their own hearts ( Jer 14:14 ; 23:16 ; Ezek 13:2-3 ; 22:28 ). Some false prophets used magic ( Eze 13:17-23 ), others appeared to use divination, soothsaying, witchcraft, necromancy, and sorcery, which were all forbidden arts and practices in the classical passage that set forth divine revelation in contrast to such practices ( Deut 18:9-13 ). The false prophets gave the people what they wanted to hear and thereby placed "whitewash" ( Ezekiel 13:10-12 Ezekiel 13:14-15 ; 22:28 ) over every situation, no matter how adverse it appeared.
The fullest discussion of charges that could be brought against false prophets can be found in Jeremiah 23:9-39. Jeremiah condemns the pseudoprophets on four grounds: (1) they are men of immoral character (v. 14 "they commit adultery and live a lie"); (2) they seek popular acclaim with their unconditional pledge of immunity from all imminent disasters (vv. 17-22); (3) they fail to distinguish their own dreams from a word from God (vv. 25-29); and (4) they are plagiarists who steal from one another words allegedly from the Lord (vv. 30-39). Rather than having a "burden" from the Lord, they themselves were another burden both to the Lord and to the misled people!
The Theology of the False Prophets. The false prophets were zealous to maintain the inviolability and invincibility of Zion for all times and for all occasions. They stressed the permanence of David's dynasty, the temple, and the covenant as a guarantee that operated for every generation! They were overly dependent on promises made at Sinai that God would be Israel's God and Israel would be his people thereby allowing more leeway than one would ordinarily think permissible. Any and all new revelations that would predict judgment, doom, and disaster were, from the false prophets' standpoint, contrary to their list of immutables; therefore, they preached that all such negative declarations were wrong, treasonous, and unnecessary.
Thus it was the false prophet Hananiah who predicted in the name of "the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel" ( Jer 28:2 ) that the exiles would be restored to their homeland and Jehoiachin and the temple vessels returned (vv. 3-4). At first, Jeremiah was startled by this apparent reversal in the revelation of God (v. 6), but he recovered sufficiently to add: "From early times the prophets who preceded you and me have prophesied war, disaster and plague against many countries and great kingdoms. But the prophet who prophesies peace will be recognized as one truly sent by the Lord only if his prediction comes true" (vv. 8-9).
This is what makes the discernment of what constitutes pseudoprophecy so difficult, for many of the false prophets also subscribed to some of the same theological traditions as did the canonical prophets.
The theology of the false prophets was characterized by the following: (1) a selective appeal to the Davidic/Zion and Sinaitic covenants as a type of fire insurance against any threatened calamity; (2) an exclusive teaching of hope/salvation with no attention given to any potential adversities for lack of obedience to God's Word; and (3) a constant appeal to what the masses wanted to hear as a basis for promoting their own power and the status quo. This list is very similar to the four charges that Jeremiah brought in 23:9-39.
The Criteria for Testing False Prophecy. The loci classici for determining true from false prophecy are Deuteronomy 13:1-5 and 18:15-22. These texts teach five tests for a true prophet: (1) he must be Jewish ( Deut 18:18 ); (2) he must speak in the name of the Lord ( Deut 18:19-20 ); (3) what he says must come to pass, the most proximate fulfillments being the validators of the more distant predictions ( Deut 18:21-22 ); (4) he must perform signs, wonders, or miracles that accompany his words ( Deut 13:1-2a ); and (5) his message must conform to what God had revealed previously ( Deut 13:2b-5 ).
More often than not, the false prophets prophesied in the name of one or more false gods while they also syncretistically appealed to Yahweh's name ( Jeremiah 23:13 Jeremiah 23:17 Jeremiah 23:25 ; 26:27 ). Such teachers easily exposed themselves as frauds. But there were also times when it was exceedingly difficult to determine if the prophecy were true or not. For example, the man of God from Judah was a true prophet, for what he said came to pass, both in his immediate and distant predictions (1 Kings 13). Nevertheless, when he disobeyed the command of God, he was deceived by a false prophecy. Remarkably that same false prophet who deceived him later delivered a true prediction ( 1 Kings 13:20-22 ). Thus, not everything a prophet said was divinely inspired. For example, the prophet Nathan told David to go ahead and build the temple to the Lord ( 2 Sam 7:1-2 ), but that night God informed Nathan that this was not his plan. Thus Nathan had to reverse his advice to David the next morning! Accordingly, a prophet's words could be false if: (1) they were his own and not God's; (2) they were wrongly applied at a wrong time and to a wrong audience; and (3) they were not backed up by a life and character that one would expect from a servant of the Lord.
False Prophets in the New Testament. False prophets continued to make their presence felt well beyond the days of the Old Testament; indeed, Jesus warned his disciples, and through the apostles, he warned the early church about the character and teachings of such frauds.
As was characteristic of false prophets in the Old Testament, their New Testament counterparts were also motivated by greed ( 2 Peter 2:3 2 Peter 2:13 ), exhibited arrogance ( 2 Peter 2:18 ), lived immoral lives ( 2 Peter 2:2 2 Peter 2:10-13 ), and generally could be described as ungodly persons (Jude 4).
The classical encounter between true and false prophets of God in the New Testament is Paul and Barnabas's rebuke of the Jewish magician Bar-Jesus on the island Paphos ( Acts 13:6-10 ). The Holy Spirit informed Paul that Bar-Jesus was full of deceit and a false prophet. Bar-Jesus belonged to the same line of pseudoprophets as the prophetess Jezebel from the church of Thyatira ( Rev 2:20 ).
Nor does the danger stop in the New Testament, for present-day believers are warned to test persons who make prophetic claims. For example, if anyone denies that Jesus has come in the flesh, that person is not a true prophet from God ( 1 John 4:1-3 ).
In the endtimes, false prophets will attempt to deceive the world's populace into following the false prophet, the beast, and Satan himself ( Matthew 24:1 Matthew 24:24 ; Rev 16:13-14 ; 19:20 ; 20:10 )even by performing miracles and signs. But this will be the last time false prophecy is seen, for Christ's return will destroy the whole institution of false prophecy along with its sponsors: Satan, the beast, and the false prophet.
Walter C. Kaiser, Jr.
See also Prophet, Prophetess, Prophecy
Bibliography. R. E. Manahan, Grace Th J 1 (1980): 77-96; T. W. Overholt, The Threat of Falsehood: A Study in the Theology of the Book of Jeremiah; J. T. E. Renner, Rev Th R 25 (1966): 95-104; H. W. Robinson, Inspiration and Revelation in the Old Testament; J. A. Sanders, Essays in Old Testament Religion and Theology, pp. 21-41; G. T. Sheppard, Essays in Old Testament Religion and Theology, pp. 262-82; G. V. Smith, ISBE, 3:984-86; A. S. Van der Woude, VT 19 (1969): 244-60; W. Van Gemeren, Interpreting the Prophetic Word.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'False Prophet'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".