The true prophetic message
always calls us to a spiritual defiance
of the world as it now is.
— Richard Foster (Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home)
There are two types of false prophets in the world: frauds and psychopaths. I’m not sure which variety is more dangerous. Frauds know they’re wrong. They are in it for the money, fame, or some other reason. They are especially devious because they always try to hide their true intentions.
Psychopaths, on the other hand, are convinced that what they are doing is right. They misrepresent God while believing they speak for him. They don’t hide their folly, because they believe it’s righteous. This is the type of false prophets Ezekiel had to deal with.
Ezekiel had a tough task. He had to tell his own people that they had sinned excessively for many generations, and that their God would judge them harshly. And if that task was not difficult enough, he had to speak God’s words of judgment in the face of false prophets who were running around saying that everything was just fine.
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There is a lot of wisdom in these 16 verses that can help us discern what a false prophet looks like—even today. Here are ten characteristics of the false prophets straight from the text (NRSV):
- They “prophesy out of their own imagination” (v. 2). The false prophets invented the words they were speaking—pulling them from their own creative minds.
- They say, “Hear the word of the LORD” (v. 2). It’s bad enough to speak ignorantly about what God is doing. These prophets took it one step further by using the formulaic, “hear the word of the Lord,” to reinforce their authority. This is a classic example of spiritual abuse. When someone who is known as a spiritual leader tags their messages with, “the Lord told me to tell you . . .”, they become very hard to challenge.
- They “follow their own spirit” (v. 3). Their creative messages from the Lord come from what they desire and hope for rather than what God wants to tell his people.
- They “have seen nothing” (v. 3). There is no foundation for their messages. It is easy to excuse false prophets by saying that they heard from God, but got a little too emotional in the delivery. In this case, the false prophets never heard a whisper from the one they claimed to be speaking for.
- They are “like jackals among ruins” (v. 4). This is a particularly nasty image. Jackals were wild animals that would scrounge around the ruins of a city to look for easy food. False prophets are sinister. They sniff out weak people who are especially susceptible to their lies.
- They have “not gone up into the breaches, or repaired a wall” (v. 5). If a wall around a city was breached, the people would stand in the gap to turn back enemies, or repair the wall. Spiritually speaking, prophets were called to spot the weaknesses in their people, and reinforce them. Prophets speak to people about their sin to shore up their weaknesses. These false prophets have done none of this.
- They have “envisioned falsehood and lying divination” (v. 6). Not only were the false prophet’s messages from their own spirits instead of from God, they were lying words. People often think that they speak from God when they’re really not—but often their messages are harmless. They might not be relaying God’s thoughts, but they are essentially biblical nonetheless. These false prophets were saying the exact opposite of what God had to say.
- “They wait for the fulfillment of their word” (v. 7)! This is what tells me these people were psychopaths and not frauds. They actually believed that the words they were speaking would come to pass.
- “They have misled my people, saying, “Peace,” when there is no peace (v. 10). The messages these false prophets delivered was peace”. All will be well. There is no need to worry. The worst is over. As a result, the remaining Israelites were mollified into a false hope which prevented them from correcting their true spiritual state.
- “When the people build a wall, these prophets smear whitewash on it” (v. 10). The false prophets were yes-people. When the remaining Israelites would make some half-hearted attempt to get right before God, the false prophets were there quickly to slap some God-talk on their efforts.
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There are two dangers for Christians today. The first is to accept the teaching of modern day false prophets and to follow their misdirections. The second is to become false prophets ourselves.
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Lord God, help us to discern what you are saying in our time. Protect us from false prophets, and strengthen our relationship with you so we will not stray. In Jesus’ name, Amen.