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April 1982 · Vol. 11 No. 2 · pp. 23–29 

How Does One Recognize the False Prophets?

Keith Poysti

“Beware of the false prophets. . . .” (Matt. 7:15). One need not look far to see the relevance of this warning. Jim Jones, Sun Myung Moon, Joseph Smith and the Jehovah’s Witnesses (to name but a few) all testify to the proliferation of false prophets in our day. Even more dangerous are the prophets from within the church whose messages consist of guaranteed ease and health and wealth to those who will listen to them. False prophecy within and without the church will not disappear or diminish but is a reality with which we will increasingly be forced to deal (Matt. 24:11, 24).

Israel was not exempt from the presence and influence of the prophets of falsehood. In a close examination of the false prophets in pre-exilic Israel, we will encounter some of Israel’s difficulties in recognizing these and thus perhaps illuminate our own struggles to keep from being mislead or misleading.

It is during the period of the Divided Monarchy that we see the rather sudden emergence of false prophets as a problem for Israel. Two distinct groups within the traditional prophetic ranks make their appearance, the prophets who support the public institution and the ones who challenge it. 1 This conflict of loyalties gave rise to a phenomenon unique to Israel, “ideological conflict pitting prophet against prophet.” 2 In no other ancient near-eastern literature do we find prophets standing in opposition to each other, challenging the other’s authority.

Most interesting is the confrontation in 1 Kings 22 between Zedekiah (one of Ahab’s court prophets) and Micaiah (the opposing prophet). There is no conclusive evidence that Ahab’s prophets habitually spoke falsehood. Thus, Zedekiah seems to speak in good conscience for Yahweh (but deceived by a lying spirit) and questions how the one spirit of God could speak messages of opposite import {24} through two of Yahweh’s prophets (vs. 24). 3 This incident is representative of the view maintained through the earlier accounts that God alone speaks through the prophets. No clarification is given with respect to false prophecy in Israel. In fact, the Hebrew Old Testament had no special word for a prophet who prophesies by another than Yahweh: a prophet is a prophet.

The picture is entirely different in the pre-exilic canonical prophets. Isaiah accuses false prophets of teaching falsehood (9:15), Ezekiel says they prophesy of their own inspiration (13:2), Micah sees them divining for money (3:5), and Zephaniah calls the false prophets reckless and treacherous (3:4). Jeremiah is most forceful and precise in his indictment of false prophets. They willfully practice deceit (8:10) out of the deception of their minds (14:14); they are immoral (23:14) and prophesy lies, be it from auto-inspiration, self-deception or strong drink (28:20). It is now clear that the false prophet is not sent by God nor is his message from God (Jer. 14:14-15).

The earlier conception was that Yahweh is the “originator of all spiritual phenomena.” 4 Although the later true prophets can see through the fallacy of self-induced prophecy in the name of Yahweh, the ordinary people of Israel faced a particularly grave problem: how in the world did they differentiate between the messenger from God and the messenger from some other source? If two prophets of Yahweh presented opposing messages, which one were they to heed? Two ways of discerning prophecy have been proposed. 5


Person-Centered Criteria

The person-centered criteria prove to be the most subjective. This is understandable since God can use anyone as a messenger, from Balaam to Amos. It has been suggested that the false prophet could be distinguished by his immoral conduct or by his attachment to the king’s court or to the cult. While there are many descriptions of the immorality of prophets which are used as proof positive that they are false, no such accusations were made in the cases of Zedekiah (1 Kings 22) or Hananiah (Jer. 28) who nevertheless prophesied falsehood. Furthermore, no prophet was accused of being false on account of his associations with the king or with the cult; it would be pure speculation to state that a prophet attached to either the king’s court or to the religious cult was false by virtue of those attachments. Some have placed great weight on the prophet’s own conviction of being sent by God as a means of validating his message. Indeed, the true prophets accused their opponents of not being sent by God (Jer. 14:15) and held their own call in high esteem (Amos 7:10-14). However, the false prophets also claimed to speak for God (e.g., Zedekiah, Hananiah) and were {25} convinced that they were sent by him. And even though the classical prophets had the certitude of their own conviction, the personal and subjective nature of conviction, makes it useless in persuading the people. Nothing about the false prophet as a person could in every case invalidate his message.

Message-Centered Criteria

The message-centered criteria are much more frequently applied (both implicitly and explicitly) in Scripture. The fullfillment of a prophecy to determine its validity is the ancient test of Deuteronomy 18:22. Ultimately, Ezekiel (2:5), Jeremiah (29:9, 16) and Micaiah (1 Kings 22:28) appeal to this test. This can be assumed as the ultimate validation for true prophecy. Or can it? The first obvious problem is that this test only applies to the future and is of no value in determining whether to believe and act on the prophecy in the here and now. The second problem is the conditional nature of prophecy, “uttered with the thought that the outcome will depend largely upon the people’s response to the message”. 6 The prophetic oracles are also, in the main, of a very general nature, and it is hard to pinpoint the expected time of actualization. A difficulty with some of the details of these general prophecies is that they seemingly did not come true, at least not in the way the prophets thought they would. 7 The third problem is that this test only addresses the predictive element in prophecy and this excludes much of the prophetic writings.

Another message-centered criterion for determining false prophecy is the claim that the false prophet speaks only weal while the true prophet preaches woe. This theme of weal us. woe is developed in Jeremiah, where Jeremiah combats the sense of security promoted in the message of shalom spoken by the prophets of Judah. This security was based on a false conception of unconditional election rooted in the prior covenants with Yahweh. 8 Jeremiah’s laments over prophecies of unconditional well-being as false and as inculcating unfounded hope in the people are repeated in many of the major prophets. Ezekiel condemns those who prophecy peace when there is no peace (13:10), and Micah decries those who cry peace at their own whim (3:5). Messages of weal, however, are found in the prophetic writings as well, assuring Israel peace (Isa. 7). Thus the message of weal or woe in itself is not a criterion for determining false or true prophecy; the message of peace was false only when Israel was in need of a word of repentance and judgement.

The revelationary form of the message, rather than its content, had been another criterion proposed. These might include the presence or absence of ecstasy, revelation through dreams, and the emphasis upon word or spirit. 9 The form of the prophetic utterance has been a debated issue. There are several allusions to the prophets as “madmen” {26} (2 Kings 9:11; Jer. 29:26), to their abnormal behaviour upon receipt of the prophetic message (1 Sam. 19:20, 24), to the psychological and emotional effects their visions had on them (Jer. 15:16; Ezek. 3:14; Isa. 21:3), and to the dreams they experienced (Joel 3:1). However, there is no logical way of making these into a pattern or a standard for prophecy. And, when it comes to using symbolic actions in prophecy, both true and false prophets make use of them (Jer. 28). The facts are that the false prophets regularly declared oracles (Jer. 23:31), used the familiar introductory formula (“Listen to the word of the Lord”) and most likely had the same ecstatic experiences as the true (1 Kings 22:10; Ezek. 12:24). Furthermore, the personal nature of the experiences of the true prophets (e.g. sense of call, visions) make this test inconclusive. Describing one’s experiences which are outside the realm of investigation would be of no help in aiding the public to decide.

It has been contended that the false prophets emphasized the Spirit while the true ones were transmitters of the word of God. But there is no certainty that this can be unconditionally supported by the Scriptures. 10

Deuteronomy 13:1-3 raises the important distinction that even if a prophet’s sign or wonder comes true the message of the prophet must still be discerned. If that prophet’s message counsels one to follow after other gods, he must be killed and his words disregarded. Finally, Jeremiah at times accused the false prophets of prophesying by Baal (2:8, 23:13); but it is obvious that they did not think so (2:23, 28:2) or that at the very least the people did not know so. This criterion would therefore be valid for instances where the Baal cult was obvious (1 Kings 18) but not for Israel’s history in the main.

In applying any of the above tests to the concrete cases of contradictory prophetic messages (e.g., Hananiah vs. Jeremiah, and Zedekiah vs. Micaiah), it has been shown that they could not lead Israel to the true message. None of the above criteria present themselves as standards upon which these cases could be evaluated. Seemingly Israel stood before the false prophets without any objective means of identifying them. At this point one scholar concludes: “Does this mean that the attempt to distinguish true from false prophecy in Ancient Israel must be abandoned? In effect, this is the position to which one is forced. . . .” 11 Is this the inevitable conclusion to which we are drawn?


This writer believes this conclusion to be wrong for several reasons. Deuteronomy 13 captures the subtle and seductive nature of falsehood yet affirms that it can be discerned by the one who loves God with all his/her heart. Also, passages such as Jeremiah 20:6 and 23:17 make it {27} clear that the people who run to the false prophets for oracles will reap the same punishment that these prophets earn. These people are characterized as despisers of Yahweh and friends of false prophets. It is not conceivable that these people, or that those who listened to Hananiah and to Zedekiah, would be condemned without having consciously chosen for or against Yahweh. It is assumed that by going to these prophets and listening to their words the people are choosing to revolt against God.

The reason one cannot use the aforementioned tests as infallible criteria for distinguishing the true prophecy from the false is because they have been abstracted from the historical situation in which Israel found itself. To be more precise, it is useless to use these tests without regard for the blindness of Israel. Ultimately Israel’s sin was a refusal to admit her sin. Many times in the past her people had sinned and rebelled against God, but the particular nature of her sin had become an obstinate refusal to face these sins and repent.

O Lord, do not Thine eyes look for truth?
Thou hast smitten them,
But they did not weaken;
Thou has consumed them,
But they refused to take correction.
They have made their faces harder than rock;
They have refused to repent. (Jer. 5:3)

It is no wonder that the nature of the falsehood preached by the pseudo-prophets, “peace, peace,” suited the Israelites well. For God’s people, who saw no need to change their ways, that would be the natural message! Was not Yahweh interested in making Israel a great nation? Did he not promise prosperity and well-being to her? Of course! So for a people with no perceived need to repent, “peace, peace” is the welcome word. The main function of the false prophet was to preach well-being and peace. There are passages showing false prophets misleading the people (Mic. 3:5; Jer. 27:13), but their main effect was to reinforce the people’s peace and thus “glossing over the real seriousness of the situation,” they only helped to maintain the people’s unwillingness to repent. 12

We see several things in this situation that make the prophet of shalom false. First, the concept of unconditional well-being which was their trademark is totally foreign to all previous covenant relationships with God (Deut. 30:15-20). To a nation turned away from God, this message is a lie and a rejection of God. The prophets were using God to fulfill the people’s wishes and really believed their false words would come true (Ezek. 13:2). Second, and closely linked to the above indictment, these prophets were false because they did not convict the people of sin. Jeremiah 23:22 makes it clear that if those prophets had the {28} word of Yahweh, they would have turned the people back from their sin. Jeremiah laments this failure to expose their iniquity (Lam. 2:14). The same principle is at work in each case of false prophecy; where there should have been a word of doom to encourage repentance, there was a word of well-being to perpetuate unrepentance.

While all this is clear in retrospect, it was not so clear at that time. If the people saw no need for repentance, they could not point to the false prophets and say, “But they are not exposing our sins therefore they must be false!” According to Jeremiah, Israel had absolutely no desire to seek the Lord or to know what God wanted of them: “It’s hopeless! For we are going to follow our own plans, and each of us will act according to the stubbornness of his evil heart” (Jer. 18:12). For those who had lost the faculty of knowing Yahweh and what he stood for, true prophecy proved to be utterly useless. Because there was no discernment left in Israel, what they thought was their gain—the prophet’s easy word of well-being—turned out to be their utter loss (Jer. 27:10, 15). Even God’s word through his prophets could not prevent disaster. The word of God fell on unrepentant hearts and thus brought on the Israelites the punishment they deserved.

The prophetic word must meet with some degree of receptivity for it to affect the hearer. As it stood, the word of status-quo was to Israel the only word they could accept. The false prophets had turned truth into lies by speaking a message of their age but not from God. They fashioned God’s promises of old into a package that was palatable in taste but poisonous in effect.

When the fraud enters with its activity the very domain of truth, if it sets up over against the hard divine word of demand and judgement the easy word of a pseudodeity, a compromising deity, who is ready to help unconditionally, then it introduces confusion into the heart of the hearer. . . . 13

The example of Israel is clear. Abiding in self-satisfaction and unrepentance will be accompanied by blindness to the true word of God. Falsehood is the inevitable consequence when a living fellowship with God is replaced by reliance on a soothing theology. Without obedience it is utterly impossible to discern the truth.


  1. Simon J. DeVries, Prophet Against Prophet (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1978), p. 78.
  2. Ibid., p. 1.
  3. Ibid., p. 45.
  4. Ibid., p. 44. {29}
  5. James L. Crenshaw, Prophetic Conflict (New York: Walter de Gruyter, 1971), pp. 49-56.
  6. Thomas W. Overholt, The Threat of Falsehood (Naperville, Ill.: Alec R. Allenson, 1970), p. 39.
  7. Lindblom, Prophecy in Ancient Israel (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1962), p. 199.
  8. Overholt, p.3.
  9. Crenshaw, p. 54.
  10. Ibid., p. 55.
  11. Ibid., p. 61.
  12. Overholt, The Threat of Falsehood, pp. 78, 85.
  13. Martin Buber, The Prophetic Faith. (New York: Harper and Row, 1949), p. 176.

On this topic, note also the following:

  • Buber, Martin. The Prophetic Faith. New York: Harper and Row, 1949.
  • Heschel, Abraham J. The Prophets. New York: Harper and Row, 1962.
  • Rust, Eric C. Covenant and Hope. Waco, Texas: Word Books, 1972.
  • ———. “The Theory of the Prophets,” Review and Expositor 74/3 (Summer, 1977).
Keith Poysti is a freshman seminarian at Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary, Fresno, California.

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