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After prophesying of another prophet like Moses whom God would raise up, Moses then warns of false prophets who would try to fulfill the prophecy. Deuteronomy 18:20-22 says,
20 But the prophet who shall speak a word presumptuously in My name which I have not commanded him to speak, or which he shall speak in the name of other gods, that prophet shall die. 21 And you may say in your heart, “How shall we know the word which the Lord has not spoken?” 22 When a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the thing does not come about or come true, that is the thing which the Lord has not spoken. The prophet has spoken it presumptuously; you shall not be afraid of him.
Perhaps the most important thing to note in this passage is that the offense occurs when a presumed prophet speaks in the name of God (or some false god). In other words, if a prophet says, “Thus says the Lord,” followed by a prophetic statement, he should be very sure that the word is from God, rather than from the idols of his own heart. But this does not address a prophet’s opinions or his understanding. He might make honest predictions based upon his understanding of the word without it being a prophecy. In such cases, if he is wrong, it is not an offence or a sin, but an honest mistake.
Unfortunately, many over the years have judged prophets for their mistaken opinions, as if prophets must have perfect understanding. But 1 Peter 1:10 tells us that even the prophets “made careful search and inquiry,” not only of prophecy from other prophets, but also of their own prophecy. If all understanding came with the word, the prophets would not have found it necessary to study it and to seek further clarification.
Here is where it is important also to have a proper definition of sin. Sin is lawlessness (1 John 3:4). It occurs when men transgress the law. It is also the result of a lack of faith (Romans 14:23), because faith comes by hearing God’s voice (Romans 10:17), and our actions respond to faith.
Yet there are some who say that “sin is ignorance.” Such people do not know the mind of God. Ignorance actually lessens liability for sin. James 4:17 says,
17 Therefore, to one who knows the right thing to do, and does not do it, to him it is sin.
Acts 17:30 says,
30 Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all everywhere should repent.
Paul himself appealed to this principle in 1 Timothy 1:13, when he spoke of his early life as a persecutor of the church,
13 even though I was formerly a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent aggressor. And yet I was shown mercy, because I acted ignorantly in unbelief.
So sin is not ignorance, but a lawless offence against God and man. Sin may be committed either in ignorance or with knowledge, but those are mitigating factors that increase or decrease one’s liability for sin.
Hence, if a prophet, being ignorant, expresses an opinion that is actually untrue, he should not be treated harshly, because prophets are not perfect, nor do they possess all truth. Many people are too quick to judge prophets, and, in fact, depart from Paul’s admonition to the church in 1 Corinthians 14:29,
29 And let two or three prophets speak, and let the others [i.e., other prophets] pass judgment [diakrino, “to separate, make a distinction, discern, judge”].
This was in the context of church meetings, where it was expected that prophets would speak the word of the Lord in order to edify the church (Ephesians 4:11-13). Each prophet was to speak the word, and the other prophets were to discern, or judge the validity of the word. This instruction did not give everyone the right to judge a prophet. Everyone had the right only to chew the cud and to determine for himself what was the truth. Yet over the years many have overstepped their bounds and have wanted to stone the prophets.
In fact, this was why the biblical prophets were persecuted and stoned so often. They were stoned as “false prophets.” Even King Ahab did not stone Micaiah for giving him a word that he did not want to hear. When Micaiah prophesied Ahab’s death in the coming battle, Ahab arrogantly put him in prison until he should return alive from battle (1 Kings 22:27). That would have proven the prophet to be false, and on those grounds he intended to put him to death according to the law of Deuteronomy 18. Of course, Ahab died in battle, and the prophet was released.
But there are other times when prophecies seem to fail. In Isaiah 43:5 and 6 the prophet prophesied the return of Israel (the northern kingdom), but this did not happen in the way that the people understood the prophecy. Isaiah was “sawn in two” (Hebrews 11:37). Likewise, Jonah’s prophecy seemed to fail when Nineveh was not destroyed within 40 days (Jonah 3:4). We can only imagine how the people judged him for this, not knowing that repentance can delay and even cancel a judgment altogether.
These are important lessons for us to learn today. We may learn from past mistakes when prophets were unjustly judged by those who were not qualified to pass judgment. Only those who truly hear the word of the Lord and have the mind of Christ are qualified to discern and judge prophets. But seasoned prophets are also reluctant to pass judgment without a specific word from the Lord, for they know the difference between the prophetic word and one’s understanding of that word.
Another factor often missed is that everyone, including prophets, should be allowed to repent if they prophesy presumptuously. Certainly, prophets are held to a higher standard than others, because they are not supposed to prophesy ignorantly. Yet even prophets do not emerge from their mother’s womb spiritually mature. They need time for seasoning, and they even need room to make mistakes along the way.
At any rate, in any kind of judgment, there is a lawful procedure that must be followed. Even then, true judgment depends upon the judges having the mind of Christ and knowing when to defer a case to the Supreme Court of heaven.
Moses also deals briefly with the question in Deuteronomy 18:21, “How shall we know the word which the Lord has not spoken?” In other words, when a prophet says, “Thus says the Lord,” how can we discern whether or not the word is a true word from God? That is precisely the problem, of course, for men have always had difficulty hearing God’s voice and discerning a word from God from the word of a heart-idol. Moses does not give the people a course in hearing God’s voice, but merely defers to the obvious answer, “if the thing does not come about or come true, that is the thing which the Lord has not spoken” (18:22).
Of necessity, this is only a partial answer, for history shows that many true words seemed to fail, or seemed impossible to fulfill. A fuller answer would have included some instruction on the time factor, for many prophecies took centuries or even thousands of years to fulfill. And so, when Paul was being judged by the Corinthian church, he wrote to them in 1 Corinthians 4:3-5,
3 But to me it is a very small thing that I should be examined by you, or by any human court; in fact, I do not examine myself. 4 I am conscious of nothing against myself, yet I am not by this acquitted; but the one who examines me is the Lord. 5 Therefore do not go on passing judgment before the time, but wait until the Lord comes, who will both bring to light the things hidden in the darkness and disclose the motives of men’s hearts; and then each man’s praise will come to him from God.
Paul was being examined by the church, much like a witness is examined by a judge or lawyer in a courtroom. Paul said that he was not conscious of any offense that he had committed, but even so, a clear conscience alone could not acquit him, because the Lord was the one examining him. (Apparently, Paul had appealed his case to the Supreme Court of heaven.)
In that context, Paul brings in the time factor, saying that one should not judge until the whole truth is brought to light. In our earthly situation, it is seldom that the whole truth is brought to light by which men may judge properly. Hence, the time factor is very important. Moses did not address this directly, but provision was made for this problem by their right to appeal to the Supreme Court of heaven. Thus, in a case where a prophet speaks a word in the name of the Lord, and the word does not seem to come to pass, a true biblical judge must have the mind of Christ and know when to appeal the case to the Supreme Court for judgment. A wise judge would know that some prophecies may appear to fail in the present time, and yet may have a long-term fulfillment.
In other words, sometimes judgment may have to “wait until the Lord comes,” as Paul said. In appealing to the Supreme Court of heaven, we leave such matters in God’s hands, knowing that He will judge all things in His time. He may judge immediately, as He did with Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5. He may judge in a year, as He did with the prophet Hananiah in Jeremiah 28:17. Still other cases may be deferred to the Great White Throne.
All in all, men are usually too quick to judge, and because they have not understood that there is a Supreme Court of heaven, they seldom avail themselves of the perfect justice established through Moses and continued in the New Testament. Men have had too much confidence in their own ability to judge, or have felt that it was their duty to pass judgment