Some time ago, an acquaintance (who does not attend our church) came to me and asked what I thought of psychics. He told me that a friend had persuaded him to consult a psychic, and that he had done so, very skeptically. But when he met with this person, he was, in his words, “blown away” by all that she knew about his life. He was convinced she could not have known the things she told him without having possessed some supernatural revelation. Worse yet, she told him some things about his future that greatly troubled him.11 I gave my friend a book to read which addressed this subject from a biblical point of view, hoping that he might come to see the fallacies and the dangers of pursuing guidance from below, rather than from above.
It is popular today to seek “spiritual counsel” from sources that are clearly forbidden and condemned in the Bible. As we continue in our study of the Old Testament prophets, we must, of necessity, consider the subject of false prophets. Two foundational texts which instruct us regarding false prophets are found in the Pentateuch, one in Deuteronomy 13:1-18 and the other in Deuteronomy 18:1-22. We shall consider the first of these two warnings in this lesson—Deuteronomy 13:1-18.
So far in our study of the Old Testament prophets, we have considered two prophets—Abraham and Moses. Abraham may not have been the first prophet, but he is the first person to be called a prophet in the Book of Genesis. Moses is one of the great prophets of all time, and he is also a prototype of Christ. It is important to recognize that in the Bible, the word “prophet” covers a very broad spectrum, from those who are false prophets to those who are godly. Let us begin this lesson by surveying some of the categories of “prophets” we find mentioned in the Bible.
There were heathen false prophets of the gods of the Canaanites and the nations surrounding Israel:
“Now therefore, send and gather all Israel to me on Mount Carmel, the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal, and the four hundred prophets of Asherah, who eat at Jezebel’s table” (1 Kings 18:19; see also Judges 3:5-7).
In Genesis 20:7, God informed Abimelech that Abraham was a prophet. God did not need to define the term “prophet” for Abimelech. This heathen king knew what a prophet was—a prophet was one who spoke for his god. By and large, any people who worshipped a “god” had some kind of prophet to speak to and for their “god.” The exodus was not about whether or not there was a God. The issue was, whose “god” (or “God”) was the true God? Whose God was able to do what His prophet promised?
1 Afterward Moses and Aaron went in and told Pharaoh, “Thus says the LORD God of Israel: ‘Let My people go, that they may hold a feast to Me in the wilderness.’“ 2 And Pharaoh said, “Who is the LORD, that I should obey His voice to let Israel go? I do not know the LORD, nor will I let Israel go” (Exodus 5:1-2).
“‘For I will pass through the land of Egypt on that night, and will strike all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgment: I am the LORD’” (Exodus 12:12).
“Who is like You, O LORD, among the gods? Who is like You, glorious in holiness, Fearful in praises, doing wonders?” (Exodus 15:11).
10 And Jethro said, “Blessed be the LORD, who has delivered you out of the hand of the Egyptians and out of the hand of Pharaoh, and who has delivered the people from under the hand of the Egyptians. 11 “Now I know that the LORD is greater than all the gods; for in the very thing in which they behaved proudly, He was above them” (Exodus 18:10-11).
This theme of the “battle of the gods” runs through the Old Testament, as you can see from this text in Isaiah:
13 Then the Rabshakeh stood and called out with a loud voice in Hebrew, and said, “Hear the words of the great king, the king of Assyria! 14 “Thus says the king: ‘Do not let Hezekiah deceive you, for he will not be able to deliver you; 15 ‘nor let Hezekiah make you trust in the LORD, saying, “The LORD will surely deliver us; this city will not be given into the hand of the king of Assyria.”’ 16 “Do not listen to Hezekiah; for thus says the king of Assyria: ‘Make peace with me by a present and come out to me; and every one of you eat from his own vine and every one from his own fig tree, and every one of you drink the waters of his own cistern; 17 ‘until I come and take you away to a land like your own land, a land of grain and new wine, a land of bread and vineyards. 18 ‘Beware lest Hezekiah persuade you, saying, “The LORD will deliver us.” Has any one of the gods of the nations delivered its land from the hand of the king of Assyria? 19 ‘Where are the gods of Hamath and Arpad? Where are the gods of Sepharvaim? Indeed, have they delivered Samaria from my hand? 20 ‘Who among all the gods of these lands have delivered their countries from my hand, that the LORD should deliver Jerusalem from my hand?’“ (Isaiah 36:13-20).
In the Bible, there are “unwilling” prophets, like Jonah, who really did not want to do what God had commanded them.
There are also “unwitting” prophets, like Caiaphas, who spoke for God unknowingly (John 11:49-52). In this sense, Caiaphas differs little from Balaam’s donkey, which also spoke unwittingly. Neither sought to obey God or to convey His Word to men, but they did so anyway. Balaam, too, was an unwitting prophet. The prophecies he uttered were in spite of his desire to speak otherwise (see Numbers 22-24).
In the Old Testament, we find prophets in Israel who claim to speak for God, but who are clearly false prophets. These would include men like Zedekiah and the 400 “prophets” who assured Ahab and Jehoshaphat that “God” would give Israel the victory over Syria’s army, led by Ben Hadad (1 Kings 22:5ff.). There were those prophets who spoke from their own inspiration, claiming that God had spoken through them (Ezekiel 13:2).
There are also prophets who appear to have acted wrongly or to have “gone bad.” Miriam and Aaron, for example, wrongly opposed Moses (Numbers 12). The “old prophet” lied to the “young prophet,” claiming to have received later and overriding prophecy, thereby leading the young prophet astray (1 Kings 13).
There was at least one true prophet who spoke too quickly, without consulting God, who later had to retract his statement. When David told Nathan of his desire to build a temple for God, Nathan too quickly gave David his approval, without seeking God’s guidance. When God spoke to Nathan that same night, it was revealed to Nathan that God had other plans (2 Samuel 7:1-17).
For lack of a better category, I would say there were also “temporary” prophets in the Old Testament. I am thinking specifically of those 70 elders of Israel in Numbers 11:24-25 who prophesied once, but not again. These were the 70 men whom God had appointed and empowered to assist Moses in judging the Israelites, as suggested by Jethro in Exodus 18. I am also reminded of Saul, who prophesied with the band of prophets in 1 Samuel 10:9-13. In both instances, prophesying was evidence that these men were empowered by the Holy Spirit to carry out their divinely given tasks.
Very shortly in this series on the prophets, we shall consider the “prophet” Balaam12 in Numbers 22-25. But before doing so, it is very important for us to consider what God has commanded the Israelites concerning false prophets, and this we will do in this lesson and the next. In this lesson, we will study the Word of the Lord to Israel in Deuteronomy 13:1-18. In our next lesson, we will consider the instructions of Deuteronomy 18:1-22. These two texts in Deuteronomy will enable us to better understand the account of Balaam. In Numbers 22-25, Balaam illustrates in person what God speaks of in principle in Deuteronomy 13 and 18.
As I was preparing for this message, I planned to begin right at chapter 13 in Deuteronomy. As I read the earlier texts in Deuteronomy, I saw that this warning about false prophets was a part of a larger picture, so let me attempt to put the teaching of our text into its context by looking at some of the earlier warnings of Deuteronomy.
11 “Beware that you do not forget the LORD your God by not keeping His commandments, His judgments, and His statutes which I command you today, 12 “lest—when you have eaten and are full, and have built beautiful houses and dwell in them; 13 “and when your herds and your flocks multiply, and your silver and your gold are multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied; 14 “when your heart is lifted up, and you forget the LORD your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage; 15 “who led you through that great and terrible wilderness, in which were fiery serpents and scorpions and thirsty land where there was no water; who brought water for you out of the flinty rock; 16 “who fed you in the wilderness with manna, which your fathers did not know, that He might humble you and that He might test you, to do you good in the end—17 “then you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gained me this wealth.’“13
These words strongly urge the Israelites to be diligent to obey the laws God has set down for them, especially after they possess the land and begin to prosper in it. The danger is that once they begin to prosper in the land, the Israelites will take credit for their prosperity and will cease to depend upon God. In so doing, they will forget all that God has done for them to bring them to this land, to provide for them, and to protect them. As a result, they will be tempted to neglect His Word and to cease obeying His commands. When they cease to worship and serve God whole-heartedly, they will begin to turn to other gods. The key to walking obediently in God’s commandments is to constantly keep them in mind and to teach them to their children as well:
13 “It shall come about, if you listen obediently to my commandments which I am commanding you today, to love the LORD your God and to serve Him with all your heart and all your soul, 14 that He will give the rain for your land in its season, the early and late rain, that you may gather in your grain and your new wine and your oil. 15 “He will give grass in your fields for your cattle, and you will eat and be satisfied. 16 “Beware that your hearts are not deceived, and that you do not turn away and serve other gods and worship them. 17 “Or the anger of the LORD will be kindled against you, and He will shut up the heavens so that there will be no rain and the ground will not yield its fruit; and you will perish quickly from the good land which the LORD is giving you. 18 “You shall therefore impress these words of mine on your heart and on your soul; and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontals on your forehead. 19 “You shall teach them to your sons, talking of them when you sit in your house and when you walk along the road and when you lie down and when you rise up. 20 “You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates, 21 so that your days and the days of your sons may be multiplied on the land which the LORD swore to your fathers to give them, as long as the heavens remain above the earth” (Deuteronomy 11:13-21, NASB).
When the Israelites reach the land of promise, they are to completely destroy all of the images and implements of Canaanite worship (Deuteronomy 12:1-3). They are not to imitate any of the Canaanite practices, but religiously (that is, scrupulously) follow God’s instructions regarding their worship (12:4-28). They must not seek to worship God “the pagan way,” but must worship Him as He has commanded:
29 “When the LORD your God cuts off before you the nations which you are going in to dispossess, and you dispossess them and dwell in their land, 30 beware that you are not ensnared to follow them, after they are destroyed before you, and that you do not inquire after their gods, saying, ‘How do these nations serve their gods, that I also may do likewise?’ 31 “You shall not behave thus toward the LORD your God, for every abominable act which the LORD hates they have done for their gods; for they even burn their sons and daughters in the fire to their gods. 32 “Whatever I command you, you shall be careful to do; you shall not add to nor take away from it” (Deuteronomy 12:29-32, NASB).
In all of this, God is very clear that He alone is God, and that He alone is to be worshipped as God by His people. Furthermore, He requires Israel to worship Him in just the manner He has commanded in His laws and commandments, given at Mount Sinai. Here is where the “false prophets” come in. False prophets will seek to turn the Israelites from worshipping God to worshipping their false gods. They will seek to entice Israel to cease worshipping as God has commanded and to worship as the pagans do. This these false “prophets” will do, speaking as if they were doing so with divine authority. No wonder false prophets are so dangerous to Israel. With this in mind, let us turn to our text in Deuteronomy 13 to see what God has to say to us concerning false prophets.
1 “If a prophet or a dreamer of dreams arises among you and gives you a sign or a wonder, 2 and the sign or the wonder comes true, concerning which he spoke to you, saying, ‘Let us go after other gods (whom you have not known) and let us serve them,’ 3 you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams; for the LORD your God is testing you to find out if you love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul. 4 “You shall follow the LORD your God and fear Him; and you shall keep His commandments, listen to His voice, serve Him, and cling to Him. 5 “But that prophet or that dreamer of dreams shall be put to death, because he has counseled rebellion against the LORD your God who brought you from the land of Egypt and redeemed you from the house of slavery, to seduce you from the way in which the LORD your God commanded you to walk. So you shall purge the evil from among you.”
We would not be surprised to be told that false prophets will appear from without, trying to “come in” amongst the people of God. Sad to say, however, in both the Old Testament (above) and the New (see Acts 20:28-30; 2 Corinthians 11:1-15; 2 Peter 2:1ff.), we are warned that false prophets will arise from “within” the people of God. In our text (Deuteronomy 13:1), we are told that these “false prophets” are able to perform “signs and wonders,” which will convince the nave that they are truly speaking for God. We should be aware that false prophets, if empowered by Satan, may be able to do that which is extraordinary (see, for example, the fortuneteller in Acts 16:16ff.).14 No wonder there are “psychics” who amaze those who seek guidance from them.
The ultimate test of a prophet is whether or not he (or she) leads you to worship the One True God in the way He has prescribed. And so it is in verse 2 that we are told that even though a “prophet” performs amazing feats, he is a false prophet if he urges men to follow other gods, new gods which they have not known before. Such prophets must not be given a hearing. While they do not realize it, these false prophets, like their master, Satan, are being used by God to test His people. By allowing them to arise, God puts His people to the test, to see whether or not they will follow Him with their whole heart and soul (verse 3).
False prophets confront the people of God with a choice—either they will hear and obey God, or they will follow the false gods who are promoted by the false prophets. If the Israelites choose to cling to God and to His commandments, then they must take these false prophets and put them to death. They must not tolerate them. There was to be no “religious pluralism” in the land of Israel. They were to follow Him who had redeemed them from their slavery in Egypt, by eliminating those who would seek to seduce them to forsake their God for another. In this way, Israel would purge the evil from among them.
6 “If your brother, your mother’s son, or your son or daughter, or the wife you cherish, or your friend who is as your own soul, entice you secretly, saying, ‘Let us go and serve other gods’ (whom neither you nor your fathers have known, 7 of the gods of the peoples who are around you, near you or far from you, from one end of the earth to the other end), 8 you shall not yield to him or listen to him; and your eye shall not pity him, nor shall you spare or conceal him. 9 “But you shall surely kill him; your hand shall be first against him to put him to death, and afterwards the hand of all the people. 10 “So you shall stone him to death because he has sought to seduce you from the LORD your God who brought you out from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. 11 “Then all Israel will hear and be afraid, and will never again do such a wicked thing among you.”
It is one thing to put to death a false prophet whom we do not know well, who is not someone close to us. It is quite another thing to deal severely with a false prophet who is a member of our family. This is where obedience to God’s commands becomes very painful. God wants to make sure that what He has required in general is applied in particular. This is necessary because we have a tendency to disconnect the general commands from specific situations. Let me illustrate. I don’t know how many times I have talked with someone who comes to me for counsel because of some problem with a spouse or with a child. They tell of some sin they have discovered, and they ask what to do. When I ask if they have applied Matthew 18:15-20, they often look at me in surprise. They believe that this general instruction applies to other relationships (with other members in their church, or with their Christian boss or co-workers), but they don’t seem to grasp that these instructions equally apply to the family. Because of this tendency to “disconnect” specific action from general commands, God moves from general instructions regarding false prophets to very specific ones. What should an Israelite do if the “false prophet” who arises is a member of their family? Deuteronomy 13:6-11 tells them in very specific terms.
Whether it be a brother, a son or a daughter, your wife, or a close friend, God instructs the Israelites to deal with every false prophet who arises as He has instructed in verses 1-5. Whatever god they promote, whether one from those nearby or those from afar (as though the worship of this god would be less offensive), whether it be a familiar god or a completely new one, the one who would worship and serve God must not listen to a loved one who seeks to turn him away from God to another god. The false prophet, no matter how close our relationship to them might be, must be put to death. Obedience to this command would not only rid the nation Israel of a dangerous evil, but it would also set an example for the rest of the nation and serve as a warning to any who might seek to turn others from God.
12 “If you hear in one of your cities, which the LORD your God is giving you to live in, anyone saying that 13 some worthless men have gone out from among you and have seduced the inhabitants of their city, saying, ‘Let us go and serve other gods’ (whom you have not known), 14 then you shall investigate and search out and inquire thoroughly. If it is true and the matter established that this abomination has been done among you, 15 you shall surely strike the inhabitants of that city with the edge of the sword, utterly destroying it and all that is in it and its cattle with the edge of the sword. 16 “Then you shall gather all its booty into the middle of its open square and burn the city and all its booty with fire as a whole burnt offering to the LORD your God; and it shall be a ruin forever. It shall never be rebuilt. 17 “Nothing from that which is put under the ban shall cling to your hand, in order that the LORD may turn from His burning anger and show mercy to you, and have compassion on you and make you increase, just as He has sworn to your fathers, 18 if you will listen to the voice of the LORD your God, keeping all His commandments which I am commanding you today, and doing what is right in the sight of the LORD your God.
Obedience to God’s commands is seldom easy. There are two situations in which the command to put false prophets to death is especially difficult. The first is when it involves friends or family. We have just dealt with that in Deuteronomy 13:6-11. The second is when the trouble is far off, where we think it will hardly affect us. If my next door neighbor’s house is on fire, I will be greatly concerned. I will not only call the fire department and report the fire, I will go outside with a water hose, helping to put it out. I will do this not only because I wish to help my neighbor, but also because the fire may consume my house as well if it is not put out quickly. Now when someone’s house is on fire across town, or in an another city, I am tempted not to get involved, because it is far away and it does not seem to adversely affect me.
The same is obviously true regarding false prophets, and verses 12-18 address this. False prophets are like a cancer. If they are permitted to exist in one part of Israel, their evil will probably spread to other parts of the nation. Distance was not to be a factor in how godly Israelites responded to evil. Even if a potential problem arose in a distant city, the Israelite who learned of this evil was to act decisively in dealing with the situation. Therefore, no Israelite was to ignore as much as a hint or a rumor of evil, even though the evil may be far off. Any rumor or report of evil that came to one’s hearing was to be taken seriously. I am reminded of the signs posted in airports around the world, which read something like this: “Any mention of bombs or weapons will be taken most seriously.” In other words, passengers are warned that they had better not even so much as make a joke about a bomb, or they will find themselves in a great deal of trouble. The same level of seriousness was to be taken in response to rumors of false prophets and false worship, anywhere in Israel. The rumor was to be investigated carefully to see if there was any substance to it.
Verses 12-18 introduce three additional factors to what was commanded in verses 1-5. First, the evil now addressed is distant and remote. It is not in one’s home or family (as in verses 6-11), but in some distant city. Second, the evil is only alleged, and it must therefore be investigated. Because the alleged evil is distant, it is reported as a rumor, and not as fact. Even though a rumor, and even though distant, the allegation must be taken seriously. Finally, the evil is not just one false prophet. The evil has spread to the entire city, so that the entire city must be destroyed to rid the nation of the evil. Not only the people, but all of their possessions, must be destroyed. In short, the Israelite city that has fallen into false worship must be dealt with in precisely the same manner as the Canaanite cites were.
One might be tempted to breathe a sigh of relief, telling oneself that this command was given to the nation Israel, centuries ago. Since they were living in the land of Canaan so long ago and so far away, and since we are now living in a different dispensation, surely we are not obliged to carry out these commandments, are we? The answer must surely be that we are not to apply these commandments exactly as the Israelites of old were to do. If this is so, then what is the point of studying this text today? Let me suggest some of the ways in which our text relates to us, today.
First, our text illuminates our reading of the Old Testament. When we come to the story of Balaam in the Book of Numbers, we will see that Balaam is a false prophet. We will understand why false prophets are so dangerous and why God eventually took this prophet’s life. We will see how the Israelites should have dealt with false prophets, and why the nation fell under divine judgment for their idolatry. Our text, along with Deuteronomy 18, prepares us for our study of the Old Testament prophets.
Second, our text informs us of how dangerous false prophets are, how they can be identified, and how we should deal with them. I do not mean, of course, that we are to stone those today who practice or promote other religions. I do mean that we should learn from our text that God wanted His people to act quickly and decisively when they encountered a false prophet. The New Testament has much to say about false prophets and false teachers. While we are not to put these folks to death, we are to put them out of the church. And whether they be those close to us, or those far away, we must see the danger they pose, and therefore commit ourselves to act decisively to rid the church of their influence and teaching.
Having said this, let me seek to bring this text a little closer to home. First of all, we should expect false prophets today, just as the Israelites were to expect them in the past. Jesus warned of false prophets (Matthew 7:15-23; 24:23-25), as did the apostle Paul (Acts 20:28-31), and Peter (2 Peter 2:1ff.), and John (1 John 4:1). They will not only come to us from without (2 John 1:4-11) but also from within (Acts 20:28-31; 2 Peter 2:12-22). Some of them may very well come with false wonders (Matthew 24:24; 2 Thessalonians 2:9). We must be constantly on the alert for such men and women, who will seek to lead us astray. As a rule, we can expect these folks to add to or take away from the Scriptures (see Deuteronomy 12:32; Revelation 22:18-19), or they will seek to twist the Scriptures (2 Peter 3:14-18).
False prophets tell us what we want to hear, and they appeal to our fallen nature. They appeal to the flesh and our appetites, promising what they cannot deliver:
17 These are springs without water and mists driven by a storm, for whom the black darkness has been reserved. 18 For speaking out arrogant words of vanity they entice by fleshly desires, by sensuality, those who barely escape from the ones who live in error, 19 promising them freedom while they themselves are slaves of corruption; for by what a man is overcome, by this he is enslaved (2 Peter 2:17-19).
These false prophets are a test of our faith and our commitment to God. Such people are not just a concern to the leaders of the church; they should be a concern to all. First, we must all be alert so that they do not deceive us, and we follow them to our own hurt. And when we become aware of their existence, we must involve ourselves in dealing with them.
Our defense is simple and straightforward. We are to do as the Israelites of old were instructed. We are to trust and obey. We are to constantly be in His Word, learning it, teaching it to others, and obeying its commands. Let us commit ourselves to do just this, to trust and obey God, to His glory, and for our good.
12 To my knowledge, the only place in the Bible where Balaam is actually called a prophet is 2 Peter 2:15-16.
14 See also Matthew 7:25-23.