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False Prophets

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

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1. For the understanding of this expression in the NT, we must correctly apprehend the character of the false prophets of the OT. To earlier writers these men were essentially and consciously false, either prophets of false gods, holders of opinions which did not agree with the revealed character of Jehovah the God of Israel, or men who knowingly spoke falsehoods in the name of Jehovah. Modern biblical science takes a more lenient view. It does not deny the existence of such as either possible or actual (Jeremiah 2:8, Ezekiel 13:1-9), though in the matter of creed many of them were probably ‘syncretistic’ rather than simply ‘anti-Jehovistic’ (A. B. Davidson). The majority may be regarded rather as men accustomed to the outward signs of the prophetic office, the hairy mantle (Zechariah 13:4, cf. 1 Kings 19:19), the methods of prophetic instruction (Jeremiah 28:10), and the use of the prophetic formula, ‘Thus saith Jehovah’ (Jeremiah 23:25; Jeremiah 23:31, Ezekiel 13:6), but who had never come under the influence of, or had failed to remain in personal contact with, the revealing Spirit ‘who spake by the prophets.’ Hence the message they gave was merely one that was agreeable to the common thought of the people, whether it concerned the internal condition and life of the nation or its relation to surrounding States. It was principally in the later prophetic period of Micah, Jeremiah, and Zechariah that these prophets of smooth things, subject to no true and Divine revelation, came to be regarded as professional tricksters, making a living out of their false predictions (Micah 3:5, Zechariah 13:4-5). But whether from the desire of gain or of public favour, these false prophets expressed the optimistic, what would be regarded as the patriotic, view of the state and future of their country, and have been described as ‘nationalistic rather than false.’ It is this optimistic, nationalist outlook that particularly explains the reference in Luke 6:26, ‘in the same manner did their fathers (speak well) to the false prophets.’ The false prophets, as declaring the things the nation wished to hear, naturally succeeded in gaining general approval and credence. This is particularly shown in Jeremiah 6:13-15 and Micah 2:11, and is confirmed by instances, not a few, in which the apparently unpatriotic attitude of the true prophet, compared with that assumed by the false, resulted in disfavour and even in persecution (1 Kings 22:27, 2 Chronicles 16:10, Jeremiah 20:2). It was the false prophet, representing the national ‘wish that is father to the thought,’ of whom ‘all men spoke well.’ Our Lord therefore takes such as types of that ill-deserved general approval which may be won by flattery, by concealment of the truth, by the denying or minimizing of danger and of retribution: methods denied to those who ‘are of the truth.’ This view of false prophecy as the saying of things men wish to hear ‘for the hire of wrong-doing,’ is to be discerned in 2 Peter 2:2 f., where the false prophet is the analogue of the false teacher, himself guilty of ‘lascivious doings’ (cf. 2 Peter 2:13-19 for the character of this teaching).

2. The false prophets in the Christian Church.—In the NT as in the OT, the prophetic ministry must be regarded in its two branches as interpretative of God’s mind and as predictive. False prophets of both these classes were to be expected in the Christian community. To grasp the significance of the warnings against these men, the importance of prophecy in NT times must be borne in mind. Prophecy was a more important gift than tongues (1 Corinthians 14), and the prophet is in the list of officers associated with the Apostles, taking, with this one exception, precedence of all other ranks. The prominence of the prophet may be seen in the Didache (c. 11), and in the part played by him in the Montanist movement. Hence their truth or falseness, their faithful use, or their abuse of the spiritual gift, was an important factor for the infant Church. Hence our Lord warns against them as ‘wolves in sheep’s clothing’ (Matthew 7:15), and St. John at the end of the Apostolic age repeats the warning (1 John 4:1). In the former case the reference is apparently to their unethical teaching; in the latter to their denial or misinterpretation of the fact of the Incarnation. Without using the name, our Lord warns also against such men, as falsely predicting or announcing the Parousia (Matthew 24:5-7). In 2 Peter 2:1 stress is laid upon false teaching of an antinomian character, the authors of which are called ‘false teachers,’ but find their analogy in the ‘false prophets’ of the OT.

Literature.—Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible, art. ‘Prophecy and Prophets’ (p. 111); Bonwetsch, Die Prophetic in apost. und nach-apost. Zeitalter; Harnack, Lehre der Zwolf, ad xi. 5; Expositor, v. ii. [1895] 1; Expos. Times, v. [1893] 122.

J. T. L. Maggs.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'False Prophets'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament.​dictionaries/​eng/​hdn/​f/false-prophets.html. 1906-1918.