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Go to Bible: Deuteronomy 18
“the Levitical priests.” The Masoretic Hebrew text reads, “the priests the Levites.” Every priest was also a Levite. [For more on the Levitical priests, see commentary on 2 Chron. 30:27].(top)
“no inheritance of land.” All the other tribes got an inheritance of land, but the Levites got the service of Yahweh and food from His sacrifices and offerings.(top)
“sheep.” The Hebrew word can refer to a sheep or a goat.
“belly.” This would refer in general to the inner parts. The 2011 NIV reads “internal organs,” which catches the sense.(top)
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“the sale of his ancestral property.” The Hebrew text simply reads the sale of his “fathers” (i.e. “ancestors”), but it refers to what has come down to him from his ancestors. This would not include land because the Levites could not own land, but could refer to other possessions that his ancestors might have gained.(top)
“you are not to learn.” The so-called “black arts” and magic arts and pagan worship are not instinctively understood by humans, but are learned. God’s people are to stay away from all activity that is not a glory to God. Witchcraft and the black arts can fascinate the senses and their power can be attractive to the flesh, but those abominable and demonic practices and also the physical things that are associated with them such as wands, crystal balls, Ouija boards, etc., are to be completely avoided. The power that they have comes from God’s arch-enemy, the Devil, and if a person, and especially a believer, chooses the Devil over God he or she will have terrible consequences.
“the abominable things that those nations do.” The Devil is always trying to lure people away from God, and has many ways to do it. One of them is by getting people to look to him for information instead of looking to God. This section in Deuteronomy 18 gives us a list of some of the practices that God calls “abominable.” The Devil was effective in getting those practices inculcated into the pagan culture of the ancient world, and many of these practices are still going on today despite the fact that they are an abomination to God. The “nations” in the verse specifically refers to the various Canaanite nations, including the Ammonites, Amorites, Girgashites, Hittites, Hivites, and Jebusites.
People generally want more information than God wants to give them. God wants people to act wisely, make decisions for their own lives, and accept the consequences of the decisions they make. However, that takes a lot of wisdom, time, and risk, and many people are unwilling to do that. Besides, all the human wisdom in the world cannot tell us many of the things we would love to know: will a boyfriend/girlfriend make a good life partner; will a certain investment work out; will changing jobs help or hurt me in the long run; will my child turn out to be a good person; and many more questions like those. But God is comfortable with us not knowing those things.
God knows that we live in a fallen world, and that we are not going to be able to fix it or to “make everything right” in our lives. He wants us to trust Him on a day-to-day basis and have confidence that our next life will be wonderful, and sorrow and death will be no more. For the mature Christian, the fact that life is hopelessly broken and things go wrong in people’s lives is evidence that Adam’s sin ruined the world, and it leads us to recognize how horrible sin is, and how important it is that we make a genuine effort to obey God. The brokenness of life forces us to trust in God’s support, and it builds our desire for the restored world in the future.
Understandably, however, many people are not satisfied with being part of the consequences of Adam’s sin, and they don’t want to wait for the Millennial Kingdom for things to improve in their lives. People want to be “right” and do not want to take the risks inherent in making their own decisions. The Devil takes advantage of that, and he also takes advantage of the fact that many people are content to hand off their decision making to “invisible forces” they believe are somehow more knowledgeable than themselves. Thus, the Devil supports many different ways of telling the future and influencing people to make decisions based on the information that he provides.
Providing different ways of dispensing information supports the Devil’s agenda in many ways. It weakens people’s resolve to obey God; it weakens people’s emotional growth in making, then taking responsibility for, their own decisions; it gives evidence, false evidence, that God is not important to people’s lives because they can get the information they want from other places; it provides an avenue for the Devil to feed people false and misleading information; it enriches disobedient people such as diviners and sorcerers with both money and influence; and, by engendering people’s disobedience and the devaluing of God, it hinders the unsaved in getting saved and hinders believers from building up rewards in the future Kingdom of God.
The list of practices in Deuteronomy 18:10-11 is not exhaustive, but it is indicative of the way culture will go if the people do not know God and the truth He provides about the visible and invisible world. There is a lot of overlap in the practices listed below, and that is understandable because although different demonic arts have specific differences, there is a lot of overlap, just as in English, concepts like “magic,” “sorcery,” and “witchcraft,” have a lot of overlap. The point of the list is that it gives us enough information to be clear that God wants to be our only God and our only source of supernatural information. Getting information from the Devil always in some way ends in harm, and God knows that.
[For more on the Messiah’s future kingdom on earth, the Millennial Kingdom, see Appendix 3, “Christ’s Future Kingdom on Earth.” For more on how the future will unfold from this present age to the Millennial Kingdom to the Everlasting Kingdom, see commentary on Rev. 21:1].(top)
“makes his son or his daughter to pass through the fire.” The reference to passing children through the fire is widespread in the Old Testament but is not well understood (cp. Lev. 18:21; 2 Kings 16:3; 17:17; 21:6; 23:10; Jer. 32:35; Ezek. 16:21; 20:26, 31; 23:37). At least three times it is associated with the god Moloch (Lev. 18:21; 2 Kings 23:10; and Jer. 32:35), and twice it is associated with divination (2 Kings 17:17; 21:6). It is quite possible that the practice varied in different times and cultures.
Passing a child through the fire appears here in Deuteronomy along with other types of divination for guidance or gaining knowledge of the future. That fact argues strongly that at least sometimes the practice was used as part of a ceremony to determine the future. However, it is also possible that it was a sacrifice designed to appease the gods and bring about a favorable future. That certainly seems to be the case in 2 Kings 3:26-27 when the king of Moab sacrificed his son because he was losing the battle. In any case, the scope of Scripture, including verses such as Leviticus 18:21 and Ezekiel 16:21, as well as supporting evidence from archaeology, conclusively support the fact that passing children through the fire was not just some harmless means of prognostication that somehow involved children, it either sometimes or always involved actual child sacrifice.
“who practices divination.” The Hebrew doubles the root word for emphasis, and the phrase in the Hebrew text is qosem qesamim (קֹסֵ֣ם קְסָמִ֔ים). It is difficult to accurately bring that Hebrew phrase into English that reads smoothly because qosem is a participle and qesamim is the noun. A very wooden translation would be “divining divination,” but that is hard to understand in English. The essence of the phrase is picked up in many versions that translate it as one who “practices divination.” That translation reads well in English and catches the sense of the phrase, but it loses the emphasis provided by the doubling of the root word.
Divination is the process of acquiring supernatural knowledge by various means, and there are literally hundreds of different ways of divining, depending on the time and culture. Some are specifically mentioned in the Bible, such as looking at the liver of an animal (Ezek. 21:21), using a stick (Hos. 4:12) or casting lots (Esther 3:7). The Bible allowed for certain ways to cast lots, so we must not consider all lot casting to be ungodly, but some of it certainly is).
“tells fortunes.” Although “tell fortunes” brings to mind pictures of Gypsy palm readers, there are many ways people try to tell the future. The exact Hebrew word in the text is meonen (מְעוֹנֵ֥ן) from the root word anan (#06049 עָנָן). The meaning of meonen is debated, which we can see by the different ways it is translated in the English versions: “augury” (ASV); “soothsayer” (CJB; NAB; NRSV); “tell fortunes” (HCSB; ESV); “observer of times” (KJV); “practices witchcraft” (NASB); “an omen reader” (NET; cp. NIV); and “use sorcery” (NLT).
Merrill Unger wrote about meonen: “But the precise etymology of the Hebrew term is uncertain. Some would derive it from the root anan (‘to cover’), ‘one who practices hidden or occult arts.’ This explanation, though, has no real support from usage. Others would connect the word with anan (‘cloud’), ‘one who observes the clouds with a view of obtaining an oracle.’ Still others would make it a denominative from ayin (‘eye’), ‘one who smites with the evil eye.’ But nothing in the context would suggest any of those views. The most likely explanation is that the expression is from the Semitic root meaning ‘to emit a hoarse nasal sound’ …such a sound as was customary in the reciting magical formulas (Lev. 19:26; 2 Kings 21:6).” (Merrill Unger, Biblical Demonology, Kregel Publications, Grand Rapids, 1994. P. 131). Isaiah 8:19 speaks of mediums and people who try to get information from the spirit world who “chirp and mutter” as part of the practices they engage in.
The HALOT Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament has “to interpret signs, soothsayer.” It is likely that in this context meonen refers more generally to those who engage in various magical arts to determine the future rather than those who actively practice magic and other “black arts” with the intent of influencing the future. There are many different ways people attempt to “tell someone’s fortune,” including Ouija boards, Tarot cards, and palm reading; and the list goes on and on. Many of those people do in fact speak or chant as they practice their art, and that could have been ridiculed in Isaiah as “chirp and mutter.”
“interprets omens.” The Hebrew verb is nachash (#05172 נָחַשׁ), and it referred to interpreting omens and divining by means of them. In Genesis 44:5 and 15, Joseph was said to be able to use his cup to divine (which is the same Hebrew word: interpreting omens), but it is also possible that he never did so, but used that as a ruse. There is no biblical record of Joseph actually interpreting omens or using any type of divination except by the revelation he got from God.
“practices sorcery.” The Hebrew verb is kashaph (#03784 כָּשַׁף). For our purpose, a sorcerer is “one who practices magic by using occult formulas, incantations, and mystic mutterings…it is evidently commonly employed to include the whole field of divinatory occultism.” (Merrill Unger, Biblical Demonology, Kregel Publications, Grand Rapids, 1994, p. 153). A sorcerer is one who seeks to control things in the natural world by summoning or controlling supernatural forces. Scholars have not been able to exactly pin down the ancient understanding of the difference between a “witch” and a “sorceress,” and the words may in fact have been basically synonymous. There seems to be very little difference between our understanding of a “witch” and a “sorcerer,” and although older versions such as the KJV use “witch,” the modern versions almost universally use “sorcerer,” which might be due to the fact that the word “witch” in our modern times usually, but not always, carries the idea of an old woman who lives alone with black cats, big pots, all kinds of weird ingredients, and who casts spells that turn people into frogs and such. That is not a true image of what witches or sorceresses are like. Actually, the modern definitions of “witchcraft” and “sorcery” given in different sources vary greatly and are often contradictory. For example, some sources say witchcraft usually involves doing good while sorcery involves doing evil, while other sources say witchcraft deals with doing evil too. But call it witchcraft or sorcery, the real problem is that they both deal with demons.
God commanded that sorcerers and sorceresses were to be put to death (Exod. 22:18; cp. Lev. 20:27). That was because of their intimate involvement with demons, which are the avowed enemies of God and righteousness, and are hurtful to all of God’s creation. There are only two ultimate supernatural sources, God and the Devil, and anyone who is working with supernatural powers that are not from God is against God. The idea that there is “good witchcraft” is a falsehood foisted upon people so the Devil can gain a larger foothold on the person and society.
The existence of spiritual forces, both good and evil, has been known since God created humankind. The Devil appeared to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (Gen. 3:1), and the Devil and his demons have continued to appear to people throughout the ages. In fact, it was demons appearing in various forms that gave rise to the polytheistic theologies and mythologies in the ancient world. Just as demons appear to people today as different spirits and ghosts, the evidence indicates that demons appeared to people in the ancient world as different gods and goddesses of all kinds of shapes and sizes. Furthermore, the gods appeared in different ways that revealed a hierarchy among them (as indeed there was a hierarchy in the demonic world), and also it was clear to the ancients that different gods were at war with each other, which is reflected in the ancient mythologies and is also a part of modern portrayals of spiritual forces such as we see in so many books and movies today.
Given the fact that demons appeared to people in different forms, it would be natural for the ancient people to turn to them for supernatural power and help, and thus the interaction between demons and humans was the driving force behind the widespread practice of divination and magic. So, for example, the list of demonic practices in Deuteronomy 18:9-11 was not some invented list. When Moses penned Deuteronomy, the activities mentioned in chapter 18 were actually being practiced by the peoples who were occupying the Promised Land (Deut. 18:9), and Joshua and his army would be in that land less than three months after Deuteronomy was written. So for Joshua and his army, Deuteronomy 18 was “hot off the press” and extremely important if they wanted God’s help in conquering the Promised Land.
So what we see in Deuteronomy is that when God separated the nation of Israel from the other nations and made them “His people,” He forbade them to deal with the demonic world in any and every form. The Israelites were not to get involved with supernatural power such as divination and sorcery; they were not to deal with demons (even though they did not know the forces were demons). Furthermore, they were to put to death anyone among them who got involved in working with the supernatural other than that which was knowingly from Yahweh.
The necessity to put to death Israelites who dealt with demonic spiritual forces was due to the fact that in the time of the Old Testament the average believer did not have the gift of holy spirit. That gift was poured out upon every believer on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2), but before Pentecost the people had to deal with spiritual wickedness in a physical way, by putting the evil person to death. Today every believer has the gift of holy spirit (Eph. 2:13-14) and so we wrestle against evil forces with spiritual weapons (Eph. 6:10-20). Sadly, most Christians are taught little or nothing about demons and about how to wrestle against them, which is like being in a war and having a closet full of guns and grenades, but not knowing what they do or how to use them, or frankly, even being aware that there is a war going on. Christians need to wake up to the spiritual battle, and if any Christian is involved in any of the activities in this list in Deuteronomy, they need to immediately quit, repent, and ask for God’s forgiveness.(top)
“or one who casts spells.” The Hebrew phrase is chover chaver (חֹבֵ֖ר חָ֑בֶר), using the same root as a participle and then a noun. A much more literal rendering would be something like, “a binder of bands,” or perhaps, “one who ties ties” (the Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon mentions “tie a magic knot”). In older English, magic spells were equated with “charms,” and thus some sources might speak of a “charmer who charms.” The root idea is that the person who can “bind with a band” can cast a spell or make magic that binds a person in some way. We can see why Rotherham’s Emphasized Bible has: “who bindeth with spells.” In Psalm 58:6 the verb refers to a snake charmer, in Isa. 47:9 and 12 the noun refers to magic spells.
“one who inquires of spirits or of a familiar spirit.” The Hebrew is shoel ob (שֹׁאֵ֥ל אוֹב). The word “ob” referred to a pit or hole in the ground and then by extension to spirits that lived there (another meaning of the Hebrew word is “skin bottle,” and some lexicons only give that meaning, which can be confusing to people trying to study this subject). Thus, the phrase refers to one who asks or inquires of spirits, particularly the so-called spirits of dead people. This would include mediums, necromancers, and others who try to contact the spirit world. Mediums and people who consulted familiar spirits (demons) were to be put to death (Lev. 20:27).
The phrase “familiar spirits” is from the Hebrew word yiddoniy (#03049 יִדְּעֹנִי), from the root yada (#3045), “to know,” and thus refers to “a knower,” or one who has a “familiar spirit.” The phrase “familiar spirit” is found in many Bibles and comes into English from the Latin word familiaris, which meant “of the family,” but which was used, among other things, to describe household slaves and servants. The idea is that mediums and spiritists usually have some particular spirits or “spirit guides” (demons!) who “know” things and with whom they are regularly in touch and who serve them.
“necromancer.” The Hebrew is more literally, “one who inquires of [or consults with] the dead.” The Devil successfully supports the belief that dead people are not really dead by the appearance of ghosts, apparitions, and other types of visitations by “dead people,” which are actually demons impersonating the dead. Demons have the power to manipulate matter to make visible figures appear with more or less clarity. Some “ghosts” appear as real as in real life, while other ghosts or apparitions appear in very vague or unclear ways, such as a dim figure in a smoky haze.
Necromancy is the term for the practice of contacting the dead, and many people, for many various reasons, want to contact those who have died. The desire to contact the dead is so strong that it goes on even among Christians despite the fact that it is specifically stated to be an abomination to God. Sadly, traditional Christian doctrine feeds the practice of necromancy by teaching the unbiblical doctrine that when a person dies, only the body dies and the “soul” (or “spirit”) lives on. But death is the absence of life, and it is an enemy (1 Cor. 15:26). When a person dies, they are totally dead, lifeless in every way, and will be that way until Jesus Christ raises them from the dead. That is why our hope is in the return and appearing of Jesus Christ (Titus 2:13; 1 Pet. 1:7), not in our own death, and it is why the Judgment occurs at his appearing and not at our death (2 Tim. 4:1). When a person “contacts the dead,” they are actually in touch with demons that impersonate the dead and who only have a hurtful, demonic agenda no matter how “nice” what they communicate seems to be.
The Devil has a multi-faceted agenda for making people think that dead people are not dead. For one thing, it makes physical death itself seem much less horrible. The thought of dying and being totally dead in every way, gone from life and loved ones, is very unsettling to many people and they willingly find reasons to believe that is not what happens. But being dead is what the Bible says happens. The first death is temporary, and people will be resurrected on their Day of Judgment, but for those who are unsaved, death via the Lake of Fire will follow the Judgment and be a permanent “second death” (Rev. 20:13-15).
Another reason the Devil has for getting people to believe the dead are alive is so that through mediums, apparitions, ghosts, etc., the Devil can communicate erroneous and hurtful information to the living. Of course, if everything being communicated from the spirit world was hurtful, people would see through the delusion, and because of that, much of what the demons communicate is either temporarily helpful or neutral. But the Devil does have an evil agenda, which is why any “communication with the dead” is an abomination to God.
[For more information on what happens when we die, see Appendix 4, “The Dead are Dead”].(top)
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“You must be blameless before Yahweh.” The way to be blameless before Yahweh is to know God’s commands and obey them. It is a major fault among believers that they do not generally truly know the Word of God. They simply do not spend the time learning the Bible and God’s commands the way they should.(top)
“does not allow you to do so.” In the Hebrew text the verb translated “allow” is perfect tense (past tense) but the effect is present and thus carries the meaning “does not allow.” God does not allow His people at any time to get involved with things associated with demons such as witchcraft and divination.(top)
“Yahweh your God will raise up to you a prophet.” It is important to connect Deuteronomy 18:15 with Deuteronomy 18:11-14. In verses 11-14 God tells His people what not to do to get information from the spirit world—don’t use divination or seek omens or try to talk to the dead. But God does not leave His people without information, after telling people what not to do, He tells them what to do, which is go to the prophets of God and get information from them.(top)
“in Horeb in the day of the assembly.” Here in Deuteronomy 18:16, Mount Sinai is called “Horeb,” and the “day of the assembly” was the day when Moses brought all Israel to the base of Mount Sinai to hear the words of Yahweh, and He spoke the Ten Commandments in a loud voice from the top of Mount Sinai. The record is in Exodus 19:16-20:21.
“Let me not hear again the voice of Yahweh my God.” This refers to God Himself speaking the Ten Commandments in a loud voice to the Israelites from Mount Sinai, which occurred between Moses’ 3rd and 4th time up Mount Sinai. It was later, on Moses’ 5th trip up Mount Sinai, that God wrote the Ten Commandments on stone and gave them to him. [For more on God speaking the Ten Commandments directly to the Israelites, see commentary on Exodus 19:9].(top)
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“I will require a reckoning from him.” The Hebrew text is simply, “I will require from him,” and it leaves us to imagine and consider what God would require from any person who did not listen to the words of Yahweh spoken by His prophet. We can be sure that anyone who ignores the words of God will recieive severe consequences, but those consequences are unstated in this verse.(top)
“will die.” It is a common Christian teaching that if a prophecy is given but does not come to pass, the one who gave the prophecy is a false prophet and, at least in Old Testament times, would have been put to death. That teaching is in error. We must remember that God is love, and prophecy is just one expression of that love. Therefore, many prophecies are actually just warnings of what will happen in the future if things do not change, but if they do change then the prophecy will be changed or will simply not come to pass as spoken. So, many prophecies are conditional and change if the conditions change. God says specifically in His Word that if He says something to a person, but the person changes, the outcome will be different from what He originally said (Ezek. 33:13-16). He says the same thing in Jeremiah about whole nations. If God speaks disaster to a nation, but it repents, He will not bring the disaster, and vice-versa (Jer. 18:7-11).
Samuel was not a false prophet when he told Saul he would be king over Israel (1 Sam. 10:1) and then circumstances changed and God took the kingship away (1 Sam. 13:14; 15:26). Nathan was a true prophet of God and prophesied that David would have peace in his kingdom (2 Sam. 7:11). But then David sinned by having Uriah killed and committing adultery with Bathsheba, so the prophecy changed, “Now, therefore, the sword will never depart from your house” (2 Sam. 12:10). Nathan also told David that God would establish his kingdom (2 Sam. 7:12). But when David turned from God that prophecy was nullified. God later said that He would tear the kingdom away from Solomon (1 Kings 11:11).
Rehoboam, Solomon’s son, was not a godly person, and the prophet Shemaiah told Rehoboam that God would abandon him to Shishak, Pharaoh of Egypt (2 Chron. 12:5). But Rehoboam and the leaders of Judah repented, so God said that instead of destroying them, He would deliver them (2 Chron. 12:7). Isaiah was not a false prophet even though he told Hezekiah he would “die, and not live,” but Hezekiah prayed and humbled himself, and God gave him more years (2 Kings 20:1-6). Elijah was not a false prophet just because what he said to Ahab did not come to pass—the circumstances changed when Ahab humbled himself before God (1 Kings 21:20-29).
Josiah was a godly king, so God sent Huldah the prophetess and told him he would be gathered to his grave in peace (2 Kings 22:20). But Josiah became proud and involved himself in a war he had no business being in, and was killed in the war (2 Chron. 35:23-24). His circumstances changed so the prophecy did not apply. Zedekiah was similar to Josiah in that he did some godly things, so God sent Jeremiah with the prophecy he would die peacefully (Jer. 34:5). But then Zedekiah gave into the pressure of ungodly men, and God pointed out that he and the leaders of Judah disobeyed Him (Jer. 34:17-21). Eventually, Zedekiah’s children were killed while he watched, then he was blinded and taken in chains to Babylon, where he died—hardly a “peaceful” death (Jer. 52:11). Jonah prophesied that Nineveh would be destroyed in 40 days, but the people of Nineveh repented and God did not bring the prophecy to pass. But Jonah was not a false prophet simply because what he said did not come to pass—everyone knew the circumstances changed (Jonah 3:4-10).
Also, it seems clear that prophets were not considered false prophets if they spoke the word that God gave them about the End Times and it did not come to pass. If that were the case, most of the “minor prophets,” John the Baptist, Paul, and others would be false prophets. God has the timing of the End Times under His control, and He seems to keep putting it off. About 800 BC, Joel said the End was near; close at hand (Joel 1:15; 2:1; 3:14). More than 700 years before Christ, Isaiah said the End was near, in “a very short time,” and it draws near speedily (Isa. 13:6; 29:17-18; 51:3-6). Around 600 BC, Zephaniah said the End was near and coming quickly (Zeph. 1:7, 14, 15), and about that same time Ezekiel said the same thing (Ezek. 30:3). Obadiah (late 500’s BC?) said the end was near (Obad. 1:15), and Haggai, around 520 BC, said the End was “in a little while.” John the Baptist said it was near (Matt. 3:2). Paul said “the time is short,” the End is “almost here,” “near,” and “soon” (Rom. 13:12; 16:20; 1 Cor. 7:29; Phil. 4:5). James said the coming of the Lord was “near” and the Lord was “standing at the door” (James 5:8-9). Peter also said it was near (1 Pet. 4:7), and 1 John 2:18 says that “this is the last hour” (1 John 2:18). Hebrews says it is in a little while (Heb. 10:37), and Revelation says the End will happen soon and is near (Rev. 1:1, 3; 22:6, 20). It has now been thousands of years since those words were spoken, and theologians have tried many creative ways to make the “time problem” go away by saying things like, “Since the End for you is the day you die, it is always ‘near.’” But those explanations are not convincing because not one person in the audience that the prophets were speaking to thought the prophet said, “the Day of the Lord is near,” but really meant, “You are going to die soon.” The biblical prophets were not “false prophets” because their prophecies about the timing of the End Times did not come true. God, for His own reasons, kept pushing back the time of the End—He kept changing the circumstances. The point is that just because a prophecy does not come to pass does not mean the prophet was a false prophet; there are many reasons prophecies don’t come to pass.
Biblically, a false prophet is a person who gets information from a demonic source and/or leads people away from the true God, and the Old Testament said to put those people to death (Deut. 13:1-5). In fact, Deuteronomy clarifies what a false prophet is by specifically pointing out that even though the prophecy given by the false prophet comes to pass (which most people think would qualify him as a “true” prophet) the false prophet must be executed. Deuteronomy makes it very clear that simply giving a prophecy that comes to pass does not make someone a true prophet of God (Deut. 13:1-5).
It is important to realize that false prophets are not “false” because what they say is wrong. They are “false” because they do not represent the “true” God. Balaam was a prophet who stood against God, yet everything the Bible records him prophesying was true (Numbers 22:1-24:25). The Devil knows the facts of a situation and is not shy about using his prophets to reveal it. The woman with the spirit of divination spoke the truth about Paul and his companions, which would make her a true prophet in some people’s eyes, but she was a false prophet and spoke via a demon, ultimately turning people away from Paul and the truth he presented (Acts 16:16).
Deuteronomy 18 contains a significant section about prophecy. Unfortunately, many translations add to the text to supposedly help clarify it, but what they add actually is not the truth of what God is trying to say. For example, the NIV84 says that a prophet who presumes to speak in God’s name things God did not command him to say “must be put to death.” However, the Hebrew text does not say he is to be “put to death,” the Hebrew text is much better translated as the KJV, NASB, Rotherham, and some other translations say it: “shall die.” The translation, “must be put to death” is not what the Hebrew text says, but rather is an assumption about what it means.
The words, “shall die” do not indicate the means of death. A study of the phrase reveals that sometimes it means, “shall be put to death,” as the NIV84 translators assume it means, but it can also mean, “shall die” in a purely factual sense. There are many examples showing the two ways this phrase can be translated. For instance, Deuteronomy 17:12; 22:25 and 24:7 are uses of the phrase when it clearly means “execute” or “put to death,” and 1 Samuel 2:34; 1 Kings 14:12 and Proverbs 15:10 and 19:16 are places where it simply means to die (every human “shall die,” so the obvious meaning is that the false prophet shall die before his natural time. There is, however, also the overtone of everlasting death, because false prophets will not be in the Resurrection of the Righteous). Since the phrase “shall die” is not conclusive, we must study the context and scope of Scripture to discover what meaning it has in any given verse.
Also, to determine what God says about prophets whose prophecies do not come to pass, we need to read the text carefully—especially because prior false teaching may have prejudiced our mind as to what the text says. Note carefully what Deuteronomy says to do when a prophecy does not come to pass: “If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the Lord does not take place or come true, that is a message the Lord has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously. Do not be afraid of him” (Deut. 18:22 NIV84). If a prophet speaks something that does not come to pass, the people should simply “not be afraid of him.” When we put verse 22 together with Deuteronomy 13:5 and 18:20, an interesting picture develops. If a prophet speaks to people with the intent of leading them away from God, he “must be put to death.” On the other hand, if a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord and the prophecy does not come to pass, perhaps it is conditional. How would the people know? In any case, the people should not be afraid of him and, if he is a false prophet, he “shall die.”
The Bible has examples of prophets who spoke prophecies that were not from God and who died. One is in the book of Jeremiah. Nebuchadnezzar’s army had attacked Judah and taken people and material goods back to Babylon. Jeremiah had foretold that the Babylonian captivity would last 70 years (Jer. 25:11-12). However, another prophet, Hananiah, challenged Jeremiah and said that the captivity would be two years or less (Jer. 28:3). How were the people going to know the truth? As it turned out, Hananiah died that year, while Jeremiah lived and his prophecy came to pass (Jer. 28:15-17).
Hananiah turned out to be the false prophet, and he died before the two-year time period ended. He died, fulfilling the words of Deuteronomy that he “shall die,” but he was not executed by the people. Eli and Amaziah were priests, but it can reasonably be assumed from the culture and their position that they prophesied at least occasionally, and both of them also died of unnatural causes without being executed (1 Sam. 4:18; Amos 7:17).
It is very important when considering this subject of true and false prophets to realize that the Bible does not have even one example of a prophet being executed when his prophecies did not come to pass. That, combined with the fact Deuteronomy does not require a prophet whose prophecy did not come to pass to be executed, is very strong evidence that just because a prophecy does not come to pass does not mean the prophet was a “false prophet” or should have been executed under Old Testament law.
On the other hand, the Bible does have examples of prophets who were put to death when they led the people to worship other gods. Elijah had the 450 prophets of Baal put to death, and Jehu had the prophets of Baal executed (1 Kings 18:40; 2 Kings 10:18-31).
It is worth mentioning that true prophets were sometimes executed or imprisoned because they challenged the political system of the time. John the Baptist was imprisoned and eventually executed for telling the truth to a king who did not want to hear it. Jeremiah foretold the destruction of Jerusalem and was imprisoned for speaking against the city (Jer. 26:11). Micaiah was imprisoned when he spoke against the king of Israel long before it was known whether what he said was right or wrong (1 Kings 22:27). Asa, king of Judah, threw Hanani the prophet in prison for reproving him (2 Chron. 16:7-10). Amaziah, king of Judah, threatened to kill a prophet if he did not stop his prophetic reproof (2 Chron. 25:15-16), and there were other leaders, such as Jezebel, who killed the prophets of God for political reasons of their own (1 Kings 18:13).
From the evidence in Scripture, it is wrong to conclude that if a prophecy does not come to pass, the prophet is a false prophet. True prophets can speak prophecies that do not come to pass for a number of reasons: because of the conditional nature of prophecy; because the people who receive the prophecy do not do what is required for it to be fulfilled; or because a prophecy sometimes focuses more on the “take home message” than specific details, so sometimes details do not work out exactly as the prophet stated (as in the prophecy of Agabus; Acts 21:10 versus Acts 22:22-24; 26:21).
In contrast, Scripture reveals that false prophets can give prophecies (and do signs and wonders) that are accurate and do come to pass. However, false prophets will ultimately lead people away from God and His written Word whether what they say comes to pass or not. Psychics and mediums do this consistently. They are “spiritual” people, but they are not spiritual in the godly sense of the word. They are in contact with demons, but usually they, and the people they advise, do not know it. This is just one more reason why each Christian needs a good understanding of the Bible. When we know the truth set forth in the Bible, we know when we are being led away from it. If we do not know it, we can ignorantly be led away from God and into sin.
The student of prophecy who understands the above information realizes the complexity of prophecy. Both false prophets and genuine prophets can speak prophecies that are factually correct and/or come to pass. Similarly, both false prophets and genuine prophets can speak prophecies that are not factually correct or do not come to pass. Therefore, looking at whether or not a prophecy comes to pass is not the ultimate test of a true prophet. It is an indicator, especially over time, but it is not conclusive. By having an understanding of how prophecy works, we will not fall into the trap of castigating or ostracizing a true prophet who had a prophecy not come to pass, or accepting into our Christian ranks a false prophet whose words have come true.(top)
“word.” Here, as in many places in the Bible (and indeed, in Christian speech), the word “word” is used in the sense of a message.(top)
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