Leading up to the election, numerous people sent me links to prophecies from men like Jeremiah Johnson predicting Trump would get a second term in 2020. They were wrong, and because of how public they made their prophecies, it’s creating no small stir. One prominent leader in the Pentecostal movement, Michael Brown, called those prophecies “the largest scale deception I’ve seen in 49 years of following Jesus.” The matter has even found its way on to the front page of the New York Times in an article by Ruth Graham.
While some prophets have clung to their predictions even to this day, others, including Jeremiah Johnson, have apologized. But even as Johnson “repented” (to use his word) of the prophecy, he does not consider himself to be a false prophet because he has a good heart.
What Constitutes a False Prophet?
The Old Testament standard for prophecy is very clear: get it wrong once and you’re a false prophet.
But a prophet who presumes to speak in my name anything I have not commanded him to say … must be put to death.” You may say to yourselves, “How can we know when a message has not been spoken by the LORD?” 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… (Deut. 18:20-22 NIV)
Pentecostals have argued that while the Old Testament standard for prophecy was indeed very high, in the New Testament the standard dropped considerably. Rather than prophecy being a direct, verbatim, infallible word from the Lord as it was in Old Testament Times, in the New Covenant prophecy is merely a potentially fallible report of an idea that the Holy Spirit has brought to someone’s mind. The Spirit causes the prophet to think of something and that prophet does his best to communicate the idea, but there is no guarantee the Spirit will see to it that he does so accurately as he did in Old Testament times.
One argument that is frequently used to support this view is the fact that prophets were to be judged in the church (1 Corinthians 14:29). I do not find this argument compelling, as it seems it would be necessary in a church like Corinth where people are routinely claiming to have gifts they don’t have to identify those with the true gift. However, the full debate over the definition of New Testament prophecy extends beyond the scope of this blog post. For a strong (but somewhat technical) defense of my view (that Old and New Testament prophecy are the same) see the article by David Farnell here.
(Note: I do believe the thing Pentecostals call “prophecy” exists and is valuable. Sometimes the Spirit does bring things to mind, and we should express those thoughts. My only objection is in labeling it “prophecy.”)
Another mark of false prophecy in the Old Testament was the tendency to prophesy popular ideas.
The prophets prophesy lies, the priests rule by their own authority, and my people love it this way. But what will you do in the end? (Jer.5:31 NIV)
What were they prophesying? The opposite of what the true prophets like Jeremiah were prophesying. Jeremiah warned the people that God was going to punish them by sending a foreign power to conquer them. The false prophets assured them, “No, Israel will win.” And the “We’ll be the winners” message is always more popular.
This is illustrated in comical fashion with the prophet Micaiah.
So the king of Israel brought together the prophets– about four hundred men– and asked them, “Shall I go to war against Ramoth Gilead, or shall I refrain?” “Go,” they answered, “for the Lord will give it into the king’s hand.” But Jehoshaphat asked, “Is there not a prophet of the LORD here whom we can inquire of?” The king of Israel answered Jehoshaphat, “There is still one man through whom we can inquire of the LORD, but I hate him because he never prophesies anything good about me, but always bad. He is Micaiah.” …
The messenger who had gone to summon Micaiah said to him, “Look, as one man the other prophets are predicting success for the king. Let your word agree with theirs, and speak favorably.” But Micaiah said, “As surely as the LORD lives, I can tell him only what the LORD tells me.” When he arrived, the king asked him, “Micaiah, shall we go to war against Ramoth Gilead, or shall I refrain?” … Then Micaiah answered, “I saw all Israel scattered on the hills like sheep without a shepherd.” … The king of Israel said to Jehoshaphat, “Didn’t I tell you that he never prophesies anything good about me, but only bad?” (1 Ki. 22:6-8, 13-18 NIV)
Prophecies about a Trump victory were exactly what the vast majority of those prophets’ audiences wanted to hear. I know my ears certainly would have loved to hear a word from God assuring victory, given the alternative. And sure enough, those prophecies spread through social media like wildfire.
How Wrong Can New Testament Prophecy Be?
But they were wrong. And not just a little wrong. They were the complete opposite of what happened. Are we to believe that the Holy Spirit brought to the minds of all those prophets, “Biden will be elected” and that came across in the communication of those prophecies as “Biden won’t be elected”?
Rather than this being an example of who a New Testament prophet can sometimes misunderstand some details of an idea the Holy Spirit has brought to mind, it seems much more like a classic example of a very popular “we will win” message being peddled to the applause of the masses while being the opposite of the truth.
Be Careful When Your Ears Itch
So what can we learn from this? Regardless of your position about prophecy in the New Testament, it’s important that all of us keep a careful watch over our itching ears.
For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. (2 Tim. 4:3 NIV)
Always remember, the itchier your ears are to hear something, the more vulnerable you are to deception.