Week of September 17, 2017
The Point: Dabbling with evil is destructive; seeking direction from God brings life.
Prophets: True and False: Deuteronomy 18:9-22.
 “When you come into the land that the LORD your God is giving you, you shall not learn to follow the abominable practices of those nations.  There shall not be found among you anyone who burns his son or his daughter as an offering, anyone who practices divination or tells fortunes or interprets omens, or a sorcerer  or a charmer or a medium or a necromancer or one who inquires of the dead,  for whoever does these things is an abomination to the LORD. And because of these abominations the LORD your God is driving them out before you.  You shall be blameless before the LORD your God,  for these nations, which you are about to dispossess, listen to fortune-tellers and to diviners. But as for you, the LORD your God has not allowed you to do this.  “The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers–it is to him you shall listen–  just as you desired of the LORD your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly, when you said, ‘Let me not hear again the voice of the LORD my God or see this great fire any more, lest I die.’  And the LORD said to me, ‘They are right in what they have spoken.  I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers. And I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him.  And whoever will not listen to my words that he shall speak in my name, I myself will require it of him.  But the prophet who presumes to speak a word in my name that I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that same prophet shall die.’  And if you say in your heart, ‘How may we know the word that the LORD has not spoken?’–  when a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the LORD has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously. You need not be afraid of him. [ESV]
“Occultism [9-14]. In Old Testament times the priest was expected to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward [Heb. 5:2]. One of the most dangerous expressions of the people’s waywardness and ignorance was to seek God’s help by the wrong means. Most of Israel’s neighbors gave a prominent place in their religious life to magic and sorcery, witchcraft and soothsaying. It is appropriate that, in discussion about priesthood and authentic spirituality, there should be some mention of unacceptable rites and forbidden religious ceremonies. If people in the ancient world wanted to know whether any proposed course of action was favored by the gods, it was common for them to consult a witch or a wizard. This kind of prohibition is certainly relevant in late twentieth-century society where there is increasing commitment to witchcraft, black magic and Satanism. Thoroughly dissatisfied with materialistic lifestyles and secular humanism, some of our contemporaries are beginning to explore new and dangerous paths of ‘spiritual’ discovery. This passage [9-14] offers some important teaching on these forbidden occult practices. First, such practices are offensive to God. Here God’s people are told that the activities of the person who practices divination or tells fortunes or interprets omens, or a sorcerer or a charmer or a medium or a necromancer or one who inquires of the dead is an abomination to the Lord [10-12]. These evil rites were the cause of God’s judgment on Canaan. It cannot be right for any believer to indulge in practices which God despises. Secondly, occult activities are harmful to us. The black magic of those days included human sacrifice. The Israelites were told that anyone who burns his son or his daughter as an offering cannot be numbered among the Lord’s people. There is no doubt whatever that some of the forms of modern witchcraft are physically harmful. Moreover, this sinister and Satanic activity is eternally damaging. The work of a medium is among this grim list of forbidden occupations and the spiritist also, who claimed to make contact with the dead. Bereavement is a time of intense personal distress and, during such dark and painful times, the bereaved person may long to be reassured in some way about the one they have loved and lost. Modern day Spiritism is as serious a danger now as it was in the ancient world and can have devastating effects in the lives of totally innocent people. The Bible makes it abundantly clear that we are never to attempt any form of contact with those who have died. Thirdly, occult practices are forbidden by Scripture. We cannot hope to benefit from anything if the Lord has prohibited its use. Canaan was littered with such evil practitioners but the warning about their destructive activities is unmistakably clear: you shall not learn to follow the abominable practices of those nations. There shall not be found among you anyone … who practices divination … the Lord your God has not allowed you to do this [9-10,14]. It is significant that this warning about divination, discovering the divine mind, is set between passages concerning the appropriate and acceptable way for the Israelites to discern God’s will – through the ministry of priests and prophets. The priest entered the Lord’s presence on behalf of the people. They were to consult Him about what was pleasing to God. The prophet came out from the audience-chamber of the Lord into the presence of the waiting congregation. He is the one appointed to speak in the name of the Lord . If the people wanted to know what God thought about any particular issue, they must listen carefully to the words of God’s prophet, not the damaging and inane ramblings of a degraded wizard. The Canaanite preoccupation with such evil practices meant that they were guilty before the Lord, and their unacknowledged guilt had issued in God’s judgment – their expulsion from their land. Witchcraft was one of the specific reasons why they had been driven out . The Israelites must be blameless of such conduct or they too will incur the divine wrath. The privilege of being God’s chosen people does not entitle them to a different standard of morality. If they turn to witchcraft they too will be thrust out of Canaan.
Prophets [15-22]. God will provide His people with a chosen prophet – it is to him you shall listen , not soothsayers. Moses had served the people as God’s prophet and, when his life came to an end, the Lord would continue to give them prophetic leaders of great distinction with a rich persuasive ministry. Throughout Israel’s history, however, the nation was frequently plagued by false prophets, not people who spoke for false gods but men who said the wrong things about the true God. An earlier passage in Deuteronomy had already alerted the people to the peril [13:1-5]. Jeremiah was particularly concerned about such men and their dangerous ‘peace at any price’ message. They gave the people the words they wanted rather than the truth they needed. Moses here shares with the people three characteristics of an authentic prophet.
(1) An authentic prophet obeys God’s call. Like the priests, the prophets would not be self-appointed spokesmen. The Lord God would raise up [15,18[ such gifted people and equip them for their strategic work. Their place in the ministry of the word would be due entirely to the divine initiative. Those who engage in the ministry of preaching in our own world need to do so out of a strong sense of spiritual compulsion. Nobody ought to pursue a course leading to ordination, or embark on a career like the Christian ministry, for example, without the strong conviction that this is what the Lord wants. In a sense, they must not decide to become ministers; they must feel that the decision has been made for them already – by God Himself.
(2) An authentic prophet welcomes God’s word. The Lord says, I will put my words in his mouth . The words anticipate the call of Jeremiah to the prophetic ministry when the Lord said to that young and initially reluctant man, Behold, I have put my words in your mouth [Jer. 1:9]. For the contemporary preacher, nothing is of greater importance than the painstaking study of that word in Old and New Testament Scripture. The preacher’s task is not to confront the congregation with his own ideas but with the authoritative word of God. In the early fifth century, Augustine of Hippo testified to the centrality of the word when he said, “I am never so happy in speaking as when I have ample support in the Scripture.”
(3) An authentic prophet imparts God’s message. Moses says that, having received God’s word, the true prophet will not regard it as his exclusive possession. The truth has been given to him so that it can be shared with the people: he shall speak to them all that I command him . There was no room in Israel for a highly favored class of select people who received esoteric messages for themselves which were not to be communicated to other people. God’s word was for everybody, not the favored few. The teaching about the prophet’s role in the Israelite community closes with a warning about two different people: the disobedient listener  and the presumptuous speaker [20-22]. The disobedient listener , who merely hears the word but does not put it into practice, will be accountable to the Lord for his stubborn resistance to the truth. The prophet’s task is to communicate the message faithfully. It is unlikely that everyone will respond, and the prophet will not be accountable for the people’s refusal to do what God says. To use Ezekiel’s vivid word-picture, the prophet is like a watchman appointed to do duty on the walls of a city and alert its citizens to any approaching danger. If, through preoccupation with lesser things, carelessness or laziness, the watchman fails to warn the people, and they perish, then God will hold the watchman accountable for their blood. He will face eternal judgment for his failure to save the people by issuing the warning. If, however, the people hear his urgent warning and take no notice, then he is not remotely responsible should any of them lose their lives in a subsequent disaster [Ezk. 3:16-21; 33:1-9]. The apostle Paul must have had this ‘watchman’ passage in mind when he told the Ephesian elders on the shore at Miletus that he was innocent of the blood of all of them [Acts 20:26]. He had faithfully and lovingly preached the gospel in pagan Ephesus. What the people did about it was their responsibility. Those who hear the good news must understand that God’s word conveys an explicit warning as well as an earnest appeal. Obedience guarantees life; disobedience invites death. The presumptuous speaker [20-22] is one who dares to speak in the Lord’s name (implying that it is an authentic word) when that word has not been given to him by God. He will be equally guilty of divine condemnation. The disobedient listener rejects what God has said. The presumptuous speaker trades in things which God has not said. Such a person has spoken presumptuously – a word which means to ‘seethe, bubble, or boil up’. It describes someone who gives a message which is supposed to come from God while it is merely an emotional or carnal experience with no divine authority whatever. There are several ways whereby we can distinguish true from false prophecy. The problem was acute for Jeremiah and he identified three tests. The true prophet stood in God’s presence (as a servant), heard the divine message and was sent by God [Jer. 23:18-21]. A further test is given here in Moses’ address to the people – fulfilment is the test of authenticity. The validity of a prophetic message is not a subject confined to the Old Testament period. It became an important issue in early Christian times, and it is still relevant in our own. A deeply sincere Christian may genuinely believe that he or she has been given a specifically worded message for other believers, a ‘prophetic utterance’. Recognizing that God can and does speak in such a way [1 Cor. 14:1-40], it is important to emphasize that all such prophecies need to be submitted to two Spirit-inspired checks, God’s word and God’s people. The utterances need first to be tested by God’s perfect revelation in Scripture; that is the unique standard by which all other ‘truth’ must be tested [1 Thess. 5:20-21]. The Holy Spirit has already spoken in the bible. Such prophecies must also be considered prayerfully by the local church to discern by the Spirit that they are truly of God [1 John 4:1-3]. Not all that claims to come from Him does so. Infallibility belongs to the Lord alone. We are only human and can easily be mistaken. Far more seriously, in the contemporary world, scores of new religious sects come to birth in every year. All of them claim to have some new word from God. These movements can seriously mislead innocent people, for some of them have some familiar ‘Christian’ elements as part of their teaching. Christians need to realize that there are false as well as true prophets. God’s unique revelation in Scripture, the exemplary life of Jesus, and the teaching ministry of the Holy Spirit, are the Lord’s appointed ‘tests’ to help us if we want to distinguish reality from sham, truth from error. Does the Bible, God’s word, support this new truth? Does this new truth encourage Christlikeness? Does the indwelling Spirit of God confirm this new truth? In a day when there are so many competing voices, that searching Trinitarian test can help to save us from false and spiritually damaging teaching. Before we leave this important passage, we need to remember that these particular words in verse 18 came to be treasured by Jewish and Christian people as one of many predictions regarding an inimitable leader or promised Messiah. In other words, a prophet like you was not simply a reference to any prophet but to a particular prophet. Some Jewish people held that the words were of special importance as they looked for the coming of the prophet of the last times. The Qumran community, for example, who preserved the now-famous Dead Sea Scrolls, remembered this saying and anticipated the coming of an outstanding prophet. The Samaritans gave special prominence to these verses in their teaching. Their version of the Pentateuch places these verses about the prophet immediately after the account of how Moses received the Law. Christian believers maintain that these words found their perfect fulfilment in the coming of Christ. He was the prophet and those who despised His word would be accountable to God for their disobedience . In their preaching both Peter and Stephen referred to this passage and saw Jesus as its unique fulfilment [Acts 3:22-23; 7:37]. He was the greatest of all the prophets for the entire Old Testament revelation was brought to its perfect fulfilment in His birth, life, ministry, death and resurrection. As the letter to the Hebrews puts it, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son [Heb. 1:1-2]. The word of Moses comes to us across the centuries: It is to him you shall listen … whoever will not listen to my words that he shall speak in my name, I myself will require it of him [15,19]. The Lord God repeated that appeal during Christ’s ministry on earth when He said, This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him [Matt. 17:5]. Those who listen and obey receive new life. Attentive and responsive listeners will live forever [John 3:36; 5:24].” [Brown, pp. 184-189].
Questions for Discussion:
- List the nine forms of evil mentioned in 18:10-11. Why is God so concerned about all forms of occultism? Why is any form of occultism called an abomination to the Lord ? How is occultism really a false religion controlled by Satan? What are ways people today deal in occultism? How does God reveal Himself to His people?
- What are three characteristics of the true prophet? This passage closes with a warning about two different types of people: the disobedient listener and the presumptuous speaker [19-22]. Describe God’s warning to these two groups. Pray that God will protect you from falling into either of these two groups.
- How can we distinguish true from false prophecy? Note the following key questions that every believer should ask concerning any teaching that claims to be from God. Does the Bible, God’s word, support this new truth? Does this new truth encourage Christlikeness? Does the indwelling Spirit of God confirm this new truth?
The Message of Deuteronomy, Raymond Brown, InterVarsity.
Deuteronomy, John Currid, Evangelical Press.
Deuteronomy, Eugene Merrill, NAC, Broadman & Holman Publishers.