Meet the Prophets
Is the Bible truly the word of God? To do that, we explore the writings of prophets, the men who say they speak for God. This page is an introduction to a series on the prophets. The books under review are named after their author and thus have historical value comparable to Paul's epistles in the New Testament.
For argument's sake, suppose there is some truth to assertion that the Bible is the word of God. Suppose there is some undetectable form of communication between an invisible being called God and certain speakers. This is analogous to gravity. Gravity is invisible and its causes are unknown, yet we know it exists by its pulling effect on objects. Similarly, we don't have to know how these prophets communicate with God, only that it works in some practical sense. We can test the truthfulness of "God's word" by the accuracy of the prophecies.
I won't hold you in suspense. These prophets were convincing prevaricators and no more prescient than fortune tellers and astrologers. They rarely foresaw events within Old Testament times; nor did they conceive of events in New Testament times. Religious faith can be a powerful obsession. Over the centuries, the Bible's anomalies have been whitewashed, ignored and reinterpreted to fit whatever supposition satisfies the senses. The errors, the insanities and the savagery are there for those who want to see. We should not fool ourselves into believing truth is universally desired.
What is a prophet?
He is one whom Yahweh speaks through.
He is a seer.
9(1 Sam. 9:9)
There are other kinds of seers, like mediums, wizards, augurer and witches, for which we are warned not to practice or consult.
How can one distinguish an authentic prophet?
Since a prophet is defined as one through which Yahweh speaks, his words should reflect the accuracy of his source.
Yahweh does not make mistakes.
Yahweh does not lie.
If the word does not come to pass or come true, that person does not speak for Yahweh.
2122 (Deut. 18:20-22)
When they divine a lie, they cannot expect Yahweh to fulfill their word.
That's pretty clear. Since Yahweh does not lie or make mistakes; his prophets do not lie or make mistakes, at least when they are speaking in his name. Then how does the Bible account for when authentic prophets make mistakes when speaking in Yahweh's name?
Sometimes Yahweh puts a lying spirit in the prophets.
2223 (2 Kings. 22:22-23)
That logic allows the prophets to have it both ways. When they are right, they speak for Yahweh. When they are wrong, they speak for Yahweh's lying spirit, but they still speak for Yahweh, or something like that.
Another issue is that Kings didn't employ just one prophet; they had several, all competing for attention.
There was a rivalry, each accusing the other of false and deceptive visions.
To keep in the king's good favor, they were quick to condemn other's mistakes and quick to play down their own. Jeremiah is a case in point.
The false pen of scribes has made it into a lie.
The prophets prophesy falsely.
But when he was wrong, he acted as if Yahweh played a harmless prank on him.
Yahweh deceived him and made him a laughingstock.
There was a death penalty for making mistakes. So the prophets had to be good at backpedaling.
Mediums and wizards were put to death.
False prophets were to be put to death.
Prophets who were deceived should be destroyed.
I could find no record of any prophet being executed for mistakes. Instead, they have been rewarded with their names being immortalized by the Bible's editors as the elite, the men selected as God's spokesmen.
Some of these books show evidence of late additions by anonymous writers. To give an appearance of divine accuracy, sometimes they made their prophecies appear to be from a past they were familiar with. Scholars have been able to tell by the dearth of detail in the author's pretended past and the richness of detail in his living present.
This prediction about Judeans being conquered and taken away to Babylon is specific enough to be considered prescient if it was written in the 700s, the time of Hezekiah.
5Isa. 39:5-7)6 7 (
But nine chapters later, Isaiah writes two hundred years later about fleeing Babylon. What else is there to think except that the above prediction was written after the fact?
The Prophetic Era
A more detailed historical background is provided in From Covenant to Apocalypse. The prophetic era is marked by four great events.
1. The fall of the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 BCE by the Assyrians.
2. The fall and exile of southern Judah in 586 BCE by the Babylonians.
3. The return of the exiles under Cyrus of Persian, 539 BCE.
4. The Maccabean Revolt, 167 BCE, against the Greek Seleucid Empire.
I've applied the prophecies to the times of the Jewish prophets, and not hundreds of years into the future. Christians would argue that the long time span between prophecies and events is what makes them so miraculous. Nay! They are too vague to be applied in perpetuity. History repeats and broken clocks keep perfect time twice a day. The prophets were appealing to their contemporaries with promises of hope, fear, revenge and whatever emotional appeal came to mind. If they were looking into the distant future generations later, they would have said so. Two examples:
1. It takes a stretch of imagination to measure "not far off" or "soon" in terms of hundreds of years.
20He who testifies to these things says, "Surely I am coming soon." Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! (Rev. 22:20)
2. Christians claim that Isaiah 7:14 with the word "virgin" in predicts the coming of Christ. The fundamentalist New International Version copied the King James.
14Isa. 7:14 KJV, NIV)(
The RSV which I use on this site corrects the mistranslation. Isaiah was telling King Ahaz a young woman would bear a son to lead Israel. Jews had no concept of a virgin birth in the Christian sense. Nor was Jesus named Immanuel. It takes a stretch of imagination to assert that Isaiah and Ahaz were concerned about 400 years into the future.
We will not get sidetracked into Christian prophetic claims. That topic is covered in Messianic Prophecies.
Israel lies at the crossroads of more powerful neighbors and was usually dominated by them. If there were gods, Yahweh was the weakest of them. In reality, it didn't matter how pious the Hebrews were; their fate was sealed by geography and military weakness. The prophets gave it a different spin.
Yahweh was the principle god and the most powerful.
There is one and only one god, Yahweh.
6Isa. 45:6-7)7 (
To hear the prophets, Yahweh was such a perfectionist that he persecuted his chosen people to the benefit of Israel's heathen neighbors. Blame was placed on the people for infidelity. Every bad event was said to be orchestrated by Yahweh.
Isaiah and the others blamed the Israelites for breaking the covenant.
6 (Isa. 24:5-6)
Jeremiah issued dire warnings if the people did not reform.
Isaiah asserts Yahweh sent Assyria to destroy his people because they weren't loyal to him.
6 (Isa. 10:5-6)
Ezekiel claims Yahweh sent Nebuchadnezzar to destroy Tyre.
Of course these conditions were not acceptable. Filling a need, the prophets offered hope of rescue. Follow the money.
Isaiah imagined a future messiah, a descendent of David. In actuality, the bloodline died out during the post exilic period. See Jesus' Genealogy.
He imagined all nations would come together under Israel and wars will be replaced by peace. It may have made his contemporaries feel better, but of course it didn't happen.
24 (Isa. 2:2, 4)
As in politics, promise then everything; deliver nothing.
These frenzied prophets did a lot of wailing and mourning; Jeremiah seemed to be the most frenzied of the lot. His anguish had him writhing in pain.
The behavior of some was bizarre. Isaiah walked around naked and barefoot for three years.
They loved the feeling of power. Amos took pride in God's ability to destroy a city.
When they vented their anger through prophecy, it came out ugly. Jeremiah predicted Yahweh will kill children and young men, and their dead bodies shall fall like dung in the open field. Vicious predictions like this reflect on their character.
22 (Jer. 9:21-22)
Each one of the prophets believed he was the only one who spoke the truth of Yahweh, and all the others were imposters or liars. The rivalry must have been fierce as we shall see by the charges and counter charges cataloged when we discuss the individual prophets.
Jeremiah, himself a prophet, called upon Jehoiada the priest to imprison every madman who prophesizes.
Anyone could be a prophet if they were a convincing liar.
Amos for one claimed to be not a prophet, but a herdsman who heard the call from God.
1415 (Amos 7:14-15)
Isaiah and Jeremiah claimed they received their calling when they were in their mother's womb. Try to imagine an unborn baby hearing the call from God.
There was also a behavioral technique to becoming convincing as a prophet.
They would speak of visions seen in a dream.
Or they would act frenzied. We will see more of this with the individual prophets.
10(1 Sam. 10:10-11 NRSV)
When they were wrong as they often were, they had a ready excuse.
Jeremiah was against those who prophesized lying dreams.
But when he was wrong, he would simply say he was deceived.
The prophets had a successful run because they offered hope in the near term: A messiah would come to restore the nation of Israel. Jesus will return on the clouds of heaven to gather the elect. A white knight would come to rescue the slaves and whisk them off to Camelot. It's like politicians of this day who make promises they never keep, and voters who forget their false promises.
To demonstrate that prophecies have no divine pipeline, it would be necessary to show one or two from each prophet. The selection to follow is more than enough to reinforce my point that although the prophets were strongly opinionated, they were hardly prescient.