Meet the Prophets

The prophet is a fool, the man of the spirit is mad,
because of your great iniquity and great hatred.
(Hosea 9:7)

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.

17And the LORD said to me, 'They have rightly said all that they have spoken.
18I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brethren; and I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him.
19And whoever will not give heed to my words which he shall speak in my name, I myself will require it of him.

He is a seer.

9(Formerly in Israel, when a man went to inquire of God, he said, "Come, let us go to the seer"; for he who is now called a prophet was formerly called a seer.) (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.

31"Do not turn to mediums or wizards; do not seek them out, to be defiled by them: I am the LORD your God. (Lev. 19:31)

26"You shall not eat any flesh with the blood in it. You shall not practice augury or witchcraft. (Lev. 19:26)

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.

5The LORD within her is righteous, he does no wrong; every morning he shows forth his justice, each dawn he does not fail; but the unjust knows no shame. (Zeph. 3:5)

Yahweh does not lie.

19God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should repent. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it (Num. 23:19)

If the word does not come to pass or come true, that person does not speak for Yahweh.

21And if you say in your heart, 'How may we know the word which the LORD has not spoken?'-
22when a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word which the LORD has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously, you need not be afraid of him. (Deut. 18:20-22)

When they divine a lie, they cannot expect Yahweh to fulfill their word.

6They have spoken falsehood and divined a lie; they say, 'Says the LORD,' when the LORD has not sent them, and yet they expect him to fulfill their word. (Ezek. 13:6)

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.

22And the LORD said to him, 'By what means?' And he said, 'I will go forth, and will be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.' And he said, 'You are to entice him, and you shall succeed; go forth and do so.'
23Now therefore behold, the LORD has put a lying spirit in the mouth of all these your prophets; the LORD has spoken evil concerning you." (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.

14Your prophets have seen for you false and deceptive visions; they have not exposed your iniquity to restore your fortunes, but have seen for you oracles false and misleading. (Lam. 2:14)

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.

8"How can you say, 'We are wise, and the law of the LORD is with us'? But behold, the false pen of the scribes has made it into a lie. (Jer. 8:8)

The prophets prophesy falsely.

31the prophets prophesy falsely, and the priests rule at their direction; my people love to have it so, but what will you do when the end comes? (Jer. 5:31)

But when he was wrong, he acted as if Yahweh played a harmless prank on him. 

Yahweh deceived him and made him a laughingstock.

7O LORD, thou hast deceived me, and I was deceived; thou art stronger than I, and thou hast prevailed. I have become a laughingstock all the day; every one mocks me. (20:7)

There was a death penalty for making mistakes. So the prophets had to be good at backpedaling.

Mediums and wizards were put to death.

27"A man or a woman who is a medium or a wizard shall be put to death; they shall be stoned with stones, their blood shall be upon them." (Lev. 20:27)

False prophets were to be put to death.

20But the prophet who presumes to speak a word in my name which I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that same prophet shall die.' (Deut. 18:20)

Prophets who were deceived should be destroyed.

9And if the prophet be deceived and speak a word, I, the LORD, have deceived that prophet, and I will stretch out my hand against him, and will destroy him from the midst of my people Israel. (Ezek. 14:9)

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.

5Then Isaiah said to Hezekiah, "Hear the word of the LORD of hosts:
6Behold, the days are coming, when all that is in your house, and that which your fathers have stored up till this day, shall be carried to Babylon; nothing shall be left, says the LORD.
7And some of your own sons, who are born to you, shall be taken away; and they shall be eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon." (Isa. 39:5-7)

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?

20Go forth from Babylon, flee from Chaldea, declare this with a shout of joy, proclaim it, send it forth to the end of the earth; say, "The LORD has redeemed his servant Jacob!" (Isa. 48:20)

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.

13I bring near my deliverance, it is not far off, and my salvation will not tarry; I will put salvation in Zion, for Israel my glory." (Isa. 46:13)

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.

14Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. (Isa. 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.

14Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel (Isa. 7:14)

We will not get sidetracked into Christian prophetic claims. That topic is covered in Messianic Prophecies.

Taking responsibility

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.

1God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment: (Psalm 82:1)

7They go from strength to strength; the God of gods will be seen in Zion. (Psalm 84:7)

There is one and only one god, Yahweh.

6That they may know from the rising of the sun, and from the west, that there is none beside me. I am the LORD, and there is none else.
7I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things. (Isa. 45:6-7)

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.

5The earth lies polluted under its inhabitants; for they have transgressed the laws, violated the statutes, broken the everlasting covenant.
Therefore a curse devours the earth, and its inhabitants suffer for their guilt; therefore the inhabitants of the earth are scorched, and few men are left. (Isa. 24:5-6)

Jeremiah issued dire warnings if the people did not reform.

19Hear, O earth; behold, I am bringing evil upon this people, the fruit of their devices, because they have not given heed to my words; and as for my law, they have rejected it. (Jer. 6:19)

11Therefore, thus says the LORD, Behold, I am bringing evil upon them which they cannot escape; though they cry to me, I will not listen to them. (Jer. 11:11)

Isaiah asserts Yahweh sent Assyria to destroy his people because they weren't loyal to him.

5Ah, Assyria, the rod of my anger, the staff of my fury!
Against a godless nation I send him, and against the people of my wrath I command him, to take spoil and seize plunder, and to tread them down like the mire of the streets. (Isa. 10:5-6)

Ezekiel claims Yahweh sent Nebuchadnezzar to destroy Tyre. 

7"For thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I will bring upon Tyre from the north Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, king of kings, with horses and chariots, and with horsemen and a host of many soldiers.
(Ezek. 26:7)

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.

7Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, upon the throne of David, and over his kingdom, to establish it, and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and for evermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this. (Isa. 9:7)

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.

2It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the LORD shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it,
4He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. (Isa. 2:2, 4)

As in politics, promise then everything; deliver nothing.

Their personalities

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.

19My anguish, my anguish! I writhe in pain! Oh, the walls of my heart! My heart is beating wildly; I cannot keep silent; for I hear the sound of the trumpet, the alarm of war. (Jer. 4:19)

The behavior of some was bizarre. Isaiah walked around naked and barefoot for three years.

3the LORD said, "As my servant Isaiah has walked naked and barefoot for three years as a sign and a portent against Egypt and Ethiopia, (Isa. 20:3)

They loved the feeling of power. Amos took pride in God's ability to destroy a city.

6Is a trumpet blown in a city, and the people are not afraid? Does evil befall a city, unless the LORD has done it? (Amos 3:6)

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.

21For death has come up into our windows, it has entered our palaces, cutting off the children from the streets and the young men from the squares.
Speak, "Thus says the LORD: 'The dead bodies of men shall fall like dung upon the open field, like sheaves after the reaper, and none shall gather them. (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.

26'The LORD has made you priest instead of Jehoiada the priest, to have charge in the house of the LORD over every madman who prophesies, to put him in the stocks and collar. (Jer. 29:26)

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.

14Then Amos answered Amaziah, "I am no prophet, nor a prophet's son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees,
15and the LORD took me from following the flock, and the LORD said to me, 'Go, prophesy to my people Israel.' (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.

5And now the LORD says, who formed me from the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him, and that Israel might be gathered to him, for I am honored in the eyes of the LORD, and my God has become my strength (Isa. 49:5)

5"Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations." (Jer. 1:5)

There was also a behavioral technique to becoming convincing as a prophet.

They would speak of visions seen in a dream.

6And he said, "Hear my words: If there is a prophet among you, I the LORD make myself known to him in a vision, I speak with him in a dream. (Num. 12:6)

Or they would act frenzied. We will see more of this with the individual prophets.

10When they were going from there to Gibeah, a band of prophets met him; and the spirit of God possessed him, and he fell into a prophetic frenzy along with them.
11And when all who knew him before saw how he prophesied with the prophets, the people said to one another, "What has come over the son of Kish? Is Saul also among the prophets?"
(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.

32Behold, I am against those who prophesy lying dreams, says the LORD, and who tell them and lead my people astray by their lies and their recklessness, when I did not send them or charge them; so they do not profit this people at all, says the LORD. (23:32)

But when he was wrong, he would simply say he was deceived.

7O LORD, thou hast deceived me, and I was deceived; thou art stronger than I, and thou hast prevailed. I have become a laughingstock all the day; every one mocks me. (Jer. 20:7)

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.


All Prophets Were False!

Skeptics Annotated Bible