The word of the LORD…
– Zephaniah 1:1a (NKJV)
True and False
By Zephaniah’s time it seemed that there were two false prophets for every true – a sad state of affairs. The people knew better. Before the nation was even established in its physical boundaries, God warned them:
If a prophet or someone who has dreams arises among you and proclaims a sign or wonder to you, and that sign or wonder he has promised you comes about, but he says, “Let us follow other gods,” which you have not known, “and let us worship them,” do not listen to that prophet’s words or to that dreamer. For the LORD your God is testing you to know whether you love the LORD your God with all your heart and all your soul. You must follow the LORD your God and fear Him. You must keep His commands and listen to His voice; you must worship Him and remain faithful to Him. That prophet or dreamer must be put to death, because he has urged rebellion against the LORD your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt and redeemed you from the place of slavery, to turn you from the way the LORD your God has commanded you to walk. You must purge the evil from you. …
The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own brothers. You must listen to him. This is what you requested from the LORD your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly when you said, “Let us not continue to hear the voice of the Lord our God or see this great fire any longer, so that we will not die!” Then the LORD said to me, “They have spoken well. I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers. I will put My words in his mouth, and he will tell them everything I command him. I will hold accountable whoever does not listen to My words that he speaks in My name. But the prophet who dares to speak a message in My name that I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods—that prophet must die.” You may say to yourself, “How can we recognize a message the LORD has not spoken?” When a prophet speaks in the LORD’s name, and the message does not come true or is not fulfilled, that is a message the LORD has not spoken. The prophet has spoken it presumptuously. Do not be afraid of him.
– Deuteronomy 13:1-5, 18:15-22 (HCSB)
As we discussed last week, a prophet had to be called by God. It wasn’t enough to say, “Oh, yeah, I’m totally a prophet.” It was also not enough to predict the future; a true prophet’s words would always come to pass and they would never lead the people away from God. The people had very clear rules as to who a prophet was and what he or she was to do. They knew that they were supposed to think critically, weighing and measuring every word and action of every proclaimed prophet against what they knew to be right and good.
Smack You in the Face
When studying a prophetic book such as Zephaniah, it’s important to have a grasp on what prophecy was understood to be in the Old Testament context. First, it was not primarily about prediction:
Biblical prophecy is more than “fore-telling”: two-thirds of its inscripturated form involves “forth-telling, ” that is, setting the truth, justice, mercy, and righteousness of God against the backdrop of every form of denial of the same. Thus, to speak prophetically was to speak boldly against every form of moral, ethical, political, economic, and religious disenfranchisement observed in a culture that was intent on building its own pyramid of values vis-a-vis God’s established system of truth and ethics. (1)
The prophet’s main job was essentially to smack his audience in the face with truth in order to bring them to their knees. Romans 2:4 states that God’s kindness leads to repentance, but this is no weak, wishy-washy, hopped-up flower child version of kindness. God is firm. He does not yield. He defines the way and commands people to walk in it.
Our finite minds push against this Divine line in the sand is kind. Surely, if God truly loves us, then He would want us to be happy? Surely He would give us leave to do as we please?
Is a father unkind when he grabs his child by the arm and yanks her away from a busy street? Is a mother unloving when she enforces consequences when her teenager ignores curfew? (Full disclosure: I sure thought it was unloving at the time. Now I know was an idiot).
About the Future
That said, fore-telling was an important part of the prophet’s job, though never divorced from his forth-telling:
…prediction was by no means absent from the prophetic message. The prophets were conscious of contributing to the ongoing plan of God’s ancient, but constantly renewed promise. They announced God’s coming kingdom and the awful day of the Lord when God’s wrath would be poured out on all ungodliness. In the meantime, before that eschatological moment, there would be a number of divine in-breakings on the historical scene in which the fall of cities such as Samaria, Damascus, Nineveh, Jerusalem, and Babylon would serve as harbingers or foreshadowings of God’s final intrusion into the historical scene at the end of history. Thus each minijudgment on the nations or empires of past and present history were earnests and downpayments on God’s final day of coming onto the historic scene to end it in one severe judgment and blast of victory. So said all the prophets. And in so saying they exhibited the fact that all their messages were organically related to each other; they were progressively building on one another. And, being focused distinctly on God, they were preeminently theocentric in their organization. (2)
Failure to obey God would inevitably lead to judgment, both personal and national. (Please note that it is not appropriate to assume God’s judgment at work every time a person gets sick or a home burns to the ground or a job is lost. There is a huge difference between consequences due to rejecting the Lord and consequences due to living in a broken world. We must be careful to avoid reading into Scripture things that simply are not there).
Just as the functions of fore-telling and forth-telling are far too intertwined to separate, so we must not lift prophetic statements out of their contexts:
…the predictive sections of biblical prophecy exhibit certain key characteristics: (1) they are not isolated sayings, but are organically related to the whole of prophecy; (2) they plainly foretell things to come rather than being clothed in such abstruse terminology that they could be proven true even if the opposite of what they appear to say happens; (3) they are designed to be predictions and are not accidental or unwitting predictions; (4) they are written and published before the event, so that it could not be said that it was a matter of human sagacity that determined this would take place; (5) they are fulfilled in accordance with the original utterance, unless expressly attached to a condition; and (6) they do not work out their own fulfillment, but stand as a verbal witness until the event takes place.
History, then, is the final interpreter of prophecy… (3; emphasis mine)
God was the source of all prophecy, so it makes sense that the work and words of the prophets was interrelated. The one builds upon the other.
This is important for us to grasp, for we fail to understand that these men and women were very aware of each other. They stood in a “servant of God” tradition that stretched all the way back to Moses. It’s no big stretch to think that Zephaniah read Isaiah. It’s no big leap to imagine that Jeremiah discussed Zephaniah’s words with his scribe, Baruch.
Further, in our obsession with eschatology, we often ignore the ancient immediate fulfillment of these predictions in our search for answers regarding what is yet to be. (I think most of us do this innocently). We must remember that the prophets spoke, wrote and performed within the boundaries of national Israel and Judah (except for Jonah), and so their predictive statements generally pointed to the near future, to what would surely happen if the people of God did not repent.
Ben Witherington writes:
Prophecy was more often than not predictive in character, though most often its subject matter dealt with something thought to be on the near horizon, not something decades, much less centuries, in the future. And even when the more remote future was the subject of prophecy, the subject was raised because it was thought to have a rather direct bearing on the present. In short, ancient prophets and prophetesses were not by and large armchair speculators about remote subjects. (4)
This does not mean that they never spoke of the end of time, as Witherington goes on:
…prophecy about the more distant horizon was deliberately less specific and more universal or multivalent in character, dealing with ideas and themes that the immediate audience could understand, but also themes that could transcend the immediate and particular circumstance of those listening to the prophet. I should also stress the imagaic character of prophecy dealing with the more distant horizon. Almost all oracles have something of a poetic form, but prophecy about the more remote future tends to involve even more metaphor, simile and poetic devices like hyperbole to make its point. (5)
Layers and History
Like a rich, expertly made and decorated cake, prophecy has layers. So, whether we like it or not, we must be students of history. We cannot assume that all prophecy has been fulfilled and we cannot assume that all prophecy has yet to be fulfilled. We have to look at the timeline. We have to put forth the effort.
People don’t like to study history because they see it as nothing more than a long, dry list of dates and dead people that have no bearing on the present. We would do well to kick that attitude right out of our lives, because, as long as we hold onto it, we’re never going to develop a deep appreciation for Scripture. The words of that Book are about more than us, in the here and now. We are not the point, the center.
God is, and He spoke to those who loved Him long before you and I were ever a twinkle in our parents’ eyes. He is the focus of every line, every syllable. Yet somehow, the Bible is also the story of our family, the ones who have gone before us in the faith. We need to know them. We need to see how they interacted with and reacted to this same God we know today. We need to learn from their example and understand their times. We need to heed their warnings.
- Read Deuteronomy 13:1-5 in another translation. God’s opinion of false prophets is clear. What about our attitude toward false teachers today? What needs to change? How should we respond? (A false teacher isn’t someone who holds to an historic, orthodox interpretation or doctrine that you simply disagree with, but rather someone who pretends to be Christian while teaching something contrary to Scripture).
- How do you respond to the idea that you should study history? Do you enjoy it? Hate it? Why?
- How do you respond when you come across a prophecy in the Bible? Does it scare you? Intrigue you? Why?
- Take a moment to pray, asking God to help you understand and love both history and prophecy, whether you’re a seasoned veteran or a newcomer.
- Read through Zephaniah again, this time focusing on the layered nature of the words. What do you see as having an immediate, ancient fulfillment? A future fulfillment? Both?
(1) Prophet, Prophetess, Prophecy
(4) Ben Witherington III. The Problem with Evangelical Theology: Testing the Exegetical Foundations of Calvinism, Dispensationalism and Wesleyanism. (Waco, Texas. Baylor University Press. 2005), 99.
While I am not a cessationist (one who believes that all miraculous gifts of the Spirit stopped after the death of the Apostles), I do write from the perspective that the fore-telling element of prophecy ceased with the closing of the canon in the book of Revelation. I do believe that God will lay something on one Christian’s heart to be shared with another Christian, but this is forth-telling, meant for encouragement and gentle rebuke – and must always be in line with what has been revealed in Scripture. Whatever your perspective on this issue is, the words of Paul in 1 Thessalonians 5:20-21 remain true: “Do not despise prophecies. Test all things; hold fast what is good.” (NKJV)
For all entries in The LORD Your God in Your Midst series, go here.