When it comes to the gift of prophecy, a common attitude is that those who exercise the gift may get it wrong from time to time, and that’s just the nature of the game. We learn to use the gift by trial and error. We are humans, and we make mistakes. Sometimes we are “on”, and sometimes we “miss it.” So the story goes.
I find this view of the prophetic gift to be in stark contrast to the OT portrayal of prophecy. If a man claimed to speak for God, and what he said did not come to pass, the man was considered a false prophet and was to be punished with death (Deuteronomy 18:20-22). We read of Samuel that “none of his prophecies fell to the ground unfulfilled. All Israel from Dan to Beer Sheba realized that Samuel was confirmed as a prophet of the Lord” (1Sam 3:19-20 NET). What confirmed Samuel as a prophet was his 100% success rate in the use of his prophetic gift.
Prophets had to get it right 100% of the time. There was no room for trial and error. Indeed, why should there have been? Prophecy is God’s revelatory communication to man via man. God never “misses it,” so how could it be that someone with the gift of prophecy could miss it?
One might respond that there could be a problem with the transmission: God tells man what to say, but man misunderstands what God has spoken. But how could this be? It presumes that God tries: God tries to communicate His message to man, but fails to do so (due to some spiritual defect in the medium). Does that describe the God of the Bible? No. God does not try. If God wants to communicate something to someone, He will succeed in doing so. Indeed, the human medium cannot possibly miss what God is communicating. He may choose to ignore it; he may choose not to pass it on to the intended recipients; but he cannot miss it. In Scripture, God spoke to both believers and unbelievers alike, and neither group ever had any question as to who was speaking to them, or what was being spoken. If God desires to speak He will make Himself and His message clear.
Someone else may respond that people “miss it” because they mistakenly identify their own thoughts or impressions as God’s. This falls prey to the same problem as the suggestion above. It presupposes that God delivers His message to us in a way that is not clear, so that it is difficult to discern God’s voice from our own internal voice: Sometimes we properly identify God’s voice, and sometimes we mistake it for our own. Where in Scripture do we see this kind of ambiguity in the way God speaks to those He wishes to communicate with? Not even the pagans doubted that God was speaking to them when He spoke to them. There was nothing to discern because it was quite evident that it was God. There was no mistaking it. Prophesying is not a skill someone learns. There is no learning how to discern the difference between our thoughts and God’s words. God simply chooses to reveal a message to an individual, and that individual passes it on to others. All that is required is obedience to deliver the message God has clearly communicated.
To think that those who make prophecies today have the liberty to get it wrong from time to time, one must presuppose that the nature of prophecy has changed from the OT to the NT. But why think this? Is there some text that tells us the nature of prophecy has changed? Do we see a difference in the content of prophecies between the OT and NT? No. Then why conclude that whereas those exercising the prophetic gift in the OT had to get it right 100% of the time, today there is room for error?
This brings me to my next point: the content of most modern-day prophecies do not resemble the prophetic gift as portrayed in Scripture.
Is it really prophecy?
The content of what pass for prophecies these days does not bear the marks of Biblical prophecy. The vast majority of prophecies do not predict anything, or say things that only God could know. They are usually just words of encouragement, that apart from the introduction “Thus sayeth the Lord,” sound indistinguishable from a mini sermon.
Prophecy is predictive in nature. If it wasn’t, the test YHWH gave the Israelites to judge a prophetic utterance ceases to make sense. According to YHWH, the Israelites could discern a true prophecy from a false one by observing if the prophecy “came to pass” (Deut 18:22). Something cannot come to pass if it did not pertain to the future. We read that none of Samuel’s prophecies went unfulfilled. A prophecy that has nothing to do with the future cannot be fulfilled. OT prophecy was all about the future.
Did this change in the NT? No. There are two examples in the NT where the gift of prophecy was operative, and on both occasions the content of the prophecy was predictive in nature: Agabus predicted a great famine (Acts 11:28) and Paul’s arrest at Jerusalem (Acts 21:10-11). On what basis, then, do we have for thinking that prophecies can be mere words of encouragement? I would not want to rule that out in principle, but examples of such should be the exception to the rule. In our practice today, however, they are the rule (in my experience).
If a prophetic utterance is the word of God, it should tell us something about the future; most purported prophetic utterances do not tell us anything about the future, therefore they are probably not prophetic words from God. The simple fact of the matter is that it is easy to think of encouraging words to prefix “Thus sayeth the Lord” to. It’s not so easy to predict the future.
Based on what prophecy is—God’s revelatory communication to man—it stands to reason that no matter what covenant one is under, someone with a genuine gift of prophecy could never be mistaken in what they prophecy.
If someone has the gift of prophecy, God speaks to them. Since God is never wrong, and always clear in what He intends to communicate, the prophetic medium should always be “on.” If they miss it, they should not be trusted as an oracle of the Lord.
I think the reason people “miss it” today is because they do not really have the gift of prophecy. While well-intentioned, they are misinterpreting personal ideas/impressions/feelings (self-talk) as words from God, and attaching to them divine authority. Since we do not require that prophecies predict anything, it is virtually impossible to test these so-called prophecies (how can a word of encouragement be wrong?). And since we do not require that those who speak on behalf of God be right 100% of the time, we have no way of knowing when someone who claims to speak for God is truly speaking for God, and when s/he is improperly invoking divine authority for personal ideas.
Paul told us to judge prophecy (1Cor 14:29). We can only do so if we employ the Biblical criteria for prophecies: (1) they come to pass; (2) the person uttering them is a reliable spokesman for God, evidenced by the fact that s/he has never been mistaken in what s/he has prophesied.
What do you think?