Monday, September 04, 2017

Visions of Their Own Minds

Saturday’s post ended with my contention that while teachers need to study scripture to be accurate, a prophet doesn’t (or rather, real, biblical prophets didn’t). A true prophet — good or bad, wise or foolish, ignorant or prudent — simply repeated what God had told him.

Interestingly, the commentary I’m reading on Daniel this morning addresses this very issue:

“We read of [Daniel] how each vision was connected with the deepest soul exercise, with fasting and prayer as well as the reading of those portions of the Word of God he possessed.”
— Arno C. Gaebelein

Now, Gaebelein’s not wrong about Daniel’s study habits.

The Relationship Between Study and Prophecy

It’s undeniable Daniel was consumed by the scriptures and meditated upon them deeply. He himself makes reference to his reading of the prophet Jeremiah:
“I, Daniel, perceived in the books the number of years that, according to the word of the Lord to Jeremiah the prophet, must pass before the end of the desolations of Jerusalem, namely, seventy years.”
Gaebelein comments:
“We see Daniel occupied with the reading of the Word of God ... It was by turning to the Word that he became so deeply interested. Though he was a prophet ... he felt the need of perusing what other prophets before him had said.”
But there is a vast difference between Daniel’s reading of the holy scriptures and the increased emphasis on Bible study that charismatic writer R. Loren Sandford recommends to modern-day “prophets” in his denomination.

Floating Predictive Clunkers

Sandford bemoans the fact that even the most famous among those who claim to have received revelation from God today regularly offer up predictive clunkers:
“Prophecies over the nation and the world spoken by recognized voices have too often fallen to the ground.

Any alert observer knows that the vast majority of extreme doom and gloom prophecies released over the last 20 or more years have failed in fulfillment, no matter by whom they were spoken. The same has so far been true of prophetic words regarding the coming of a sweeping, culture-changing revival … the chances of something revolutionizing the culture as a whole remain remote at best. Too many predicted timelines and dates have passed without real incident.”
Remember, this is a guy who believes the gift of prophecy is still given, and that some of what passes for prophecy today is genuinely of God. He’s trying to fix something he supports that appears to him to be broken, or at least not what it should be. Let’s applaud his candor.

Anyway, Sandford asserts that the problem is that “prophets” are failing to pay sufficient attention to the scriptures and missing the heart of God:
“Part of this lack of accurate prophecy stems from failure to accurately interpret and apply the Scriptures. This leaves us vulnerable to assertions taken out of context and therefore made to mean what they were never intended to mean. In some cases it’s simply that those speaking prophetically missed the heart of the Father and therefore spoke from their flesh and from hardness of heart or personal desire.”
Hmm. Let me think about that.

The Real Problem

Indeed, as Sandford says, it may well be that those in the Charismatic movement who claim to be prophets are failing to accurately interpret and apply the scriptures. (In fact, this almost HAS to be true for them to claim to be prophets in the first place.) But I would argue the nature of the problem is far more fundamental: it is that these individuals are not prophets in the biblical sense at all. What they are doing is not prophesying; it is nothing more supernatural than quasi-informed speculating.

Let’s go back to Daniel’s example. He meditated on the word of God to Jeremiah. He prayed and fasted and confessed. He engaged in what Arno Gaebelein calls “the deepest soul exercise”. All of these are good things, and they undoubtedly led to Daniel being “greatly beloved” in heaven.

But what I’m arguing is that while Daniel’s study of scripture almost surely brought him into a spiritual condition in which God was inclined to speak to him in the first place, that study did not inform a single word of the content of the prophecies God gave to Israel through him. The truly prophetic things Daniel wrote are not merely a rehash of Jeremiah; they were uniquely delivered to him by God, and their usefulness to faithful Jews and to us today does not depend in the least on whether Daniel fully comprehended what he wrote (though God certainly accommodated his questions at times).

Inquiring Minds Want to Know

As Peter puts it in the New Testament:
“Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories.”
Now, we should distinguish between visionary and non-visionary prophets. It is possible, even likely, that visionary prophets like John, Ezekiel, Isaiah and Daniel used their own language to describe what they saw, though we can be sure they retold their visions accurately as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit in putting pen to them.

But most prophets were not visionaries. The bulk of prophetic scripture merely records what God said. Peter says, “no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God.” In such instances, the prophets got their very words from God. The content of their messages was entirely divine. They struggled only to find the meaning of the concrete language entrusted to them, not simply to reframe vague, general notions they hoped and prayed had originated in God.

Their Bible study, if we can call it that, was to help them better understand the oracles they had already given, not to provide content for those oracles in the first place.

God’s Own Words and Not a Word More

I mentioned Balaam in my earlier post. Balaam was a bad prophet, but he was the genuine article. God was speaking directly through him. He didn’t study the written word of God. So far as we know, it didn’t even exist for him to study. But he spoke God’s own words and nothing more, and protested over and over that he had no other option:
“Though Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not go beyond the command of the Lord my God to do less or more.”

“Have I now any power of my own to speak anything? The word that God puts in my mouth, that must I speak.”

“Must I not take care to speak what the Lord puts in my mouth?”

“Did I not tell you, ‘All that the Lord says, that I must do’?”

“Did I not tell your messengers whom you sent to me, ‘If Balak should give me his house full of silver and gold, I would not be able to go beyond the word of the Lord, to do either good or bad of my own will. What the Lord speaks, that will I speak’?”
Balaam couldn’t “get it wrong” because he had no personal input into the content of his own message. He was just the delivery boy. I’m not sure how these verses can be read any other way. “I could not go beyond.” End of story. Such is the nature of true prophecy, and I have yet to see a single bit of evidence to suggest that today’s “prophets” are doing anything remotely similar.

More Less-Than-Ideal Candidates for the Job

Balaam is not the only man in the Bible who prophesied in less-than-ideal spiritual condition, or even against his own interests. Saul was such an unlikely candidate that the saying “Is Saul also among the prophets?” became an Israelite expression of disbelief akin to “When pigs fly!” Saul’s messengers prophesied as well, if only to make a point to the wicked king. An old Israelite prophet tricked a man of God on his way home to Judah after confronting wicked King Jeroboam, bringing on the man of God’s death. Nice guy. But later, the same old prophet confirmed God’s word to Jeroboam. Even the wicked high priest Caiaphas is expressly said by John to have “prophesied”, though he had no idea the import of what he was saying at the time.

The Essential Character of Biblical Prophecy

Modern “prophets” have got the essential character of biblical prophecy wrong, and Loren Sandford has misdiagnosed their problem. It’s not that they need to study harder or interpret better — any more than cutting themselves more vigorously helped the prophets of Baal get a reaction from their God.

If God isn’t speaking new truth today, there’s nothing to report. Making stuff up — or changing a few words of revelation previously given to others and calling it your own — won’t change that.

It certainly seems as if God is no longer speaking as he once did directly to the patriarchs and the prophets. And if that turns out to be the case, it should hardly surprise us when human predictions that claim God’s authority turn out to be notoriously unreliable. This is exactly what we should expect if God is calling us back to his written word as our infallible guide for life and godliness.

God once gave this warning through Jeremiah:
“Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you, filling you with vain hopes. They speak visions of their own minds, not from the mouth of the Lord.”
“Visions of their own minds.” That sounds like precisely the sort of thing Loren Sandford is concerned about.

It sounds as if he has good reason to be concerned.

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