Jeremiah 23:9-40 False Prophets And Empty Oracles.
Jeremiah now shifts his attention away from the shepherds to those calling themselves prophets, and what he is ultimately seeking to defend is the inerrant, infallible word of the living God which came through prophets whom he called. Tests to affirm who were true prophets is the same test to determine what would ultimately form the canon of holy scripture. On a personal level, the holy words that came through Jeremiah overtook him such that his heart was broken, his bones shook, and he describes himself as like a drunken man (v. 9). The people had broken the covenantal bond with their adulteries, and idolatry. As a result even the land was cursed with drought. Their course was evil. Like many nations, even today, they believed that might made right. To this the word through Jeremiah was “their might is not right” (v. 10).
“‘For both prophet and priest are profane; Yes, in My house I have found their wickedness,’ says the LORD” (v. 11). The apostasy was led by those who had been entrusted with giving and teaching the law-word of the covenant, and instead they practiced wickedness in the LORD’s house, intended as a meeting place with the LORD. For their wickedness the LORD would punish them with darkness, and slippery ways. In other words they would not find a way out of their predicament, they would not see any move to make, and any move they did make would be slippery. They had lost their footing, so to speak (v. 12). The first obvious sign that these prophets were false was the fact that they prophesied by Baal, thus causing the people to err into idolatry (v. 13). This is the first canonical test to determine if a prophet or teacher is true – do they serve the LORD?
Through Moses the LORD had made it abundantly clear that no matter what signs or wonders which “a prophet or dreamer of dreams” performed, if they called people to worship any god other than the LORD, then they were false and were to be treated as such (Dt. 13:1-4). The explanation was simple, the LORD required loyalty to the covenantal bond in word and deed. “You shall walk after the LORD your God and fear Him, and keep His commandments and obey His voice; you shall serve Him and hold fast to Him” (Dt. 13:4). The maximum penalty which the LORD allowed for a false prophet was death, and the people were not to waver even if it were a family member seeking to lead them astray (Dt. 13:5-16). With all due process (v. 14 Cf. Dt. 19:15-21), they must act because a sin so evil would bring judgment on the entire nation (Dt. 13:17-18).
Any true prophet, like Jeremiah, should have been calling the people to repentance, but instead they taught and practiced lies, like idolatry, and adultery. They also gave strength to those who also practiced evil, so that none turned from their wickedness. They had become like Sodom and Gomorrah (v. 14). As a result these false prophets would be fed bitterness, like wormwood and gall, because they led the way into profaneness in the land (v. 15). So we have the first obvious sign of apostacy in their teaching of idolatry, and secondly the acts which accompany this. A third reason, and the one which is the primary reason for their apostacy, is the fact that they spoke “a vision of their own heart, not from the mouth of the LORD” (v. 16). This is not so much a test as a reason for their words and deeds.
However, there is something which the people could see and test, and that was whether they spoke a message of peace, when every indication was that everyone was walking “according to the dictates of his own heart,” and them telling the people that no evil or judgment would come upon them (v. 17). These were ultimately tests to determine whether they had stood before the LORD in his council, perceiving, hearing and marking his word (v. 18). Anyone calling themselves a true prophet either has stood in the LORD’s council, or they would know him as a whirlwind to take them away (v. 19). Here we have a hint of another test – whether the prophets predictions were fulfilled. To this end the LORD promised that “in the latter days” people would “understand it perfectly” (v. 20). A true prophet is also one who is sent from the LORD’s council with his word (v. 21a).
False prophets run as though they in fact were sent by the LORD with an urgent message, and even though the LORD did not speak to them in his council, nor send them from there with his word, they nevertheless claim to prophesy (v. 21b). Verse 22 sums up the matter perfectly. “But if they had stood in My council, and had caused My people to hear My words, then they would have turned them from their evil way and from the evil of their doings.” With their ignorance and lack of the canonical word, their entire theology was corrupt. They envisioned a god entirely like themselves, when the LORD is not only near, but also afar of, able to see and know the thoughts, words, and deeds of men, even what they think they get away with in secret (vv. 23-24). They claimed to speak for the LORD, saying ‘I have a dream,’ believing that no one could question their dreams (v. 25).
The LORD calls false prophets “prophets of the deceit of their own heart” (v. 26). In the bible the word for ‘heart’ primarily refers to the inner core of a person. References to any emotions, such as is understood by the word by most today, is a reference to the core of these as well. However, more often than not, it refers to the core of one’s thinking. As a man thinks in his heart so is he ( Prov. 23:7). Again, their dreams were false, because by appealing to them they sought to lead the people to forget the LORD for Baal (v. 27). A dream, even of a true prophet, is but a vehicle for the giving of the LORD’s word, if it is a true dream (v. 28). Unlike the famous words of Marshall McLuhan, the medium is not the message. Instead, it is the LORD’s word which is “‘like a fire,’ says the LORD, ‘And like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces’” (v. 29).
False prophets also believe that their message will be received if it passes the test of the majority, so they conspire together to speak the same lies (vv. 27). If they do happen to speak some truth, it is because they have stolen it from a true prophet who did receive it directly from the LORD (v. 30). In preambling their words with ‘He says,’ they are but bearing false witness (v. 31). Prophesying false dreams, and speaking lies recklessly causes the LORD’s people to err, and because they were not sent or commanded by the LORD they would profit the people nothing (v. 32). Whether it is ‘I have a dream,’ or ‘He says,’ or ‘The oracle of the LORD,’ these are all the bearing of false witness, the perversion of “the words of the living God” (vv. 34-36). They pervert the canonical word already given and received as such. Instead, one must ask, ‘What has the LORD spoken’ (v. 35)?
Because false prophets claim that the LORD has spoken to them, he will forget and forsake them, and cast them from his presence, and those associated with them, because their very words pervert his word. It is ironic that because they did not stand in the LORD’s heavenly presence in his council, that they would be cast from his presence on earth (vv. 38-39). All who prophesy falsely, and those who follow their words, will bring on themselves “an everlasting reproach…and a perpetual shame, which shall not be forgotten” (v. 40). A true prophet is remembered for words which pass the canonical tests as true, but the false are remembered for the judgment upon them for their evil words and deeds. This should be heard as a clarion call to any who would make any claim to being a prophet to whom the LORD has supposedly spoken to today, for the canon is closed.