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Chapter VIII. Prophecy And Its Abuses. Chapters xii. 21-xiv. 11.

There is perhaps nothing more perplexing to the student of Old Testament history than the complicated phenomena which may be classed under the general name of “prophecy.” In Israel, as in every ancient state, there was a body of men who sought to influence public opinion by prognostications of the future. As a rule the repute of all kinds of divination declined with the advance of civilisation and general intelligence, so that in the more enlightened communities matters of importance came to be decided on broad grounds of reason and political expediency. The peculiarity in the case of Israel was that the very highest direction in politics, as well as religion and morals, was given in a form capable of being confounded with superstitious practices which flourished alongside of it. The true prophets were not merely profound moral thinkers, who announced a certain issue as the probable result of a certain line of conduct. In many cases their predictions are absolute, and their political programme is an appeal to the nation to accept the situation which they foresee, as the basis of its public action. For this reason prophecy was readily brought into competition with practices with which it had really nothing in common. The ordinary individual who cared little for principles and only wished to know what was likely 113 to happen might readily think that one way of arriving at knowledge of the future was as good as another, and when the spiritual prophet's anticipations displeased him he was apt to try his luck with the sorcerer. It is not improbable that in the last days of the monarchy spurious prophecy of various kinds gained an additional vitality from its rivalry with the great spiritual teachers who in the name of Jehovah foretold the ruin of the state.

This is not the place for an exhaustive account of the varied developments in Israel of what may be broadly termed prophetic manifestations. For the understanding of the section of Ezekiel now before us it will be enough to distinguish three classes of phenomena. At the lowest end of the scale there was a rank growth of pure magic or sorcery, the ruling idea of which is the attempt to control or forecast the future by occult arts which are believed to influence the supernatural powers which govern human destiny. In the second place we have prophecy in a stricter sense—that is, the supposed revelation of the will of the deity in dreams or “visions” or half-articulate words uttered in a state of frenzy. Last of all there is the true prophet, who, though subject to extraordinary mental experiences, yet had always a clear and conscious grasp of moral principles, and possessed an incommunicable certainty that what he spoke was not his own word but the word of Jehovah.

It is obvious that a people subjected to such influences as these was exposed to temptations both intellectual and moral from which modern life is exempt. One thing is certain—the existence of prophecy did not tend to simplify the problems of national life or individual conduct. We are apt to think of the great prophets as men so signally marked out by God as His witnesses that it must have been impossible for any one with a shred of sincerity to question their authority. In reality 114 it was quite otherwise. It was no more an easy thing then than now to distinguish between truth and error, between the voice of God and the speculations of men. Then, as now, divine truth had no available credentials at the moment of its utterance except its self-evidencing power on hearts that were sincere in their desire to know it. The fact that truth came in the guise of prophecy only stimulated the growth of counterfeit prophecy, so that only those who were “of the truth” could discern the spirits, whether they were of God.

The passage which forms the subject of this chapter is one of the most important passages of the Old Testament in its treatment of the errors and abuses incident to a dispensation of prophecy. It consists of three parts: the first deals with difficulties occasioned by the apparent failure of prophecy (ch. xii. 21-28); the second with the character and doom of the false prophets (ch. xiii.); and the third with the state of mind which made a right use of prophecy impossible (ch. xiv. 1-11).


It is one of Ezekiel's peculiarities that he pays close attention to the proverbial sayings which indicated the drift of the national mind. Such sayings were like straws, showing how the stream flowed, and had a special significance for Ezekiel, inasmuch as he was not in the stream himself, but only observed its motions from a distance. Here he quotes a current proverb, giving expression to a sense of the futility of all prophetic warnings: “The days are drawn out, and every vision faileth” (ch. xii. 22). It is difficult to say what the feeling is that lies behind it, whether it is one of disappointment or of relief. If, as seems probable, ver. 27 is the application of the general principle to the particular case of 115 Ezekiel, the proverb need not indicate absolute disbelief in the truth of prophecy. “The vision which he sees is for many days, and remote times does he prophesy”—that is to say, The prophet's words are no doubt perfectly true, and come from God; but no man can ever tell when they are to be fulfilled: all experience shows that they relate to a remote future which we are not likely to see. For men whose concern was to find direction in the present emergency, that was no doubt equivalent to a renunciation of the guidance of prophecy.

There are several things which may have tended to give currency to this view and make it plausible. First of all, of course, the fact that many of the “visions” that were published had nothing in them; they were false in their origin, and were bound to fail. Accordingly one thing necessary to rescue prophecy from the discredit into which it had fallen was the removal of those who uttered false predictions in the name of Jehovah: “There shall no more be any false vision or flattering divination in the midst of the house of Israel” (ver. 24). But besides the prevalence of false prophecy there were features of true prophecy which partly explained the common misgiving as to its trustworthiness. Even in true prophecy there is an element of idealism, the future being depicted in forms derived from the prophet's circumstances, and represented as the immediate continuation of the events of his own time. In support of the proverb it might have been equally apt to instance the Messianic oracles of Isaiah, or the confident predictions of Hananiah, the opponent of Jeremiah. Further, there is a contingent element in prophecy: the fulfilment of a threat or promise is conditional on the moral effect of the prophecy itself on the people. These things were perfectly understood by thoughtful men in Israel. The principle of contingency is clearly expounded in the eighteenth chapter of Jeremiah, 116 and it was acted on by the princes who on a memorable occasion saved him from the doom of a false prophet (Jer. xxvi.). Those who used prophecy to determine their practical attitude towards Jehovah's purposes found it to be an unerring guide to right thinking and action. But those who only took a curious interest in questions of external fulfilment found much to disconcert them; and it is hardly surprising that many of them became utterly sceptical of its divine origin. It must have been to this turn of mind that the proverb with which Ezekiel is dealing owed its origin.

It is not on these lines, however, that Ezekiel vindicates the truth of the prophetic word, but on lines adapted to the needs of his own generation. After all, prophecy is not wholly contingent. The bent of the popular character is one of the elements which it takes into account, and it foresees an issue which is not dependent on anything that Israel might do. The prophets rise to a point of view from which the destruction of the sinful people and the establishment of a perfect kingdom of God are seen to be facts unalterably decreed by Jehovah. And the point of Ezekiel's answer to his contemporaries seems to be that a final demonstration of the truth of prophecy was at hand. As the fulfilment drew near, prophecy would increase in distinctness and precision, so that when the catastrophe came it would be impossible for any man to deny the inspiration of those who had announced it: “Thus saith Jehovah, I will suppress this proverb, and it shall no more circulate in Israel; but say unto them, The days are near, and the content [literally word or matter] of every vision” (ver. 23). After the extinction of every form of lying prophecy, Jehovah's words shall still be heard, and the proclamation of them shall be immediately followed by their accomplishment: “For I Jehovah will speak My words; I will speak and perform, 117 it shall not be deferred any more: in your days, O house of rebellion, I will speak a word and perform it, saith Jehovah” (ver. 25). The immediate reference is to the destruction of Jerusalem which the prophet saw to be one of those events which were unconditionally decreed, and an event which must bulk more and more largely in the vision of the true prophet until it was accomplished.


The thirteenth chapter deals with what was undoubtedly the greatest obstacle to the influence of prophecy—viz., the existence of a division in the ranks of the prophets themselves. That division had been of long standing. The earliest indication of it is the story of the contest between Micaiah and four hundred prophets of Jehovah, in presence of Ahab and Jehoshaphat (1 Kings xxii. 5-28). All the canonical prophets show in their writings that they had to contend against the mass of the prophetic order—men who claimed an authority equal to theirs, but used it for diametrically opposite interests. It is not, however, till we come to Jeremiah and Ezekiel that we find a formal apologetic of true prophecy against false. The problem was serious: where two sets of prophets systematically and fundamentally contradicted each other, both might be false, but both could not be true. The prophet who was convinced of the truth of his own visions must be prepared to account for the rise of false visions, and to lay down some criterion by which men might discriminate between the one and the other. Jeremiah's treatment of the question is of the two perhaps the more profound and interesting. It is thus summarised by Professor Davidson: “In his encounters with the prophets of his day Jeremiah opposes them in three spheres—that of policy, that of morals, and that of personal experience. 118 In policy the genuine prophets had some fixed principles, all arising out of the idea that the kingdom of the Lord was not a kingdom of this world. Hence they opposed military preparation, riding on horses, and building of fenced cities, and counselled trust in Jehovah.... The false prophets, on the other hand, desired their country to be a military power among the powers around, they advocated alliance with the eastern empires and with Egypt, and relied on their national strength. Again, the true prophets had a stringent personal and state morality. In their view the true cause of the destruction of the state was its immoralities. But the false prophets had no such deep moral convictions, and seeing nothing unwonted or alarming in the condition of things prophesied of ‘peace.’ They were not necessarily irreligious men; but their religion had no truer insight into the nature of the God of Israel than that of the common people.... And finally Jeremiah expresses his conviction that the prophets whom he opposed did not stand in the same relation to the Lord as he did: they had not his experiences of the word of the Lord, into whose counsel they had not been admitted; and they were without that fellowship of mind with the mind of Jehovah which was the true source of prophecy. Hence he satirises their pretended supernatural ‘dreams,’ and charges them from conscious want of any true prophetic word with stealing words from one another.”3737   Ezekiel, p. 85.

The passages in Jeremiah on which this statement is mainly founded may have been known to Ezekiel, who in this matter, as in so many others, follows the lines laid down by the elder prophet.

The first thing, then, that deserves attention in Ezekiel's judgment on false prophecy is his assertion of its purely 119 subjective or human origin. In the opening sentence he pronounces a woe upon the prophets “who prophesy from their own mind without having seen”3838   Translating with LXX. (ver. 3). The words put in italics sum up Ezekiel's theory of the genesis of false prophecy. The visions these men see and the oracles they utter simply reproduce the thoughts, the emotions, the aspirations, natural to their own minds. That the ideas came to them in a peculiar form, which was mistaken for the direct action of Jehovah, Ezekiel does not deny. He admits that the men were sincere in their professions, for he describes them as “waiting for the fulfilment of the word” (ver. 6). But in this belief they were the victims of a delusion. Whatever there might be in their prophetic experiences that resembled those of a true prophet, there was nothing in their oracles that did not belong to the sphere of worldly interests and human speculation.

If we ask how Ezekiel knew this, the only possible answer is that he knew it because he was sure of the source of his own inspiration. He possessed an inward experience which certified to him the genuineness of the communications which came to him, and he necessarily inferred that those who held different beliefs about God must lack that experience. Thus far his criticism of false prophecy is purely subjective. The true prophet knew that he had that within him which authenticated his inspiration, but the false prophet could not know that he wanted it. The difficulty is not peculiar to prophecy, but arises in connection with religious belief as a whole. It is an interesting question whether the assent to a truth is accompanied by a feeling of certitude differing in quality from the confidence which a man may have in giving his assent to a delusion. But it is not possible to elevate this internal criterion to an 120 objective test of truth. A man who is awake may be quite sure he is not dreaming, but a man in a dream may readily enough fancy himself awake.

But there were other and more obvious tests which could be applied to the professional prophets, and which at least showed them to be men of a different spirit from the few who were “full of power by the spirit of the Lord, and of judgment, and of might, to declare to Israel his sin” (Mic. iii. 8). In two graphic figures Ezekiel sums up the character and policy of these parasites who disgraced the order to which they belonged. In the first place he compares them to jackals burrowing in ruins and undermining the fabric which it was their professed function to uphold (vv. 4, 5). The existence of such a class of men is at once a symptom of advanced social degeneration and a cause of greater ruin to follow. A true prophet fearlessly speaking the words of God is a defence to the state; he is like a man who stands in the breach or builds a wall to ward off the danger which he foresees. Such were all genuine prophets whose names were held in honour in Israel—men of moral courage, never hesitating to incur personal risk for the welfare of the nation they loved. If Israel now was like a heap of ruins, the fault lay with the selfish crowd of hireling prophets who had cared more to find a hole in which they could shelter themselves than to build up a stable and righteous polity.

The prophet's simile calls to mind the type of churchman represented by Bishop Blougram in Browning's powerful satire. He is one who is content if the corporation to which he belongs can provide him with a comfortable and dignified position in which he can spend good days; he is triumphant if, in addition to this, he can defy any one to prove him more of a fool or a hypocrite than an average man of the world. Such utter abnegation of intellectual sincerity may not be common in any Church; 121 but the temptation which leads to it is one to which ecclesiastics are exposed in every age and every communion. The tendency to shirk difficult problems, to shut one's eyes to grave evils, to acquiesce in things as they are, and calculate that the ruin will last one's own time, is what Ezekiel calls playing the jackal; and it hardly needs a prophet to tell us that there could not be a more fatal symptom of the decay of religion than the prevalence of such a spirit in its official representatives.

The second image is equally suggestive. It exhibits the false prophets as following where they pretended to lead, as aiding and abetting the men into whose hands the reins of government had fallen. The people build a wall and the prophets cover it with plaster (ver. 10)—that is to say, when any project or scheme of policy is being promoted they stand by glozing it over with fine words, flattering its promoters, and uttering profuse assurances of its success. The uselessness of the whole activity of these prophets could not be more vividly described. The white-washing of the wall may hide its defects, but will not prevent its destruction; and when the wall of Jerusalem's shaky prosperity tumbles down, those who did so little to build and so much to deceive shall be overwhelmed with confusion. “Behold, when the wall is fallen, shall it not be said to them, Where is the plaster which ye plastered?” (ver. 12).

This will be the beginning of the judgment on false prophets in Israel. The overthrow of their vaticinations, the collapse of the hopes they fostered, and the demolition of the edifice in which they found a refuge shall leave them no more a name or a place in the people of God. “I will stretch out My hand against the prophets that see vanity and divine falsely: in the council of My people they shall not be, and in the register of the house of Israel they shall not be written, and into the land of Israel they shall not come” (ver. 9).


There was, however, a still more degraded type of prophecy, practised chiefly by women, which must have been exceedingly prevalent in Ezekiel's time. The prophets spoken of in the first sixteen verses were public functionaries who exerted their evil influence in the arena of politics. The prophetesses spoken of in the latter part of the chapter are private fortune-tellers who practised on the credulity of individuals who consulted them. Their art was evidently magical in the strict sense, a trafficking with the dark powers which were supposed to enter into alliance with men irrespective of moral considerations. Then, as now, such courses were followed for gain, and doubtless proved a lucrative means of livelihood. The “fillets” and “veils” mentioned in ver. 18 are either a professional garb worn by the women, or else implements of divination whose precise significance cannot now be ascertained. To the imagination of the prophet they appear as the snares and weapons with which these wretched creatures “hunted souls”; and the extent of the evil which he attacks is indicated by his speaking of the whole people as being entangled in their meshes. Ezekiel naturally bestows special attention on a class of practitioners whose whole influence tended to efface moral landmarks and to deal out to men weal or woe without regard to character. “They slew souls that should not die, and saved alive souls that should not live; they made sad the heart of the righteous, and strengthened the hands of the wicked, that he should not return from his wicked way and be saved alive” (ver. 22). That is to say, while Ezekiel and all true prophets were exhorting men to live resolutely in the light of clear ethical conceptions of providence, the votaries of occult superstitions seduced the ignorant into making private compacts with the powers of darkness in order to secure their personal safety. If the prevalence of sorcery and 123 witchcraft was at all times dangerous to the religion and public order of the state, it was doubly so at a time when, as Ezekiel perceived, everything depended on maintaining the strict rectitude of God in His dealings with individual men.


Having thus disposed of the external manifestations of false prophecy, Ezekiel proceeds in the fourteenth chapter to deal with the state of mind amongst the people at large which rendered such a condition of things possible. The general import of the passage is clear, although the precise connection of ideas is somewhat difficult to explain. The following observations may suffice to bring out all that is essential to the understanding of the section.

The oracle was occasioned by a particular incident, undoubtedly historical—namely, a visit, such as was perhaps now common, from the elders to inquire of the Lord through Ezekiel. As they sit before him it is revealed to the prophet that the minds of these men are preoccupied with idolatry, and therefore it is not fitting that any answer should be given to them by a prophet of Jehovah. Apparently no answer was given by Ezekiel to the particular question they had asked, whatever it may have been. Generalising from the incident, however, he is led to enunciate a principle regulating the intercourse between Jehovah and Israel through the medium of a prophet: “Whatever man of the house of Israel sets his thoughts upon his idols, and puts his guilty stumbling-block before him, and comes to the prophet, I Jehovah will make Myself intelligible to him;3939   The exact force of the reflexive form used (na' ănêthi, niphal) is doubtful. The translation given is that of Cornill, which is certainly forcible. that I may take 124 the house of Israel in their own heart, because they are all estranged from Me by their idols” (vv. 4, 5). It seems clear that one part of the threat here uttered is that the very withholding of the answer will unmask the hypocrisy of men who pretend to be worshippers of Jehovah, but in heart are unfaithful to Him and servants of false gods. The moral principle involved in the prophet's dictum is clear and of lasting value. It is that for a false heart there can be no fellowship with Jehovah, and therefore no true and sure knowledge of His will. The prophet occupies the point of view of Jehovah, and when consulted by an idolater he finds it impossible to enter into the point of view from which the question is put, and therefore cannot answer it.4040   The same rule is applied to direct communion with God in prayer in Psalm lxvi. 18: “If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear.” Ezekiel assumes for the most part that the prophet consulted is a true prophet of Jehovah like himself, who will give no answer to such questions as he has before him. He must, however, allow for the possibility that men of this stamp may receive answers in the name of Jehovah from those reputed to be His true prophets. In that case, says Ezekiel, the prophet is “deceived” by God; he is allowed to give a response which is not a true response at all, but only confirms the people in their delusions and unbelief. But this deception does not take place until the prophet has incurred the guilt of deceiving himself in the first instance. It is his fault that he has not perceived the bent of his questioners' minds, that he has accommodated himself to their ways of thought, has consented to occupy their standpoint in order to be able to say something coinciding with the drift of their wishes. Prophet and inquirers are involved in a common guilt and share a common fate, both being sentenced to exclusion from the commonwealth of Israel.


The purification of the institution of prophecy necessarily appeared to Ezekiel as an indispensable feature in the restoration of the theocracy. The ideal of Israel's relation to Jehovah is “that they may be My people, and that I may be their God” (ver. 11). That implies that Jehovah shall be the source of infallible guidance in all things needful for the religious life of the individual and the guidance of the state. But it was impossible for Jehovah to be to Israel all that a God should be, so long as the regular channels of communication between Him and the nation were choked by false conceptions in the minds of the people and false men in the position of prophets. Hence the constitution of a new Israel demands such special judgments on false prophecy and the false use of true prophecy as have been denounced in these chapters. When these judgments have been executed, the ideal will have become possible which is described in the words of another prophet: “Thine eyes shall see thy teachers: and thine ears shall hear a word behind thee, saying, This is the way, walk ye in it” (Isa. xxx. 20, 21).


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