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The Preacher As A False Prophet

By the Rev. James Stalker, D.D.

To: The Rev. Alexander Whyte, D.D.

UPON anyone who is studying the physiognomy of the age of the prophets there is one disagreeable feature which obtrudes itself so constantly that even in the briefest sketch it is impossible to pass it by. This is the activity of the false prophets (1). It culminated in the lifetime of Jeremiah, whose whole career might almost be described as a conflict with them. Again and again he and they came to open war; and on at least one occasion the whole body combined to take away his life. Ezekiel was scarcely less afflicted by them. They were perhaps not so prominent an element in the life of Isaiah, but he also refers to them frequently; and, indeed, their sinister figures haunt the pages of all the prophets.

It is a kind of humiliation to speak of them at all, and I would gladly pass them by; but the figure of the true prophet will rise before our eyes more clearly by the contrast of the false: and it is perhaps a duty to look also at the degradations to which our office is liable. The higher the honour attaching to the ministerial profession, when it is worthily filled, the deeper is the abuse of which it is capable in comparison with other callings; and its functions are so sacred that the man who discharges them must either be a man of God or a hypocrite. Yet there are plenty of motives of an inferior kind which may take the place of right ministerial aims. Though it is painful to speak of such things, yet here again the method which we have adopted in these lectures, of following the guidance of Scripture, may be leading us better than we could have chosen ourselves; and it may be wholesome to have to look at an aspect of our subject which of our own accord we would avoid.

There are two things in Scripture which I have never been able to think of without strong movements of fear and self-distrust.

One of them is that, when the Son of God came to this earth, He was persecuted and slain by the religious classes. His deadly opponents were the Scribes and Pharisees. But who were the Scribes and Pharisees? The Scribes occupied almost exactly the position in the community which is held among us by the literary, the scholastic and the clerical classes; and the Pharisees were simply what we should now call the leading religious laymen. Had they been adherents of a false religion, there would have been nothing surprising in their resistance to the final revelation of the true God. But the religion which they professed was the true religion; the Scribes were the expounders of the Word of God, and the Pharisees occupied the foremost places in the house of God.

Yet, when the Son of Jehovah, whose name they were called by, appeared amongst them, they rejected Him and took away His life. Many a time, as I have followed Jesus step by step through His lifelong conflict with their ill will and contradiction, the question has pressed itself painfully upon my mind: If He were to come to the earth now and intervene in our affairs, how would the religious classes receive Him? and on which side would I be myself? If to any this question may seem fantastic, let them change it into this other, which cannot appear idle, though it means exactly the same thing: What is the attitude of the religious classes to the manifestations of the spirit of Jesus in the life of to-day? do they welcome them and back them up? or have the new ideas and movements in which Christ is marching onward to the conquest of the world to reckon on opposition, even from those who call themselves most loudly by His name?

The other circumstance which has often affected my mind in the same way is that which comes before us to-day - that the true prophets of the Old Testament had to face the opposition, not of heathens, and not of the openly irreligious among their own countrymen only, but of those who had the name of God in their mouths and were publicly recognized as His oracles. To us these are now false prophets, because time has found them out and the Word of God has branded them with the title they deserve; but in their own day they were regarded as true prophets; and doubtless many of them never dreamed that they were not entitled to the name.

They must have been a numerous and powerful body. Jeremiah mentions them again and again along with the king, the princes and the priests, as if they formed a fourth estate in the realm; and Zephaniah mentions them in the same way along with the princes, the judges, and the priests. They evidently formed a separate and conspicuous class in the community. They cannot have been equally bad in every generation; and there may have been many degrees of deviation among them from the character of the true prophet; but as a body they were false, and the true servants of God had to reckon them among the anti-religious forces which they had to overcome.

This is an appalling fact - that the public representatives of religion should ever have been the worst enemies of religion; but it cannot be denied that even in Christendom, and that not once or twice, the same condition of things has existed.

At the same time these men did not suppose that this was the position they held; but history has judged them. It is not easy for a man to admit the thought into his own mind that in him his office is being dishonored and its aim frustrated; and it is far more difficult to do so if he has the support of the prevailing sentiment and is going forward triumphantly as a member of the majority. But there is enough in the history of our order to warn us to watch over ourselves with a jealous mind, lest we too, while clad in the garb of a sacred profession and in the authority of an ecclesiastical position, should be found fighting against God. It will not do to think that, merely because we sit in Moses' seat and have the Word of God in our mouths, therefore we must be right. Nor must we be too confident because we are in the majority. If we have faith in our views, it is quite right, indeed, that we should try to make them prevail; and there is a legitimate joy in seeing a good cause carrying with it the sympathies and suffrages of men. But we are all too easily persuaded that our cause is good simply because it can win votes. In ecclesiastical affairs there is often as feverish a counting of heads as in party politics. The majority have the same confidence that the case is finally decided in their favour; and there is the same exaltation over the defeated party, as if their being in the minority were a clear proof that they were also in the wrong. But this is no criterion, and time may sternly reverse the victory of the moment. Even in the Church the side of the false prophets may be the growing and the winning side, while Jeremiah is left in a minority of one.

The false prophets were strong, not only in their own numbers, but in their popularity with the people. This told heavily against the true prophets; for the people could not believe that the one man, who was standing alone, was right, and that his opponents, who were many, were wrong. The seats and the trappings of office always affect the multitude, who are slow to come to the conclusion that the teachers under whom they find themselves in providence can be misleading them. This is, to a certain extent, an honourable sentiment; but it throws upon public teachers a weighty responsibility. If they are going wrong, they will generally get the majority of the people to follow them. So completely may this be the case, that by degrees the popular taste is vitiated and will not endure any other teaching than that to which it has been accustomed, though it be false. There is no sadder verse in all prophecy than the complaint of Jeremiah, “The prophets prophesy falsely, and My people love to have it so.” Like prophet, like people; the public mind may be so habituated to what is false, and satisfied with it, that it has no taste or even tolerance for the true (2). Jeremiah could not gain a hearing for his stern and weighty message from ears accustomed to the light and frivolous views of the false prophets; and to Baruch, his young coadjutor and amanuensis, who was starting on the prophetic career with the high hopes of youth, he had to deliver the chilling message, “Seekest thou great things for thyself? seek them not.” The path to popularity and eminence was not open to anyone who did not speak according to the prevailing fashion.

The false prophets won and kept their popularity by pandering to the opinions and prejudices of the people. The times of Jeremiah were big with coming calamities, and he had to predict that these calamities were sure to come; for there were no signs of deep or genuine repentance, and, indeed, the time for repentance was past. The self-flattering, ease-loving people hated to hear these disagreeable facts. Their frivolous minds were engrossed with the gossip and excitement of the passing day, and it was too great an exertion to give their attention to the majestic views of the Divine justice and the far-reaching sweep of the Divine providence to which Jeremiah tried to direct their attention. They wished to enjoy the present and to believe that all would come right somehow. The false prophets flattered these wishes.

They said that the calamities which Jeremiah was foretelling would not come to pass, or that at least they would be much less formidable than he represented. They were, as Jeremiah says, like an unconscientious physician, who is afraid to probe the wound to the bottom, though the life of the patient depends on it. Ezekiel accuses them of making nightcaps to draw over the eyes and ears of their countrymen, lest they should see and hear the truth, and of muffling with a glove the naked hand of God with which the sins of the people should have been smitten. The constant refrain of their prophecies was, “Peace, peace,” though the storm-clouds of retribution were ready to burst. The people said to them, “Prophesy to us smooth things;” and the false prophets provided the supply according to the demand.

We cannot flatter ourselves that this is a danger which belongs entirely to the past. There will always be a demand for smooth things, and an appropriate reward for him who is willing to supply them in the name of God. Popularity is a thing which will always be coveted; and under certain conditions it is a thing to be thankful for. If it means that the truth is prevailing and that men are yielding their minds to its sway, it is a precious gift of heaven. It is a good thing to see many coming out to hear the Word of God, and to both preacher and hearers there is a great deal of exhilaration and inspiration in a full church. But popularity may be purchased at too dear a rate. It may be bought by the suppression of the truth and the letting down of the demands for a religion which does not agitate the mind too much or interfere with the pursuits of a worldly life.

I have seen a very trenchant article from an American pen on the power of the moneyed members of a church to dictate the tone of the pulpit; and it is a common accusation against ministers, that they flatter the prevailing classes in their congregations. If their congregations are wealthy, they are afraid, it is said, to speak up for the poor, even when justice is calling out on their side; and, if their congregations are poor, they take the side of the working-man, right or wrong. I should question whether temptations so gross as these are much felt. Far more dangerous are the subtler temptations - to truckle to the spirit of the age, to keep at all hazards on the side of the cultivated and clever, and to shun those truths the utterance of which might expose the teacher to the charge of being antiquated and bigoted. Let a preacher dwell always on the sunny side of the truth and conceal the shadows, let him enlarge continually on what is simple and human in Christianity and pass lightly over what is mysterious and Divine: let him, for example, dwell on the human side of Christ but say nothing of His atonement, let him extol the better elements of human nature but say nothing of its depravity, let him preach frequently on the glories of the next world but never mention its terrors: and very probably he may be popular and see his church crowded; but he will be a false prophet (3).

Who were these false prophets, and how did there come to be such numbers of them? These are questions which an attentive reader of the Bible cannot help asking; but it is not by any means easy to answer them.

The prophets whose names have come down to us are not by any means numerous; but, besides them, there must have been many other true prophets. There were times when the spirit of religion was breathing through the community, and then men were not wanting who felt called to be its organs. The spirit of inspiration might fall on any one at any time; no prescribed training was necessary to make a man a prophet. It might come, as it did to Amos, on the husbandman in his fields or the shepherd among his flock. It might alight on the young noble amidst the opening pleasures of life, as it did on Isaiah and Zephaniah; or it might come, as it did on Jeremiah and Ezekiel, on the young priest preparing for his sacred functions.

But some of the more noted prophets endeavoured in a more systematic way to diffuse the spirit which rested upon themselves, and thus to multiply the number of the prophets. They founded schools in which promising young men were gathered and plied with the means of education available in that age, cultivating music, reading the writings of the older prophets, and coming under the influence of the holy man who was at their head. These were the Schools of the Prophets, and their students were the Sons of the Prophets. Samuel seems to have been the first founder of these schools. They were flourishing in the times of Elijah and Elisha, and they probably continued to exist with varying fortunes in subsequent centuries. Perhaps all who went through these schools claimed, or could claim, the prophetic name. Those who took up the profession wore the hairy mantle and leathern girdle made familiar to us by the figure of John the Baptist; and they probably subsisted on the gifts of those who benefited from their oracles. Their numbers may have been very large; we hear of hundreds of prophets even during an idolatrous reign, when they were exposed to persecution.

In times when the spirit of inspiration was abroad or when the schools enjoyed the presence of a master spirit, it is easy to understand how valuable such institutions may have been, and how they may have been centres from which religious light and warmth were diffused through the whole country. But they were liable to deterioration. If the general tone of religion in the country declined, they partook in the general decay; an inspiring leader might be taken away and no like-minded successor arise to fill his place; or men who had received no real call beforehand might join the school and pass through the curriculum without receiving it. Only they had learned the trick of speech and got by rote the language of religion. They had no personal knowledge of God or message obtained directly from him; but it was not difficult to put on the prophet's mantle and talk in the traditional prophetic tones. The fundamental charge against the false prophets is always this: “I have not sent these prophets, yet they ran; I have not spoken unto them, yet they prophesy.”

If I am right in tracing the origin of false prophecy to the schools of the prophets, this gives a suggestive hint as to the point at which the same danger may beset ourselves. It is obviously the duty of the authorities of the Church to make provision for the training of those who are to be the future ministers of the Gospel; and it is natural for those who have the honour of the Church at heart to covet for her service the talents of the gifted. Parents, too, will often be found cherishing an intense desire that the choicest of their sons should become ministers. These wishes of superiors have a legitimate influence in determining the choice of our life-work. The wishes and prayers of pious parents are especially entitled to have very great weight. Yet there is a danger of an outward influence of this kind being substituted for genuine personal experience and an inward call. When, a generation ago, in the rural parts of England, the church in many a parish was looked upon as “a living,” to be allocated to a junior member of the family, who was educated for the position as a matter of course, the custom, whatever happy results it might produce in exceptional cases, was not fitted to fill the pulpits of the land with men of prophetic character. The pious wishes of parents, however beautiful they may be, require to be made absolutely conditional on a vocation of a higher kind; otherwise we get a manufactured ministry, without a message, in place of men in whom the spirit of inspiration is stirring and who speak because they believe.

Having no message of their own, what were the false prophets to do? The best they could do was to repeat and imitate what had been said by their predecessors. It is with this Jeremiah reproaches them when he says, “Behold, I am against the prophets, saith the Lord, that steal My words everyone from his neighbour.” The older prophets used to begin their utterances with the phrase, “the burden of the Lord;” and Jeremiah complains that this had become an odious cant term in the mouths of his contemporaries; and in the same way Zechariah complains that in his day the great word “comfort,” which from the lips of Isaiah had descended like dew from heaven on the parched hearts of the people of God, had become a dry and hackneyed phrase in the mouths of false prophets. How dangerous this habit of stealing the words of others might become, when practical issues were involved, may be illustrated by a striking example. The inviolability of Jerusalem had been a principle of the older prophets, which was quite true for their times; and Isaiah had made use of it for rousing his fellow-citizens from despair, when the army of Sennacherib stood before the gates. But in Jeremiah's time the change of circumstances had made it to be no longer true; and yet the false prophets kept on repeating it; and no doubt they seemed both to themselves and others to be occupying a strong position when, in opposing him, they could allege that they were standing on the same ground as Isaiah. All the time, however, they were betraying those who listened to them.

There is a sense in which the truth of God is unchangeable; it is like Himself - the same yesterday and to-day and forever. But there is another sense in which it is continually changing. Like the manna, it descends fresh every morning, and, if it is kept till to-morrow, it breeds loathsome worms. Isaiah describes the true prophet as one who has the tongue of the learner - not of the learned, as the Authorised Version gives it - and whose ear is opened every morning to hear the message of the new day. What was truth for yesterday may be falsehood for to-day; and only he is a trustworthy interpreter of God who is sensitive to the indications of present providence.

It would, however, be a mistake to suppose that the only form which false prophecy can take is a dried-up orthodoxy, mumbling over the shibboleths of yesterday. If he who stands forward as a speaker for God is out of touch with God and has really no Divine message, he may make good the lack of a true Divine word in many ways. The easiest way is, no doubt, to fall back on some accepted word of yesterday; but he may also strike out on the path of originality, announcing a gospel for to-morrow, constructed by his own fancy, which has no Divine sanction. Neither orthodoxy nor heterodoxy is a guarantee: the only guarantee is a humble mind living in the secret of the Lord.

I have mentioned that the prophets subsisted on the contributions of those to whom their oracles were supposed to be valuable. There is, indeed, very little information on this head; but they are accused of prophesying for bread, and avarice and a greedy appetite for the good things of this life are reproaches frequently cast at them. It is not likely that prophecy can ever have been a paying profession, but it would appear to have been at least a means of livelihood; and there are indications that those who enjoyed an exceptional popularity may have occupied a high social standing. Ezekiel, whose characterizations of the false prophets are remarkably striking, uses about them a significant figure of speech. He says that, while a true prophet was like a wall of fire to his country, standing in the breach when danger threatened and defending it with his life, the false prophets were like foxes that burrow among the ruins of fallen cities. What mattered it to them that their country was degraded, if only they had found comfortable places for themselves?

This also is a painful side of the subject. It is inevitable that the ministry should become a means of livelihood, and yet it is fatal to pursue it with this in view. It is the least lucrative of the professions, and yet, in the pressure of modern life, it may tempt men to join it merely as a profession. Even if it has been entered upon from higher motives, the attrition of domestic necessities may dry up the nobler motives and convert the minister into a hireling who thinks chiefly of his wages (4). The commercial spirit is omnipotent in our day; and men who can buy everything for money think that ministers are procurable in the same way. Thus they tempt men away with bribes of money from work to which God has called them. I am far from questioning the importance of the mission of the pulpit to the wealthier classes; and we must have men of culture to preach to the cultivated. I would no more think of setting up the poor against the rich, as the exclusive objects of the Church's attention, than the rich against the poor. But perhaps the most essential work of the Church at the present time is to win and to hold the working classes. I should like to see ministers coveting work among them; and let him who has learned to wield such an audience, where he can speak with the freedom and force of nature, beware of being bribed away to a position where he will be tamed and domesticated, and have his teeth drawn and his claws cut.

So monotonous is the evil side of the false prophets that one longs for a gleam of something good in them. Can they not at least be pitied? May they not have been weak men, who were elevated to a position which proved too much for them? The times were full of change and difficulty, and it required a clear eye to see the indications of Providence. It is not every one who has the genius of an Isaiah or the magnificent moral courage of a Jeremiah. Was it not possible to take a milder view of the world than Jeremiah did, and yet be a true man? May they not at least have been mistaken, when they ventured to emit prophecies which history falsified?

Such sentiments easily arise in us; but they are driven back by what we read of the personal character of these men. “Both prophet and priest,” says Jeremiah, “are profane; yea, in My house have I found their wickedness, saith the Lord.” “I have seen,” he says in God's name, “in the prophets of Jerusalem an horrible thing: they commit adultery and walk in lies.” Jeremiah's view of them might be thought to be coloured by his own melancholy temperament; but Isaiah's is not less severe: “The priest and the prophet,” he says, “have erred through wine, they are swallowed up of wine, they are out of the way through strong drink.” And he gives this terrible picture of them: “His watchmen are blind, they are ignorant; they are all dumb dogs, they cannot bark; sleeping, lying down, loving to slumber. Yea, they are greedy dogs which can never have enough, and they are shepherds that cannot understand; they all look to their own way, every one to his gain from his quarter. Come ye, say they, I will fetch wine, and we will fill ourselves with strong drink; and to-morrow shall be as this day and still more abundant.” The representation in the other prophets are to the same effect. Zephaniah passes on the whole class the sweeping judgment, that they are light and treacherous persons. But the lowest deep is reached in Zechariah, who forsees a time, close at hand, when the very name of prophet will be a byword, and the father and mother of anyone who pretends to prophesy, will thrust him through, to deliver themselves from the reproach of having any connection with him (5).

The influence of such a travesty of the sacred office as these passages describe must have been deplorable; and without doubt it was one of the principal causes of the overthrow of the Jewish State. Jeremiah says expressly, that from the prophets profaneness had gone out over the whole land. They who, from their position and profession, ought to have been an example to their fellow-countrymen were the very reverse. They were the companions of the profane and licentious in their revels, and they joined with scorners in scoffing at those who led a strict and holy life. So God charges them by the lips of Ezekiel: “Ye have made the hearts of the righteous sad, whom I have not made sad, and strengthened the hands of the wicked, that he should not return from his wicked way.”

This is a terrible picture. Yet there have been epochs in the history of the Christian, and even of the Protestant Church, when its features have been reproduced with too faithful literality. Let us be thankful that we live in a happier time; but lets us also remember the maxim, “Let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall.” If a Church lose the Spirit of God, there is no depth of corruption to which it may not rapidly descend; and a degraded Church is the most potent factor of national decay.

Allow me to say, in closing, that I believe the question, what is to be the type and the tone of the ministry in any generation, is decided in the theological seminaries. What the students are there, the ministers of the country will be by-and-by. And, while the discipline of the authorities and the exhortations and examples of professors may do something, the tone of the college is determined by the students themselves. The state of feeling in a theological seminary ought to be such, that any man living a life inconsistent with his future profession should feel thoroughly uncomfortable, and have the conviction driven in upon his conscience every day, that the ministry is no place for him.



(1) As this subject is somewhat novel, the following collection of texts may be acceptable; but it is not given as exhaustive:-

Isa. ii. 6; xxviii. 7; xxx. 10,11; xlvii. 13; lvi. 10-12.
Jer. ii. 8,26; iv. 9; v. 31; vi. 14; xiv. 13-16; xviii. 18; xxiii. 9-40 (locus classicus); xxvi. 8; xxvii. 9,16; xxviii. xxix. 8.
Ezek. xii. 24; xiii. (locus classicus); xiv. 9; xx. 25; xxi. 23; xxii. 25,28.
Micah ii. 11; iii. 5,11.
Zeph. iii, 4.
Zech. x. 2; xiii. 2-4.

(2) “Sicut autem cuius pulchrum corpus et deformis est animus, magis dolendus est, quam si deforme habaret et corpus, ita qui eloquenter ea quae falsa sunt dicunt, magis miserandi sunt, quam si talis deformiter dicerent.” - ST. AUGUSTINE.

(3) Even popularity honestly won may be a great snare. Vanity, it must be allowed, is probably the commonest clerical weakness; and, when it is yielded to, it deforms the whole character. There are few things more touching or instructive than the entries in Dr. Chalmers' journal, which show with what earnestness he was praying against this, in the height of his popularity, as a besetting sin. If this were common, there would not be the slight accent of contempt attached to the name of the popular preacher which now belongs to it in the mouths of men. The publicity which beats on the pulpit makes veracity, down to the bottom of the soul, more necessary in the clerical than in any other calling. “A prime virtue in the pulpit is mental integrity. The absence of it is a subtle source of moral impotence. It concerns other things than the blunt antipodes represented by a truth and a lie. Argument which does not satisfy a preacher's logical instinct; illustration which does not commend itself to his aesthetic taste; a perspective of doctrine which is not true to the eye of his deepest insight; the use of borrowed materials which offend his sense of literary equity; an emotive intensity which exaggerates his conscious sensibility; an impetuosity of delivery which overlooks his thought; gestures and looks put on for scenic effect; an eccentric elocution, which no human nature ever fashioned; even a shrug of the shoulder, thought of and planned for beforehand - these are causes of enervation in sermons which may be otherwise well framed and sound in stock. They sap a preacher's personality and neutralise his magnetism. They are not true, and he knows it. Hearers may know nothing of them theoretically, yet may feel the full brunt of their negative force practically.” - AUSTIN PHELPS, D. D., My Note Book.

(4) “That which in its idea is the divinest of earthly employments has necessarily come to be also a profession, a line of life, with its routine, its commonplace, its poverty and deterioration of motive, its coarseness of feeling. It cannot but be so. It is part of the conditions of our mortality. Even earnest purpose, even zealous and laborious service, cannot alone save from the lowered tone and dulness of spirit which are our insensible but universal and inveterate enemies in all the business of real life. And that torpor and insensibility and deadness to what is high and great is, more than any other evil, the natural foe of all that is characteristic and essential in the Christian ministry; for that ministry is one of life and reality, or it is nothing.” - DEAN CHURCH.

(5) This may perhaps help to determine the age of the portion of Zechariah to which this passage belongs. Is there any proof elsewhere that a degradation of the prophetic office as deep as this had taken place, or was imminent, at the period to which it is usually assigned?