January 29, 2012
The English word “prophet” comes from the Latin propheta or Greek prophetes, meaning “to speak for” or “to speak from”. Prophets are people who speak for the Lord YHWH to the people, and who also speak from the Lord’s inspiration. The Torah portion for this week tells us that “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet” (Deut 18:15). This verse is excerpted from Deuteronomy, the portion of the Torah concerned with laying down the sacred law to the Israelites that they were to follow upon entering into the Promised Land, in fulfillment of YHWH’s Covenant with the people.
Are there living prophets among us today? Well, there are certainly individuals who enjoy speaking on behalf of the Lord YHWH, and making pronouncements with the assumption that the full power and authority of YHWH is behind them. Harold Camping, head of Family Radio Worldwide – a nondenominational radio network based in Oakland, California – taught that the world as we know it would end and the Rapture would occur on four different dates: September 1994, March 1995, May 21, 2011 and October 21, 2011. His reasoning was backed by extremely complex numerological calculations that he claimed were Biblically-inspired.
Obviously, none of these predictions have come true.
The penalty under Mosaic law for false prophesy was fairly dire: “But any prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, or who presumes to speak in my name a word that I have not commanded the prophet to speak—that prophet shall die”
(vv.20). Thankfully for Mr. Camping, we live in a society with a healthy separation of Church and State, so his life is safe. However, damage to the integrity of the Lord’s name is not the only damage that patently false prophesy does. The real damage to the faith and pocketbooks of believers is far more long-lasting and insidious. Mr. Camping could be written off as just another yahoo, if it weren’t for the fact that Family Radio had net assets of approximately $122 million in 2007 and received $18.3 million in donations in 2009 (Wikipedia). Hundreds of people gave up their jobs and their homes to tour around the country, giving witness to what they thought was going to be the End of Days. In New York, retired transportation agency worker Robert Fitzpatrick, who spent “over $140,000 of his savings on subway posters and outdoor advertisements,” stood in Times Square at 6 p.m., on May 21, 2011. When the hour came and went, he said: “I do not understand why …,” as his speech broke off and he looked at his watch. “I do not understand why nothing has happened” (The Atlantic Wire).
At this point, Mr. Camping has yet to return any of the money donated to Family Radio Worldwide. On the Family Radio website, a “Special Announcement” from Mr. Camping says “We now believe God led us to those dates, but did not give us complete understanding. In fact, we did not understand at all the correct significance of those two dates. We are waiting upon the Lord, and in His mercy He may give us understanding in the future regarding the significance of those two dates” (Family Radio). The Website, however, still offers the following convenient ways to donate: “Check by Internet (Checking Account # and Check #), EFT, ATM (debit), Credit Card, and Recurring Donation (by telephone only …)”
So how do we tell who is a false prophet? The Torah portion for this week tells us “If a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord but the thing does not take place or prove true, it is a word that the Lord has not spoken. The prophet has spoken it presumptuously; do not be frightened by it” (vv.22). In that case, it would appear that Mr. Camping is a bit of a repeat offender. Author Phillip Gulley points out that what most self-proclaimed prophets are missing is a strong sense of humility: “Those who bear the Divine Presence will not have to point it out to the rest of us. We will see it in their conduct, in their humility, in their grace to others, in their compassion for the hurting … ” (The Evolution of Faith: How God is Creating a Better Christianity. HarperCollins Publishers. 2011). Dan Clendenin states that ” … people who speak truly for God operate with a healthy sense of the audacity of what they are attempting. They are acutely aware of the presumption inherent in claiming to speak for God” (The Journey with Jesus: Notes to Myself. “Repudiating Robertson: How Can we Know When God Speaks?”). In the words of the Psalmist for this week, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding” (Ps.111:10). Those who have a healthy trepidation about daring to speak for YHWH know that A) It’s not All About Me and B) It’s a good idea NOT to demand money or set deadlines for Divine Grace. When we see a self-proclaimed prophet’s name and face plastered all over his/her website or notice that his/her pronouncements are quickly followed by a 1-800 number where you can donate, it’s time to run, don’t walk, to the nearest exit.