Chapter 6: Balaam and assorted false prophets
This book is about TRUE prophets in the Bible. But when we read through the Bible, we come across many FALSE prophets. We are warned that in the days we are living there will be false prophets, for what they speak is not the truth. This chapter discusses false prophets, a subject we will return to when we consider today’s situation, in our final chapter. We have broadly defined a true prophet as one who hears directly from the Lord and passes on what he / she has heard, even if not usually recognised as a prophet. A false prophet also passes on a message, but it is not one from the Lord. In this chapter we will identify some of the false prophets of the Bible, especially those who purport to speak in the name of YHWH, as well as other (false) gods and at the end will consider Balaam, of which the Bible has much to say, for he encapsulates many of the characteristics of false prophets. Much has been written in the Bible on the attributes of false prophets (often coupled with teachers) and prophecy. We finish by quoting verses the author considers particularly significant, but firstly some general points we can cite to help us distinguish true from false prophets. When testing the prophets as we must, these are tests we can apply:
|True prophet||False prophet|
|1||Leads hearers from error to truth||Leads hearers from truth to error|
|2||Often suffers at the hands of men||Often praised by men|
|3||Honours YHWH, opposes sin||Dishonours YHWH, endorses sin|
|4||Hears from YHWH||Does not hear from YHWH|
|5||Prophecies come to pass||Prophecies do not come to pass|
|6||Lives a godly life that bears fruit||Lives an ungodly, fruitless life|
|7||Appeals to the godly||Appeals to the ungodly|
|8||Appeals to seekers after truth||Appeals to those who accept error|
|9||Life marked by humility||Life marked by pride|
|10||Says what people don’t want to hear||Says what people do want to hear|
|11||Not adept at blending in, lonely||Adept at blending in, popular|
|12||Not always credible and impressive||Often credible and impressive|
|13||YHWH honours them||YHWH judges them|
|14||Sheep in sheep’s clothing||Wolves in sheep’s clothing|
|15||Beholden to the Word of God||Negligent of the Word of God|
|16||Feeds the sheep||Fleeces the sheep|
|17||Not interested in money||Interested in money|
|18||May perform miracles, without show||May perform miracles, with show|
|19||Has a servant heart||Seeks prestige and honour|
|20||Many have existed / exist||Many more have existed / exist|
Surveying the Bible for false prophets
As we survey the Bible looking for examples of false prophets, it should be bourne in mind that warnings against false prophets and prophecy were numerous, some of the more significant examples are given below. It should also be realised that opposition to God’s word or His prophets came from various sources, not just false prophets. When we consider Moses, while God gave him many warnings about false prophets, except for Balaam who we will get to, he did not have to challenge false prophets (and even with Balaam, it was only after the event was Balaam’s involvement realised). The only prophets that challenged him were Aaron and Miriam and both of these were true prophets.
The first recorded head on clash between true and false prophets came when Elijah confronted “the prophets of Baal four hundred and fifty, and the prophets of the groves four hundred, which eat at Jezebel’s table” 1Kings 18:19 at Mount Carmel in a fire sent from heaven contest to decide who was the true God. A similar outnumbering occurred when “the king of Israel gathered the prophets together, about four hundred men, and said unto them, Shall I go against Ramothgilead to battle, or shall I forbear? And they said, go up; for the Lord shall deliver it into the hand of the king” 1Kings 22:6, only to be opposed by Micaiah, a true prophet of the Lord, who told the king the opposite was the case.
Nehemiah is best known for his leadership when it came to building the walls of Jerusalem, when a remnant of the Jewish people returned following the exile. While as far as Nehemiah was concerned, and most commentators on what took place, he was doing the right thing, it was not without opposition, and one of those opposing him was a prophetess: “My God, think thou upon Tobiah and Sanballat according to these their works, and on the prophetess Noadiah, and the rest of the prophets, that would have put me in fear” Nehemiah 6:14.
Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel were all aware of the false prophets that were opposing their message and their person by leading the people astray. Isaiah saw in them propagators of a great deception with an eagerness to speak smooth words that were opposed to the word he had given but gained wide acceptance. It was exactly the same under Jeremiah. The threat of exile by the Balylonians was imminent and yet the people dismissed Jeremiah’s warnings and refused to return to the Lord. As far as the false prophets were concerned, everything was going to turn out alright and calls for repentance were not needed. How wrong they were shown to be. One of his opposers, named Hananiah, was mentioned several times. Jeremiah predicted he would soon die because of his lies and die he did. Another lying prophet that incurred similar judgment was Shemaiah the Nehelamite. While Jeremiah was prophesying in Jerusalem, Ezekiel was doing the same in Babylon. He too prophesied against the false prophets and that God was opposed to and will judge them. They prophesied their own thoughts and not God’s; they prophesied peace when there was no peace. All these true prophets of God not only had to confront false prophets but had to suffer as a result, for the people and their rules often sided with the false rather than true.
When we consider the minor prophets, opposition to their prophesying was common place, but it was Micah who faced false prophets. Micah several times had to oppose false prophets who wanted nothing to do with negativity and doom. They covered their ears at the voice of God’s mouthpiece. The people of Samaria and Jerusalem took the god of their imagination to be the one true God of the Covenant. But that Covenant threated punishment for disobedience as well as blessing for obedience (Deuteronomy 8:28). With their cities under judgment, their lives hanging by a thread, and their children about to be cursed beyond cure, they preferred prophesies about plenty. They in effect did what false prophets often did and provided false comfort but God will judge them.
As far as the New Testament goes, false prophets (often coupled with false teachers) were a threat to the church (see quotes given below) and did cause much damage. Simon Magus (Acts 8:9-24), Barjesus (Acts 13:6), the girl who foretold the future (Acts 16: 16-18), Jezebel (Revelation 2:20), The False Prophet (Revelation 13:11-18) are all examples of false prophets identified in the New Testament. That false teaching and prophecy is prevalent is the case to this day. Proving what is true and calling out what is false was a necessary challenge then, as it is now. We will return to this thought in later chapters.
One further sobering thought as we move from examples of Bible false prophets to the one false prophet the Bible has much to say is to recall the words of Jesus as he responded to this important question: “Tell us, when shall these things be? and what shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the world? And Jesus answered and said unto them, take heed that no man deceive you. For many shall come in my name, saying, I am Christ; and shall deceive many … And many false prophets shall rise, and shall deceive many” Matthew 24:4-5,11. It has ever been thus that whenever we come across the genuine article pertaining to spiritual matters in the Bible, there is also the counterfeit. This is nowhere more so when we come to prophets who purport to speak in God’s name.
As suggested at the start of the chapter, Balaam is not only a significant figure when dealing with the subject of false prophets but is an important one in the overall Bible story, with three whole chapters devoted to his story, as part of Israel’s wilderness wanderings, right near the end. The Promised Land was in sight and soon the Israelites would be entering it. Balaam is referred to several times elsewhere in the Bible: Deuteronomy, Joshua, Nehemiah and Micah, as well as three times in the New Testament, and can be seen as an example not to follow. While Balaam is one of the bad guys, a false prophet, and his counsel and stirring ups were so destructive (including 24000 Israeli deaths) as was his greed, yet his prophecies were beautiful and amazing and even looked forward to the Messiah to come. His story is also very instructive for our deliberations.
Balaam is introduced as a diviner in Old Testament, whose story is found in the Book of Numbers (22-24). Balaam, the son of Beor, is introduced as a prophet for hire, although we know little about him other than that he delved into the occult and earned his living by doing so. While he did not follow YHWH he knew a lot about Him. Balaam earned his living by plying his dark art trade and was evidently motivated by greed. His encounter with the Angel of the Lord, who at first he did not see, along with his talking donkey who did see the Angel, is the one story that many, who know little more than this, might know. Though the positive blessings he delivers upon the Israelites are well described, he is seen as a “wicked man” (2 Peter 2:15, Jude 1:11, Revelation 2:14).
Balaam refused to speak what God did not speak and would not curse the Israelites, even though King Balak of Moab offered him money to do so. Balak was fearful what the Israelites might do to Moab, based on what they had done already to other nations in their wilderness sojourn, even though God had commanded Moses to leave Moab alone. Balaam’s error and the source of his wickedness can be seen when sabotaging the Israelites as they entered the Promised Land. According to Revelation 2:14, Balaam told King Balak how to get the Israelites to commit sin by enticing them with sexual immorality and food sacrificed to idols. The Israelites fell into transgression due to these traps and God sent a deadly plague to them as a result (Numbers 31:16).
As for going back with the emissaries of King Balak, it was the wrong thing to do because what Balak wanted was for Balaam to curse Israel, realising force of arms could not prevent Israel from doing to Moab what a short time earlier it had done to the Amorites, when conquering them, even though if he had known the God of Israel he would have realised that was not the plan. Something about the powers of darkness and the power of the curse led Balak to believe Balaam was his man to curse Israel, something he would richly reward him for. So Balak returned with Balak’s people and God allowed him to go. The strange encounter with the Angel of the Lord only confirmed to Balaam he could only speak the words the Lord was to give him. For that he could thank his donkey, who saw the Angel when Balaam hadn’t and refused to continue to his certain death and was beaten for her troubles. “What have I done unto thee, that thou hast smitten me these three times?” Numbers 22:28 are among the most profound utterances of the Bible and it took a donkey to make them.
What then follows after Balaam meets Balak are three oracles which he gets to utter from three different positions where the Israelites could be viewed. What Balak wanted was a curse and instead Balaam gave a blessing: “He hath said, which heard the words of God, which saw the vision of the Almighty, falling into a trance, but having his eyes open: “How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob, and thy tabernacles, O Israel! As the valleys are they spread forth, as gardens by the river’s side, as the trees of lign aloes which the Lord hath planted, and as cedar trees beside the waters. He shall pour the water out of his buckets, and his seed shall be in many waters, and his king shall be higher than Agag, and his kingdom shall be exalted. God brought him forth out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of an unicorn: he shall eat up the nations his enemies, and shall break their bones, and pierce them through with his arrows. He couched, he lay down as a lion, and as a great lion: who shall stir him up? Blessed is he that blesseth thee, and cursed is he that curseth thee” Numbers 24: 4-9.
After that third oracle, angry Balak sent Balaam on his way but not before Balaam delivered his fourth and most profound oracle as it looked forward to Israel’s coming Messiah: “I shall see him, but not now: I shall behold him, but not nigh: there shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel, and shall smite the corners of Moab, and destroy all the children of Sheth” Numbers 24: 17. But the story does not end there. What Balaam could not do through cursing, he nearly succeeded in doing by enticing Israel into idolatry and sexual immorality (Numbers 25, 31). While the plan failed, it was not before 24000 Israelites were killed in a plague, part of God’s judgement. In the bloody war of vengeance that ensued against the Midianites, who had been the instruments of enticing Israel to sin, Balaam was killed (Numbers 31:8).
Balaam’s life was one of conundrums and enigmas. He had, for example, earlier declared: “Who can count the dust of Jacob or number even a fourth of Israel? Let me die the death of the righteous, and may my final end be like theirs!” Numbers 23:10. Sadly, he would not commit to living the life of the righteous. While he was one who delved into the forbidden, dark arts, he also gave some of the most profound prophecies in the Bible. For one whose life was motivated by greed, he recognised he could not withstand God even as a result his love of money would not be realised. While Balaam is an example of a false prophet we should shun, yet he had insights into divine truth that cannot be ignored.
Balaam was a tragic figure who made the wrong choice, despite knowing the right one. It is a choice all of us are called to make – to either side with YHWH, or not. As for blessings and curses, this a great theme of the Bible the prophets would often return to. As far as God was concerned, Israel was a nation He was committed to blessing, despite their sin (even though cursing was the result of sin and why Jesus became a curse to save us). While the Church is not Israel, blessing is God’s intention for both. Sometimes He brings judgment to get their attention. Blessing the world is what the people of God are about. God’s intention is the world, firstly through Israel and then the Church, be blessed.
Verses revealing attributes of and approaches to false prophets
(quoting from the ESV and KJV – in the order the verses appear in the Christian Bible. This is a far from complete list but is illustrative of the seriousness in which God views and deals with the false prophets of the Bible and now)
Hear now my words: If there be a prophet among you, I the Lord will make myself known unto him in a vision, and will speak unto him in a dream.
If a prophet or a dreamer of dreams arises among you and gives you a sign or a wonder, and the sign or wonder that he tells you comes to pass, and if he says, ‘Let us go after other gods,’ which you have not known, ‘and let us serve them,’ you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams. For the Lord your God is testing you, to know whether you love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.
But the prophet who presumes to speak a word in my name that I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that same prophet shall die.’ And if you say in your heart, ‘How may we know the word that the Lord has not spoken?’— when a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the Lord has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously.
To the law and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them.
The ancient and honourable, he is the head; and the prophet that teacheth lies, he is the tail.
For the Lord hath poured out upon you the spirit of deep sleep, and hath closed your eyes: the prophets and your rulers, the seers hath he covered.
Which say to the seers, see not; and to the prophets, Prophesy not unto us right things, speak unto us smooth things, prophesy deceits:
His watchmen are blind; they are all without knowledge; they are all silent dogs; they cannot bark, dreaming, lying down, loving to slumber. The dogs have a mighty appetite; they never have enough. But they are shepherds who have no understanding; they have all turned to their own way, each to his own gain, one and all.
An appalling and horrible thing has happened in the land: the prophets prophesy falsely, and the priests rule at their direction; my people love to have it so, but what will you do when the end comes?
They have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace.
And the Lord said to me: “The prophets are prophesying lies in my name. I did not send them, nor did I command them or speak to them. They are prophesying to you a lying vision, worthless divination, and the deceit of their own minds.
Thus says the Lord of hosts: “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.
I did not send the prophets, yet they ran; I did not speak to them, yet they prophesied.
The prophets who preceded you and me from ancient times prophesied war, famine, and pestilence against many countries and great kingdoms. As for the prophet who prophesies peace, when the word of that prophet comes to pass, then it will be known that the Lord has truly sent the prophet.
Your prophets have seen for you false and deceptive visions; they have not exposed your iniquity to restore your fortunes, but have seen for you oracles that are false and misleading.
My hand will be against the prophets who see false visions and who give lying divinations. They shall not be in the council of my people, nor be enrolled in the register of the house of Israel, nor shall they enter the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord God.
Ezekiel 13:16, 17
To wit, the prophets of Israel which prophesy concerning Jerusalem, and which see visions of peace for her, and there is no peace, saith the Lord God. Likewise, thou son of man, set thy face against the daughters of thy people, which prophesy out of their own heart; and prophesy thou against them.
Ezekiel 14:9, 10
And if the prophet be deceived when he hath spoken a thing, I the Lord have deceived that prophet, and I will stretch out my hand upon him, and will destroy him from the midst of my people Israel. And they shall bear the punishment of their iniquity: the punishment of the prophet shall be even as the punishment of him that seeketh unto him;
Her prophets have smeared whitewash for them, seeing false visions divining lies for them, saying, ‘Thus says the Lord God,’ when the Lord has not spoken.
Prophesy ye not, say they to them that prophesy: they shall not prophesy to them, that they shall not take shame.
Thus says the Lord concerning the prophets who lead my people astray, who cry “Peace” when they have something to eat, but declare war against him who puts nothing into their mouths.
Its heads give judgment for a bribe; its priests teach for a price; its prophets practice divination for money; yet they lean on the Lord and say, “Is not the Lord in the midst of us? No disaster shall come upon us.”
Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?
And many false prophets shall rise, and shall deceive many.
For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect.
2 Peter 2:1-3
But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed. And in their greed they will exploit you with false words. Their condemnation from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep.
1 John 4:1
Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.
For certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.
Notwithstanding I have a few things against thee, because thou sufferest that woman Jezebel, which calleth herself a prophetess, to teach and to seduce my servants to commit fornication, and to eat things sacrificed unto idols.
And the beast was taken, and with him the false prophet that wrought miracles before him, with which he deceived them that had received the mark of the beast, and them that worshipped his image. These both were cast alive into a lake of fire burning with brimstone.