Monday, May 30, 2011

prophecy and dreams and false prophets

Jeremiah 27:8-11

8“‘“If, however, any nation or kingdom will not serve Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon or bow its neck under his yoke, I will punish that nation with the sword, famine and plague, declares the LORD, until I destroy it by his hand. 9 So do not listen to your prophets, your diviners, your interpreters of dreams, your mediums or your sorcerers who tell you, ‘You will not serve the king of Babylon.’ 10 They prophesy lies to you that will only serve to remove you far from your lands; I will banish you and you will perish. 11 But if any nation will bow its neck under the yoke of the king of Babylon and serve him, I will let that nation remain in its own land to till it and to live there, declares the LORD.”’”

One of the things that can often be cited as a way through which the Lord speaks to believers is in dreams. The first person to be described in the scriptures as being spoken to by the Lord in a dream, however, is the non-believing king Abimelech. Jacob had dreams from which he interpreted actions that he believed would help him. The Lord spoke to Laban in a dream to speak neither good nor bad to Jacob. The cupbearer and baker of Pharoah had dreams that were intepreted by Joseph who, of course, was given the gift of interpreting dreams. I shall have things to say about Joseph later but at this point I wish merely to discuss the other people in scripture who are described as receiving dreams.

Pharoah himself eventually had a dream that Joseph was able to interpret. Gideon overheard a man in the enemy camp relating a dream that was interpreted by another man in the enemy camp that Gideon was going to prevail against Midian in battle. Saul, whom we are never shown describing getting any words from the Lord, consults Samuel through a medium because, as he said, the Lord was not speaking a word to him through dream or prophet. Saul had become concerned that the Lord was not speaking to him in dreams. Solomon had one dream in which the Lord visited him. Job spoke of how the Lord terrorized him in dreams at night. Daniel wrote about his dreams but Daniel, we should note, was never actually a prophet. Though he was given the ability to interpret dreams and had dreams of significance himself he does not claim for himself the role of prophet or describe himself as a prophet. In Numbers 12 when Miriam and Aaron contest the uniqueness of Moses' work on behalf of the Lord Yahweh declares:

“Hear now My words:
If there is a prophet among you,
I, the LORD, shall make Myself known to him in a vision.
I shall speak with him in a dream.
“Not so, with My servant Moses,
He is faithful in all My household;
With him I speak mouth to mouth,
Even openly, and not in dark sayings,
And he beholds the form of the LORD.
Why then were you not afraid
To speak against My servant, against Moses?”

But not all prophets called by means of a dream or vision are called by the same lord. In the book of Jeremiah the prophet warns that the Lord says to not pay heed to those who claim to have dreams because though they presume to speak for the Lord their dreams are merely the products of their own minds (Jeremiah 23). Deuteronomy 13 famously prescribes that if a prophet or dreamer arises and makes a prediction that comes true but through which a prophet invites people to worship other gods to put that dreamer or prophet to death. The warning is that God's people will be invited to worship and praise gods they have not known or heard of before. The warning is also, paradoxically, a statement that God will permit false prophets and dreamers to rise up to propose these other gods as a way to test the faithfulness of God's people!
Now having set the stage a bit I return to Joseph, son of Jacob. Joseph had dreams which he related to his whole family. These dreams revealed that he would one day rule over all his family members. Even though he was Jacob's favorite sono Jacob rebuked Joseph for his impertinence. Now that Joseph had dreams from the Lord is fairly easy to discern but when Joseph recounts his dreams it causes his brothers to hate him even more. From that hatred Joseph's brothers sell him into slavery. The boy who used to boast about his dreams discovers that that boasting imprisoned him. By the time his ability to interpret dreams is brought to Pharoah's attention Joseph does not describe this capacity as innately his but a work of the Lord. Joseph in the lengthy interval of suffering made a distinction we didn't see him making in his teens. He no longer speaks about his dreams of ruling over his family, he speaks of the Lord's ability to interpret dreams.
By now I hope you will have noticed that the majority testimony about dreams in scripture is not about the Lord giving dreams to His faithful prophets but the Lord providentially giving dreams to unbelievers as ways to prevent them from harming those who received the promises of God. Even of the messiahs, the kings of ISrael ,and even of the prophets, we get precious little description of dreams. Koholeth in Ecclesiastes describes dreams as the result of much business and many cares and that, likewise, with many words folly occurs. Let us for sake of discussion assume Solomonic authorship. Solomon, who we are told was visited by the Lord Himself in a dream, is surprisingly dismissive of most dreams as any meaningful indicator of the divine will.
Now as someone who lived with two sleeping disorders much of my life I can say firsthand that the majority of vivid, colorful (literally I speak of dreams in color) do not mean a whole lot. If I said that I had a dream in which a woman who looked like Penelope Cruz was my girlfriend you could try to interpret this as being a dream with some kind of spiritual significance. I wouldn't and I trust I don't have to explain why. I neither subscribe to the idea that having such a dream indicates that I was spiritually attacked by a demon any more than I subscribe to the idea that it was a dream from the Lord. It just means that I'm in my later thirties and single and have noticed that Penelope Cruz is kind of attractive.
I give the above as a silly example of how dreams often mean less than we imagine them and to propose that they are, by way of specificity, a way to establish Ecclesiastes 5 as a normative observation that most of the time most dreams don't particularly mean anything. Yet ascribing spiritual significance to dreams is popular among Christians of various sorts. Some Christians have discussed how god spoke to them in dreams. Notice I do not deny at any point that this can, does, and has happened. However, I would propose that many Christians completely misunderstand the purpose of dreams. I would propose that in many cases Christians believe that a dream has spiritual significance and is from the Lord even though if you look at the bulk of scriptural testimony dreams are signs for those who are unbelievers and whose faith is wavering far more than for those who are faithful and follow the Lord.
Even in the case of Solomon it would be best to keep in mind that he had by the time of his dream married an Egyptian and went to to worship the Lord at one of the high places. Does the phrase "high place" ring any bells? It should, and it is an indicator that the Lord's visit to Solomon in a dream was not a sign that the Lord approved of Solomon's activities. The Lord loved Solomon and blessed him greatly but the dream visitation was after Solomon had killed several political liabilities and married a woman from a nation Israel was explicitly told not to return to. The Lord's dream visitation was, arguably, to a man appointed by God to be a leader who was in disobedience rather than obedience. Daniel was not a prophet and so cannot be considered one by some liberal measure of dreams as a sign of divine communication or appointment to a prophetic office. In the Tanakh Daniel is nestled all the way in the back with the Writings rather than the prophets.
Now when the scriptures warn that a prophet who has a vision or dream and makes a prediction that comes true could still be a false prophet this should keep us cautious. After all, the Lord said that He would occasionally send along false prophets to test our fidelity to the Lord. In many a case the false prophet would not necessarily advocate a flat out rejection of the Lord but merely including Yahweh as part of a larger pantheon, the nationally significant deity in a revolver with three to six magic bullets in it, so to speak. The primary deity wouldn't be Yahweh, perhaps, but few would just decide that there was no need to have a prophet of the Lord around. Even Ahab, godless king that he was, had at least one prophet of the Lord around at any given time.
False prophets and true prophets, broadly speaking, can be described as having two contrary loyalties and it is this sobering observation that a Christian must keep in mind. The loyalty of a true prophet of the Lord is to Yahweh and to the commands the Lord has revealed to His people through the scriptures and the revelation of God's character. The false prophet is loyal to a king and to a community. False prophets were more loyal to Israel than to the Lord. False prophets were also loyal to their own sense of ministry and calling than to the welfare of God's people as a whole. Because of this loyalty God saw fit, at one point (2 Kings 19 and 2 Chron 18) to send a lying spirit to delude Ahab's prophets.
Not all spirits sent by the Lord are to reveal the truth about future events, there are times when the Lord permits a false prophet to be deluded by his or her own thoughts or to be deceived by a lying spirit from the Lord. God Himself is said to have incited David to take a census in his last few years that lead to the deaths of 70,000. There are times when the Lord inspires His people directly or (per Chronicles, through the agency of Satan) to move into disaster. This should give us immense caution with respect to the possibility that some dreams we have are dreams from the Lord to permit us to prosper or even to avert a disaster. There are basically no dreams described in scripture in which the disaster itself was averted from the Lord's people. Abimelech did not die by touching Sarah sexually but, remember, Abimelech was not one of the Lord's people.
Despite my not being against the idea that the Spirit can speak through His people I have cautiously concluded that the majority of Christians who claim prophetic gifts don't really have this gift. They may have substantial knowledge of the scriptures and what they believe the scriptures teach about prophecy but in many cases these ideas are mistaken. I do not subscribe to cessationism as it is usually described because I do not, to borrow the Christianese cliche, wish to put God in that box when the scriptures make no mention that that which is perfect, Christ Himself, has come to live among us again. Therefore there is still the potential for prophecy to have a place and have value.
But in most cases those who believe they have prophetic gifts exercise this gift not out of a genuine love for God's people so much as out of a genuine love of self that finds its realization in imagining that the Lord has tasked them with some major spiritual responsibility. This spiritual responsiblity is often simply imagined. Now prophets have tended to be outside the corridors of power in many ways but they were never so far removed from it that they could not speak to those who needed to hear them.
Even Elijah, often considered the greatest of the prophets, could be a self-absorbed showboater who thought things were about him. When confronting the prophets of Baal he was a grandstander and revelled in making fun of the false prophets. When Jezebel, the real power behind the throne, said he would die, Elijah fled in terror. Even when commanded by the Lord to go appoint a successor and annoint other kings Elijah only did one of the three tasks. Two he delegated to Elisha and one of these even Elisha delegated. If even Elijah was guilty of exulting in his power and then retreating when he was forced to confront the real problems in God's people how much more will those of us who have never once had the power to call down fire from the heavens?
Our obligation to speak the truth in love does not consist of whatever powers we believe the Lord has given to us or to others but in the truth of the words of God. We may imagine we have been given wisdom like Ahithophel and people may tell us that we have been given wisdom that speaking with us is like speaking with God but if in even the slightest moment we add to the words of the Lord we make Him out to be a liar. I'm afraid that more often than not most men and women who would claim to be prophets of the Lord or have words from the Lord have probably deluded themselves. Even if they make predictions that come true this does not exonerate them since many a so-called Christian prophet in America has expressed ultimate concern about America or about a particular church or confessional or non-confessional tradition.
We imagine that false prophets are people who will advise us to turn from worshipping the Lord but that is not what makes idolatry and the false prophet so dangerous. The false prophet won't say that Jesus didn't die for you, a false prophet might say that there are two people who died for you and that one of them is Jesuse and the other is the American soldier. A false prophet places veneration of Christ on equal footing with veneration or regard for something else.
Now we could all pretend to ourselves that we are Naaman, that Syrian general who pled with Elisha that though he was compelled by service to his pagan king to help that king bow before an idol, but how many of us are really the sorts of people who are Syrian generals serving kings who worship other gods? Those of us who worship money will find ways to say that we are being obedient to God by being "good stewards". Those of us who worship sex and romantic love will clothe ourselves in rhetoric about how we are pursuing and promoting "God's design" for us. In the same way, people with delusions of grandeur and power may well embrace the idea that they are trying to faithfully make use of their spiritual gifts and a prophetic ministry given to them.
Now a real "Naaman" would be a man or woman who has come to Christ and faithfully loves Him but who has an unbelieving spouse. God does not call the believer to always literally forsake family in pursuit of Christ. But for the rest of us it might be necessary to say that we are adept at rationalizing our idolatries as Christian obedience where we can.
All of that leads to this, that if you have strange dreams they may not be from the Lord. A certain pastor has liked to say that what you may think is a dream from the Lord could be too much pizza. I would say that the level of caution needs to be further than that, that there are ultimately no dreams that are likely to come to you that you should interpret as being from the Lord even if the things come true. The mind is able to mull over and fret about things within dreams that do not automatically indicate that a dream is a divine oracle, even if you happen to have been a pastor at a tiny church plant in some town that eventually grew to great proportions.
A person could say that a vivid portentious dream is a prophetic one but it may still not be even if things come to pass. This could still be a dream you dreamed out of your own anxieties rather than something certainly from the Lord. It is wise to have a measure of self-skepticism that you are equally willing to apply to yourself as to those whose oracles you are inclined to disagree with. A dream that in your estimation defends the honor and well-being of yourself or God's people where ever you are is not necessarily from the Lord. A dream (should by some great happenstance you get one) that permits you to assist others in weathering a disaster and actually magnifies the name of Christ, rather than magnifying yourself or your self-ascertained ministry in some way, is more likely (much more likely) to actually have been from the Lord.
There are a lot of Christians who claim to be prophets calling people to repentance who should, in the final analysis, repent of their presumption of taking a prophetic role. This can refer not only to charismatic Christians but also to pastors who presume that simply being a preacher who preaches the scriptures entitles them to appropriate the role or title of prophet. If you invoke this title or role to justify what you do over against what others do that doesn't help. Legitimate prophets of the Lord have, somehow, managed to identify each other fairly readily and this was in their devotion to the Lord first and to His people, when necessary, quite literally dead last.
Too many self-appointed prophets and doctrine hounds are really prophets for this or that agenda of their own choosing rather than the cause of Christ. A person of this sort is a prophet for a particular church or social movement rather than for God's people altogether. There was a time when the prophet as a profession was so corrupt and self-regarding the Lord saw fit to raise up someone to fulfill the prophetic role apart form the formalities that had arisen up about the office. Amos, one of the minor prophets, said of himself, “I was no prophet, nor a prophet’s son, but I was a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore figs." If the majority testimony of prophets who bothered to recount their calling is any indication none of them considered themselves either 1) interested in or 2) qualified for the job.
But among some Christians prophet is held to be so wonderful that people talk about how they have this gift when their lives and witness do not really speak to doing this. There are many people who proclaim themselves prophets of the Lord who are ultimately just prophets of self. I have no interest in being a prophet. Years ago in my naive Pentecostal days I was told I had a prophetic gift and maybe the Lord has seen fit to assign that miserable task to me in some way I don't know about. Even cessationist preachers can find ways to say that what they do is still prophecy after they've knocked down any possibility that "prophet" means anything other than preaching. This gives them the double advantage of being a "prophet" who can denounce other people with a different interpretation of what "prophesy" means as being false prophets. And if that preacher is a dispensationalist then pretty much the odds of his being a false prophet at least in concept is basically 100%. Sorry my dispensationalist friends, the history on this error is just too long.
But I have rambled enough about propehts, dreams, and false prophets for Memorial Day. Considering how many prophets died pariahs and were only recognized as true propehts of the Lord they were soldiers who died in the eyes of their people not as heroes but as traitors even though Christ Himself and the Father and Spirit testify that these men and women died neither in vain nor as those rejected by the Lord.


val said...

The woman of Revelation 12 is now here. God is precise: It is a woman Rev 12 that delivers the true word John1:1, Rev 12:5, Rev 12:13 who restores Acts 3:21 all things to the world before Christ’s return. This woman exposes the lies of Satan who has deceived the whole world Rev 12:9. This woman creates a new thing in the earth by fulfilling God's promise to Eve Gen 3:15, Jer 31:22, Isa 14:16. Moses and Elijah are together with the word Matt 17:3 they all three are in this one woman. She is like unto Moses Num 12:3. She was raised up Acts 3:22 from the Laodicean church that becomes lukewarm because they refused to hear her Rev 3:14-17. She is bold like Elijah Matt 17:11, Luke 1:17. As Elijah was alone declaring the true God to the people 1 Kings 18:22 so also her witness alone turns the hearts of the fathers to the children Mal 4:5-6 to prepare a people for the Lords return before the great and dreadful day of the Lord Matt 17:3, Luke 9:30. Those who will not hear Acts 3:23 the true word of God she now deliveres to the world free of charge, as a witness, at the heel of time from the wilderness Rev 12:6 will not be allowed inside the walls of God’s coming kingdom from heaven Rev 21. This true testimony of the true value of the blood of the Lamb delivers the truth that not one child of God will be put in a hell fire no matter what their sins. It never entered the heart or mind of God to ever do such a thing Jer 7:31, Jer 19:5. God created evil Isa 45:7 to teach his children the knowledge of good and evil Rom 8:7, Gen 3:22 so that at their resurrection they become a god Matt 22:29-30, Ps 82:6. Prove all things. You cannot rightly judge this unless you read all that has been written by this woman first Pro 18:13. Check out the bruising of Satan and the reason for all of mankind’s sufferings.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

Well, thanks for providing proof of my point, I guess, but I keep hoping there's less of it around than there is.