Just like in ancient Israel, Zimbabwe has no shortage of self proclaimed prophets who claim to speak, preach, heal and predict events under the influence of the Holy spirit. In some cases, they act bizarrely and justify their weird acts by referencing the bible. Its as if they are reenacting the biblical world of miracles, dramatising the contents of the bible and giving their followers an experience of what they read in the holy book. Their followers claim that these prophets can heal “incurable” diseases like HIV and cancer, cause money to appear miraculously in believers’ pockets and bank accounts, conduct miracle weight loss, raise the dead, make hair appear in bald heads, pray for barren women to conceive and foretell the future “with the exactitude of a Jewish prophet” among many other miracles.
However, not all acts of healing and exorcism have been successful, not all predictions have come to pass, some of the “prophets” have been accused of immorality, avariciousness (Excessive greedy desires for wealth cloaked in the “prosperity gospel”) and turning the church of God into a Casino where people gamble by “sowing seeds” of money in order to profiteer more. But its actually the “Man of God” who appears to be profiteering. He alone emerges with thousands of dollars after each church service as the poor give the little they have to him and the rich pour as much as they can into his coffers. This has inevitably sparked the debate on the authenticity of all the so-called “prophets.” Wealthy celebrity leaders of prophetic ministries like Emanuel Makandiwa, Walter Magaya and Eubert Angel to mention just a few have not escaped scrutiny in the public discourse on the true and false prophet debate.
Both the followers and critics of the prophetic movement have come up with many a criterion to distinguish true from false prophets. They all cite the same bible to either criticise or justify the prophetic. It therefore raises the question; Does the bible provide a benchmark that separates true and false prophets beyond any reasonable doubt? Can we really conclude that our contemporary prophets are true or false using the bible as a yardstick? The fact that both followers and critics use the bible to support or chide the prophet problematizes the criteria set in the bible.
Deuteronomy 13:1-5 is used to distinguish true from false prophets. It clearly states that prophets were supposed to speak in the name of Yahweh / Jehovah. Prophets who called upon people to worship other gods were to be regarded as false and be stoned to death. This criteria was effective in distinguishing foreign prophets from Israelite prophets. Foreign prophets would speak in the name of Baal while Israelite ones called the name of Yahweh / Jehovah. An Israelite who prophesied in the name of an alien god was rendered false. However, the criteria fails to solve the problem of prophets who deliver contradictory messages yet claiming to speak for the same God. In Zimbabwe, almost all prophets claim to have been sent by God even though their messages are sometimes contradictory. Thus this criteria is weak, who can we say is false or true under such circumstances?
One of the commonly used criterion is that of prediction and fulfilment. The word of God spoken through a true prophet is expected to come to pass. The assumption is that if predictions of a prophet are not fulfilled, then s/he is surely a false prophet. So speaking in the name of God alone is not enough, it should also be accompanied by fulfilment of the word. Its clear in Deuteronomy 18:21 “You may say to yourselves, How can we know when a message has not been spoken by the LORD?” Deuteronomy 18:22 “If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the LORD does not take place or come true, that is a message the LORD has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously. Do not be afraid of him.” As a result critics of the prophets in Zimbabwe are quick to cite instances whereby predictions have not been fulfilled in order to dismiss them as false. At the same time staunch followers of the prophets give testimony of predictions that came to pass, thereby problematizing the criteria.
The prediction and fulfillment criterion, as convincing as it seems, is not without its own loopholes. It only caters for short – term predictions while those who make long term predictions are left “un-judged” until the time predicted has lapsed. Those who predict what’s going to happen today, tomorrow, next week, next month and next year can easily be judged. However in the bible, there are prophets who made long term predictions some of which took generations to be fulfilled. They and their audiences died before the predictions came to pass. To their contemporaries they died as false prophets according to this criterion. Isaiah who is considered in the Christian community to have predicted the virgin birth of Jesus Christ could have died a false prophet because his generation did not see it happen. They surely could have said Isaiah lied to us (Isaiah 7:14.) What this means is that a prophet considered false in this generation could be vindicated by the next generation. This depends on the memories of the people, if they can remember the prediction after a very long time.
Obvious Vengeyi states that “in 2 Kings 13:1519, Elisha made a prediction but died before the prediction was fulfilled (2 Kgs. 13:20). Thus when we use the criterion of fulfilment of prediction, Elisha died a false prophet. The same conclusion could be reached regarding Jeremiah. In Jeremiah 25:11, 12 and 29:10, Jeremiah made a prediction that Judah would be released from Babylonian slavery after seventy years. Basing upon the criterion of fulfilment of prediction, Jeremiah would only be proven as a true prophet after seventy years. And by that time Jeremiah and most, if not all the people who were his audiences would have died. In short, Jeremiah, according to this criterion, died a false prophet. The criterion has thus the propensity to dismiss as false all the prophets we have always regarded as true, such as Elisha, Jeremiah, Micah and Isaiah among others. Micah (5:5) and Isaiah (10:5) for example, predicted that Jerusalem would be destroyed by the Assyrians in the eighth century but Jerusalem was not destroyed by the Assyrians in the eighth century. It was destroyed instead by the Babylonians in 587, in the sixth century BCE. According to this criterion, Micah and Isaiah are false prophets.”
The prediction and fulfillment criterion overlooks the fact that in the bible, God could sometimes deceive true prophets to prophesy falsehoods. In 1 Kings 22 God sent a lying spirit to influence 400 of his prophets to lie to Ahab for him to meet his fate. Had it not been for God, the prophets would have told the truth. Micaiah is the only prophet who told the truth. 1 Kings 22:23 “Now therefore, behold, the LORD has put a lying spirit in the mouth of all these your prophets, and the LORD has spoken evil concerning you.” What’s clear is that if prophets who lie are false, then both the false and the true prophets were agents of the same God in this story. It’s a classic example of divine deception. A prophet can lie unwittingly to achieve a divine objective. He is not responsible for his actions and speeches and can not be held accountable since he is only an agent in the hands of God.
In the case of Zimbabwe, prophets who predicted incorrect outcomes of election results, football matches, deaths of political figures, economic prosperity e.t.c were dismissed as false prophets when their words did not come to pass. Their critics are ignorant of the fact that 1 Kings 22 is clear that prophets can faithfully and truthfully serve God by lying in order to achieve a divine objective. How do we know that God does not send a lying spirit to the contemporary prophet and if he lies or makes an incorrect prediction under spiritual possession, why should it be his or her fault?
The bible makes it clear that some of the predictions of a prophet do not come to pass due to divine repentance. In many instances the bible tells us “the Lord repented” and changed his plans (cf Amos 7:3, 6.) God would promise to bring calamity upon a sinful people, then forgive them when they repented. Therefore, He did not do what he had promised to do and the result was that the predictions of the prophet could not be fulfilled in the eyes of the people. Some would question “you prophesied calamities, where are they?” This could have been the reason why Jonah did not want God to send him to Nineveh, he suspected that He would change His mind after he had predicted doom and people would say he was a false prophet (Jonah 4). Indeed Jonah was right, he got disappointed, Nineveh was not punished as he had predicted. Jonah. 3:10 “When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon the destruction he had threatened.” Jeremiah also complains about the same problem in Jer 20:7-10.
In Zimbabwe, prophets who are either accused or exposed of immoral acts are condemned and vilified as false prophets. The assumption is that Jehovah is God of morals and the man of God should also be a man of high moral standards. Some Zimbabwean prophets have been accused of infidelity and dragged to courts on rape allegations. Their authenticity as messengers of a moral God is now questionable.
However, the criterion of morality is a dead one because in the bible there are prophets whom we regard as true but lived morally questionable lives. Hosea, against the law given to Moses by God (Deuteronomy 24:2-4), married and remarried a prostitute who apparently continued with her trade even after marriage (Hosea 1:2, 3.) We can only imagine what people would say today if a prophet were to kneel down and propose marriage to a street hooker as Hosea the true prophet did. Unless one is mad, nakedness is considered an immoral act. Yet Isaiah walked naked for three years dramatizing the message of Yahweh (Isaiah 20:3.) In a horrendous act, Elisha cursed forty two children to die in a very painful way (2Kings 2:23-24.) Today, this could be condemned as a wicked act of terrorism. In fact Elijah and Elisha were associated with bloodshed, killing of innocent messengers of the King and inspiring assassinations in the house of Ahab (1 Kings 18:40, 2 Kings 1:9-12, 9:10) to the extent that Hosea had to condemn it years later (Hosea 1:4.) People assume that when a messenger of God does some immoral acts, the spirit of God may leave him / her, but in Judges 16:1-3, the power of the Lord never leaves Samson after sleeping with a harlot. Therefore the criterion of morality cannot distinguish true from false prophets even in Zimbabwe.
There is a tendency to dismiss prophets or church leaders who are obsequiously submissive to the government as false. There is always an excitement and a feeling that the Man of God is a true one whenever he criticizes the status quo. According to Bess, “false prophets were the yesmen of their times, currying favour with the political figures of the day and giving the messages that would justify the actions of those politicians.” Today such criticism is given to prophets who support government initiatives and go to the extent of suggesting that the current leaders were chosen by God. What critics do not understand is that, such prophets have their predecessors in the bible. Prophets like Nathan and Gad worked for the ruling elite. Nathan even went on to declare that the house of David will rule for ever (2 Sam 7:2.) Gad worked as David’s personal seer (2 Samuel 24:11.) Isaiah believed in the Davidic royal ideology and thus supported the ruling elite’s entitlement to kingship.
At a time when prophets in pentecostal churches are getting richer and richer at the end of each service, some people become skeptical in regards to their authenticity. Critics raise the criterion of professionalism. A true prophet must take his ministry as a service not a profession. In other words true prophets do not receive remuneration or payment for their services. Micah 3:5, 11 condemns prophets who receive payment as false prophets. This criterion is weak because biblical prophets like Samuel received money for their services (1 Samuel 9:2.) In 1 Kings 14:3 also, Jeroboam had to pay ‘ten loaves of bread, some cakes, and a jar of honey’ to prophet Ahijah to inquire about his ill son’s fate. In Amos 7:12, the prophet is advised by Amaziah to take his profession to Judah and earn “bread” there. Therefore there is no adequate biblical basis upon which to dismiss contemporary prophets as false simply because they receive huge amounts of money as their predecessor Samuel did on every consultation.
It is generally believed that a true prophet is one who received a calling from God. Biblical prophets like Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Samuel have recorded accounts of their calls and commissions. In Zimbabwe, almost every prophet provides a detailed account of his/her call. So this criterion makes a preposterous assumption that all these prophets are true because they have narrated their calls. Moreover in the bible, prophets like Elijah, Micaiah, Gad and Nathan have no recorded calls, yet we believe them to be true prophets of God.
Some scholars believe that true Israelite prophets were ecstatic. Meaning they experienced a trance like state were their consciousness was suspended to allow possession by the divine spirit. In this condition they would engage into some hyperactivity or extraordinary passivity. Num. 11: 25-29; 1 Sam. 10:1-13 and 1 Sam. 19:18-24 are examples of this behaviour which made followers believe that indeed the Man of God was authentic. In Zimbabwe, prophets have tried to show their authenticity by speaking in tongues, exorcising, predicting, making the severely sick and wheelchair bound walk and inducing congregates to fall unconsciously on the ground. This abnormal demonstration of power assures the followers that God is in their midst. This has forced critics to accuse them of possessing satanic or demonic powers. By doing so, the critics are playing the Pharisees who accused Jesus of being possessed by “Beelzebub the prince of demons” after seeing him demonstrate his power. Nevertheless, the criterion of ecstasy is an exhausted one because many religions besides Christianity and Judaism are associated with ecstasy. It has been suggested that ecstatic prophecy in Israel was borrowed from neighbouring nations. It can not be a reliable instrument in distinguishing the true from the false.
From the above discussion, no biblical criterion of distinguishing true from false prophets is without weaknesses. The way in which people use the bible to defend and criticise prophets has created more confusion than solutions. Reality is that prophets play the role of an opium. By choosing to believe him, interpreting his words in good light and deciding to see all events as fulfillment of his word, you make him a true prophet for you, not for everyone. To some he is a hoax, a profiteer in church, a cheater on the pulpit, unrealistic and uncivilized because they interpret him in bad light and their world is therefore not a fulfillment of his word.