False Prophets and Prophetesses (Ezekiel 13) September 5-6
This oracle is a poignant summation of false prophets and prophetesses, serving as a vivid warning for everyone. The first point—and perhaps the most crucial—that God makes is that these people send themselves. He did not and does not send them. They follow their own heart and appoint themselves, although they typically claim a special "anointing" or calling of God. Have we not seen many do this in our own time? Self-appointed ministers, prophets and evangelists have been a curse to the Church and to the world for thousands of years. Indeed, Satan the devil, the father of lies (John 8:44), has ministers who masquerade as ministers of righteousness (1 Corinthians 11:14-15). The Bible lists the righteous characteristics of God's true servants (e.g., Exodus 18:21; Titus 1; 1 Timothy 3). False ministers or prophets can give the appearance of godliness, but, as Jesus Christ warned, they are wolves in sheep's clothing and will be revealed in time by their fruits (Matthew 7:15-16).
Notice that in Ezekiel's account they begin by saying, "Hear the word of the LORD!" (verse 2). They feign righteousness and pretend to have a legitimate message from God. This provides an opportunity for examining one of their most revealing fruits—that is, the truth of what they say. Too often, people focus on charisma and personality rather than on substance. God specifically addresses the issue of a person who "packages" himself in strong appeal—even performing "miracles!"—in Deuteronomy 13. Focus on his message, God says, for he likely is leading you away from God's Word and law (verses 1-4). God adds through Isaiah: "To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word [God's Word], it is because there is no light [no truth] in them" (Isaiah 8:20). A false minister will often use the Bible, just as Satan used Scripture in tempting Jesus Christ (Matthew 4:3, 6). But the discerning Christian meticulously checks the preacher's words against the Bible (Acts 17:11).
Again, what these men described in Ezekiel 13 have to say comes from their own reasoning—not from God. The Almighty states clearly the truth of the matter: the foolish prophets follow their own spirit and have seen nothing. The word "foolish," nabal in Hebrew, "implied more than our concept of stupidity. It was a broad term that encompassed spiritual and moral insensitivity contrary to the nature of a wise man. The word was used to describe people who blasphemed (Ps 74:18), who were arrogant (1 Sam 25:25), who were atheistic (Ps 14:1), and who lacked self-discipline and humility. Ezekiel described the basic cause of their foolishness as their reliance on their own hearts and failure to seek God's revelation (cf. Jer 23:16-22; ch. 29)" (Expositor's Bible Commentary, note on verses 1-7).
All the while that Jeremiah and Ezekiel were preaching God's warning to the Jews—these self-appointed false prophets were proclaiming a different message. Their message was that God would not punish, things were going well and would continue, and there is no need to listen to these two prophets. This is a pattern we see repeated in Scriptural history. The sorcerers of Egypt tried to discredit the warnings that God gave through Moses. Others opposed Joshua, Nehemiah, many if not all prophets we have record of, and later Christ and the apostles. In the time of the end, God will have His two witnesses preaching a final warning (Revelation 11), but Satan will have the Beast and False Prophet who will deceive by miracles (Revelation 13:14). And until then we must expect that false prophets will always be with us. The apostle Peter warns us, "There were also false prophets among the people, even as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies" (2 Peter 2:1).
God's description of them in Ezekiel 13 is very appropriate for any time, but especially the end time before Christ returns. Indeed, the "day of the LORD" is explicitly mentioned in verse 5. While this term may in some sense signify times of God's triumph against His enemies in the past, it mainly denotes the final triumph of God at the end of the age, when He pours out His wrath on a cataclysmic scale never before seen. We should understand that the calamity of Ezekiel and Jeremiah's day was a forerunner of the world-shaking events that will accompany the time of the end.
God says the false preachers are "like foxes in the deserts" (Ezekiel 13:4) or, as the NIV renders it, "jackals among ruins." "They scavenged for themselves while causing, ignoring, and profiting from the human wreckage surrounding them. They were racketeers instead of reformers" (Nelson Study Bible, note on verses 2-4). These false prophets found themselves a place to prosper among people who were in the process of decaying. The reason they were accepted among the remnant of the people was that there was a foreboding atmosphere, and the people wanted to hear optimism. People prefer to hear good news or a soft, easy message—one that makes them feel good (see 2 Timothy 4:3-4). This is why so many churches today preach a "feel-good" message instead of a call to repentance. Reader boards or signs on churches often proclaim that churches are "empowering" or "uplifting" or "celebrating" people. Building a following and making people feel good about themselves is apparently the most important goal.
God describes the job of a true prophet or minister as figuratively going up into gaps in a wall to rebuild and repair it so that people are protected (compare Ezekiel 22:30; Psalm 106:23). This can be understood as the responsibility to warn people of their spiritual gaps—areas in which they are disobeying God and need to change. It can also refer to the nourishing care of a pastor, who prays for, listens to and counsels his congregants, helping to heal wounds in their lives (see 1 Thessalonians 2:7). Christians, being human, will make mistakes. When they know they have, they need help and encouragement to overcome the results of their errors. A true minister is there for them, neither judging nor whitewashing them for what they did, but rather helping to build them back up spiritually. In essence, the requirement is to do what needs to be done in the service of God and others. True prophets would have seen the need to warn the people of the coming danger and show them what was required to avert it. A true watchman operates on the principle of 1 John 3:17: "Whoever has this world's goods, and sees his brother in need, and shuts up his heart from him, how does the love of God abide in him?" One who knows the truth has a responsibility to provide warning and direction for those who don't.
Instead of protecting and caring for the people, these charlatans seduce the people with false assurances of "'Peace!' when there is no peace" (verse 10), a message decried earlier in the book of Jeremiah (6:14; 8:11). Instead of giving the people the truth, which will always stand firm, these false teachers were giving them lies, which can never stand under the weight of testing. The people thought they were doing a good job—creating, in a figurative sense, a solid wall firmly cemented together—because of what they were told by men who claimed to be God's representatives. A more accurate figure of what they were doing, however, was piling stones into a heap and having the false teachers put a layer of plaster or whitewash over them, so that it looked solid. When the day of testing comes, the lack of strength in the wall will become evident (Ezekiel 13:10-16).
The false claim of being God's instruments wasn't limited to men. In this message God specifically includes women who are false prophetesses (verse 17). God says they "hunt souls" (verse 18) or, rather, "'lives'—the whole person; the idea [the word soul often connotes today] of disembodied spirits was completely alien to Jewish thinking" (Eerdman's Handbook to the Bible, note on verse 18; compare 18:4, 20). Essentially, the goal of these women is to trap or ensnare people.
The prophetesses are portrayed as fortunetellers or witches. Notice this paraphrase in the Contemporary English Version: "Tell them they're doomed! They wear magic charms on their wrists and scarves on their heads, then trick others into believing they can predict the future. They won't get away with telling those lies. They charge my people a few handfuls of barley and a couple pieces of bread, and then give messages that are insulting to me. They use lies to sentence the innocent to death and to help the guilty go free. And my people believe them!... They do things I would never do. They lie to good people and encourage them to do wrong, and they convince the wicked to keep sinning and ruin their lives" (Ezekiel 13:18-19, 22).
The grain here, however, may be more significant than just payment: "Hittite practices and later Syrian rituals demonstrate that divination was carried out with barley bread either as part of the pagan sacrificial ritual or as a means of determining whether the victim would live or die. The prophetesses, therefore, profaned God by misrepresentation" (Expositor's, note on verses 17-19).
Even though witchcraft was forbidden in the covenant God made with His people (Leviticus 19:26), it was practiced, and primarily by women—just as in Egypt and Babylon. "Despite the strong warnings of the Law, the people turned more and more to these occultists during the days preceding Jerusalem's fall" (Word in Life Bible, note on Ezekiel 13:18-19). Witchcraft and other forms of occultism are certainly on the rise in our day as well—and their popularity will likely further increase as times worsen.
Yet it should also be recognized that these women probably symbolized the penetration of the Babylonian Mystery religions into the worship of the true God. Veils or scarves were worn by pagan temple prostitutes as part of their garb when they were working to ensnare a customer. Once taken, the victim was then enticed further with occult mysteries. In this sense, pagan religion, harlotry and witchcraft or sorcery all went together in an unholy mixture.
In prophecies of the end time, this false religious system that sprang from Babylon is actually portrayed as a temple prostitute involved in harlotry and sorcery, condemning God's faithful servants to death: "[Concerning] the great harlot...the inhabitants of the earth were made drunk with the wine of her fornication... The woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet... And on her forehead a name was written: MYSTERY, BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS AND OF THE ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH. I saw the woman drunk with the blood of the saints... [By her] sorcery all the nations were deceived" (Revelation 17:1-6; 18:23). The same system is referred to in Nahum 3:4 as the "seductive harlot, the mistress of sorceries" or, as the King James Version has it, "the mistress of witchcraft."
Today, this great false mystery system masquerades as the world religion known as Christianity. Its many false churches throughout the nations of modern Israel may well be pictured by the women in Ezekiel 13.
God ends this prophecy against the false teachers by stating that He will deliver His people from them. In ancient times, that was accomplished to a certain extent by the destruction of Judah and the Jews being taken into captivity. Most of the ruling politicians and religious leaders were killed by the Babylonians, while most of those who were still trying to obey God were among those who were spared and taken to Babylon. This group formed the core of the faithful community in exile, later members of which would return to Jerusalem decades afterward with Zerubbabel or with Ezra to rebuild the temple.
Of course, the heart of Babylon was not an ideal place to escape from pagan religion—and many Jews succumbed to its enticements either completely or in part, with various Babylonian ideas and concepts entering into the practice and beliefs of Judaism just as other erroneous pagan concepts later would enter Christianity. Again, we should understand that the ancient destruction of Judah was merely a forerunner of the greater calamity that still is yet to come—to be followed by the ultimate deliverance of Israel and all mankind from the evils of all false religion into the glorious light of God's wonderful truth.