Connections 01.28.2018: Who Is a Prophet?

Deuteronomy 18:15-22

This passage makes me roll my eyes a little. The writer, speaking for God, says that the Lord will provide a new prophet like Moses who can speak to the people on God’s behalf, thus protecting them from death. For actually hearing the Lord God, it seems, can be a deadly experience (v. 16). The writer admits that people may wonder, “Who is a prophet? How can we tell it’s you, God?” (v. 21). And those who are hearing or reading this text, including me, wait anxiously for something we’ve always desired: a way to be certain that we are actually hearing from God.

But the writer has God answer like this: “If someone says something in my name and it comes true, then you’ll know it was me” (v. 22).

Cue eye roll.

I’m not intending to disrespect our almighty God, but part of me hopes the human being who wrote this text missed a little something. Either that or he wasn’t actually sure what God’s answer was.

Who is a prophet? We still wonder this today. The implication that we have to wait, even for many years in some cases, to determine whether or not the Lord has spoken through a person is discouraging at best and devastating at worst. We want to hear from God; that’s why we go to church on Sundays to listen to pastors share a message. It’s why we pray to God with our deepest questions. It’s why we search the Scriptures for an answer to what plagues us. It’s tough to accept the fact that, even when we think we’re hearing from God, we may not be and can only wait and see.

Who is a prophet? My instinct, after years of reading and studying the Bible, is to look to Jesus as the criterion. If a person claims to speak for God and does not try to love God with all her heart, mind, soul, and strength; if he doesn’t strive to love others as much as himself; if she frequently passes by a needy person without offering aid; if he spends more time counting his money than giving it away; if she tends to seek vengeance rather than mercy; if he constantly points to the speck in the eyes of others rather than the plank in his own eye…I think you get my drift. If a person claims to speak for God and yet lives completely opposite from the way that Jesus lived, I think we can safely assume that he or she is not actually a prophet of the Lord.

Perhaps the best word for us in this passage is verse 20: “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.” If we are bold enough to tell others something and credit God with giving us those words to speak, then we’d better be certain God is truly speaking through us. If not, we may die whatever kind of death comes to us due to our arrogance and presumption.


1. When have you heard God speak? How did you know it was God?
2. Does it seem fair to you to have to wait for something to come to pass before you can be certain that you heard from God? Why or why not?
3. If Jesus came to bridge the gap between people and the almighty God, why do you think it’s sometimes difficult to know if God is speaking to us?
4. Who is a prophet in your life? What qualifies this person as a prophet?
5. Do you think anyone can be God’s prophet? Why or why not? What are some of the best ways to know if someone is truly speaking for God?

Reference Shelf

YHWH will validate his word, 18:15-22

In contrast to magicians of all sorts who seek to discern or influence God’s will through manipulative techniques, the true prophet will function as YHWH’s spokesperson, in YHWH’s service, and at YHWH’s behest. The unit follows a straightforward internal logic. An initial statement of the fact that YHWH will “raise up” a prophet like Moses introduces a series of explanatory sections. Verses 16-17 describe the need for and function of such a prophet. Verses 18-19 reiterate the original statement that YHWH will appoint a prophet like Moses, but go on to add that, since, like Moses, this prophet will act on divine commission, his message must be heeded. Verse 20 warns against prophets who may speak on their own volition, quite apart from any divine commission, or who may speak in the name of other gods. Verses 21-22 offer criteria for distinguishing the true prophet, who speaks authentically in YHWH’s name, from such false prophets.

The explanation of the necessity for a prophet like Moses hearkens back to Israel’s request for an intercessor at Mt. Horeb (see 5:22-33; compare Exod 19:16-25). Overwhelmed by the awesome majesty of YHWH’s epiphany, and fearful that they might not survive a period in YHWH’s very presence, the people asked that Moses might be their representative to God and, in turn, God’s representative to them (v. 16). Just as YHWH agreed to their proposal at Mt. Horeb (v. 17), he will again appoint a prophet to represent his will to the people. Because the true prophet is YHWH’s chosen spokesman, the prophet’s word must be obeyed. YHWH himself will “seek out what is with” anyone who disregards the prophet’s message.

In the context of the larger section’s concern for the limitations on and proper exercise of authority, the final topic in this unit is of greatest interest. The need for a prophet is clear. The people of God require guidance in matters not treated specifically in the covenant. The role of the prophet or the definition of the prophetic function is equally unambiguous. The true prophet speaks YHWH’s message at YHWH’s command. The identification of the true prophet, on the other hand, poses a difficult challenge. Should the people of God follow everyone who claims divine authority? No. Verse 20 specifies two examples of prophets without authority: those who counterfeit the divine commission and those who speak on the authority of other gods. Such fraudulent prophets usurp YHWH’s supreme authority. They are to pay with their lives. The people’s problem of recognition, however, still remains largely unsolved. Prophets who prophesy in the names of other gods can

Mark E. Biddle, Deuteronomy, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2003) 295–96.

Kelley Land, a graduate of Mercer University, has been an assistant editor for Smyth & Helwys curriculum and books since 2001. She attends church and leads an adult Sunday school class in Macon, Georgia. She is also the office administrator for Jay’s HOPE, a local charity serving families of children with cancer. Kelley enjoys spending time with her daughters, Samantha (12) and Natalie (10) and her husband John. For fun, she tries to stay caught up on the latest amazing TV series (including Doctor Who, Sherlock, Gilmore Girls, and The Crown).


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