The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
And the word of the LORD came unto me, saying,False Prophesying
The whole chapter is a denunciation of lying; the worst kind of lying, because it is religious lying. Things are all either better or worse for being in the Church and connected with the Church: the way of the Lord is equal in this as in every other respect. What is done faithfully and lovingly in the Church accumulates virtue, excellence, value in the divine esteem; and what is done unfaithfully, selfishly in the Church aggravates its own sinfulness and makes surer of its own hell. The Bible will not have any lying. From beginning to end it is a protest against falsehood. False balances, false measures, false tongues, false prophets go down in one common unmitigated condemnation. Yet all life is a lie. To be is to be false. Not in the vulgar or ordinary sense of the term. Who can pray without being false, if he pray more than one sentence, and if that sentence be other than "God be merciful to me a sinner"? There is a positive falseness, and there is a negative falseness, that is to say, a falseness created by the simple absence of sincerity—that burning influence which purifies the spirit over which it passes. To pray, and not to mean it, what greater falsehood can there be? Thou hast lied, not unto men, but unto God.
In this chapter we have not only false prophets but false prophetesses; both the men and the women have sunk in a common love of lying. We have been reminded that we have in the Bible several excellent prophetesses, as Miriam, Deborah, Noadiah; and in the New Testament we meet with one sweet prophetess whose name was Anna and whose home was in sacred places. This, however, is but a superficial annotation upon the facts. We do not find false prophetesses here for the first time in the real sense, though in some literal or historical sense we may come upon these profaners of holy mysteries at this particular juncture. Who dares go right back to the very beginnings of things? The first woman was the first liar, as was the first man. Do not let us suppose that lying came into the world late in the world's history; do not let us suppose that lying was ever a novelty that startled contemporary piety. Jesus Christ found a murderer from the beginning, and called him the devil; he found a liar from the beginning, and called him the devil; he never saved a life; he never told the truth. Unless we really seize these verities we shall be living a kind of accidental life, calling this man true, and that man false; this man honourable, and that man dishonourable; this man respectable, and that man disreputable. Nothing of the kind. These distinctions are vanity, except for immediate purposes, and except for social conveniences. The whole head is sick, the whole heart is faint; from the crown of the head to the sole of the foot we are wounds and bruises and putrifying sores; and if we do not believe it, that is one bruise and one sore the more.
What is the specific charge made against false prophets? That they speak out of their own hearts, and that they follow their own spirit. How prone are all men to do this! We have come now to give quite an honoured name to a certain power which we suppose ourselves to possess; we call it the verifying faculty, and it pleases us to smell this fragrant flower, it suits the nostril of our vanity. Whether we have a verifying faculty or not, we certainly have a falsifying one. We turn everything into poison rapidly; the very events that are sent down from heaven to teach us as spectacles and pictures are misread, or are perverted as to their moral force and meaning. Every man now prophesies out of himself. Let us beware how we degrade a right into a perversion of liberty and a mischievous use of independence. There is a right of private judgment, there is an individuality of conscience: but no judgment is complete that does not measure itself with other judgments, and no conscience is complete that is not in touch with other consciences; for the last conscience is the result and expression of spiritual chemistry, combination, intermixture, divinely conducted. We have said that no man is complete in himself; he does not know all that is in himself until he touches some other man, and they two are not aware how divine they might be until they are caught in the influence of common prayer. It is not to be denied that prophesying out of one's own heart is a very delightful exercise. It saves a good deal of trouble; it sets up an image of infallibility at home. When a man can do this he need not open his front door and trouble to go out to seek any other judge in Israel or counsellor in the Church. But the wiser piety says, Man is a brother; prophecy of the highest sort is a common quantity, the result of marvellous combinations, and we must therefore hasten to meet one another, and to speak out what is in our hearts, broadly and lovingly, with all frankness, and there shall come back to us the truth shaped and ready for use. Herein we have found our proof that a man cannot pray sufficiently when he prays in solitude. Private prayer can never be neglected to the soul's advantage; but we get in public prayer what we never get in solitary communion, and we get in solitary communion singular and blessed advantage and sustenance. We must not prophesy out of our own hearts, pray out of cur own hearts, alone. There may come a time when personal testimony must be delivered with burning emphasis, and when a man is compelled to enclose himself within a solitary altar; all these concessions do not interfere with the central and dominant truth that no prophecy is of private interpretation, and that all secret prayer needs to be brought out into the open air of the Church that there it may bloom in its completest beauty.
False prophets excite false hopes: what other could they do? "They have made others to hope that they would confirm the word." A liar is very careful to maintain some foothold upon the confidence of society. He who is all false himself can only live upon the trustfulness of others. So, then, the false prophet is the creator of false hopes; and if there be counterfeit coin-makers in our neighbourhood, it would not be an unwise thing to put out our coin upon the table and look at it very carefully; and as there are false prophets who have excited false hopes, it would not be unwise to take our hopes one by one and conduct upon each of them an unsparing analysis, saying, What is it? what is its reason? what is its purpose? what is its value? what is its origin? how is it supported by evidence? how is it ennobled by sacrifice? Any hope that will not accept the test of sacrifice is a false hope. And therein I do not forget that many men have had false conceptions of religion, and have submitted to false sacrifices; and I do not send one of them to hell: I hope to meet them all in heaven. They are not false—they are uninformed, uninstructed, undeveloped; according to the light they have, they are amongst the sincerest men in the world; and God never damned sincerity. Of course, if a man shall say, I am walking according to the light I have, and I shall take care not to have any more light,—then he destroys his own sincerity; he is not sincere, he is selfish; he is not real, he is rotten: sincerity is only of value in so far as it says, This is the only light I have, but as soon as I can get more light I will have more light. Blessings on the little taper that will stop with us all night; the dear little light says, I would do better for you if I could, but I will stay with you until the break of day, and when the day comes you will not want me; I hope you will not thanklessly forget me; I stayed with you when the sun was not there; the sun would not stay with you all night, otherwise it would not be night; I did my little best: farewell. But what shall we say of the man who says, I will not open my windows, or admit any fuller light—I will have another taper? We should say of him that he makes life night, and that he who walks in the night when he might walk in the midday is a man of perverted mind, corrupt imagination, and most deceitful and self-destructive in thought and heart.
False prophets had, however, some little ground to work upon: they mistook the imaginary for the real:—"Have ye not seen a vain vision?" That is the difficulty. If there was absolutely nothing we should have a clear course: but we have lying definitions, we have occasional dreams, and peculiar impressions; and people who resent the idea of accepting a theology made by the Church adopt an astrology or a theology of their own, founded upon cobwebs, built upon mist, and pointing to nothing. Let us pray God to cleanse our vision, lest, seeing men as trees walking, or trees as men walking, we confound the reality of things; and above all let us say to one another, Brother, help me, and I will help some weaker man. Let us have our strength common. If we cannot have our gold and silver, let us have our ideas, our sympathy, our spiritual strength common. If you will help me weaker than you, I will help some other man weaker than I am; and thus massed together, serried, settled into phalanx, who knows but that accumulated weakness may be the beginning of strength? This is the idea of the Church. It is not the idea of one man, but of all men; it is not the thought of a single individual, weak and easily overcome, but the thought of a united, because a redeemed and sanctified, humanity.
What course does the Lord pursue against such falsify? "Therefore thus saith the Lord God; Because ye have spoken vanity, and seen lies, therefore, behold, I am against you, saith the Lord God." We know, then, exactly what strength we have to encounter. It is only omnipotence. When the Lord says he is "against" a man it is in vain for that man to continue the fight one day longer. That man is so constituted that he thinks in the end he will succeed. No lie ever succeeded, except in bringing the liar to exposure and judgment and heavy penalty. If a lie could finally succeed the universe is not worth living in. All creation depends upon this one statement, namely, that it is impossible for a lie ever to escape the criticism of God. We have sometimes wondered how it is we do not succeed. There need not be any wonder about it; for our failure arises from one of two causes: either, first, that God is against us, in the sense of judging us to be false; or God is trying us to develop our strength. Let us adopt the second conclusion where we can, for it will cheer us and help us on many a weary day. Present to your mind the spectacle of God watching you, trying you, causing the prize to drop out of your hand just when you were going to seize it, sending a sudden mist over your eyes when you thought you saw your friend at the gate. God may do so to us in love. We have to be variously treated. That is admitted in the family circle, and that is admitted in the wider circle of the state; the physician admits it, the pastor knows it, we are all aware of it. Who was it that could not get the sheep to follow him until he took a lamb into his arms and plunged with it into the river, and then all the flock followed the wise yet apparently cruel shepherd? The lost child may be the salvation of some; a broken fortune may take the last element of vanity out of others; the torn banner that was eternally to float in the blue sunshine may lead some men to pray. It is wondrous how we are thus taught. For the first few miles of life, how jocund we are, how cheery, how independent, how blithe! Life is a holiday, the road is a carpet of flowers, the air has been made to sing for us, God is so pleased to have such creatures round about him as we are: but when the mountain-top is gained, and we look around as conquerors might look, then we begin to feel not so energetic as we used to be; things do not fall so easily to our hand; we turn over two pages at a time and cannot open them, and when we do we forget what was written on the page before; and a little child helps us, whom a giant would not once have ventured to offer to assist; and we take another view of life, and we begin to wonder what is beyond. That is the hold which God has upon us. He will not have life all on one line. Sometimes he will send a voice in the darkness to frighten us; sometimes he will send a sudden note of music to gladden us; sometimes he will make our opportunity less than we thought it was; and sometimes he will so trouble our accounts that we cannot add them up. Our helplessness may be the beginning of our strength. Sanctified dejection may be the beginning of sanctified and immortal hope. Take this view of life, and be glad.
What further course will the Lord take against these false prophets? He will destroy them. They build a wall, he sends hail down upon it, and brings the wall all to pieces. We need not go to the Prophet Ezekiel to know if this is true. We have built walls ourselves which have fallen down. We have propped them, buttressed them, and said it is only a momentary accident, we shall soon put it right again. But God said, I am against you and against your wall: ye fools! Put it up a little further and in the morning you will find it flat upon the ground. What walls we have built! What strength we were going to have! We had already drawn out a hundred programmes, every one of which ended in pounds, shillings, and pence; and a hundred more, ending in honour, fame, influence; and another hundred, ending in herds and flocks, and abundance of family connections, and great peace, and long days: and whilst we were filling our mouth with the wind the Lord touched us, and we fell down as dead men. If the Lord then is so set against falsehood, what will he do for us? He will speak the truth, he will send angels of truth, messengers of mercy and love. The very fact that there is falsehood means that there is truth. If there were no truth, there would be no falsehood; if there were no genuine coin, there would be no counterfeit; if there were no sincerity, there would be no hypocrisy. This is our answer to those who charge upon us right heavily the accusation of insincerity; and this is our reply to those who expect great things from us: we say, Your expectation is a tribute to the excellence of the religion we profess: you do not expect light from the fields you till, you expect light from the boundless sun. To expect light is to pay a tribute; to expect a noble character is to compliment the Cross. When we desire to know the truth, let us first desire to be true ourselves. There is something greater than truth, and that is truthfulness. The greatest of all blessings is a truth-loving spirit. A man may have a hundred false conclusions in his intellect, his imagination may have gone wildly astray, and yet if he have a truth-loving spirit, and if he shall say to himself in perplexity and bewilderment, "I will have the truth—yes, I will have it," his ignorance shall not keep him out of heaven, his infirm imagination shall not disappoint him of his crown. Beware lest we have all our truth on paper, in propositions, innumerable and well-detailed dogmas: we must first have it in our souls, hearts, lives; we must be prepared to live for it and to die for it, and then it will grow, accumulate, multiply; and we shall begin to see, with the ever excellent because ever modest philosopher, Sir Isaac Newton, that we have only gathered a few shells on the shore, while the great ocean of truth lies all undiscovered before us. Such modesty well becomes men who were born yesterday and may be forgotten tomorrow.