False Prophets

from Calvin's Commentary

On the First Commandment pgs. 439-449.

After having restrained the Israelites from the strange delusions of the Gentiles, Moses now forbids them from being too credulous if false teachers should arise from among themselves, and warns them diligently to beware of all novel inventions, and not; to turn aside in the very least degree from the Law, at the instigation of any one. For there is peril to be apprehended, not only from professed and manifest enemies, or from foreign superstitions, but Satan plots also by means of intestine deceits, and abuses the holy name of God in order to betray us. Therefore it behoves that the faith of the godly should not only be externally fortified and protected by the ramparts of the world, lest corruption should creep in from without, but also that it should be garrisoned within by the same word, lest novel imaginations should secretly insinuate themselves and destroy the purity of doctrine. Moreover, we gather from this prohibition that there is such certainty in the divine doctrines as to prevent our faith from being undermined or shaken, provided it has put forth into them living roots, and is firmly grounded upon them. For it would be vain for God to warn us against giving admission to false teachers, unless He, at the same time, shewed the means by which they were to be guarded against. And assuredly nothing can be more improbable than that religion should be ambiguous; and since the rule and definition of it is faithfully prescribed and set forth in the Law, justly does God require of His people that they should not waver, but constantly persist in the truth delivered to them. For truly does Isaiah declare respecting the Law, that in it it has not been said in vain to the seed of Jacob, that they should seek God's face.

But, in seeking God, it would not be sufficient to teach what is right, unless men's minds are established in it; it is requisite, therefore, that religion should be sure and firm, or it will not be duly ordered. Nor is there any doubt that what Paul witnesses of the Gospel was true also of the Law, viz., That it armed its disciples against all the storms of temptations that they "should lie no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men," &c. (Eph. iv. 14.) But the words before us, when examined more closely and regularly, will shew, with greater clearness, the sum of the matter.

DEUT. XIII. 1. If there arise any among you. We already perceive that the question is not respecting the falsities and errors which Satan had spread throughout the world, but respecting those which were to appear in the very bosom of the Church, as if it had been said that the Law was not only given in order to separate the Israelites from heathen nations, but to keep themselves in the purity and integrity of the faith; for just as now-a-days Christ betroths the Church to Himself by the preachers of the Gospel, (2 Cor. xi. 2,) that she may devote herself as a chaste virgin to His obedience, and not allow herself to be withdrawn from the simplicity of the faith by any seductions; so of old God espoused His ancient people to Himself, and bade them close their ears against impostors, who are, as it were, the seducers of Satan tempting them to violate that sacred and special bond of marriage whereby God would be united with His people. We shall speedily see wherefore God would have His Church exposed to this evil. Meanwhile it is useful to admonish believers of their danger, that they may be constantly watching against the snares of Satan; for this abomination did not only prevail in that particular age, but it will have its evil influence even to the end of the world. We must remember what Peter says, that "as there were false prophets among" the Jews of old, so also in the kingdom of Christ "there shall be false teachers who privily shall bring in damnable heresies." (2 Pet. ii. 1.) Moses, however, does not merely speak of domestic enemies, but of such as shall assume the title of prophets in order that they may deceive with greater license and impunity. From hence we infer that it is not enough to have an honourable position, or a plausible name, whether pastor, or prophet, or priest, unless it be allied to sincerity in accordance with our calling; for who are the persons whom God here commands to be avoided and held in abomination? Just those who boasted themselves to be prophets, but who, when carefully inquired into, were obliged to drop their mask, and driven to confusion. A particular appellation is subjoined to their general one, since the same individual is spoken of as "a dreamer of dreams," because God of old time manifested Himself to the prophets sometimes in visions and sometimes in dreams. Either of these, then, was an honourable pretext for conciliating favour. But the temptation which follows was still more dangerous, viz., if such an one should have commended himself by a successful prediction; for who would despise a prophecy authenticated by events, especially when Isaiah declares this to be the attribute of God alone? (Isaiah xiv. 21.) And the difficulty here is still increased, because in chap. xviii., God appears to distinguish false prophets from true ones by this very test. Thus I resolve the difficulty, God's claiming to Himself the glory of foretelling events does not prevent Him from occasionally conferring even on the ministers of Satan the power of prophecy respecting some particular point. Balaam was worse than any hireling crier, wishing as he did to frustrate the eternal decrees of God, and yet we know that his tongue was directed by the divine inspiration of the Spirit so as to be the proclaimer of that grace which he had been hired to quench. There is, therefore, no inconsistency in this, that a man should be a perfidious impostor, and still endowed at the same time with a particular gift of prophecy, not so as always to deliver true revelations, (as, for instance, Caiaphas, who prophesied correctly once, was not always veracious) but in so far as by God's permission it shall be given him to foreknow this or that, so that one example of truth-telling may be the cloak for many falsehoods. Fitly, then, and properly, in the other passage, does God, by Moses, reprove the vanity of those rash spirits who promise what is not fulfilled. For Ye must take into consideration his intention. Many are there who bring themselves into notice by clandestine acts, and at length boldly burst forth and boast themselves to be prophets, whilst the people are in doubt whether they ought so to consider them. But since it most frequently happens that the folly of such men is betrayed by marks of infamy and disgrace inflicted upon them from above, so that the world may see that they have spoken falsely, justly does God declare that the event of their predictions is to be regarded, lest the Israelites should promiscuously and unreflectingly receive whatever they may hear. The principle, therefore, is established, that those speak in God's name who predict what really comes to pass; for they could not declare the truth respecting things unknown to man unless God Himself should dictate it to them. This is the tendency of the answer of Jeremiah to Hananiah,_"The prophets that have been before me and before thee of old, prophesied both against many countries, and against great kingdoms, of war, and of evil, and of pestilence. The prophet which prophesieth of peace, when the word of the prophet shall come to pass, then shall the prophet be known, that the Lord hath truly sent him.'' (Jer. xxviii. 8, 9.) Hananiah promised that the war should end prosperously; but Jeremiah, knowing that he lied, brings him to an experimental proof of his falsehood, in case the facts should not correspond with what he had said. Thus far there is no inconsistency in our statement, that all true prophesies must proceed from God, and yet that the same prophet who has predicted the truth may, in other points, be a deceiver. And especially let us remark the admonition of Paul, that "because they (the reprobate) receive not the love of the truth, that they may be saved; for this cause God sends them strong delusion, that they should believe a lie; that they all might be damned who believed not the truth, but had pleasure in unrighteousness.'' (2 Thess. ii. 10-12.)

Hence we are taught that not only are the reins of Satan loosed in order that he may do injury, but that he is armed with power effectively to drag on the reprobate to final destruction. Moses here teaches the same thing, for there are no reasonable grounds for the differences between Hebrew commentators as to the word sign. It is unquestionable that signs were sometimes used in order to obtain credit for prophecies, as when Isaiah walked naked, (Isaiah xx. 2,) and Jeremiah wore a yoke on his neck, (Jer. xxviii. 10); it is also unquestionable that Satan often deceives by magical incantations; but I have no doubt that by the words signifying the sign and the wonder, Moses here means anything incredible and unexpected, for the purpose of vaticination. The Hebrews use the word mophethim, to express miracles whereby God portends anything future, as if He spoke from heaven. The word oth, is more general, and is sometimes used for a banner, or a watchword, or signal, (symbolum). Both are here put for extraordinary signs which testify the power of God, as if it were present; in this sense, Christ warns His disciples to beware of Signs and lying prodigies. (Mat. xxiv. 1l.) But although Satan dazzles the eyes with his illusions, so as in his false rivalry to win to himself the glory of God, yet have we shown from St. Paul, and Moses has before declared, that impostors in their working of miracles are the ministers of God's vengeance, in order that the reprobate may be taken in their snares. Should any object that signs would be useless, which may be as well dangerous deceptions as confirmations of the truth, I reply, that such license has never been accorded to the devil, as that the light of God should not in the end shine forth from the midst of the darkness. It will happen, therefore, that the true power of God may be obscured for a time, (as we have seen before in the history of the magicians) but that it will never be overwhelmed. Thus in the miracles, whereby the Law was ratified, the glory of God so shone forth that they might obtain credit without any hesitation from the godly. Such, without controversy, are the miracles which authenticate the Gospel, because they present evidences inscribed upon them by God by which all suspicion of deceit is fully removed. And, indeed, since men's minds are involved in dull stupidity, and are blind even to the ordinary course of God's dealings, so also they are almost always mistaken with respect to miracles, unless His word enlightens them to dispel the darkness. In order, therefore, that we may duly profit by signs, an inseparable connection must be established between them and doctrine; and Moses rightly teaches that they must be repudiated who shall endeavour to pervert piety under the pretext of signs, because they impiously and wickedly divide things which God has joined together, and improperly divert to a contrary use the signs which only serve as aids to righteous doctrine. But after the religion of the Jews had been sealed by sure and evident signs, it was wrong for them to attend to accidental signs, and not altogether without base ingratitude. We now arrive at the sum of this passage, viz., that they must persevere in the worship of the one God, so that not even prodigies should have any force to shake the people's minds. The clause, therefore, ''which thou hast not known," must be observed; whereby Moses signifies that the glory of the God which they serve was so certainly testified that their levity in turning this way or that would be inexcusable; and thus the knowledge which ought to be firmly implanted in their hearts, and to abide therein, is opposed to all the artifices of the devil, which only affect unstable minds.

3. For the Lord your God proveth you. (Latin, tentatvos.) Whenever this word, which means to tempt, is applied to God, it is not used in a bad sense, for "to take by guile," or, "to lay snares of deceit to entrap the unwary," but only for "to prove or examine." Now, God proves men's hearts, not that He may learn what was before unknown, but to lay open what was before concealed. The expression, "to know," therefore, refers to experimental knowledge only. The explanation of Augustine is tame and involved, "That He may know, i.e., that He may cause you to know." But, since it is so very common for human feelings to be attributed to God, where is the use of twisting words, which signify no more than that God makes trial, so that what might have been otherwise doubtful, should be actually displayed? Thus God tempted Abraham, when in an important matter He made trial of his faith or obedience. (Gen. xxii. 1.) Nor is what I have lately touched upon, and which we often read of, at all contradictory to this, viz., that God uses the instrumentality of Satan and of wicked men, in order to tempt men; because we must take into consideration the object to which He directs these trials, whereby it will be manifest that His design is very different from the malice and wiles of Satan. The reason here given is worthy of remark, because it removes the difficulty by which weak minds might have been easily disturbed. For nothing is less probable than that Satan should insult God and involve heaven and hell in war, or that he should assume to himself with impunity an attribute of God. Lest, then, such a discussion should trouble and weary the good, or keep them in perplexity, Moses thus anticipates it, by reminding them, that God does not meanwhile lie idle or asleep, having abandoned the care of His Church; but that He designedly brings the truly pious to the proof, in order to distinguish them from the hypocrites; and this takes place, when they constantly persevere in the true faith against the assaults of their temptations, and do not fall from their standing. The Apostle declares the same thing also with regard to heresies, that they must needs arise in the Church, "that they which are approved may be made manifest." (I Cor. xi. 19.) Wherefore we must not be impatient, nor murmur against God, if He chooses that the firmness of our faith, which is more precious than silver or gold, should be tried in the fiery furnace; it behoves us humbly to acquiesce in His justice and wisdom. If any should still object, that, since the weakness of mankind is only too notorious, God deals with them somewhat unkindly, when He subjects them to these dangerous temptations, an answer may be readily given. I acknowledge indeed that, since our carnal sense is tender, this may seem hard, and inconsistent with the fatherly kindneSS of God; for, surely, when a miracle presents itself before our eyes, it is difficult not to submit to it. But, since the temptation injures none but those whose impiety, which it lays bare, was already convicted and condemned, whilst the sincere worshippers of God are preserved free from injury, how unjust would it be to take away from God this liberty of plucking the mask from treachery and deceit? Whosoever loves God with a pure heart is armed with the invincible power of the Divine Spirit, that he should not be ensnared by falsehoods; God thus rewards true and not fictitious piety, so that whosoever are of a true heart, should be protected by his faithful guardianship, and never feel the deadly wound. Meanwhile, why should He not devote to just destruction those who wilfully desire to perish? Nor need we be surprised at what He elsewhere declares, that it is He who deceives false prophets, that by them he may inflict just vengeance on the reprobate, who eagerly go in search of their destructive deceits. Since, then, all the good are sure to overcome, so that the wiles of Satan are to them nothing but the exercises of their virtue; why should God be blamed, because the malice of Satan and of the wicked prepares for them the grounds of their victory and triumph? Only let us cleave to this axiom, that all, who heartily love and reverence God, will always be sure and safe under the protection of God. It is true, I confess, that integrity of heart is a peculiar gift of God and the fruit of His secret election; but, since their own consciences reproach the reprobate with their contempt of God, their hypocrisy, pride, or depravity, the blame of the iniquity that dwells in them is unjustly laid upon God. This, then, is sufficient to refute all carnal and perverse reasonings and blasphemies, viz., that whosoever are right in heart are guarded by the aid of the Spirit from the poisonous influence of Satan, and that no one perishes against his will. And thus we come to the conclusion, that all who, having once seemed to embrace the doctrines of salvation, afterwards reject and deny them, had never possessed anything more than the disguise of a false profession, because, if they sincerely loved God, they would remain firm in heart in the midst of all things tending to disturb then. It will indeed sometimes happen that the pious also will fal1 into errors, and will be seduced by the wicked; but it will only be in some respects and for a time; so that they never fall from the foundation, and presently recover themselves, (resipiscant). And then, it must also be observed, they pay the penalty of their negligence, or instability, because they have not been sufficiently attentive to God's Word, or have not sufficiently devoted themselves to religious pursuits. Hence we further gather, that whilst any turn away professedly from the doctrines of religion, on the gound of their seeing so many contentions and disputes to distract them, it is a mere vain excuse to cover their profane neglect or hatred of God. It is true that there are great discrepancies of opinion, and very warm contentions; but whosoever in a teachable and gentle spirit shall seek after truth, and shall give himself over and submit himself as the disciple of God, he will never be without the spirit of judgment and discretion. But, since some listen disdainfully, some supremely despise it, some wish that God's Word were altogether destroyed, others think lightly of it, the saying of the prophet holds good, "that that dieth, let it die" (Zech. xi. 9); and what Paul after him declares, "But if any man be ignorant, let him be ignorant." (I Cor. xiv. 38.) Since it has always been the case that God's truth was never hidden from anybody, except him whose mind the God of this world has blinded. (2 Cor. iv. 4.) And this especially takes place when light has shone from heaven, which suffers none to go astray but those who shut their eyes. The remedy, therefore, is immediately subjoined, "Ye shall walk after the Lord your God"; as if Moses had said, it was sufficient for their preservation, that they had God to guide them in the right way, who had already prevented them by His gratuitous bounty. But, since numbers respond not to God's call, and regard Him not when He points out the way to them, the words "and fear him'' are added; because "the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom." (Psalm cxi. 10.) Finally, Moses again inculcates that, if men are only resolved to obey God, they will be sufficiently taught by His voice what they ought to do. By the word "cleave," perseverance is denoted, and thus he indirectly reproves the instability of those who forsake and forget God, and go astray after empty imaginations.

DEUT. XVIII. 21. And if thou say in thy heart. This exception has reference to the prohibition, which we have already noticed in this same chapter. God, in His appointment of prophets to be His substitutes in teaching the people, had invested them with no common authority, enjoining obedience to be paid to their precepts. But those, upon whom the office of teacher is conferred, do not always duly fulfil it; and hence the doubt naturally arises, how the people shall determine when they are addressed as by God's mouth, so as to distinguish the true from the false. There is, therefore, no question expressed in words, but God anticipates the secret scruples which might otherwise keep men's minds in suspense; for to "say in the heart" is equivalent to doubting in one's self when any danger is perceived. Now, to remove this difficulty, He does not enumerate all the marks of distinction; because He does not indeed allude to doctrine, but only to prophecies. But, speaking popularly, as to evil and ignorant persons, He commands them to observe whether those, who pretend to the name of prophet, foretell the truth. But although, as we have lately seen, false teachers also rival in this respect the servants of God, and are found to be veracious in some particular prophecy; yet it is sufficient as the touchstone of their truth, to set down what happens for the most part, just as God himself chooses to be distinguished and separated from idols by the same test. Nor does Moses affirmatively pronounce that credit must be given to prophets, whenever events correspond with their predictions; but only admonishes them, that, if they consider attentively, they cannot be deceived, because God will speedily expose the false prophets to ridicule, and will confound their folly. Thus Jeremiah prudently accommodates this passage to the circumstances of his own times, in order that it may be manifested how rashly and falsely Hananiah spoke in promising impunity for those sins over which God's vengeance impended. (Jer. xxviii. 6.) In sum, Moses means nothing more than that the people would not be exposed to the danger of going astray, if they endeavoured heartily to obey God; because it would come to pass by His just judgment, that the temerity of all who have falsely abused His holy name should be made to appear, and thus they should be unmasked.

22. The prophet bath spoken it presumptuously. He not only condemns the folly and vanity of those who advance their own inventions in the place of God's commands, but also their arrogance; since doubtless, this is impious and intolerable audacity, to set forth the offspring of man's earthly brain as if it were a divine revelation. And on this ground it is that their impiety is detestable, who fill the air with the fumes of their revelations in order to alarm the simple. Wherefore, he adds, that they should "not be afraid" of such a prophet; because, as nothing can be more arrogant than the ministers of Satan, they confidently utter their boastings, by which we may be easily moved and even overwhelmed, unless we had this buckler to protect us, viz., that their terrific noise may be safely despised. This doctrine is now-a-days very useful for us. We know how insolently the Papists boast of the Catholic Church; of the Apostolic See; how fiercely they rage in Peter's name; how impetuously they fulminate their curses and anathemas; but, when it is ascertained that whatever they put forward as revelations of the Spirit are but the empty figments of men, it will be easy to dispel those terrors which flow from this same fountain of presumption.

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