Question: Does Joseph Smith fail the "prophetic test" found in Deuteronomy 18?

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Question: Does Joseph Smith fail the "prophetic test" found in Deuteronomy 18?

Deuteronomy 18 states that if a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord that something will happen, and then it does not happen, that the prophet has spoken "presumptuously"

Evangelicals point to Deuteronomy 18:20-22 as a 'test' for a true prophet:

20 But the prophet, which shall presume to speak a word in my name, which I have not commanded him to speak, or that shall speak in the name of other gods, even that prophet shall die.

21 And if thou say in thine heart, How shall we know the word which the Lord hath not spoken?

22 When a prophet speaketh in the name of the Lord, if the thing follow not, nor come to pass, that is the thing which the Lord hath not spoken, but the prophet hath spoken it presumptuously: thou shalt not be afraid of him.

It is claimed that Joseph Smith made failed prophecies, and as such must be a "false prophet." When critics charge Joseph Smith with uttering a "false prophecy" they are generally making one or more errors:

  1. they rely on an inaccurate account of what Joseph actually wrote or said, or they misrepresent Joseph's words;
  2. they ignore or remain unaware of circumstances which fulfilled the prophecy;
  3. they ignore or deny the clear scriptural principle [Jeremiah 18:7-10] that prophecy is contingent upon the choices of mortals;

Many LDS critics attempt to condemn Joseph Smith using a standard that would, if applied to Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Nathan, an angel of God, and Jonah, also condemn the Old Testament as a fraud

No reasonable or biblical application of Deuteronomy 18 condemns Joseph Smith. Like the prophets of the Bible, Joseph's prophetic claims cannot be tested by looking for a failure in "fore-telling"—we must, as with the biblical prophets, decide if Joseph "knew God in the immediacy of experience," by weighing "the moral and religious content" of his message as he "challeng[es] his hearers to respond to the divine standards of spirituality through acts of cleansing and renewal of life,"[1] which may only be ultimately judged by the source of prophecy—God himself. Every prophet is an invitation to enter into a "prophetic" relationship with God for ourselves, to communicate with him, and obtain the testimony of Jesus for ourselves.

Confusion on this point arises from one or more errors:

  1. prophecy may be fulfilled in ways or at times that the hearers do not expect;
  2. most prophecies are contingent, even if this is not made explicit when the prophecy is given—that is, the free agent choices of mortals can impact whether a given prophecy comes to pass
  3. sectarian critics may apply a standard to modern LDS prophets whom they reject that they do not apply to biblical prophets. This double standard condemns Joseph unfairly.

Prophecy may be fulfilled in ways or at times that the hearers do not expect

Deuteronomy doesn't exactly say that one mistake makes a false prophet.[2] James L. Mays, editor of Harper's Bible Commentary writes:

Prophecy in the names of other gods is easily rejected, but false prophecy in God's name is a more serious matter. This dilemma requires the application of a pragmatic criterion that, although clearly useless for judgments on individual oracles, is certainly a way to evaluate a prophet's overall performance.[3]

The problem with applying Deut. 18:22 to a single, individual prophecy is that some prophecies can be fulfilled in complex ways or at times much later than anticipated by the hearers. As one conservative Bible commentator noted:

As far as external considerations were involved, therefore, there would appear to have been [in Old Testament times] virtually no means of differentiating the true from the false prophet....While the popular view current in the seventh century B.C. distinguished a true prophet from a false one on the basis of whether their predictions were fulfilled or not, this attitude merely constituted an inversion of the situation as it ultimately emerged, and not an absolute criterion of truth or falsity as such. As Albright has pointed out, the fulfilment of prophecies was only one important element in the validation of a genuine prophet, and in some instances was not even considered to be an essential ingredient, as illustrated by the apparent failure of the utterances of Haggai [Haggai 2:21] against the Persian empire.[4]

Most prophecies are contingent, even if this is not made explicit when the prophecy is given

The Bible contains many examples of God choosing to reverse or revoke certain prophecies, as He says He is free to do in Jeremiah:

7 At what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up, and to pull down, and to destroy it;
8 If that nation, against whom I have pronounced, turn from their evil, I will repent of the evil that I thought to do unto them.
9 And at what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to build and to plant it;
10 If it do evil in my sight, that it obey not my voice, then I will repent of the good, wherewith I said I would benefit them.Jeremiah 18:7-10

This principle is also illustrated in 1Sam 2:30 where, because of the wickedness of the priests, the Lord revokes his promise that the house of Aaron will forever serve him:

30 Wherefore the Lord God of Israel saith, I said indeed that thy house, and the house of thy father, should walk before me for ever: but now the Lord saith, Be it far from me; for them that honour me I will honour, and they that despise me shall be lightly esteemed.

Sectarian critics may apply a standard to modern LDS prophets whom they reject that they do not apply to biblical prophets

Many Bible prophets would not survive the critics' hostile application of Deuteronomy 18 as Jewish and Christian commentators have long realized. The reading which the critics wish to apply to modern day prophets does not match how scholars of Judaism have understood Deuteronomy in its Old Testament context.

Wrote one author:

"The true prophet, as intercessor, was ready to risk a confrontation with God, in contrast to his counterpart, the false prophet. The problem of distinguishing between them was indeed perplexing, as shown by two separate passages in Deuteronomy...The answer given is that if the 'oracle does not come true, that oracle was not spoken by the Lord; the prophet uttered it presumptuously.' This, however, cannot serve as an infallible criterion, because there are several occasions when an oracle delivered by a true prophet did not materialize even in his own lifetime. Such unfulfilled prophecies include Jeremiah's prediction of the ignominious fate of Jehoiakim (Jeremiah 22:19), which was belied by 2 Kings 24:6, and Ezekiel's foretelling the destruction of Tyre by Nebuchadnezzar (Ezekiel 26:7-21), which was later admitted to have failed but was to be compensated by the Babylonian king's attack on Egypt (Ezekiel 29:17-20)"[5]

We will see examples in the next section of biblical prophets who would be labeled as "false prophets" if the critics were consistent in their application of Deuteronomy.

The Jewish Study Bible observed:

Having established an Israelite model of prophecy, the law provides two criteria to distinguish true from false prophets. The first is that the prophet should speak exclusively on behalf of God, and report only God's words. Breach of that rule is a capital offense (Jeremiah 28:12-17.) The second criterion makes the fulfillment of a prophet's oracle the measure of its truth. That approach attempts to solve a critical problem: If two prophets each claim to speak on behalf of God yet make mutually exclusive claims- (1 Kings 22:6 versus 1 King 22:17; Jeremiah 27:8 versus Jeremiah 28:2)- how may one decide which prophet speaks the truth?
The solution offered is not free of difficulty. If a false prophet is distinguished by the failure of his oracle to come true, then making a decision in the present about which prophet to obey is impossible. Nor can this criterion easily be reconciled with Deuteronomy 13:3, which concedes that the oracles of false prophets might come true. Finally, the prophets frequently threatened judgment, hoping to bring about repentance (Jeremiah 7:, Jeremiah 26:1-6). If the prophet succeeds and the people repent and thereby avert doom (Jonah 3-4:), one would assume the prophet to be authentic, since he has accomplished God's goal of repentance. Yet according to thee criteria here (but contrast Jeremiah 28:9), the prophet who accomplished repentance is nonetheless a false prophet, since the judgment oracle that was proclaimed remains unfulfilled. These texts, with their questions and differences of opinion on such issues, reflect the vigorous debate that took place in Israel about prophecy."[6]

Prophecy or Commandment?

As John Tvedtnes wrote:

The vast majority of Joseph Smith’s supposed “false prophecies” listed by critics are not prophecies at all, but “commandments” or “counsel” (see D&C 104:1; 115:1, 7-9, 12) which were not obeyed. If the person receiving the instructions failed to comply, then the “prophecy,” according to the critics, is proven false. By this reasoning, even God himself is a false prophet, for Lot’s wife disobeyed him and looked back at the city of Sodom (Genesis 19:17, 26). Cain sinned even after the Lord had told him, “If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? And if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door” (Genesis 4:7).
If true prophetic statements are conditioned upon the sins or the repentance of those upon whom they are pronounced, then the same principle must apply to commandments. The Lord explained it this way: “Who am I, saith the Lord, that have promised and have not fulfilled? I command and men obey not; I revoke and they receive not the blessing. Then they say in their hearts: This is not the work of the Lord, for his promises are not fulfilled. But wo unto such, for their reward lurketh beneath, and not from above” (D&C 58:30-33). A similar statement is found in D&C 82:10: “I, the Lord, am bound when ye do what I say; but when ye do not what I say, ye have no promise” (compare with verse 4).
Let’s examine one of Joseph Smith’s revelations often listed as a “false prophecy” by critics. In D&C 114, David W. Patten was commanded to “settle up all his business as soon as he possibly can” and prepare to leave on mission the next spring with the rest of the Twelve Apostles (cf. D&C 118:5-6). Due to circumstances beyond his control (i.e., mob attacks), Patten did not settle his business “as soon as he can,” as the Lord commanded and died before he could go on the mission the Lord had for him. Some have objected that, since God is all-knowing, he would have been aware that Patten would die, so why give such a commandment. In response, we ask, Didn’t God know that Nineveh would repent upon hearing Jonah’s message (Jonah 3:5)? Why, then, did he tell Jonah to prophesy doom to the inhabitants of the city (Jonah 3:4)? And didn’t God know that Hezekiah would live another fifteen years? So why give two conflicting prophecies through the prophet Isaiah (2 Kings 20:1-6)? Didn’t God know that Pharaoh would reject Moses’ words? Then why bother to send the prophet to the Egyptian king to ask that he let Israel go free?
But there is more to the David Patten story than meets the eye. Latter-day Saints believe that when a commandment is given to a man because of the office he holds, the commandment can apply to his successor. Thus, while David W. Patten did not fill the mission to England, the new apostles called to fill vacancies in the quorum did. There are biblical precedents for this. For example, the Lord commanded Elijah to anoint Hazael king of Assyria and Jehu king of Israel and Elisha as prophet in his stead (1 Kings 19:15-16). Elijah did, indeed, call Elisha (1 Kings 19:19-21). But it was Elisha, after Elijah was taken to heaven, who sent one of the prophets to anoint Jehu (2 Kings 9:1-10), and Elisha himself announced to Hazael that he would be king (2 Kings 8:7-13). In other words, Elijah did not accomplish two of the three tasks assigned to him by God. Does this make him a false prophet? In the LDS view, he did the right thing by designating his successor, who followed through on unfinished business. In the same manner, some of the things the Lord commanded the early Latter-day Saints to accomplish (such as to settle in Zion, Missouri) will be fulfilled by their descendants and successors. Likewise, the blessings pronounced on each of the tribes of Israel by Jacob (Genesis 48-49) and Moses (Deuteronomy 33) are to be understood as blessings for their future generations, not only for the men to whom the words were addressed.
We must also note that sometimes God’s commandments are designed as tests of obedience. For example, he didn’t really want Abraham to kill his son, Isaac, though this is what he told him to do (Genesis 22). The same is true of the Lord’s commandment to send an armed group (“Zion’s Camp”) to redeem the land of Zion in Missouri (D&C 101, 103, 105).

Prophecy Vs. Vision

Again from Tvedtnes:

Visions are often highly symbolic and hence require interpretation. They cannot, therefore, necessarily be taken as “prophecy” in the sense of predictions of precise future events. As an example, we may consider Joseph Smith’s vision of the celestial kingdom (History of the Church 2:380-381). It has been highly criticized because in it he saw the twelve apostles of his day in the celestial kingdom. Of the twelve, however, five were excommunicated and never returned to the Church. This, the critics say, is evidence of a false prophecy. More likely, it is an indication of what the Lord intended for them, had they all remained faithful.
If Joseph Smith is to be condemned as a false prophet on the basis of this vision, then we must condemn Jesus as a false prophet for similar reasons. Christ promised his twelve apostles that, when he returned to reign in glory, they would sit on twelve thrones and judge the twelve tribes of Israel (Matthew 19:28). And yet Judas, who was one of the twelve at the time, later fell away and, losing his place as an apostle, was replaced by Matthias (Acts 1:15-26).[7] If we take Jesus’ words literally, then either Judas will receive the reward (which makes the account in Acts wrong), or Jesus lied. On the other hand, if we do not hold Jesus to every word, should we not extend the same courtesy to Joseph Smith who, after all, was far less perfect than the Savior?

Important Steps in Evaluating Prophecy

Matthew Roper has given a good list of steps to take in evaluating each prophecy. The author will add some things to this list:

  • Is the source authentic or is it hearsay?
  • Is the statement accurately quoted?
  • Does the statement claim to be a direct revelation from God?
  • Does the quote claim to be a prophecy, or is it [a vision], statement of commandment, instruction, etc.?
  • Is it clearly intended to be literal (not poetic, a figure of speech, etc.)?
  • Is there a definite time limit set for its fulfillment, not simply “shortly,” “nigh,” “soon,” etc.?
  • Are there any stated conditions to the prophecy?
  • Are there any possible unstated conditions to the prophecy?
  • Is there only one possible interpretation?
  • Can it be shown beyond dispute that the time of fulfillment is past?
  • [Can the prophecy be fulfilled in multiple ways and/or at different times?]

Notes

  1. Harrison, 755.
  2. This wiki article was originally based on Jeff Lindsay, "If any prophecy of a so-called prophet proves to be wrong, shouldn't we reject him? Isn't that the standard of Deut. 18:22?," off-site Due to the nature of a wiki project, the text may have been modified, edited, and had additions made.
  3. James L. Mays (editor), Harper's Bible Commentary (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1988), 226.
  4. R.K. Harrsion, Introduction to the Old Testament (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1969); reprint edition by (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2004), 755–756.
  5. Shalom M. Paul, "Prophecy and Prophets" a supplemental essay in Etz Hayim, a Torah/Commentary published by the Jewish Publication Society, 1411, (emphasis added).
  6. Jewish Study Bible (published by the Jewish Publication Society), commentary on Deu. 18:20-23.
  7. According to John 6:70-71, Jesus knew well in advance that Judas would betray him.