For it is a rebellious people, lying children, children that will not hear the law of the LORD; that say to the seers, “See not”;
and to the prophets, “Prophesy not unto us right things, speak unto us smooth things, prophesy deceits, get you out of the way, turn aside out of the path, cause the Holy One of Israel to cease from before us” (Isaiah 30:9-11).
The Iraq war of 2003. The economic disaster of 2008. These are but two of many instances in history when certain people warned about dangers and problems with conventional thinking and wisdom that went unheeded but proved to be precisely correct. Such voices often only gain credibility and respect after the fact when “I told you so” proves to be cold comfort.
The reason why this tendency exists in humanity is the same as the origin of the phrase, “don’t shoot the messenger”: humans do not like doom and gloom predictions and warnings about the dangers of their behaviors and the consequences of their actions. In such circumstances most will seek out reassurance that all will be well, to keep on accepting the official line or statement, and carry on with their lives. Meanwhile, the problems continue to grow and develop, and when they become too painfully obvious to ignore, it is too late. Pain and regret follow.
The prophets of Israel understood this tendency only too well. Isaiah laments how the king of Judah and his associates have not put their trust in the LORD but instead seek to make political alliances with Egypt in Isaiah 30:1-17. He has, no doubt, prophesied before them about the dangers of their path, but they did not want to hear it. It is unlikely that the people of Judah would be so bold as to actually tell the prophet to lie, deceive, and say smooth things (cf. Isaiah 30:10-11). Instead, they communicate the same message through their actions, rejecting the message of Isaiah and turning instead to listen to another prophet who would tell them, in the name of the LORD, that their alliance with Egypt would stand, and all would be well with them, just as they would put their trust in the prophets who told them what they wanted to hear in the days of Jeremiah (cf. Jeremiah 28:1-17).
We do well to remember that even though the voice of the false prophets is rarely heard in the Old Testament, they would have been quite prominent and vociferous in ancient Israel (cf. Luke 6:26). The false prophets do not feature prominently in the Old Testament since their deception and error proved evident: after the devastations of 722 and 586 BCE, the remnant of Israel recognized just how accurately the true prophets of God foretold what would happen. This realization helps us to understand why the Israelites did not really listen to prophets like Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel: their messages were dire and harsh, demanding repentance, lest the LORD destroy them and/or exile them away from the land. Meanwhile, these false prophets would tell them that YHWH would destroy their enemies and keep them in their land. If we were there, which one would we rather believe?
We also should keep in mind that the message of the false prophet might seem to better match theological expectations. This was certainly true in Jesus’ day. Jesus prophesied that God would render judgment against Israel and destroy Jerusalem by the hands of the Romans (Matthew 24:1-36). Meanwhile, many in Israel were convinced that God would give them victory over the Roman oppressor just as He gave the Maccabees victory over the Macedonians for His name’s glory and honor. Therefore, to many Jews of the first century, Jesus’ prediction seemed blasphemous and perhaps even demonic, an attempt to weaken resolve in the struggle against an imperious overlord. And then, in 70 CE, Jesus was fully vindicated.
Isaiah is right: people like to hear “smooth things.” Paul warns Timothy of how Christians will no longer endure sound doctrine, but having “itching ears,” will find teachers to satisfy their desires, and turn away to fables (2 Timothy 4:3-4). People still do not like hearing messages that challenge the way they live their lives and ideas or the ideas and philosophies upon which they have built their understanding of their environment. To this day people are still looking for ways to justify their attitudes and behavior rather than changing them in healthy ways.
The Gospel of Christ can never be a “smooth thing.” It convicts and challenges everyone toward greater faithfulness to Christ; it is a hard way to go (cf. Matthew 7:13-14)! There are always temptations to make the message smooth–always. Some might make the message smooth by toning down or compromising those parts of the Gospel which work against conventional cultural thinking. Others might make the message smooth by focusing only on the problems, errors, or challenges of others without having to go through the uncomfortable process of looking in the mirror and confronting their own problems and challenges (cf. Matthew 7:1-5). The whole truth of God’s message in Christ proves difficult for everyone!
It is understandable why so many people attempt to make the message smooth: we can read how the prophets, Apostles, and others who faithfully proclaimed God’s message were persecuted, humiliated, injured, or even killed because the people did not like their message (cf. Hebrews 11:32-38). Meanwhile, those who tell people what they want to hear receive accolades, praise, and other benefits (cf. Luke 6:26). We would rather be liked than disliked; loved rather than hated.
Nevertheless, God’s message proves true. There are many false prophets about, just as there has always been, and many will be led astray by them (2 Peter 2:1-4). Yet a day will come, just like it did for Israel in 722 BCE, Judah in 586 BCE, and Jerusalem again in 70 CE, when God will render judgment on all people, and on that day far too many, both “Christian” and otherwise, will recognize how they have been deceived and that it is too late (Matthew 7:21-23, Romans 2:5-11, 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10). Therefore, we must resist the temptation to preach smooth things or to listen to them, and to be willing to deal with the discomfort and challenge that comes from acceptance of the Gospel of Christ. Let us heed God’s warnings and prove willing to fully repent and follow after Jesus!
Ethan R. Longhenry