A common attitude toward the gift of prophecy is that those who exercise the gift may get it wrong from time to time, but that’s just the nature of the game. Prophecy is something that must be practiced. We learn the gift by trial and error. We are humans, after all, and we make mistakes. Sometimes we are “spot on”, and sometimes we “miss it.” So the story goes.

I find this view of the prophetic gift to be in stark contrast to the Biblical portrayal of prophecy. If a person claimed to speak for God, and what s/he prophesied did not come to pass, that person was considered a false prophet and was to be executed (Dt 18:20-22). We read of Samuel that “none of his prophecies fell to the ground unfulfilled. All Israel from Dan to Beer Sheba realized that Samuel was confirmed as a prophet of the Lord” (1Sam 3:19-20). What confirmed Samuel as a prophet was that his prophecies were accurate 100% of the time.

Prophets had to get it right 100% of the time. There was no room for trial and error. Indeed, when you understand the nature of prophecy, it’s perfectly understandable why true prophets will always bat 1.000. Prophecy is God’s revelatory communication to humans via a particular individual. God never “misses it,” so how could it be that someone with the gift of prophecy could ever “miss it”?

Could there be a problem with the transmission? God tells the person what to say, but s/he misunderstands what God has spoken. But how could this be? God doesn’t try. He doesn’t try to communicate His message to the prophet but fails to do so. If God wants to communicate something to someone, He will surely succeed in doing so. While the human may choose not to pass on what God has communicated, God will ensure that His message is understood. That’s why God could say that a person who “missed it” even once should be executed. It’s because God is always clear in His communication, making it impossible for the prophet to “miss it.”

Perhaps someone could “miss it” because they mistakenly identify their own thoughts as God’s. But this presupposes that the way God communicates is so unclear that we can mistake our own thoughts for God’s. Where in Scripture do we see God speaking to people in an ambiguous manner? God spoke to both believers and unbelievers alike, and no one ever had any question as to who was speaking or what was spoken. If God desires to speak, He will make Himself and His message clear. There was no mistaking God’s message. No one in the Bible ever said “I think God is speaking to me” or “I think this is what God is saying to me.” Prophesying is not a skill someone learns. If God gives you a prophetic word, you will know it’s coming from God and you will know precisely what to say.

To think that those who prophesy today have the liberty to get it wrong from time to time, one must presuppose that the nature of prophecy in the NT era is different from that of the OT era, but why think this? Is there some NT text that says this? No. So why think NT saints using the gift of prophecy have room for error whereas OT saints using the gift of prophecy did not?

This brings me to my next point: The content of most modern-day prophecies do not resemble the prophetic gift as portrayed in Scripture.

Is it really prophecy?

What passes for prophecy these days rarely bears the marks of Biblical prophecy. The vast majority of prophecies do not predict anything, or communicate things that only God could know. They are usually just words of encouragement that – apart from the introduction “Thus says the Lord” – sound indistinguishable from a mini sermon.

The distinguishing mark of prophecy is that it is predictive in nature, as evidenced by God’s test for a prophet (Dt 18:20-22). According to YHWH, the Israelites could discern a true prophet from a false prophet by observing if their prophecy “came to pass” (Dt 18:22). Something can only come to pass if it pertains to the future. We read that none of Samuel’s prophecies went unfulfilled. A prophecy that has nothing to do with the future cannot be “fulfilled.” This is not to say that all prophecies are predictive in nature, but we should expect at least some prophecies to be predictive in nature.

There are only two examples in the NT where we see the gift of prophecy in operation, and both entailed a prediction regarding the future: Agabus predicted a (1) great famine in Acts 11:28 and (2) Paul’s arrest at Jerusalem in Acts 21:10-11. So why should we think that the gift of prophecy is only for encouragement rather than predicting something about the future?

A genuine prophetic utterance should typically tell us something about the future. Most purported prophetic utterances today, however, do not, and thus I have little reason to believe they are genuine prophetic utterances. It’s easy to speak some encouraging words. It’s not so easy to predict the future.

Wrapping up

Based on what prophecy is – God’s revelatory communication to man – it stands to reason that no one who genuinely has the gift of prophecy could ever “miss it.” They will be right 100% of the time because the God who gives them the information is right 100% of the time and ensures that the person will understand the source and message 100% of the time. If a person claims to be a prophet or claims to be used in the gift of prophecy, but they never give a predictive and testable prophecy, or if they have prophesied something that did not come to pass, then we know that such a person is not a prophet, is not being used in the gift of prophecy, and should not be trusted as an oracle of God.

I think many well-meaning people are mistaking personal ideas/impressions/feelings (self-talk) as words from God, and attaching divine authority to them. Most of these people do not predict anything, but want to be considered prophets. If they do not have a track record of predicting events that have come to pass, then we have no reason to consider them a prophet or a person who is used in the gift of prophecy. Paul told us to judge prophecies (1Cor 14:29). We can only do so if we employ the Biblical criteria for prophecies: (1) they come to pass; (2) the person uttering them is a reliable spokesman for God, evidenced by the fact that s/he has never been mistaken in what s/he has prophesied.