There are a great many false prophets around in our time, so many that the phenomenon has come to the attention of major national news outlets. But I want to focus on a figure who is pretty much universally agreed to be a true prophet, namely Elisha, the disciple of Elijah. I want to discuss whether his words would have constituted an impeachable offense.
For those who may have missed it, the lawyers defending former president Donald Trump have been insisting that he spoke mere words that represent protected freedom of speech, standard political rhetoric which does not render the speaker responsible for any actions that ensue even if the actors claim the speech motivated them.
In 2 Kings 8:7-15 (NRSV) we read the following story about Elisha:
Elisha went to Damascus while King Ben-hadad of Aram was ill. When it was told him, “The man of God has come here,” the king said to Hazael, “Take a present with you and go to meet the man of God. Inquire of the Lord through him, whether I shall recover from this illness.” So Hazael went to meet him, taking a present with him, all kinds of goods of Damascus, forty camel loads. When he entered and stood before him, he said, “Your son King Ben-hadad of Aram has sent me to you, saying, ‘Shall I recover from this illness?’” Elisha said to him, “Go, say to him, ‘You shall certainly recover’; but the Lord has shown me that he shall certainly die.” He fixed his gaze and stared at him, until he was ashamed. Then the man of God wept. Hazael asked, “Why does my lord weep?” He answered, “Because I know the evil that you will do to the people of Israel; you will set their fortresses on fire, you will kill their young men with the sword, dash in pieces their little ones, and rip up their pregnant women.” Hazael said, “What is your servant, who is a mere dog, that he should do this great thing?” Elisha answered, “The Lord has shown me that you are to be king over Aram.” Then he left Elisha, and went to his master Ben-hadad, who said to him, “What did Elisha say to you?” And he answered, “He told me that you would certainly recover.” But the next day he took the bed-cover and dipped it in water and spread it over the king’s face, until he died. And Hazael succeeded him.
I want to ask about the prophet and his words. He didn’t merely “predict” that Hazael would become king, did he? He spoke in a way that motivated him to act. This has long been my go-to example of how the prophets of the ancient world did not just predict things would happen, they made them happen. They predicted things and motivated people to act accordingly. They anointed kings even if another was then on the throne and brought about regime change. They were accused of being subversive elements and even traitors. These are details that some readers miss if they have been steeped in an inaccurate depiction of prophecy as akin to gazing into a crystal ball, or having visions of a future which then somehow unfolds because it was infallibly predicted and God brought it about with no one trying to.
On the contrary, as many who have criticized the false end-times predictions of generation after generation of apocalyptically-oriented Christians, such “predictions” are liable to bring things about which ultimately won’t fulfill the prediction fully as history most likely won’t come to an end, but which can nonetheless be significant. The prediction (not genuinely based in anything scriptural) that Israel must be a nation again in order for Jesus to return does not merely foresee a state of affairs, it motivates voting and other actions by American Christian Zionists. Those who believed false prophecies, whether from any number of charismatics or the elusive Q, about Trump remaining in office didn’t just sit back to watch prophecy unfold. They tried to play a role in bringing about what was predicted.
They failed, but the words had their effect. And among the words that instigated those actions were not only charismatic preachers and anonymous internet pundits but president Donald Trump.
Those who predict and instigate have often faced severe consequences for their words. Donald Trump does not deserve to be an exception.
For more on relations between Aram and Israel, take a look at the Minerva Center for the Relations between Israel and Aram in Biblical Times.