Polls are a lousy source of truth. Consider the inscription I saw on a bathroom wall years ago: “Eat [manure]! Ten billion flies can’t be wrong!”
Friends, I have an announcement to make: ten billion flies can be wrong! Here we see the danger of following the crowd or the Gallup Poll when we do our theology or when we’re trying to figure out right from wrong. God says in Exodus 23:2, “You shall not follow a multitude to do evil.”
In 1 Kings 22, we find the story of the prophet Micaiah ben-Imlah, a guy who had the courage to resist 400 prophets of King Ahab. When Ahab asks them whether he should attack the Arameans at Ramoth-Gilead, the whole crowd agrees: “Go up, for YHWH will give it into the hand of the king!”
King Jehoshaphat of Judah, however, is wary of these court prophets. He wants to know where he can get a second opinion before joining Ahab in battle. Ahab says he can try asking Micaiah, “but I hate him, for he never prophesies anything favorable about me, but only bad.”
Micaiah hears that the word from the prophets is unanimous. The experts on the royal court are all favorable toward Ahab: he will win if he launches this battle. Can Micaiah afford to oppose 400 prophets if they turn out to be right? How does he know that they are not right? On what does he base his confidence? He had better be sure he has a word from God, and is not merely being contrary.
Micaiah remains firm: “Whatever YHWH says to me, that will I speak.”
When he appears before Ahab, Micaiah first answers sarcastically: “Go up and triumph!” But then Micaiah tells everyone the vision God has shown him. First, he sees a scene of Israel devastated in battle. Then, he sees God trying to find someone who can entice Ahab to go up and die in this battle. Someone volunteers to be a lying spirit in the mouths of Ahab’s prophets.
Talk about insult! One of those prophets slaps Micaiah in the face. “Which way did the spirit of YHWH pass from me to speak to you?” Micaiah answers, “You will know on the day when you have to hide in an inner chamber.” Ahab orders Micaiah to be put in prison and given scant rations of bread and water until he returns in peace. Micaiah answers, “If you return in peace, YHWH has not spoken by me.”
Sometimes, there is no room to get it wrong. False prophecy must ultimately meet the reality test. Will Ahab return in peace? Ahab disguises himself in battle, while sending the king of Judah into battle in his royal robes. Jehoshaphat almost gets shot in Ahab’s place. But then an enemy soldier draws his bow “at random” and shoots Ahab right in a crack in his armor. Only God’s sovereign hand could engineer such an outcome. Against the unanimous verdict of 400 prophets, Micaiah alone gets it right, against a flood of popular opinion that threatens to sweep him away.
Ten billion flies can be wrong. Sometimes, instead of counting voices, we must weigh them.
It is only natural for us to want to follow a crowd mentality. When popular opinion is not on our side, we find it hard to resist the thought that maybe we are wrong. When we are unsure of ourselves, we do our reality-testing by checking to see what others think.
Polling the audience is not a very effective way of figuring out the answer to a question on a TV quiz show. As Lucian the Roman skeptic said, ten philosophers can make ten different guesses as to how many beans are in a jar, and they can all be wrong. The Bay of Pigs disaster (1962) and the explosion of the Challenger Space Shuttle (1986) are two blood-chilling examples of where “groupthink” can steer a group horribly wrong.
Today’s media screams at us, trying to convince us, “Nothing to see here!” We get push-polls designed to mold rather than measure public opinion. In a world where only yesterday we were told that truth is whatever is true for you, and the concept of absolute truth was laughed out of the room, today we have self-appointed “fact-checkers” (even technology giants) who wish to impose their “facts” on us, as if truth matters all of a sudden. (It always did.)
Today, we see crowds trying to bully us into allowing men in women’s bathrooms, using even the power of major corporations to stomp out any opposition. We see even two-thirds of Christians who think that cohabitation is OK. And even stealing or lying are measured by what the vast majority thinks, which is not new, but which seems to have increased to a disturbing degree.
The next time you find yourself tempted to follow a multitude to do evil, the next time you hear 400 self-proclaimed prophets urging you, “Let your word be like one of ours,” the next time you hear the polls running 73% against you saying that black is white and wrong is right, and you find yourself being swayed to where you wonder whether the crowd is right and you are wrong, remember Micaiah ben-Imlah. Remember saints of old like Martin Luther who cried, “Here I stand! I can do no other!” Remember their courage.
Don’t let the Gallup Poll do your theology for you! Don’t be a social coward, cringing in the face of true individualism. Don’t let popular opinion sway you into changing your mind. Don’t let them push you into swallowing an idea contrary to God’s word. Popular opinion will not always be on your side when it counts. And always remember: ten billion flies can be wrong.