In order to complete my mini-series in homage to RWL Moberly I'm going to summarise some of his thoughts about a crucial contemporary issue. When lots of people claim to speak for God (prophecy) how can we go about separating the genuine from the false (discernment). A really helpful case study is that of the interaction between King Ahab and Micaiah ben Imlah in 1 Kings 22. What follows is an exegesis of the passage, which is the climax of the rule of King Ahab in Israel, paraphrasing Moberly's chapter on the topic in his excellent Prophecy and Discernment.
For three years there was no war between Aram and Israel. 2 But in the third year Jehoshaphat king of Judah went down to see the king of Israel. 3 The king of Israel had said to his officials, ‘Don’t you know that Ramoth Gilead belongs to us and yet we are doing nothing to retake it from the king of Aram?’
4 So he asked Jehoshaphat, ‘Will you go with me to fight against Ramoth Gilead?’
Jehoshaphat replied to the king of Israel, ‘I am as you are, my people as your people, my horses as your horses.’
The starting point of the story is the narrator's observation that Israel is in a time of peace with its Aramaean neighbours. This is, implicitly, a good thing, but we learn straight away that Ahab has other things on his mind. His leading question to his fellow king suggests that Ahab has designs on the disputed territory of Ramoth Gilead. There's no particular indication of his motives but the implication is that the power and prestige of Israel (and its king) are more significant factors for Ahab than maintaining peace. Jehoshaphat seems to be aware that Ahab has, in effect, already made up his mind and so gives a diplomatic response.
5 But Jehoshaphat also said to the king of Israel, ‘First seek the counsel of the Lord.’
6 So the king of Israel brought together the prophets – about four hundred men – and asked them, ‘Shall I go to war against Ramoth Gilead, or shall I refrain?’
‘Go,’ they answered, ‘for the Lord will give it into the king’s hand.’
Whether to satisfy his own sense of unease or to ensure that appropriate process is followed Jehoshaphat does ask that Ahab consults his prophets to ensure that YHWH approves of the scheme. Ahab duly takes the advice (he could hardly refuse) and gathers 400 of his prophets in order to obtain the counsel of the LORD. It is obvious now that the king has made his intentions perfectly clear; the prophets know which way the wind is blowing and so tell the king what he wants to hear.
7 But Jehoshaphat asked, ‘Is there no longer a prophet of the Lord here whom we can enquire of?’
8 The king of Israel answered Jehoshaphat, ‘There is still one prophet through whom we can enquire of the Lord, but I hate him because he never prophesies anything good about me, but always bad. He is Micaiah son of Imlah.’
‘The king should not say such a thing,’ Jehoshaphat replied.
That King Ahab's prophets are nothing more than craven toadies looking to further themselves by currying favour with the king is now obvious. Jehoshaphat smells a Jehosha-Rat! This brings the problems of prophecy and discernment out into the open because we have people (a large group, in fact) claiming to speak on behalf of God and yet there is good reason to doubt their authenticity.
Thus, Micaiah ben Imlah comes into the scenario. There is one more prophet through whom we can enquire but the king dislikes him because he "never prophesies anything good about me, but always bad" (read: he never tells me what I want to hear). And so, King Jehoshaphat gently rebukes Ahab and reminds him that Micaiah may still have something worthwhile to say.
9 So the king of Israel called one of his officials and said, ‘Bring Micaiah son of Imlah at once.’
10 Dressed in their royal robes, the king of Israel and Jehoshaphat king of Judah were sitting on their thrones at the threshing-floor by the entrance of the gate of Samaria, with all the prophets prophesying before them. 11 Now Zedekiah son of Kenaanah had made iron horns and he declared, ‘This is what the Lord says: “With these you will gore the Arameans until they are destroyed.”’
12 All the other prophets were prophesying the same thing. ‘Attack Ramoth Gilead and be victorious,’ they said, ‘for the Lord will give it into the king’s hand.’
The narrator now paints a picture for us. The kings in all their splendour at the formal place of justice, with hundreds of prophets of one voice in support of King Ahab, is to be the setting for Micaiah's audience. This is no private audience which might make it easy for him to give his frank and honest view; on the contrary, there is enormous pressure on him to conform. This image will come back in Micaiah's words later on.
13 The messenger who had gone to summon Micaiah said to him, ‘Look, the other prophets without exception are predicting success for the king. Let your word agree with theirs, and speak favourably.’
14 But Micaiah said, ‘As surely as the Lord lives, I can tell him only what the Lord tells me.’
To put the icing on the cake, even the messenger says to Micaiah: "Look, mate, just fall into line and everyone's happy. No need to make a fuss!" He knows exactly what is going on (as does everyone else in the royal court) and wants the easy outcome. However, Micaiah's only concern here is for the truth.
15 When he arrived, the king asked him, ‘Micaiah, shall we go to war against Ramoth Gilead, or not?’
‘Attack and be victorious,’ he answered, ‘for the Lord will give it into the king’s hand.’
16 The king said to him, ‘How many times must I make you swear to tell me nothing but the truth in the name of the Lord?’
We are now left in no doubt about the king's self-serving self-deception. Unexpectedly, Micaiah parrots exactly what the king wants to hear! This demonstrates Micaiah as a masterful communicator, for by saying what is expected he provokes from the king a reaction that reveals that he is aware that perhaps his advisors are simple "yes men". The challenge for Micaiah is to enable the king to admit that what has gone before has been a sham. How hard it is for us to admit when we have allowed ourselves to buy into that which we know, deep down, to be false. How easy to pile deceit upon half-truth upon deception in order to save face! Part of prophecy is to communicate God in a manner than enables us to lay down our ego and acknowledge our failings. Can Micaiah achieve this?
17 Then Micaiah answered, ‘I saw all Israel scattered on the hills like sheep without a shepherd, and the Lord said, “These people have no master. Let each one go home in peace.”’
18 The king of Israel said to Jehoshaphat, ‘Didn’t I tell you that he never prophesies anything good about me, but only bad?’
Micaiah's oracle takes the form of a vision. The king makes two mistakes in understanding it. Firstly, Ahab fails to recognise that the vision is not about him but is about the people of Israel. YHWH's primary concern is for the people who will be left leaderless and the challenge here is to remember his responsibilities before it is too late. Secondly, Ahab fails to respond appropriately. The basic dynamic of Hebrew prophecy is that of response-seeking rather than presenting a fait-accompli; the warning of disaster is intended to provoke a response of repentance (that is, turning from a wrong path) in order that disaster might be averted (see Jonah for a classic example).
19 Micaiah continued, ‘Therefore hear the word of the Lord: I saw the Lord sitting on his throne with all the multitudes of heaven standing round him on his right and on his left. 20 And the Lord said, “Who will entice Ahab into attacking Ramoth Gilead and going to his death there?”
‘One suggested this, and another that. 21 Finally, a spirit came forward, stood before the Lord and said, “I will entice him.”
22 ‘“By what means?” the Lord asked.
‘“I will go out and be a deceiving spirit in the mouths of all his prophets,” he said.
‘“You will succeed in enticing him,” said the Lord. “Go and do it.”
23 ‘So now the Lord has put a deceiving spirit in the mouths of all these prophets of yours. The Lord has decreed disaster for you.’
Again, Micaiah cannot get through to a deluded king by baldly stating that his prophets are only telling him what he wants to hear. The purpose here, again, is to provoke the king's repentant turning from a disastrous trajectory.
It's worth noting the parallel here between the court scene the narrator painted in v. 10. Micaiah is before an earthly court but now describes a heavenly court in which YHWH, not Ahab, is the king. This heavenly court is not intended to be separate, distant and unconnected, but is intended to represent the spiritual reality of what is happening in Ahab's temporal reality. The heavenly court is the spiritual counterpart to the earthly court; it is the other side of the same coin. YHWH's court interprets the true reality of Ahab's court.
Moberly identifies three different levels of interpretation for this vision. Firstly, there's a psychological level. The use of the term "deceive" is Micaiah's attempt to persuade the king that he is being duped by his prophets. By suggesting that God himself is behind the deceptive prophets serves to underline the severity of the deception taking place. Of course, no-one wants to admit to themselves that they are being deceived so by referring to God's involvement there is all the more reason for Ahab not to acquiesce to the duping.
Secondly is the moral level of the vision. Micaiah designates the content of what the 400 prophets say as "sheqer" ('lie', 'falsehood'); the prophetic support of the king's plans is self-serving and lacks integrity. They simply reflect back to Ahab what he wants to hear and in doing so expose his self-interest. There is thus a moral challenge here; not only should Ahab not be duped by the self-serving prophets but he should also recognise his own self-interest and lack of integrity in his ambitions towards Ramoth Gilead.
Finally comes the theological level. By ascribing the proposal to deceive Ahab to God, Micaiah's concern is that Ahab understands that it is not he, Micaiah, who has decreed disaster should this course be followed, but God himself has spoken thus. In continuing along this path Ahab confronts God. Again, the purpose of this "divine decree" is not one of forecasting inevitable disaster but is intended to avert such a disaster. The direct challenge to Ahab's self-will should provoke repentance in order that the divine compassion can be exercised.
24 Then Zedekiah son of Kenaanah went up and slapped Micaiah in the face. ‘Which way did the spirit from the Lord go when he went from me to speak to you?’ he asked.
25 Micaiah replied, ‘You will find out on the day you go to hide in an inner room.’
It is the moment of truth. Zedekiah has an opportunity now to hear the force of Micaiah's words and own up to his self-interest. However, he has a lot to lose if exposed as a fraud and so asks him a challenging rhetorical question. (Indeed, it is the question at the heart of this entire discussion). He asks, in essence, how do we know that you speak for God and not me?
At this point, Micaiah probably knows that he can never argue the others into agreement. There is too much self-interest, too many reputations to protect, for anyone to admit their deceit. He therefore gives a rather cryptic reply. His words are probably best understood as looking forward to a time at which it all comes crumbling down for Zedekiah. The "inner room" is an obscure cubby hole, the kind of place one escapes to when avoiding others (see 1 Kings 20:30). Why would Zedekiah be hiding there? Micaiah's suggestion is that at some point Zedekiah will be exposed for what he is and there'll be some very angry people looking for him. At this low ebb, says Micaiah, you'll do some soul searching and come to acknowledge what you have really known all along; you'll be able to admit to your own lack of integrity.
26 The king of Israel then ordered, ‘Take Micaiah and send him back to Amon the ruler of the city and to Joash the king’s son and say, “This is what the king says: put this fellow in prison and give him nothing but bread and water until I return safely.”’
28 Micaiah declared, ‘If you ever return safely, the Lord has not spoken through me.’ Then he added, ‘Mark my words, all you people!’
The King is not swayed by Micaiah and so Micaiah, in effect, signs his own life-long prison sentence. He acknowledges that if the king returns then everything that he has said has been empty. If he is correct then he'll remain incarcerated. It is surely this integrity that marks out Micaiah as the true prophet. The words of God come at great personal cost to Micaiah; he could so easily have become the 401st prophet and fallen into line (it wouldn't have made a difference to the outcome anyway). However, his acceptance of the implications of his own words and willingness to accept the appalling consequences for himself demonstrate his authenticity.
29 So the king of Israel and Jehoshaphat king of Judah went up to Ramoth Gilead. 30 The king of Israel said to Jehoshaphat, ‘I will enter the battle in disguise, but you wear your royal robes.’ So the king of Israel disguised himself and went into battle.
31 Now the king of Aram had ordered his thirty-two chariot commanders, ‘Do not fight with anyone, small or great, except the king of Israel.’ 32 When the chariot commanders saw Jehoshaphat, they thought, ‘Surely this is the king of Israel.’ So they turned to attack him, but when Jehoshaphat cried out, 33 the chariot commanders saw that he was not the king of Israel and stopped pursuing him.
34 But someone drew his bow at random and hit the king of Israel between the sections of his armour. The king told his chariot driver, ‘Wheel around and get me out of the fighting. I’ve been wounded.’ 35 All day long the battle raged, and the king was propped up in his chariot facing the Arameans. The blood from his wound ran onto the floor of the chariot, and that evening he died. 36 As the sun was setting, a cry spread through the army: ‘Every man to his town. Every man to his land!’
37 So the king died and was brought to Samaria, and they buried him there. 38 They washed the chariot at a pool in Samaria (where the prostitutes bathed), and the dogs licked up his blood, as the word of the Lord had declared.
And so, the king rides out to battle. It is notable that he does not act as a king confident of victory. He hides himself among the rank and file; a man in fear of his life and aware that he doesn't want to be a target. His end comes quite by accident and his final few hours allow him only time to see his armies defeated. This is surely the equivalent to Zedekiah's "inner room", the time at which the truth of Micaiah's prophecy becomes painfully clear to him in every respect.
So what are we to conclude about prophecy and discernment? It is surely the case that the genuine prophet speaks truth to power at the risk of great cost. The central dynamic of the story is around self-will and integrity. The prophetic call to Ahab is to dig deep and accept that his own intentions don't conform to the moral will of God. This isn't easy for any of us, and no-one likes to be told that they are being self-serving.
Who are you? Are you like Ahab? When you ask a question do you encourage people to tell you what you want to hear? Are you willing to listen when someone exposes your self-interest or do you do all you can to protect that interest? When you listen to the still, small voice inside are you able to change when it goes contrary to your own will?
Are you like Zedekiah? Do you tell people what they want to hear in order to feather your own nest? Do you carefully observe which way the wind is blowing and ensure that you catch that breeze? When someone challenges your ideas do you accept that you might be self-serving or do you seek to discredit dissenting voices in order to protect your own position?
Are you more of a Jehoshaphat? Are you aware that the wrong things are happening for the wrong reasons? Do you ask a few questions but then go along with it when the chips are down?
Or are you a Micaiah, willing to speak uncomfortable truth to power, even at great cost?
I'm pretty sure I'm primarily like Ahab and Zedekiah. It's so easy for me to know deep down that I'm wrong about something and yet prefer to dig my feet in and argue, shame and discredit nay-sayers rather than repenting and admitting my fault. It's always straightforward to tell people what they want to hear and avoid difficult conversations. I do it all the time, expecting someone else to take on the challenge. This is, for me, why church community is so vitally important. We (or I, anyway) need an environment in which people can be given the grace to enable repentance and change. It's vital to have a community of faithful critique in which we can, lovingly, challenge our brothers and sisters. This takes practice but, as Jesus put it: "This is the verdict: light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God." (John 3:19-21) Living in light is hard so let us be prophetically bold and humble in discernment.