A false prophet is a person who spreads false teachings or messages while claiming to speak the Word of God. In the Bible, false prophets also spoke on behalf of false gods. False prophets functioned in their prophetic role illegitimately or for the purpose of deception. The Bible denounces false prophets for leading people astray.
In the Old Testament, the actual term false prophet does not occur, but references to false prophets are evident and abundant. In the book of Jeremiah, we encounter a clear description of false prophets: “Then the LORD said to me, ‘The prophets are prophesying lies in my name. I have not sent them or appointed them or spoken to them. They are prophesying to you false visions, divinations, idolatries and the delusions of their own minds’” (Jeremiah 14:14; see also 23:21–33; Zechariah 10:2).
The primary difference between men like Jeremiah—a true prophet of God—and false prophets was their source of information. Rather than speak the Word of the Lord, false prophets delivered messages that originated in their own hearts and minds: “This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘Do not listen to what the prophets are prophesying to you; they fill you with false hopes. They speak visions from their own minds, not from the mouth of the LORD’” (Jeremiah 23:16; see also 14:14; 23:25–32; Ezekiel 13:1–7). God distances Himself from all false prophets: “I did not send these prophets, yet they have run with their message; I did not speak to them, yet they have prophesied” (Jeremiah 23:21).
Another difference between true prophets and false prophets in the Bible is motivation. True prophets are motivated by loyalty to God above all else, whereas false prophets are motivated by self-interest and a desire to be popular among the people (1 Kings 22:13–14). While Jeremiah foretold the grim truth of coming desolation upon Jerusalem (Jeremiah 4), the false prophets promised peace (Jeremiah 6:14; 8:11). Naturally, the people of Judah preferred the pleasant messages of the false prophets: “Don’t tell us what is right. Tell us nice things. Tell us lies” (Isaiah 30:10, NLT).
Often false prophets were hired for payment or spoke their messages for financial gain: “Her leaders judge for a bribe, her priests teach for a price, and her prophets tell fortunes for money. Yet they look for the LORD’s support and say, ‘Is not the LORD among us? No disaster will come upon us’” (Micah 3:11; see also Nehemiah 6:12–13; Jeremiah 6:13–14; Ezekiel 13:19; 2 Peter 2:1–3).
Israel could not always discern the difference between a true and false prophet. In 1 Kings 22, King Jehoshaphat of Judah sought counsel from the Lord before he and King Ahab of Israel embarked on their mission to retake the city of Ramoth in Gilead. Jehoshaphat heard the predictions of victory from Ahab’s 400 counselors but suspected that these men were false prophets who did not have the mind of the Lord. Jehoshaphat’s suspicions were correct: they were Ahab’s “yes men,” false prophets who had no concern for relating the true Word of God. They merely said what the king wanted to hear and collected their salary from the royal treasury.
Jehoshaphat asked if there was another prophet who could give a second opinion. Ahab called for the prophet Micaiah, albeit reluctantly: “I hate him,” Ahab complained, “because he never prophesies anything good about me, but always bad” (1 Kings 22:8). True to form, Micaiah prophesied that Ahab would be killed in the battle and Israel would be “scattered on the hills like sheep without a shepherd” (verse 17). Micaiah, whose words came to pass, proved to be the true prophet of God. None of the false prophets in Ahab’s court could keep the king alive.
The punishment specified for false prophets in the Old Testament was severe: “If any prophet dares to speak a message in My name that I have not commanded him to speak, or to speak in the name of other gods, that prophet must be put to death” (Deuteronomy 18:20).
In the New Testament, Jesus taught about false prophets in His Sermon on the Mount: “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit” (Matthew 7:15–18).
Jesus went on to explain the grave consequences of being a false prophet: “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them. Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’” (Matthew 7:19–23).
The Bible describes false prophets as adulterous (Jeremiah 23:14), treacherous (Zephaniah 3:4), drunkards (Isaiah 28:7), wicked (Jeremiah 23:11), liars (Jeremiah 14:14; 23:14), and associated with divination and witchcraft (Jeremiah 14:14; Ezekiel 22:28; Acts 13:6). Scripture teaches believers to be diligent in faith and devotion to Christ’s teachings so that they will be able to spot false prophets and false teachers quickly (2 Peter 1:10; 1:19—2:1; 1 John 4:1). Thankfully, the Bible outlines foolproof tests for recognizing a false prophet. The key is to know what a true prophet is like:
• A true prophet’s words will be fulfilled (Deuteronomy 18:21–22; Jeremiah 28:8–9).
• A true prophet’s teachings are consistent with Scripture (2 Peter 1:20–21; Revelation 22:18–19).
• A true prophet’s teachings will encourage righteous behavior and provide spiritual benefit (Deuteronomy 13:1–4; Jeremiah 23:13–14, 32; Ezekiel 13:17–23; 14:4–8; Lamentations 2:14).
• A true prophet’s life will reflect a divine call (Isaiah 28:7; Jeremiah 23:10–11, 14; 29:9; Zephaniah 3:4; Matthew 7:15–20).
• A true prophet will acknowledge Jesus Christ as divine (1 John 4:1–6).