Last week in “Testing a Prophet”, we discussed two tests that the Israelites (and modern Christians) use to help determine whether a man speaks for God and, consequently, whether the words he shares qualify as Holy Writ. This week, we’re going to pick up where we left off and take a look at another test that is used to determine “prophetic quality”: the test of “uniqueness”. Unlike last week’s test, “uniqueness” is not a Biblical test of prophesy, but a logical one and it allows us to separate would-be prophets from real prophets based on the type and quality of their predictions.
If you think back, you may remember our discussing that if a prophet runs around telling people that a giant balloon is going to crash on top of a house in Manhattan tomorrow morning and it doesn’t happen – that man is not a prophet. You may also remember us asking, “If a man prophesies that I will brush my teeth tomorrow… and I do? Does he qualify as a prophet?” While, obviously, the prediction of the latter prophet neither contradicted previous revelation nor failed to come true, it does fail three other tests of genuine prophesy. The first of these is the test of “uniqueness”.
Most of us can make general guesses about the world around us and be correct a fair percentage of the time. The sun probably will come up tomorrow and it’s likely that I will put on a pair of pants before I leave for work. (At least my co-workers all hope that I do!) Neither of these events are “unique” in that they are recurring. Any reasonably intelligent person could make an educated guess as to what I will have for breakfast, what television I will watch in the evening, or which people I will encounter at work, simply by looking at the patterns which have already manifest themselves in my life.
Similarly, those who have deeply studied issues like politics, economics, and history can often appear to “prophesy” future events – foretelling economic collapse, civil war, and even the outcome of an election with unusual ease. While such predictions may be beyond the realms of most of us, these too, fail the test of “uniqueness” in that they are made based on prior information, not upon future knowledge. True prophesy isn’t like playing the horses – it isn’t a matter of odds.
A second type of prophesy which fails this test is known as the “self-fulfilling prophesy”. Unlike predictions which are based upon past events, a self-fulfilling prophesy may appear to have “unique” qualities to it. It may predict an event which is, indeed, out of the ordinary, but which, upon closer examination could be intentionally fulfilled.
For example, someone might predict that I will go to the grocery store after work today. I never go to the grocery store on a Friday, so it appears that there is, indeed, a “unique” quality to this prophesy. Upon hearing the prediction, I suddenly remember that there are a few things that I need to pick up and, after work, I head straight to the local convenience mart.
Fulfilled prophesy? Hardly! While the prediction didn’t rely on prior information, it did fail to demonstrate genuine future knowledge. Suggest that pizza would make a great dinner, that a local genius should patent his invention, or that the Town Council should erect a long-needed meeting hall and you’ll likely find that the predictions come through. Such “prophesy” isn’t predictive so much as “motivational” – encouraging others to do things which may be out of the ordinary, but which aren’t beyond their means to accomplish. And, as such, it fails to meet the true test of “uniqueness”.
Another prominent feature of self-fulfilling prophesies is that they often suggest a framework for the interpretation of otherwise ordinary events. Just ask anyone who has ever read their morning horoscope. What starts out as a perfectly beautiful morning quickly turns into a disaster because “Mars and Saturn are in conjunction”. Never mind that you always forget to turn on the right burner, that your coworker rarely shows up for shift on time, or that your teacher is usually grumpy before midterms. In such situations, perfectly ordinary events can take on special meaning simply because we expect them to. There is, after all, nothing too odd about people behaving as they normally do. It is our interpretation of the facts which makes the difference.
Next week, we’ll take a look at another test of genuine prophesy: the test of Detail. Meanwhile, feel free to share your thoughts on the issue of “uniqueness” in the comment box below!