1 If prophets or those who divine by dreams appear among you and promise you omens or portents, 2 and the omens or the portents declared by them take place, and they say, "Let us follow other gods" (whom you have not known) "and let us serve them," 3 you must not heed the words of those prophets or those who divine by dreams; for the LORD your God is testing you, to know whether you indeed love the LORD your God with all your heart and soul. 4 The LORD your God you shall follow, him alone you shall fear, his commandments you shall keep, his voice you shall obey, him you shall serve, and to him you shall hold fast. 5 But those prophets or those who divine by dreams shall be put to death for having spoken treason against the LORD your God - who brought you out of the land of Egypt and redeemed you from the house of slavery - to turn you from the way in which the LORD your God commanded you to walk. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.
6 If anyone secretly entices you - even if it is your brother, your father's son or your mother's son, or your own son or daughter, or the wife you embrace, or your most intimate friend - saying, "Let us go worship other gods," whom neither you nor your ancestors have known, 7 any of the gods of the peoples that are around you, whether near you or far away from you, from one end of the earth to the other, 8 you must not yield to or heed any such persons. Show them no pity or compassion and do not shield them. 9 But you shall surely kill them; your own hand shall be first against them to execute them, and afterwards the hand of all the people. 10 Stone them to death for trying to turn you away from the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. 11 Then all Israel shall hear and be afraid, and never again do any such wickedness.
Priests, prophets, healers, teachers, exorcists -- these were/are found in many religions in various parts of the world. The ancient world in the time of Moses was also familiar with these religious specialists. What distinguished YHWH's prophets and priests from their counterparts was that they were called and commissioned by the LORD. Their distinction did not consist in their identity as prophets and priests as such since the categories of "priest" and "prophet" were also accepted and recognized by neighboring pagan religions.
This broad, cultural acceptance of "prophets" and "diviners of dreams" provides the background for Deuteronomy 13 above. The important question, then, was, How do you distinguish the good from the bad? How can you tell the difference between a prophet sent by YHWH or from someone else?
Obviously, if these so-called prophets were consistently wrong in their prophesying, then the issue was settled quite easily. Wrong prophetic prediction calls into doubt the legitimacy of the prophet. But, what happens when these so-called prophets seem to get it right? (By the way, a lot of "prophecy" back then, as it is now, was often vague, making it difficult to nail down what exactly was prophesied. A lot of wiggle room to interpret things in ways to fit the prophecy!) But let's imagine that some of these so-called prophets got the prophecy right. Let's suppose they were accurate. Did accuracy settle the question?
According to the Deuteronomy passage, accuracy alone is not sufficient to determine whether someone is legitimate (i.e., as someone sent by YHWH). Something else needs to be considered.
That something else is: To whom are these prophets leading the people? In less stilted language, Which "god" are these prophets drawing attention to?Deuteronomy 13 in essence is saying: It doesn't matter how accurate these "prophets" might be; if they are drawing you away from YHWH, you can stop listening to them.
Jesus in Matthew 7:15-17 said, "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."
The "fruit" of a tree tells us what kind of tree it is. The "fruit" of a prophet tells us whose prophet he or she is. If the person points to Jesus -- seeking Jesus' glory and His joy -- then the person has "good fruit." If the person points to someone else -- perhaps him or herself -- then the person lacks good fruit.
What's true of prophets is true of everyone else too. If we draw people away from the Lord, we are in mortal danger. If we draw people to the Lord, we are in a good place.
Let's pray: Lord Jesus, whether in our prophesying or in some other action or word, remind us to draw attention to you. Forgive us for turning people away from you however unintended. Help us to lead people to you by having our own attention consistently focused on you and your glory. May the words of our mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer (Ps. 19:14). Amen.