Some Americans started getting uneasy around 2007 when they heard rumours about homeowners in trouble over what were called subprime mortgages, a term they’d only recently become familiar with. But many of these so-called experts were blasé about threats to the security of financial institutions.
Jim Cramer, a popular commentator on the financial network CNBC, read a letter from a listener asking, “Should I be worried about Bear Stearns?”
“No! No! No!” shouted Cramer. “Bear Stearns is fine. . . . That’s just being silly.”
Five days later, Bear Stearns, one of the biggest money management companies in the world, folded. It was bought out for two dollars a share, and what followed brought the world economy to the very brink of financial collapse.
In recent years the financial services sector has been shown to give notoriously poor advice. Money managers are making record profits—the cost of intermediation (what it costs to make investments) has gone from an average of 2 per cent to 6 per cent—yet their picks are poor, often falling below the market average. Back in 2012, when the British paper The Observer ran a contest between investment pros and a cat that selected stocks by throwing his toy mouse on a grid of numbers representing different companies, the feline won!
The world has had a lot of experience with false predictions. Experts like these claim to speak truth, but those who put their trust in them can only expect to be disappointed. Perhaps the world needs to listen to fewer experts—and more prophets!
Truth and authority
Jewish scholar Harold Kushner has said that “a prophet is not a man who tells the future; he is a man who tells the truth.”
The biblical prophets spoke with the authority of God behind them, meaning that what they had to say would be, by definition, true. Only occasionally did that mean predicting a future event, such as the rise and fall of empires that Daniel predicted or the end-time events of Revelation.
Human experts, like politicians, military leaders, educators and medical experts, often attempt to speak authoritatively, but they don’t always speak truth. Military and political leaders “prophesied” that World War I would be “the war to end all wars.” Yet how many millions have died in conflicts since then? At the beginning of our third millennium, governments ventured into a Middle Eastern war that was predicted to last weeks but hasn’t ended yet.
Even at their best and most sincere, human experts’ abilities are limited. One summer, I was asked to officiate at an outdoor wedding. As the date approached, the forecast was encouraging: a week from now, it said, we’d have a marvellous day, mild and clear. But each day that week the picture worsened, until on the wedding day we were trying to fit the ceremony in between thunderstorms.
Real prophecies aren’t merely forecasts but spiritual truths: prophets speak on God’s behalf about what God has done for us and how to live a life acceptable to Him.
Being a prophet
What makes one a prophet? First, prophets don’t select themselves. They’re assigned to their role by God. But it is, at times, a difficult assignment to carry out, and some, like Jeremiah, didn’t want the job (Jeremiah 1:6). Prophets were sometimes hated, and even in danger. When Elijah condemned corrupt rulers Ahab and Jezebel, they threatened to kill him (1 Kings 19:2).
Second, prophets speak and write in harmony with the truths God has already given. Isaiah said, “To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, it is because there is no light in them” (Isaiah 8:20, NKJV).1 That doesn’t mean that prophets won’t add to established truths. Isaiah predicted the coming of the Messiah, both His birth and His death (Isaiah 7:14; 53:1–12). But he was only giving more information about a plan of salvation that God had already promised through prophets before him.
Third, prophets speak truth. “If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the Lord does not take place or come true, that is a message the Lord has not spoken” (Deuteronomy 18:22). Though not all prophets received predictions of the future from God, those who did, like Daniel’s interpretation of the dream of a great statue (Daniel 2:36–42), were accurate in all their detail. All prophets spoke truth against sin, both personal and collective. The prophet Nathan confronted King David about his adultery with Bathsheba (2 Samuel 12:1–13), and Isaiah rebuked the mistreatment of the poor and neglected (Isaiah 58:6–8).
Finally, prophets are human. The first book of Peter says that the prophets were not mere secretaries but were entrusted with recording their experiences with God in their own words. Their humanness shows through. Peter spoke God’s truths, but we know him to have been impetuous and sometimes undisciplined. Balaam is an example of a prophet with a poor character: he wanted to sell out to Israel’s enemies, but even he understood that “I must speak only what God puts in my mouth” (Numbers 22:38).
Though the biblical prophets were of a special sort, others through history spoke prophetically—that is, they condemned sin and uplifted Christ. Augustine of Hippo, Martin Luther and John Wesley delivered biblical truths that others were reluctant to hear; special messages for special times in earth’s history.
The Bible promised special prophetic messengers “in the last days,” too. Through the prophet Joel God said, “I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions” (Joel 2:28).
Prophets speak and write in harmony with the truths God has already given.
The work of Ellen White, a founder of the Seventh-day Adventist Church (publisher of Signs of the Times), matches this description. Born Ellen Harmon in Maine in 1827, through her long life she wrote some 5000 periodical articles and 40 books and she reported more than 2000 visions and dreams.2
White never gave novel or self-serving messages. Rather, she consistently called people back to Bible study. God called her to the prophetic task when she was just a teenager. Her first vision was a reminder that Jesus’ promised return—largely forgotten by the Christians of the 19th century—was going to happen soon.
As the years passed, she showed how the events in the world around us matched the Bible’s prophecies of what would occur right before Christ’s return. At a time when most Christians worshipped on Sunday, she called them back to the Bible Sabbath, the seventh day of the week, showing how it was to be a test of obedience to God in the last days of Earth’s history. The religious movement that grew from her messages took its name from these two important doctrines: Seventh-day for the Sabbath, and Adventist for the second advent of Jesus.
Long before the current interest in health, White reminded Christians that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19), and that even what we eat and drink must reflect positively on God (1 Corinthians 10:31). Because of her health teachings, the members of the church of which she was a pioneer have, according to several studies, longer lives with greater health and happiness.3
White wasn’t a saint in the generally accepted way. Like the Bible prophets, she was quite human. But she did speak boldly against sin, both personal and collective. Through her letters she corrected believers lovingly, yet firmly. She also condemned slavery and encouraged social justice and ministry to the needy. She was especially forthright with religious leaders who ignored or changed the words of the Bible and those who insisted on Sunday worship against the Bible’s specific teaching, and she never claimed authority that was the prerogative of God alone, such as the ability to receive confessions and forgive sin.
White herself was always reluctant to claim the title of prophet because she knew that the Bible was the only source of truth. Yet because of her speaking and writing, today the Seventh-day Adventist Church has more than 18 million members in every corner of the globe. It is one of the fastest growing religious denominations in the world.
White never predicted what would happen in the stock market, but she did predict that the world would become increasingly troubled, that morality would break down and that governments and markets would fail preceding Jesus’ return to rescue those who love Him.
So far, the signs of the times are bearing out her message—a reminder that you can safely trust in God’s prophets, even if you can’t trust the stock market.
1. Bible texts marked NKJV are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
2. You can read more about Ellen White at the Ellen G. White Estate website, http://ellenwhite.org/