Guest post by Neil Short of neshort.org:
In 1 Kings 22 a prophet Micaiah is consulted regarding the plans of Kings Ahab and Jehoshaphat to engage Aram in battle. In the prophecy, Micaiah first predicts success in the battle and then he predicts that King Ahab will be the primary casualty. He then elaborates with a vision of Yahweh authorizing a spirit to give lying oracles to Ahab’s prophets.
“and the LORD said, ‘Who will entice Ahab, that he may go up and fall at Ramoth-gilead?’ And one said one thing, and another said another. Then a spirit came forward and stood before the LORD, saying, ‘I will entice him.’ And the LORD said to him, ‘By what means?’ And he said, ‘I will go forth, and will be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.’ And he said, ‘You are to entice him, and you shall succeed; go forth and do so.’ Now therefore behold, the LORD has put a lying spirit in the mouth of all these your prophets; the LORD has spoken evil concerning you.” (1 Kings 22:20-23, RSV)
Terence Fretheim comments:
The variety of ways in which interpreters have sought to understand the lying spirit in this chapter is strange. Even notions of causality wherein God is said to cause everything that happens have intruded upon this conversation. But of course, if that were the case there would be nothing remarkable about this text! And despite some claims, such a notion of divine monism cannot be certainly found in any Old Testament text. (A full treatment cannot be provided here; for the finest guide available through these kinds of texts, see F. Lindström, God and the Origin of Evil.)
God can indeed use deception for God’s own purposes. We have seen in 1 Kings 13 that God makes use of a prophet who speaks both deceitful and truthful words to accomplish an objective, though God is not said to inspire the deceit there. Various texts make clear that false prophets who are explicitly said not to have been sent by God speak out over the course of Israel’s history (for example, Jer. 23:21; Deut. 18:22); at the same time, God can integrate such prophetic words into God’s larger purposes for Israel and the world. Texts like this, where God inspires the deceit (for example, Jer. 20:7; Ezek. 14:9), must be examined in their own contexts.
Several details should be lifted up for attention in trying to sort out this reference. The prophets of Ahab are specifically identified by God and Micaiah as “his prophets” and “all these your prophets” (vv. 22-23); they are contrasted with the “prophet of the Lord” by Jehoshaphat in verse 7. These are hired prophets (see Micah 3:5,11; the links to Micah are strong; v. 28b opens the book of Micah); they opportunistically speak assuring words to the king in order to assure themselves a living. There is no reason to think that these prophets are any different from the earlier 450 plus 400 prophets who ate “at Jezebel’s table” (18:19; only the 450 are slaughtered, 18:40). These are to be identified as false prophets, though their self-understanding might have been that they were true, as was the case with Hananiah (see v. 24; Jer. 28:2).
When the 400 prophets speak what they do, namely, that Ahab and the company will defeat the Aramaeans, they are speaking as such opportunists commonly do (e.g., Jer. 8:11; 23:17; Amos 5:18-20; Micah 3). So God does not use them against their natural proclivities or inclinations; the divine action is to encourage or inspire them in the direction they are already apt to go. It would not be unlike God’s intensification of already existing human obduracy (e.g., both God and pharaoh are the subject of hardening verbs in Exodus) or God’s giving the people up to their own stubbornness (Ps. 81:12). God is not in “total control of events” here; rather, the divine influence has been successful in inspiring them to stay on their opportunistic course.
Terence E. Fretheim, First and Second Kings (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1999) 126-127.