Since biblical times, prophecy has been part and parcel of the work of those called by God to do God’s ministry.
In Ghana, ministers of God have undertaken Christian prophetic ministry since Christianity came to our country in the late 15th century. In very recent times, the prophetic ministry in Ghana has come to assume an important currency owing to the very many death and doom predictions concerning prominent people in the country. As a consequence, many citizens are beginning to spend some time discussing Christian prophecy and its relevance in contemporary Ghanaian society.
The upsurge of “Death and Doom Prophecies” in Ghana Today
In Ghana today, it seems that no prominent person or public figure dies without it being claimed by one or the other prophet that he or she prophesied about it before it happened. This phenomenon which has persisted for some time now has attracted the attention, concern, and worry of many well-meaning Ghanaians, and rightly so, leading to calls on the various Religious Bodies in the country, and the Government, to do something about it. While the uttering of prophecies is not a new phenomenon in Ghana, what is unique about present-day “death and doom prophecies” in the country is the sheer frequency and profligacy with which pastors and prophets are engaged in the practice and the high-profile personalities affected, the latest one being some prophetic claims surrounding the unfortunate demise of former president Jerry John Rawlings.
Between the end of 2016 and 2018, Ghana experienced what one might call “an explosion of prophecies.” At the end of 2018, for example, Pastor Owusu Bempah is reported to have prophesied that in 2019, Ghana will not hear good news because the country will witness the (possible) deaths of ex-President John Mahama, the current Vice President, Dr. Mahamudu Bawumia, and the National Chief Imam, and other high-profile personalities. Many Ghanaians were enraged by those prophecies, but the prediction of the death of the National Chief Imam (the man is 102 years old), in particular, angered some Muslim youths who on January 2, 2019, took the law into their own hands and tried to teach Pastor Bempah a lesson or two by vandalising his Church and assaulting those they met on its premises. Since that incident, death prophecies somehow abated in the country but did not diminish completely. With the recent US elections, some pastors have made and “failed” in their predictions even though they continue to make unsuccessful attempts at giving explanations for their failed prophecies.
In the light of the increasing phenomenon of prophetic utterances in Ghana, I think it urgent and necessary to shed some light on the theology of prophecy from the perspective of Christian Scripture, tradition and praxis. The is aimed at helping all Ghanaians but particularly Ghanaian Christians to understand and appreciate the meaning and place of prophecy in Christianity.
Prophecy according to the Bible
We Christians regard the Bible made up of the Old Testament and the New as a sacred book because it contains the inspired Word of God. In the Old Testament, the word “prophet” is used to translate the Hebrew word, nabi (plural, nevi’im), which means spokesperson, linguist, one who is called, one who speaks on behalf of another person. Other Old Testament designations for the prophet, include “man of God” (Hebrew, ish Elohim), “seer” (because of the prophet’s inclination to receive revelatory visions cf. 1 Sam. 9:6) and “messenger” (Isa. 42:19 etc.), but “nabi” is the most frequently used word for a prophet (cf. Jer. 1:4-5; Is. 6:8-9; Ezek. 2:1-4).
The Old Testament teaches that as spokespersons of God, prophets are called and sent by God to speak God’s Word to God’s people (Jer. 1:4-5; Amos 7:14-15; Is. 6:8-13). They do this by employing the prophetic oracle or formula, “Thus says the Lord” (Amos 1:3; Jer. 31:15; Is. 44:1). The prophets speak through direct messages and the preaching of sermons to address kings (Is.7:1 ff.; 2 Sam. 12:1-14), individuals (Amos. 7:16-17) and nations (Jer. 7:1 ff., 1 Kgs. 18:21-40).
The Old Testament also teaches that as spokespersons of God, the prophets were forth tellers; they announced God’s intentions and reactions and addressed mostly contemporary issues. In speaking the word of God, the prophets were concerned directly with present issues and only indirectly with the future (cf. Isa. 7:14). Their words dealt directly with immediate concerns though these words could impinge on the future. The prophets were forth tellers, not foretellers because they did not predict the future. Prediction is NOT the most appropriate way to describe Old Testament biblical prophecy, since it is important to distinguish between the message of the prophet and its fulfilment. The message of the prophet is God’s word for a contemporary audience, the fulfilment of it unfolds in history. Thus, each prophecy has a message as soon as it is proclaimed independent of its fulfilment. As such, prophets must not be described simply as people who predict the future but as spokesmen of God who speak God’s word to address contemporary issues.
Regarding their roles, when Israelite history began, prophets first held the reins of leadership and acted as leaders of the people. The two important examples being Moses and Aaron (Exo. 4:16; 7:1; Num. 1:1; 9:23; Deut. 18:15). Later, the prophets played active roles in the political and religious life of the nation of Israel, mostly by advising the kings and calling to the leaders and people to eschew idolatry and worship God (1 Kgs. 17:1 ff.). One can note the role of Nathan during David’s kingship (2 Sam. 7:3; 1 Kgs. 2:4) and Isaiah during the reigns of Ahaz and Hezekiah (Isa. 7:3-12, 37:5-7, 38:1 ff.). In such capacities, their messages were primarily intended for the kings, but they also had relevance for the entire people.
Furthermore, the prophets employed the prophetic word to confront social situations such as injustice, oppression of the poor, widows and orphans by the rich and the powerful in society. They rebuked those who were involved in the perpetuation of social injustices and warned them that of dire consequences, including captivity, destruction and exile if they failed to repent and practise justice and mercy (cf. Amos 5:10-15; 8:4-6. cf. Jer. 3:12-13; Mic. 6:8). By speaking on social concerns, the prophets were seen as reformers who insisted on the people’s fidelity to their covenant-relationship with God, calling on the people of Israel to be conscious of and faithful to God’s covenant underpinned by the Ten Commandments (Exo. 20:1-20).
Finally, the prophets gave hope to the people of Israel in times of distress, suffering, defeat and exile. Thus, when the people (had) lost hope, the prophets offered hope to them (s. 40:1-2:9; Jer. 30:1-2; 321- 2) and by so doing, they kept the nation together in hope for a brighter future.
To sum up, on the evidence of Old Testament scripture, prophets (of Israel) acted as spokespersons or “linguists” of God and the “conscience of the nation, Israel.” Prediction was without a doubt part of their work, but it was not their primary function which was to proclaim God’s Word to address contemporary issues, to give encouragement for a good life, warn against evil and idolatry and give hope when hope was lost.
In the New Testament, the four Gospels re-present the words and oracles of the Old Testament prophets as being fulfilled in the life, ministry and death of Jesus Christ, although most of the references they make are events that already took place in history (cf. Matt. 3:3; 8:17; 12:18-21; Mk. 1:3; Lk. 3:4-6). The Gospels present John the Baptist as the last and greatest prophet, sent by God to be the forerunner and precursor of Jesus Christ. Of him, the Gospels say, “He will go before him (Jesus) in the spirit and power of Elijah … to make ready for the Lord a people prepared (cf. Lk. 1:17). Jesus is also widely considered a prophet by his contemporaries (cf. Matt. 16:14, 21:11, 46; Mk. 6:15) and although he never used the word prophet to describe himself, he did not reject it either. It was natural for people to describe him this way because he spoke the Word of God with authority, he used prophetic modes of speech such as parables and judgement oracles, and he performed numerous miracles that recalled those of the prophets, especially Elijah and Elisha.
In the Acts of the Apostles and the Letters of Paul, prophets played an important role in the early Church and were highly esteemed because of the special service they provided for the Church community, namely, they were among the teachers of the early Church (Acts 13:1; Rom. 12:6; 1 Cor. 12:10; Eph. 2:20). In his Letters also, Paul describes prophecy as a gift (Eph. 4:11; 1 Cor. 14:3-5), and in fact, the best of the spiritual gifts (cf. 1 Cor. 14:3-5), but then he warns that just like any other spiritual gift, the gift of prophecy is meant to build the community, not destroy it, to unite not divide, and to edify, not befuddle. Thus, Paul’s teaching about spiritual gifts including prophecy is that failure to use prophecy and any other spiritual gift for the honour of God and the good of His Church and humanity it is an abuse of the spiritual gifts of God.
In summary, I posit that from the biblical understanding of prophecy, the phenomenon of “death and doom prophecies” in Ghana is not faithful to the letter and spirit of Christian prophecy and clearly borders on the abuse of the prophetic office. Prophetic ministry is biblical, theologically sustainable and experientially fulfilling, but only when it is seen and appropriated in the spirit of Jesus who gives gifts to those who believe in Him (Eph. 4:8. cf. Professor Kwabena Asamoah-Gyedu’s Lecture on “Prophetism in Public Life”, Accra, 2018). From 1 Corinthians 12:1a, where St. Paul says, “Concerning spiritual gifts, I do not want you to be uninformed,” we see that there was a time in the Church in Corinth when the issue of spiritual gifts became a controversial one which required St. Paul to give detailed clarification and direction. This shows that without proper spiritual basis and understanding, prophetic gifts, including prophecy, can be misused. There are many instances even in the Bible that show abuse and misuse of spiritual gifts including prophecy (cf. The story of the sons of Sceva in Acts 19:11-20).
Concerns About “Death and Doom Prophecies” in Ghana Today
With regard to the issue of the “death and doom prophecies” in Ghana, this writer thinks that the concerns and worries of many Ghanaians over the abuse of prophecy in Ghana particularly in the last few years are legitimate. This is because first and foremost, with reference to the biblical understanding of prophecy, prophecy is not simply prediction and certainly, not death and doom predictions; prophecy is much broader than that. The primary work of a prophet is not to predict future events but to announce God’s word and intentions regarding contemporary issues. The prophet is to encourage people to live God’s Word, show love, justice, empathy and compassion in their relationship with one another. A prophet speaks to warn people to desist from doing evil; he or she does not only predict death and doom.
Secondly and lastly, the Bible does not teach that God reveals death prophecies to God’s ministers at the end of the year or only after the event of death has occurred. The onus lies on those who think that God reveals the deaths of (prominent) people to tell the world what God says these persons have done to deserve death and to answer the related question of whether their deaths are not linked to disease, poor health, or old age, etc. As long as these so-called death prophets are unable to answer the above questions and tell the world when they themselves will die, my humble opinion is that they should keep their death prophecies to themselves because it is wrong and unchristian. What they do creates panic, anxiety and distress for the victims, their families, friends and loved ones, and indeed, for the whole Ghanaian society.
It is interesting that in the midst of the hullabaloo and brouhaha surrounding the activities of the so-called prophecies, we still have some Christians and other believers who think that their success and well-being are tied to prophecies, and thus continue to flock to Churches where pastors and prophets can “prophesy to their lives.” The unfortunate thing is that this situation is worsened by political patronage given to some of these prophets which patronage encourages them to continue to misbehave knowing that they cannot be held to accountability because they are aligned to one of the major political party in Ghana.
The Way Forward
With regard to the way forward, I think that the various Religious Bodies in Ghana such as the Ghana Catholic Bishops’ Conference, the Christian Council of Ghana, the Ghana Pentecostal and Charismatic Council, etc., should continue to teach their members and all Ghanaians about the theology of prophecy so that they will not fall prey to those who use prophecies only for the purposes of fame and self-aggrandisement. Besides, the Religious Bodies should continue to advocate for all the so-called one-man Churches to belong to the already existing Religious Bodies or form new associations so that there will be some form of regulation over their activities.
Secondly, I think that there must some form of legal regulation that will enable citizens who are offended by death prophecies to take legal action against the perpetrators. This I think will help our pastors and prophets to behave properly and be more sensitive with regard to their prophetic utterances especially when these prophecies concern the death of people.
Finally, methinks that the two major political parties in Ghana should act responsibly by withdrawing their political patronage from the prophets who enjoy their patronage and support while Ghanaians should not only ignore but name and shame all such religious charlatans who hide behind the veil of “death and doom prophecies” to sow fear and anxiety among citizens with the intention of becoming more popular, getting more followers and earning a few Ghana cedis from their consultations, prayers and prophecies.
It is important to encourage all ministers of God, be they pastors, priests, apostles or prophets, to speak God’s Word and do God’s work, not to look for quick money and vainglory through fake prophecies and religious gimmicks. I pray that religious leaders in Ghana who continue to profane God’s name by doing things which dishonour Him will desist from doing so, for He has warned that we should not take His name in vain as He will not acquit anyone who does so (cf. Exo. 20:7). I believe it is time for Ghanaians to wake up and see the dubiousness of the so-called prophecies of doom and death about public figures and celebrities and to say no to them. The State of Ghana must also do something about this phenomenon, including some form of regulation to nip it in the bud. Our citizens deserve to live in peace and security, not fear and panic created by death and doom prophecies of fake pastors and prophets.
Source: Rev. Fr. Emmanuel Abbey-Quaye (Duquesne University, Pittsburgh, Pa).