This mandate starts off with a sort of vision: Hermas is shown some men sitting down, some on a seat and one on a chair. The difference is sort of lost in translation, so I had to look it up in the Greek. The group of men is sitting on a συμψέλιον (sumpselion) which is like a bench, and the singular man is sitting on a καθέδρα (kathedra) which like a proper chair. The image is of a man teaching a crowd, and the angel tells Hermas that this is a false prophet “ruining the minds of the servants of God.” Or more specifically, he’s ruining the doubters among God’s people. The command is eventually given, and is rather obvious: don’t listen to false prophets. But this command is barely even stated, because nearly the entire text of this mandate is focused upon how to discern between a false prophet and a real one.
False prophets do not have “the power of a Divine Spirit” in them. They are, in this sense, empty. Thus their words are empty and they speak to empty people – people without God’s Spirit. They tell people what they want to hear, according to their sinful human nature; they’re scam artists. “Some true words he does occasionally utter; for the devil fills him with his own spirit, in the hope that he may be able to overcome some of the righteous.” Most importantly, though, false prophets are recognizable by their behavior. They exalt themselves, they desire the first seat at the table, they’re bold and talkative, they charge money for their prophecies, and they love luxury and comfort. (This sounds rather like a lot of health-wealth preachers you see on TV today, which is a good critique considering Hermas’ earlier teaching about prayer.) Furthermore, false prophets don’t associate with true believers very much anyway, because they don’t have anything to offer them unless they’re able to dupe some of them.
A true prophet, like false a prophet, is discernible “by his life.” They’re “meek, peaceable, and humble,” and content with a lower standard of living. They don’t prophesy for money. In fact, they don’t prophesy at all unless God directs them; they can’t do it ‘on demand’ as it were.
When, then, a man having the Divine Spirit comes into an assembly of righteous men who have faith in the Divine Spirit, and this assembly of men offers up prayer to God, then the angel of the prophetic Spirit, who is destined for him, fills the man; and the man being filled with the Holy Spirit, speaks to the multitude as the Lord wishes.
This can be imagined in a couple different ways. You could think of an itinerant prophet visiting a house church, as the Didache describes (scroll to 11:5). He arrives, they get to know each other, the people pray for him for a while, and then he speaks God’s word to them. Just as realistically, though, you could think of a preacher who has been studying the Bible, joins the congregation’s prayers on Sunday morning, and then preaches God’s word to them. For we’ve got to remember that when we talk about prophets and prophecy, we’re not talking about predictions about the future necessarily, but people who προ-φετευσει, who ‘speak forth’ on God’s behalf. This could mean a revelation of new knowledge (about the future, present, or past) or an application of Scripture (revealing the living word in the written word). So yes, ‘preaching’ (or at least good preaching) is a very helpful picture of what the angel is talking about here.
This mandate, then, gives us some helpful insight into two different spiritual gifts that Paul mentions in his writings: prophecy and distinguishing spirits. It’s kind of interesting that Paul lists them right next to each other, suggesting how they might be related to each other as a complementary pair (like the pair of speaking in tongues with interpreting tongues), and now see The Shepherd of Hermas providing an explanation of how they interrelate. Those with the gift of prophecy can read this mandate and be reminded of the importance of the witness one exudes simply by lifestyle and character. And this mandate just gave some practical advice to all of us regarding the distinguishing of spirits!
Finally, there’s one more excellent quote regarding the power of true vs. false prophets that I want to address. “But as for you, trust the Spirit which comes from God, and has power; but the spirit which is earthly and empty trust not at all, for there is no power in it: it comes from the devil.” So very often, we think of the devil as a powerful adversary of God, and sometimes we even think that the devil is God’s equal opposite. Both of these ideas are very mistaken. The devil, insofar that he’s an angel, is a powerful being compared to humans. But he’s still a part of creation; he’s nothing compared to God. And this quote (verse 17) is a great reminder of this truth. All power comes from God, even the devil’s. When push comes to shove, the devil has nothing, and cannot win, even against a faithful Christian, let alone against God!