Perhaps no words of the apostle Paul are more widely quoted by faithful preachers than these, found in the 4th chapter of his second letter to Timothy:
I charge thee in the sight of God and of Christ Jesus, who shall judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom, Preach the word; be urgent in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching (ASV).
After delivering this famous charge, the writer emphasizes the great need of preaching the unadulterated and unchanged word by drawing a prophetic picture of future conditions:
For the time will come when they will not endure the sound doctrine; but, having itching ears, will heap to themselves teachers after their own lusts; and will turn away their ears from the truth, and turn aside unto fables. But be thou sober in all things, suffer hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill thy ministry.
It doesn’t require unusual powers of observation to note such a condition in the world today. Not only are there multiplied millions whose ears constantly itch, but there are always teachers who are perfectly willing to scratch them! Saddest of all, these teachers who serve their own interests instead of the Lord, not only scratch the ears of those who deliberately prefer falsehood to the truth, but by smooth and fair speech deceive the innocent as well.
But this deplorable condition is not confined to our era. The heroic prophets of Old Testament times also encountered opposition from those who hated to listen to unpleasant truths. These men of God knew the bitterness of seeing their own people turn heeding ears to the false prophets of the land.
There is an incident, recorded in First Kings 22 and Second Chronicles 18, which fitly illustrates the principle of our text. At that time, Jehoshaphat, king of Judah, made a visit of state to King Ahab, ruler of Israel. There had been three years of peace between Syria and Israel, kingdoms that were usually engaged in warfare. Nevertheless, king Ahab’s breast rankled with the thought that Ramoth-Gilead, which he considered as rightfully belonging to him, was within the borders of Syria. Accordingly, he proposed to his brother monarch that they form an offensive alliance against the Syrians for the purpose of reclaiming the lost city. Jehoshaphat consented to Ahab’s proposal with alacrity, declaring, “I am as thou art, my people as thy people, my horses as thy horses.”
Just as the Greeks of classic history eagerly consulted their famous oracles on such occasions, Jehoshaphat thought it prudent to call prophets into the royal presence for the purpose of learning what fate the future held in store. Ahab had 400 “kept” prophets, and these with one accord urged the kings to go up against the king of Syria. They promised a sure victory; according to them, Ramoth-Gilead was already restored to the dominion of Israel. Indeed, one of the 400, Zedekiah by name, had made horns of iron and dramatically illustrated just how his royal master would push the Syrians.
Despite the optimistic and vainglorious words of these spokesmen, Jeshoshaphat felt uneasy. He asked, “Is there not here a prophet of the LORD besides, that we might enquire of him?” Hear Ahab’s reply: “There is yet one man, Micaiah the son of Imlah, by whom we may enquire of the LORD: but I hate him; for he doth not prophesy good concerning me, but evil.”
But Jehoshaphat insisted that Micaiah be sent for, and a messenger was dispatched to call him. Willing—as he thought—to do a kindly deed in Micaiah’s behalf, the messenger made this suggestion: “Behold now, the words of the prophets declare good unto the king with one mouth; let thy word, I pray thee, be like the word of one of them, and speak that which is good.” Manfully, the Lord’s prophet replied, “What the LORD saith unto me, that will I speak…”
When brought to the king, he was asked, “Micaiah, shall we go against Ramoth-gilead to battle, or shall we forbear?” By way of mocking the unanimity of the 400, the prophet sarcastically replied, “Go, and prosper: for the LORD shall deliver it into the hand of the king.”
Fully understanding the ridicule which was being heaped upon the other prophets, the king urged Micaiah to declare what the Lord had said. Thus bidden, the man of God revealed the awfulness of the calamity which was soon to befall Israel: “I saw all Israel scattered upon the hills, as sheep that have not a shepherd…”
Turning to Jehoshaphat, his ally, Ahab bitterly cried, “Did I not tell thee that he would prophesy no good concerning me, but evil?”
But why continue the story? The words of God, spoken by the mouth of Micaiah, came to pass. But the fulfillment of this prediction isn’t our main concern at this time. We tell this in order to present a living example of a man with itching ears. Ahab’s opposition to Micaiah wasn’t based on any doubt as to Micaiah’s being a true servant of Jehovah. The king simply opposed him because he told the truth, and the truth to Ahab was unpleasant. Fearing this truth, Ahab had created a corps of hired retainers-400 fawning false prophets to console him with flattering falsehoods.
Also, imagine the terrible laxity of the times which called forth these anxious words: “For it is a rebellious people, lying children, children that will not hear the law of Jehovah, that say…to the prophets, Prophesy not unto us right things, speak unto us smooth things, prophesy deceits” (Isa. 30:9-10 ASV). And, we must add the heartbroken words of the weeping prophet: “A wonderful and horrible thing is committed in the land: the prophets prophesy falsely, and the priests bear rule by their means; and my people love to have it so; and what will ye do in the end thereof?” (Jer. 5:30-31. And in the next chapter, he arraigns those false prophets who cried out, “Peace, peace,” when there was no peace. Such false cries of “peace” are Satan’s opiates which deaden the conscience and induce spiritual slumber.
We find itching ears today in and out of the church. The popular preacher is too often he who attacks sin in general, but never mentions specific transgressions.
It is not at all strange that those who have remained stubbornly opposed to the gospel should find little or no pleasure in plain preaching, but it is extremely shocking to find members of the church of the living God with the same attitude.
Not many miles from my home town, a Gospel preacher announced as his subject, “What God Teaches About Adultery, Divorce And Remarriage.” An elder with the spirit of Diotrophes forced him to change his subject because the elder’s sons had violated God’s law on divorce and remarriage and the elder upheld his sons.
Many an evangelist has been warned against preaching on giving by some solicitous brother who whispers, “The brethren here just won’t stand for it.” Many Gospel preachers have lost their support because they have fearlessly attacked sin in high places. Church members who have no love for the truth think they may soothe their wounded consciences by employing pleasant preachers.
Today we are paying too much attention to the profits and too little to the prophets. We have become lovers of pleasure more than lovers of God, and are irritated by the preacher who dares to disturb our peace of mind. We want our preachers, like our fortune tellers, to “guarantee satisfaction.” In spiritual things, we have become like the big business executive who has a staff of loyal “yes men,” and that’s the kind of preachers we want.
The loyal man of God cannot afford to say “Yes” when God shouts “No.” John the Baptizer was not popular in the king’s palace (Matt. 14:1-12). Hurt by his own children in the Gospel, Paul reprovingly asks, “Am I therefore become your enemy, because I tell you the truth?” (Gal. 4:16). Let us beware when all men speak well of our preaching (Luke 6:26). To change, alter, or substitute something else for, the word of God is to incur the anathema of Heaven’s King (Gal. 1:6-9). “We cannot but speak the things” which God has revealed in His holy word.
If the gospel—with its message to both saint and sinner—falls pleasantly upon your ears, you are to be congratulated as a lover of truth. There is only one thing more to be pitied than he who hath itching ears. That is the preacher who is willing to tickle those ears. He is the sorriest, most despicable business in the world, “for if I yet pleased men, I should not be the servant of Christ” (Gal. 1:10).