Pastor’s Column: Being Prophetic Without Being a Self-Righteous Know-It-All
Nowadays, especially in light of the new president’s administration, virtually everyone wants to be a prophet, as some claim to “speak truth to power” while thundering from their echo chambers, or glibly offering alternative facts without blinking an eye. Yet, words of deep wisdom simultaneously ring out from others with boldness, clarity, conviction, and faith, offering a clarion call for proper thinking and godly action. Discernment is of paramount importance. We have always needed prophets, women and men who speak to the now as well as the not-yet, who foretell and forth-tell, who agitate and activate, whose parabolic pondering take us on a trajectory toward truth. The goal of biblical prophecy was to get the people of God to turn in the right direction.
The Hebrew command, shuv, is often translated as “repent,” or “turn.” One of my Old Testament professors from way back in the day, the “punny” Dr. Walter Kaiser, would often say “Israel’s prophets gave the people a shuv in the right direction.”
Four Principles That Guide Prophetic Ministry
Over the years, some have said that I posses a prophetic gift (and the longer I serve God’s people the more I understand the words of Jesus in Matt 13:57—let the reader understand!). Here are four principles that guide my prophetic ministry. I offer this for those in the “school of the prophets” as well as those who are trying to discern the holy among all manner of uttering.
1. Do the biblical exegesis.
The Old Testament prophets typically opened their oracles with “This is what YHWH says!” Lots of people claim to speak for the LORD, but sometimes human words actually come from knee-jerk reactionary anger, damaged psyches, wishful thinking, Oprah, or last night’s spicy meal. Throwing Bible verses at people or posting them on Facebook isn’t the same as understanding what God is saying. Studying Scripture is hard work.
Studying any ancient text is difficult, but the study of words that many of us claim were written in some way under the direction of the Holy Spirit of God requires more than casual quotation. I attempt to understand the Bible despite my cultural, linguistic, geographical, religious, and whatever other distance from the sacred text. That’s a lifelong endeavor. Yet, along the way I can develop reasonably high levels of confidence in the meaning of Bible verses and I offer my understanding with humility as well as boldness.
2. Do the cultural exegesis.
It’s been said that, “we must preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other” (which appears to be a version of something theologian Karl Barth once said). I’m not sure if anyone actually reads newspapers anymore, but we must be like the men of Issachar, who, as David was on his way to become king in Israel, were able to discern the times (1 Chr 12:23).
Applying God’s word to contemporary circumstances must be taken especially seriously. God strictly judges those who teach his word (Jas 3:1). There is always a temptation to offer a prophetic message in order to find favor with the masses or to gain some social advantage or position (just note the story of prophet Hananiah, found in Jeremiah 28. His word that God’s people would be in exile for only a short time—2 years—was a popular message, but not a true one. Jeremiah had to deliver the hard news that the exile would be for a much longer time, 70 years). Prophets bring God’s words of woe and weal in connection with current circumstances regardless of how the message might be received.
In trying to relate God’s word to current events, I find myself slow to share items on social media because fake news is so prevalent. I attempt to do some fact-checking before passing along a story. Also, not every situation in the 21st-Century USA has a simple one-to-one correspondence with ancient Israel or with the 1st-Century Christian community; so citing random Scripture verses may bring heat but not light. I pay attention to demographics and other social analysis rather than anecdotes. Personal stories might illustrate a general truth but they don’t determine what is true.
3. Do the soul work.
Biblical prophets had hard-knock lives! Just consider poor Ezekiel who was widowed in ministry and told not to mourn (Ezek 24:15-18), who had to sleep on the left side of his body for 390 days (Ezek 4:4-5), who had to cook his food over fire fueled by dung (Ezek 4:12-14), and whose street theater drew ire and not admiration. Hosea’s wife was a strumpet but God told him to stick with her and not give up on her because God hadn’t given up on Israel and Judah. Elijah doesn’t have a book named for him, but he ran and hid because Queen Jezebel put a hit out on him; his life was on the line (1 Kings 19).
Being a prophet often means being rejected—for what one says and does for God, not for being a jerk! Furthermore, biblical prophets were known as godly people. That same Elijah is hailed as an example of one who knew how to pray (Jas 5:17). God constantly reminds me of the importance of cultivating an inner life that glorifies God. I know I will never pray well enough or fast consistently enough, or spend enough time in silence, or meditate enough…but I’ll keep trying. It was when Elijah was depressed that he took a pilgrimage to Mt. Horeb and heard God’s gentle voice. Prophets hear from God as we pursue God.
4. Learn to live with ambiguity.
If you’re even a casual student of the Bible, you’ll know that people often ignored the words of the prophets. Jeremiah was at times troubled by that reality (Jer 20:7-8). Even so, he had to speak because God’s word burned inside him like fire in his bones! (Jer 20:9). Prophets were not only ignored at times, they were harassed, mocked, and even executed (Heb 11:36-38). We prophets must understand that not everyone will receive our words, no matter how true they may be. Those who hear—as well as we who speak—must give an account to God. We speak as God directs us.
As the theologians have long pointed out, we live in eschatological tension, somewhere between what is and what should be, between the “already” of God’s kingdom and the “not-yet” of that kingdom’s full glory. Know that your words may fall on deaf ears but you must share those words as faithful stewards of God’s grace (see 1 Pet 4:11). But of course, God has those, like the 7000 faithful who did not bend the knee to Baal (1 Kings 19:18), who will heed your prophetic words, push society in a more just and righteous direction, and ultimately help people turn toward God.