Since mid-December in our readings through the Bible, we have been immersed in the prophets. We have read Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, and most of Isaiah in the “Major Prophets.” (Daniel is the other “Major” prophet.) Also, we have read or will read the “Minor Prophets” Nahum, Habakkuk, Joel, Micah, Zephaniah, Jude, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi, and Obadiah by the middle of February.
In order to better understand each prophet, it is helpful to talk about what a prophet in the Bible is and is not. It is common for us to believe that a prophet is someone who predicts the future — someone who sees what is about to happen to warn us. We get in our heads the idea that a prophet is like a fortune teller who tries to tell us what we, as individuals and as a community, will become. These people focus on human behaviors and thoughts. However, prophets in the Bible don’t operate that way.
In his 1962 work, The Prophets: An Introduction — for decades the starting point for all study related to prophets in the Bible — Rabbi Abraham Heschel says that prophets in the Bible “maintain a consciousness toward God.” Heschel says the prophet “speaks from the perspective of God as perceived from the perspective of his own situation” to be mindful about who God is and who we are in relation to God. A prophet seeks to be mindful of God’s heart and desire for God’s people within the prophet’s own context.
Often we are caught up in our daily view of life — sometimes only feeling slightly toward the ways we fall short of feeling as God feels, sometimes not at all. Heschel says that a prophet is someone who feels fiercely as God has thrust a burden upon the prophet’s soul. “Prophecy is the voice that God has lent to the silent agony, a voice to the plundered poor, to the profaned riches of the world,” says Heschel. “God is raging in the prophet’s words.”
Prophets, religious prophets, abound in all times throughout human history. Prophets are living today, helping people of faith to see more clearly the world through the eyes of God and to feel more deeply what that heart of God feels. There are people who claim to be prophets, but are just loud and irritating. Gaining a glimpse of true prophecy in today’s time calls us to explore the context, meaning, and message of biblical prophets.
Biblical prophets carry a special weight in our understanding of God’s relationship with people. However, according to Joseph Blenkinsopp in The Harper’s Bible Commentary, those whom we think of as prophets formed only a small and in some respects anomalous minority among Israelite prophets at any given time. They often spoke of contemporary prophecy that they, themselves, condemned as inauthentic (for example Jeremiah 23 & Ezekiel 13). Authentic prophecy is not immediately known in the moment but from the test of time and a living into the vision set by the prophet.
Whether they have their own book in the Bible or are important figures in the story of God’s relationship with humans (Elijah, John the Baptizer are examples of prophets who don’t have their own books), all prophets lived in a particular time and place. As we understand that context, we then gain insight into their message to the people. Prophets who lived before the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem leading to the Babylonian Exile (587 BCE) had a message of warning in the hopes of reform. Prophets who lived through and after the Exile sought to comfort the people and reframe their life and faith apart from the Temple in Jerusalem.
The time when the prophet lived shaped the message. The place where the prophet lived shaped the message. The audience to whom the prophet spoke shaped the message. Many prophets spoke to the powerful and wealthy — seeking to reform their ways to avoid a collapse in the structure of society. Where and how the leaders led dictated to where and how the people followed. Other prophets spoke to the people — seeking to understand their condition differently than how the leadership shaped it and lifting them to a higher sense of God’s desire for their lives.
The language of the prophet is difficult for us to hear as the utterances of prophets are rarely cryptic. According to Heschel, prophets’ words are urging, alarming, forcing onward, as if the words gushed forth from the heart of God, seeking entrance to the heart and mind of humans, carrying a summons as well as an involvement. “Grandeur, no dignity, is important. The language is luminous and explosive, firm and contingent, harsh and compassionate, a fusion of contradictions,” he says.
One of the other ways prophets are difficult to read is that prophets don’t tell stories; prophets cast events. They hold a mirror to our behavior, allowing us to see ourselves more plainly, and intensifying responsibility. Further, prophets are impatient with excuses and contemptuous of pretenses and self-pity.
In all of this, it is important for us to recognize and understand the context of each prophet. Their context helps us understand their message to the people. Then, as we understand our context, we can begin applying the principles of the prophet’s message to us. This probably goes without saying, but you know me, I’ll say it anyway… Rarely can we take the prophet’s words and apply them directly to us. This is another reason why reading the prophets is difficult. There is tremendous richness in the words of the prophets to us. Yet, we need to be open to something other than direct correspondence to our time and place. Instead, take a moment in reading the prophets to know when are where the prophet lived and to whom the prophet was speaking. Then, we can begin to understand more deeply the heart of God and God’s desire for us today.