“Hosea” by 18 century icon painter .
One of the sections of the bible that used to get me all confused and riled up in my reading of the bible, especially the Old Testament, was the prophets. From the books of Kings with Elijah and Elisha, to the Major and Minor prophets, it had been very difficult for me to understand what exactly qualified these enigmatic, weird people as prophets. But with a better understanding of the history of the people of ancient Israel, I think I get them now, though they still mess up my brain in more than a few places. And with that understanding comes a certain feeling of sadness at watching people getting confused by the recent wind of “prophets” and “the prophetic yyyy” (where yyyy is any fashionable term like “encounter”, “movement” etc) that is blowing across the Ghanaian and Nigerian Christian landscapes. But let’s plow on, and you’ll see where I’m coming from. I wrote a little bit about this here, but will add some additional points to that in this post.
The Three Themes
Many people are referred to as prophets in the bible. Some of these include Moses, Samuel, Eli, Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Hosea, John the Baptist, Jesus of Nazareth etc. I believe that there are certain key themes by which one may understand their activity and why they did what they did, before one can translate to what we should expect of prophets today. These themes are “creational monotheism, election and eschatology” of which I wrote a series based on NT Wright’s “New Testament and the People of God” here.
You see, the people of Israel believed in Yahweh as the one and only real god and creator of the heavens and the earth (creational monotheism). They believed Yahweh had chosen the nation of ancient Israel as his “called out” people with a task to be a blessing to the rest of the world (election). As part of his covenant with them, he’d given them the Torah by which they must live so that they will sustain their status of being elect before God, and also fulfill his task of them being a blessing to the world. Also they believed that Yahweh had intentions of fixing the problems with this world, and he himself coming to dwell with amongst men in his own time (eschatology). These 3 themes can be shown to be the pillars that underlie much of the activity in the OT and NT as well.
Using these themes to evaluate the prophets of ancient Israel and those documented in the NT, we get 2 clear pictures of what prophets and prophecy was about.
Ensuring that the people of ancient Israel remained faithful to Yahweh as their only god, and listening to him only.
Keeping the terms of the covenant as given to them in the Torah, so that they will show their faithfulness to Yahweh and will keep Yahweh’s favor on ancient Israel.
Before the Exile
Because ancient Israel as a nation had a covenant relationship with Yahweh (a point which we’ll come to later), and the nation always had leaders amongst them (either as judges or later on as kings like David, Solomon etc), it was obviously expected that ensuring that the leaders of the nation did the right thing will lead to the nation as a whole doing the right thing. This is not rocket science, and a principle of human societies well proven over the course of history. One perceives therefore a close relationship between the earlier prophets like Eli, Samuel and Nathaniel and kings like David, Solomon etc. The point of the prophets relationship with these leaders was not as people that David could consult as to know how many slices of bread to eat in the morning, but as people who had insight from God as to the nation’s direction, as well as the leader’s choices which has an effect on the whole nation.
However, over time the relationship between these prophets and their leaders became fraught with tension, as evidenced by Ahab and Elijah/Elisha. Because as prophets they were supposed to be people who were zealously guarding the nation from going against Yahweh’s and his covenant relationship with the people, Ahab’s flirtations with Baal via his wife Jezebel would definitely not sit well with them. In addition, the more these leader’s desires departed away from faithfulness to Yahweh and the Torah, the more the nation drifted to idolatory, injustice and oppression, as worshipping these other gods always led to. Being men of insight and power from Yahweh, he did of course use them to perform some miracles to show that Yahweh was still Lord over the world, but as we will see, that is not what qualifies them as prophets.
Close To And After the Exiles
Prophets like Jeremiah, Amos, Hosea and Isaiah continue the tradition of speaking Yahweh’s mind to the people. By this time however it would seem that the leaders surrounded themselves with only those who would tell them what they wanted to hear, so these kinds of prophets became hated and hounded. This went on till Northern Israel (Ephraim) was captured by Assyria and southern Israel (Judah) was captured by Babylon (note that Torah had spoken specifically of exile as the punishment for departing from Yahweh). Even whiles in exile, some of these prophets continued to prophecy of how Yahweh will save them from this exile if they looked back to him in faithfulness. When one looks at the career of all these prophets you will realize that
they spoke vehemently against idolatory, and the danger of relying on other nations for their security instead of on Yahweh (which was further evidence of lack of faith in Yahweh and rather reposing faith in the god of the other nations). Their warnings sounded a lot like “love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind”, spoken by a certain Jesus of Nazareth.
They spoke of injustice, of the treatment of the poor, the stranger, the widow and the fatherless. They sympathised with the downtrodden, and criticised those who had the power to change things but rather defended the wicked and horded to themselves. This was again a betrayal of their election and purpose as encapsulated in the Torah. Their warnings again sounded a lot like “love your neighbour as yourself” to this same Jesus of Nazareth.
One will note that few of all of these prophets were active in performing miraculous signs. The real basis of their qualification was whether they spoke the mind of God concerning his nation Israel, especially whether they called the nation to focus on Yahweh and repent of their idolatory and wickedness towards one another or not.
In the Gospels
In the Gospels, 2 people are named as prophets – John the Baptist, and Jesus of Nazareth. Both of these had 2 things in common – they criticized the people for their lack of faith in Yahweh, especially their constant appeal to violence to remove their “enemies”, the Romans; and secondly, they identified with the downtrodden, hopeless and desperate.
John the Baptist spoke of a coming wrath if they didn’t repent and “produce fruit in keeping with repentance” (Jn 3:7-8). And when asked specifically what to do, he advises them to pursue justice and compassion, saying “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same”(v11). He encourages the tax collectors not to be corrupt, and the soldiers as well(v 12-13). John shows the 2 classic concerns – faithfulness to Yahweh and observing the Torah, including its call for justice and compassion.
Jesus is also called a prophet by many in the gospels, and for good reason. He definitely was more than just a prophet, but for the people to have considered him to be one, he must have shown traits that the people of ancient Israel already knew was common place for true prophets. In this regard, Jesus didn’t disappoint, for he showed that faithfulness to him was now equal to faithfulness to Yahweh. Also not only did he lay an emphasis on justice and compassion, he acted it out fully, identifying with the poor and oppressed, the outcast and the downtrodden, and encouraging a redefinition of who was our neighbour and how his disciples should care for one another.
As can be seen from this whole survey so far then, prophets were people who were zealous for faithfulness to Yahweh and conformity to his law. They didn’t mind how people mistreated them or hated them for speaking the truth of Yahweh’s mind about the people’s non-conformity. They did this knowing that Yahweh indeed had a special relationship with them ancient Israel, and they needed to continue to be faithful to their side of the covenant for him to be faithful to his.
Bringing these lessons to our Christian world, the following observations can be drawn.
Yahweh’s people are now defined as all who are faithful to Jesus the Messiah, whether Jew or Gentile aka the church. Prophecy must therefore expend itself mostly about keeping the church in faithfulness to the Messiah, by doing the one thing he asks – taking up it’s cross and following him.
The same concerns of justice, peace and compassion that characterized Yahweh’s Torah continue to persist with an even more hammered stress under Jesus the Messiah in the Gospels. Prophecy must remind the elect people of God (the church) about how faithfulness to the Messiah means being busy about his task for the church as expounded in the Gospels, same as true prophets did from Moses to John the Baptist.
That is why when Paul writes about prophecy in his epistle to the Corinthians, he encourages them to desire it more than tongues speaking (1 Cor 14:1), because it was a gift meant to direct and guide the whole church as God’s elect people. As with all other gifts, this was also a gift “given for the common good”(1 Cor 12:8). This gift then could serve to guide the church to navigate the difficulties that it will face in attempting to follow the Messiah, and to keep the focus on his tasks set out for the church. This gift was beneficial to Paul when Agabus told him of what suffering he was to face, but taking on the attitude of his master, he still went ahead to face that suffering anyways.
And So …
In the midst of all this then, I find it sad to watch the “prophetic” landscape and fever that has gripped sections of Ghanaian and Nigerian Christianity. Some prophets claim to be giving football predictions, predicting natural disasters, plane crashes, presidential illnesses and deaths, prosperity and success, marriage partners and the like. Not only have they missed the plot, they are not even acting in the play. Some are posing themselves as advisers to national presidents and governments (appealing in a flawed manner to OT prophets, not realizing that Yahweh has no covenant with the nation Ghana or Nigeria, but to his church). Others are busy gathering people to them so they can tell them what they want to hear, rubbing the bottle to reveal a genie god ready to fulfill all their desires. Our prophets are loved and celebrated as “men of God”, when they should be hated for speaking the truth and condemning the corruption, injustice and division that exists in our churches, before even talking about what exists in our societies.
With these kind of prophets, the only people who will find compassion are the rich, the only people who will have peace are those who are already soaked in violence, the only people who will receive justice are those who have the money and power to buy it. And that, my friends, is what false prophecy led to then, and will lead to now.