The Agora
Bible Articles and Lessons: P-Q

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Prophet, the

"The prophet is a man who feels fiercely. God has thrust a burden upon his soul, and he is bowed and stunned at man's fierce greed. Frightful is the agony of man; no human voice can convey its full terror. Prophecy is the voice that God has lent to the silent agony, a voice to the plundered poor, to the profaned rules of the world. It is a form of living, a crossing point of God and man. God is raging in the prophet's words" (Abraham Heschel, "The Prophet").
What manner of man is the prophet? The prophet is a man who feels deeply, very deeply, the sinfulness of sin. Sensing some fraction of the holiness and purity of the Almighty and the Eternal, the prophet is horrified -- scandalized -- at the petty and trifling shortcomings of his fellowmen.

The things that excite the indignation of the prophet are daily occurrences in every society in the world: "Hear this, you who trample the needy and do away with the poor of the land, saying, 'When will the New Moon be over that we may sell grain, and the Sabbath be ended that we may market wheat?' -- skimping the measure, boosting the price and cheating with dishonest scales, buying the poor with silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, selling even the sweepings with the wheat" (Amo 8:4-6).

Allow for variations, from nation to nation and religion to religion, in the technicalities of worship (ie, substitute "Sunday church service" or "Ramadan" for "New Moon" and "Sabbath") -- the picture is the same; human nature is the same everywhere. Indeed, the sorts of "crimes" that fill the prophet with sadness and foreboding rarely go beyond what ordinary people regard as typical social interactions: people cheat in business, the rich exploit the poor, pleasure-seekers degrade themselves and others -- it happens all the time. So what? But the prophet sees the grotesque shapes and dimensions of human pride and greed and lust in daily life, and he shudders. To his sensitive ears comes the rumble of distant thunder. The God of creation is not pleased, and the prophet warns of impending doom:

"Before them the earth shakes, the sky trembles, the sun and moon are darkened, and the stars no longer shine. The LORD thunders at the head of his army; his forces are beyond number, and mighty are those who obey his command. The day of the LORD is great; it is dreadful. Who can endure it?" (Joe 2:10,11)
The prophet makes us vaguely aware of the pettiness of our moral comprehension, of the depths of misery which we should feel (but don't?) at our failures. Our eyes also witness the callousness and cruelty of man, but our hearts try to obliterate the memories and silence the whisper of conscience. The prophet does not let us off:

"Tremble, you complacent women; shudder, you daughters who feel secure! Strip off your clothes, put sackcloth around your waists!" (Isa 32:11).

"Will not all of them taunt him with ridicule and scorn, saying, 'Woe to him who piles up stolen goods and makes himself wealthy by extortion! How long must this go on?'... Woe to him who builds his realm by unjust gain to set his nest on high, to escape the clutches of ruin!... The stones of the wall will cry out, and the beams of the woodwork will echo it. Woe to him who builds a city with bloodshed and establishes a town by crime!" (Hab 2:6,9,11,12).

"This is what the LORD says: 'Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom or the strong man boast of his strength or the rich man boast of his riches, but let him who boasts boast about this: that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight,' declares the LORD" (Jer 9:23,24).
Those of us who claim to be believers in God can so easily "go with the flow", praising and respecting those whom the world praises and respects: the builders of great cities, the hoarders of great fortunes, the accumulators of great power, the acquirers of great "wisdom". But the prophet reminds us:

"Surely the nations are like a drop in a bucket; they are regarded as dust on the scales; he weighs the islands as though they were fine dust. Before him all the nations are as nothing; they are regarded by him as worthless and less than nothing" (Isa 40:15,17).
The world is intoxicated with the here and now. The prophet takes a sober look at the inevitable end of the world:

"I looked at the earth, and it was formless and empty; and at the heavens, and their light was gone. I looked at the mountains, and they were quaking; all the hills were swaying. I looked, and there were no people; every bird in the sky had flown away. I looked, and the fruitful land was a desert; all its towns lay in ruins before the LORD, before his fierce anger" (Jer 4:23-26).
Just as the prophet sees the hideous evil in a world without God, so he also sees the sanctimonious hypocrisy in a religious community that puts God in a box of its own making, and hides its wickedness under a cloak of piety and ceremony and pretense:

"What do I care about incense from Sheba or sweet calamus from a distant land? Your burnt offerings are not acceptable; your sacrifices do not please me" (Jer 6:20).
" 'Will you steal and murder, commit adultery and perjury, burn incense to Baal and follow other gods you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which bears my Name, and say, "We are safe" -- safe to do all these detestable things? Has this house, which bears my Name, become a den of robbers to you? But I have been watching!' declares the LORD. 'Go now to the place in Shiloh where I first made a dwelling for my Name, and see what I did to it because of the wickedness of my people Israel... what I did to Shiloh I will now do to the house that bears my Name, the temple you trust in, the place I gave to you and your fathers. I will thrust you from my presence, just as I did all your brothers, the people of Ephraim' " (Jer 7:9-15).
The prophet knows a God who will not shrink from punishing even His own people, calling their worst enemies down upon them to fulfill His own purpose:

"I send him [ie the Assyrian] against a godless nation, I dispatch him against a people who anger me, to seize loot and snatch plunder, and to trample them down like mud in the streets" (Isa 10:5,6).

" 'I will summon all the peoples of the north and my servant Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon,' declares the LORD, 'and I will bring them against this land and its inhabitants and against all the surrounding nations. I will completely destroy them and make them an object of horror and scorn, and an everlasting ruin' " (Jer 25:9).
A God who would do such things is truly a God to be reckoned with!

The prophet is not entirely comfortable with the job which God has given him. His position is one of distinction, but also one of affliction. His mission can be distasteful, and can make him abhorrent to others:

" 'You must speak my words to them, whether they listen or fail to listen, for they are rebellious. But you, son of man, listen to what I say to you. Do not rebel like that rebellious house; open your mouth and eat what I give you.' Then I looked, and I saw a hand stretched out to me. In it was a scroll, which he unrolled before me. On both sides of it were written words of lament and mourning and woe. And he said to me, 'Son of man, eat what is before you, eat this scroll; then go and speak to the house of Israel' " (Eze 2:7-3:1).

But once he has been called, the prophet finds it almost impossible to escape from the hand of his God: "But if I say, 'I will not mention him or speak any more in his name,' his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot" (Jer 20:9).
The prophet is a lonely man. He alienates the "religious" as well as the agnostic, the "believer" as well as the skeptic. He must not expect acceptance, but rather hostility:

"And you, son of man, do not be afraid of them or their words. Do not be afraid, though briers and thorns are all around you and you live among scorpions. Do not be afraid of what they say or terrified by them, though they are a rebellious house... But I will make you as unyielding and hardened as they are. I will make your forehead like the hardest stone, harder than flint. Do not be afraid of them or terrified by them, though they are a rebellious house" (Eze 2:6; 3:8,9).
But the prophet is responsible to speak to the people, whether they hear or not:

"But if the watchman sees the sword coming and does not blow the trumpet to warn the people and the sword comes and takes the life of one of them, that man will be taken away because of his sin, but I will hold the watchman accountable for his blood. Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel; so hear the word I speak and give them warning from me" (Eze 33:6,7).
The prophet cares deeply for the people and constantly prays for their welfare. He personally identifies with their plight and shares their affliction:

"O LORD, we and our kings, our princes and our fathers are covered with shame because we have sinned against you. The Lord our God is merciful and forgiving, even though we have rebelled against him... therefore the curses and sworn judgments written in the Law of Moses, the servant of God, have been poured out on us, because we have sinned against you... Now, our God, hear the prayers and petitions of your servant. For your sake, O Lord, look with favor on your desolate sanctuary" (Dan 9:8,9,11,17).
The prophet is unfailingly encouraging. His words of rebuke are never without words of exhortation. He makes the faithful strong:

"Return, O Israel, to the LORD your God... Say to him: 'Forgive all our sins and receive us graciously... for in you the fatherless find compassion.' [and God will say...] 'I will heal their waywardness and love them freely, for my anger has turned away from them' " (Hos 14:1-4).

" 'Even now,' declares the LORD, 'return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.' Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity. Who knows? He may turn and have pity and leave behind a blessing... And everyone who calls on the name of the LORD will be saved; for on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there will be deliverance, as the LORD has said, among the survivors whom the LORD calls" (Joe 2:12-14,32).
The prophet is certain of the ultimate outcome: God will redeem His people, rebuild His temple, and glorify His Name in all the earth:

"This is what the LORD Almighty says: 'In a little while I will once more shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land. I will shake all nations, and the desired of all nations will come, and I will fill this house with glory,' says the LORD Almighty. 'The silver is mine and the gold is mine,' declares the LORD Almighty. 'The glory of this present house will be greater than the glory of the former house,' says the LORD Almighty. 'And in this place I will grant peace,' declares the LORD Almighty" (Hag 2:6-9).

"For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea" (Hab 2:14).
As he leaves behind the world through which he is passing, and tastes the air and feels the bracing breeze on the mountain top of God's presence, the prophet is elated:

"I heard and my heart pounded, my lips quivered at the sound; decay crept into my bones, and my legs trembled. Yet I will wait patiently for the day of calamity to come on the nation invading us. Though the fig tree does not bud... though the olive crop fails... though there are no sheep in the pen... yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will be joyful in God my Savior. The Sovereign LORD is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, he enables me to go on the heights" (Hab 3:16-19).
The prophet knows his own weakness and inadequacy, more so than the ordinary man or woman who never attempts to climb the "heights". But he knows also, precisely because he has attempted to climb the heights, the awe-inspiring purity of the God of Israel. He has been touched with the divine fire, and he can never return, completely, to the man he was before:

" 'Woe to me!' I cried. 'I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.' Then one of the seraphs flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it he touched my mouth and said, 'See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.' Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, 'Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?' And I said, 'Here am I. Send me!' " (Isa 6:5-8).
By Scripture, the prophet communicates to the rest of us -- setting before us the eternally relevant choices: death and life, cursing and blessing, the "here and now" and the hereafter, that which is seen and that which cannot be seen... as yet. He leans closer to us... he whispers softly:

"Don't be taken in. Don't judge by outward appearance. Don't fall for the glitter and the glamour, the pomp and the pride. It's all the brightness of whitewashed sepulchers and the rattle of dry bones. Look through my eyes... hear with my ears... know it all for what it really is... the choice is yours."
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