The Fearful Prophet

My title is somewhat ambiguous, and intentionally so. Please bear with me as I explain the background to what I hope will be a series of articles about prophecy in the Old Testament. It's not what it seems. The Old Testament Prophet is often characterised as a fearsome figure with a forthright 'thus says the Lord' message. Have we unwittingly taken on board an image not unrelated to the frightening 'wrath of God' evangelist? (the withering look, the pointed finger, the smell of the edge of hell…) Neither the prophet nor the evangelist benefits from such presumptions, and although I could write about the deep scriptural connections between the two, we do need to understand the prophet of the Old Testament a bit better than that.

When God speaks his Word through someone, that is what the Bible describes as 'prophecy'. The common way of making this point is to talk of prophecy as "forth-telling" rather than 'fore-telling'. Catchy, but not brilliant. A cursory look at what the prophets say indicates that the future consequences of human action are almost invariably involved, or the prophet makes a declaration (risky - by definition) of God's sovereign intent. Forth-telling nearly always has a strong element of fore-telling.

The list I give to students at Cliff of all the prophets in the OT is quite extensive. It includes 36 references to prophets and those who give a 'Word of the Lord', which they have probably never come across. This includes an unknown prophet (Judges 6:-10), lady prophets (Miriam - Exodus 15:20, Deborah - Judges 4:4, Hulda - 2 Kings 22:14), prophets who get it wrong as well as right (1 Kings 13), and also the well known ones; Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Twelve Prophets (I refuse to call them the minor prophets).

If we can understand these people, their call and message, we may grow a healthier attitude towards prophecy today. Many of the stories of the Old Testament Prophets resonate with us very strongly. Jonah fleeing from God (Jonah 1), Isaiah having a row with a stupid King (Isaiah 7), Jeremiah so furious at religious bigotry he smashes a pot on the ground (Jeremiah 19), and Hosea perceiving the Word of the Lord in the midst of his despair at family life (Hosea 11:1-4). In these stories, we feel what it is to be human. We might say, we empathise with the prophets.

In my other Cliff College existence as tutor in Pastoral Studies, I teach about empathy - that strange word from the world of counselling which defines the dynamic of feeling for and with another human being. Empathy is closely connected with those core emotions identified by ancients and scholars alike as the defining elements of human identity. I am speaking of FEAR, ANGER, SORROW and JOY (other scholars add 'surprise', 'disgust', 'love' and 'shame' - but it is a matter of debate, see, for example, 'Emotional Intelligence' by Daniel Goleman). The works of the psalmist are, in my opinion, better identified under these headings than the dubious 'praise', 'complaint', kingship' categories of dated source or form-critical methodology. Sigmund Freud observed that these four emotions were uniquely identifiable across international racial and cultural boundaries (see 'A Mood Apart' by Peter Whybrow - but it is heavy going!). I contend that these emotional indicators cross barriers of time as well as space in offering a culturally relevant analysis of what it means to be "human".

The Prophets clearly experienced fear, anger, sorrow and joy. I offer a series of articles on each, and here I shall briefly look at the prophet's experience of FEAR. Please consider, though, that whilst it may seem that three of these are 'bad' (fear, anger, sorrow) and only one is 'nice' (joy), this is a superficial judgement. With some thought, you will easily see that each has both positive and negative aspects. For example, without fear of the fire, we would burn our fingers on a match; also, one of the most infuriating things on this planet is inappropriately expressed joy. As the preacher says, "There is a time for everything…" (Eccles. 3:1ff.)

The prophets' experiences of fear

The lives of the prophets have always fascinated. We have brief glimpses of the personal life of a few (Hosea 1:1-8, 3, 11:1-4; Amos 1:1, 7:14), and none of others (Joel, Nahum, Habakkuk for example). Some, however, grant us powerful and deeply human stories of life-threatening situations out of which God calls them to speak and act. Their inclusion in scripture is related to how they connect with the revelation of God's saving scheme. I give two examples.

Elijah's story is full of personal fear. In the tradition of prophetic duty to challenge the King, Elijah is called to challenge King Ahab with a word from the Lord about drought at a time when Ahab's wife Jezebel is taking delight in killing any prophet of the Lord she can find (1 King 18:1-4ff). Her agenda is to sort out the problem by worshipping Baal, and she doesn't want any prophets of the Lord around to question the wisdom of her actions. Frankly, if I were in Elijah's position I would be petrified - almost every other known prophet who went anywhere near the King and his wife was slaughtered. Fear is also, but controversially, part of the story of Elijah later on. God having produced the necessary water to end the drought, Elijah panics at Jezebel's reaction, is nursed through depression by the Lord and then seeks God's presence at Horeb (1 Kings 19). It is traditional to interpret 1 Kings 19:12 as the presence of God in calming quiet ("Oh still small voice of calm…"), but that does not explain why it is that as soon as the silence descends, Elijah legs it out of the cave in panic! The fact is that the Hebrew word for silence is best rendered 'terrifying silence' - as if you were all alone and think you've seen a ghost! Elijah is then told in no uncertain terms by God to get on with his job as a prophet - to sort out some kings (1 Kings 19:15,16). It is an awesome story.

You may not associate Isaiah with fear. Clearly, though, having presented early damning prophecies similar to Amos and Hosea, Isaiah is portrayed as being awe-struck in the presence of God in the famous chapter 6. Again, it is traditional to render this awe as the background to the famous call 'Here am I, send me' (Isaiah 6:8). Unfortunately most preachers end their sermon analysis there, and don't even attempt to address the substance of the message subsequently given which is a terrifying prophecy leaping beyond Isaiah's time, hinting at forthcoming Exile, and, from a Christian point of view, only finding resolution in Christ. The prophecy says that no-one will understand God's word, and Isaiah has to live with the personal rejection of this, illustrated in an angry confrontation with Ahaz in the next chapter which includes the famous "a young woman will conceive…" (Isaiah 7:14), and the pathos of his dealings with King Hezekiah (chapters 36-39, particularly 39).

Look carefully in most of the stories of the prophets, and there is a strong element of fear. But this fear is eventually used positively. Jonah is brought in terror to the edge of death before he submits to God and prophesies (Jonah 2:7); Amos is compelled to confront injustice in fear of the word of the Lord (Amos 1:2, 3:8) and probably his life (Amos 7:12ff), but his message is proved true. Daniel is terrified by visions (Daniel 7:15) which explain his world history in terms of God's perspective of universal history, but his terror provokes an interpretation from 'an attendant' which is crucial to the interpretation of the whole of Daniel (Daniel 7:26,27). Negative fear is turned round by God and used positively.

The importance of both Elijah and Isaiah (Elijah in Israel, and Isaiah in Judah), cannot be overestimated. The fearsome events in which they were involved were critical to God's self revelation in the history of his people. In them, for both Israel and Judah alike, God affirms his sovereign will and confronts earthly authority that has gone bad. How can this be anything less than fearsome? Each prophet signifies a seed change in the relationship of God with his people, confronting, irreligion, injustice and plurality in worship. They are points of time where the sovereign will of God drives through human presumption and political manoeuvring, and God's people are made to hear a clarion call - through the prophet. Sin is confronted and exposed, but the prophets themselves live in fear of their lives, not understood, and often only acknowledged after their death. They have been driven through fear, a terrifying fear, but ultimately an awesome godly fear, to act in times of crisis.

In empathising with the prophets, we may see parallels with today. Not that events are repeated, God forbid, but that scripture affords us examples for our inspiration and also our (positive) fear. I meet many fearful Christians today. Those who are fearful of decline in the church, fearful of theological conundrums that are simply the function of loss of faith, fearful of a world which claims higher ground than God (technologically, or medically, for example), fearful of wisdom because it might be true. I could go on, but add your own reflections. We need prophets who will turn this negativity around to the purposes of God.

There is no easy prophecy today, because there is too much at stake. The true prophet will, I believe, address in God's name the world of the Internet, structural apostasy within the church, shambolic international politics which provide cover for religious bigotry, and the fact that sin always corrupts human endeavour. The Western world in particular is in need of fresh salvation, and whatever means God uses, it will have its prophetic edge, speaking into the present with the overview of God's overriding purposes. It will also, if my reading of scripture is reasonable, entail fear and suffering for those whom God uses to bear his Word, in the eyes of the church as well as the world. If we believe in the ultimate authority of our Creator God, it can be no less.

I borrow scriptural style to make a point, though I guess you may have already picked up these points from the paragraphs above. I mix elements of OT prophecy and my own analysis of the world in which I live.

"The Lord says: 'Honour me and return to me as your lover and maker. Unseat the presumptions of your worldly lifestyle, and return my church to me. If you fear me with terror, you will be terrified; but if you fear me with wonder, you will be amazed. I am everywhere, not to condemn but to save. Proclaim me out loud in the world, and you will find out what kind of fear you have of me. Proclaim me out loud in your homes, and it is the enemy who will be terrified.'"