The Joyful Prophet

If you have followed my series on the Hebrew prophets, you will remember that in the first article I identified the four key human emotions of Fear, Anger, Sorrow and Joy as being a useful guide to our understanding of prophetic experience. Having written about Fear and Anger already, you may be relieved to know that I have chosen 'Joy' next! The impression given so far is that the prophets are a harassed and frustrated bunch, even though my interpretation of Fear and Anger has, I hope, given you cause to look at these emotions in a new, less negative light.

To examine 'joy' in the experience of the prophets, it is best to start by considering the early references to prophetic experiences. Miriam, described as a prophet (Exodus 15:20) excels in dancing before the Lord in joy, with a tambourine. In the Deuteronomistic history of 1 Samuel through to 2 Kings, after Saul is chosen to be King of Israel and Judah, he is described as joining up with a band of prophets in a prophetic 'frenzy'. The prophets are described as 'coming down … with harp, tambourine, flute and lyre playing in front of them' (1 Sam10:5,6). They are clearly having a great time: 'the Spirit of the Lord' is upon them, and also falls on the newly anointed King Saul. There is another story of Saul being caught up in a similar experience in 1 Sam 19:20ff, this time with less dignity (read it!). We are reminded of these bands of prophets and their experiences of the 'Spirit of the Lord' again in the stories of Elisha in 2 Kings, following the passing (into heaven) of Elijah in 2 Kings 2. These stories are full of awe and wonder at the power of God to work in Elisha miracles of greater magnitude than those of Elijah - the first prophet to confront the pagan worship of Baal head on (1 Kings 17). There is also a hint of this prophetic 'joy' in the dancing of David before the ark as it is carried up to Jerusalem (2 Sam 6:14).

One could be forgiven for being carried away by the Old Testament evidence of some serious 'happy clappy' worship! The prophets seem to have had their good times as well as bad! At this point I am not going to turn around the meaning of joy and suggest to you that it has another meaning that is more serious, and thereby dampen it all down. No, this joy is only a foretaste of a fuller prophetic experience, which speaks to us more powerfully of the God we know in Jesus Christ.

The word 'joy' is found frequently in the Psalms in its normal sense of 'being happy in the presence of the Lord', a normalised kind of joy that we can refer to in worship without the excesses of prophetic ecstasy, trances and lack of modesty. This is very useful for reading in worship, and a great benefit to us all. The remaining uses of the word are in Isaiah, and also in Jeremiah (for him, largely the absence of it!), together with Ezekiel, Joel and Zechariah. Joy here takes on a new significance, and one that I was prompted to think about by an article by Edgar Conrad in JSOT (The Journal for the Study of the Old Testament) issue 91. The article itself is a scholarly reading of Isaiah alongside the 'Scroll of The Twelve' - the twelve 'minor' prophets as we would call them - with its own points to make. One of the conclusions of the author is that in the writing, particularly of Isaiah 40 - 66, there is a clear merging of the earthly and the heavenly. It is as if the prophet (or 'messenger', as Conrad points out) is caught between the two, drawn in a moment to a heavenly vision, and yet also addressing earthly reality. Indeed, the author hints that one of the reasons why scholars find it so difficult to read Isaiah, The Twelve and other prophetic writing is precisely this confusion and fluidity of meaning between what is clearly locatable in human experience and what is dramatically beyond it in a heavenly sense.

I am content to leave the scholar here to his other considerations and draw out my own thought. The old language and description of prophetic ecstasy and being 'happy clappy' before the Lord is transformed into a profound and life-changing experience of the presence of God. When God is present, what we understand as earth and heaven becomes merged - indeed, God is not God unless this is so.

It should be no surprise to us, therefore, that Isaiah moves straight from the awful earthy story of King Ahaz's refusal to listen to the Lord (Isaiah 7 and 8) into an amazing heavenly vision of a coming King who will bring in the reign of righteousness and peace on which King Ahaz has turned his back. Isaiah picks up that great Old Testament theme of God doing a new work through the birth of a child, evidenced in the past in the birth of Isaac, Moses and Samuel at critical moments in Israel's history. He projects this forward prophesying 'A child is born to us…and he will be called Our Ruler…He will be called Wonderful…' (Isaiah 9:6), and elaborates on the rule of peace inaugurated by the true descendent of David (Isaiah 11). The famous Servant poems of chapters 42-53 extend our understanding of God's 'son' and our 'servant', the enigmatic setting of the victorious and joyful return to Zion after exile providing us with bewilderment at the disfigurement and disgrace of God's servant (Isaiah 52:14); the gross rejection of God's servant eventually bringing in joy (53:11) and godly victory (53:12).

Similar themes can be found in Joel where the earthly disaster of a locust plague is transformed into an amazing vision of restoration, and a pouring out of the 'Spirit of the Lord' on everyone (Joel 2:28), and in Zechariah (8:19), where the religious rota of fasts becomes transformed into a 'joyous season' which will attract many people and nations to the Lord. These, and many other joyous experiences of the prophets are full of surprises, but it should be no surprise to us that in the midst of an exploration of 'joy' in the prophets, we find the passages of the Old Testament that speak most stunningly to the Christian of the one we know as our Saviour; his life, death, and the pouring out of his Spirit. Jesus himself bridged earth and heaven, his humanity and divinity witnessing to the action and mystery of his life.

Somewhere beyond the normal human experience of joy, and hinted at by our participation in worship (whether 'happy-clappy' or not!), is that sublime saving experience of God that Jesus enables us to have by his Spirit. No wonder our forebears talked of that 'unspeakable joy' when referring to the privilege of our relationship with God in Christ.

May God dumbfound us with his revelation and wisdom as he did the prophets. May God make his Son so real to us that inexpressible joy is expressed. May God anoint us with a spirit of joy that is recognisable in the world and yet points to the truth that is beyond it. May the joy of the Lord be yours and mine as it clearly was the prophets.