The prophets were the voice of God.
While the priesthood was governed by genetics and genealogies,
prophetism was pure grace. A man could become an officer in the temple
by being a descendant of Levi or a son of Aaron, but to be a prophet
required a personal call. What made a man a false prophet was simply
this: they were not called. Jeremiah spoke of false prophets "The
prophets prophesy lies in my name; I sent them not, neither have I
commanded them" (14:14). To another false prophet Jeremiah said
"The LORD hath not sent thee but thou makest this people to
trust in a lie" (28:15).
Truth is at the heart of the prophetic
ministry. In the heart of every prophet was a message, a message from
God. A priest could go through the motions of ministry, tending to
affairs of the temple with a cold indifference, but a prophet was a man
with passion that was based on a call and a personal experience with
God. Being a prophet required a passion for the truth. Jeremiah was a
man with a "fire in [his] bones" (Jer. 20:9).
Priests were guided and governed by
customs, rules, and ceremony. Their clothing, duties, and activities
were calculated and predictable. There was no room or place for any
diversion from prescribed tradition. This is not to say that the priest
was any less in God’s will than the prophet when each were in their
ideal and most useful state. Like a river, the priesthood stayed within
its banks. The prophet had no such restraints or predictability about
them. For the priest every day was the same. Each dressed, performed,
and officiated with the predictability of a Catholic Mass. The prophets
were as unpredictable as the weather. They might at any moment come like
a storm or a flood and then just as quickly be gone. Prophets were
called of God for special assignments and missions and they were
selected out of any family or field of activity. They came in times of
trouble. King Ahab addressed Elijah "Art thou he who troubleth
Israel?" (1Kings 18:17).
Prophet schools seemed to be an
attempt to somehow channel this gift and calling, but God seemed to
ignore such institutions. Prophets are not cultivated but called.
Priests operated by pattern. Prophets were one of a kind.
By the very nature of their mission to correct wrong
thinking or behavior they ever seemed out of place, and out of step with
the world they confronted. To go against popular sentiment often meant a
prophet would suffer. To stand apart from the conventional often meant
standing alone. Prophets were rare then and they are more rare today.
There is a profound misunderstanding
about prophets. It is true that prophets were the vehicles of
prediction, but that was not their main purpose. The "stock and
trade" of the prophet was truth. They were not eschatological
weather forecasters as much as reminders to stay on course. They were
not the needle of the compass as much as men who stood at true moral
north and vocally called for integrity, and fidelity, and justice. They
were visionaries in the sense that Paul spoke of when he said "I
was not disobedient to the heavenly vision" they seemed so
Their authority was in the prophetic
formula "thus saith the Lord."
Sometimes they would steady a trembling hand of a king (2Kings 13:16)
exercising a ministry of encouragement, and sometimes they would issue
an indictment when monarches strayed or silenced all other voices. They
were men of the hour and men of the moment. While they often
mysteriously left traces of tomorrow like tracks on the road of today,
they were always relevant. While they left a prophetic trail, sometimes
Messianic and sometimes apocalyptic, they always called for change or
caution in the present.
Sometimes as small and precious things
come wrapped in much paper and are protected in large boxes, the
writings of the Prophets sometimes may appear to be little more than
tissue paper cradling a single gem. Much of their words appear as
historical packing paper carefully protecting the crystal treasures of
eternity. Micah 5:2 is a diamond carefully supported by a thousand other
words awaiting the query of Wise men seeking the location of the Christ
child. In light of that temptation we must remember that every word is
inspired. Yet some words do seem to shine more brightly than others. The
single word "Bethlehem" is a jewel in the crown of
prophecy. Many other verses are spiritual landmarks beside a long path
of truth that would bring men to God, or perhaps better said,
"bring God to man." While all Scripture is given by
inspiration and is profitable.. some words are gold and some silver.
As when reading the parables of Jesus,
we must be careful not to make bread from stones, and force a meaning
from every detail, in reading the prophets we must be careful not to
linger too long at wells that have no water. While all Scripture is
inspired, it may be that a book has been placed in the eternal canon for
a single word like "Bethlehem." It could also be that
some words like wells are deeper than others.
There are hundreds of little lessons
to learn from every text. We can learn about life, and about death. We
are reminded about faith, hope, and love. We are called to integrity and
to truth, but in all the words of the prophets there is one main purpose
that must never be overlooked. Jesus spoke to the teachers of his day
who thought they knew and understood the words of the prophets, but
missed the most important thing. "Search the scriptures; for in
them ye think ye have eternal life; and they are they which testify of
me" (Jn. 5:39).
In a sense every preacher is a
prophet. While he might not have had a unique experience by some burning
bush, he has been entrusted with the truth which he is called to carry
in a dark world to help to light the way. He must faithfully carry that
torch until God calls him to rest, and then rest assured, God will send
another to lift it high again and carry it for another generation.
Prophecy is still a gift to the church
in the sense that certain men are called of God to confront the world
with the truth. While every preacher must have a divine calling, and
must have a "fire" in his soul so that he "cannot [help]
but speak the things [he] has seen and heard" (Acts 4:20), not
every preacher is a prophet (or has the gift of prophecy); but woe to
the country or congregation that has no prophets among them. A land
without a prophet is like a mind without a conscience. Yet wherever the
Holy Book is there is a prophet. To whoever dares to open its pages and
read, the prophets speak. Twelve voices still cry out in the wilderness
and still startle those they encounter. These are called The Minor
Prophets. They are called "minor," not because their message
is unimportant, but simply because their words are few. Some of these
men were teachers to the "so-called" Major prophets. These men
spoke to their generation, but since their words were spiritual they
speak to our generation as well.
Each prophet had a message to deliver
to his generation. That was his first calling and holy errand, but in as
much as the words were God’s Word they speak to us still. There is
more however. Every "would-be" preacher or teacher of God’s
Word would do well to study these greats and learn what is involved in
such a high calling. Like the twelve disciples, each of these ancient
sages is different in tone and temperament. They have kept company
through the ages and have stood side by side in the eternal canon of
Scripture. They have served the Master well, and do still.
Two thousand years ago the Apostle
Paul stood before King Agrippa and pointed to the words of the prophets
as the authority for his message about Christ. "King Agrippa,
believest thou the prophets? I know that thou believest. Then Agrippa
said unto Paul, Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian"
(Acts 26:27-28). When Jesus himself encountered the two disciples on the
road to Emmaus he pointed to Moses and "all the prophets" (Lk.
24:27) as the standard by which to measure their experience. And in his
story about Lazarus and the rich man, Jesus gave greater weight to the
ministry of the prophets than to the raising of one from the dead.
"Nay, father Abraham; but if one went unto them from the dead,
they will repent. And he said unto him, If they hear not Moses and the
prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead"
We must read and listen to the
prophets still. In their words we find food for our faith. We also see
the intensity with which God cares for his people and the integrity
required to remain in his presence. When we open the Scriptures to study
them or to proclaim them, remember the words of Jesus, "They
speak of me."