Prophets and Speaking Prophetically: A Reflection

Photo: marekuliasz/Shutterstock

In 1907, H G Wells wrote a novel entitled The War In The Air – one of those remarkably prescient novels for which he was justly famous.  In it, Wells imagined a global conflict fought between great fleets of aircraft, which not only battled one another but also bombed the cities of their enemies into rubble.  The result, Wells thought, would be the destruction of human civilisation.

Remarkably, The War In The Air was republished in 1940, at the height of the Battle of Britain.  In this edition, Wells – now an old man – wrote a short, angry preface, which he concluded with the following words:

What now remains to be written? Only my epitaph; and that, when the time comes, must surely be, “I told you so – you damned fools!”

I told you so – you damned fools! How often – and with what bitterness – must the prophets of the Old Testament have uttered a similar lament?  As people, they were rarely stupid; and much of their oft-recorded reluctance to follow God’s summons into prophecy stemmed, not merely from an understandable hesitation to take up the vocation of telling people unpleasant and confronting truths, but from the fact that they knew very well they would be ignored.  And not merely ignored, but mocked and vilified into the bargain.

A reading of Scripture seems to indicate that there are five realities associated with a prophet’s life – and predicting the future isn’t one of them.  Rather, these realities point to the burden that prophets bear, a burden that itself highlights the essential nature of speaking prophetically.  To be a prophet:

  • Is to be reviled for speaking uncomfortable truths;
  • Is to have your counsel ignored because it demands the consideration of inconvenient realities;
  • Is to be written off and dismissed as a “crank”, a “know-it-all”, or a “troublemaker”
  • Is to have what you say not only rejected and ignored, but to suffer the indignity of having what you say received as revelation when it is spoken by someone else;
  • Is to have the people who tell you how much they admire the “strength” and “prophetic nature” of your voice, suddenly tell you that you are a bully or an egotist because your “strong voice” has become personally inconvenient for them.

Prophets walk a strange, disjointed road, bound to the world by passionate ties of love, yet possessed also by a relentless vision that does not permit them to enter into the concessions and compromises that make normal human relationships work.  Prophets are often accused of being curmudgeons and misanthropes – and sometimes they are.  But what people often fail to perceive is that a prophet’s “prickliness” frequently proceeds, not from an egotistical delight in proving themselves right and others wrong, but from a passionate desire that others see clearly and think coherently – even when doing so requires painful self-examination and a difficult change of course.

Prophets are in many respects the quintessential outsiders.  They don’t seem to “fit” in the world, possessed by a dissatisfaction that chafes against the reality constructed by human convention and assumption.  And yet prophets hunger for the world, they long for the world precisely because they see, not only what is wrong with the world, but what could be possible if only we tried to live more authentically.

Prophets are often uncomfortable in the company of others, awkward and introverted when it comes to the ordinary rituals of human interaction.  And yet prophets love passionately and long desperately, the clarity of their insight presenting all too clearly to their own eyes their limitations and deficiencies as human beings.  To be a prophet is, in many respects, to walk alone in the world, assailed by a profound sense of “otherness” and remove, and yet filled with deep springs of compassion and care.  The outrage, the strident demand for social justice, the uncompromising advocacy for the vulnerable and the helpless which is often associated with prophets, comes both from the objectivity of their vision and their own sense of being cut off from the world, from the fellowship of others.

Prophets are often accused of being hypocrites or of possessing double standards – and sometimes they are, and do.  Prophets are human, as frail and vulnerable as any other person.  In some respects, prophets are even more vulnerable than most, because their difficult message and inconvenient truths invite a hostile response, one that often delights in pointing out prophets’ foibles and unmasking for gloating public view their shortcomings and failures.    The hostility which prophets arouse often fails to take account of their humanity, intent as it so often is on discrediting their message, or inventing excuses as to why it should be ignored.

Prophets are often accused of being angry and violent – and sometimes they are.  But their anger and violence stem, not from a desire to intimidate others or bludgeon them into submission, but in order to make others see clearly and understand unequivocally the consequences of their actions; and, hence, of the urgent need for change.  The anger and violence of prophetic language reflects the critical nature of the situation into which they speak; it is the context that makes for anger and violence, not the point or purpose of their prophesying.

Above all else, to be a prophet is to be rejected by the world, including – and perhaps especially – by those whom the prophet loves deepest and most desperately desires to hear and respond.  The prophet stands on the outside and calls to those within; and those within, beholding the prophet on the outside, conclude that it is the prophet who has rejected them.  And so they turn their back on the prophet or angrily drive them away, not realising that the prophet’s call was indeed a call to unity and integrity, rather than division and separation.  And to this rejection, the prophet – like God – can only respond with continued call and love.

The prophet’s lot is – like so much else about human life – summed up in Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem, recorded in Matthew 23:37:

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!

The world – ancient and modern – has a desperate need for prophets; and yet it is to the prophets’ voice that we seldom listen.  But there are prophets among us still – in the church, in the sciences, in society, in the media and the body politic – calling us to change before it is too late.  Would it not be a wonderful thing if, unlike the sad litany of rejection of those who dared to speak prophetically recorded in Scripture, we were, even for the briefest of moments, to stop and listen? Imagine what might happen then…

(c) Copyright Brendan E Byrne 2018. All rights reserved.