Given that the warnings of the biblical prophets routinely went unheeded, what does that tell us about what we should expect of modern-day prophets?
The Old Testament prophets were, almost to a man, staggeringly unsuccessful in their own lifetimes. Measured in terms of obvious key performance indicators like national repentance, they were nearly all abject failures. Does that failure to resonate with their audiences suggest a broader purpose?
Career vs freelance prophets
There was more than one type of prophet. There were the ‘sons of the prophets’, who appear to be an official group of prophets attached to the Temple apparatus and/or royal court. While they would originally have enjoyed independence, their proximity to power had the predictable effect and over the centuries they degenerated into little more than religious ‘Yes men’. Their job was essentially to tell the king what he wanted to hear. One of the best examples is found in 1 Kings 21, when Jehoshaphat consults 400 tame prophets belonging to the King of Israel, before going to war against Aram. ‘“Go,” they answered, “for the Lord will give it into the king’s hand.”’ This, it seems, is the best way to be respected and listened to as a prophet: accept that he who pays the piper, or in this case the prophet, calls the tune. History did not treat them kindly, even if their employers did.
Then there are the independent prophets who are not attached to the temple but who experience a calling to warn the king or society about their sins and impending judgement. Their books constitute a significant proportion of the Old Testament. Again, 1 Kings 21 provides a good example. ‘But Jehoshaphat asked, “Is there no longer a prophet of the Lord here whom we can inquire of?” The king of Israel answered Jehoshaphat, “There is still one prophet through whom we can inquire of the Lord, but I hate him because he never prophesies anything good about me, but always bad. He is Micaiah son of Imlah.”’ True to form, Micaiah prophesies doom and ends up in prison for the rest of his days.
It’s the same throughout the Old Testament. Isaiah’s call recognises the reality that he will be ignored (Isaiah 6). Ezekiel experiences the decline of Judah, with his ministry beginning in exile, and warns of the destruction of Jerusalem. God tells him not to be afraid of the people he will speak to, and cautions him that failure is distinctly possible: ‘The people to whom I am sending you are obstinate and stubborn.’ (Ezekiel 2:4) As he prophesies, Jerusalem is destroyed a few years later.
Speaking to people who don’t want to listen is a thankless task. This idea apparently occurred to Jeremiah, who, like Micaiah, conducted his ministry in the narrow gap between a rock and a hard place. Denying his calling caused him intense emotional, and maybe physical, distress. ‘Whenever I speak, I cry out proclaiming violence and destruction. So the word of the Lord has brought me insult and reproach all day long. But if I say, “I will not mention his word 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.’ (Jeremiah 20:8-9)
And so it goes on. In fact, Jonah, one of the few successful prophets in the Old Testament, is such an outlier and his experience so at odds with that of his colleagues that many critics believe the book is a parody designed to satirise Israel’s constant unfaithfulness.
Israel’s prophets talked, but their audiences didn’t listen. What about the ‘prophets’ of our own time – those who speak out against injustice today? This might include warnings about specific or collective instances of sin; abuse and oppression, the environment, extremist politics, war or greed, among other things.
Little has changed in 3,000 years: telling people they’re behaving badly and need to change is never popular. Like the prophets of the Bible, anyone who tries this nowadays is likely to be ignored or derided at best, if not silenced in a variety of ways. Given how little the Israelites listened to their prophets, how should we view the purpose of such a ministry (whether or not we consider it a divine calling)?1. We bear responsibility
Ezekiel was told that if he didn’t deliver his warning, the blood of others would be on his hands. In that respect, his ministry wasn’t just about other people: it was about his own integrity and guilt. The prophets were tasked with bringing a horse to water, not forcing it to drink.2. Even one listener is enough
While the Israelites as a whole ignored the prophets, we have to assume that a minority did listen to them and change their behaviour. Presumably some people did act – and those who were prepared for exile would have been grateful to Jeremiah. Some human misery was avoided as a result.
3. Prophecy is for future generations
The fact that we still read the prophets’ message millennia later should be reason for encouragement. Their words weren’t just for their immediate listeners, but for billions of future readers over a hundred generations to come.
Change doesn’t happen overnight, and is a process that will not be completed this side of the world to come. The fact that we are the latest in the line of beneficiaries of the biblical prophets who were ridiculed, imprisoned and murdered for speaking out should give us pause for prayerful reflection.