The Prophetís Life


Jeanie C. Crain

Professor, English

Missouri Western State College

In his own country and synagogue, Jesus astounded those listening when He taught them in parables some spiritual truths about the kingdom of God. Even after recognizing that He spoke with wisdom, they still took offense, causing Jesus to utter, "A prophet is not without honor except in his own country and in his own house" (Mt. 13.57). We quote this passage easily and with great familiarity; we tend to miss, however, the tremendous understatement being made just as we underestimate what it costs to become a prophet and to speak for God

Jesus, without a doubt, understood that becoming responsive to the call of Yahweh and daring to stand solitary in the masses and speak the unpopular messages of doom, destruction, and death in the coming judgment of God would cost the prophet much more than honor. Prophets are called to stand before impenitent and sometimes complacent peoples, get their attention, and call them into account; the message is usually forthcoming danger, catastrophe, disaster on disaster, chaos, captivity, and death. As spokesperson for Yahweh, the prophet has to swim against the streams of public opinion, risking life itself as the greatest cost. Other costs include incredible inner loneliness, lack of or ebbing confidence in the call itself, despair, and tremendous tension between a love for people and the fateful message that has to be delivered. The calling weighs heavily, and prophets grow depressed, despondent, bitter, and more than once, almost break down. Their obligation to Yahweh, though, brings them back on task, defining their true character; Jeremiah describes this calling as "a burning fire shut up in my bones" and confesses he is "weary with holding it in" and that finally, he cannot (20.9).

Prophets are strange, surprising, and eccentric individuals; perhaps they have to be in order to get attention for their messages. Think of Isaiah running around naked and barefoot for three days with people asking him why (20.2); Jeremiah burning his girdle and running around with a yoke on his neck (19.1); Ezekiel lying on the street in cords for 390 days on his left side and forty days on his right side (4.5), and later, digging a hole through his own house and escaping (12.2), or ranting about his peculiar, bizarre, and repellent visions; Hosea marrying a prostitute, who bears three children in the marriage that are not his own; or Amos addressing carousing and heathen women as "cows of Bashan" 4. 1-3) Certainly, we would not want to live next door to these prophets, and today, we would lock them away from sane society, labeling them as basket cases or people who had gone off the edge.

We read in Matthew that Jerusalem has been in the habit of killing her prophets and stoning those who are sent to her (23.37); in I Kings, Jezebel massacred prophets, prompting Obadiah to take one hundred of them and hide them in a cave (18.4). Despite such risks, though, true prophets are driven by the deep and compelling force of inner conviction and vision; they are tools of Yahweh, and they must speak: "The lion has roared; who will not fear? The Lord God has spoken; who can but prophesy?" (Amos 3.8). They have to risk themselves to fate: Ezekielís cords represent the fate of his people; Jeremiah is thrown into prison for his message; Uriah is slain by Jehoiakim (26.2); legend has it Isaiah was martyred. This is the fate prophets risk in speaking for God; it is lonely, compelling, and dangerous. We tell the story of Danielís being thrown into a den of lions without feeling the heart-pounding, surging fear he must have felt when first he huddled in this menagerie of teeth, claws, and death. Prophets, in spite of risks and all too human fears, feel themselves seized by Yahwehís mind and spirit and pour out their words under the impelling power of the infinite itself. It is one thing to be an angel sent by God, as was Gabriel, and stand in Godís presence before being sent out to speak (Lk 1.19); it is quite another to be a mere mortal possessed by a vision, dream, or revelation--who sees not external appearances but events as they really are from Godís perspective--who must then convey this spiritual reality to other human beings. The prophet stands on the edge of the finite and infinite, the earthly and heavenly, the spoken and unspoken, combining paradoxically tangible and intangible kingdoms. No wonder Saulís own people wondered, "What is this that has come upon the son of Kish?" (I S. 10.11) Moses confessed, "I have not done them [ these works] of my own will" (Nu. 16.28). Isaiah utters quite clearly that Yahweh has historically been revealing what was secret from the beginning: "Draw near to me, hear this! I have not spoken in secret, from the time it came to be, I have been there" (48.16). Isaiah goes on to say this same Lord God "and His Spirit have sent me." The prophet--whatever the costs-- brings Godís perspective to human realities.

The way in which we study the Bible and prophets can minimize not only the risks but the overwhelming awe with which the prophet is drawn into the sphere of the miraculous and filled with Godís spirit. Itís no simple thing to discover oneself suddenly come into the presence of the Eternal.

Abraham is an early prophet of God (Gen. 20.7), as Abimelech, king of Gerar, acknowledges when he almost takes Sarah as wife, thinking her to be only Abrahamís sister; Abraham responds to Abimelechís very natural question, "What were you thinking of?" (11) by confessing he was afraid for his life in a land where people did not believe in Yahweh. Abraham has apparently momentarily forgotten Godís words,
Fear not, Abrahm, I am your shield" (15.1). We recall, though, that Abram was told by God, "Go from your country and your kindred and your fatherís house to the land that I will show you" (12.1-3). We should not be surprised to discover that Abramís life sets the pattern for that of the prophets who follow. Moses flees to Midian in fear for his life after he has killed the Egyptian he has seen beating one of his Hebrew brethren; Elijah, who has mocked four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal, proving to the people convincingly that his Lord is God, panics when Jezebel resolves to take his life, and we find him going a dayís journey into the wilderness, sitting down under a broom tree, and asking Yahweh to take away his life. He has to be awakened from his sleep of depression by an angel who tells him to ""Arise and eat" (19. 3-5); he has to be told to arise again before he finally sets out on his journey, renewed. Even at this point, he still dawdles, and God asks him about his cave lodging, "What are you doing here, Elijah?" (19.9). He responds that he feels himself alone, afraid for his life (19.10). Elijah continues to linger through a strong wind, an earth quake, and a fire; wrapping his face in his mantle, he answers a second "What are you doing here, Elijah?" with a lame, "They seek my life" (14). Elijah finally stirs in keeping with the command to go forth and anoint Hazael king of Syria and Jehu king of Israel; it is his successor Elisha, though, who finally carries out these injunctions.

Our Biblical narrative moves quickly, telling simply that when he was called, "Abram went" (12.4). We quickly find him in the flourishing city of Shechem, a Canaan crossroads, pausing to build an altar for Yahweh where formerly the Canaanites have sacrificed at their sacred tree Moreh. Underplayed here are any reservations that Abram might have had about leaving his own land and people, any concerns about the semi-nomadic life he and his nephew Lot would lead among the sexually perverse Canaanites, or worries about survival in a land beset with cycles of fertility and drought. Weíre told only, in summary and foreshadowing, "Now there was a famine in the land. So Abram went down to Egypt" (12.10). About to enter Egypt, he tells Sarah to say she is his sister, and we read, "for her sake he [Pharaoh] dealt well with Abram (12.16). Pharaoh and his house, afflicted by plagues, asks, much as Abimelech later, "What is this thing you have done to me? Why did you not tell me she was your wife?" (12.17). Pharaoh, at this point, sets the self-serving Abram on his way "with his wife and all that he had" (12.20). We see a similar self-service on the part of Abrahamís grandson Jacob, who steals his brotherís birthright and flees to his motherís people when Rebekah reveals to him that Esau plots to take his life. Only after a vision in which he sees a ladder connecting heaven and earth and a very personal encounter with Yahweh is Jacob able to see himself as "unworthy" 32.10) of the steadfast love with which God has blessed him and sent him back to his own country. Weíre not surprised to see that Esau, echoing Abrahamís deference to Lot, greets his brother with a loving embrace and tells him to keep what he has for himself, that he has enough (33.9). Jacob insists, though, seeing his brotherís face as "like seeing the face of God," (33.10) and journeying on with him until they depart for Seir and Succoth.

When Abram goes up from Egypt, he has become very rich (13.1). We read that he ends up at Bethel, "where his tent had been at the beginning, between Bethel and Ai, to the place where he had made an altar at the first" (12.3). We learn now that Abram calls on the name of the Lord. Whatever goes on in Abramís head, perhaps sincere repentance for his lies and self-gain, weíre not told; we only learn that he and Lot can no longer dwell together, that the land cannot support them, and that there is strife between their herdsmen (12.7). That Abramís change of heart is genuine is reflected in his actions; he becomes the peace maker, telling Lot, "Let there be no strife between you and me" (13.8-12) and allowing Lot his choice of land. Lot, not unlike us, chooses the best for himself, the fertile Jordan valley; Abram, on the other hand, chooses Canaan and moves his tent to the sacred oaks of Mamre; after his separation from Lot, he is reminded again that his descendants are to inherit this land.

Abrahamís repentance and change of heart is a common motif: Isaiah responds to his vision of the Lord sitting upon a throne with recognition of his own lostness, crying "Woe is me! For I am a man of unclean lips" (6.5). He is commissioned and made ready for his message by a seraphim which touches a burning coal to his mouth, telling him his "guilt is taken away" (6. 6-8). Like Abraham, Isaiah responds quickly to Godís question "Whom will I send?" saying simply, "Here am I! Send me" (8). Jeremiah groans when he hears God telling him, "Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations" (1.5). Like Moses, Jeremiah excuses himself first that he cannot speak and second that he is young (6). He is told not to use youth or not knowing how to speak as an excuse; he is not to be afraid of those to whom he is sent nor to worry about what he is to say: "the Lord put forth his hand and touched my mouth" saying, "Behold, I have put my words in your mouth" (9, 10). Ezekiel is told he is to speak Godís words; he is to open his mouth and eat what he is given. Imagine Ezekielís surprise to see that a written scroll is spread before him (2.8- 3.2). He probably finds it little comfort to be reminded that the people to whom he must go do not speak a foreign speech or a hard language (2.4). Ezekiel knows all too well that Israel is a people of a "hard forehead and stubborn heart" (7). He actually has to be lifted up by the Spirit of God, and he goes in bitterness and heat of spirit as watchman to give warning to Israel (3.12-17). Even with the hand of God upon him, Ezekiel still falters, falls to his face, and the Spirit has to enter into him and set him on his feet (23). Only then is Ezekiel willing to bind himself symbolically in cords; for a time, his tongue cleaves to his mouth, and he is dumb and unable to reprove the rebellious house of Israel (24-27). After this, he lies in the streets, first on his left side and then on his right, to get the attention of Israel, symbolically portraying their coming captivity. Still, Yahweh is not finished with Ezekiel; he gets his attention by grabbing him by his hair and lifting him between heaven and earth so that he can see clearly what is coming upon Israel (8.1-6). The prophetís position is clearly not a comfortable one nor is it safe.

Abram foregoes his own safety when he learns Lot, along with all the goods of Sodom and Gomorrah, has been taken captive in a war in which four eastern kings have allied themselves; the peaceful Abram brings together his relatively small force and sets out to rescue Lot. Returning victoriously, Abram is met by the grateful king of Sodom and his priest Melchizedek, who blesses Abram in the name of "God Most High"; the pre-Israelite Salem is later to become Jerusalem, and El Elyon, the high god of the Canaanite pantheon, gives way to the Hebrew Yahweh, recognized as "maker of heaven and earth" 14.22).

Abram is now reminded in a vision that his descendants are to be many; he reflects upon his present childlessness but believes Yahweh will yet provide a son. He acts immediately upon his belief, sealing this covenant between himself and Yahweh, by ritual sacrifice (15.10). Having acted, Abram falls into a deep sleep just as the sun is going down; weíre not sure what happens to Abram, being told only that he is seized by "a dread and great darkness" (15.12). An ominous foreboding haunts Abram: he projects himself forward, seeing his descendants in a land that is not theirís, seeing them oppressed and becoming slaves for hundreds of years; he even sees his own death, his only comfort being that it will come when he is well along in years. When he awakens, the sun has gone down, it is dark, and he looks well beyond what physical sight can see into the presence of Yahweh revealing itself in a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch that passes between the bloody flesh pieces of the she-goat, ram, turtledove, and young pigeon (15.10, 17). Dread and foreboding surely give way to hair raising, spine tingling fear and sacred awe in this moment of supernatural manifestation. This is not an encounter an ordinary individual would seek out nor would most of us want the burden of attempting to communicate this strange and bizarre event to others. In Revelation, John on the island of Patmos, falls at the feet of "one like a son of man" (1.12) as though dead (17). He has to be consoled, "Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one; I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades" (18). Like other prophets, John carries a warning, this time to the seven churches of Asia, before he pens his bizarre vision of the throne of God; it must be remembered John is in the Spirit and that he apparently sees at great distance since there is between him and this throne "a sea of glass like crystal" (4.6). The Day of Yahweh he sees much as Joel as a day of destruction (1.15), of "darkness and gloom" (2.2); still, it is a day of mercy and steadfast love (2.15), a day of decision (3.14). Much like Ezekiel, he is told to take a scroll and eat it, knowing it will be bitter (Rev. 10.9). The final vision is that of Godís kingdom: "I saw a new heaven and a new earth" (21.1). In this new time, Yahwehís dwelling place is with men 21.3).

Abram is to encounter Yahweh yet again, this time after he is far enough removed from his former vision that doubt has apparently slipped into his thinking; he is reminded that he is to be the father of "a multitude of nations" and has his name changed from Abram to Abraham (17.4,5); this vision strikes the ninety-nine year old Abram as ludicrous, and he falls on his face and laughs, saying to himself, "Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old" (17). Another version of the same narrative makes Sarah the one who laughs when she is told she will yet have a son (18. 12). For whatever reasons Abraham and Sarah are chosen, the purpose is clear: "I have chosen him that he may charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice" (18.19). The prophet Malachi echoes this same grave responsibility: "Has not the one God made and sustained for us the spirit of life? And what does he desire? Godly offspring" (2.15,16). The call of the prophet, it must not be minimized, is always an isolating righteousness and an overwhelming responsibility to posterity. Like Habakkuk, the prophet looks among the nations, sees, wonders, and is astounded to see that Yahweh is doing a work in this day that is hard to believe (1.5); he is to take his stand and watch, to station himself on a tower, to see and write a vision of Godís work, and in the face of taunting and derision, he has only his faith (2. 1-6). He hears, his body trembles, and he waits patiently for the day of trouble to come upon people, rejoicing in the Lord (3.16-19). The prophet knows he has been made to tread upon high places (3.19).

The real cost of becoming a prophet of God is illustrated when Abraham is asked to surrender his only heir. What Abraham is being asked to do here is almost always understated; the prophet is commanded to do nothing less than fly in the face of all human conventions, to render himself--and that self stripped of everything-- accountable to God whatever the human cost. On the human level, Abraham is not only being asked to murder his only son and heir, but to pit himself as an autonomous individual against the rational universe; he is stripped of convention and stands alone in the face of the eternal, and to the Eternal alone is he accountable. We need to be clear about what is going on here: Abraham is commanded to sacrifice only to learn that he can bring nothing to the moment--nothing that he has acquired or made, nothing of his works. He has, of course, brought Isaac, his son on whom his posterity and, he believes, his collective immortality depend. By one accounting, we see here a relaxation upon the claim to the first-born by provision of an animal substitute. The greater lesson, though, concerns the finite and mortal self in the presence of the Infinite and Immortal: here, the Lord must provide (22.14).

Abraham lives to see his wife Sarah die at the ripe old age of a hundred and twenty-seven years; remembering the strong injunction to teach his children the way of Yahweh (23.4), Abraham calls Isaac to himself and makes him swear to take his wife among his own kindred. Much of the story of Abrahamís life is repeated in that of Isaac. Abraham himself "breathed his last and died in a good, old age, an old man and full of years" (25.9) and is buried east of Mamre, the place where he first chose Canaan. Yahwehís promise to him is yet to be realized in the direct line of Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph and, much farther down the line of historical revelation, in the "better hope" introduced through which all humankind "draws near to God" (Hebrews 7. 19).

Just as Abrahamís salvation is itself one of progressive awareness, in time Yahweh "abolishes the first in order to establish the second" (Hebrews 10.9), that order in which Jesus Christ himself becomes the offering for humankind "once for all" (Hebrews 10.10). The prophet then is one who invokes the future and foresees "something better for us" (Hebrews 11. 10), a vision so terrifying that the mortal spirit, being unable to endure the order given, entreats that no more messages be spoken; Yahwehís reply, though, is that humankind has not "come to what may be touched" (12.18) but must endure not only the shaking of earth but that of heaven, also (12.26). The prophetís vision cuts through time, all of history, through all that can be shaken, the removal of all that has been made, into the eternal itself and sees Yahweh as "a consuming fire" (12.28). Can anyone wonder that such an individual stands out before the masses, appears eccentric, or is reduced to metaphorical utterance? Just as surely as God acts, "He reveals His secret to His servants the prophets" (Am 3.7). Still, though, we are complacent, and Jeremiah would sorrow for us today just as much as he sorrowed for Judah: "And the Lord has sent to you all His servants the prophets, rising early and sending them, but you have not listened nor inclined your ear to hear" (25.4). Jesus compares the kindgom of heaven to a marriage feast, telling us the king "sent servants to call those who were invited to the marriage feast; but they would not come" (Mt 22.3). Revelation echoes the same call: "The Spirit and the Bride say, ĎComeí " (22.17). How ironic that the most thirsty among us desire not to take of the water of life offered to us "without cost," that cost having already been paid by the prophets we have stoned and killed and by the Son of God whom we crucified. How minimal indeed is the cost of being without honor in oneís own country and among oneís own people.