It is unsurprising to find that the poetic form and language of prophecy speaks to individual Christians in different ways. Writ large in metaphor and hyperbole, the motifs of judgement and salvation present an enduring message of hope that has universal reach. But indiscriminate application of these words to contemporary events imposes modern concerns on text intended to convey something entirely different: the divine perspective.
Contemporary Bible readers must learn to hear the power of prophetic language without being swept to unsound conclusions, for whilst symbol and figure are malleable constructs they are most compelling in their original contexts. Set in an ancient landscape, they function together as meticulously crafted monuments to the expressive dialogue God shared with his people. To rob them of this context and transport them to the sterile literalism of modernity is a gross misappropriation of their divine heritage, stripping them their first and most certain meaning.
In this second of three articles we will see the prophets are not just the powerful literary mouthpieces described in part one, but are God’s agents of change: presenting radical countercultural messages that challenge the expectations of society and state.
Revolution in Egypt
Perhaps the most obvious manifestation of this confrontation is Moses’ mission to wrest control of Israel’s destiny from the clutches of the Pharaoh. By delivering portents of impending doom to Egypt’s exalted leader, Moses orchestrates an imminent ideological collision between the unyielding powers of Egypt and the freedom promised by Yahweh.
“Behold, about this time tomorrow, I will send a very heavy hail, such as has not been seen in Egypt from the day it was founded until now. Now therefore send, bring your livestock and whatever you have in the field to safety. Every man and beast that is found in the field and is not brought home, when the hail comes down on them, will die.” Exodus 9:18–19 (NASB)1
The pharaoh was considered a representative of the gods Ra and Amun on earth,2 an authority that was directly challenged by Moses’ prophetic word. Forced to choose between the superstition of Egypt or acknowledge the superiority of Yahweh, the pharaoh stubbornly elected to maintain the pretense of his divinity.
Whilst many of the plagues appear to be directed at specific Egyptian deities, modern scholarship views the plagues as a more holistic attack on Egyptian Maat, or “order”.3 Not only were Egypt’s gods humiliated and their social structure undermined, their pharaoh, considered the chief upholder of order was shown to be impotent against the chaos wrought by the plagues.4 The Israelites, long oppressed slaves of Egypt, were to be freed. It is hard to overstate the significance of this cultural shift in the context of ancient Egypt:
“Since the land of Egypt was governed by a representative of the gods, to go against the will of Pharaoh was to go against the gods. This attitude might help to explain why there was no significant revolution during the long history of ancient Egypt.”5
As each wave of judgement rolled across the land it eroded the authority of the pharaoh, demonstrating to all that Yahweh alone creates order or permits chaos6. By the time Israel were freed, the land was in disarray, their former captors were compelling them to leave, and national gods had been vanquished. The still small voice of Yahweh’s prophet had revealed a new perspective.
Speaking truth to power
The dominant culture takes a range of forms through Israel’s history, from the oppressive social order of Egypt to the corrupt monarchy of their own faithless kings. It is here during the reign of Ahab that we see another example of the prophetic word in action.
“Then the king of Israel gathered the prophets together, about four hundred men, and said to them, ‘Shall I go against Ramoth-gilead to battle or shall I refrain?’ And they said, ‘Go up, for the Lord will give it into the hand of the king.’” 1 Ki 22:6-7 (NASB)
If prophecy were established by multiplicity of voices then surely Ahab stood in good stead! But one prophet, Micaiah son of Imlah, was destined to break the echo chamber that the King of Israel had constructed for himself.
“Then the messenger who went to summon Micaiah spoke to him saying, ‘Behold now, the words of the prophets are uniformly favorable to the king. Please let your word be like the word of one of them, and speak favorably.’ But Micaiah said, ‘As the LORD lives, what the LORD says to me, that I shall speak.’” 1 Ki 22:13-14 (NASB)
The pressure to conform is not only implicitly felt, but explicitly applied. Ahab had no interest in truth, sincerity, or obedience; he wanted the gods to endorse the decision he had already made. Yet even he could not maintain his self-serving sham of divine consultation.
“…the king said to him, “Micaiah, shall we go to Ramoth-gilead to battle, or shall we refrain?” And he answered him, “Go up and succeed, and the LORD will give it into the hand of the king.” Then the king said to him, “How many times must I adjure you to speak to me nothing but the truth in the name of the LORD?” So he said, ‘I saw all Israel scattered on the mountains, like sheep which have no shepherd.’” 1 Ki 22:15-17 (NASB)
In passages like this we see the prophet as the uncompromising agitator of change: unafraid to speak the truth to power, unbroken by peer pressure, and unwavering in message7. Once more the future is spoken in rich metaphor; masterful use of language shifting the focus from the king’s destiny to that of the people8. The point of the prophecy is not to forecast the details of Ahab’s death, but comment on the impact of the spiritual vacuum over which he presided9.
Everywhere preconceptions are challenged, everywhere the dominant culture is questioned from the divine perspective. This is the role of the prophet.
By revealing the divine perspective, the prophets spoke as mouthpieces of God, calling the people to faithful allegiance. Having considered the purpose of the prophet we can more fully appreciate the variety of language and form used to convey their message. The prophets:
- spoke out against prevailing idolatry as covenant enforcers using the language of lawsuit and judgement.10
- spoke in allusion and poetry to help people confront the true nature of their situation, metaphorically shaking them to their senses in hyperbole and analogy.11
- spoke of heartfelt grief through lament; employing rhetorical questions and modelling the introspection and reflection required to bring about renewal.12
- spoke with hope and encouragement of promise, salvation, and freedom.13
These patterns of communication show deity not as distant or disinterested gods, but near and engaged. Yahweh is present in the nation’s experience of adversity; watching, evaluating, and shaping the national character.
Predictive elements are woven into the fabric of all these forms, but the predictions are subservient to change which is modelled, anticipated, and encouraged in the prophetic discourse itself. Declaring the inevitable outcome of a society’s values is a highly effective method for changing them! Nowhere is this lesson clearer than when the word of the prophet Jonah changed the prevailing culture of Nineveh:
“Then Jonah began to go through the city one day’s walk; and he cried out and said, ‘Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown.’ Then the people of Nineveh believed in God; and they called a fast and put on sackcloth from the greatest to the least of them.” Jonah 3:4-5 (NASB)
The prophesied overthrow of the city was neither a foregone conclusion nor a failed prediction: it was a dramatic statement that changed the hearts of its inhabitants. Yet rather than rejoice at the positive effect of his message, Jonah chose to sulk at the surprising revelation of God’s mercy; a poignant reminder not to seek the destruction of our adversaries but pray for their enlightenment.
Prophecy in context
Prophecy finds its purpose not in high-definition descriptions of future-history, but in the unexpected endings of ultimate destiny. To focus on the predictive aspect of prophecy rather than its cultural impact is to confuse the mechanism for the message.
Writing in his book “The Prophetic Imagination”, Walter Brueggemann sums up the role of predictive prophecy in this way:
“While the prophets are in a way future-tellers, they are concerned with the future as it impinges upon the present.” 14
Knowledge of destiny is not provided to satisfy our desire for certainty about the future, but to change our attitudes in the present. We can choose to be like the pharaoh, unwilling to countenance anything other than the prevailing order; we can choose to be like Ahab, constructing an echo chamber that will never challenge our existing beliefs; or, we can join the prophets in grief, reflection, and hope – helping us to comprehend the divine perspective by the renewing of our minds.
In part 3 of this series we will see how the Bible models the application of predictive prophecy, and find that even in hindsight, a model of the prophet whose primary purpose is future-telling remains elusive.
- New American Standard Bible, 1995 Edition: Paragraph Version. (1995). La Habra, CA: The Lockman Foundation. All Bible quotations in this article are taken from the NASB.
- Elwell, W. A., & Beitzel, B. J. (1988). Pharaoh. In Baker encyclopaedia of the Bible (Vol. 2, p. 1669). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.
- Hoffmeier, J. K. (1999). Israel in Egypt (p. 151). Madison Avenue, NY: Oxford University Press.
- “There is a close connection between the Pharaoh and Maʿat expressed in the saying that the Pharaoh united himself or fraternized with her. He is also the chief upholder of m3ʿt. Like the gods, he lives from m3ʿt, he is happy in m3ʿt, he loves m3ʿt, he does m3ʿt, he even eats and drinks m3ʿt in the same way as the gods do. The Pharaoh is often depicted presenting a statuette of the seated goddess to other gods like Amun as a symbol of his successes in keeping disorder out of Egypt.” K. A. D. Smelik, “Maʿat,” ed. Karel van der Toorn, Bob Becking, and Pieter W. van der Horst, Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible (Leiden; Boston; Köln; Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge: Brill; Eerdmans, 1999), 534.
- Stephens, J (2016). Ancient Mediterranean Religions: Myth, Ritual and Religious Experience. Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
- “Each plague is a reminder of the supreme power of God who holds chaos at bay, but who, if he chooses, will step aside and allow the chaos to plague his enemies.” Enns, P. (2000). Exodus (p. 231). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
- Micaiah was so consistent that Ahab saw straight through his initial platitude, though perhaps it was delivered with more than a dash of sarcasm.
- Walter Brueggemann has a nice turn of phrase: “The task of prophetic imagination is to cut through the numbness, to penetrate the self-deception, so that the God of endings is confessed as Lord.” Brueggemann, W. (2001). The Prophetic Imagination (Second Edition, p. 2). Minneapolis: Fortress Press.
- R. Goldenberg, “The Problem of False Prophecy: Talmudic Interpretations of Jeremiah 28 and 1 Kings 22,” in The Biblical Mosaic Changing Perspectives, ed. R. M. Polzin and E. Rothman (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1982). Quoted in House, P. R. (1995). 1, 2 Kings (Vol. 8, p. 237). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers. “R. Goldenberg (1982) has stated how rabbinical texts attempted to explain the problem of two prophets possessing God’s word, yet only one of them being worthy of obedience. Goldenberg claims the text says: ‘It is not enough to identify the prophet sent by the Lord. You must also know why the Lord has sent that prophet and the result the prophecy in question was designed to produce.’”
- Lawsuit and covenant judgement: Is 1:2-3, Jer 2:4-13.
- Allusion to confront the existing order: “vineyard”, Is 5:17; “whitewashing”, Ez 13:9-12, Mt 23:27.
- Lament, reflection and renewal: La 2:13, 19, 3:20-24.
- Hope and encouragement of promise and salvation: Mic 4:3. Note this is often achieved by reminding the audience of the benefits of covenant fidelity: Mal 3:10-12. Interestingly, the picture of salvation is often painted in terms which address the concerns of an agrarian society, e.g. Mal 4:4.
- Brueggemann, W. (2001). The Prophetic Imagination (Second Edition, p. 2). Minneapolis: Fortress Press.