I have been thinking lately …
… about prophecy.
When we think about prophecy, we generally think of foretelling or predicting the future. So when people apply that term to the Bible, they look to certain books (especially Revelation) for some timetable about when the world will come to an end.
But nothing could be further from the Biblical meaning of prophecy.
In Scripture, prophecy is not about foretelling the future.
Prophecy is about forth-telling a word of God for a specific time and place.
Prophecy does not ask us to fatalistically accept what is meant to be.
Prophecy does ask us to change our behavior – repent – in light of what God says to us.
Indeed, the Hebrew word for prophet – nabi – primarily means “spokesperson.”
Consider for a moment the prophet Jonah. When God eventually convinces Jonah through a certain large fish to speak to the city of Ninevah, he speaks only nine words (five in Hebrew!): “Forty days more, and Ninevah shall be overthrown!” (Jonah 3:4)
From our common misunderstanding of prophecy, Jonah was a failure. Because Ninevah repented, 40 days passed and Ninevah still stood.
But from a biblical understanding of prophecy, Jonah was a success. His words were not meant to foretell the future. His words – God’s words – were meant to show the natural consequences of their actions. God’s words were meant to get the people of Ninevah to repent – which they did.
So when we approach prophecy, we ask about how these words were meant to shape God’s people in the past and also how these words are meant to shape us now.
Consider for example the prophet Amos. We hear Amos cry out: “Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land, saying, ‘When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain; and the sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale? We will … practice deceit with false balances, buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals ….’ The Lord has sworn by the pride of Jacob: Surely I will never forget any of their deeds.” (Amos 8:4-7)
These words exemplify what biblical prophecy means: a specific word from God for a specific time and place. Amos here condemns injustice and oppression. The poor and needy are cheated by corrupt business practices. And it is done by “good religious folk,” ones who observe new moon festivals and Sabbaths! If we used modern terms for these words, this passage is about those who go to church on Sunday and cheat people in their businesses on Monday!
We hear these words for the time of Amos. But then we ask how we have done the same. When have we been guilty of that? How is God asking us to change our ways?
When we re-think what prophecy means, we can then pay attention to the modern prophets who call out to us. For prophets are all around us. They are the voices who call us to responsibility and equality, to ways of justice and love.
We listen again to Martin Luther King Jr., in the past and to the Black Lives Matter protests in the present to ask how we are called to change from our racist ways.
We listen to the Me Too movement and to women activists and ask how we are called to change from our sexist ways.
We listen to the LGBT community and to Pride festivals and ask how we are called to change from homophobic and heterosexist ways.
We listen to climate change activists and ask how we are called to change from our environmentally destructive ways.
We listen to those who speak out for the homeless and the poor. We listen to those who speak out for the immigrants. We listen to those who speak out against religious intolerance.
We listen to all these voices – all these prophets – and ask how they call us to live out God’s ways of justice and peace for all people.
Not foretelling the future.
But forth-telling the word of God.