HOW DOES PROPHECY HAPPEN? Its often hard to tell how any particular message came to any of the prophets. We are told they were “moved by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:21),” sometimes by visions, audible voices, angelic visits, theophanies (appearances of God’s glory) or dreams. Looking back in Ezekiel 8, we see how “God placed his hand” upon his prophet, to inspire in him a vision and the words to describe it, similar to the vision of Isaiah (ch 6) or of John in his Revelation. Some of the stories of Judges also relate stories of ecstatic states, of being almost literally “outside of oneself.” But we can’t be sure that is how all Biblical prophecy came to be. And the artistic and poetic nature of much Biblical prophecy would lead us to believe that care was taken in its utterance and editing for recitation and print, even if the source lay beyond the prophet’s control.
DOES PROPHECY STILL HAPPEN? I have heard prophecies, so-called, from those who purport to be modern day prophets, and none have impressed me with prophecies as amazing in their details and fulfillment as, for example, Jeremiah’s prophecy of a 70 year exile and return. And the effort seems to be aimed at impressing the audience, rather than edifying us.
I am still willing to be surprised, though. But prediction is only one part of Biblical prophecy. It also reveals what is hidden in the motives of human hearts and in the actions of one’s life (as in Ezekiel 14), and speaks a penetrating word of discernment, judgment and hope so apropos that it must have been divinely inspired. In that sense, some sermons I have heard have struck me prophetically.
Some of the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., have also struck me that way, as have some words of John Wesley and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. But they were deeply nurtured by the Scriptures, and their words ring prophetic because of their amazing and time-sensitive applications of the Bible. No one can finally say if such people were prophets the way that only God can. More easy to say is that there were prophetic gifts in their ministries. Which is all we can say for prophecy as one of the New Testament gifts of the Holy Spirit: that some people are given a prophetic spiritual gift, and in that sense, they are called prophets.
But do we now need prophets of the stature of Jeremiah or Ezekiel, the way ancient Israel did? I would argue that we do not, now that we have the fruits of the ministry of Old and New Testament prophets in written form. For their writings shape in us a prophetic orientation toward the big picture of the world down to the small details of our lives. We don’t need to know what’s going to happen next, by way of political world events or short-term economic trends, because the prophets help us know how to orient ourselves toward them, whatever comes to pass: with hope in the faithfulness of God and wisdom regarding the unfaithfulness of humanity. The prophets give us the big picture of God, humanity and history. The rest is details.
SHOCKING, even graphic are some of the ideas and images Ezekiel uses: adultery, prostitution and fornication (ch.16), war, desolation, fire and destruction. One of Ezekiel’s tasks was to confront the exiles with their false hope in the rebellious remnant left in Jerusalem, who had their own false hopes in Egypt’s assistance, and to free them from it, so that they might have a true hope in God. To gain the attention of an obstinate, resistant people, prophecy had to be “in your face.” For God strenuously desires that people repent and live (ch. 18).
MOST SHOCKING are the revelations of the kinds of idolatry and even human sacrifice going on even in God’s Temple. A key passage in Ezekiel, as well as in Israel’s history, is the departure of the Glory of God from the Temple, toward the East, into Exile with God’s people. This prefigures a later biblical truth, that the Glory of God will “tabernacle” with God’s people in Exile, through Christ and then through His Holy Spirit.
Having seen this otherwise invisible departure, Ezekiel’s ministry (chapters 11-17) will consist, in word and acted parable, of breaking down the exiles’ false faith in the ruling and religious elite still in Jerusalem, and preparing them for life with no temple or state to look to for identity.
PSALM 58…..again has much in common with this week’s chapters of Ezekiel, especially in its curse and denunciation of unjust leaders. As disturbing as the images of vengeance and blood are in the final verses, it is God who is called upon to avenge, and not to give license to the Psalmist to avenge. History shows that the violent end of unjust leaders is often provoked by their own actions, the inherent consequence of forces they themselves unleashed. That the God of a nation would be called upon to limit the power of the powerful, on behalf of justice and the needy, was and remains unusual in the history of religion, especially among the imperial cults of ancient Israel’s neighbors. A psalm of imprecation such as this one served as the only recourse of the poor and vulnerable in a day when courts and police were either nonexistent or enmeshed in the service of the very unjust leaders this psalm was prayed against.