First, let’s look at the way the term “prophetic” tends to get used in Christian circles in the US. And because this is a podcast about how our faith shapes the way we engage the public square, I’m gonna look most specifically at the way we tend to use that word when we’re talking about politics and public life. Then, after we look at the way we use the term “prophetic,” we’ll compare that to what the prophets actually did in scripture.
In this episode…
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What do you promote?
Visit your activity history on Twitter, Facebook or other social networks. What kinds of posts about politics, government or public issues do you tend to like, save or respond to? Do they remind you of Jonah—bluntly stating hard truths that make people who already agree with them feel good about themselves? Or are they more like Nathan—putting work into communicating in ways that will promote understanding and change?
A lot of times, when we call someone ELSE prophetic in the US, what we’re really saying is, “They are clearly and directly saying things that other people are wrong about.” And it’s not usually just other people. It’s usually THOSE other people. The people we call prophetic GET our attention or KEEP our attention because they’re clearly explaining why WE are right and OTHER people are wrong.
But that’s when we call someone ELSE prophetic. Plenty of people in the church also think of OURSELVES as having prophetic personalities. A lot of times, if we’re calling OURSELVES prophetic, it’s because we make a habit of bluntly telling people hard truths, and we don’t let ourselves get swayed by the excuses people come up with when we call them out on something. And that makes sense. After all, the role of the prophets in the Old Testament was to make sure that people knew the things they were doing wrong, right? And if that’s the role of a prophet, then of course being prophetic means telling people things they don’t want to hear, and not letting them get away with excuses for what they did.
Is This What Being A Prophet Actually Meant?
But here’s the thing.
The role of the prophet wasn’t to tell people hard truths. It wasn’t to tell people they’re sinners and point out the consequences of their sin. I mean, that was part of their job, but it wasn’t the whole job.
The prophets in the Old Testament had a lot of jobs, a lot of different kinds of tasks they had to do, and they didn’t get to focus on just one of them.
I might get this metaphor a little wrong, but it’s the first one I can think of that works:
When you eat at a restaurant, you might notice that there are some jobs people do there that seem to have fairly narrow scope of responsibility. Think about bussers. They’re mostly responsible for clearing and cleaning tables. Maybe they clean dishes in back, but you can’t see that from your table.
But then you have jobs like the waitstaff or servers. They sometimes clear tables, but they also do a lot more. They explain the menu to you, they answer your questions, they help customers make decisions about what to order. They relay information back and forth between the tables and the kitchen. They serve the food. If you order a bottle of wine, they usually have to know how to do the whole uncorking routine. They handle the checks. That means tracking orders, splitting bills, troubleshooting the credit card machines. And they have to be able to keep the tables turning over. If a table’s taking too long, they have to be able to speed them through the rest of the meal without the customers realizing it. And they have to be able to do all of that with a smile, with their best customer-service face.
That’s a much wider range of responsibilities. Sometimes, a waiter’s responsibility overlaps with other roles. A busser clears tables, and a waiter does that sometimes, too. A sommelier recommends and serves wine, and a waitress does that sometimes, too. But saying someone’s a waiter because they know how to use a corkscrew, or because you saw them clear a table somewhere, isn’t actually accurate.
The word prophetic—we should maybe think of it the same way. If we’re using the word “prophetic” to describe people who are good at bluntly stating hard truths, we’re hollowing out what it means, and we’re blinding ourselves to just how big of a job God has for his people when he tells us to follow in the footsteps of the one we call prophet, priest and king.
But when we don’t understand the job, we’re not excused from it. If we blind ourselves to it, we don’t get out of it. We just end up doing it badly.
What Did Prophets Do?
So, let’s take a few minutes today to think about some of the other functions we see prophets serve in the Old Testament.
And the first thing we have to acknowledge is that, yes, Prophets Did Denounce What Was Wrong. They called out powerful individuals for the things they did to harm others, like when Nathan called out David. And they called out entire cities, nations and societies for the ways in which they fostered cultures of cruelty, faithlessness and idolatry. You can see this easily in almost every book of prophecy in scripture.
So, yes, prophets did tell people hard truths. But they did a lot of other things, too.
For instance, even when they were telling people hard truths, prophets usually didn’t just throw shade and leave it at that. They offered concrete advice on how the people who did things wrong could start fixing the things that broke because of their carelessness.
They also didn’t just offer advice and then wish people good luck. They rolled their sleeves up and got involved themselves. Prophets Actively Participated In Fixing Things That Were Wrong. We tend to remember Jonah for his trip to Nineveh, when God used him to spark repentance in the Assyrian people. But the vast majority of his work as a prophet was spent as a military advisor, helping shape the way Israel worked on confronting the fairly brutal Assyrian regime. We could also look at Joseph here. He didn’t just warn Egypt that a famine was coming. He set up a tax-and-sale system to make sure that, when the famine came, people actually still had food to eat.
Then there’s the flip side of this. Prophets didn’t just denounce sin and work to counter brokenness. Prophets also affirmed things that were good, like when Elisha encouraged Naaman instead of calling him to repent. And prophets helped push good things forward, like Nehemiah leading a whole bunch of infrastructure projects in Jerusalem.
Prophets understood the world around them well enough to serve as what we’d call historians today. Maybe even journalists. Christians in the US tend to divide the Old Testament up into the Books of Moses, the books of poetry, the books of history and the books of prophecy. But Jewish tradition doesn’t make such a big distinction between the books of history and the books of prophecy. Traditionally, they were actually called the former prophets and the later prophets. Prophecy wasn’t just about telling the future. It was also about EXPLAINING the past and CHRONICLING the present.
And finally, Prophets Modeled The Public Heart. They served as a sort of public conscience for God’s people, teaching people who hope in God how to let that hope shape the way they reacted to the joys and injustices of the world. They taught people how to love and celebrate what was good, like the prophets in 1 Chronicles 25 who prophesied with lyre, harps and cymbals. And they taught people how to properly mourn the things that were sad, or broken, or unjust, like when Israel was sacked. The false prophets kept claiming that there was nothing to mourn, that this was just a precursor to victory. But the true prophet Jeremiah was called to the ministry of teaching the Israelites to properly mourn what had just happened. He wrote an entire book of scripture JUST teaching people how to lament. It’s called Lamentations.
How Did Prophets Behave?
So, that’s what prophets did. But it’s just as important for us to stop for a minute and think about HOW they did it.
Something that I think gets lost when we think about prophets in the Bible is that they didn’t just come in and start tossing around truth bombs. They actually put a LOT of effort into saying things in ways that people would ACTUALLY be willing to hear, even when that meant saying things in ways that weren’t quick or direct or satisfying.
It’s easy to see this when you’re looking at prophets like Ezekiel who just made a spectacle of himself, or Hosea, who put his messed up personal life on display for the sake of helping people understand God’s personality. And the fact that the prophets put a lot of work into figuring out how to communicate effectively is also obvious when you remember that so many of the books of prophecy in the Bible are actually anthologies of really accomplished poetry, not sermons or op-eds or transcripts of conversations. It’s not like the prophecy in Harry Potter, where Emma Thompson suddenly goes into a trance and recites a few sentences and then doesn’t really remember that she did it. Isaiah and Ezekiel and Zephaniah and Amos, it took work for them to communicate the way they did. And they put in the work.
But even when they were speaking directly and conversationally instead of performing or writing more artistically, the prophets were willing to hold back if it meant helping people repent.
Now, there are some exceptions to this. There are some prophets who tend to stick with the hot take and then wash their hands of the conversation. But the most prominent one’s also…not a good one. It’s Jonah in Nineveh. He goes to Nineveh, but he’s not happy about it. He doesn’t want to see them repent. He knows God is merciful, and he doesn’t want to see the Ninevites receive mercy. So, when he shows up, he gives the worst gospel presentation ever. In modern parlance, we’d call what Jonah did “malicious compliance.” He technically did what God asked, but he did his best to do the deed without actually accomplishing the goal.
So of course, when the Ninevites responded and seemed to repent anyway, it made him even angrier.
With Jonah, we have a prophet who showed up, and told hard truths to people he doesn’t like, hoping to put them in their place. And the Bible makes it clear that Jonah’s attitude is only helpful as a counter-point to the way prophets are supposed to behave.
God could have just told Jonah, “Quit being a baby about this.” “I love people more than you do.” “You don’t seem to really understand what I want in this world.” But he doesn’t. He knows that if he leads with hard truths, he’s not gonna win Jonah over. So he doesn’t lead with hard truths.
But that’s a counter-point. Let’s look at an actual example, too. A good example of how prophets held back if it meant helping people repent. And that example is Nathan.
King David had either had an affair with Uriah’s wife Bathsheba or raped her, then he deliberately set Uriah up to die on the battlefield. David’s plan was to turn Bathsheba into a widow then take her as his next wife.
Nathan’s job as a prophet was to make sure David knew how wrong this was. But he doesn’t start by saying, “This is what you did and you know it’s wrong.” His goal doesn’t seem to be to speak the truth as clearly as he can. It seems to be to win David over to repentance. Coming in with a hot take would probably have felt good. It would’ve let him vent his frustration, and he’d be able to say he said the truth. But he knew that that wouldn’t. actually. accomplish. God’s goal. Setting the bar at “telling the truth” wasn’t high enough. He had to share the truth in a way that would actually work. So he looked for another way to have the conversation, and he knew the person he was prophesying to well enough to find a way that worked.
Leading with hard truths isn’t what makes someone prophetic. If we see someone throwing bombs on Twitter or telling off people we don’t like and we think the word “prophetic” describes them, then our vision of a prophet is a lot closer to Jonah in Nineveh than it is to Nathan or Jeremiah or Nehemiah. We’re selling the prophets short. We’re flattening them out. And when we do that, we’re also selling God short.
Prophets had to understand God’s HOPE for the world, not just his judgment against it. His compassion for people, not just his anger or impatience with them. And they put in the work to explain that hope and that judgment, that compassion and that anger, in ways that people were actually. willing. to receive.
Hebrews tells us that you spoke through the prophets at many times and in many ways. But the way we use that word now makes it really easy for us to act like prophets only speak in one or two ways, and only at times when we’re right and other people are wrong.
Our hearts are prideful. We are quick to seize on opportunities to point at others and declare judgment, and we’re really good at telling ourselves that we’re serving you when we’re really serving ourselves.
Teach us to have hearts like yours. You didn’t want Nineveh to suffer, you wanted the city to repent. You didn’t want Jonah to know he was wrong, you wanted him to understand and appreciate your compassion. Teach us to have the patience and humility of Nathan, who was willing to hold his tongue and help make sure that David would actually be willing to listen and repent. And teach us to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, who spoke with wisdom and truth at the same time. Your word tells us that you sent him into this world to draw people to you. So we don’t want the conversations we have and the actions we take as his ambassadors to end up pushing people away.
It’s in his name and for his glory that we pray.