What Manner of Man is the Prophet? (Part 1)

12 05 2010

Christians should be reading far more Jewish theologians – they have beautiful perspectives on God. Abraham J. Heschel (d. 1972) is one such academic, though a bit more of a spiritualist than anything else. I obtained a copy of his The Prophets and began reading. It’s…. powerful.

Also, although he himself believed prophecy had ended, I challenge those with charismatic leanings to compare his words to your understanding of a prophet. I find that, while his perspective sounds different, it rings quite true of prophets today – of what prophets today ought to be.

I was going to simply list the characteristics of a prophet he gives in his first chapter, but instead I want to meditate upon them. So, I will present them just one or two in a post, with some reflections.

1. Sensitive to Evil

A prophet has a “breathless impatience with injustice” and “is a man who feels fiercely”. This is in contrast to the rest of humanity, whose “eyes are witness to the callousness and cruelty of man, but ¬†. . . we rarely grow indignant or overly excited”. I’m reminded of an intense period of time when I was spending more than 8 hours a day in prayer, when God’s voice was clear and his presence tangible. During that time, every slight sin, every cruel word from my mouth, or impatient action felt like a wall going up between me and God. The wall was so painful, that I’d immediately repent and take whatever action I could to apologize or change. Just before bed one night, I spoke sharply to someone. The wall between me and God was so intense, that I couldn’t sleep. I was only able to feel at peace when I promised God that I would ask their forgiveness as soon as I awoke. Indeed, I was up before sunrise and looking for the person I needed to apologize to. What intimacy to feel the smallest prick of sin!

“Prophecy is the voice that God has lent to the silent agony” of this fallen world. This incredible sensitivity to the presence of evil is not intended to be a personal matter for the prophet – it has a social orientation. The prophet is obligated to speak out for injustice and to speak out on a large scale. That is, some today seem to feel that prophecy is just a gift for God to speak to the individual person – to speak words of encouragement or guidance. But, according to Old Testament prophets, it has a much large scope.

2. Knows the Importance of Trivialities

The ways and plight of humans are insignificant compared to God, but God chooses to be “preoccupied with man, with the concrete actualities of history rather than with the timeless issues of thought [philosophy].” The prophet is also concerned with the trivial and the details, agonizing over imperfections. The main point here is one of the contrast between the philosophic / theological and the prophetic. I think this ties in nicely with the sensitivity to evil, as a sensitivity to details and imperfections. But it’s also a sensitivity to how the little things add up in life – daily choices take us on our whole life’s course, and I think the prophet has the ability to see that. The prophet can look at those little things and see what they’re adding up to.