If we're going to talk about a world in need of prophets, we have to start by talking about what prophecy is - and what it isn't. The word itself has been twisted in recent generations to mean something like, "the telling of the future." But historically, that's not what God's prophets were about.
Certainly, there were times when God's prophets foretold what was going to happen. The most famous of these is the way that we read Jesus into the "prophecies" of Isaiah and how we talk about the hundreds of Old Testament "prophecies" that Jesus fulfilled, but the word "prophecy" does not nearly capture the heart of the words that God spoke about Jesus before He got here. And frankly, I don't like it.
I don't like it because it makes Jesus something God has just decided to do and is doing. Period. But we have to understand that Jesus was not just God's doing; He was our need. He is our need. Jesus has always been about God's love for us and His fulfillment of His promise. So when we talk about reading into the Old Testament what we should be looking for in Jesus, I'd far rather say that Jesus is the fulfillment of God's promises about Him, rather than His "prophecies." I'd far rather say that the prophets were casting a vision for who Jesus is so that we would recognize Him when He arrived, rather than just saying that the prophets were telling us what He had to be.
But then again, that word "vision" creates a problem, too. Because we think that a vision is a picture of a future that hasn't happened yet, and that's not quite accurate, either.
Here's why all of this is troublesome: it creates this idea in our heads that the prophets were always being given words and ideas that they had no way of understanding. When Jesus cries out on the Cross the same words that David spoke in the Psalms, we say that it's because David "prophesied" these words for Christ. To say that creates all kinds of problems. It implies that God came to David and said something to the effect of, "You won't understand this now, but I need you to say this phrase. Trust Me. People are going to love this later." And then David says these words without context, without connection, without having any relationship to them at all...and that's not the way that God works. David's words are raw and they come from his own heart; that Jesus spoke them later indicates something about Jesus, and less about David.
So prophecy is not the telling of the future. It's not some disconnected thing where someone understands something they have no context for and just...proclaims it and hopes God comes through on the whole thing. Or even trusts that God will come through on the whole thing. Prophecy is not God giving a "word" to someone that doesn't make any sense until it comes to pass. That's not how prophecy works, and that's not how God works.
Prophecy is a revelation of God's truth. Plain and simple. Prophecy is the gift to see how God's truth is playing out right now in front of our very eyes. It's the ability to speak what is real and to put meaningful context around what is happening. When God sent Jonah to Nineveh, He sent him with a message of truth. When God sent Jeremiah to His people, He sent him with a message of truth. When God asked Hosea to marry a prostitute, it was to convey a message of truth. When God commanded Ezekiel to lie on his side, it was to demonstrate a message of truth.
The thing about truth is that it always tells us two things: it tells us where we are and it tells us where we're headed. It tells us whether we are on the right path and whether the path we're on will lead us to a place we want to go or not. When the prophets tell Israel they're headed for defeat, it's not because God has shown them some yet-unknown king who is going to come against them from a nation they haven't really feared yet; it's because God has revealed to them where the road they are on will take them. If they keep making the choices they are making and living the way they are living, this is where they are going to end up.
Truth is an ability to see clearly. Prophecy, then, is the gift of seeing clearly. It's the gift of recognizing what's going on and what's going to happen as a result of that. The prophet is called not to cast a vision, but to share one - to share what his eyes see that the world doesn't want to. The prophet is called to speak truth in the present, not the future. The prophet is called to remind the world of what it wants to ignore. The prophet sees the road and where it's leading and charts a course forward in truth.
And, in the best of Christian prophecy, in grace.
(To be continued.)
(To be continued.)