Understanding the Prophet

Prophets: Part One

Understanding the Prophet
Sunday, June 30, 2019

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphim, each with six wings: with two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty;
the whole earth is full of his glory.”

At the sound of their voices the doorposts shook and the temple was filled with smoke.

“Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.”

Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a live coal from the altar. With it he touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin blotted out.”

Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?”

And I said, “Here am I. Send me!”

—Isaiah 6:1-8

A prophet is neither a fortune teller nor a foreteller. In the Christian context, we probably grew up hearing the phrase: “As was foretold by the prophets . . .” and we then filled in the blank. It was as if what we refer to as the Old Testament was written only to predict or foreshadow the New Testament. We assumed that everything was somehow a prophecy of our religion and of Jesus Christ. This is grossly unfair to our Jewish brothers and sisters as it undercuts both the biblical meaning and role of the prophet whose power and purpose was much more immediate and concrete than foretelling the New Testament.

Also, a prophet is not primarily a “prophet of doom” or a negative predictor.  Looking through the writings of all the prophets, it is obvious that they prophesy marvelous futures just as much as those of doom. Yet, because of the aforementioned phrase, we erroneously tend to associate the term prophet with someone who is negative, oppositional, and angry.

If we’re going to talk about biblical prophets, we need a more accurate understanding. Our starting point is an amazing, positive experience of theophany—God appearing to humans—as we see in Isaiah 6, that fills hearts not with cynicism, sarcasm, negativity, or opposition, but with ecstasy that has to be shared. One experience of the Absolute is so absolutizing that it has the effect of relativizing everything else—including the temple, the priesthood, and sacred texts.

Consequently, the prophets’ most constant and consistent critics are those who self-identify as standard bearers of religious institutions. We see this in Jesus himself, who builds on his Jewish tradition. It’s ironic that although prophets come out of religion and religious experience, they find themselves attacked by religion itself. All too often, like Jesus, they are killed or exiled by the religious establishment.

Reference:
Adapted from Richard Rohr, Prophets Then, Prophets Now, disc 1 (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2006), MP3 download.

Image credit: Frieze of the Prophets (detail), John Singer Sargent, circa 1892, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: Scripture shows the Hebrew prophets speaking to the people as one of their own, not above or apart from the community. —Richard Rohr

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