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What the prophets can teach us today


I WONDER what picture you form in your mind of those great men, the prophets in the Old Testament such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos and Hosea? Perhaps you see them as strolling scholars and orators like the philosophers of ancient Greece. Or upright, elderly and very stern moralists like Scottish Calvinists, all Geneva gowns and disapproval. Well, they weren’t like that at all. The prophets were more like inspired poets, who uttered their prophecies in ecstatic speech, sometimes going into a trance; at other times behaving in a style we might think crazy. They sometimes acted like clowns.

There was the prophet who bandaged his eyes before he gave a warning to King Ahab. Or Ahijah, who tore his mantle into 12 pieces and gave King Jeroboam ten of them. That was his way of saying that God was about to take ten tribes away from Solomon’s kingdom and give them to Jeroboam. They often couched their warnings in jokes, puns and figures of speech. Amos, for instance, declared that the end was nigh. He announced this by bringing in a basket of summer fruit. The Hebrew for summer fruit is kayis and the word for end sounds like it: kes. A bit of macabre humour to disguise a dire warning.

Jeremiah went around smashing bottles as a sign of the breaking of the nation. Isaiah took his son to prophesy the downfall of Damascus. He named his son – poor lad – Maher Shalal Hash Baz which means Spoil hastens – plunder hurries. He even went in for tongue-twisters and a bizarre use of assonance. When he asked if the people thought he had come to teach wisdom to babes at the breast, he said this: Saw-lasaw saw-lasaw kaw-lakaw kaw lakaw. I suppose they thought he was mad, and in a sense they were right. But he was mad in the way that King Lear’s fool was mad. The Holy Fool with prescience and profound moral insight.

So what can we learn from these satirical prophets? Most of them lived at the temple in Jerusalem. The temple was the spiritual and political centre of the nation, where the king held court. The prophets were, so to speak, on the staff. Their function was to speak the word of God to the nation through addressing the king. Most of them were false prophets who made a good living by telling the king what he wanted to hear. Words to tickle his ears. Then there were the true prophets such as Amos, Hosea, Isaiah and Jeremiah.

What happened repeatedly was this. The people would be in great trouble – think of their slavery in Egypt. They would pray, and the prophet (Moses was the first) would lead them to deliverance by the hand of God. The people would be truly thankful – for about five minutes – and then they would start to go wrong, forgetting God’s commandments – think of the licentious incident of the Golden Calf. The prophet would then pronounce God’s judgment.

Later, they were settled in the Promised Land, in Jerusalem, ruled over by King Solomon, the great temple administered by the Levitical Priesthood. Some of the people, tempted by rewards from entrepreneurs and usurpers, would strike out on their own and set up rival shrines in the hills, make money and exercise influence there. They would be rebuked and God’s judgment pronounced by the true prophets.

So always the pattern was the same: trouble followed by God’s deliverance; a brief period of thankfulness and good behaviour; a falling off and a neglect of God’s law; the prophet would warn that if they carried on like that they were heading for a catastrophe; everybody would ridicule the prophet – calling him a Jeremiah perhaps; the catastrophe would come to pass; the nation would be almost destroyed; sometimes there followed repentance, return and restoration.

So that’s what we learn from the biblical prophets: that their times were very much like ours. We are in the late falling-off stage. We are lost in one of those periods of turning away from God and thinking we can get by without all those out-of-date commandments. This is nothing new. There have always been sophisticated people. They were there in ancient Israel.

They imagined themselves enlightened and self-sufficient. They esteemed themselves and forgot God. When the prophet told them they were heading for catastrophe, they threw the prophet into jail or stoned him to death. But whatever they did with him, they took no notice of him. And what do we need with obedience when we have libertarianism – masquerading as equality and freedom of speech? What need for the fear of God when there’s democracy?

We are in our Golden Calf period. The people and the government are borrowing beyond their purse to live beyond their means. The prophet says there will be a reckoning. The Israelites went after false gods. We have the celebrity culture. God gave us sacred, everlasting laws. We think we know better. We think God’s laws disposable. We have equality and diversity instead which means a sexual free-for-all. God has not only given us laws, he has taught us by his prophets throughout our history. But we despise our history – we disown our heroes and tear down their statues.

Not only has God given us commandments and history lessons, he has also given us wisdom, the gift of discernment. He has, for instance, given us Shakespeare and Euclid, Bach and Rembrandt. Wisdom, says theBook of Proverbs, is above rubies. God is an unashamed elitist.But our schools teach that any old – usually new – sub-literary tosh is equal to Shakespeare. Our Culture Secretary tells us that our Bach, Beethoven and Mozart in the Proms is ‘not sufficiently accessible’.

In other words we are bidden to reject wisdom, blaspheme discernment and worship trash. A professor of physics told me last week that not much new work in mathematics is being done because the universities and the schools have let standards slip. Forty-three per cent of our pupils – on the government’s own figures – leave school after 11 years of state education unable to read, write or count.

What would Isaiah say? In his ecstatic utterance, tearing his mantle into pieces, shouting in the street like a madman, he would say to us now what he said to them then: ‘And it shall come to pass that instead of sweet smell there shall be a stink. And instead of a girdle, a rent. Instead of well-set hair, baldness; and instead of a stomacher a girding of sackcloth; and burning instead of beauty. Thy men shall fall by the sword and thy mighty in the war.’

Our Lord said, ‘Which of the prophets did not your fathers stone?’If you say these things now, you are derided as a pessimist. But the prophetic message is not pessimistic. It is realistic. There is hope, but the only hope is in God. Don’t shoot the messenger. Heed what he says: ‘Turn ye, saith the Lord, from all your wickedness, and your sin shall not be your destruction. Cast away from you all the ungodliness that you have done. Make you new hearts and a new spirit. Turn ye then, and ye shall live.’

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Peter Mullen
Peter Mullen
Peter Mullen is a Church of England clergyman, writer and broadcaster

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