Prophetic paradox

Prophecy is a privileged gift, but a dangerous burden

(A poem sets the scene and the article that follows explains the paradox.)

Don't speak to me again

(Based on 1 Kings 19:3-13, Jeremiah 20:7-9, Jonah 1:1-3, 4:1-3)

Don't speak to me again, Lord
for then I'll have to share
and my words may be rejected,
which is hard for me to bear.

Don't put me under pressure;
don't burden me with care.
I can't give what's expected,
for I'm overcome with fear.

I'll hide behind this rock, Lord…
it feels much safer here-------------[ELIJAH]
and my life will be protected
if I cower and take care.

Don't speak to me
Ban prophecy-----------------[JONAH]
Let me go free
I'll run to sea!

Don't make me bare my soul, Lord;
just let me sit alone;-------------[JEREMIAH]
but, even as I sit here
your words burn in my bones…

There's no escape
I've been selected-------------[ELIJAH]
I really have no choice
I'm hopelessly addicted
to your persistent

Elijah, Jeremiah, Jonah - three frightened men, each with a remarkable gift of prophecy. But are prophets allowed to be scared? Weren't they supposed to be heroes? Well, no. They were ordinary men placed in extraordinary situations that they couldn't cope with. It was all too much for them and they wanted to escape. We constantly fall into the error of making celebrities of Bible characters, putting them beyond our reach. We assign greatness to people who were just like us and use that as a cop-out for ever doing anything great ourselves. Here's what the New Testament says on the matter: "Elijah was a human being, even as we are". (James 5:17 NIV)
Day jobs
I might have missed a few, but I've counted thirty named prophets in the Old Testament, and many more that are not named in the text. There were even whole groups of prophets (at least 100 in the time of Elijah and another 50 who followed Elisha). Just a few of these prophets had prominent positions, like being national leaders (Moses), or priests (Hilkiah). But the majority had everyday occupations alongside their prophetic ministries. It's as well for the world that they didn't just stick to their day jobs!
By contrast, the New Testament mentions only a few prophets by name, but that's not because they were rarer. On the contrary, they were so common that it wasn't worth naming them. As Peter said in his Pentecost sermon (quoting from the prophet Joel) God was pouring his Spirit on all kinds of people - old, young, male, female, even slaves - anyone could experience God directly. Prophecy was one of the gifts of the Spirit that was expected in every church, as Paul confirmed in his first letter to the Corinthians, saying, "you can all prophesy" (1 Corinthians 14:31).
The Church has often shied away from recognising the ministry of the prophet. Prophets can be dangerous. Their clear sight and plain speaking can be uncomfortable. But we often need to be shaken out of complacency to enable change and reformation. Thank God that we no longer send our children down the mines, that slavery has been made illegal, and that equality of opportunity is seen as a God-given right. These changes came about because someone visualised a better world.
Prophets can be dangerous, and that may also be their fault. People who claim visionary inspiration may be self-deceived and ill-motivated. Jesus gave strong warning about such people: "Many will say to me on that day, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?' Then I will tell them plainly, 'I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!'" (Matthew 7:22-23 NIV) He didn't say "you never knew me" but "I never knew you". That's because these people didn't allow their true self to be seen. They pretended to 'have it all together'. They never told themselves "I could be wrong". They stood on their self-righteousness and failed the humility test, which would have opened up their true selves to the Master's gaze. Before we point out faults in the system, or expose other people's errors, we need to take stock of ourselves. Another well-known saying of Jesus - the one about the 'mote and the beam' - tells us to recognise the bad in ourselves before advising others. But it doesn't tell us to stop after removing "the beam"; it tells us, after facing our own faults, to carry on and to brave the challenge of speaking God's message.
Do you know any prophets? In sections of the church where prophecy is seen as confined to the past, that question may seem ridiculous. But many churches recognise prophecy as a real and present gift of the Holy Spirit. However, it's not just real - it's essential. The Bible says, "Surely the Sovereign Lord does nothing without revealing his plan to his servants the prophets." (Amos 3:7 NIV). Prophecy is the gift that distinguishes our God from "mute idols" (1 Corinthians 12:1 NIV). Vision precedes action. No progress can be made until someone visualises what it will look like.
Is it possible that you might be a prophet? If so, I have news for you - you're not always going to like it. Every aspect of this ministry gift is paradoxical. It's a privilege to be able to hear so clearly from God, but it's a gift that makes you vulnerable. You may think that prophecy is about speaking, but the important part is listening to God - constantly. Some people will respect you, but many will be wary of you (probably for good reason). Prophets can be misled, so you need to keep your channel of prayer wide open, and your body and mind in check. The Bible gives at least 2 instances of people who had a genuine prophetic gift but abused it - Balaam (Numbers 22:4-24:25 & 31:16) and an unnamed prophet who lived in Samaria (1 Kings 13:13-32). The sheer vulnerability of this ministry is the factor that led Elijah, Jonah, and Jeremiah try to escape their responsibility - and others to express anxiety about their calling.
Don't mistake my objective. I'm not advocating that people start flaunting crackpot ideas around under the dubious authority of a "thus says the Lord". Prophets require self-control, which is compatible with being led by the Spirit. Paul said, "The spirits of prophets are subject to the control of prophets." (1 Corinthians 14:32 NIV). Put simply, that means that anyone who receives a revelation from the Holy Spirit has freewill to speak it out or to keep quiet. God doesn't force himself on us. We can, and should, exercise restraint to avoid fulfilling everyone's worst fears about this ministry.
Prophets can be dangerous, but we need them. Moses said, "I wish that all the Lord 's people were prophets and that the Lord would put his Spirit on them!" (Numbers 11:29 NIV). Paul said, "be eager to prophesy" (1 Corinthians 14:39 NIV).
Those two guys had a good track record. Since they valued this gift so highly, I'll go with them.

© Derrick Phillips - 2019