Prophets and non-prophets

“Jesus replied, ‘You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God.’” (Matthew 22:29)

“I did not send these prophets, yet they have run with their message; I did not speak to them, yet they have prophesied.” (Jeremiah 23:21)

I suppose this could turn into Part 3 of To my ‘Peter Pan’ charismatic brethren (first and second parts), but I thought the title might lose some of you immediately because you know you’re not my charismatic brethren.

If you’re not, I don’t care, not because I’m thinking, Pity these poor uptight souls, they don’t know what they’re missing, but because my interest is talking to brethren everywhere. You are my brethren if you’re counted among “those who believed in his name, [who received] the right to become children of God” (Jn 1:12). You might not be thrilled to have me as a brother, but there you are. I don’t make the rules.

The 18th-century evangelist George Whitefield once asked rhetorically if there were any Presbyterians, Baptists, etc., in heaven. The answer is obvious, which is why it’s a rhetorical question.

With one caveat: Presbyterians will get there first. “For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first” (1 Thes 4:16). But I thought you knew that.

Since I already hit my ball into the rough, I might as well tell you that this post won’t have much to say about date-setters or read-between-the-lines prophetic detectives who treat eschatology as a game of Clue: It was Saddam Hussein. In a revived Babylon. With a lead pipe.

I don’t know how much plainer you can make this: “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Mt 24:36).

Here’s the latest textual criticism conspiracy theory: About thirteen centuries ago, the practical joker of the monastery came up behind a copyist hard at work meticulously lettering this chapter in Matthew’s gospel on a piece of parchment.

All right, Aelfric? (they were Celts or Britons; they didn’t say Hey or Howzit going?) Then he deliberately bumps Aelfric’s elbow and his quill goes skating across his work like Tara Lipinski (my age is showing—the first skater that I could think of, 1998 Winter Olympics). It creates what appears to be a strikethrough over the Latin words we translate today as no one (modern English being a gleam in some Anglo-Saxon’s eye at that point).

A century later, some deferential copyist sees Aelfric’s manuscript, interprets the strikethrough as divinely inspired somehow (though, strangely, not very neat), doesn’t understand ice-skating allusions any better than Aelfric did, and dutifully copies it as is. Fast forward thirteen centuries, and the now-lost-to-history no one yields the interpolation anyone with a keyboard, a Bible and an axe to grind.

If that sounds silly, so is obsessive date-setting. Here endeth the lesson regarding date-setters, etc. Let’s move on.

Another broad and imprecise use of the term prophet is the cantankerous, usually stand-offish person with the chin jutting out, eyes aflame and face like flint. You may recognize that phrase “face like flint” as from one of the prophets; it’s a quote from Isaiah 50:7. It’s an expression of determination and has obvious messianic overtones if you read it in context.

Here are two problems. The first is obvious; there is only one messiah, and it’s not you. Second, the prophets have acquired the reputation of being God’s thunderclaps to scare the hell out of people. (You wanted colloquial; here’s your order.)

Take the word jeremiad, for example. Here’s the Merriam-Webster definition: “a prolonged lamentation or complaint; also a cautionary or angry harangue.” Wikipedia: In a jeremiad “the author bitterly laments the state of society and its morals in a serious tone of sustained invective, and always contains a prophecy of society’s imminent downfall.”

We know the word comes from the prophet’s name. But the concept comes from a skewed or badly edited version of his entire message. Yes, there are hard words to a recalcitrant people of God. How would you like to stand “at the gate of the Lord’s house” (Jer 7:2) and tell people the temple and the nation are toast?

(What would happen to Joel Osteen if he started preaching like that? You know that slowly revolving globe that’s always behind him? People would be back there with crowbars to pry it from its base so they could roll it over him, like that scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Ding! for movie reference.)

But what about this prophecy of future glory? It’s from the same Jeremiah:

“’This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel
    after that time,’ declares the Lord,
‘I will put my law in their minds
    and write it on their hearts.
‘I will be their God,
    and they will be my people.

 ‘No longer will they teach their neighbor,
    or say to one another, “Know the Lord,”
because they will all know me,
    from the least of them to the greatest,’
declares the Lord,
‘For I will forgive their wickedness
    and will remember their sins no more.’” (Jer 31:33-34)

Just when exactly did a dictionary become the authority for defining who or what a prophet is? But tell me, with a straight face, dictionary definitions haven’t colored our ideas about prophets.

When people tell me that the Old Testament in general and the prophets in particular are all gloom-and-doom, I have this to say: Go back, and this time read it, all of it, if you want “the whole counsel of God.”

When people think this way, is there any better example of what Jesus was talking about? “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God.” Scriptures means the whole message with no parts left out. And the power of God turned a Jeremiah (but not jeremiad) promise into a reality we’re living in right now. Isn’t that by itself a cause for great hope, even in this generation?

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