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Used and Abused: Godís Prophets
Thomas R. Fletcher
Some hold a romantic notion of a prophetís calling. How awesome, to be shut-in with God, to receive the message for His people; to deliver that message and see lives transformed as Godís people come into alignment with His purposes--and they all live happily ever after. A cursory examination of Scripture quickly dispels such false notions, but we can readily see three principles that do apply to the prophetís calling. First, God calls a prophet because His message isnít getting through using normal religious channels. Second, the prophetís message isnít about predicting the future as much as proclaiming Godís word and exposing the iniquity of the people. The prophetís message always confirms and conforms to Godís written word. Third, Godís prophets face rejection by Godís people. There is no "happily ever after," for the prophet. Godís people do not want reproof for their sin.
Amos came on the scene in Israel during a time of prosperity (mid-8th century BC). On the surface, things probably looked great. Religious services were well attended. Unfortunately, Godís message wasnít getting through. The heartfelt relationship to God had grown cold. Temple worship in Jerusalem had been forsaken for pagan rituals in Bethel. So God went to the fields of Tekoa (a rural area 12 miles south of Jerusalem in Judah) and called a herdsman and fig-picker named Amos to deliver His message in this center of idolatry. In Amos 7:14-15, Amos makes it clear, he was minding his own business with his herds and sycamore figs, until the Lord called. It wasnít a calling he sought, but one he answered. The prophet is nothing more than a tool in the hand of God; an instrument God chooses to use.
The people bulked at Amosí warning of coming judgment. They had problems with both the message (it wasnít what they wanted to hear) and the messenger ("Who does this fig-picker from Judah think he is telling US about sin?"). Amos, in defense of himself, lays out a cause and effect relationship in Amos 3:3-8 by asking several commonsense questions, summing up, "The Sovereign Lord has spokenĖwho can but prophesy" (Amos 3:8b NIV). He wanted the people to know, that had God not called, he wouldnít be there. The true prophet is God-called, not self-appointed. I am sure tending flocks and picking figs were simpler tasks than dealing with a complacent, rebellious people set in their selfish, self-centered ways. Amosí message of coming doom seemed outlandish to a prosperous people in the grip of materialism. Israelís sins included oppression of the poor, idolatry, self-righteousness, arrogance, greed, materialism, and empty religious rituals. Prosperous times carry a danger of "shelving God." Hearts drift and grow cold as attentions are turned to self and materialistic pursuits. The people turned to frivolous pursuits and wasteful opulence while the poor were abused and neglected.
God had a few things to say on the subject of religion without relationship through the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 1:10-20), where He makes it clear: going through the motions doesnít cut it. Services were attended, but hearts were steeped in sin. The "trampling" of the Temple courts wasnít enough. Temple worship, for most, was an empty ritual, a formality, a social act.
"Worship" services, without a true, heartfelt relationship to the Lord is an exercise in futility: a waste of peopleís time and a trying of the Lordís patience. The prophet Zephaniah makes a similar point, "At that time I will search Jerusalem with lamps and punish those who are complacent..." (Zephaniah 1:12). Apparently, it is all too easy for Godís people to fall into a pattern of attending services with neither true worship nor fervent relationship, to become complacent, to let standards slipĖand they donít like being reminded by Godís prophet.
"You hate the one who reproves in court and despise him who tells the truth" (Amos 5:10). Human nature in Amosí day is human nature today: true integrity worries those happy with the status quo. Folks donít like their religious apple-carts overturned. After all, they were quite content before this "troublemaker" happened along with his "Thus saith the Lord" utterances about judgment and doing things Godís way. People abhor confrontation with their sin. That abhorrence has caused the long history of rejection and abuse faced by Godís prophets. The calling of the prophet isnít glamorous. It can be quite nasty--Jeremiah was accused of treason and thrown into a dirty, muddy cistern (Jeremiah 38). It seems easier for the unrepentant to reject the messenger, than admit failure and seek repentance. Refusing to acknowledge their guilt, the people reacted in angerĖnot because the prophet was wrong, but because deep down they knew he was precisely right. Godís prophets had a way of upsetting the religious apple-cartsĖwhich is exactly what they were called to do. God wanted the situation changed.
Complacency has a way of creeping up on us all. Those of us in America live our lives in comfort, freeĖfor the most partĖof concern for the rest of the world. In fact, we have our own homegrown heresy to justify our complacency, idolatry, and greed. It is called the "Health & Wealth Gospel." It teaches that if one follows the right formulas, God is obligated to bless. The focus becomes material possessions and wealth (while much of the world exists in dire poverty). Possessions and wealth are "evidence" of Godís blessing, when in fact they are the enslaving tools of Satan. Maintaining them consumes our time and resources. They blind us to our world mission. Possessions and wealth steal the attention of Godís people, and rob them of fellowship with God and one another. Time dedicated to these cuts into time spent with God. The drive to possess runs deep in the human psycheĖa condition constantly fed by our advertising media in a materialistic society. In the strive for possessions a certain competitiveness creeps in. Itís difficult to fellowship with a brother or sister of whom we are jealous.
The complacent are offended at the Lordís prophets. Happy with the status quo, they havenít given serious consideration to God for a very long timeĖand they donít appreciate a prophet pushing Godís agenda. The comfortable, complacent, and stagnant do not like to be reminded of their condition, as witnessed by the prophet Zechariah. "They made their hearts as hard as flint and would not listen to the law or to the words that the Lord Almighty had sent by His Spirit through the earlier prophets. So the Lord Almighty was very angry" (Zech. 7:12).
The calling of the prophet was not a calling to predict the future, though that often played a part. In fact, the future "predicted" by the prophets was often altered. With the prophetsí proclamations was an understood "if:" Godís actions would be based upon the peopleís reaction to His word brought through the prophet. The prophet Jonah witnessed predicted judgment averted by a repentant people. A tearful Jeremiah saw an unrepentant people face Godís judgment.
The primary element in a prophetís calling was bringing the word of God to bear upon the consciences of Godís people, exposing iniquity. The prophet calls people back to God. He points people to God, not to himself. Godís prophets exhibit an overriding concern for Godís wordĖfirst of all in living it themselves and secondly, in the desire to see it lived out in the lives of Godís people. "The word of the Lord came," is an oft-appearing phrase throughout the writings of the prophets indicating God spoke directly to the prophet who then carried the message to the people. The message of the true prophet always complimented and never contradicted the written Word of God, the scripture.
Historically, the false prophets outnumbered the true prophets of God. The false prophets were marked by the fact that they chose to be "prophets." Jeremiah had much to say about the marks of a false prophet in chapter 23 of his book. False prophets proclaim feel-good messages of peace and prosperity; they have not stood in the council of the Lord; they depend upon dreams; and they steal messages from one another (sounds like the Health & Wealth people preaching one anotherís sermons). The true prophetís message comes from being shut-in with the Lord and His wordĖnot by stealing the message of another. These self-appointed "prophets" seek that which benefits them. "But if they had stood in my council, they would have proclaimed my words to my people and would have turned them from their evil ways and from their evil deeds" (Jeremiah 23:22). The true prophet has been divinely commissioned and sent bearing Godís word. Without Godís selection and Godís word, the "prophet" has neither authority nor understanding of Godís purposes. Without being in Godís council, they have no message to deliver. Without Godís word, they have no means to turn people from wickedness back to God. The task of the prophet is to expose iniquity. Doing so means the prophet has a clear understanding of Godís word and its demands for His people, unlike the false prophets. "The visions of your prophets were false and worthless; they did not expose your sin to ward off your captivity. The oracles they gave you were false and misleading" (Lamentations 2:14). The true prophet of God holds forth the standard of Godís wordĖ-never wavering.