The Prophetic Voice

Since we are delving into the prophets for a couple of months, I think it good to remind ourselves of the prophets’ mission and methods. Understanding the writings of the prophets will also give us a greater appreciation for what Jesus was doing in His ministry and what the apostles were doing in theirs.

“Prophet” is a loaded word in English vernacular. We most commonly use it to mean “a person who tells the future.” This definition reduces prophecy to predictions and fortune-telling. A meteorologist is a “prophet” in this sense. We are not surprised, then, that the Bible means something different by the word “prophet.”

A biblical prophet is a spokesman for God. Consider the introductions to each of the prophets we’ll study this quarter: “In the second year of Darius the king, in the sixth month, on the first day of the month, the word of the Lord came by the hand of Haggai the prophet…” (Hag 1.1a); “In the eighth month, in the second year of Darius, the word of the Lord came to the prophet Zechariah…” (Zech 1.1a); “The oracle of the word of the Lord to Israel by Malachi” (Mal 1.1). Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi begin their writings the same way all the prophets do: by invoking the word of the Lord. The prophet’s mission is to speak God’s words to His people.

In this sense, Moses is Israel’s original prophet. The Law is a prophecy, i.e., the word of the Lord. Therefore Moses says, “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers” (Dtr 18.15, emphasis mine). Moses’ last words to Israel are a prophetic warning: “Take to heart all the words by which I am warning you today, that you may command them to your children, that they may be careful to do all the words of this law. For it is no empty word for you, but your very life, and by this word you shall live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to possess” (Dtr 32.46-47).

It’s useful to think of the prophets as preachers of the Law. The prophets don’t come up with new rules or new standards. Instead, they direct Israel’s attention to the words that God has already spoken through Moses. The creative work of the prophet is to show the people of his time how they have broken faith with God.

The prophet’s mission might include foretelling, but the predictions serve the message and not the other way around. The biblical prophet doesn’t perform parlor tricks or give a ten-day weather forecast. He preaches the Law to Israel then tells what will befall them if they disobey. Even in this point, the prophet’s message depends on the Law, because the Law lays out the blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience (Dtr 28).

The prophets speak truth to power. Haggai addresses Zerubbabel the governor and Joshua the high priest. Malachi addresses the priests. The older prophets addressed the kings of Israel and Judah. The prophets preach from the top down, because the rulers of the people have an enormous impact on the faith of the people. Malachi upbraids the priests for causing the people to stumble: “For the lips of a priest should guard knowledge, and people should seek instruction from his mouth, for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts. But you have turned aside from the way. You have caused many to stumble by your instruction. You have corrupted the covenant of Levi, says the Lord of hosts, and so I make you despised and abased before all the people, inasmuch as you do not keep my ways but show partiality in your instruction” (Mal 2.7-9).

We might also think of prophecy as reducing the Law to its essential features. They make things simple to make them applicable. Consider again the words of Malachi: “Then I will draw near to you for judgment. I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired worker in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts” (Mal 3.5). What does it mean to be faithful to the covenant? Malachi takes a host of laws and boils them down to true religion, sexual purity, civil justice, and social justice.

Prophecy did not cease with the Old Testament. The people we encounter in the New Testament anticipate that God’s Messiah will bring them the word of the Lord. Jesus picks up the mantle of prophet in His ministry, and He passes that mantle on to His apostles and disciples (1 Cor 12.1-11). What exactly that looked like is a matter for another week, so I want to close with some questions for self-examination. The Church exists to deliver the words of God to the world. Have you submitted yourself to God’s word? Can it be said of your message, “Thus saith the Lord,” or is it merely your own devising? Are you willing to speak truth to power on behalf of the powerless? Will you witness against impurity and ritualism in the Church? May God bless us all with pure faith worthy of our calling.

A Meditation on Psalm 3

O Lord, how many are my foes!

Many are rising against me;

many are saying of my soul,

“There is no salvation for him in God.” Selah

But you, O Lord, are a shield about me,

my glory, and the lifter of my head.

I cried aloud to the Lord,

and he answered me from his holy hill. Selah

I lay down and slept;

I woke again, for the Lord sustained me.

I will not be afraid of many thousands of people

who have set themselves against me all around.

Arise, O Lord!

Save me, O my God!

For you strike all my enemies on the cheek;

you break the teeth of the wicked.

Salvation belongs to the Lord;

your blessing be on your people! Selah

The third psalm is the first lament of the psalter. It is telling that it appears so early and immediately after such a strong profession of faith in God’s sovereignty. “Man born of woman is few of days and full of trouble,” and the example of the psalter invites us to cast our troubles on the Father. He is the God who answers cries: the cries of Abel’s blood coming up from the ground (Gen 4), the cries of barren Rachel (Gen 30.22-23) the cries of captive Israel enslaved in Egypt (Exd 2.24), the cries of Jonah in the fish’s gut (Jonah 2), the cries of Daniel confessing the sins of Israel from Babylon (Dan 9.23), the cries of Zechariah and Elizabeth asking for a son (Luke 1.13), the cries of Cornelius the righteous centurion (Acts 10.1-8), and the cries of all the martyrs (Rev 6.9-10; 19.1-2). Cast your cares on Him day to day, for He hears your cries.

I say that the psalm is a lament, but it is hard to categorize. Is it truly a lament? It clearly seems to be up until the first Selah, but there is no more lamentation in the remainder of the psalm. In fact, the lamentation itself comes to rest on the psalmist’s concern for God’s glory: “Many are saying of my soul, ‘There is no salvation for him in God.’” The psalmist fears for his life, but he fears more for what his death will do for the reputation of God. Oh, that we should have such faith!

The psalmist’s enemies may doubt the salvation of God, but the psalmist does not. The remainder of the psalm professes confidence that the Lord can save and that He will save. In fact, the psalmist sees the salvation of God proleptically, as if it has already happened: “I cried out to the Lord, and He answered me from His holy hill.”

The psalmist sprinkles this profession of faith with an imprecation against his enemies: “For you strike all my enemies on the cheek; / you break the teeth of the wicked.” What is most striking about the imprecation is its object. The superscription before the psalm tells us that David composed this psalm as he fled his son, Absalom, so we are to read Absalom into David’s description of God slapping cheeks and breaking teeth.

Absalom’s rebellion comes at the tail end of a series of sordid events. The trouble begins in 2 Sam 13 when Absalom’s half-brother, Amnon, rapes Absalom’s sister, Tamar. Tamar gives ample proof of the misdeed, but David refuses to act against the crown prince. This leads Absalom to put Amnon to death himself and eventually take the throne from his father, whom he sees as a failed judge.

David doesn’t mention his own culpability for Absalom’s betrayal in Psalm 3. Reading the story in 2 Samuel, one is unsure if David is even aware that his passivity drove Absalom to kill Amnon and attempt a coup. How many of us are aware of all our shortcomings and sins? Psalm 3 teaches us to call upon the Lord regardless. We do not have to be perfect to entreat the Lord, only faithful.

It is not a light thing that David asks of the Lord. The Lord indeed saves David from the hand of Absalom, but it is a pyrrhic victory. Twenty thousand men of Israel perish in the battle. Worse, in David’s estimation, is Absalom’s death at the hands of Joab, despite David’s command to spare him. “The king was deeply moved and went up to the chamber over the gate and wept…. So the victory that day was turned into mourning for all the people” (2 Sam 18-19).

David was faithful to ask God to save him, and God was faithful to do so, but sin will out in a man’s life. “You break the teeth of the wicked” is a true but fearful thing to pray, for it turns against us as much as it turns against our enemies. Let us turn our hearts to the Lord, and may the Lord’s blessing be on His people.