Prophets or Profits?
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, March 16, 2008
And, of course, we can always count on the Inquirer to let us in on what the ever-popular Nostradamus says is going to happen, right around the corner (just as he seems to have already predicted everything that has happened for the last 500 years). We always seem to be interested in hearing what Nostradamus, or some other famous prophet, like Edgar Cayce, or Jeanne Dixon, has to say. Not only is Nostradamus still popular today, but during his own time, he was quite a phenom, as well. He eventually became a favorite of Catherine de Medici, and the personal physician and astrologer to King Henri II of France. When he died in 1566 at the age of 62 (I don’t know if he predicted that or not), Nostradamus was quite wealthy; he had made a good career for himself as a prophet.
As have people throughout history. There are two words in the Hebrew Bible generally translated as “prophet”. One is the Hebrew word roeh, which may also be rendered as “one who sees” or “a seer”. The other Hebrew word is nabi, which comes from the root meaning “one who is inspired” or “one who is called”. These represent, obviously, two different kinds of religious professions; two different kinds of prophets.
If one believes what one reads in the historical books of the Bible, the ancient world was teeming with roeh, with seers. Every tribe and nation had its own seers, not just Israel: the Moabites, the Philistines, and all the other peoples of the ancient Near East had their own soothsayers, too.
There are other references to prophecy in the biblical accounts, as well. Sometimes, the leaders of Israel would themselves exhibit powers of seeing, of prophecy. Before Israel had a king, it was ruled by wise men (and wise women) called “Judges”. Among these were several “numbered among the prophets”—nabi here, meaning “one who is inspired”—most notably the Judge, Deborah—and Samuel, a very important figure in Israel’s history. Even King Saul himself, Israel’s first monarch, was said to be able to see into the future and prophesy.
In the first book of Samuel in the Old Testament, as King Saul’s monarchy is crumbling around him, and he is being pressed hard by those who want to put David on the throne in his place, we read:
“Then Saul sent messengers to take David; and when they saw the company of the prophets prophesying, and Samuel standing as head over them, the Spirit of God came upon messengers of Saul, and they also prophesied. When it was told to Saul, he sent other messengers, and they also prophesied. And Saul sent other messengers the third time, and they also prophesied. Then Saul himself went… and the Spirit of God came upon him also, and as he went he… too stripped off his clothes, and prophesied before Samuel… all that day and all that night.”
It seems like there was a lot of prophesying going on in ancient Israel—maybe too much. Indeed, in the words of one biblical scholar: “By the time of Elijah in the ninth century [BCE]… the country was almost overrun with prophets, and few of them did the people any good.”
For by the ninth century in Israel, prophecy had become a very lucrative profession. Prophetic guilds were formed, the members of which began to charge fees for services rendered. Prophecy—for a price. It didn’t start with Jean Dixon—or Edgar Cayce—or even Nostradamus; it goes way back.
Some of the priests at the Great Temple of Jerusalem also claimed to be prophets. But as the priests of the Temple grew closer to those in power, its so-called “prophets” became merely apologists for the status quo. They told their leaders what they wanted to hear, and preached a shallow, superficial religion of “Everything is fine”; “Things are getting better every day”; “It’s morning in Judea.”
In reality, however, the society of these false prophets was ripe for change and reform. So from the eighth century BCE onward, there arose in Israel a new class of prophets, separate from the religious establishment of its time. This is the group that’s called “The Prophets” in the Hebrew Bible. They were men who came from a wide variety of backgrounds: Isaiah may have been a member of the royal family; Jeremiah and Ezekiel were originally priests at the Temple; Amos was a farmer; Micah may have been a shepherd.
They each had a particular message to offer to their times, as well: Isaiah calls for a religion of true morality, and not empty sacrifices. Amos and Hosea warn against the false idols of comfort and material wealth. Jeremiah reminds his people of the individual’s duty to the larger society. Micah speaks words of warning against those who persecute, oppress, and exploit others. Different messages from different men. But what do they have in common? What distinguishes them from the false prophets who came before (and who have come since)? How do we tell true prophets from false ones?
First of all, prophecy is a universal call. With the rise of the great prophets of the eighth and seventh centuries, Judaism emerged as more than a tribal cult. It became universal in its tone and emphasis.
As the prophet Micah said, perhaps 2700 years ago:
If a prophet’s call is going to help us save our planet, it cannot be a narrow or sectarian call. This world of ours doesn’t need any more tribal cults; it doesn’t need any more voices calling for crusade or jihad, to convert the whole world to the only “true” way of thinking. True prophecy in this dangerous world, whatever particular faith it professes, must be universalist, in its tone and emphasis.
“I’m not into isms and asms,” the comedian Dick Gregory once said. “There isn’t a Catholic moon and a Baptist sun… I feel that the same God-force that is the mother and father of the Pope is also the mother and father of the loneliest wino on the planet.”
Real prophecy reminds us that the gifts of the Spirit are not confined to a single class or nation or religion. They are universal. They are open and accessible to all people.
Secondly, a true prophet cannot be a defender of the status quo. He or she must, in the words of James Luther Adams, “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” This doesn’t mean that one has to be a social revolutionary in order to be considered prophetic (though at times, I suppose, it can mean precisely that). A true prophet (unlike the hireling court and temple prophets that always surround those in power) has to exhibit a fierce discontent with the way things are, and an insatiable yearning for change, for deepening and broadening, and a constant movement toward that which is true and just. Real prophets don’t just stand back and let it all be; they pull us, sometimes kicking and screaming, into the next stage of our great human epic on this earth. A real prophet must be concerned with changing individuals and changing society.
Third, true prophets don’t read public opinion polls before making their pronouncements. They don’t just tell people what they want to hear, or what is convenient to tell them. They don’t massage the truth, or hide it, or manipulate it. Popularity is one thing; prophecy is often something very different. That’s precisely why so many of the ancient prophets were “without honor” in their own lands. Because they stand firmly on the cutting edge of their times, and don’t cower to public opinion, truly prophetic figures often turn people off—at first. They utter pronouncements that are often absolutely loathsome to most people of their own day.
But as Clinton Lee Scott has written: “Grandchildren of those who stoned the prophet often gather up the stones to build the prophet’s monuments.” Time has this way of reveling the truth which a prophet spoke.
A true prophet doesn’t have to be able to “predict” the future in some narrow sense. But he or she is one who can clearly discern the choices that a society faces, and is able to articulate the consequences that will result from those choices. History’s “real prophets” often have seemed little concerned with their own personal popularity.
Real prophets also aren’t in it for their own personal gain. They understand that prophecy-making not about profit-taking, and that being called usually has little to do with being comfortable. Isaiah could have remained a pampered member of the royal family; Jeremiah could have stayed a comfortable priest at court; but they didn’t. Prophets understand the temptations of power and prestige and wealth. They saw the arrogance and hubris that often come with high position (as we have seen yet again this past week in New York). They knew that people would try to buy them off, as well. As Micah said:
Real prophets have what it takes to be able to turn away from the temptations of their times.
Which brings us to matter of integrity and authenticity—perhaps the most important characteristics to look for when searching for any kind of leader, a prophet included.
True prophets are men and women of genuineness and sincerity, whose very beings reverberate with the message they preach. They live what they profess. They live among the people, not isolated and apart from them. They speak a language which the people of their day understand, and they speak it with utter truthfulness and directness. Real prophets are not elitist.
The false prophets of ancient times (and of our own, no less) preached one thing and practiced another. They offered up one moral standard for public consumption, yet ordered their own lives by a very different one.
They speak of peace, yet wage war.
They speak of unity, yet search out new ways to divide. (They’re dividers, and not uniters, whatever they might profess.)
They speak of justice, yet harden and intensify the injustices and disparities that already exist.
They preach a gospel of love, yet, in their actions, put forth a nightmare of enmity and strife and division and fear.
A true prophet is the same on the inside as he or she is on the outside. What you see is what you get. He or she is an exemplar of integrity and authenticity.
Perhaps the most vital lesson offered by prophetic women and men of every age is that religion, primarily, must be concerned with deeds and not with creeds. “I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice,” Yahweh tells the prophet Hosea, “the knowledge of God, and not burnt offerings.”
Prophetic religion is not merely an intellectual or theological pursuit. Nor is it mere ego tripping, concerned only with one’s own enlightenment or fulfillment or self-cultivation. It has to go deeper—beneath creeds—beneath ritual. As Shirley MacLaine once wrote: It’s one thing to be able to say all the right prayers and do all the right rituals “and to be metaphysically sophisticated; to know all the techniques and rhetoric and meditational processes. But it’s quite another to relate to the world with simple love in your heart.”
The lives of real prophets are love and wisdom made manifest, and come to dwell among us in this world of ours.
In the book of Proverbs we read:
The wisdom at the heart of true prophecy reminds us of how good—and how holy—and how whole—we can be. It reminds us that we are women and men created in the very image and likeness of the divine.
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin once wrote:
As we approach unto Easter, the season of New Birth, may we take time to honor the prophets of ancient times—and of our own times. May we honor all of those women and men, through whose words and deeds and lives—and sometimes, through whose deaths—we have remained awake to the hope that is within our souls; remained alive to the deeper truths by which we seek to live. They are the prophetic souls of all ages, in whose praise the very stones of history resound with a deep and abiding “Hosanna in the Highest! Blessed the one who comes in the name of Love! Hosanna in the Highest!”