So Where Are All the Prophets?

I read again this morning in my daily readings one of my favourite Old Testament passages. It is one I often share in public talks, in lectures to my students, and elsewhere. It involves a short line by Moses which resonates greatly with me, and should with you.

I refer to the episode recorded in Numbers 11. The Israelites are once again complaining, this time about a lack of meat in the wilderness. But Moses does a bit of complaining of his own and God replies (vv. 13-17):

Where can I get meat for all these people? They keep wailing to me, ‘Give us meat to eat!’ I cannot carry all these people by myself; the burden is too heavy for me. If this is how you are going to treat me, please go ahead and kill me—if I have found favor in your eyes—and do not let me face my own ruin.” The LORD said to Moses: “Bring me seventy of Israel’s elders who are known to you as leaders and officials among the people. Have them come to the tent of meeting, that they may stand there with you. I will come down and speak with you there, and I will take some of the power of the Spirit that is on you and put it on them. They will share the burden of the people with you so that you will not have to carry it alone.”

I pick up the action in vv. 24-29:

So Moses went out and told the people what the LORD had said. He brought together seventy of their elders and had them stand around the tent. Then the LORD came down in the cloud and spoke with him, and he took some of the power of the Spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders. When the Spirit rested on them, they prophesied—but did not do so again. However, two men, whose names were Eldad and Medad, had remained in the camp. They were listed among the elders, but did not go out to the tent. Yet the Spirit also rested on them, and they prophesied in the camp. A young man ran and told Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.” Joshua son of Nun, who had been Moses’ aide since youth, spoke up and said, “Moses, my lord, stop them!” But Moses replied, “Are you jealous for my sake? I wish that all the LORD’s people were prophets and that the LORD would put his Spirit on them!”

It is v. 29 which I especially love. Moses does not resent the fact that others have a prophetic gift – he instead wishes that all God’s people had it. While bearing in mind that the writing prophets have come and gone, and the biblical canon is now closed in terms of inspired writings, there is still great application to be drawn from this text.

The desire for believers to have prophetic-type gifts and callings is one that I often have, and I pray to that effect regularly. We are in desperate need of God’s people to stand up and speak boldly Biblical truths to both church and nation.

We need courageous Christians who will not shrink back from proclaiming the biblical worldview and biblical values into a hostile culture and a largely sleeping church. We need those who care not about reputation or what others might think, but will stand in the gap and speak truth into a culture bereft of truth and inundated with relativism, falsehood and deception.

True, not everyone is called to speak to politicians, leaders and national figures. Not everyone is called to engage in the public arena with all manner of men, be they atheists, secularists, social radicals or those of other religions and ideologies. Not everyone is called to set up interactive blogsites.

But we can all pray to be used by God wherever he has placed us and to be spokesmen for him when his truths are so much needed to be heard. We all can pray to be available to God to speak biblical truth and stand up for biblical morality as opportunities arise.

Yet far too many believers fail to do this. Far too many believers are in fact invertebrates who would not dare to speak up and risk the wrath of men, or offending anyone. Sadly there are far too few believers with real backbone, as I discuss here: www.billmuehlenberg.com/2013/01/28/in-search-of-christian-vertebrates/

But I will keep on praying the words of Moses as given in Numbers 11:29. We desperately need more men and women who will stand up and proclaim truth even when it is incredibly unpopular to do so. Indeed, as the days grow darker and as truth takes even more of a hammering, to simply dare to proclaim truth becomes a very risky enterprise.

It will certainly be costly. But then again being a prophetic voice has always been costly. The prophetic task will always be a lonely and challenging one. It will always bring derision, ridicule and contempt. Such is the lot of the prophet.

Let me finish here by looking a bit more closely at what the prophet is all about. And I wish to draw upon just one resource here. I refer to an important work by the American rabbi and theologian Abraham Heschel (1907–1972). Back in 1962 he wrote a key volume called The Prophets (Harper & Row). Although penned over a half century ago, it still bristles with insight, great learning, and inspirational commentary.

Let me cite just a few snippets from his opening chapter, “What Manner of Man is the Prophet?”

“To a person endowed with prophetic sight everyone else appears blind; to a person whose ear perceives God’s voice, everyone else appears deaf. No one is just; no knowing is strong enough, no trust complete enough. The prophet hates the approximate, he shuns the middle of the road. Man must live on the summit to avoid the abyss.”

“Others may suffer from the terror of cosmic aloneness; the prophet is overwhelmed by the grandeur of divine presence.”

“The prophet disdains those for whom God’s presence is comfort and security; to him it is a challenge, an incessant demand. God is compassion, not compromise; justice, though not inclemency.”

“The prophet’s word is a scream in the night. While the world is at ease and asleep, the prophet feels the blast from heaven.”

“The prophet faces a coalition of callousness and established authority and undertakes to stop a mighty stream with mere words. . . . The purpose of prophecy is to conquer callousness, to change the inner person as well as to revolutionize history. The prophets remind us of the moral state of a people: Few are guilty, but all are responsible.”

“It is embarrassing to be a prophet. There are so many pretenders, predicting peace and prosperity, offering cheerful words, adding strength to self-reliance, while the prophet predicts disaster, pestilence, agony, and destruction. People need exhortations to courage, endurance, confidence, fighting spirit.”

“To be a prophet is both a distinction and an affliction. The mission he performs is distasteful to him and repugnant to others; no reward is promised him and no reward could temper its bitterness. The prophet bears scorn and reproach (Jer. 15:15). He is stigmatized as a madman by his contemporaries.”

“The prophet is a lonely man. He alienates the wicked as well as the pious, the cynics as well as the believers, the priests and the princes, the judges and the false prophets. But to be a prophet means to challenge and to defy and to cast out fear.”

Wow, no wonder so few seek the prophetic task. It is certainly not something for the light-hearted or for those who seek to please men and get along with the world – and even with the church. But such people are very much needed today. We need them because truth has gone missing – or as we are told in Isaiah 59:15: “Truth is nowhere to be found”.

Thus it is incumbent upon us to proclaim that truth, to live that truth, and represent that truth. “I wish that all the LORD’s people were prophets and that the LORD would put his Spirit on them!”

[1382 words]


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