There are plenty of thankless and miserable jobs one can get into. One would imagine that being a full-time septic tank cleaner would not be high on the list of favourite jobs. You might have some other candidates to add to such a list.
But one religious job, or calling, must rank up there pretty highly in terms of least favourite work. I refer to the job of being a prophet. If your aim in life is to ‘win friends and influence people’ a la Dale Carnegie, you will not want to take up the prophet’s mantle.
Indeed, we know from Scripture that the only popular prophets were false prophets. Whenever a true prophet of God came on the scene, they were met with scorn, derision and rejection. Consider what was said by Ahab about the prophet Elijah: “When he saw Elijah, he said to him, ‘Is that you, you troubler of Israel?’” (1 Kings 18:17).
A true prophet of God is always going to be a “troubler”. That is the nature of the prophetic task. Of course a prophet offers both words of judgment as well as words of comfort. Thus a real prophet will both afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.
But even with comforting words, prophets are not usually welcomed. Even a superficial knowledge of the Bible will show that prophets were continually rejected by the very people they were sent to minister to. For example, in 2 Kings 9:11 we read about a prophet of God who was called a “madman”.
In Jer 37:16 we read about how “Jeremiah was put into a vaulted cell in a dungeon, where he remained a long time”. Jesus of course could say, “A prophet is not without honour, save in his own country, and in his own house” (Matt 13:57).
Recall what Yahweh says through Jeremiah: “For twenty-three years – from the thirteenth year of Josiah son of Amon king of Judah until this very day – the word of the LORD has come to me and I have spoken to you again and again, but you have not listened. And though the LORD has sent all his servants the prophets to you again and again, you have not listened or paid any attention. They said, ‘Turn now, each of you, from your evil ways and your evil practices, and you can stay in the land the LORD gave to you and your fathers for ever and ever. Do not follow other gods to serve and worship them; do not provoke me to anger with what your hands have made. Then I will not harm you.’ ‘But you did not listen to me,’ declares the LORD” (Jer 25:3-7).
Jesus said much the same thing. Consider Luke 11:47-51: “Woe to you, because you build tombs for the prophets, and it was your forefathers who killed them. So you testify that you approve of what your forefathers did; they killed the prophets, and you build their tombs. Because of this, God in his wisdom said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and others they will persecute.’ Therefore this generation will be held responsible for the blood of all the prophets that has been shed since the beginning of the world, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who was killed between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, this generation will be held responsible for it all.”
And in Luke 13:34-35 Jesus said this: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing! Look, your house is left to you desolate. I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’.”
Darrell Bock comments, “In this image, Jesus reveals God’s heart. God’s constant desire is to intimately care for, nurture, and protect his people. . . . Only one thing stopped God from exercising such care: the people did not wish him to do so. As a result, the gathering, with the accompanying offer of protection, could not take place.”
He continues, “Jesus is more empathetic than Jeremiah’s statement of the potential rejection of the nation. He states that a time of abandonment has come. Rather than being gathered under God’s wings, their house is left empty and exposed. The now-empty house is the nation. The tree is being cut down (Luke 13:6-9).”
The disciples also preached a similar message. Stephen for example made this strong proclamation: “You stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are just like your fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit! Was there ever a prophet your fathers did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him – you who have received the law that was put into effect through angels but have not obeyed it” (Acts 7:51-53).
Stephen of course was stoned to death for uttering such words. John Polhill remarks, “Overall one gets the impression that Stephen realized his defense was a lost cause from the start. He would never secure his acquittal without compromising his convictions. He determined to use the situation as one last opportunity to share his convictions.”
Given what strong words the prophets, Jesus and the disciples gave to God’s people, what about us? Do we also deserve such words? If so, how will we respond? The trouble is, there are very few “troublers” of the church today. There are very few prophets who will challenge the church when necessary.
We have plenty of preachers who will tell believers what they want to hear. But there are not too many who will tell them what they need to hear. Paul warned about this: “For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear” (2 Tim 4:3).
Rare is the man today who will go against the worldly trend in the churches and take a strong prophetic stance. A.W. Tozer was one such man. Listen to some of what he had to say in his own induction prayer as a pastor of a church in 1920:
“Lord Jesus, I come to Thee for spiritual preparation. Lay Thy hand upon me. Anoint me with the oil of the New Testament prophet. Forbid that I should become a religious scribe and thus lose my prophetic calling. Save me from the curse that lies dark across the modern clergy, the curse of compromise, of imitation, of professionalism. Save me from the error of judging a church by its size, its popularity or the amount of its yearly offering. Help me to remember that I am a prophet – not a promoter, not a religious manager, but a prophet. Let me never become a slave to crowds. Heal my soul of carnal ambitions and deliver me from the itch for publicity. Save me from bondage to things. Let me not waste my days puttering around the house. Lay Thy terror upon me, O God, and drive me to the place of prayer where I may wrestle with principalities and powers and the rulers of the darkness of this world. Deliver me from overeating and late sleeping. Teach me self-discipline that I may be a good soldier of Jesus Christ.”
That is quite a prayer. I wish we heard more such prayers from the pulpits these days. But it is a lot easier to go with what the crowds want, to tell them what they want to hear, and to not rock the boat. There is always a temptation to take the path of least resistance.
But the true man of God will always choose the lonely path, the rejected path, the cross-centred path. That will not make him popular. But so what? None of God’s true prophets were ever popular. Why should we desire to be?
As Paul says, “Am I now trying to win the approval of men, or of God? Or am I trying to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ” (Gal. 1:10). There are plenty of people who want to be men-pleasers. There are not so many who want to be God-pleasers.
One can understand why. We all want to be popular, to be accepted, to be liked. But I would rather be right than liked. I would rather please God and risk the wrath of man, than please man and risk the wrath of God. So who wants to be a prophet?