Who will prophetically speak truth to power today?
The Bible certainly has a lot to say about justice. If I simply listed just some of the many passages that speak to this grand theme, I would have a very long article indeed. Indeed, I just recently wrote a piece about this, listing just a few of the key passages. In that article I made it clear that God is a God of justice, he loves justice, and he expects it of individuals and nations: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2022/04/20/god-politics-and-justice/
If we simply take the Old Testament prophets, we see how often justice is spoken about, celebrated, and demanded of Israel and the nations. Just a few passages can be presented here:
Isaiah 1:16-17 Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
learn to do good;
bring justice to the fatherless,
plead the widow’s cause.
Isaiah 30:18 The Lord is a God of justice.
Isaiah 33:5 The Lord is exalted, for he dwells on high; he will fill Zion with justice and righteousness,
Isaiah 56:1-2 This is what the LORD says: “Maintain justice and do what is right, for my salvation is close at hand and my righteousness will soon be revealed. Blessed is the man who does this,
Isaiah 59:15 Truth is lacking, and he who departs from evil makes himself a prey. The Lord saw it, and it displeased him that there was no justice.
Isaiah 61:8 For I the Lord love justice
Jeremiah 5:1 Run to and fro through the streets of Jerusalem, look and take note! Search her squares to see if you can find a man, one who does justice and seeks truth, that I may pardon her.
Jeremiah 22:3 Thus says the Lord: Do justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor him who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the resident alien, the fatherless, and the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place.
Jeremiah 23:5 Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.
Ezekiel 45:9 Thus says the Lord God: Enough, O princes of Israel! Put away violence and oppression, and execute justice and righteousness. Cease your evictions of my people, declares the Lord God.
Amos 5:15 Hate evil, and love good,
and establish justice in the gate;
Amos 5:24 Let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
Micah 6:8 He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
Zephaniah 3:5 The Lord within her is righteous; he does no injustice; every morning he shows forth his justice; each dawn he does not fail; but the unjust knows no shame.
Of course it needs to be mentioned that biblical justice is not the same as some modern notions of justice, including the social justice movement embraced by leftists – be they secular or religious. Too often for them justice simply means enforcing radical woke agenda items.
Or it means the redistribution of confiscated wealth: money is forcibly taken by the state from industrious workers and given to those who don’t work. Sure, as the Bible itself distinguishes, there are the deserving and undeserving poor. Those who cannot work (as opposed to those who do not want to work) for example can and should benefit from some sort of assistance. But the socialist notion of justice is penalising the producers to keep the elites sated and the masses more or less satisfied.
In Scripture the notions of justice and righteousness are closely connected, even grammatically. So we are speaking about doing that which is right, and such justice is not distributive justice but retributive justice: giving to each one what is his or her due. See more on this here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2021/04/03/social-justice-or-scriptural-justice/
With all this emphasis on biblical justice, we see the need to share God’s heart in all this. That is why the prophets of old for example spoke so often about these matters. They too cared about justice. And injustice most often can come from those who are powerful and in complete control.
Statists and corporatists with inordinate amounts of wealth and power can cause all sorts of oppression, injustice and corruption. Often it can be economic oppression, but other types exist as well. Thus we see in the Bible and in church history those that God has raised up to speak truth to power.
Concentrated power in the hands of the few at the expense of the masses is one such key target of the prophetic witness. Many examples can be listed here. A few obvious ones include the following:
When Moses confronted Pharaoh he was speaking truth to power.
When Elijah confronted King Ahab he was speaking truth to power.
When Nathan the prophet confronted King David he was speaking truth to power.
When Daniel confronted King Nebuchadnezzar he was speaking truth to power.
When John the Baptist confronted King Herod he was speaking truth to power.
When Paul confronted Ananias the high priest he was speaking truth to power.
When Wilberforce confronted the slave trade industry he was speaking truth to power.
When Bonhoeffer confronted Hitler and the Nazis he was speaking truth to power.
When Martin Luther King Jr. confronted racism in America he was speaking truth to power.
We as Christians are called to have this same sort of prophetic voice today. Whether it is woke capitalism and corporate leftists getting away with murder, or things like Big Pharma or the Big State seeking to profit from the exploitation of the masses, we Christians need to stand up and say ‘Enough is enough – let my people go.’
This might take the form of the brave Christian pastors we have seen defying the secular left state as it demanded churches stay closed for months on end because of a ‘crisis’, or demanded that only the jabbed could be allowed to worship. Some of these courageous pastors spent lengthy periods of time in jail for having this prophetic witness as they spoke truth to power.
Let me finish by referring to one volume which addresses these themes: Truth Speaks To Power by Walter Brueggemann (Westminster John Knox press, 2013). As I have stated before, conservative Christians and evangelicals need to read him discerningly.
He is a great Old Testament scholar who so often shares wonderful insights, but he can sometimes lean more toward the gospel of Marx than Mark. But if we read his works carefully, we can benefit quite a bit from what he says. In this volume he obviously spends some time on the power encounter between Moses and Pharaoh. He mentions Exodus 10:1-2 which says:
“Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Go in to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart and the heart of his servants, that I may show these signs of mine among them, and that you may tell in the hearing of your son and of your grandson how I have dealt harshly with the Egyptians and what signs I have done among them, that you may know that I am the Lord’.”
The purpose is to attest the power of YHWH as player in the public drama. More than that, the purpose is to tell the grandchildren. This is a teaching curriculum in a narrative form so that you and your grandchildren, unlike Pharaoh, will learn to know YHWH in time. The intent is that you will recognize that the map of power and truth is complex and multidimensional….
Because we ourselves are the instructed, socialized grandchildren of these narratives, we keep reading this odd testimony. . . . We ask:
1. Who plays the pharaoh in our current performance of the drama, the one who acts in anti-neighborly, exploitative ways and operates a political-economic system that is organized for greedy acquisitiveness?
2. Where are the cries from exhausted laborers who, in their exhaustion, break the silence because their bodies will no longer lie?
3. Where is the holy power of God operative in ways that subvert or jeopardize established power in the interest of the aggrieved?
4. Who are the human agents who carry holy alternatives that are intended by the Lord of emancipation?
Good questions. We need to prayerfully seek to answer them. Who are the powerful Pharaohs of today that need to have truth prophetically spoken to them? Who among us will be that prophetic voice who dares to challenge these powerful elites?
Who dares to be a Daniel today?