A stray story in 1 Kings reveals the hidden source of prophecy’s power.
It’s a common idea that prophecy means foretelling the future. We encounter that understanding every time a financial expert disavows his ability to predict how the stock market will rise or fall.
This understanding misses a key element of prophecy in the Old Testament. This overlooked element, however, accounts for the link the Protestant reformers made between prophecy and the normal preaching that goes on in churches Sunday after Sunday.
Calling in the Prophets
The Old Testament pulls back the veil on this overlooked element in a stray story that does not even appear in the prophetic books of the Old Testament. This is the story of the prophet Micaiah that we find in 1 Kings 22:1-40.
In this story Ahab, the king of the northern kingdom of Israel, covets the region of Ramoth-gilead. He decides to go to war against his neighbor, the king of Aram. In his war of conquest, he enlists the help of Jehoshaphat, king of the southern kingdom of Judah.
Before they launch their campaign, Jehoshaphat suggests that they consult God about its outcome. Ahab therefore summons his 400 court prophets and asks them. In one voice they say the Lord will give him victory.
Their unanimous response makes Jehoshaphat uneasy. He asks if there are any other prophets that have not been consulted. Ahab says there is one more, Micaiah. However, he does not like Micaiah because he never prophesies anything favorable, only disaster.
Jehoshaphat insists they summon Micaiah. When he enters the kings’ presence, he, too, predicts that Ahab will have a victory. But the king insists he speak the truth. As a result, Micaiah announces that if Ahab goes into battle, he will die. Which turns out to be true.
What’s interesting about Micaiah’s prophecy is the warrant he gives for his words. He says that he has been given a vision. In it he finds himself in God’s heavenly throne room. A discussion is going on. How, God asks his court, can they entice Ahab to go into battle for Ramoth-gilead so Ahab can meet his death?
The courtiers make different suggestions. Then one, presumably an angel, offers to put a lying spirit into Ahab’s 400 court prophets. Their word of hope will entice Ahab to make the foolish venture. God commissions him to do just that.
The Biblical text does not tell us how Micaiah has this vision (which is obviously described in mythical language). By dream, by trance, or by induced imagination? But however the vision came, it gave Micaiah insight into the hidden spiritual world where he is given the privilege of understanding God’s hidden will and action.
The Prophet as Intimate Companion with God
Now this is the element of Hebrew prophecy that gives it its power. The prophet becomes the intimate companion of God. As a result, he is given insight into how God is at work in human affairs and what God’s intentions are. He is given insight into the spiritual world that lies behind the phenomena of human history.
Therefore he can speak an authoritative word from God to the people. “Thus saith the Lord” is how oracle after oracle begins in the prophetic literature.
Of course, the prophet’s audience does not know at once whether a particular prophet has been given genuine insight or not. He may be deceived in what he believes is God’s word to the people. Only the unfolding of history will confirm that or not.
This is true even in Micaiah’s story. The king imprisons Micaiah until the campaign is over. When the king returns in victory, he says, that fact will prove Micaiah was a lying prophet. History always plays a critical role in confirming a prophet’s message.
The crucial element of Hebrew prophecy is the prophet’s claim that he has been given insight into the divine dimension that lies behind ordinary life. That insight may come in different ways, but it is always a gift. It gives him real insight (though never complete insight) into how God is at work, what are God’s intentions, and what God expects of human beings.
That is the secret to the power of the prophet’s message.
The Link Between Prophesying and Preaching
Although most believers, both Jewish and Christian, thought that Old Testament prophecy had come to an end in the three centuries preceding Jesus, the Protestant reformers saw that it had not. Instead they believed the church’s preachers had inherited the prophets’ mantle.
One of the most influential statements of that viewpoint was the treatise titled The Art of Prophesying, by the Puritan divine William Perkins (1558-1602). The book, published in Latin in 1592 and in English in 1607, discusses the matter and method of preaching. It had a profound influence on Puritan preaching. But note how its title links preaching with prophesying.
Another statement of the same viewpoint is a hymn often sung at the ordination of Christian ministers. It starts out: God of the prophets, bless the prophets’ sons. The prophets’ sons are, of course, the individual ministers being ordained. The second stanza then goes on:
Anoint them prophets! Make their ears attent,
To thy divinest speech; their hearts awake
To human need; their lips make eloquent
To gird the right, and every evil break.
At the core of the preacher’s call, as these reformers saw it, was this call for the preacher to receive insight into the divine world of God’s will and actions and then share that insight as authoritative guidance with their congregation.
It was assumed that this insight would come through study and meditation on Scripture rather than through trance and mystical vision. That assumption may have discounted the revelatory power of inspired imagination. But the important point was that it was the insight, however it came, that gave authority to the preacher’s words.
It is this linkage between preaching and Old Testament prophecy that lies behind the conviction of many today that Martin Luther King, Jr., is a prophet in the line of succession from his Biblical counterparts. They see his insight into God’s will and actions in history as the source of the power of his preaching.
If we should seek to look for the heirs of Old Testament prophecy today-–whether in terms of its lying or its truth-speaking versions–let us look to the pulpits of our churches.