“Thus Saith the Lord”

A stray story in 1 Kings reveals the hidden source of prophecy’s power.

Michelangelo’s depiction of the prophet Jeremiah in the Sistine Chapel

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.

The Short Story as God’s Word

Jonah image 2

The prophetic word in the Book of Jonah is not what Jonah says, but his story.

The Book of Jonah draws me in like the light bulb on the front porch that attracts the moths throughout the night. You can sense that when you notice that I have written about this book twice in my blog (see Who Has the Last Word in Jonah? and When Was Jonah Saved?).

It fascinates me because for one, it is a very short work, but dense, very dense in meaning. And for a second reason. It is an odd book to find in the prophetic corpus.

Most prophetic books in the Old Testament are heavy on the words that the prophet declared to the people of Israel. You find scattered biographical details in the texts (like the story of Jeremiah’s imprisonment or the death of Ezekiel’s wife), but no sustained narrative that tells the story of the prophet’s life. What is of central importance are the words from God that the prophet is commissioned to deliver.

But in Jonah, the message he delivers is just one sentence: “Yet forty days, and Nineveh will be overthrown” (Jonah 3:4). That’s it. No further elaboration. No poetic embellishment. No hopeful promise. If we understand prophecy as a word from God, how did Jonah make it into the collection of the 12 prophets? He seems a very minor prophet indeed.

Story as Prophecy

The Book of Jonah forces us to expand our understanding of prophecy. The word of the Lord to Israel does not always consist of just spoken words coming out of the prophet’s mouth. The word of the Lord may also be the prophet’s story. In fact, the prophecy declared in the Book of Jonah is the short story of Jonah itself.

In this respect, I like to see the Book of Jonah as analogous to the parables Jesus teaches. They, too, are short stories. I once heard a Bible teacher describe the parable of the prodigal son as one of the most perfect short stories ever written. The story is the vehicle for revelation.

Even though I don’t regard the Book of Jonah as a historical account–and I don’t–I have no less respect for it as scripture. Jonah was certainly a real historical figure. He makes another appearance in 2 Kings 14:25.

But there are too many improbabilities in the story that tax our credulity if we regard it as a historical account. I offer two examples: the improbability of a man remaining alive for three days in the belly of a fish and the description of the city of Nineveh as a three-day walk across in breadth. Archaeologists tell us this is a far exaggeration over the real city.

Those improbabilities do not trouble me at all, because the word of the Lord that comes to us in this story is contained in the story itself. And if we listen attentively to the story, we find the Book of Jonah to be one of the most powerful expressions of the compassionate love of God for sinful humanity in all of the Bible.

When Jesus teaches in the Sermon on the Mount that we should love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, I have the distinct impression that Jesus knows the Book of Jonah intimately. He has absorbed its message into his own very being. Jesus is at one with the author of the book.

The Prominence of Narrative in the Bible

All this should remind us that a huge part of the Bible consists of narrative, narratives about individuals and narratives about peoples and nations. It has been customary to call the first five books of the Bible the Law of Moses. But if you study those books attentively, you find narrative has just as dominant position in the Torah as do legal, ritual, and moral injunctions.

The same is true of the gospels. Yes, they contain large blocks of Jesus’ teaching. But that teaching is embedded in narratives, narratives that tell the story of Jesus and his acts. This is a striking feature of the canonical gospels when we compare them to a non-canonical gospel like the Gospel of Thomas. Thomas is a collection of sayings, but sayings lifted out of their context.

This also suggests for me that there can be something revelatory about the narratives of our own lives. If we are given the prophetic gift of insight, we can perceive the way that God is at work in the many twists and turns, the ups and downs of our lives. But most of us are not given that prophetic gift, and so we turn to the prophets of the Bible for the insight they can provide us.

Yet we have that strange prophecy in the prophet Joel that the apostle Peter claims is fulfilled on Pentecost. It goes:

In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy. (
Acts 2:17-18)

This passage suggests that prophecy is not to be an elitist gift, but a universal gift. And we hope that someday it will be.