Offering a prophetic witness is risky – risky to see things accurately and to speak to them rightly.
A prophet, Greg Mobley stated in a recent column, “sees through the veil of appearances to glimpse a different reality.”
“Prophetic vision,” he continued, “penetrates everydayness to go deeper than conventional wisdom in order to reveal the story behind the story, the baseline behind the headline.”
In challenging the conventional wisdom, the prophet is speaking truth to power. And this, as Ircel Harrison noted, is never without great risk and profound cost regardless of whether the message is received well or poorly.
The challenges of the prophetic calling are evidenced in the biblical traditions surrounding the Hebrew prophets.
In noting that we often worship idols unawares, Molly Marshall cited the prophet Elijah’s “showdown” with the prophets of Ba’al,
Since we have never worshipped Ba’al, Elijah’s fiery words appear to be pointed at others. But what if the prophet’s ire were turned on us?
What if Ba’al represents wealth, power, status, ideology or possessions? Would we be so eager to accept the prophet’s critique?
The prophet Nathan was called on to offer counsel to King David (see 2 Samuel 7), but he was also sent by God to “speak truth to power.” Following David’s assault of Bathsheba and futile cover-up efforts, Nathan walked into the king’s court and confronted him with his sins (see 2 Samuel 12).
The narrative doesn’t share Nathan’s emotions and generally portrays him as a bold and unapologetic witness. But since David had recently arranged for Uriah’s death, one can only assume that Nathan’s legs might have been a bit wobbly and his voice a little shaky in confronting the king.
For those of us living in a democracy with protected rights to free speech, Nathan’s prophetic act may seem less risky than it was. In reality, Nathan was not putting his job or career path on the line; he was literally risking his life.
Jeremiah spoke unexpectedly. In fruitful times he spoke an unsettling word of “plucking up and tearing down.” Then, amid the ruins of a once thriving economy, he offered a hopeful word of “building up and replanting.”
Longing to abandon his commission in the face of hostile responses, Jeremiah found that he could not because his prophetic calling was “like a fire within his bones” (Jeremiah 20:9).
Jesus knew well these, and many other, stories of Hebrew prophets. So, when he proclaimed, “a prophet is not without honor except in his hometown” (Mark 6: 4; Matthew 13:57), this was not only an observation based on his experiences, but also a well-established concept in Hebrew tradition.
Knowing that prophets are always popular so long as the conventional wisdom and power being confronted are of someone else, Jesus told his disciples on multiple occasions that his prophetic ministry would lead to his death when the powers that be had heard enough truth telling (see Mark 8:31-32; 9:31b-32; 10:32-34).
Being prophetic is not an excuse for being rude or foolish. Neither is it prophetic to complain about anything and everything you dislike. Rather, being prophetic is striving to tell the truth and seeking the welfare of the other over one’s self.
Even when you speak at the right time, in the right manner and for the right reasons, telling the truth is risky.
“Speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15) is not a guarantee that the message will be welcomed.
Zach Dawes is the managing editor for EthicsDaily.com.