I’ve always been intrigued by preachers who use the title “prophet.” A prophet’s prospects for long-term popularity seem dim, at best.
Prophets may be well-known in their time, perhaps even gathering astonished crowds with miraculous signs. The actual act of prophecy, however, is unlikely to make the prophets many friends. And the more prophets prophesy, the less their audiences seem to like them.
And yet, what higher human calling can there be? Yes, prophets sometimes speak of the future. But more importantly, to prophesy is to be so directly connected to the mind of God that you can speak God’s will directly into the everyday world.
Jeremiah was a prophet, called at a very young age to speak God’s will to God’s chosen people—a people divided politically, anemic in their faith and on the verge of a terrible downfall. He was so young, in fact, that he protested his calling, citing his youthfulness.
The ability to prophesy is not rooted in human concepts like age or education level, however. It is not even rooted in a particular prophet’s immediate existence, in his or her conception and birth. Judging from Jeremiah, God’s placement of prophets through history is strategic and part of the plan of creation.
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you,” God said in his opening revelation to Jeremiah. “I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”
It is as if God wired creation with a broadcasting system, and the prophets are the woofers, mids, tweeters and subs resounding according to the Creator’s will.
When God speaks, change usually is demanded, particularly when the situation has become as unholy as the one in which Jeremiah found himself. And therein lies the problem for the prophet. People are naturally resistant to change. In fact, I would argue that the further people are from God, the more resistant they are to holy change. It certainly seems to have been the case in Jeremiah’s day.
Loud Complaints, Heavy Burdens
Jeremiah’s pronouncements were so strong, in fact, that we now call lengthy complaints “jeremiads.” God complained loudly that his chosen people had turned away, looking to other gods. Through Jeremiah, God warned the people they were headed for disaster. The disaster—the siege and conquest of Jerusalem by the Babylonian Empire—happened during Jeremiah’s prophetic tenure.
The burden of all this prophesying took its toll on Jeremiah, as it does on prophets throughout the Bible. Consider what Jeremiah was called from the start to do among his own people, to “pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow.” Only later would his prophecies contribute to building and planting.
During one particularly trying time, Jeremiah resounded bitterness: “O Lord, you have enticed me, and I was enticed; you have overpowered me, and you have prevailed. I have become a laughingstock all day long; everyone mocks me. For whenever I speak, I must cry out, I must shout, ‘Violence and destruction!’ For the word of the Lord has become for me a reproach and derision all day long.”
His only comfort lay in his understanding that those who would persecute him would face God and eternal dishonor. And yet, he still wished that he had never been born. The Bible is silent on Jeremiah’s end; stories outside the Bible indicate he was stoned to death by his own exasperated people.
A Fire Within
So why prophesy? Why suffer so? Jeremiah answered that question in his discourse of complaint, recorded in Jeremiah 20:7-18. “If I say, ‘I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,’ then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.”
Prophets prophesy because they are made down to the marrow to do so.
Now, there can be joy in prophecy; there are times when the prophets glimpsed how God’s plan to save unholy humanity would unfold. For the Old Testament prophets, it must have seemed a vague, distant joy, like a clear sky on a deeply cold night about an hour before sunrise. There are at least nine places in Jeremiah where the prophet saw the Christ to come.
Think how blessed we are, knowing the story of Jesus Christ in full. Through prayer and study, we can so much more easily understand the radical truth of what God is doing in the world to save us.
Prophets for Today
And yet, we still need prophets, or at a minimum, prophetic moments implanted in us by the Holy Spirit. It remains a difficult world. Just as it happened in Jeremiah’s day, people turn away from God now, trading a potentially eternal relationship for what is immediate and worldly.
We are called to examine ourselves and change our ways. We are called to find ways to convince others to practice a vital, ruddy faith, one rooted in the bloody cross and the dawning resurrection.
If we take such steps and speak what we hear from God, there are plenty of people out there who will want to stone us, certainly figuratively and perhaps literally. But with the Holy Spirit burning deep in our bones, how can we not prophesy? After all, we have been remade down to the marrow.