IN the books of the Kings and Chronicles we have the short histories of two small kingdoms, Israel and Judah. The former lasted for about 200 years, while Judah continued as a kingdom for some 350 years. In these small kingdoms God raised up men who stood before Him and could rightly proclaim, “Thus saith the Lord”. Such men are among the greatest in the world’s history. They represented God and spoke for Him, so perhaps it is not surprising that their words have never been assimilated into human wisdom but have rather been overlooked and neglected.
Standing Before the Lord
As a matter of fact, though, these were the men most worth listening to. It was so in their own day and is still the same today. Their foretelling of events at times was marvellous, but that was only a small part of their activities. The function of a prophet is to speak for God, and this demands an intimate relationship with Him. The first man whom the Bible calls a prophet is one who would not normally be considered as such, Abraham. God told a heathen ruler, “He is a prophet, and he will pray for you” (Genesis 20:7). At that particular time Abraham had behaved rather badly, but still he had audience with the Lord. He never preached a sermon; he never faced a congregation; but he stood before God and so was able to intercede effectively. Standing before God is an essential in prophetic ministry, for prophecy is not some sort of magic but the outcome of holy living. This was emphasised later, when it was said of Moses, “There has not arisen a prophet like unto Moses”, with the explanation, “whom the Lord knew face to face” (Deuteronomy 34:10).
A Man of God
We are familiar with the title ‘prophet’, but may be helped to a better understanding of what it involves when we consider the description ‘A man of God’. This is often used, and it indicates that the one concerned was God’s man, chosen by God and possessed by Him. In the case of Moses we know that from the beginning he was specially chosen by God. He was drawn out of the Nile where he lay at the point of death, and carried this truth with him all his life by reason of his name Moses. In this sense this sovereign choice made him a man of God. In a much deeper way, however, he was a man of God because he understood and accepted that he no longer belonged to himself but lived a God-appropriated life. So it was in the case of Elijah who came much later who was truly a man of God although in himself a nobody. He had no hesitation in declaring to the king Ahab, “As the LORD, the God of Israel, liveth, before whom I stand”. He was thus a man of God. Indeed this was a feature of all the prophets. They were God’s men because He had selected them in a special way and also because they practised fellowship with Him.
Standing before the Lord means as close to Him as is possible and giving Him the priority over everything else. If at times these prophets were lonely, finding themselves rather isolated from the broad religious life of the community, that was the price which they had to pay for their close fellowship with the Lord. They did nothing to make themselves extraordinary, but their position as men of God was brought about by their determination to wait upon God. Not being quite like ordinary men of their day was the inevitable result of their living in God’s presence.
It was because of their intimate communion that the Word of the Lord came to them and was given through them. God spoke to them and they obediently repeated what they had heard. They did not just make up sermons or sit down and think up what they thought might be the right ideas or interesting subjects; they waited on God and so they became men of God. They were not supermen or eccentrics but men just like us, as James says of Elijah (James 5:17). [36/37]
After Elijah came Elisha. It is striking that of this successor of the great prophet, the great woman of Shunem said to her husband, “I know that this man who often comes our way is a holy man of God” (2 Kings 4:9), yet all we know of Elisha — or rather all she knew — was that when he was passing that way, he stopped to have a meal in her home. Such a simple contact nevertheless brought a very real sense of God’s presence to that home. Holiness does not consist of religious forms; it comes from a close walk with God.
Another term used to describe some prophets was that of Seer. The suggestion is that they saw and understood God’s will and God’s way, and that this spiritual insight enabled them to speak for Him. They did not act on their own impulses or initiative; they waited on the Lord for instructions. They were not showmen, seeking a place in the limelight; they often risked their own lives in communicating to the people what had first been shown to them. They acted without fear of man, yet were free from unseemly forcefulness or arrogance. They could rightly affirm: ‘this is what the Lord says’
There were of course others who used the phrase, ‘Thus saith the Lord’ and who called themselves prophets and were generally reckoned as such, but who were false prophets. They do not seem to have been conscious deceivers but they themselves believed what they said, yet they were blind and certainly not seers. We can argue for what we think is right as though it were God’s truth, whereas actually it comes from our own deceitful hearts. Mankind has fallen so deeply into deception that it is all too possible for any of us to be false without knowing it. Only true humility can save us from that.
The prophet must not indulge in wishful thinking. This is a tendency common to most of us but it is fatal in one who would be a prophet. As an example, we read of a man called Zedekiah who doubtless thought and hoped that the blessing of God must rest on an alliance between his monarch Ahab and the good king Jehoshaphat, so he accordingly prophesied that the kings would be victorious, saying: “Thus saith the Lord … thou shalt push the Syrians that they be consumed” (1 Kings 22:11). Jehoshaphat himself was not convinced so, in spite of Ahab’s declared prejudice, another prophet, Micaiah, was called. He spoke from God and gave a completely different prospect to the kings, not because he wanted it to be like that but because he had a command from the Lord. On the face of it, no-one could say which man was really the one who spoke for God and which was only making it up. Micaiah was content to be judged by the outcome and replied to his persecutors, “If you return in peace, the Lord has not spoken by me.”
Very often it is the outcome which provides the proof of the true or false. Certainly non-fulfilment of what purports to be predicted in the name of the Lord completely discredits the speaker and labels him with God’s charge of being a false prophet. Now the false may not be a deliberate deceiver, but can be led astray by his own ideas or impulses. This is especially so when there is an element of conceit or self-importance on his part. Such a conceit in spiritual things brings a great risk of self-deception, a fact which should humble anyone who dares to speak in God’s name. If the false prophets were themselves deceived, that made them much more dangerous to others.
The Lord has warned us that deceivers will arise and deceive many. Jeremiah describes the basic faults of such men: “I did not send these prophets, yet they have run with their message; I did not speak to them, yet they have prophesied. But if they had stood in my council, then they would have proclaimed my words to my people” (Jeremiah 23:21-22). Perhaps the greatest need in Christianity today is quietness; not a lazy passivity but an active quietness before God which is seemly for those who aspire to be His servants. We must stand before God in the first place, and listen to what He has to say and then communicate to others. That is what God’s prophets did.
The prophets did nothing to make themselves important yet their words, which were often quite brief, had eternal values. They cast light on life from an eternal viewpoint. Of course their messages were relevant and vital to those who first heard them and had a timely communication from God about their own circumstances, nevertheless the heart of all prophecy is the revelation of God’s eternal purpose in Christ and is therefore of supreme importance.
The prophets did nothing to make their words more acceptable, for they believed that He who spoke through them could open deaf ears and enlighten blind eyes for their hearers and readers even as He had done this first for them. They [37/38] realised that they said more than they themselves fully understood, for it is through them that we have the revelation of the mystery of God, who is Christ. All the fullness of the godhead dwells in Christ and it is through the ministry of the prophets that we learn of Him. Through their Scriptures little people like us who have small understanding and limited perspectives may learn something of those “riches of the full assurance of understanding” which the Bible promises.
It is because the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy that the history of these two humanly-speaking insignificant nations comes with life-giving power to our hearts. The ministry of God’s prophets points us to the Head of the Church who radiates a glory which casts light on the whole creation. The significance of the prophets is inexhaustible. The history of Israel and Judah is more important than national history, contemporary history or world history, because through it we are given entrance into that world which is beyond all human capacity to realise. We can only know God by His making Himself known to us, and He has done this through the prophetic Word. “You should give that word your closest attention, for it shines like a lamp amidst all the dirt and darkness of the world …” (2 Peter 1:19 Phillips ).