“Jehoshaphat asked, “Is there no longer a prophet of the Lord here whom we can inquire of?” The king of Israel answered Jehoshaphat, “There is still one prophet through whom we can inquire of the Lord, but I hate him because he never prophesies anything good about me, but always bad. He is Micaiah son of Imlah.””
The conversation above is one that could have taken place at almost any time in history. This excerpt, taken from 2 Chronicles 18:6-7, is an exchange between two political leaders; Ahab, the king of Israel and Jehoshaphat, the king of Judah. They wanted to know if their plans for battle would succeed. They wanted to hear that a power higher than them was with them. They wanted the representative(s) of God to endorse their plan. There is a comfort for political leaders in feeling that God is on their side, endorsing their actions. The actual truth is often much more inconvenient to them.
The calling of an Old Testament prophet was a difficult one. More often than not, God asked them to bring confrontational messages to the most powerful people in their nations. They confronted kings, military officials, and sometimes even high religious authorities on issues such as injustice, idolatry, and disobedience to God’s law. The leaders that the prophets confronted held the power of life and death within their kingdoms. When the words that God had given the prophet to speak did not please the powerful, these prophets often found themselves pursued and under the threat of death. Yet, these men and women of valor continued to convey the messages of God’s truth to the powerful no matter the personal cost. Some of the prophets were delivered miraculously from death sentences imposed on them by the governing authorities. These stories of rescue and absolution are some of the most inspiring and memorable in the Old Testament narrative.
Elijah was a prophet called by God to speak truth to an extremely wicked king, Ahab (the same king to whom Micaiah prophesied), and his wife Jezebel. In 1 Kings 21, we read the story of how they abused the power of being king and queen simply because they could. They wanted a piece of land that the owner would not sell them, so they set him up with a false accusation, had him killed, and took possession of his vineyard. God sent Elijah to confront this abuse and pronounce God’s judgement for it. The unjust acts of the powerful are not unseen by God, no matter how secret or public they are to their contemporaries. The prophets were commanded by God over and over to confront injustices both in specific cases like this one and in the bigger picture with things like the general treatment of the poor, the voiceless, and the vulnerable; or violence and warfare, and the treatment of conquered nations and people groups. God always sees the injustices committed in the world, and He is actively working to right those wrongs. He asks His people to see what He sees and to pursue true justice for all people.
Abuse of power has been on the forefront of the news in our nation recently. With smartphone technology has come the ability for almost anyone to record video in the moment. This has brought attention to the abuses of power like the tragic incident involving the police and George Floyd. Voices from every side are calling for justice and systemic reform. In the George Floyd case, there are calls for greater accountability for those who held the power—the police officers. This grave injustice is one specific case, but it also involves bigger picture issues like how policing is done in our country and cities, the general militarization of the police, and the issue of racism by some of those in power towards those who have little power. These are the times that believers are called by God to act in the tradition of the Old Testament prophets. Asking God to reveal areas of injustice that He cares about and asking Him for strategies as to how we should address those injustices. We may not have the audience of kings or political leaders, but we must find a way to speak up for and give practical assistance to those who are most vulnerable in society. The voices of the many will capture the attention of the few that hold the most power. These things may sound easy or simple when there is momentum for change—when many people’s eyes are opened to the kinds of injustice that have been happening historically—but are only now making their way into the conciseness of broader society. When the headlines disappear and the momentum may slow, the prophetic voice is needed then even more. The believer’s prophetic eyes and ears should always be attuned to the issues that concern God. The words of the prophets rocked the status quo, and often came at great personal cost, but they believed in their God and His message to them strongly enough to accept the cost. They were the dissidents, prophetic in their opposition to the powerful… Are we?
For the church corporately to be effective in its prophetic role, it must not be too cozy with the governing authorities. Consider the prophets in the Old Testament who wanted to curry favor with the powerful. Their message was diluted, compromised, misguided, and exposed as corrupt. In the story of Micaiah, there were four hundred other “prophets” who brought the opposite message to Micaiah’s. Four hundred to one… Not great odds. A prophet would have to be extremely confident that his or her message was from the Lord to speak out in the face of those odds.
One must only do a cursory reading of church history to understand that some of the worst periods of church history are those in which the church was most aligned with government. Power corrupts—therefore alignment with entities that wield power will infect even the most well intentioned with that same corruption. Reading accounts of the Christian church becoming as abusive as the governments with which they were aligned was equal parts heartbreaking and instructive for me. The church must keep its integrity intact to maintain its prophetic role within society. We must not abdicate that role for a shortsighted gain of influence in the political realm. The cultures of the Kingdom of God and earthly political kingdoms do not mesh. The goals are divergent. The prophet did not seek to be the one holding the office of power. But when functioning properly, the prophet brought the accountability of God to a receptive leader. Church and government should function the same way. The church speaks with its prophetic voice to the government in the hope that the governing authorities are responsive to those words. The church should not seek to be the government; earthly power is not our goal.
2020 thus far has been a year unlike one I can ever remember. the confluence of a pandemic and major social upheaval have created a unique opportunity for the church corporately and for believers individually to operate in the prophetic tradition of the Old Testament. Will we rise to the occasion?