Awaken Series: The Shape of Poetic Prophecy [1 of 1]
[one of Antler's goals is to foster discussion about poetry in religious life--offering content for faith communities to discuss, share, and contemplate. in that vein, we also give careful consideration to ministers who are thinking about using poetry and creative writing as a tool for spiritual formation. to that end, we're going to be hearing from ministers and members of congregations as part of our "Awaken Series." this post is one of two parts about poetry and prophetic imagination in a contemporary context. it establishes some principles that will be elaborated upon in posts to come. enjoy!]
The Shape of Poetic Prophecy
Many believe prophecy to be something that once happened long ago, but a vibrant prophetic witness is crucial if we are to be a vibrant body of Christ today. Prophecy is one of the many gifts of the Spirit, and I want to examine what that gift does and does not entail in contemporary context.
First we need to clear up a common misconception about the prophetic. When we think of prophecy these days we’re just as likely to call to mind Nostradamus as we are Jeremiah, and that leads many people to the mistaken notion that prophecy is primarily a foretelling of the future.
A prophet is much more than a fortuneteller. In fact, prophecy doesn’t necessarily have to say anything about the future. A prophet is someone who temporarily becomes the mouthpiece of the Lord. The prophet is thus a vessel, which allows the Spirit to speak a message through it. The audience may be worldwide or narrowly local. The message may or may not have anything specific to say about the future. It may be a word of encouragement or reprimand. None of this is up to the prophet.
Neither does prophecy always have to take the form of a plain-spoken statement of fact. The prophetic can take the form of symbolic and imaginative prose (see The Revelation) or beautiful poetry. Consider the example below.
“Come now, and let us reason together,”
Says the LORD,
“Though your sins are as scarlet,
They will be as white as snow;
Though they are red like crimson,
They will be like wool.” (Isaiah 1:18 NASB)
Poetry can often communicate truths that are impossible to convey in prose, making it a prime vehicle for prophetic witness. Perhaps by turning our gaze back to the Biblical tradition of prophecy, we can better understand what shape a modern prophetic witness would take.
Prophets are chosen.
I’m aware of no scriptural record of anyone setting out to become a prophet of purely their own desire. A prophet’s ministry descends upon them. In my own faith tradition—The Religious Society of Friends—we practice a prophetic form of vocal ministry. That is, our worship consists of a silent waiting on the Lord, so that in the stillness we might commune with the Divine and discover what is expected of us by It. Sometimes what is expected is to stand and give a vocal message to the gathered meeting: this is a form of prophecy.
The point of the silent waiting, however, is not to seek out a particular gift, but to allow space for the Lord’s voice to be heard. We discern our gifts and callings; we don’t decide them.
Besides, there’s good reason to pray God never chooses you as a prophet.
Prophecy is often an agonizing and burdensome calling.
There may not be examples of people deciding to become prophets, but there is at least one famous example of someone fleeing the office (see the entire book of Jonah). Prophets are not generally popular people (Matthew 4:11-12). The actual call to prophecy is often an awful experience (Isaiah 6:1-5). And people rarely listen (Jeremiah 20:7-8).
The prophet’s message is often a plea for social righteousness/justice.
The prophet Micah raged that his message might be more popular if he prophesied about liquor (Micah 2:11), but pointing out when a society has gone astray, and urging repentance, is the rarely kind of message most of us want to hear.
The social factor of this cannot be stressed enough. The prophets’ concern is as much about social injustice and unrighteousness as matters of individual faithfulness. To be righteous is to be in right relationship with both God and our neighbor, and to be in right relationship with our neighbor requires that we interact with them justly.
Injustice is as much a matter of social sin as individual wickedness.
Greed and lust, for example, are both problems of individualism run amok as well as the engine of our economic system.
The Prophet gives both warning and hope.
Almost all of the prophetic books strike some sense of a balance between warning what Israel and Judah’s lot will be if their sinful ways aren’t abandoned, and celebrating what’s possible when God intervenes in the world. The prophet needs both edges of the sword if their message is to be successfully heard. Just as John preceded Christ, doom and lament is followed by the joy of the Good News.
Now it will come about that
In the last days
The mountain of the house of the LORD
Will be established as the chief of the mountains,
And will be raised above the hills;
And all the nations will stream to it.
And many peoples will come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,
To the house of the God of Jacob;
That He may teach us concerning His ways
And that we may walk in His paths.”
For the law will go forth from Zion
And the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
And He will judge between the nations,
And will render decisions for many peoples;
And they will hammer their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not lift up sword against nation,
And never again will they learn war. (Isaiah 2:2-4 NASB, also see Micah 4)
This is, in the end, is an approximation of every true prophet’s message. For ours is a God Who, above all things, is Love, Light, and Hope.
Rod Dixon is a member of the Religious Society of Friends (Quaker), though he often gets mistaken for an old order Mennonite. His short-stories have appeared in several journals, most recently Red Rock Review, Euphony, and The Louisville Review. For fun he is the non-fiction editor of Ontologica: A Journal of Art and Thought. For money, he researches and develops manufacturing procedures for a non-profit serving the blind and visually impaired. He lives in Kentucky with his wife and two children.