The Modern-Day Prophet

In wrath, remember mercy
— Habakuk 3:2

Who are today’s prophets? Some argue for public intellectuals who examine trends and are unafraid to speak their minds. According to Paul Simon, the prophets are graffiti artists: “The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls and tenements halls and whispered in the sounds of silence.” For Yoko Ono, true artists are prophets. Joseph Addision believed it was the jester. Binny Lau, a contemporary Israeli rabbi and scholar, believes that journalists today “take on the role of moral and social critics,” but adds that “more often than not their criticism is laced with the venom of loathing.” In his book, Jeremiah: The Fate of the Prophet, Lau draws our attention to the word “jeremiad” that comes from the ethos of this prophet’s task: a work that mourns society and its imminent downfall. No wonder prophets were so unpopular.

Lau makes many important observations in his book about what a prophet does that have ramifications for us today. As we have entered the mourning period of the Three Weeks, when portions of Jeremiah’s writings - like his eponymous book and the book of Lamentations - are regularly read and studied, it seems an apt time to think about the nature of prophecy and who fulfills that role in today’s society. Lau writes that even though a prophet’s job is to chastise his people, it must always be criticism that emerges from deep love. “Even when the harshest reproach is called for, the prophet must consider himself a divine emissary whose role is to help redeem the people, not stand aloof and condemn.”

David Ben Gurion, on the occasion of his 84th birthday called Jeremiah the greatest prophet who arose before the destruction of Jerusalem. He was also, according to Ben Gurion, “the most despised, downtrodden, and daring.” And yet, despite all of this, the first Israeli prime minister believed that what made him an enduring model of Jewish leadership was his abiding affection for the Israelites: “Jeremiah loved his people and had faith in its posterity - and his faith has proven true until this very day.

Prophets very often put their very lives on the line when balancing truth and love. Jeremiah almost lost his life more than once. This career is not for the faint-hearted. In an obscure story recorded both in the book of Kings and then again in Chronicles, a group of 400 prophets were brought before King Ahab of Israel and King Jehoshaphat of Judah to consult on whether the two should join forces and wage war. The prophets all spoke in unison with the same pandering message. Jehoshaphat then asked if there was any other prophet who had not yet been invited to offer an opinion. There was one: Micaiah. Ahab couldn’t stand the man. He was always a contrarian, saying evil rather than good. Nevertheless, he was brought before the two for his judgment. At first, he echoed the diplomatic words of his colleagues but when pressed, Micaiah shared the bad news ahead.

Not surprisingly, a courtier in the room approached the prophet and slapped the him in the face. Ahab ordered Michaiah to be taken to the ruler of his city with the following instructions: “Put this man in prison, and give him nothing but bread and water until I return safely.” (See I Kings 22 for the entire story). The kings were determined to go out to war. But the prophet got the last word, “If you ever return safely...” Then he added, “Mark my words, all you people.”

That famous expression, “Mark my words,” the ancient version of “I told you so,” rings in our ears. The prophet is a verbal marksman, targeting with precision what he must say and to whom. The anger of the prophet is reflected in the anger of God, a different kind of anger than the one we usually associate with humans. Heschel has this to say about the kind of anger we see reflected in prophetic literature: “The anger of the Lord is instrumental, hypothetical, conditional...Let the people modify their line of conduct, and anger will disappear.” This kind of anger is a tool of reformation, in Heschel's words, “anger includes a call to return and to be saved. The call of anger is a call to cancel anger.” If the prophets teach us anything about how to live today, let it be this: to use anger constructively to bring ourselves and others to a path of greater goodness. “In wrath, remember mercy.”

Who do you think are today’s prophets and what do their business cards say? Drop me a line and let me know.

Shabbat Shalom