Monday 3 January 2011

The Prophets as Political Agitators

Those of us who have come out of a fundamentalist background usually by default associate the Hebrew prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Micah and others, with prediction. In certain circles those predictions are not only infallible, but aimed at our own times which must be therefore, not surprisingly, the End Times. Prophecy, we were told, comes alive in today's world news.

To illustrate this bit of myopia, here's a quote that illustrates this perspective.
An exciting, pulsating, vital third of all the Bible is devoted to PROPHECY! And approximately 90 percent of all prophecy pertains to OUR TIME, now,...
I'd don't know where the author pulled his stats from, though an anatomical explanation may be the most apt. This particular 'expert' then goes on to shoot himself in the foot by adding;
... in this latter half of the twentieth century!

Oops. Quick check of copyright date: 1967.

In more enlightened circles this is all old hat. Of course the prophets weren't talking about today, they were forthtelling, not foretelling, and so on.

The trouble is, those circles of enlightenment are set on 40 watt narrow beam, and they've yet to pierce the darkness down the road at the neighbourhood storefront church. The failure of modern biblical studies is the almost complete lack of "trickle down" to the pews.

So what were the prophets on about? It's not saying anything original to suggest that they were more often than not the political activists of their day. Many of the soaring passages in Isaiah are not only reminiscent of political rhetoric, they are political rhetoric. Did Jeremiah have a political agenda? You bet! You don't have to read very far into the prophets without this reality leaping out at you.

Unless you've been overdosing on popular 'prophecy' material like the book quoted above, in which case it might well be a totally new thought.

Ronald Clements, a fairly conservative scholar, writes:
From the very beginning of modern study of these figures it was evident that their messages had a strongly political content.

Well Ronald, evident to you maybe, but not so evident to the folk who trawl through the shelves at the local Christian bookstore where every unclean and foul fowl finds a roosting place.
In the course of this engagement with a specific set of political judgments and policies they [the prophets] clearly intended to influence the policies adopted and thereby the outcome of events.

Clearly? Does this man not watch Sunday morning television? Well, no, of course he doesn't, which is probably why all this is clear to him.

Ever wonder why the powers-that-be, in most cases the royalty and priesthood of Israel and Judah, were so thoroughly hacked off with the prophets? (One memorable example is Jeremiah 36, the story of King Jehoiakim burning Jeremiah's scroll.) Was it because they were predicting events yet to unfold in the far distant future? Where, in practical terms, was the threat in that?

Of course there is poetry and theology in the Prophets. They wrote in a world where there was little separation between secular and sacred, no concept of democracy and no political parties. If you wanted to beat the king over the head for his questionable alliance with Egypt, for example, which is after all a very political thing to do, you picked up the club of prophecy, gathered your mantle about yourself, and whacked him with the word of the Lord... as you understood it.

Naturally there is apocalyptic writing as well, which does present itself as peering through the mists of time (usually with the advantage of hindsight!) If someone wants to delve into Daniel or Revelation it'd be really helpful to get a grip on the genre of apocalyptic first, before making an egg of oneself.

The incredible thing is that so many Christians, invariably good people with fine motives and an unquestionable commitment to their faith, are still being led down the garden path by the manipulations of modern prophecy merchants with their silly calculations and lurid fantasies about what will happen sometime very soon.

Back to the source of that first 1967 quote. Boldly, boldly, thus did the man of God proclaim:
Events of the next five years may prove this to be the most significant book of this century.

A staggering turn in world events is due to erupt in the next four to seven years.

By God's direction and authority, I have laid the TRUTH before you! To neglect it will be tragic beyond imagination!

Buzz, buzz, BUZZ...

But he did get the last sentence right.
The decision is now YOURS!


Armstrong, Herbert W. The United States and British Commonwealth in Prophecy. Pasadena, Ambassador College Press, 1967 [The same points could easily be made with Hal Lindsey's Late Great Planet Earth.]

Clements, Ronald E. Old Testament Prophecy: From Oracles to Canon. Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 1996.


  1. Very good Gavin and very true. I also believe we find deliberate "failed" prophecies inserted in the OT along the way by the priests who were in competition for the power. If they could make a "prophet" look false, they could be ignored or even dispatched as we see in the Pentetuch. So it was prophetic theological politics at its best.

    Once we can see and admit that Isaiah 53 is not about Jesus but rather Israel and not about the future but about then, we can move on.

  2. Was it the Pillars of the Universe in the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy where would be prophets would come to explain about life, the universe and everything, only to be awed by the fact that they knew nothing at all? Our hats are off to Douglas Adams.

    As near as anyone can tell, the "prophets" were more about telling the rather amoral people of their time about right from wrong, with, as much success as anyone is having doing that very thing today.

    It just seems to me, with my limited knowledge, that the "prophets" were mostly talking to the people of their time. The logic of it is that speaking of the 20th century would be completely irrelevant in ways we can't even begin to fathom, for the people of the 18th century BC. Or is that the 19th century BC? I get so confused with negative imaginary numbers. Anyway, to carefully explain why God would be so peeved with the United States and British Commonwealth back in the day long before Jesus Christ showed up, seems really silly. Even if it were true for our purposes all these centuries later, explaining it to ancient Israelites would be like explaining rainbows to earthworms (thanks Isaac Asimov!).

    Note that even with some of the sweeping writings of Daniel, apparently accurately predicting future events (which he clearly claims he did not understand), I would ask you, just where is the Roman Empire today? Those "World ruling governments" don't seem to be around today. Maybe China in a few years, but nope, no world ruling government. At best the "prophecies" seem for that particular venue seem to have lost their shelf life around 70 AD.

    This mapping of ancient Scripture is disturbing, exceedingly rife with distorted perception and leading to a complete dysfunctional break from reality.

    On a personal note, you may note that I have returned after completing my two year project and taking time off from this particular venue. I am returning with a vengeance, not willing that the Armstrongists not perish but should have everlasting life in absolute obscurity, beginning with exposure of British Israelism for all it's worth (worth nothing, really) and disseminating the appropriate information about how absolutely amoral the CoGs have become. Really, it's astonishing.

    Gavin, you have no one to thank but yourself for creating the situation wherein I have come to the light of truth about the unbelievably stupid eschatology of the rebellious heretical Armstrongists. At least it looks like it will be entertaining.

    And for that, we thank you.

  3. It appears to me that Becker might have had a great career as a political agitator....

  4. While this would be looking at the topic from an entirely different perspective, I also suspect that many "Prophets" were the schizophrenics and perhaps mentally unstable types, on occasion, of the day. Their illness could seem spiritual or at least strangly religious.

    I mean Ezekiel laid seige to a frying pan, lay on his sides for months at a time, cut a hole in the temple wall and ate food cooked with his own dung. Not the most stable approach to passing the will of YHVH on to the little people and not something that would make the King feel real willing to obey the man.