There are certain words in intra-Christian discourse that get (over)used to the point that they lose all real significance. The term “prophetic” is quickly becoming such a word. Standing up for a particular iteration of social justice does not make one a prophet, though many are quick to claim that mantle. Being a prophet means that you speak on God’s behalf in a way that is particularly inspired by God. Prophecy is a form of special divine revelation.
I am by no means the first person to point out problems with the facile use of this term. In a devastating critique of his former friend Cornel West, Michael Eric Dyson focuses particularly on West’s claim to be prophetic:
What makes West a prophet? Is it his willingness to call out corporate elites and assail the purveyors of injustice and inequality? The actor Russell Brand does that in his book Revolution. Is he a prophet? Is it West’s self-identification with the poor? Tupac Shakur had that on lock. Should we deem him a prophet? Is it West’s self-styled resistance to police brutality, evidenced by his occasional willingness to get arrested in highly staged and camera-ready gestures of civil disobedience, such as in Ferguson last fall? West sees King as a prophet, but Jackson and Sharpton, who have also courted arrest in public fashion, are “ontologically addicted to the camera,” according to West.
In the Bible, prophecy is a manifestation of a form of special revelation. It means that you speak words or ideas that God has given specifically to you. In the Old Testament, prophecy is most prominently a way of calling Israel back to a righteous religious and ethical life. In the New Testament, prophecy can have this meaning (particularly in the ministry of Jesus), but it can also be a way of revealing truths about God’s work in Jesus.
Many Christians today use the term “prophetic” quickly and easily. It seems that any cause about which we feel passionately is one that we can speak of prophetically, particularly if we engage in some sort of social critique. When we claim to be prophetic, however, we’re saying that we speak on God’s behalf to a community that is out of touch with God’s will. Indeed, sometimes we are called in this way, but we would be wise to claim the prophetic voice with great care, lest we ourselves become false prophets.
Biblical prophecy involves both forthtelling and foretelling. Forthtelling occurs when God reveals a message related to the morality of God’s people. When God spoke through Amos in the eighth-century B.C., Israel was guilty of transgression against the poor.
Thus says the Lord: For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment; because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals— they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way (Amos 2:6-7).
This is forthtelling. It is a form of social critique–but not just any social critique. To be prophetic, it must come from God as a particular revelation to a particular person for the purpose of restoring God’s righteousness among the people.
The other key element of biblical prophecy is foretelling. In other words, God reveals through the prophet certain truths about God’s plans. In fact, foretelling is a key test for the truth of a prophet given to us in the Bible:
You may say to yourself, “How can we recognize a word that the Lord has not spoken?” If a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord but the thing does not take place or prove true, it is a word that the Lord has not spoken. The prophet has spoken it presumptuously; do not be frightened by it (Deut 18:21-22).
We see an example of foretelling in Ezekiel’s prophecy of the “dry bones”:
The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.” So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude. Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act,” says the Lord (Ezek 37:1-14).
This is a prophecy about the restoration of Israel after the Babylonian Exile. Ezekiel is foretelling what is going to happen by describing a divine revelation of God’s plans for Israel.
Likewise, in the story of the birth of John the Baptist, John’s father, Zechariah, is filled with the Holy Spirit and utters the prophecy that we know as the Benedictus. Among other things, he says to John, “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins” (Luke 1:76-78). God has given Zechariah a vision of John’s participation in God’s work of salvation, and by speaking this out loud, Zechariah is foretelling.
The same prophecy may involve elements of both forthtelling and foretelling. Consider the words of the prophet Huldah in 2 Kings 22:16-20:
Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Tell the man who sent you to me, Thus says the Lord, I will indeed bring disaster on this place and on its inhabitants—all the words of the book that the king of Judah has read. Because they have abandoned me and have made offerings to other gods, so that they have provoked me to anger with all the work of their hands, therefore my wrath will be kindled against this place, and it will not be quenched. But as to the king of Judah, who sent you to inquire of the Lord, thus shall you say to him, Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Regarding the words that you have heard,because your heart was penitent, and you humbled yourself before the Lord, when you heard how I spoke against this place, and against its inhabitants, that they should become a desolation and a curse, and because you have torn your clothes and wept before me, I also have heard you, says the Lord. Therefore, I will gather you to your ancestors, and you shall be gathered to your grave in peace; your eyes shall not see all the disaster that I will bring on this place.
The prophetic life is not an easy one. In fact, it is likely to be quite difficult, even painful, because the prophet will inevitably conflict with a world that does not acknowledge the identity and demands of the one true God. Think of Elijah despairing in the wilderness. “He asked that he might die: ‘It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors'” (1 Kings 19:4). Think of the sad fate of John the Baptist. If you find your message lines up nicely with the values of secular culture, you’re probably not being prophetic.
We do indeed need prophets. As James Ward writes regarding Israel’s prophets, “The message of the prophets was the word of life for Israel. Grounded in faith in God, it defined the conditions of authentic existence in a world created and ordered by God. Although many of the prophets’ oracles were sharply critical of Israelite belief and behavior, the purpose of their proclamation was redemptive” (Thus Says the Lord: The Message of the Prophets [Nashville: Abingdon, 1991], 13). A prophet is the privileged and burdened recipient of divine revelation given for the realization of God’s will on the earth. Yes, we need prophets, but the prophetic mantle is not one that we should don lightly, nor should we trust everyone who claims to be a prophet.
See also Drew McIntyre’s post on the same topic at https://pastormack.wordpress.com/2014/04/30/what-does-it-really-mean-to-be-prophetic-2/.