What Manner of Human Being Is A Prophet?

[from Abraham Heschel, ‘The Prophets’, 1962]

[1] THE BLAST FROM HEAVEN

“To a person endowed with prophet sight, everyone else appears blind; to a person whose ear perceives God’s voice, everyone else appears deaf. No one is just; ..no trust is complete enough. The prophet hates the approximate, he shuns the middle of the road. ..There is nothing to hold to except God. [Deuteronomy repeatedly says, ‘cleave to God.’] Carried away by the challenge, the demand to straighten out humanity’s ways, the prophet is strange, one-sided, an unbearable extremist.

..the prophet is overwhelmed by.. divine presence. He is incapable of isolating the world [from his experience of God]. There is an interaction between [humanity] and God which [cannot be disregarded]..

Where the idea is the father of faith, faith must conform to the ideas of the given system. In the Bible the realness of God came first, and the task was how to live in a way compatible with his presence. [Humanity’s] coexistence with God determines the course of history.

The prophet disdains those for whom God’s presence is comfort and security; to him it is a challenge, an incessant demand. God is compassion, not compromise; justice, though not inclemency..

The prophet’s word is a scream in the night. While the world is at ease and asleep, the prophet feels the blast from heaven” [p 19].

[2] CALLOUSNESS AND AUTHORITY

“The prophet faces a coalition of callousness and established authority, and undertakes to stop a mighty stream with mere words. [The purpose of prophecy is not to express great ideas.] ..the purpose of prophecy is to conquer callousness, to change the inner man as well as revolutionise history.

It is embarrassing to be a prophet. There are so many.. predicting peace and prosperity, offering cheerful words, adding strength to self-reliance, while the prophet predicts disaster, pestilence, agony, and destruction. ..Jeremiah proclaims [at a time when Judea is encircled by the Assyrians]: You are about to die if you do not have a change of heart and cease being callous.. to God..” [p 20].

[3] LONELINESS AND MISERY

“None of the prophets seems enamoured with being a prophet nor proud of his attainment.

Over the life of a prophet words are invisibly inscribed: All flattery abandon ye who enter here.

To be a prophet is both a distinction and an affliction. The mission he performs is distasteful to him, and repugnant to others; no reward is promised him and no reward could temper its bitterness. The prophet bears scorn and reproach [Jeremiah, 15, 15]. He is stigmatised as a madman by his contemporaries..

Loneliness and misery were only part of the reward that prophecy brought to Jeremiah: “I sat alone because Thy hand was upon me” [15, 17]. Mocked, reproached, and persecuted, he would think of casting away his task [29, 9]:

‘If I say, I will not mention him,
Or speak any more in his name,
There is in my heart.. a burning fire,
Shut up in my bones,
And I am weary with holding it in,
And I cannot.’

God told Jeremiah [15, 20]: ‘They will fight against you, but they will not prevail over you.’ The prophet is a lonely man. He alienates the wicked as well as the pious, the cynics as well as the believers, the priests and the princes, the judges and the false prophets. But to be a prophet means to challenge and to defy and to cast out fear.

The prophet’s duty is to speak to the people, ‘whether they hear or refuse to hear’ [Ezekiel, 2, 6; 3, 8-9; 2, 4-5; 3, 27].

[God says to the prophet]: ‘So you, son of man, I have made a watchman for the house of Israel; whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me’ [Ezekiel, 33, 6-7; 3, 16-21].

The main vocation of a prophet is.. to let the people know ‘that it is evil and bitter.. to forsake.. God’ [Jeremiah, 2, 19], and call upon them to return.

Yet being a prophet is also joy, elation, delight [Jeremiah, 15, 16]” [pp 20-22]. [Joy and delight belong to the soul, elation belongs to the heart.]

[3] THE PEOPLE’S TOLERANCE

“The ..surprise is that prophets.. were tolerated at all by their people. To the patriots, they seemed pernicious; to the pious multitude, blasphemous; to [those] in authority, seditious.

In the language of Jeremiah, the prophet’s word is fire, and the people wood, ‘and the fire shall devour them’ [Jeremiah, 5, 14; Amos, 2, 5; Hosea, 6, 5].

It must have sounded like treason when Amos [3, 9] called upon the enemies of Israel to witness the wickedness of Samaria” [pp 23-24].

[4] SENSITIVITY TO EVIL

“Instead of dealing with the timeless issues of being and becoming, [with the prophets you are] thrown into orations about widows and orphans, about the corruption of judges and [nefarious] affairs of the market place. Instead of showing us a way through the elegant mansions of the mind, the [prophets] take us to the slums. The world is a proud place, full of beauty, but the prophets are scandalised, and rave as if the whole world were a slum..

The things that horrified the prophets are even now daily occurrences all over the world. There is no society to which Amos’ words would not apply [8, 4-6].

‘Hear this, you who trample upon the needy,
And bring the poor of the land to an end,
Saying, ..when may we sell grain?
That we may.. deal deceitfully with false balances,
That we may buy the poor for silver,
And the needy for a pair of sandals..?’

..To us a single act of injustice — cheating in business, exploitation of the poor — is slight; to the prophets, a disaster. To us injustice is injurious to.. the people; to the prophets it is a deathblow to existence; ..a threat to the world.

..They speak as if the sky were about to collapse because Israel has become unfaithful to God.

The prophet’s words are outbursts of violent passion. His rebuke is harsh and relentless. But if such deep sensitivity to evil is to be called [excessive, out of proportion, over excitable], what name should be given to the abysmal indifference to evil which the prophet bewails?

The.. incapacity to sense the depth of misery caused by our own failures, is a fact which no subterfuge can elude. Our eyes are witness to the callousness and cruelty of mankind, but our heart tries to obliterate the memories, to calm the nerves, and to silence our conscience.

The prophet is a man who feels fiercely. God has thrust a burden on his soul, and he is bowed and stunned [in heart] at mankind’s fierce greed. Frightful is the agony of man; no human voice can convey its full terror. Prophecy is the voice that God has lent to the silent agony, a voice to the plundered poor, [a voice against] the profaned riches of the world. It is.. a crossing point of God and [humanity]. God is raging in the prophet’s words” [pp 3-8].

[5] ACTUALITY IN ITS PARTICULARITY

To the prophet.. no subject is as worthy of consideration as the plight of [humanity]. Indeed, God.. is described as reflecting over the plight of [humanity] rather than as contemplating eternal ideas. His mind is occupied with [humanity], with the concrete actualities of history rather than with the timeless issues of thought.

[Humanity] is.. full of iniquity, and yet so cherished is he that God, creator of heaven and earth, is saddened when forsaken by him. Profound and intimate is God’s love for [humanity], and yet harsh and dreadful can be his wrath” [p 6].

[6] LUMINOUS AND EXPLOSIVE

[According to Flaubert, really great works of art have a serene look.] “The very opposite applies to the words of the prophet. They suggest a disquietude sometimes amounting to agony. Yet there are interludes when one perceives an eternity of love hovering over moments of anguish; ..but above the whole soar thunder and lightning. [The thunder and lightning of the storm are primal symbols of the Daemonic.]

The prophet’s use of passionate and imaginative language, concrete in diction, rhythmical in movement, ..marks his style as poetic. [But] far from [manifesting] a state of inner harmony or poise, its style is charged with agitation, anguish, and a spirit of nonacceptance. The prophet’s concern is ..with history, and history is devoid of poise. ..He is one not only with what he says; he is involved with his people in what his words foreshadow. This is the secret of the prophetic style: his life.. [is] at stake in what he says..

Prophetic utterance is rarely cryptic; it is urging, alarming, forcing onward, as if the words gushed forth from the heart of God, seeking entrance to the heart.. of [humanity], carrying a summons as well as an involvement. ..The language is luminous and explosive, ..harsh and compassionate, a fusion of contradictions.

The prophet.. does more than translate reality into a poetic key: ..his images must not shine, they must burn.

The prophet is intent on intensifying responsibility, is impatient [with] excuse, contemptuous of pretense and self-pity. His tone, rarely sweet or caressing, is frequently consoling and.. designed to shock..

The mouth of a prophet is a ‘sharp sword’; he is a ‘polished arrow’ taken out of the quiver of God [Isaiah, 49, 2].

Reading the prophets is a strain.. wrenching one’s conscience from the state of suspended animation” [pp 6-8].

[7] WHAT YAHWEH WANTS AND DELIGHTS IN

“The prophet’s ear is attuned to a cry imperceptible to others..

Human justice will not exact its due, nor will pangs of conscience disturb intoxication with success, for deep in our hearts is the temptation to worship the imposing, the illustrious, the ostentatious. Had a poet come to Samaria, the capital of the northern kingdom, he would have written songs exalting its magnificent edifices, ..temples, ..monuments.

Yet when Amos.. came to Samaria, he spoke.. of moral confusion and oppression. ‘I abhor the pride of Jacob, and hate his palaces’ [Amos, 6, 8].

[Ancient society cherished above all else three things — wisdom, wealth, and might.] To the prophets, such infatuation was ludicrous and idolatrous. ‘Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, let not the mighty man glory in his might, let not the rich man glory in his riches; but let him who glories, glory in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am Yahweh who practices kindness, justice, and righteousness in the earth; for in these things I delight, says Yahweh’ [Jeremiah, 9, 23-24; Hosea, 9, 22-23].

‘Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit’ [Zechariah., 4, 6]” [pp 8-10].

[8] WE ARE TOO GUTLESS

Heschel points out that to us, society is more or less all right as is. Look at all the deeds of charity, the ethos of decency. “..to the prophet [this] satiety of the conscience is prudery and flight from responsibility. Our standards are modest; our sense of injustice tolerable, timid; our moral indignation impermanent; yet human violence is interminable.. The prophet makes no concession to man’s capacity. ..he seems unable to extenuate the culpability of [humanity].

..The conscience ..is subject to fatigue; longs for comfort, lulling, soothing. Yet those who are hurt, and he who inhabits eternity, neither slumber nor sleep.

The prophet is sleepless and grave. ..charity fails to sweeten cruelties. Pomp, the scent of piety, mixed with ruthlessness, is sickening to him.

‘Yahweh made it known to me and I knew; then you showed me their evil deeds’ [Jeremiah, 11, 18]. The prophet’s ear perceives the silent sigh. [The prophet cannot compromise with] the unnoticed malignancy of established patterns of indifference. [The prophet picks up the hidden, subtle, under the surface, problems in a way impossible to] men whose knowledge depends solely on intelligence and observation.

This world, no mere shadow of ideas in an upper sphere, is real, but not absolute; the world’s reality contingent upon compatibility with God. While others are intoxicated with the here and now, the prophet has a vision of an end [Jeremiah, 4, 23-26].

The prophet is human, yet.. he experiences moments that defy our understanding. He is neither a ‘singing saint’ nor a ‘moralizing poet’, but an assaulter of the mind. Often his words begin to burn where conscience ends” [pp 10-12].

[9] AN ICONOCLAST

“The prophet is an iconoclast, challenging the apparently holy, revered, and awesome. Beliefs cherished as certainties, institutions endowed with supreme sanctity, he exposes as scandalous pretensions [Jeremiah, 6, 20; Jeremiah, 7, 21-23].

The prophet knew that religion could distort what Yahweh demanded of [humanity], that priests.. had committed perjury by bearing false witness, ..calling for ceremonies instead of bursting forth with wrath and indignation at cruelty, deceit, idolatry, and violence.

To the people, religion was Temple, priesthood, incense.. Such piety Jeremiah brands as fraud and illusion. ..Worship preceded or followed by evil acts becomes an absurdity. The holy place is doomed when people indulge in unholy deeds.

‘Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, burn incense to Baal, ..and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, we are delivered! – only to go on doing all these abominations’ [Jeremiah, 7, 9-15].

The prophets.. proclaim that the enemy may be God’s instrument in history. ..Instead of cursing the enemy, the prophets condemn their own nation.

What gave them the strength to ..hurl blasphemies at priest and king, to stand up against all in the name of God?

The prophets must have been shattered by some cataclysmic experience in order to be able to shatter others” [pp 12-14]. [The shattering experience is ‘the wound of the Daemonic’; through this wounding, the prophet is Daemonically empowered to wound others.]

[10] BITTERNESS AND LOVE

“The words of the prophet are stern, sour, stinging. But behind his austerity is love and compassion for mankind. ..The prophet is sent not only to upbraid, but also to ‘strengthen the weak hands and make firm the feeble knees’ [Isaiah, 35, 3]. ..every prophet brings consolation, promise, and the hope of reconciliation along with.. castigation” [p 14].

[11] SWEEPING ALLEGATIONS

“In contrast to Amos, whose main theme is condemnation of the rich for the oppression of the poor, Hosea does not single out a particular section of the community [Hosea, 4, 1—2, finds no truth, no love, no knowledge of God, in all the land].

[But] the prophets have occasionally limited the guilt to the elders, princes, and priests, implying the innocence of those not involved in leadership. [To those given more, from them more is required.]

[Usually] the prophets challenge the whole country..

..What seems to be exaggeration is often only a deeper penetration, for the prophets see the world from the point of view of God..” [pp 15-17].

[12] FEW ARE GUILTY, ALL ARE RESPONSIBLE

“..Israel’s history comprised a drama of God and all human beings. ..God was alone in the world, unknown or discarded. The countries of the world were full of abominations, violence, falsehood. Here was one land, one people, cherished and chosen for the purpose of transforming the world. This people’s failure was most serious. ..Israel, holy to Yahweh, ‘defiled my land, made my heritage an abomination’ [Jeremiah, 2, 3 and 7].

[Truth is not] the conformity of assertion to facts.. [Truth is] reality reflected in the mind, [thus] prophetic truth [is] reality reflected in God’s mind, the world [as seen by God].

Above all, the prophets remind us of the moral state of a people: few are guilty, but all are responsible. ..an individual’s crime discloses society’s corruption. In a community not indifferent to suffering, uncompromisingly impatient with cruelty and falsehood, continually concerned for God and every human being, crime would be infrequent rather than common” [pp 17-19].

[13] A WATCHMAN

“The prophet is a watchman [Hosea, 9, 8], a servant [Amos, 3, 7; Jeremiah, 25, 4; 26, 5], a messenger of God [Hag., 1, 13], an ‘assayer and tester of the people’s ways’ [Jeremiah, 6, 27]. He is a person struck by.. God, overpowered by.. God, yet his true greatness is his ability to hold God and [humanity] in a single thought. ..the fact of his having received a power to affect others is supreme in his existence. His sense of election and personal endowment is overshadowed by his sense of a history shaping power [which can, bc it comes from God] ‘destroy and overthrow, build and plant’ [Jeremiah, 1, 10].

The prophet claims to be far more than a messenger. He is a person who stands in the presence of God [Jeremiah, 15, 19], [and] who stands ‘in the council of the Lord’ [Jeremiah, 23, 18], ..a participant.. in the council of God, not a bearer of dispatches whose function is limited to being sent on errands. He is a counsellor as well as a messenger [Amos, 3, 7], [and when the revelation is] one of woe, the prophet does not hesitate to challenge the intention of God: ‘O Yahweh, forgive, I beseech thee; how can Jacob stand? He is so small’ [Amos, 7, 2].

[When human life is at stake, the prophet does not say, ‘thy will be done’ to God, but ‘thy will be changed.’] ‘The Lord repented concerning this; it shall not be, said Yahweh’ [Amos, 7, 3].

It is impossible for us to intuit.. the prophetic consciousness. A person to whom the Spirit of God comes, becomes radically transformed; he is ‘turned into another man’ [Samuel, 10, 6]. ..The gift he is blessed with is not a skill, but rather the gift of being guided and restrained, of being moved and curbed. [God said to Ezekiel], ‘Cords will be placed upon you.. and I will make your tongue cleave to the roof of your mouth, so that you will be dumb and unable to reprove them; ..But when I speak with you, I will open your mouth, and you shall say to them, Thus says Yahweh your God’ [Ezekiel, 3, 25-27].

As a witness, the prophet is more than a messenger [because he] not only conveys, he reveals. He.. does unto others what God does to him. ..in his words, the invisible God becomes audible. He does not prove or argue. The thought he has to contain is more than language can contain. Divine power bursts in the words. The authority of the prophet is in the Presence his words reveal.

There are no proofs for the existence of the God of Abraham. There are only witnesses. ..The prophet is a witness, and his words a testimony — to Yahweh’s power and judgement, to Yahweh’s justice and mercy.

[A hidden bond binds together] the word of wrath and the word of compassion, between ‘consuming fire’ and ‘everlasting love.’

[Heschel calls this a ‘contradiction’, yet it is the paradox of the Daemonic God: the Daemonic power of God that contests history with evil, and human slackness. The Daemonic power that ‘rules’ history is tender and harsh, vulnerable and fierce, lamb and tyger, at once. The everlasting love of God is a Fire that seeks wood upon which it can burn, transfiguring the wood into flame, and incarnating flame in wood.]

..the prophet [does not deal with laws or principles], but.. with relations between God and [humanity], where contradiction – [paradox, absurdity, reversal] – is inevitable. Escape from God and return to him are inextricable parts of [humanity’s] existence” [pp 24-28].

[14] THE PRIMAL CONTENT OF EXPERIENCE

“In a stricken hour comes the word of the prophet. There is tension between God and [humanity]. ..The prophet is not only a censurer.. but also a defender and consoler.. In the presence of God he takes the part of the people. In the presence of the people he takes the part of God.

The prophet does not judge the people by timeless norms, but from the point of view of God. Prophecy proclaims what happened to God as well as what will happen to the people. ..it is as if sin were as much a loss to God as to man. God’s role is not spectatorship but involvement. He and man meet mysteriously in the human deed.

[And this means, God and man meet mysteriously in the human heart from which comes all deeds.]

Therefore, the prophetic speeches are not factual pronouncements.. not objective criticism.. The style of legal, objective utterance is alien to the prophet. He dwells upon God’s inner motives, not only upon [God’s] historical decisions. [The prophet] discloses a divine passion, not just a divine judgement. The pages of the prophetic writings are filled with.. divine love and disappointment, mercy and indignation. The God of Israel is never impersonal.

This divine passion is the key to inspired prophecy. God is involved in the life of [humanity]. A personal relationship binds him to Israel; there is an interweaving of the divine in the affairs of the nation. ..The reaction of the divine [person].. its manifestation in.. love, mercy, disappointment, or anger, convey the profound intensity of the divine inwardness” [pp 28-30].

[15] THE PROPHET’S RESPONSE

[Heschel has his own ‘interpretation’ of the nature of the prophetic response to God. I agree with some of it, and not all of it. What is true is that the Spirit’s inspiration does not work on the prophet’s consciousness only unconsciously, and passively, by taking him over and dissolving him. The prophet retains his heart, and his personhood, in responding to the divine impetus. None the less, there are receptive, and implicit, levels, the event of human and divine meeting is not simply like a conscious process. Consciousness is altered. But what must be rejected is the idea that prophets were just ‘mouthpieces’, Heschel insists, for this would mean their hearts were unaffected. The prophet’s heart is affected because it experiences and undergoes the way in which God’s heart is affected by the stand and deeds of the human heart. God’s heart reacts to the human heart, and in this reacting, decides its fate.]

“God.. asks not only for ‘works’, for action, but.. for love, awe, and [reverent respect]. We are called upon to ‘wash’ our hearts [Jeremiah, 4, 14], to remove ‘the foreskin’ of the heart [Jeremiah, 4, 4], to return with the whole heart [Jeremiah, 3, 10]. ‘You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart’ [Jeremiah, 29, 13]. The new covenant which Yahweh will make with the house of Israel will be written upon their hearts [Jeremiah, 31, 31-34].

The prophet is no hireling who performs his duty in the employ of the Lord. The usual ..definitions of prophecy fade into insignificance when applied, for example, to Jeremiah. ..the overwhelming impact of the divine passion upon his mind and heart, completely involving and gripping his personhood in its depths, and the unrelieved distress which sprang from his intimate involvement. The task of the prophet is to convey the word of God. Yet the word is aglow [on fire] with the passion [of God].. One cannot understand the [divine] word without sensing the [divine] passion. ..one could not impassion others and remain unstirred [oneself]..

..the fundamental experience of the prophet is a fellowship with the feelings of God, ..a communion with the divine consciousness which comes about through the prophet’s ..participation in the divine passion. The typical prophetic state.. is one of being taken up into the heart of the divine passion. Sympathy is the prophet’s answer to inspiration, the correlative to revelation.

[Heschel gets a little lost trying to flesh out this ‘sympathy.’ But he arrives at the right conclusion.]

[The prophet] lives not only his personal life, but also the life of God. The prophet hears God’s voice and feels his heart. He tries to impart the ‘pathos’ of the message together with its logos” [pp 30-31].

[16] COMMENTARY

The first paragraph of section 12 made me burn inside, because it expresses – albeit in regard to Israel’s failure – what is so desperate and terrible about the failure of historical Christianity, all the churches West and East, to respond truly to the calling of Christ.

“..God was alone in the world, unknown or discarded. The countries of the world were full of abominations, violence, falsehood. Here was one land, one people, cherished and chosen for the purpose of transforming the world. This people’s failure was most serious.”

Repeatedly Christians dismiss the failures of the past as down to inevitable human weakness. Such a reaction misses the point, and is a cop out, an evasion. To be called to a mission, and by genuinely trying it, to run up against the inherent weakness of the human clay, is one thing. That is what is seen in Peter, always jumping in impetuously over his head, and then failing, yet from within the failure, able to cry to Christ for ‘the strength revealed in weakness.’

But to not even try to take on that mission, but just to funk it, is a more serious matter. It is not simply human weakness. It is a betrayal by those especially called to shoulder the burden; the very ones summoned to pick up the weight refuse, and put it down. This people’s failure is serious..

The way of heart passion, deep and upright, grieving and fiery, was lost to Christianity early on. It is not that there was simply no philosophical or theological description of its summons to sacrifice our heart passion for the sake of redeeming the world process, but the summons was never the less answered in action. Here and there, it was. It was answered as much outside Christianity as inside it, by persons of other religions and persons of no religion. This is due to the ‘Unconscious God’, the Spirit. But overall, and in the main, the summons was neither understood nor acted upon. And that this happened in Christianity, which should have been the final and most extreme step of God and humanity struggling together in the deep heart to resurrect its way of passion, is a tragedy. It should shame any Christian who is a lover of God and is, like Christ, the advocate for the ruined human possibility.

Heschel’s daughter Susannah [2001] points out that her father was a thorn in the side of Judaism: “As much as he spoke against racism and war [Heschel was involved in the Black liberation movement, and the anti-Vietnam war protest, of the 1960s in America], he was equally critical of Jewish religious institutions. ‘On every Sabbath multitudes of Jews gather in the synagogues, and they often depart as they have entered.’ Prayer had become vicarious, delegated to rabbis and cantors who failed to inspire because they ‘do not know the language of the soul.’ He found fault as much with Orthodox as with Reform and Conservative branches of Judaism.. Worship had lost its fear and trembling and had become a social occasion, rather than a moment of holiness. [But more important even than all this]: Society was disintegrating, and Judaism was conforming, failing to convey its resources of integrity. Judaism, he wrote, had become a platitude, when it should be spiritual effrontery” [p xix].

Not surprisingly, Heschel was not welcomed in the Jewish community, and has remained an outsider to this day, because “many Jews prefer a message that is secular, not religious; one that presents Jews as victims, not actors with responsibilities to the political arena, and one that praises Judaism, not criticises it. My father did not tell his audience what they wanted to hear, but told them what they needed to improve” [pp xix-xx].

Telling people not what they want to hear, but what they need to take to heart to improve, is the summary of the prophetic voice.

In its very harshness is a secret gateway opening to renewal from a depth even the Evil Spirit, much less the whole of humanity, had thought ruined. This is the Messianic scandal, the shock and surprise, the final Reversal, of Christ.

This is why we cannot remain stuck on mourning the irresponsibility and funking of the call that typifies too much of the past.

For, the Spirit is stressing the passional themes of the past, drawing them out of neglect, in order to prepare for their kindling in the future.

This is what matters.

If we sought salvation and neglected redemption; if the whole journey and battle for the human heart as the indwelling of the divine heart was allowed to lapse as Christianity forgot and indeed increasingly slandered its Jewish root, then it is the ‘stricken hour’ that is now, this desperate and terrible moment, that must become the spark for what was lost, to bring it back into raging life.

The rage over life’s deadening, and the rage to live again..