Tag Archives: Prophetic

Lessons on the Prophetic

“This is the end of the matter. I, Daniel, was deeply troubled by my thoughts, and my face turned pale, but I kept the matter to myself.”
Daniel 7:28 (NIV)

As I’ve gotten older I’ve found it fascinating to realize how prophecy in its various forms plays a big part in so many of our epics and stories. It is most often found in our fantasy epics and mythological tales. Nevertheless, I find it also popping up in the most unusual places. Wendy and I have a favorite series of contemporary spy novels. In the series, the protagonist has a small handful of episodes with a mysterious old woman who knows things about him she couldn’t possibly know and sees what is going to happen to him. The mysterious world of the prophetic is part of our human experience.

Of course, if one journey’s through God’s Message at all you’re going to run into prophetic passages. In today’s chapter, the book of Daniel switches from stories of Daniel’s life to a series of journal entries recording dreams and visions that he had.

There are a few lessons that I’ve learned about prophecy as I’ve read and studied it over the years. This morning I am reminded of three – make that four – lessons I’ve learned that I try to always remember when I’m reading prophetic passages.

First, there is a mystery to the prophetic. Here I’m reminded of a line from one of my favorite mystics, Richard Rohr. He states that mystery isn’t something you can’t understand but something you can endlessly understand. It’s not easy to pin down, and just when you think you’ve got a hold on it, it slips away from you. If you’re left-brained and want a simple, black-and-white answer then prophecy will drive you crazy. Which leads to a second discovery.

The prophetic can be layered with meaning. In today’s chapter, the beasts of Daniel’s vision have all sorts of connections to the Babylonian myths and literature that he was forced to study when he was taken into captivity. These connections are largely lost on us today. Yet, it can also connect to other prophecies written by other prophets in scripture. Its imagery can connect to contemporary symbols of which Daniel had no knowledge. Unlike parables that typically have one main lesson to teach, the prophetic can be layered with meaning for both the times it was written, times that came later, and times yet to come. Which leads to my third observation.

Prophetic literature is the source of endless debate. You can see pieces of it that have a very clear meaning. Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53 are good examples. Written hundreds of years before Jesus, they both eerily and accurately describe the events surrounding Jesus’ death. Yet most of it, like the beasts Daniel sees in today’s chapter, sounds like the writers were tripping on LSD.  There are many theories as to their meaning, and because prophecy can be layered with meaning whose to say that more than one theory is correct? Which leads to my final observation.

The prophetic is a tempting rabbit-hole to fall into. I have known some individuals along my life journey who delve so deeply into the prophetic that it consumes them. Trying to nail down the exact meaning of a prophetic passage with absolute certainty can be like trying to solve a complex puzzle. Prophecy is a cool subject to study, but if it becomes consuming to the point of ignoring everything else and becoming spiritually out of balance, then it’s time to give it a break.

At the end of today’s chapter, we read that Daniel, troubled by his dream, recorded it in his journal and then moved on. I find that a good example to follow when it comes to the prophetic. Don’t ignore it, but don’t obsess about it either. Focus on what I’m supposed to be doing. Loving God, loving people, and continually trying to do the right thing as I walk the journey each day.

Three Rules for the Prophetic

Then the prophet Jeremiah said to Hananiah the prophet, “Listen, Hananiah! The Lord has not sent you, yet you have persuaded this nation to trust in lies.”
Jeremiah 28:15 (NIV)

On occasion, along my spiritual journey, I have had individuals speak prophetic words to me. In fact, it’s happened more in the last few years than ever before. Prophecy is woven into the fabric of the Great Story, and it is a part of most all of our great epic stories. Even the epics of recent years (e.g. Star Wars, The Matrix, Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, and etc.) have strong prophetic themes running through them.

In our age of enlightenment I’ve observed that we’ve discounted and diminished the role of the prophetic. In fact, I confess that even writing about it this morning gives me a certain level of discomfort. I’ve observed over time that the institutional churches in the West have largely ignored the fact that I Corinthians speaks of the spiritual gift of prophecy as being among the most important of spiritual gifts and believers are encouraged to be “eager to prophesy.” Most all the churches with which I’ve ever been associated have simply ignored this or have chosen to interpret “prophesy” as being a good preacher.

I get it. Prophecy is a mysterious, strange, and slippery part of the spiritual journey. It always has been.

In today’s chapter we get a fascinating peek at how it worked in the days of the ancient prophet, Jeremiah. It’s easy for casual readers to think that “the prophets” were unique individuals on the landscape of history but the fact of the matter is that most kings in Jeremiah’s day had hoards of prophets in their service. It was quite common for prophets to be spiritual “yes men” who divined what the king wanted and then gave him the spiritual rubber stamp with their prophetic visions.

Today’s chapter tells a fascinating story of a prophetic duel between Jeremiah and another prophet named Hananiah. Jer was hanging out in his ox yoke (see yesterday’s post) telling all the kingdoms of the region that they would end up in servitude to the King of Babylon. Along comes Hananiah who, in front of everyone, takes the ox yoke off Jer’s neck and breaks it. It was a public slap in the face. Hananiah upped the prophetic ante and told everyone what they wanted to hear: Things aren’t going to be as bad as Jeremiah keeps prophesying. Hananiah then claimed that after two years of serving the King of Babylon, God would restore all the kingdoms that Babylon would conquer.

Jeremiah then goes in private to Hananiah and tells the prophetic contrarian that not only is he wrong, but that he’ll be dead within a year. And, he was.

The realm of the prophetic is a mysterious place. Along my journey I’ve had people tell me that they “have a word” for me, but whatever it was they said amounted to nothing and was ultimately forgotten. I’ve also had some pretty wild experiences in which people have said things which were amazingly prescient and powerfully true.

Three rules I’ve come to embrace when it comes to people saying they have a prophetic word for me:

  1. Hold on loosely and let it be. If it’s true, it will be true. If it’s not, it’s not worth my time, energy or consideration. Those who receive a prophetic word and go out of their way to try to make it happen are likely to be as successful as the tragic hero in that Scottish play Shakespeare wrote.
  2. Consider the source. If someone claims to be prophetic yet, like Hananiah, their words are what most people want to hear and the prophecies usually seem to ingratiate the prophet to the hearer, I’m always wary. The occasions I’ve received prophetic words, the messengers were humble, unassuming, and at times as mysterious as the prophetic word itself.
  3. Listen to wise counsel. On my journey I’ve surrounded myself with wise and mature friends (my wife being chief among them). They know me, love me, and they desire the best for me. I trust them to assist me in being discerning about any prophetic word given to me.

Once again in my pursuit of what is true I find myself holding the place of tension between the two extremes. I don’t ever want to dismiss the prophetic outright, nor do I want to blindly give myself over to any and every prophetic message I hear.

“Yes, And”

I told them, “If you think it best, give me my pay; but if not, keep it.” So they paid me thirty pieces of silver.

And the Lord said to me, “Throw it to the potter”—the handsome price at which they valued me! So I took the thirty pieces of silver and threw them to the potter at the house of the Lord.
Zechariah 11:12-13 (NIV)

Reading scholarly commentary on today’s chapter, one is confronted with two contrasting interpretations of Zechariah’s prophecy. One sees the text as a conclusion of the previous chapter and a judgement on the neighboring nations who pose an obstacle to the reestablishment of Jerusalem. Others see it as prescient judgement on the rejection of God’s Messiah Shepherd.

What struck me as I read the presentation of contrasting interpretations is that I felt as though I must make up my mind as to which one is right; Which I agreed with and which I would reject. I have been programmed by my culture and tradition to approach interpretation in a dualistic, either-or manner. When I was younger my teachers regularly presented various arguments on different interpretations of a text then argued passionately for the interpretation that the teacher was convinced was the right one. Over time I felt the subtle but pervasive expectation to align myself to groups with whom I agreed on all the right interpretations.

I felt the expectation in the arena of institutional Christianity in which I was to align loyally with the particular denomination with whom I was convinced was right (and of course all other denominations were wrong and not to be trusted). Once aligned with a denomination I found myself pressured to associate with sub-groups of thought within the denomination on hot-button issues of doctrine or scriptural interpretation; Camps who would separate at denominational meetings like the parting of the Red Sea.

This was also true of politics, especially true here in the States where everything is divided into primarily two camps at ever and increasingly estranged viewpoints moving further and further apart.

This is also true socially where one social group separates themselves from another social groups and holds the other at an arm’s length of ignorant suspicion: Blacks and whites, academics and business, science and religion, jocks and artists, preppies and burn-outs, nerds and popular kids.

Along this life journey I have found myself consistently moving toward the gray spaces between the separate camps of dualistic thought, which sometimes raises suspicions of both. I have served and worshipped among many different denominations. I have found myself socializing in starkly contrasting social groups. I find myself increasingly rejecting the polarizing extremes of both of my country’s red and blue camps.

This morning I find myself mulling over the dualistic interpretations of Zechariah’s prophecy and whispering to myself, “yes, and.” So it is with the prophetic which can be layered with meaning and revealed by a God who is consistently beyond confinement of human thought or understanding. Even Jesus, whom I believe was the incarnate Immanuel (“God with us”) was consistently found at the tension between dualistic extremes. So much so, in fact, that those of Jesus’ own religion considered Him so threatening to their entrenched, right religious interpretations that they were willing to pay to get rid of Him.

And so they paid one of Jesus’ own followers thirty pieces of silver. When Judas felt the shamed of what he had done to Jesus he threw the silver back at the priests who used the money to buy a Potter’s field to be used to bury poor dead blokes who couldn’t afford a grave.

That’s one prophecy that scholars in either interpretive camp of today’s chapter can agree is eerily present in the text that Zac wrote nearly 500 years before the events occurred.

 

Connected to a Larger Story

Though I scatter them among the peoples,
    yet in distant lands they will remember me.
They and their children will survive,
    and they will return.
Zechariah 10:9 (NIV)

I walked into Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv as I and my friends were heading back to the United States. After spending a week in Israel I had an even greater appreciation for the surreal experience there. Every international airport is a melting pot, but Ben Gurion seemed to take things to an entirely new level. Not only were there people from all over the world, but there was also the unrivaled diversity of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim sub-cultures. My time in Israel was an amazing cultural experience of dining with and making new friends among both Jews and Arabs and from every religious persuasion. At Ben Gurion Airport all of diverse groups were represented and crammed together in one place at one time.

Looking around I saw Hasidic Jewish men in their tell-tale black clothing and hats as well as modern Jewish women with their own distinctive manner that radiates a certain larger-than-life personality. There were Jewish tourist groups from literally all over the world which was made evident by the cacophony of clothing and languages. There were Arabs in their turbans, Catholic priests and nuns in their robes, and even my fellow small-town American tourists with their own distinct drawls and a certain air of cluelessness.

And, of course there was tension. I found that there’s always tension in Israel. I felt surrounded at all times by the uncanny sense that something might just erupt at any given moment. In fact, as my friends and I stood in line at check-in a nearby baggage x-ray machine detected something amiss. Loud sirens suddenly blared at a deafening decibel level all around us. Bright lights flashed out in warning.

Paralyzed by the sensory shockwave, I turned to watch people of every religious, national, and political persuasion bolting for the doors out of fear that a terrorist’s bomb was about to explode. Thankfully, it was false alarm. Still standing in both panic and confusion, I was just as surprised at the speed with which things returned to normal, or what passes for normal in that place.

I mention my experience because, politics and religion aside, my time in Israel gave me a newfound respect for the amazing story of the Jewish people throughout history.  They have been scattered again, and again, and again, and again by wars, empires, politics, and persecution.

In today’s chapter, the ancient prophet Zechariah speaks to the scattering of his people and prophesies their return from the remote reaches of the world. This was a contemporary issue for Zac because he was part of a remnant who had returned to rebuild a destroyed Jerusalem. In the previous hundred or so years the empires of Babylon, Assyria and Persia had scattered his people to those regions. He and his contemporaries were acting in faith that if they took the risk of rebuilding Jerusalem that his people would return.

I’ve mentioned before that prophetic writing is layered with meaning. It can address something in the moment and something in the distant future all at the same time. As I stood in Ben Gurion Airport it was like witnessing what Zechariah wrote back around 500 B.C. :

I will signal for them
    and gather them in.
Surely I will redeem them;
    they will be as numerous as before.
Though I scatter them among the peoples,
    yet in distant lands they will remember me.
They and their children will survive,
    and they will return.
I will bring them back from Egypt
    and gather them from Assyria.
I will bring them to Gilead and Lebanon,
    and there will not be room enough for them.

This morning I’m reminded of the Great Story that God is telling in the life-cycle of human history. It’s part of why I love history so much because I believe that it’s all connected. I believe we are all connected by this same story and we are a part of it. I’m just in a different chapter than Zechariah, but knowing his story and reading his prophetic poem layers my own experiences with new and profound depths of meaning. Even the seemingly insignificant experience of standing in an airport suddenly connects my story to the Great Story that is so much larger than myself.

 featured photo via speaking of faith and Flickr

A Few Thoughts on Prophecy…

Hazael went to meet Elisha, taking with him as a gift forty camel-loads of all the finest wares of Damascus. He went in and stood before him, and said, “Your son Ben-Hadad king of Aram has sent me to ask, ‘Will I recover from this illness?’”

Elisha answered, “Go and say to him, ‘You will certainly recover.’ Nevertheless,the Lord has revealed to me that he will in fact die.” He stared at him with a fixed gaze until Hazael was embarrassed. 
2 Kings 8:9-11 (NIV)

Along life’s journey I have had people speak to me, prophetically, about things that they claimed would happen, or be true, in my life. In fact, it happened to me just yesterday. Sitting down to coffee with a friend and colleague, he started the conversation with, “By the way, my wife had a prophetic word for you.” What it was I’ll keep to myself for now. If there’s anything I’ve learned from experience (and from Shakespeare’s Scottish play) it’s that there are both wise and foolish ways to handle prophetic words.

I’m sure there are those reading this post who think the whole notion of prophecy (e.g. someone knowing and proclaiming something that’s unknowable about the future or about another person), is a bunch of hocus-pocus nonsense. You can’t journey your way through the Great Story God is telling, however, and deny the fact that prophecy is an integral part of the telling. From Isaiah to Malachi, there are 17 books of God’s Message written by prophets. Jesus gave a nod to prophecy when He said that He came to “fulfill the Law and the prophets.” When Paul lists out the spiritual gifts that Holy Spirit manifests in Jesus’ followers, prophecy is smack-dab in the center of the list.

Beyond God’s Message, I have found the prophetic to be part of human experience. Our epic stories always use the prophetic as a device in their telling. From Homer’s Odyssey (Penelope’s Dream) to Shakespeare (i.e. Hamlet‘s Ghost and the Weird Sisters of Macbeth) to Lord of the Rings (“thus saith Malbeth the Seer“) and the Harry Potter saga (“Neither can live while the other survives“) the prophetic is everywhere. Then there are the mystical prophets of history that continue to be pop culture favorites like Nostradamus and the Rasputin. Look back through our history and our stories and you’ll find prophecy all over the place.

Prophecy makes for some dramatic moments. The story in today’s chapter reads like a climactic scene right out of an epic movie.

A man named Hazael, who was a servant of the King of Aram, comes to the prophet Elisha to ask if the King, his master, will recover from an illness. Elisha at first tells Hazael to inform the king that he will, in fact, recover from the illness.

Now, you have to imagine the scene. Elisha glares at Hazael with a long, penetrating look. He’s got an icy gaze like Michael Corleone in The Godfather. The look from Elisha cuts right through Hazael as the tense silence is filled with low, ominous sounding music swelling beneath the scene. Suddenly things are getting really, really uncomfortable…

“Nevertheless,the Lord has revealed to me that he will in fact die,” Elisha says in a slow sonorous statement that hangs out in space and drips with the prophetic.

Elisha continues his Michael Corleone stare. Shame is all over Hazael’s face. He can’t look at Elisha. His eyes dart back and forth and to the ground. His hand fumbles in his pocket for his fidget spinner…

Can you see it? Man, what a moment.

The King of Aram must have had the 24 hour flu because the very next day (in Macbeth like fashion, I might add) Hazael kills his master and assumes the throne of Aram. This morning I find myself mulling over whether Hazael had already conspired to kill his master the next day, or if Elisha’s prophetic revelation pushed him over the edge. That’s a great conversation for Wendy and me to have over breakfast this morning.

The story also has me mulling over prophesy in broader terms. I do believe in prophesy. Not only because it’s such a part of the Great Story, but also because I’ve had too many experiences with it to be utterly dismissive. I have also learned, however, that I’ve got to handle the prophetic wisely.

For what it’s worth, here’s what I’ve learned:

  1. When someone shares a prophetic word with me I receive it, but hold it very loosely. False prophesy is every bit a part of our stories as well. I don’t want to be too quick to cling and I don’t want to be too quick to reject. Chill, let it sit, and contemplate. Pray. Mull. Chew.
  2. I will share the prophesy with my closest, most discerning friends who know me well, who know my journey, and who in my experience have proven wisdom. Their reactions to what ever prophetic word I’ve been given tell me a lot.
  3. I never try to make what’s been prophesied happen. That’s the road to tragedy (just ask Lady Macbeth and her husband).
  4. I confess to myself that prophetic messages can be layered with meaning and may have a very different interpretation than what I’m thinking. The scholars of Jesus’ day read the prophets and had a very different picture of Messiah than the one Jesus fulfilled. It would be just as easy for me to hear a prophetic word and interpret it one way (e.g. the way I want it to mean) when its true meaning is something altogether different.
  5. I continue to repeat step one. I continue to hold on to the prophesy, but I hold it loosely. I contemplate and consider, but I keep pressing forward in my journey day-by-day. Obsessing on the prophetic usually leads to paralysis which leads nowhere fast. Some of the most ineffectual people I’ve ever known are those who’ve mired themselves and their lives in the prophetic. This is another place where I find I must put the “faith” in  “faith journey.” There is a flow to life and story. What will be will be. The prophesy someone gave me will happen or not. I’ve got to keep pressing forward.

And now, it’s time to do just that. If you’re reading this (thank you) I hope you have a great day today.

 

 

Progression and Regression

“For three sins of Judah,
    even for four, I will not relent….”
Amos 2:4a (NIV)

Yesterday was my birthday. Weather-wise it was an awful day. It was rainy, cold, and windy; A good day to stay inside and enjoy some quiet with family and friends. My folks came down from Des Moines and brought Taylor with them. We enjoyed lunch together around the warm fireplace and then enjoyed conversation into the afternoon. It was a nice birthday, and it was wonderfully uneventful.

The quiet gave me some time for reflection throughout the day. I thought about the past year, the past 13 years in Pella, the past 23 years in my profession, the past 50 years of life. My life journey has been full and has taken me fascinating, unexpected places. I have continued to explore, continued to grow, continued to press further up and further in. I look back at where I was in my journey just ten or fifteen years ago, and I can see how I’ve progressed.

In this morning’s chapter the ancient prophet Amos, writing his poems from his small town, begins his small volume of prophetic works by taking aim at seven regional nations (Israel is a divided kingdom, so he addresses both Israel and Judah). Amos starts with Israel’s neighbors, drawing his Hebrew readers in with prophetic curses on their enemies. He was likely getting a lot of nodding heads and affirmations through the first six sections. Then things suddenly change for his contemporary readers.

Amos saves his final prophetic rebuke for his own people. The spiritual charges he brings against them come down to two basic things. First, the life and blessings they’ve been afforded haven’t resulted in a progression of spirit, of life, love, faith or wisdom. Second, their regression into indulgence of their appetites has resulted in a wide array of spiritual and social problems which they are choosing to ignore.

This morning, as I begin my 51st year of life, I find myself continuing to meditate on my journey. As much as progress as I’ve made along the way, Amos reminds me to not be ignorant or blind myself to ways I may have regressed. Where have I blinded myself to  unhealthy indulgences? Where have my choices actually been detrimental to others? Where do I need to make changes as I begin another annual trek through the calendar? The journey isn’t finished until it’s finished. I’ve still got a long way to go, and a lot of progress yet to be made. It’s out there; Further up and further in.

A Reasonable Mystic

In love a throne will be established;
    in faithfulness a man will sit on it—
    one from the house of David—
one who in judging seeks justice
    and speeds the cause of righteousness.
Isaiah 16:4b-5 (NIV)

Yesterday I has someone approach me about a couple of dreams they’d had in which I played a part in their dreams. This person was nervous to share them with me, but they need not have been. I found the images interesting, though I can’t say for certain what they mean, or if they mean anything at all.

I consider myself a reasonable mystic. I believe that there are things in God’s creation, things of the Spirit, that lie outside our conscious understanding. I believe that God uses the prophetic. I believe that God sometimes speaks through dreams. I equally believe that we humans always mess things up whenever we try to package the divine into a human equation. I don’t believe all dreams are divine. Sometimes dreams are just dreams.

So it is with the ancient prophets. Isaiah was pronouncing a prophetic judgement against the Kingdom of Moab, a small nation that existed on the east side of the Dead Sea. Yet amidst the prophecy against Moab there lies a verse about the Messiah. It sort of sticks out in today’s chapter like a sore thumb.

Love is His throne.
“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love.” – Jesus

Faithful is the One who sits on the throne.
“…if we are faithless,
    he remains faithful,
    for he cannot disown himself.” 2 Timothy 2:13

One from the House of David.
“Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.” Luke 2:11

One who in judging seeks justice.
“Here is my servant whom I have chosen,
    the one I love, in whom I delight;
I will put my Spirit on him,
    and he will proclaim justice to the nations.”
(Jesus quoting Isaiah) Matthew 12:18

and speeds the cause of righteousness.
“But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” -Jesus

The world of the prophetic is an interesting place. It is a place where one prophetic message carries within it a wholly separate, though complementary prophetic message. Within a message for Moab on which Isaiah himself places a three-year timeline (vs. 13) is a prophetic word that would begin to be fulfilled some 700 years later.

And, sometimes dreams, which might otherwise be merely a natural nocturnal brain activity, contain snatches of the divine.

I thanked my friend for sharing the images and dreams with me. I explained that I would store the information and hold on loosely. If it’s something important then it will be made clear at the right time and place. If not, then it was certainly entertaining to hear the dreams described. I am discovering that the divine dance is an exercise in holding the right tension. Cling too tightly, step too mechanically and I step on my Partner’s toes. Hold too loosely and I let my Partner slip away. Then I’m dancing on my own, and that’s always awkward.