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Whispered in the Sounds of Silence

February 20, 2015

I hold few illusions as to who I am. Like Pogo, I have met the enemy and he is me. I have faced my shadow self and the narcissism of my ego and have come to terms with them. Though I seldom blatantly rebel against God, I confess that rather, as theologian and Baptist pastor Walter Rauschenbusch wrote, I dodge and evade. While I kneel in lowly submission, I far too often put myself first, and caught up in the ludicrous self-deception that God is not looking, kick my duty under the bed. In more lucid moments, with the Spirit’s leading, I contritely determine to continue to walk the hard painful road of dying to self, stumbling three steps forward and falling two steps back.

Some accuse me of being a pessimist, seeing the troubles of the world wherever I turn. It is true I seldom hide from the darkness, for I do not fear it; the insistent inner voice of God and the consciousness of my personal communion with him assure me of his love, and that love casts out fear. In the midst of the malevolent chaos of this world I can sing with Robert Browning’s Pippa, “God’s in His heaven—All’s right with the world!” Therefore I would suggest that I am the most optimistic of pessimists, for I never doubt the ultimate victory of God, of his righteousness and justice, and of his people. Despite all appearances the kingdom of God is at hand.

Dualistic thinking may struggle with this paradoxical marriage of pessimism and optimism, holding the two in rigid dichotomy. By to some degree shaking off the well-practised habit of knowing things by comparison, and replacing it with the contemplative both-and, I have managed at least to some degree to reconcile for myself the apparently paradoxical. But I am a mere tyro at contemplative thinking. I find in the Bible true masters of the both-and of optimistic pessimism. They are the prophets.

Some months ago I sought out Abraham Heschel’s book on the Old Testament prophets. It seemed to me that if I was searching for a truly incisive, culturally attuned picture of the spokesmen of Israel’s God, the work of a preeminent Jewish scholar might be the place to go. I was right. Prophecy, as Heschel puts it, is exegesis of existence from a divine perspective. “The prophet hears God’s voice and looks at the world from God’s perspective.” In order to understand them, “we must think, not about, but in the prophets, with their concern and their heart.” While most of us from time to time criticize injustices in our society, those injustices remain tolerable to us. Our moral indignation quickly passes. Not so for the prophet. As I read the accounts these men left to us, their concern for God’s justice spews forth in an endless stream of lava, their searing words scorching the landscape and blistering everyone in it. Yet their heart unquestionably bleeds for the world God loves so much that he would give his son to die to heal the gash that separates him from it.

While prescience certainly played a part in the lifework of the Old Testament prophets, the lion’s share of their message is indictments of the practices of Israel—criticism. That word has donned a dark cloak as an expression of disapproval, which it can express. But criticism can also be an analysis of the merits and faults of something, though this application is now largely confined to the arenas of art, music and literature, and to a lesser extent, food.

Modern day Christians are fond of the Messianic prophecies and eagerly appropriate them. But as internationally known Franciscan friar Richard Rohr observes, the prophets are rendered harmless when we make their message simply, “They foretold the coming of the Messiah.” I don’t think when reading the prophets many see themselves in the crosshairs of the explosive incriminations and impassioned pleadings. Rather they blithely imagine these ancient whistleblowers’ agonized raging only a commentary on the sins of the people of their own time and place. I would advise sober second thought.

God is not constrained by time or space; he speaks through his prophets to all people in every age. The prophets’ horrified descriptions of the iniquities of Israel hold true for what is now considered normal in our own society, in our own churches, in our own lives. Their demands for justice, in reality God’s demands for justice, are no less relevant today. The prophets hear the silent sighs of God who cherishes his people, and when they are hurt, feels their pain as his own. As Matthew 25 makes abundantly clear, what we do to others we do to God: “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.”

Despite the acerbic, strident tone of their denunciations, I believe it critical to recognize that the message of the prophets is always couched in hope. As Heschel writes, “Every prediction of disaster is in itself an exhortation to repentance.” I see the prophets not as harbingers of God’s judgment, but as witnesses bearing testimony to the broken heart of an estranged father who sees his beloved children on the road to ruin and in his anguish rails against them, attestants to his changeless love and relentless longing to welcome them home. “Return to me and I will return to you”, says the Lord. (Malachi 3:7b)

God’s call is always to justice. In the course of my meandering investigation I fell upon Deuteronomy 16:20. “Justice, and only justice, you shall follow.” (Please forgive my minuscule knowledge of Hebrew, but I believe I have this right.) The first Hebrew word for justice is tzedek, which is often translated as righteousness. The second justice is mishpat, a legal form associated with judgment. This double use is a common literary device in Hebrew, used for emphasis, as in Jesus’ frequent use of “Truly, truly, I say to you” in John’s Gospel to emphasize the authority of what he was about to say.

Following this thread I find numerous examples of this double use:

Psalms 33:5 states that God “loves righteousness and justice”.

Psalm 103:6, “The Lord works righteousness and justice for all who are oppressed.”

Proverbs 21:3, “To do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice.”

Noting this repetition, it is apparent from these verses and many others like them, that justice is a very big deal to God. The prophets’ expansion on exactly what God’s justice involves is far beyond the scope of this post, but I think Micah sums it up nicely:

He has told you, O man, what is good;

and what does the Lord require of you

but to do justice, and to love kindness,

and to walk humbly with your God.

Perhaps we would be wise pay closer attention to God’s call for justice as it issues from the lips of his prophets. Perhaps we should give the prophets less occasion for their pessimism and more for their optimism.

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