When I started my studies in preparation to be a minister, it suddenly hit me how little I knew of the Bible. In the process of study I learned quite a lot. Most people, even enthusiastic church-going Christians, do not get beyond that stage of ignorance. They are especially ignorant of the books of the prophets. What average church-goer could tell you anything about the content of Ezekiel, Micah or Zephaniah? The one that stands out as an exception is the Book of Jonah. Everybody knows something about him: he was swallowed by a whale.
This points to what is probably the main reason why most of us know so little about the prophets. Stories stick in our minds. We know something about Elijah and Elisha because there are stories of them performing miracles. We know parts of the Book of Daniel because we heard the stories when we were children: Daniel in the den of lions, the three men miraculously preserved in the fiery furnace, Belshaazar’s feast and the writing on the wall. Virtually all we remember about Isaiah is the story of his vision in the temple, when he heard the voice of God saying, “Whom shall we send, and who will go for us?” and responded with “Here am I: send me”. The prophetic books tend to be unknown and un-memorable because they don’t have stories.
Another reason is that when we try to read them we are put off by what seems a solemn, ranting and very negative tone. They seem to be talking about judgment all the time and saying mysterious, incomprehensible things about nations and tribes we have never heard of. It all sounds rather like the ravings of an esoteric and rather nutty religious cult, or a street preacher shouting religious clichés that passers-by ignore.
However, this feeling has a lot to do with the way most of us were taught to think about the Bible. We have been conditioned to think that because the Bible is “the Word of God” the prophets have a very serious message from God for us that we must struggle to understand. When the prophetic books are read in church it is usually in a monotone that makes them sound more obscure and tedious than they are. Those of us who are not fundamentalists have come to feel that the struggle is not worth it: the prophets were people with a negative, kill-joy message which is typically “Old Testament” and nothing to do with what we understand as Christianity.
It is sad that we have come to this conclusion. The prophets in fact were sensitive people who, if they had a message of doom, were no different from many people today who warn us about climate change, remind us of the injustice of the world, or predict the collapse of our society. They were not people who loved to condemn: they were responding to the issues of their time and trying to wake people up to what was happening. Their books don’t generally tell stories, but with a bit of imagination we can detect the story behind what they are saying, and then their words can come alive to us. The prophets were poets, and some of their poetry is sublime: it can stir and inspire us even if we cannot always understand it. There is no need for us to think we ought to accept it solemnly as a word from God, or feel guilty about not accepting it. Our watchword in reading the prophets should be, “Never mind the authority – feel the passion!”