An Indispensable Upstream Word: The Gift of Prophecy

Walter Brueggemann

How strange that in our sophisticated, technologically advanced world of knowledge, power, and control we pause to consider, yet again, the strange, primitive voice of the prophetic. It is a voice that does not fit, and yet which turns out, repeatedly in times of crisis, to be an urgent voice.

At the outset, ancient Israel was constituted according to a peculiar polity. That polity provided, in a normal fashion, for judges (Deut 16:16-18), a supreme court (Deut 17:8-13), a king (Deut 17:14-20), and priests (Deut 18:1-8). Most remarkably, alongside these predictable offices, provision is also made that a prophet will be a constitutive indispensable role in society, a voice that, like that of Moses, will critique idolatrous self-aggrandizing power and imagine alternative modes of covenantal, neighborly power.

The prophetic belongs to the essentials of such a society because the inscrutable holiness of God always subverts and destabilizes our best settlements, our most certain certitudes, and our preferred power arrangements. Every successful society, like that of ancient Israel, seeks and sometimes manages to eliminate the reality of the Holy God and so to construct a narrative account of reality without reference to such elusive ultimacy. In ancient Israel, that dominant account of reality featured the unconditional claims of monarchy, the assumed divine presence in the temple, and the guaranteed security of the city of Jerusalem. All such unconditionality, assumed presence, and guaranteed security among the powerful regularly dispenses with the holiness of God; at the same time such assumptions nullify the legitimacy of the weak, the poor, and the vulnerable. In ancient Israel, amid such dispensing and nullifying, there were regularly evoked uncredentialed prophetic voices that, in surprisingly authoritative ways, re- described the world with reference to the holiness of God and the reality of the neighbor.

Settled society, with its several entitlements and guarantees, always seeks to establish a durable equilibrium. It regularly does so through the practice of denial that covers over the facts on the ground for the sake of an illusion that is marked by self-deception and self-indulgence, a fantasy world that conceals and disregards social facts that are contrary to imagined equilibrium. In the midst of such denial that is accomplished by euphemism, propaganda, and ideology, prophetic voices resist such denial by resolute truth-telling that calls social facts by their right name. The purpose of truth-telling is in order that members of the community can see their life as it really is.

In that ancient world, Amos is among the most prominent of truth-tellers. He describes a world of lavish self-indulgence in a poem that could pertain to any unbridled consumerism:

Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory,
    and lounge on their couches,
and eat lambs from the flock,
    and calves from the stall;
who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp,
and like David improvise on instruments of music;
who drink wine from bowls,
and anoint themselves with the finest oils. (Amos 6:4-6a)

The truth that follows this characterization is that his companions have not noticed that behind the facade of prosperity there is “ruin,” the failure of the social infrastructure. And they, numbed in self-indulgence, pay no heed:

But are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph! (Amos 6:6b

And then follows a characteristic prophetic “therefore”; consequences inescapably follow from such numbness: 

Therefore they shall now be the first to go into exile,
and the revelry of the loungers shall pass away. (Amos 6:7)

Without being a “predictor,” the prophet can anticipate the drastic outcome of such narcoticized society … loss, dismay, and displacement. Most remarkably, YHWH is nowhere mentioned in the poem of Amos. But truth is told; things are called by their right names with the added gain of anticipated trouble to come. It remained only for the truth of the poem to be accepted as a wake-up call.

Displaced society, when under assault and threat with security jeopardized and old certitudes in a state of failure, plunges into despair. Such a society, when accustomed to self-sufficiency, now notices that it has no tools or resources for self-sustenance; such a society can see no curb to the malaise. It regresses into nostalgia for a past that never existed, or into a privatism that abandons the common good, or into ominous brutality of neighbor against neighbor.

In the midst of such despair that features a deep and limitless futility, prophetic voices challenge such despair by buoyant hope-telling that asserts new social possibilities that are grounded in the fidelity of God. The purpose of such truth-telling is in order that life can be re-imagined and re-described wherein the powerful promises of God are in effect and have not been voided by the failure of the old order.

In that ancient world, Isaiah in the exile is a most prominent hope-teller. He listens acutely to the sad lament and weeping resignation of his displaced community, a lament and resignation that are perhaps expressed in liturgy:

But Zion said, “The Lord has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me.” (Isa 49:14)

The statement of despair that is quoted by the prophet is likely from a communal lament, likely from Lamentations 5:20. In its despair, Israel imagines that it is God-forsaken. But the poem of Isaiah counters the lament with a rhetorical question:

Can a woman forget her nursing child,
    or show no compassion for the child of her womb?
Even these may forget,
yet I will not forget you. (Isa 49:15)

We might expect a negative answer to the question asked by the prophet. But the poet allows, in an extreme case, a positive answer: “Yes, it is possible that a nursing mother will forget.” The poetic assertion continues with an adversative “yet”:

Yet I will not forget you.
See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands;
your walls are continually before me. (Isa 49:15d-16)

Others may forget. YHWH as nursing mother will not forget because this nursing mother, with full breasts, will remember the seemingly forgotten people of Israel. And out of that divine remembering will come new beginnings of a public, visible restoration that culminates in a new beauty:

Your builders outdo your destroyers,
    and those who laid you waste go away from you.
Lift up your eyes all around and see;
    they all gather, they come to you.
As I live, says the Lord,
you shall put all of them on like an ornament,
and like a bride you shall bind them on. (Isa 49:17-18

It is not proposed that God will rebuild what was lost in Jerusalem. Rather, when Israel hears that it is remembered and valued by YHWH with mothering compassion, the pall of despair will lift and there will be energy and will for newness!

Prophetic faith and prophetic imagination are always upstream and counterintuitive. In a context of social denial, one does not expect or welcome truth-telling that calls things by their right name. In a context of despair and resignation, one does not expect or easily receive hope-telling that summons out of a stupor of hopelessness into bold and constructive activity. Because truth is unwelcome and because hope is not easily received, prophets are not easy companions. Society characteristically seeks to silence, censor, or eliminate such voices that testify to the originary power and reality of God who finally is not mocked by either self-indulgence or by resignation:

Yet the Lord warned Israel and Judah by every prophet and every seer, saying, “Turn from your evil ways and keep my commandments and my statutes, in accordance with all the law that I commanded your ancestors and that I sent to you by my servants the prophets.” They would not listen but were stubborn, as their ancestors had been, who did not believe in the Lord their God. (2 Kgs 17:13-14)

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! (Luke 13:34)

The wonder of biblical faith and perhaps the great mystery of human history is that such voices of truth and hope can be temporarily silenced, momentarily censored, and provisionally eliminated. But not finally! Finally such voices will sound. They will sound in the most totalitarian contexts that try to contain and control all voices. They will sound in the most narcoticized society that is schooled in not listening. They will sound, because the irrepressible reality of the Holy God will not go away. Or alternatively, they will sound because the wretchedness of human pain and the buoyancy of human possibility belong to the human spirit and will not yield. It is no wonder that ancient Israel regarded the prophetic as constitutive, even if in practice it could scarcely bear such voices. For that same reason, in the contemporary as in the ancient world, we have witnessed poets and artists and makers of images and practitioners of holy imagination speak effectively after all the more final voices of legitimacy have been either exposed as false or accommodated in silence.

The transposition of the notion of the prophetic, from ancient Israel with its theocratic assumptions to contemporary society in its mode of democratic capital secularism, is not obvious. Except that the elemental human realities have not changed. Contemporary societies, including our own, can manage with a mix of self-deceiving denial and abdicating despair that together generate violence. But the voices of alternative sound all the way from nameless common poets in peasant communities to the imprisoned poetry of Daniel Berrigan to the ringing cadences of Martin Luther King to the compassion of Desmond Tutu to the critical Jewishness of Michael Lerner to the refusal to be “left” or “right” by Jim Wallace to the plain speaking of Joan Chittister. These voices, surely gifts from God, penetrate the silence of limitless consumerism and the self-indulgence of the national security state. 

This voice that sounds in rich cadences is a voice of truth

Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by? 

This voice that sounds in rich cadences is a voice of hope: 

I have a dream.

In such cadence, listeners, ancient and contemporary, hear the sounds of the God who will not be mocked or disregarded. Beyond our little systems and our broken resignation, it is this one to whom belongs the kingdom, the power, and the glory! This one will, soon or late, be uttered!


1. See S. Dean McBride, Jr., “Polity of the Covenant People: The Book of Deuteronomy,” Interpretation 41 (1987), 229-44.

Walter Bruggemann is Professor Emeritus at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia. He has authored more than 58 books, hundreds of articles, and several commentaries on books of the Bible.