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The Prophets and A Concept of Ministry

By: Bethany Wurtz

            The prophets give the basic outline of a life of ministry, as I see it.  Chosen, not self-elected, they call humanity back into genuine relationship with God when it falls away into pretense and foolhardy self-reliance.  They serve as society’s conscience, calling us to truly be with and serve for the betterment of the oppressed.  Thus prophets are often the harbingers of revolution, renewal, and growth.  The consequences of our lack of repentance is extreme, so the prophet announces God’s judgment.  Because of this, it’s hardly a surprise that prophets are unpopular and persecuted on account of their message.  Nevertheless, a prophet never ceases to pray for the good of the community around them and his or herself, that God would continue to show steadfast love and care.  When the voice of despair in society grows loud, and hope is hard to come by, then the prophet assures the people of God’s continued steadfast love.  These are all things which a pastor does on a regular basis, both for his or her congregation and the communities which they serve.

           God is not interested in empty ceremonies, ritual observance without true feeling behind them.  What the prophets tell us is that God prefers those who would worship God as Lord take care to build relationship, both with God’s self and the marginalized.  In the first chapter of Isaiah, God addresses Judah thus: “Ah, sinful nation, people laden with iniquity, offspring who do evil, who have forsaken the Lord.”[1]  Yet despite having estranged themselves from God—choosing instead to put trust in their own power—they continue to offer rote sacrifices.  Meanwhile, the weak among the people are left without defense or advocate.  This cavalier, callous behavior turns what was originally meant as an act of praise into mockery.  As God says: “Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, and I am weary of bearing them.”[2]  God is left deeply hurt.  The humanity which God made and loves not only rejects its creator, but proceeds to rubs salt in the wound by feigning piety.

          Human nature has not changed within the last couple thousand years; Judah is hardly unique in being guilty of hollow “religion.”  No: today we see the same tendencies alive and well.  In America, in particular, we declare our nation as being “under God” in our pledge of allegiance but hoard our wealth and are quicker to use it to lash out at than empower poorer nations.  We call ourselves a Christian country, but idolatry of me, myself, and I is rampant in the culture around us.

         A prophet is one who, compelled by God, sheds light on how society has fallen away from the Lord.  Frequently, they exhort a change: “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean, remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”[3]  These words reveal that—yes, our relationship with God has been distorted and/or ruptured—but reconciliation is still possible.  Difficult though it may be to come to, as radical as the changes that must be made before it can occur are, reconciliation is not beyond reach.[4]  Repentance and a turn-around are key here.

         Lest we puff ourselves up in a new way, thinking righteousness attainable by human power, the prophets serve as a potent reminder that God alone can accomplish this in us.  As it is written is Isaiah: “I, I am He who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins.”[5]  And again, even more graphically through the prophet Ezekiel, God proclaims:

A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.  I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances.[6]

Thus God keeps us humble, and makes us aware of our absolute dependence.  We see a glimpse of God’s immense power, and our own fragility.

            Other times the message God asks the prophet to speak is total condemnation, both upon themselves and the people around them.  Separation from God, which we so willfully choose again and again, brings about its own injuries.  The Lord is our maker, our source of life and the One who sustains us.  When we sin we cut ourselves off from that source of life, and death is the inevitable result.  For this reason we hear,

“The end has come upon my people Israel; I will never again pass them by.  The songs of the temple shall become wailings in that day,” says the Lord God; “the dead bodies shall be many, cast out in every place.  Be silent!”[7]

Our actions carry dire consequences.  Continue to flout God’s covenant and there is a point at which it can be broken.[8]

            Because of the nature of the message they bear a prophet frequently encounters resistance from the people they are speaking to, if they are not outright ignored.  As a general rule, people no not take kindly to others telling them to change their behavior.  I would much rather continue on as I am, thank you very much.  If I wanted to do something, I’d already be doing it.  OK? Secondly, people do not like to be reminded that their delusion of self-sufficiency is just that: a delusion.  It greatly offends human sensibilities to be told that we must rely upon anything other than ourselves to survive--not a little bit, not even fifty-fifty—but entirely.  And last, but not least, a prophet is unpopular because people are unwilling to believe that difficult times could lay ahead.  We prefer blind optimism to sober reality.  As scripture tells us, “They say to the seers, ‘See no more visions!’ and to the prophets, ‘Give us no more visions of what is right! Tell us pleasant things, prophesy illusions.’”[9]  So, a prophet faces rejection as a part of the job description, and sometimes even persecution.

            That said, a prophet is not a dumb mouthpiece without a voice of his or her own.  True, God speaks to and through the prophet, and the prophet must relay that message to the nation, but communication goes both ways.  God and the prophet are in constant dialogue with one another.  As one who stands under the judgment God speaks, as one who loves their people, the prophet petitions on behalf of the entire nation.  He or she cries out, as Jeremiah did,

Have you completely rejected Judah?  Does your heart loath Zion? Why have you struck us down so that there is no healing for us? We look for peace, but find no good; for a time of healing, but there is terror instead.[10]

By this wrestling match God is held to the promise made to Abraham to prosper his descendants.  God is reminded of God’s nature: compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in love and faithfulness.[11]

            Of course, a prophet’s vocation is not all words of gloom and doom.  There are times when, broken and weary from the hardships of life, society cries out in agony.  Hope seems lost beyond recall.  It feels as though the Lord has turned away. God then moves the prophet to speak words of comfort, letting the people know they are not forgotten or cast aside.  God promises to remain faithful, and ease their pain:

For thus says the Lord GOD: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out…I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness…I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak…[12]

Here the prophet announces the continued love God has for humanity, that—though things may be dark at present—this love will have the final word.

            These key factors—being chosen by God, calling society back into genuine relationship with the Lord, preaching repentance and a change of behavior, announcing the consequences that result from sin, reminding the nations of their complete dependence upon God, remaining faithful in the face of persecution and/or an audience unwilling to listen, wrestling with God and petitioning mercy on behalf of the community and one’s self, and proclaiming the Gospel to the brokenhearted—are what gives life and shape to prophetic ministry.  These are what I intend to do as I go out into my first call as a pastor, and beyond.  It is a difficult vocation, to be sure, and not one to be undertaken lightly.  Yet, I would argue, it holds in it a strange beauty, not to be found anywhere else.

            Prophetic ministry means being fully immersed in relationship, both with God and the neighbor—no holds barred—but also maintaining one’s own independent voice.  I am with and for the neighbor, yes, but I am not to mindlessly go along with his or her opinion.  I am in communication with God, and am to speak God’s message, but I am NOT God.  I do not have the final say in what that message contains.


Brueggemann, Walter. Isaiah 1-39. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998.


[1] Isaiah 1:4 (NRSV).


[2] Isaiah 1:14 (NRSV).


[3] Isaiah 1:16-17 (NRSV).


[4] Walter Brueggemann, Isaiah 1-39 (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998), 18.


[5] Isaiah 43:25 (NRSV).


[6] Ezekiel 36:26-27 (NRSV).


[7] Amos 8:2 (NRSV).


[8] Walter Brueggemann, A Commentary On Jeremiah: Exile & Homecoming (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998), 39.


[9] Isaiah 30:10 (NIV).


[10] Jeremiah 14:19 (NRSV).


[11] Exodus 34:6 (NRSV).


[12] Ezekiel 34:11-16 (NRSV).