Dipping into Heschel’s The Prophets

Following his Introduction (dealt with in a previous posting,) Heschel has one general chapter before taking a look at each of the eight towering figures before 587 BCE (Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Micah, Jeremiah, Habbakuk and the second Isaiah.)

But then there are another 20 substantial chapters and an appendix. We are going to need to be convinced, as he has said in the Introduction, of the ‘relevancy’ to read further – and we cannot forget that the book was published AFTER the horrific and tragic bereavements that Heschel suffered in the war.

We may well be struck by the title of the first chapter:

What Manner of Man is the Prophet?

Heschel is not merely a stylistic writer but often a poet so the slightly archaic formulation of the question must be deliberate. Is it there to make us think, from the very beginning, about something which we have taken for granted? Surely, it is the prophet’s words, not his person, that are important?

Abraham Joshua Heschel

Each chapter has a number of sub-headings. “Under What Manner of Man is the Prophet?” the first sub-heading is Sensitivity to Evil. The prophet is horrified by the everyday occurrences that we pass by, torn apart by the strength of his feelings and emotions. He rails, some might say hysterically, against corruption; he sees extortion and misery as catastrophes; he takes note of those ignored by others – women and children: ‘even a minor injustice assumes cosmic proportions.’ Unfaithfulness to God is seen as bringing an end to the world. What a contrast is this to our ‘incapacity to sense the depth of misery caused by our own failures.’ Heschel summarises:

‘Prophecy is the voice that God has lent to the silent agony, a voice to the plundered poor, to the profaned riches of the world. It is a form of living, a crossing point of God and man. God is raging in the prophet’s words.’

We shall have to enquire further about the understanding that Heschel is here bringing to the word “God” but we may already recognise that we are not engaging in an intellectual or philosophical enterprise. The prophet is no detached observer and although the words are often poetic in form, they address not the beauty and grandeur of nature but the deeds of man in history.

There is a critically sharp contrast between the normal values of the world and those of the prophets. Where we may glory in our fine homes and beautiful furniture, our carved fireplaces and low-hanging beams, Habbakuk sees things differently:

Woe to him who heaps up what is not his own,…

Woe to him who gets evil gain from his house,…

For the stone cries out from the wall,

And the beam from the woodwork responds.

Woe to him who builds a town with blood,

And founds a city on iniquity!

Habbakuk 2:6, 9, 11-12

Jeremiah is very clear about these differing values:

Thus says the Lord: “Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, let not the mighty man glory in his might, let not the rich man glory in his riches; but let him who glories, glory in this, that he understands and knows Me, that I am the Lord Who practice kindness, justice and righteousness in the earth; for in these things I delight, says the Lord.” (Jer. 9:23-24)

Heschel points out the immense gulf between us and the prophets. We look for peace of mind; we make allowances and concessions. We say things are not so bad – and give to charity. ‘Who could bear living in a state of disgust day and night?…Yet those who are hurt and He Who inhabits eternity, neither slumber nor sleep.’

Michelangelo’s Jeremiah

The prophets condemn hypocrisy. Worst of all to them was empty religious practice since here men attempt to fool God: “Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, sear falsely, burn incense to Baal, and go after other gods…and then come and stand before Me and say…We are delivered!” (Jer 7:9-10)

But they are not only scathing about meaningless sacrifice and false worship, they question the very practices themselves:

In the day I brought them out of the Land of Egypt, I did not speak to your fathers or command them concerning burnt offerings or sacrifices. But this command I gave them: Obey My voice and I will be your God, and you shall be My people; and walk in all the way that I command you, that it may be well with you.

Jeremiah 7:21-23

Still more astounding is their audacity, their outspokenness, which is almost beyond belief. The consequences of the people’s actions will lead to destruction and exile at the hands of their enemies.

Zion shall be plowed as a field;

Jerusalem shall become a heap of ruins,

And the mountains of the house a wooded height!

Jer 26:18 cf. Micah 3:12

The prophet ‘declare[s] the word of God in the here and now; [he] discloses the future in order to illuminate what is involved in the present.’ Though the prophets might be seen as messengers, they claim more. Jeremiah speaks of standing in the ‘council of the Lord.’ They are witnesses, who not only convey a message but reveal! There are no proofs for the existence of God but ‘in the prophet’s words, the invisible God becomes audible.’ So close are they to God that they may even challenge God’s intention and suggest that what God proposed be changed:

The Lord repented concerning this;

It shall not be, says the Lord.

Amos 7:3

Again, we will need to understand at a deep level how we, and they, might be able to speak of God in this way. What is meant?

The eye of the prophet is directed towards the particular details of his contemporary society. He does not speak in generalities though there are poetic exaggerations (“There is no truth, no love, and no knowledge of God in the land” says Hosea 4:1.) Here again, Heschel sees below the surface: ‘if the individual is in some measure conditioned or affected by the spirit of society, an individual’s crime discloses society’s corruption.’ In a moral society, ‘crime would be infrequent rather than common.’ This thought leads to one of Heschel’s memorable phrases: ‘Few are guilty, all are responsible.’ Perhaps he was thinking of the collapse and degradation of a civilisation in just a few short years and the role played by the bystander?

Not surprisingly, the prophets felt lonely, isolated. They found themselves positioned between God and humanity, speaking within and out of the tension they experienced. They are ‘authentic’ in the sense that there is identity between what is said and the person saying it: ‘his life and soul are at stake.’ The encounters burnt like fire:

Cursed be the day

On which I was born!…

Why did I come forth out of the womb

To see toil and sorrow

And spend my days in shame?

Jeremiah 20:14, 18

To the prophets God is living reality, alive with a painful intensity and endowed with meaning. What might seem trivial to others could be of overwhelming importance to the prophet, recognised as of major significance. Through the life that they encountered at every moment – in the people, the animals, birds, mountains and rivers – they heard the voice of Life, calling for justice. This ‘grandeur of the divine presence’ provided their sole assurance. They sensed particularly acutely the involvement of God in the life of the people, what Heschel defines as the divine pathos. The prophets speak of God’s love and disappointment, mercy and anger. These expressions of feeling are realities for the prophets, who feel a deep empathy with God. There is here a personal relationship – and again, we wonder: What does this mean? Heschel’s conclusion to his first chapter is unequivocal: ‘The prophet hears God’s voice and feels [God’s] heart.’


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