The question of my title is not a lament. My question is not, Why are there no more prophets? I have something more literal in mind: Where do we find prophets, and, specifically, where do we find them in the Bible? What is their physical and social location?
To judge by popular American perceptions, prophets are easy to recognize. Check the wilderness and woods, because prophets always stand outside, protesting the system. Look for the shaggy, crazed, wild-eyed guy, the one wearing a hair shirt instead of an Armani suit. Listen for the one who speaks in shrieks and whose personal habits embarrass polite society. Anger is the prophet’s characteristic emotion, and the jeremiad his characteristic genre. The prophet is more at home in the angular world of Flannery O’Connor than in the elegance of John Updike. It’s this image of the prophetic outsider that has inspired radicals from the Romantic period on to dress themselves in the mantle of the prophet.
Modern scholarship on prophecy buttresses popular imagination. According to Max Weber, the authority of a prophet’s revelations flow from the power of his personal charisma, in contrast to priests, who serve a “sacred tradition.” Prophets are like magicians, whose power depends “entirely [on] his personal gifts.” Biblical scholars in the tradition of Julius Wellhausen also posit a sharp contrast between the ritualized official religion of priests and the purity and directness of prophetic experience. The “Documentary Hypothesis” that has dominated Old Testament scholarship for more than a century is founded on the supposition that priestly religion is a late and self-interested corruption of earlier, freer prophetic Judaism. Walter Brueggemann charges that liberal scholars leave the fortune-telling to fundamentalists and reduce prophecy to “righteous indignation,” which “is mostly understood as social action.”
In the Bible, prophecy often looks very different. There were, of course, lone prophets like Elijah and John the Baptist, but more often prophets were fully integrated into the “system.” Jeremiah, the paradigm of prophetic pathos, came from the fallen priestly house of Eli, and Ezekiel, Zechariah, and (possibly) Isaiah were also priests. Prophets appeared in the courts of the kings of Israel. David had his Nathan, most famous for rebuking David for adultery and murder but also capable of sly maneuvering in his efforts to put Solomon on the throne. Hezekiah turned to Isaiah for advice during the Assyrian siege of Jerusalem, and Josiah sent a delegation to Huldah the prophetess after finding the book of the law during the repair of the Temple. Even Ahab grudgingly consulted Micaiah, a genuine prophet who consistently told Ahab things he didn’t want to hear. Though trained by the austere Elijah, Elisha accompanied Ahab’s son Jehoram on an expedition to suppress a Moabite rebellion, and Elisha’s servant Gehazi regaled the king with stories of the prophet’s miracles.
Most dramatically, Daniel was a Jewish prophet to Gentile emperors, first in the Babylonian court of Nebuchadnezzar and then in the Persian court of Darius the Mede. Trained for civil service in Babylon along with his three Hebrew friends, Daniel even received a Babylonian court-name, Belteshazzar. We have only a few accounts of Daniel’s interactions with kings, but Daniel 1:20 tells us that the king consulted Daniel and his other Jewish advisers on “every matter of wisdom and understanding” and found them “ten times better than all the magicians and conjurers who were in his realm.” Daniel rebuked and counseled Nebuchadnezzar, Belshazzar, and Darius in the name of the “God of heaven,” the God of Israel. But his day job was “ruler over the whole province of Babylon” (2:48). Like Joseph in Egypt, Daniel was a bureaucrat for a foreign empire—an empire, not incidentally, responsible for the destruction of Jerusalem and Solomon’s Temple.
Nothing I’ve said changes the fact that the prophets were ferocious opponents of the status quo. They recognized, and felt, the injustice that kings and priests and false prophets wanted to plaster over. They shared, as Brueggemann says, the groans of the oppressed poor, and articulated those groans in cries of woe. They denounced the system, but denounced a system that they were often very much a part of.
Far from simplifying prophecy, the Bible greatly complicates it. It’s as easy to denounce from a distance as it is to launch smart bombs from a command center on the other side of the world. Gestures of repudiation cost little, and adding the term prophetic lends an aura of piety to our reputations.
Prophets in the Bible, though, cannot afford gestures. They are called to speak the word of the Lord from within the court, mounting an internal critique. The pressures on Nathan to keep silent after David seized Bathsheba and sent her husband to his death must have been enormous. He could have vented himself in a scathing editorial and then kept his head down. From all appearances, though, Nathan had free access to the court, was a friend of David, and a close adviser. It is said that prophets spoke truth to power, but that goes beyond cliché when we realize that prophets spoke the truth face to face with power, to powerful men and women whom the prophets knew intimately, frequently from their own position of power.
Power corrupts, and it always has. Court prophets were often pusillanimous yes-men like Ahab’s four hundred, who dramatized Ahab’s coming victory over Aram by shaking around iron horns. But power doesn’t always and necessarily corrupt, and the company of priestly and court prophets also included spokesmen of Yahweh. Faithful “insiders” were always a minority, but the biblical picture shows that we can’t tell a true from a false prophet simply by answering the question, Where is the prophet? Not all prophets are in king’s houses, but some are.
Judging by the biblical evidence, though, we are as likely to find a prophet in a presidential Cabinet, at the Hague, or roaming the halls of WCC headquarters as we are in the mountains of Northern Idaho or the deserts of Arabia or the desperate ghettos of Chicago. God is no respecter of persons, and a Karl Rove or a Paul Wolfowitz, as scandalous as the suggestion may be, is as likely to be a prophet as a Jeremiah Wright.
Peter Leithart is professor of theology and literature at New Saint Andrews College and pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Moscow, Idaho. He is also the author of many books, including Deep Comedy: Trinity, Tragedy, and Hope in Western Literature and 1 & 2 Kings: Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible .