So You See Yourself as a Prophet? An Amos or a Jonah?

by Vernard Eller

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With some regularity today's social activists of the Christian Left appeal to the Old Testament prophets as precedent for their confrontational protest-witness against the powers. I here want to suggest that we will be in better position to evaluate that claim if we first decide whether, by "Old Testament prophet," we mean Amos or Jonah. There's a difference.

To launch the inquiry I now offer parallel, diagrammed sentences characterizing the work and message of Amos and of Jonah (conveniently ignoring Obadiah, whose book accidentally is sandwiched between the two we want to compare):

2acts in weeping judgmentacts in dry-eyed condemnation of
4to bring it to his Wine Festivalto bring them to Destruction

Amos (1)

Both Amos and Jonah betray a certain reticence regarding their callings--though the significance is entirely different in the two cases. First, regarding Amos, notice that he is not so much as named in the sentence-diagram pertaining to him. That is at his own request:

I am no prophet, nor a prophet's son; (Amos 7:14a)

"It would be wrong to name me along with the Holy God--as though I were somehow his colleague, confidant, or representative."

but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees,, and the LORD took me from following the flock, and the LORD said to me, "Go, prophesy to my people Israel." (Amos 7:14b-15)

"If you insist on naming me in your sentence, it should be down at No. 3, under ‘Unholy Humanity.’ God did commandeer my mouth--but I deserve no credit for that nor does it in any way affect my status. It clearly was not the case that he chose me because I was a ‘prophet,’ a holy man, an authority on holiness, or anything of the sort. I certainly hope you haven’t been hearing me as thought I think I have the right and capability of making moral judgments on peoples, kings, and nations--showing them where they are wrong and telling them what they will have to do to get right in my eyes. I'm no prophet--nor even as much as a son of one."

Jonah (1)

Jonah, on the other hand, sees no problem at all in being identified with the Lord God of Israel. In fact, particularly in the face of no-good pagans, he is positively eager to so identify himself (whether God agrees or not):

I am a Hebrew .... I worship the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land. (Jon. 1:9)

Well, yes, he was stretching it a bit as to how much he worships the Lord; yet it doesn't hurt to strike a little fear into dumb pagans by letting them know with just whom they are dealing. And thus Jonah’s reticence regarding his prophetic calling comes at a quite different point from Amos&rsqip'. Jonah had a premonition (correct, as it proved) that the Lord might not let him be as big, tough, and damning a prophet as he had in mind for himself to be.

"What kind of a God of ‘holy justice’ do you think you are? --Going soft on these Ninevite devils just when we were set to really lay it in 'em."

Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. (Jon. 4:2)

"And for that matter, just what kind of a ‘prophet&rsqip' do you think this leaves me looking like? Nothing doing. Either the word is 'Yet forty days and poof (and really mean it)--or else I quit."

Where, in the Amos sentence, appears the word "judgment," in the Jonah sentence is the word "condemnation." They are in no wise the same. When the Judge involved is the LORD, then "judgment" is but the necessary first word--the word of diagnosis as to precisely what is the sin-illness at the root of the difficulty, and this word comes first just so the next step of that "judgment" might be whatever redemptive punishment is called for in getting the problem corrected. However, completely to the contrary, "condemnation" is always a last word, after which there is nothing more to be said. Amos speaks judgment--gracious judgment.

Amos (3)

With No. 3, things fall into a true and properly theological alignment. God alone--the one true HOLY--is in the top spot; and all humans and everything that is human (Jews and Gentiles, prophets (including Amos himself), priest, and king) everything here falls equally under God’s ultimately-gracious judgment.

Jonah (3)

However, the counterpart Jonah-alignment is not theological at all but is sheerly intra-human partisan politics. Although posing as a zeal for God, the business shows not a hint of the true God's ("gracious, merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, and repenting of evil") actual involvement. No, the only "holy" is Jonah's holy Jewish self-righteousness and "God" but a name Jonah uses to justify his human-Jewish holy hatred of Ninevites. Under the guise of a "prophet of God," one sinful worldly (leftist) party that deems itself "holy" takes the opportunity to vent its spleen against another sinful worldly (rightist) party it has deemed "demonic." There is nothing of God in it--just political ideologies.

Amos (4)

With Amos, it turns out that--even through all the painful threat and punishment--God’s actual purpose was to get people to his Wild and Wonderful Wine Festival:

The time is surely coming, says the LORD, when the one who plows shall overtake the one who reaps, and the treader of grapes the one who sows the seed;
 the mountains shall drip sweet wine, and all the hills shall flow with it. (Amos 9:13)

Anyone who undertakes to drop a grape seed had better be prepared to leap smartly to one side to avoid having his heels clipped by the cluster-clippers coming closely behind. (Even if God&eageruo;s word is inerrant, I can't help but feel that Amos is exaggerating a bit.) The hills will be loaded with liquor--and the plains inevitably inundated. (I, too, feel the problem that comes with this scripture and so have initiated inquiries as to whether Amos might not permit the insertion of a not to the effect that non-alcoholic beverages will be available for pious prudes like myself.)

Jonah (4)

The very opposite of Amos, with Jonah we wind up with nothing but "grapes of wrath"--and these, too, growing fast and all over the place.

"Jonah," it is the Lord God who speaks, "you are an abomination and object of wrath to me. You are a ‘prophet of God’ who proclaims your own false Jingoistic Jewish Justice in place of my true justice. Because it offends your own perverted sense of righteousness, you flatly refuse to mention or to represent the grace and mercy of my righteousness. And now here you are bawling your eyes out over the loss of a dumb plant whose shade you valued--while trying to deny me the right to bewail the loss of a whole big cityful of my Ninevite children. I damn you, Jonah: if you can't bring yourself to regard Ninevites, can't you at least shed one little tear fro all those poor Ninevite cows? Amos has the grace to say he is not a prophet, yet is as true a one as they come. You have the gall to call yourself a prophet, but are as far from being one as can be."

I leave it to the readers to judge to what extent this analysis applies to those confrontational activists of the Christian Left who presently clam the status of Old Testament prophets. I will observe only that, in the tradition, being "a prophet of God" certainly is nothing a representative of the tradition takes any joy in being "speaker of judgment"; and our most honored examples were either reluctant to take on God's assignment or were on the lookout for opportunities actually to resign it. And conversely, in scripture, those who do seek the post or take satisfaction in it--these regularly turn out to be the Jonahs, Zedekiahs, Hananiahs, and other "politicians" who are in the wrong spot, doing the wrong thing, for the wrong reasons, in the service of the wrong master.

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