Elijah, Isaiah, Daniel and John : Ecstatic prophecy, rational prophecy, visionary prophecy.
The divinely originating supernatural events that accompanied the Israelites’ escape from Egypt continued at Mount Sinai and during the inheriting of the Promised Land. However as the change from nomadic lifestyle to more settled animal and agrarian farming took place, human organisation became more important. At the same time, much apostasy occurred among the People of God. Called prophets of God contended with this throughout the centuries. In the 9th century BC, one of these, Elijah, is regarded as the greatest ecstatic ‘Nabi’. He was imbued with the presence and power of God. This was visible and verifiable in his truthful assessment of times and events, in his confrontation with the corrupt King Ahab (reigned 871 – 842 BC) and his Queen, Jezebel, (daughter of Ithobaal I of Tyre), in his confrontation with the false prophets of Baal, and with the empirical evidence of his victory over them on Mount Carmel, recorded in 1 Kings 18 : 16 – 40.
Baal was a fertility god. Pagans believed they could influence their gods' actions by performing the behaviour they wished the gods to demonstrate. Believing the sexual union of Baal and Asherah produced fertility, their worshippers engaged in immoral sex to cause the gods to join together, ensuring good harvests. This practice became the basis for religious prostitution (1 Kings 14:23-24). The priest or a male member of the community represented Baal. The priestess or a female members of the community represented Asherah. It is possible that Queen Jezebel sought to institutionalise this practice in place of the worship of the Lord God of Israel. It was of course corrupting and indeed an instrument for Israel’s annihilation as the People of God whose special calling was to witness for the God who formed them and to keep the Law given on Mount Sinai. It was therefore, a life and death struggle.
1 Kings 18 : 16 - 40 describes the epic confrontation. ‘So Obadiah went to meet Ahab and told him, and Ahab went to meet Elijah. When he saw Elijah, he said to him, “Is that you, you troubler of Israel?” “I have not made trouble for Israel,” Elijah replied. “But you and your father’s family have. You have abandoned the Lord’s commands and have followed the Baals. Now summon the people from all over Israel to meet me on Mount Carmel. And bring the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal and the four hundred prophets of Asherah, who eat at Jezebel’s table.” So Ahab sent word throughout all Israel and assembled the prophets on Mount Carmel. Elijah went before the people and said, “How long will you waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him.” But the people said nothing. Then Elijah said to them, “I am the only one of the Lord’s prophets left, but Baal has four hundred and fifty prophets. Get two bulls for us. Let Baal’s prophets choose one for themselves, and let them cut it into pieces and put it on the wood but not set fire to it. I will prepare the other bull and put it on the wood but not set fire to it. Then you call on the name of your god, and I will call on the name of the Lord. The god who answers by fire—he is God.” Then all the people said, “What you say is good.” Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, “Choose one of the bulls and prepare it first, since there are so many of you. Call on the name of your god, but do not light the fire.” So they took the bull given them and prepared it. Then they called on the name of Baal from morning till noon. “Baal, answer us!” they shouted. But there was no response; no one answered. And they danced around the altar they had made. At noon Elijah began to taunt them. “Shout louder!” he said. “Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or travelling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened.” So they shouted louder and slashed themselves with swords and spears, as was their custom, until their blood flowed. Midday passed, and they continued their frantic prophesying until the time for the evening sacrifice. But there was no response, no one answered, no one paid attention. Then Elijah said to all the people, “Come here to me.” They came to him, and he repaired the altar of the Lord, which had been torn down. Elijah took twelve stones, one for each of the tribes descended from Jacob, to whom the word of the Lord had come, saying, “Your name shall be Israel. With the stones he built an altar in the name of the Lord, and he dug a trench around it large enough to hold two seahs of seed. He arranged the wood, cut the bull into pieces and laid it on the wood. Then he said to them, “Fill four large jars with water and pour it on the offering and on the wood.” “Do it again,” he said, and they did it again. “Do it a third time,” he ordered, and they did it the third time. The water ran down around the altar and even filled the trench. At the time of sacrifice, the prophet Elijah stepped forward and prayed: “Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant and have done all these things at your command. Answer me, Lord, answer me, so these people will know that you, Lord, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.” Then the fire of the Lord fell and burned up the sacrifice, the wood, the stones and the soil, and also licked up the water in the trench. When all the people saw this, they fell prostrate and cried, “The Lord—he is God! The Lord—he is God!” Then Elijah commanded them, “Seize the prophets of Baal. Don’t let anyone get away!” They seized them, and Elijah had them brought down to the Kishon Valley and slaughtered them there.’
This is a terrible story. 21st century westerners cannot absorb its content. One man against a mob of whirling dervishes ending in the mass murder of 450 people. Does anyone want anything to do with such a story, such a man, such a God? But much worse has happened in the human community since those distant days. At this time there is an uncompromising war in Ukraine with slaughter, rape and torture of civilians, much destruction of property, mass displacement of persons and over 7 million refugees. In war these things happen. They did in the Second World War and in the First. Mao of China is considered to have murdered up to 80 million Chinese, Stalin at least 30 million Russians and Ukrainians and Hitler was responsible in whole or in part for the 42 million deaths which occurred between 1939 and 1945. For Elijah it was war. Did the God of Israel actually exist? Did he care? Did he intervene? Was the Call of the People of God real? Was it distinct and identifiable? The answer was ‘Yes, Yes, Yes and Yes’. Elijah was a man of action. He lived a life alone accompanied only by God. He was in the language of older Scotland ‘far ben wi’ God’. He was a spiritual warrior. So was St Paul. So was William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army.
Isaiah was man of letters. ‘Hear the word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom; listen to the instruction of our God, you people of Gomorrah! “The multitude of your sacrifices—what are they to me?” says the Lord. “I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats. When you come to appear before me, who has asked this of you, this trampling of my courts? Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me. New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations—I cannot bear your worthless assemblies. Your New Moon feasts and your appointed festivals I hate with all my being. They have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. When you spread out your hands in prayer, I hide my eyes from you; even when you offer many prayers, I am not listening. Your hands are full of blood! Wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight; stop doing wrong. Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow. “Come now, let us reason together,” says the Lord. “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool. If you are willing and obedient, you will eat the good things of the land; but if you resist and rebel, you will be devoured by the sword.” For the mouth of the Lord has spoken. (1 : 10 – 20)
Isaiah saw above and beyond the sacrificial cult. He saw that it was not efficacious, that it did not absolve the people of their sins, nor did it make them any better people. He wanted a truer Judaism with personal relationship to God and obedient keeping of the humanitarian requirements of the Law, especially in terms of righteousness, justice and charity. Christianity has always emphasised the sacrificial aspect of Jesus’ death on Calvary. Calvinistic vicarious sacrificial atonement theology considers that God’s wrath against human sin was assuaged by Jesus’ obedient blood spilling death. But if Isaiah was right, why was a sacrificial death necessary, especially that of the Son of God Himself? The contemporary hymn ‘In Christ alone’ by Keith Getty and Stuart Townend has the words ‘Till on that cross as Jesus died The wrath of God was satisfied For every sin on Him was laid’. Isaiah lifts our minds above this explanation and rationale. Human and child sacrifice was anathema to Judaism. Abraham was not required to sacrifice his son Isaac on Mount Moriah (Genesis 22 : 1 – 15). Israelites were forbidden human sacrifice. ‘You must not worship the Lord your God in their way, because in worshipping their gods, they do all kinds of detestable things the Lord hates. They even burn their sons and daughters in the fire as sacrifices to their gods’. (Deuteronomy 12 : 31) It is argued by some that God did not sacrifice his own son. That Jesus voluntarily offered himself as this sacrifice. But the blood spilling death was still necessary according to this reasoning.
Isaiah 53 : 1 - 12 is held to prophesy Jesus’ death. ‘Who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem. Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. By oppression and judgment he was taken away. Yet who of his generation protested? For he was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of my people he was punished. He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death, though he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth. Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the Lord makes his life an offering for sin, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand. After he has suffered, he will see the light of life and be satisfied; by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities. Therefore I will give him a portion among the great, and he will divide the spoils with the strong, because he poured out his life unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors. For he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors’.
We might ask with the Ethiopian “Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?” (Acts 8 : 34) Critics of Christianity suggest that Jesus knew the Isaiah 53 passage and decided to self-fulfil it. But how could he have arranged his own crucifixion? Yes, he knew he had enemies. He had recognised them and provoked them (Matthew 23 : 1 – 39). “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness. (v27 – 28) He had physically set about the temple marketers. ‘Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves. “It is written,” he said to them, “‘My house will be called a house of prayer" but you are making it ‘a den of robbers’. (Matthew 21 : 12 – 13)
Jesus’ earlier more theological confrontation with his opponents probably determined his fate ‘Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. I know that you are Abraham’s descendants. Yet you are looking for a way to kill me, because you have no room for my word. I am telling you what I have seen in the Father’s presence, and you are doing what you have heard from your father.” “Abraham is our father,” they answered. “If you were Abraham’s children,” said Jesus, “then you would do what Abraham did. As it is, you are looking for a way to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. Abraham did not do such things. You are doing the works of your own father.” “We are not illegitimate children,” they protested. “The only Father we have is God himself.” Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I have come here from God. I have not come on my own; God sent me. Why is my language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say. You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies. Yet because I tell the truth, you do not believe me! Can any of you prove me guilty of sin? If I am telling the truth, why don’t you believe me? Whoever belongs to God hears what God says. The reason you do not hear is that you do not belong to God.” (John 8 : 34 – 47) and it was sealed by his declaration before Caiaphas and Ananias and the Sanhedrin, ‘But I say to all of you: From now on you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven’. (Matthew 26 : 64)
Normally however the penalty for blasphemy was death by stoning. Extraordinarily the Jewish leadership handed Jesus over to the hated Romans knowing that if they sentenced Jesus to death as a political insurrectionist, he would be crucified. He was. He was pierced. His blood was shed. He had done nothing to deserve this end. Martin Luther King said “Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable... Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.” How much more then the redemption of the sins of the human community in the sight of God? Isaiah’s words above ‘Therefore I will give him a portion among the great, and he will divide the spoils with the strong, because he poured out his life unto death’ suggest an existential or contemporary application. It was recovery, redemption, re-instatement and recognition. It may have been a partially sighted sense of Jesus’ resurrection. An Israelite would not have thought about a specific resurrection from this life. It certainly came true in this respect, far beyond what Isaiah himself imagined. But this was all rational, reasonable and understandable. It was also universal.
Isaiah’s message was one which took personal faith in the God of Israel out into the whole world. It was not to be confined to the Chosen People. It was not to be limited to one specific race. ‘This is the plan determined for the whole world; this is the hand stretched out over all nations. For the Lord Almighty has purposed, and who can thwart him? His hand is stretched out, and who can turn it back?’ (Isaiah 14 : 26 -27) ‘Give praise to the Lord, proclaim his name; make known among the nations what he has done, and proclaim that his name is exalted. Sing to the Lord, for he has done glorious things; let this be known to all the world. Shout aloud and sing for joy, people of Zion, for great is the Holy One of Israel among you’. (Isaiah 12 : 4 – 5) ‘Do you not know? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom. He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint’. (Isaiah 40 : 28 – 32) This is a far cry from Elijah on Mount Moriah.
Ecstatic prophecy and rational prophecy were followed by visionary prophecy. Daniel 7 and Revelation are the sources. Visionary prophecy has a different quality and character from ecstatic prophecy and from rational prophecy. Visionary prophecy has a quantity of human imagination attached to it, perhaps central to it, expressed in dream state language. Daniel 7 is metaphor, representation. Its theme is of the "four kingdoms", which Israel would come under, four successive world-empires, each worse than the last, until finally God and his hosts would end oppression and introduce the eternal kingdom. The four kingdoms are thought to be Babylon, Medes, Persians and Greeks / Seleucids. Some scholars date the book of Daniel to the period of conquest of the latter of these invaders and specifically to 167 – 160 BC, the time of the Maccabean revolt. Judas Maccabeus led a rebellion and captured Jerusalem and cleansed the Temple in 164 BC. This is commemorated in the festival of Hanukkah also known as the festival of Lights which is held for eight days in late November and early December. Daniel 7 ends with a prophecy. ‘Then the sovereignty, power and greatness of all the kingdoms under heaven will be handed over to the holy people of the Most High. His kingdom will be an everlasting kingdom, and all rulers will worship and obey him.’ (Daniel 7 : 27) Was Daniel really thinking about the prospect of an entity continuous with but distinct from the People of God? Christian apologists suggest that this prophecy has been fulfilled in the New Israel, the Christian Church which is based on the resurrection of Jesus and on his eternal life and living. And it is certainly true that this has happened. But the Christian Church has no control over the nations of the world. Perhaps it did for a time in the middle ages but that is considered to have been at the expense of true vocation to be a spiritual kingdom above and beyond the successive ruling empires of human history.
The book of Revelation is also visionary prophecy. It takes Daniel’s ideas and enlarges them beyond this world and into the age to come, the eschaton, the finality of judgement and the end of creation as we know it. Revelation 13 : 3 – 8 reads, ‘The dragon stood on the shore of the sea. And I saw a beast coming out of the sea. It had ten horns and seven heads, with ten crowns on its horns, and on each head a blasphemous name. The beast I saw resembled a leopard, but had feet like those of a bear and a mouth like that of a lion. The dragon gave the beast his power and his throne and great authority. One of the heads of the beast seemed to have had a fatal wound, but the fatal wound had been healed. The whole world was filled with wonder and followed the beast. People worshipped the dragon because he had given authority to the beast, and they also worshipped the beast and asked, “Who is like the beast? Who can wage war against it?” The beast was given a mouth to utter proud words and blasphemies and to exercise its authority for forty-two months. It opened its mouth to blaspheme God, and to slander his name and his dwelling place and those who live in heaven. It was given power to wage war against God’s holy people and to conquer them. And it was given authority over every tribe, people, language and nation. All inhabitants of the earth will worship the beast—all whose names have not been written in the Lamb’s book of life, the Lamb who was slain from the creation of the world’.
There is a qualitative difference between Elijah’s existential historical activist prophesying and the visions of Daniel and those in Revelation. There is also a qualitative difference between Elijah and Isaiah, the latter being an interpreter of the times using reason and literacy. There is also a qualitative difference between Isaiah and Daniel and Revelation; these are metaphor and symbol. Yet because they belong to Holy Scripture, some hold them to be historically applicable, and in Revelation's case most definitely to be fulfilled at some point in human history. Can this really be the case? Is the canon of progressive revelation visible throughout the Bible to close at the end of the book of Revelation?
What then about the Third Testament, the history of Christianity? What about Jesus’ words, ‘Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.’ (John 14 : 12) Quantitively, this has been proved true. Christianity has done extraordinarily great things at scale throughout the centuries. But might this not also be applicable to progressive revelation continuing and not being restricted to the end of the book of Revelation? The Christian academic and apologist John Lennox thinks that the continuing progress of humanity is not certain. He thinks that Revelation offers an alternative vision of a catastrophic end to humanity. But Revelation is not an existential nor a rational document. Elijah’s prophecies were empirically verifiable. So were Isaiah’s. Revelation’s prophecies have not been verifiable so far. They may be in the future, to be sure. But might they not be? Specifically? Could they be descriptions of perennial issues in the human community in every age and generation? Caesar Augustus, Nero, Alaric, Muhammad, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Putin, Xi Jinping, the future ‘man of lawlessness’? (2 Thessalonians 2 : 3 - 10) Might not the world continue for millennia to come?
Christians believe in the continuing providence of God the Creator. Rightly so. But what might that be like? Are not great discoveries still to be made? Will there not be knowledge that makes ours look like that of serfs in the dark ages? Christian belief in the overarching Lordship of God has been, is and will be contested in the affairs of the world. There are more Christians today than there have ever been. There is a largeness in the potentials of creation that is beyond our ken. There is a spiritual universe whose scale is unfathomable. There is much suffering in the world today also. The majority of humanity are desperately poor. Western liberal political democracy is being challenged by authoritarian regimes. Israel is always being attacked and targeted in word and action. Christians are heavily persecuted in many countries and even in the west it has become difficult to earn a living as a Christian without giving up some principle. It is not possible to preach the Gospel in the streets without being arrested. Christianity is no longer welcome in many schools. It is no longer the default understanding of collective life. People generally do not believe that God is involved with the world. Nor do they think that he cares about them. And they do not care for him. Christians offer a different view and a higher perspective to all that consumes human daily and social life. It is based on the crucifixion of Jesus. It is the reality of eternity made known in the resurrection of Jesus. This is the context for future life and we must assume that it will continue to be reasonable, rational and understandable just as our personal relationship with God in Jesus Christ is reasonable, rational and understandable.
Jesus has often been described as 'Prophet, Priest and King' denoting his specific roles. Jesus may also be described as fulfilling ecstatic prophecy because he battled with spiritual evil and he healed the sick; he died on Calvary and rose from that death in resurrection. He fulfilled rational prophecy in being the Word incarnate; he also discussed, reasoned and taught; he prophesied the destruction of the Temple (Mark 13 : 2) and it happened when the Romans laid waste Jerusalem in 70 AD. He fulfilled visionary prophecy because he did clearly say 'And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.' (Mark 14 : 62) Was this an eschatological prophecy of and for the next life?
The Jews of Jesus’ time awaited a glorious Messiah who would inaugurate an everlasting messianic kingdom on earth. They got a crucified Messiah instead. Some Christians today await the appearance of the glorified Jesus to rule the world in righteousness and to dispose of his enemies. Might it not be the case that generations of Christians are called to witness faithfully in the world as long as it endures and to leave at the end of their personal lives to find eternal life in heaven? Will there be global trauma in years to come? Almost certainly. Will that be the end of everything. Perhaps not. What of our grandchildren and theirs? Christianity offers its unique perspective, its special contribution to human knowledge. That Jesus might not appear on the clouds any time soon is no hindrance to commitment and service, to witness, watching and prayer. It is the opposite, to redouble our efforts to be faithful and obedient for His Name’s sake.