To be a prophet is not simply to declare what’s coming.
Contrary to what is often assumed, the language of the biblical prophets is rarely deterministic. To the contrary, the lines of this literature are relationally rich. The emotion of love and embrace, as of love unrequited, is a frequent visitor to these pages.
The Lord is not only the subject of the famous words, ‘Thus says …’. He is also the one who woos his often recalcitrant Israel. He pleads with her, suffers with her, is stunned by her, returns to her. He both desolates and is desolated by his beloved people.
The prophets and deterministic declarations that what will be must be are not on easy terms with each other. They rarely talk like that.
A striking exception calls for our attention. When enough has proven itself enough, when the Lord is fed up with Israel seemingly beyond remediation and beyond repair, the language of the prophets slips over into an oddly mechanical vocabulary.
Jeremiah, pleading with Judah not to believe the ‘false prophets’ who cry ‘Peace! Peace!’ when there is no peace, personifies this astounding depersonification of YHWH’s struggle to lure his people towards her better self.
Then the LORD said to me, “Though Moses and Samuel stood before me, yet my heart would not turn toward this people. Send them out of my sight, and let them go! And when they ask you, ‘Where shall we go?’ you shall say to them, ‘Thus says the LORD: “ ‘Those who are for pestilence, to pestilence, and those who are for the sword, to the sword; those who are for famine, to famine, and those who are for captivity, to captivity.’(Jeremiah 15:1–2 ESV)
One surmises that YHWH has been the protector and sustainer of Israel/Judah beyond what they have comprehended. Now, exasperated and exhausted by the damned and dogged persistence of her unbelief, YHWH takes his hands off the matter and lets things run to the chaotic rhythm that befits a world turned loose to its self-destructive entropy.
In short, what will be will be. But not in a good way.
An unmistakable note of determinism now flavors the prophet’s announcement that the great Love of Israel’s life has been driven away from her by her own, stunning ingratitude. It is almost as though the people have been measured out, not by a warm and tender hand, but by the clinical detachment of pincers that feel nothing, know nothing, but always complete their task.
This is not the way prophets speak. When these cold syllables freeze the air through which they pass, en route to deaf hearers who think only the mad talk this way, an end is near.
In the vision of the prophets, at such moments YHWH turns his back and walks away. He no longer cares, feels, rescues, saves.