The story goes, a man wanted to know immediately what God wanted him to do. With his eyes closed, he opened his Bible and pointed to a verse. The verse said, "And Judas went out and hanged himself." He thought perhaps he should try again. He pointed to another verse. It said, "What you do, do quickly."
How do we know what we should do? Some ask continuously, "What was I supposed to do?" as if there was a prescribed action for every situation, if they just knew what it was. I'm aware of some people who pray to God for help every few minutes in their lives. I'm not critical of that. I don't know whether God helps those folks every minute or not. I don't know if they don't trust themselves to make moral decisions and need an outside source of direction. Maybe they do get help finding their lost tape measure... I'm always tempted to pray when I lose something. And if we think, "What would Jesus do?" we're a lot more likely to do a good thing and not something that is counterproductive.
Are our steps divinely guided? Is this taken to the extreme of minute by minute by some? Is this really the essence of faith, of faithful action, and of divinely guided steps?
Praying often is not a useless exercise. Cindi McMenamin*17 writes, "If you're only praying when you're in trouble, then you're in trouble. Prayer keeps us focused on God. So it needs to be continual, so we don't lose our focus and start thinking of ourselves again. First Thessalonians 5:17 tells us to 'pray continually.'"*1
1. From Cindi McMenamin's book, Women on the Edge, Harvest House Publishers, 2010. .
We would like to know things for certain. Should we do this... should we do that? Can we just ask God and get a clear answer? People of faith have often thought up ways to get answers.
I remember that Bishop Fulton Sheen wrote in one of his books that he stepped out on faith and went on a journey without funding. As he began to prepare for his return trip home, someone asked him how he expected to do that. That person ended up funding his trip. Not to criticize Sheen, but it's borderline "tempting God" to put God in the hot seat of our own volition and expect God to rise to the occassion. Even Jesus wouldn't jump off a cliff and expect God to save him (Matthew 4:5-6).
We are also tempted to have God "prove" theological beliefs in our lives. For example, a person might expose himself to some threat, such as a disease or a poisonous snake bite, and expect God to protect him (Mark 16:18 NIV: "...they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.") This is simply another way of tempting God. It is challenging God to come to our rescue, and is irresponsible and reckless. What if everyone suddenly became reckless and stopped protecting their children or following safety guidelines - there would be a lot of accidents and fatalities. If we are demeaning to God, how can we expect God to respect us?
Pastor Robert Schuller*1 of the Crystal Cathedral church and the Hour of Power international television ministry, stepped out on faith multiple times, as did Pastor Jerry Falwell*1 of the Thomas Road Baptist Church and Liberty University to build his mega-church, university, and various community and television ministries. Sometimes you win. Sometimes you end up in great financial debt which nearly breaks you. Both pastors did well in their visions and endeavors even though they had their share of struggles. Robert Schuller started a church in the 1950s in a drive in movie theater - unheard of. People came and sat in their cars for the worship service. He stepped out on faith and it worked. But he didn't gamble with his life doing it. Another time when Schuller wanted to build a new church, he stepped out on faith and stopped at a farm to talk to the owner. The owner donated the land for the world famous Crystal Cathedral. People step out on faith every day around the world to build new religious buildings and enterprises. Usually they succeed. There is a difference between doing stupid and dangerous things, and genuinely trying to do what you believe God leads you to do with His help. They made calculated decisions, they didn't jump off a cliff and expect God to save them.
God will prove Himself to us if we allow Him. If we follow God's ways, He proves to us that His ways are best. The proof comes through experience, both through failing to do things God's ways and seeing the bad result, and doing things God's way and seeing the good result.
How do we understand how God leads us in our lives? There is certainly no singular way. First we'll have a look at history in the Bible and see how this developed in the history of Israel, and then in the next article, how it quickly developed in early Christianity.
God speaks to Ancient Israel
We could wish for God to pay us a visit and tell us directly what He wanted us to do. This has happened before.
God appears in person
Initially in the Bible, God paid people a visit and told them directly what He wanted. In Genesis, God* visited with Adam and Eve and their sons. Similarly he visited Noah, and then Noah built an altar to God at that place. It was common for people to build an altar to God wherever they had an encounter with God, and these places became known as holy places where people could expect that God was there and communicate with him, possibly through a vision. Building altars to God happened repeatedly throughout the Old Testament (the Jewish Bible).
Things changed slightly in Genesis chapter 12. God either spoke to Abraham, or appeared to him. In chapter 15, God appeared to Abraham in a vision. In Genesis 16, the "Angel of God"*2 (Angel of the Lord) began appearing to people, instead of making a personal appearance, but in chapters 17, 18, 22, and 26 God still appeared directly to Abraham.
2. The Hebrew word "Jehovah" is usually translated into the English title "Lord." The word Jehovah, abbreviated in Hebrew Scripture without the vowels as Yhwh (pronounced Jehovah), is Israel's national name for God. Out of respect (or traditional prohibition), many Jews do not call God by a name, and often will even abbreviate the title God as G_d. Often the Hebrew word "el" is used, which in Hebrew (or Semitic) is the title, God, not a name, and refers to any god. In Exodus 6:2, God speaks to Moses and says, "I am the LORD. 3 I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob as God Almighty, but by my name the LORD I did not make myself known to them."
The people that God visited, or the Angel of the Lord visited, often didn't recognize God or the Angel. And the people didn't necessarily believe what either had to say. It actually seemed more believable and effective if the people had a vision.
An example from later in Israelite history comes from Gideon. The Spirit of God was on Gideon, and Gideon did as God asked him (pulled down the altars to Ba'al). The Angel of the Lord appeared to Gideon, but that wasn't enough. When Gideon was asked to take a small group of men into battle, he didn't believe what he had seen with his eyes. He asked to be shown through miracles - for two nights running he asked that the material he placed on the ground be dry on the top and next underneath, in the morning after the night's dew. To further confirm the mission, a man came to Gideon with a dream he had, and the interpretation was that Gideon would deliver them. So it took three confirmations to convince Gideon. He became a military hero. (Judges 6, 7.)
How would we react today if God paid us a visit? The movies Oh God, and Bruce Almighty,*3 a couple of my favorites, give us a good indication what that would be like. We wouldn't believe it was God, then we would be paralyzed in fear, and then we would be unlikely to do anything because people would think we were crazy, and of course people would not believe us. Today those people who do say they are on a mission from God, we view with a lot of suspicion, consider calling a hospital psychiatric ward, and we see a lot of failures.
3. Oh, God; 1977; Warner Bros. Pictures. Bruce Almighty; 2003; Universal Pictures.
God seemed to stop the personal appearances and began appearing in visions. We don't know why - maybe He got tired of the military pulling his camel over and asking Him for His God ID card, and then people lining up for miles to complain about their miserable lives. Who knows? So He took a less direct approach. God appeared to Jacob in a vision in Genesis 28:10-17. Jacob felt the Lord was in that place, so he built an altar to God there at Bethel. From that time on God spoke to Jacob in visions (Genesis 46:2), and then to Jacob's son, Joseph, in the same way.
We can't say that God no longer appears to people in person or in visions. Near Death Experiences (NDEs) are common to about 35% of the population who have been clinically dead or near death (8 million Americans in 1996), and during these people believe they are in the presence of Christ, who appears in the form of a person, or in the presence of God, who is in the form of a brilliant white light. Their otherworldly experience is somewhat consistent with their religious beliefs, such as Hindu or Christian. They return with a new sense of purpose. But what we can say is this is not the way we find our way in our everyday lives.
God appears in public in novel forms
The widely held belief in the land among the followers of Jehovah and of Ba'al, was that you could not see God and survive. The special circumstances of people following Moses from Egypt, and then following him for 40 years in the wilderness to grow into a religious nation, possibly meant that God must prove His presence to the people. But... they couldn't see Him. How would God communicate to them what He wanted them to do?
So how did this work? In Exodus 3:2, God spoke to Moses through a burning bush. Throughout the book of Exodus, as Moses was giving messages to Pharoah, and as Moses led the people out of Egypt, God was speaking to Moses and his brother, Aaron, but we aren't advised of the mechanism - whether in person or through a fire. In Exodus 16:10, the glory of God appeared to the people in a cloud in the sky as Aaron was talking to them - a confirmation of sorts. Then things changed.
Administration replaces communications
With leading groups of people comes the responsibility of administration. How will the people be fed? How will they be governed? Who will settle disputes? Moses found himself spending all of his time with administration, and going to God for advice on everything from the smallest things to major things. This forced a major turn in Moses' relations with God. Moses father-in-law, Jethro, counseled Moses to stop doing this all himself, and appoint other capable people to do these things. So Moses made heads (for each tribe of people) and rulers over the people. This was a significant step in decision making. Should people take every minor thing to God, or to a representative of God? No. It was up to Moses, the main leader, to teach them God's ways, and it was for others to do the necessary administration.
God viewed this relationship with His people as "a kingdom of priests," among all people (Exodus 19:6). It wasn't necessary for God to make an appearance every time someone had a dispute in the world. Priests could teach them God's ways and administer. As affirmation, he would appear to the people in a thick dark cloud whenever He spoke to Moses, so that the people could hear. However, on viewing the mountain surrounded by smoke and thunder, the people were too frightened of God, so they stood far away from the mountain where God spoke to Moses, and asked that God speak through Moses. (Genesis 19 and 20.)
So we see here the necessity of a leadership role among people. Fear of God prevents individuals from being led, so someone has to do it. Moses not only set up the heads and rulers, he also set up priests from Aaron's family to represent each of the 12 tribes of people who became the nation of Israel.
Aaron was given the role of judgment. He would wear the mechanism of judgment on his chest. Part of that would be the Urim and Thummim, to determine the judgment of the people. These unknown items, the Urim and Thummim, were something like a magic eight ball, possibly in the form of dice, used to divine the will of God.*4 They are thought to signify guilt or innocence, yes or no - decisions. "Casting lots" was a common way of making decisions, and was used in dividing up the land for the 12 tribes (Joshua 18:6). The actual form of the Urim and Thummim probably is not important. What is important is that people deferred to God to make important judgments, especially about things they could not see clearly. They expected God to intervene with his presence in the physical world, manifest through some physical object. So this is only somewhat removed from God making a personal visit.
4. The Urim and Thummim were placed inside the breastplate of judgment. Their use was considered "casting lots," which is like drawing straws for the longer or shorter one, or throwing stones to see which side came up. "Casting" seems to be the operative word, so they were likely stones that could be thrown like dice. In any other situation this would be considered a game of chance. - Reference: The Jewish Encyclopedia online, article at www.jewishencyclopedia.com http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/view.jsp?artid=52&letter=U
How the Urim and Thummim were used is illustrated by Saul, the first King of Israel. Skipping ahead some centuries, Saul used it to determine who was at fault. Saul had decreed that no one would eat until he was avenged of his enemies, the Philistines, who he had just defeated in battle. His son, Jonathon, had not heard the decree, and ate. When he did so his eyes shown with light. Through a priest, Saul asked of God whether he should attack the Philistines again that night. He received no answer, and realized something was wrong in Israel's relationship with God, despite the victory they had just had. He used the Urim and Thummim to determine who was at fault. If it was himself and his son, he asked for Urim. If the fault was in the people of Israel, he asked for Thummim. It gave Urim. He then cast the lot between himself and his son, and it fell to his son. However the people realized that Jonathon was responsible for the victory over the Philistines and he had not heard the decree, so they refused to punish him.
According to a Wikipedia article (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Urim_and_Thummim), and The Jewish Encyclopedia online, article at www.jewishencyclopedia.com http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/view.jsp?artid=52&letter=U, these may have been lost to time in one of the invasions by Babylonia, but may actually have been in use by some until less than a hundred years before Christ, according to the Jewish historian Josephus, who wrote during the era of Christ.
God moves into a mobile home (Exodus 40)
As the people left Egypt and wandered in the wilderness, the need for affirmation and resolution of disputes grew greater. God told Moses to build a tabernacle (Tent of meeting of the people) in which would be the Ark with the Commandments, and the Mercy Seat of judgment. The heavy dark smoke filled the tent by day, indicating God's presence, and by night it would be filled with light, indicating God's glory. Whenever God did not appear to be in the tabernacle, the people moved forward into the land. God spoke to Moses from the cloud (Deuteronomy 1:1), so the people could hear. After Moses died, God apparently did the same with Joshua from the Tent of Meeting.
When the people had settled into the land, in both the Southern territories (Judah), and Northern territories (Israel), the Tabernacle (Tent of Meeting), could not be everywhere. They had the Law of God to guide them and they had priests to serve them. For administration, judges were appointed by God. Who these judges actually were, were tribal leaders and military heroes who because of their service were entrusted with governing and protecting the people. The Spirit of God was on them (Judges 3:9-10).
Having tribal and military victors rule the people wasn't any different than the way it had been in these lands for the preceding 2000 years. You find the same thinking in the Bhagavad Gītā in India (Hindu), where Krishna (a manifestation of God) rides with his military commander, Arjuna, and advises him on the morality of battling his cousin. You find it in Ancient Canaan where Ba'al was worshiped, and in Ancient Sumer and Babylon in the earliest civilizations who put law, governing, religion, and conquering into writing a thousand years before Israel.
Governers and military leaders of small towns and territories conquered territory and other towns and claimed it as their own. They governed and claimed that God had appointed them. Their victories always "came from God." Their laws "came from God." They always shouted "God is on our side." The Israelites cities were often conquerors and often conquered. The militarism in the Bible, from the vantage point of today, should not be taken seriously. This type of leadership always carried the claim of God's approval in all lands.*5 Today we still find the same type of thinking, and see examples of tribal and ethnic warfare in many countries, often in the name of religion.
5. The development of law is an early stage of moral development in many lands, as I outline in my book, Ontology of God - The Voices of the Ancients Speak.
When the people began worshiping other gods (Ba'al, the son of Ba'al), the Angel of the Lord, who apparently lived now at Gilgal (Judges 2), went to see them and scolded or condemned them. Those who fell back in line were forgiven. If they were destroyed by enemies or taken into slavery, this was interpreted that they were punished by God for worshiping Ba'al. This set the pattern for the prophets of Israel who came later (see Deborah in Judges 4:4). They bore the same message and promised destruction if the people continued to refuse God's ways or worshiped other gods.
One difference can be pointed out in Judaism. The Law of Moses had to be apparent in any law and judgment of the people. Other laws, such as Hammurabi's Code in earlier Babylon (which Hammurabi of course claimed came from God), did not have this consistency. However, both sets of law codes, when you drill into the details, are eye-for-eye codes, and are filled with a lot of what seems like nonsense.
In early religions, laws and punishments were very tough, and had to be to keep people in line. Keeping religion organized and teaching it to people who were widespread over a land of wilderness with no communication links, is a difficult task. Tribal and military leaders were not only necessary to defend the people from attack, they were also the main mechanism for communicating the Law of God, and these leaders claimed the backing of God - appointed by prophets and often approved by the people. The nations depended on these social mechanisms, judges (governors and military leaders who stood for justice), prophets, ministers, and priests, for community and religious survival.
How not to communicate with God
We come to the tragic story of Jephthah the Gileadite in Judges 11. He was a mighty warrior. In this story we see someone make a strange pledge to God, unbidden, and the consequences. Jephthah didn't come from a "good" family. His position in the community was refused, even though he was a good military ruler. He didn't hang with the best of people. When some of them came to him to ask him to make war on the Ammonites, he bargained with them to be their ruler. Note that God had no part in this - He wasn't even consulted. On the way to confront the Ammonites, Jephthah made a pledge to God. God wasn't consulted for advice, He was simply informed of Jephthah's choice. Jephthah pledged, If God would give him victory, when he returned home he would sacrifice the first person who came to greet him. Argh! Human sacrifice was wrong, wrong, wrong to the Israelites - it was a practice of the other gods in the land.
When Jephthah returned victorious, it was his own dear daughter who happily danced out to welcome him, unaware of his pledge to God. It was she who he had to sacrifice. Note the complete absence of God in this entire story, other than as a possible listener to the stupid pledge Jephthah made. Without direction from God, we fall victim to ourselves.
Samuel shows us a pattern of progression
We no longer see God, or the Angel of the Lord, make appearances at this time. It isn't until another major transition in the life of Israel that appearances take place: the establishment of a king.
Sameul was given to a priest, Eli, to raise. Eli's two sons, who should have inherited his post, weren't worth much, but Samuel was a good minister. A "man of God," came to see Eli and told him "the word of God." The story tells us in Samuel 3:1 (RSV), "The word of the Lord was rare in those days; there was no frequent vision." Samuel was lying down in the Temple of God where the Ark was (the Tabernacle) one night, and he heard a voice call to him. Samuel consulted Eli, who told him it was God. Samuel listened to what God had to say. Samuel became a prophet (which necessarily means he communicated with God in a vision). Later at Shiloh, God revealed Himself to Samuel through His word. Samuel proved himself in battle and became a judge.
Samuel is one of those interesting people: minister, prophet, judge. The progression is something to consider in our own lives. We might think that the normal progression would be judge, minister, prophet. Responsibilities for some positions often take more preparation than we think. A minister was someone who attended to or served the spiritual needs of others, more typically serving through menial tasks. The prophet was someone who carried a message from God. The judge is someone who governs and defends. Samuel set up a circuit and travelled regularly between 3 cities administering justice in the nation.
Today a minister does the same thing, serves, and may conduct worship services. Pastors are often called ministers. There are a variety of ministries, which are considered service to God by serving people in some capacity, such as counseling, teaching, prayer, singing and music, technical service, art, environmental conservation, prison and sick visitation, etc. The www.onespiritresources site is a ministry.
Samuel had no better luck with his children than Eli before him. Samuel appointed his sons as judges, but his sons didn't like their father's ways. The people got tired of poor judges and decided that rather than judges, they wanted a king like the other nations. God told Samuel to appoint Saul as king.
The prophets instruct the King
Saul and cohorts were on a journey when they lost some asses belonging to Saul's father. Thinking they could use a seer to find them, they counted the things they had for a gift and sought Samuel, whose reputation for foretelling accuracy was excellent. Saul saw no difference between a seer, who you had to pay, and a prophet, who came to you to deliver messages from God. Saul later even consulted a medium out of desperation... after driving them all from the land. Saul's scruples were grounded in expedience, and following God's ways could be very inconvenient. Samuel was not a seer, so did not need a gift from Saul. On seeing Saul, before he could say a word, Samuel immediately told him the asses had been found, and later told him that he would be appointed king.
Saul was not a very good King. He acted foolishly and did not follow God. As we already know, Saul followed God until it became inconvenient to what Saul wanted. Samuel had threatened Saul with removal, as directed by God, but Samuel put it off out of sorrow for Saul. Finally Saul again proved he would not follow God, and God again directed Samuel to remove him. Samuel feared that Saul would kill him, but appointed David, a poor shepherd, the new King. The Spirit of the Lord came on David, and shortly departed from Saul. David, with the Spirit of God on him, proved himself in battle. But Samuel left the transfer of kingship unfinished, so Saul hunted David for many years, and twice David spared Saul's life. Even so, Saul still hunted David to kill him.
The battle with the Philistines went on and on over the years. Saul battled them on one front. David battled them on another. Saul went after David, finally driving David from the land. David joined the Philistines. Finally Saul saw an encampment of Philistines and was afraid. He sought direction from God, but God would not communicate with him by Urim and Thummim, by prophet, or by dreams - the only official means of communications. Many so-called prophets roamed in large bands with musical instruments in those days, and they did not have the authority of major prophets, but they "prophesied," which may have been more of a preaching a message from God in the form of oracles at gatherings of people - a worship service on the move. But for whatever reason Saul could not get their advice, and Samuel had died. So Saul went to a medium, which was forbidden, to seek advice from the deceased Samuel.
Samuel simply said to Saul, why are you disturbing me if God is your enemy? Tomorrow you will be with me. (Samuel 28:15-25.) Saul fell on his own sword after being injured in battle with the Philistines.
We learn from Saul's experience that it is important for a king to be an excellent example for the people, and this means in things like following God. Saul, the first king who should have been the best example, and who was very charismatic and excellent in battle, often did things that displeased God. Today we see corrupt leaders who lie, embezzle funds, and use their office for their own gain. These are not "godly" public servants. These are people who, like Saul, couldn't communicate with God if they wanted to - their actions tell that their heart and mind are not focused on God. From the earliest days and laws of Ancient Sumer, to Ancient Israel, to Hammurabi in Ancient Babylon (prior to Babylon becoming an enemy of Israel), to Egypt, to the Ancient Greeks, there were laws (not necessarily in print), against corrupt officials who took advantage of the people. They often have to be forcibly removed from office.
The role of prophecy
During this time, and into the future, the priests communicated with God for matters of instruction and justice, with the only legitimate communication modes*6 being the Urim and Thummim, the prophet, and dreams (I Samuel 28:6). The prophets communicated for God in matters of direction and morals. As Israel progressed, the prophet's role became more oriented toward justice and following the true God.
6. Mitchell G. Bard. the Jewish Virtual Library, Urim and Thummim article at http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/judaica/ejud_0002_0020_0_20235.html; 06/20/2010.
At this point in the Bible (from Saul forward) we don't know exactly where people got their information from God. They could go to a priest, which would have been the standard way. The priest would consult the Urim and Thummim, but this would only give them a yes or no answer to a simple question. They could go to a band of prophets with their question and listen to them all prophesie. They could go to Samuel, before he died, but the major prophets were not so approachable with questions - they came to you with the answer before you even knew the question.
In 2 Samuel 5:23, David "inquired of the Lord," about battling the Philistines. He got a long answer about attacking from the rear when he hears the sound in the balsam trees. Had prophecy become commonplace, as were seers or oracles in other lands? We do know that many prophets became attached to the Temple, which was constructed after David.
In 2 Samuel 23 and 24, we see an example of the use of prophets. Opening chapter 23, we hear a song of praise from King David apparently from his death bed, recorded (maybe even composed) by the "Oracle of David, the son of Jesse." David apparently considered himself an oracle, or prophet. In chapter 24 (RSV), "...the word of the Lord came to the prophet Gad, David's seer." The prophet had a disturbing message of punishment for David that a king would not want to hear. So we can see that basically the leaders got around the ban on seers by employing many prophets and prophetesses who apparently had many functions, or even being prophets, and they delivered messages from God. But these didn't have the standing of the major prophets.
How good were these prophets? In 1 Kings 22, King Ahab tried to avoid the Prophet Micai'ah, who always gave him a message he didn't want to hear. He gathered 400 prophets and asked them if he should go to battle. The prophets were in front of the threshing floor*7 where King David had built an altar to God. They all prophesied in unison that the king should go to battle. But Ahab was persuaded that he should hear from all the prophets, and sent for Micai'ah. Micai'ah at first acted like the "yes men" that the other prophets were, but Ahab didn't believe him, so Micai'ah told him that God had given the other prophets a lie, and if Micai'ah went to battle, the Israelites would be scattered by the Syrians. Ahab went to battle anyway and was killed, and the Israelites were scattered.
7. A threshing floor was a hard surface, outside, where the wind could blow over it. Stalks with grain were brought to the floor and beaten on the floor so that the grain would fall out and the chaff would blow away.
It is generally held that anyone can be a prophet. It's like saying that everyone has psychic abilities, if they just develop them. In some religious groups today, prophesying is a regular part of the service. But as in ancient days, accuracy and intent are always in question. To what end are people delivering messages from God? Jewish tradition holds that the prophet says nothing that hasn't already been said by Moses. (Prophets do not create new laws, or modify religion, but simply expound on what has already been said in a more specific way.) Individualized messages are perhaps delivered as by an oracle, but they still conform to the Law of Moses.
These bands of prophets who roamed from town to town might have been like religious entertainers and speakers are today. The traveled, they spoke a "message" and possibly prophesied a general message. They likely sang and read poetry. They may have been somewhat like the bands of entertainers who travelled Europe in the 13th. Century and put on religious plays straight from the Bible. They made people think about God and morality.
We see a qualitative difference between the bands of prophets and the individual prophets of great stature. We don't see that these gilds of prophets were worth visiting to communicate with God when a serious decision was at hand, except that they possibly helped people think about morality. After all, it seemed to take 400 prophets to get a consistent answer.
Samuel was the first prophet after Moses. After that we see the major prophets Elijah and Elisha, who delivered not just messages, but also miracles from God,*8 such as healing or displays of God's power in defeating an enemy. The other major prophets, such as Isaiah, follow in similar footsteps as Samuel. Unbidden, they brought a moral message from God, and it was typically something the king, priests, and people did not want to hear: They weren't treating other people right, and there was going to be big trouble.
8. My book, The Prophetic Pattern, shows that the major prophets had a strict pedigree (calling). They all received communications from God through visions. According to The Jewish Encyclopedia (online) these prophets were also usually wealthy people and very literate, from different parts of the country. - http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/view.jsp?artid=554&letter=P&search=prophet
Prophecy increased and decreased throughout the history of Israel, showing up when it was needed. The major prophets appeared during times of major transitions. Amos appeared when times grew peaceful and the people became wealthy. The people had become greedy and oppressive. Hosea appeared at the same time as the threat from the Assyrians. Jeremiah warned the Jews about worshiping other Gods and the calamity that would come. Isaiah appears in time for the Assyrian invasion and the Diaspora (dispersion of the Jews into other lands after military conquest). Ezekiel spoke to the exiles (Diaspora). The major prophets basically spoke about social injustice (mistreating others in business and personal dealings), and about worshiping YHWH and not the gods in the land. By the time of the Priests Ezra and Nehemiah, when the people returned from their second exile and were rebuilding the Temple, the Urim and Thummim were essentially gone from everyday life, and there were no more recognized prophets heard from, except Jesus the Christ,*9 clear until the Temple was destroyed in 70 AD.
9. Judaism and Islam both regard Jesus the Christ as a major prophet. Christianity believes that the fullness of God was in Jesus, and that he is a manifestation and personification of God. Some find it offensive to call Jesus the Christ, "God," while having no trouble believing in "The Lord," (Jehovah) or "The Angel of the Lord," walking the earth and talking to people. What else would a manifestation and personification of God be? Not to be pedantic in doctrine about this - has God manifested or been personified to others in other lands as well? which seems likely. Jesus did appear when needed during a time of major transition in Judaism - effectively the end of Judaism within a national boundary for 2000 years and the destruction of the Temple. But as we have already noted, if God walks among us, most of us will not see Him.
The major prophets, and prophecy, appeared when they were badly needed, during times of great trouble and transition. The message pointed people back to God and back to the Law or morality (treating others properly).
The weary tell us about communicating with God
There are times in our lives when we are too weary to go on. We get totally burned out from the overload of trauma or even from the unrelenting pace of work. We wonder sometimes if it should all just be over. Like the advice given to Job, shouldn't we just curse God and die?
Amid the unrelenting fear and clamor of war, or in the thick of any battle of life that never seems to end, in the tiny moments when you get just a little rest and realize that tomorrow you have to pick yourself up and get back to the massive task at hand, alone, when it seems no one is there to help and everyone is working against you, and you can't remember far enough back to the beginning and you can't see the end, we all seem to turn to God and say "Stop the world, I want to get off!" Enough already. I'm not superhuman, I'm not better than my parents or the leaders before me, and really, don't you think that I've done enough or had enough? These words, paraphrased, were the words of the Prophet Elijah.
The Prophet Elijah*10 was weary from the high drama of doing God's work. He had faced down the errant king of Israel, Ahab, and his wicked wife, Jez'ebel. Jezebel had killed all the prophets of Jehovah, but Elijah had hidden some of them for protection. Elijah had gathered the prophets of Ba'al together, and at the power of Elijah's prayer, God had burned bulls before their eyes. Elijah had triumphed over the prophets of Ba'al and his men had killed them.
10. 1 Kings chapter 18 and 19.
That wasn't the end of it. Jez'ebel then made threats against him. Weary Elijah, who could call down fire from God, ran for his life to the wilderness, sat under a tree, and asked God if he could die now. The Angel of the Lord took care of his needs, and then God took him (possibly in a dream or vision or actual journey) to Mount Horeb where God had inscribed the Ten Commandments in stone for Moses. Elijah went first to a cave at Mount horeb, and God asked him (most likely through a vision) what he was doing there. Elijah's reply indicated that he was still running for his life. God told him to go stand on Mount Horeb, which he did. Elijah was alone and feeling weary and powerless, hunted like a rabid dog.
God reminded Elijah of His power. A mighty wind came, so powerful that it smashed rocks, but God was not in the wind. An earthquake came, but God was not in the earthquake. A fire appeared, but God was not in the fire. Elijah was very much aware of the power of God, but power was not what he needed. In the state that Elijah was in, he could not communicate with God in this way. The clamor of war had deafened him to the sound of power. And then Elijah heard a still, small voice, and God asked him again what he was doing there. Again Elijah bemoans his fate, telling God of all he has done for Him, and that they are out to kill him, and he is the only one left. Elijah is no doubt wondering if he deserves such treatment. Why does God allow Elijah's enemies to chase after him? He's tired of the constant wrangling and war. Feeling alone and in despair, weary, and frightened for his life, he just wants it all to end.
"What are you doing here, Elijah?"*11 How do we hear that question? As a stinging indictment of Elijah's lack of faith in the power of God to protect him from Jezebel? Consider this: In Philip Berman's book,12 The Journey Home, a woman had gone into a coma during a minor surgery, and things went from bad to worse and it looked like the end, and her heart stopped. As she looked down on her family as they mourned, the words of Christ came to her, as they were what she was feeling for her family: "Oh ye of little faith." Christ had said these words to the Apostles who were frightened during a storm at sea. She didn't feel like the words were said in a critical way. They were words of sorrow over their suffering. She felt the same for her family - oh, you of little faith.*13
11. 1Kings 19:9 and 13 (RSV).
12. Berman, Phillip L. The Journey Home: What Near-Death Experiences and Mysticism Teach Us About The Gift of Life, 1996. (Pocket Books. p 27.)
13. Matthew used this phrase repeatedly: Matthew 6:30; Matthew 8:26; Matthew 14:31.
We have to remember that faith is a gift from God, and we develop faith from following God. We don't create faith on our own. It is generally not our fault if we don't have as much faith as another person.
So let's hear those words again that God said to Elijah in a still small voice: "What are you doing here, Elijah?" God asked of a faithful but weary servant who had served Him well, but was exhausted and suffering. The still small voice was the gentle voice of God, the caring, forgiving, supportive, and merciful voice. Through the Angel of the Lord, and through his voice, God ministered to his servant's needs.
No rest for the weary, God was not through with Elijah, and told him to return and anoint two kings and a new prophet to take his place.
Old Testament summary
We see in the very early days, the very close presence of God. Like we do for children, each major step was pointed out by God through the Angel of the Lord. Once people were going in the right direction, God began to communicate differently, through visions. When God brought the Israelites out of Egypt, He was one more step removed - he talked through a burning bush and then a cloud and fire. These were included in the Tabernacle that the Israelites took with them.
With a group of people, there is so much communication that needs to happen, so that organizational mechanisms had to be set up to deal with that. The first part of that, was symbols were established to represent God's presence. These symbols were the black cloud that surrounded the Tabernacle, and fire within it at night, plus the Ark containing the Commandments, and the tabernacle tent itself. With people there are always problems. At first Moses went to God for every judgment, which was much too time consuming. So judges were set up to govern the people and make judgments when necessary.
The next step in organizing was to establish priests. The people were terrified of God and didn't want to talk directly to Him. So it became the responsibility first of Moses, and then the priests to teach the people God's ways, and to divine the will of God and get yes or no answers through the Urim and Thummim. Leadership was required.
The first most basic way that we know what God wants us to do in our daily lives is to learn the ways of God as they are taught by our religious leaders. Generally we have a choice today in which leaders we want to listen to, and even which religious tradition we want to participate in. The very practical ways of God teach us to put God first, and treat others as God would have us treat them, with justice, and with love. Often we don't recognize justice or love, so we have to learn.
The next steps in organization were about the place where people communicated with God. At first, anywhere a person believed he had had an encounter with God, he built an altar, and from then on people came to that place to encounter God. Nomadic people who are always on the move, require a more convenient method. The Tabernacle, in a tent they could take with them, became the place of worship. As the land became settled and cities were formed, the Tabernacle would no longer be convenient. They built altars in towns. King David placed his on the threshing floor where grain was harvested. Each tribe had its own priests and ministers, but many people still went to the high places, the altars of old where people once had encounters with God. Then King Solomon, David's wise son, built the Temple in Jerusalem, which would be the official national place of worship where a group of priests would be over all priests in the land.
Organization and administration were very important early steps in the development of Judaism. These created the structures through which people would learn about God's Laws, God's justice, and be divinely guided. This would be God's voice to the people. But there are always problems with organizations: they can become unwieldy bureaucracies that fail to do their functions, and they sometimes become corrupt.
There was a failsafe in the system: the prophet. Moses was the first prophet. Throughout the history of Israel there were prophets who appeared when people were going astray or when there were major changes coming. The prophet removed the voice of God another step.
The prophets became a major communications vehicle for the lifespan of Israel, but while the prophetic voice was always with the people in the form of bands of prophets, they seemed more of a token presence to help keep people's minds on God. We need these people - they are the singers, the preachers, those who still prophesies even today in some services, the unique people that God calls to service to help us keep our minds on Him.
When there were major transitions coming, the major prophets appeared. Elijah helped eliminate the prophets of Ba'al from the land. He introduced us to the still small voice. Isaiah and others guided Israel through the Diaspora.
The Prophet Samuel, the first major prophet after Moses, demonstrated a typical progression of responsibility. First he proved himself as a capable minister who carried out responsibilities under a priest. Next Samuel became a prophet who brought messages from God to people and kings who probably didn't want to hear these messages from God. These messages usually weren't praise for a job well done... they were more like, "You despicable person, change or die." Try telling that to a village elder or a king. And finally Samuel became a judge who was a leader of a territory, settling disputes, administering justice, and defending the people. Service to God and people was rewarded with a higher calling. Bravery and loyalty to God in the face of great danger as a prophet, was rewarded with a position of even more responsibility governing the people.
We learn from Samuel that God calls people who are responsible and competent in small things, to even greater things. So one important message about what we should do is to look at how we perform the tasks in life that we already have.
We learn from Jephthah not to define our own missions and make ridiculous promises to God. Jephthah was a loose canon who did not have the confirmation of the people, who would not accept him as a leader. He hung around with people who were reckless, unreliable, and not accountable. Suddenly he found a way to seize leadership through bargaining with others and leading them in military victory. He then made a promise to God, probably to try to get God's support, that he would sacrifice a human being, which is forbidden in Judaism. His recklessness costs him his daughter. If God wants us, He will provide some mechanism to show us the way. But God usually doesn't even call reckless and unreliable people - He calls people who usually prove themselves first through dedicated and reliable service to God.
This deserves a note. We see in popular movies that God uses people who are down and out - not the top leaders - to do His work. This was very true with Moses, who was in trouble with the Egyptians for killing a man who was mistreating a Hebrew slave; and Moses was difficult to recruit because he felt he could not speak in public. God stood Moses defiantly before the Egyptian Pharoah and demanded the Hebrew slaves be freed. Samuel was told that when picking a king for Israel, he should not look on the physical prowess and attractiveness of the person*14 (as was the good looking, accomplished, and charismatic Saul) - he was led to pick the younger David, who at the time was a mere shepherd and the youngest in the family. David proved to be a dynamo for the people and for God. During Christian times, the Apostle Paul was first a zealot who was literally imprisoning and killing Christians, before God called him to be a leader in the Christian community. It generally isn't the things that people look at that are important to God. But it is more likely people who are true at heart - not those who are proven to be unreliable and only after their own gain. Yet all are welcome in God's house on this earth.
14. 1 Samuel 16:7 (NIV) "...The LORD does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart."
We learn from Elijah that God has compassion for our human suffering and our lack of faith, and He even ministers to our needs in such times. The still small voice is a voice of caring, compassion, understanding, forgiveness, support, mercy, and welcome. It nourishes us and gives us renewed strength and purpose. Most people regard the still small voice as the way God communicates, often through our conscience when we are reading or listening, or through something that becomes clear (revelation) when we are reading or listening. Sometimes it is seeing a situation, feeling compassion, and then feeling compelled to act. God is capable of horrendous power, but He doesn't want to "move" us in this way - He wants us to "want" to do things, or be compelled by what we see. In this we are trained by following God, reading religious works, and helping others.
Ezra and Nehemiah, who were priests, not prophets, found the voice of God in the Scriptures, which had not been compiled (canonized - at least not completely and closed) in earlier days. They probably brought books of Scripture back with them from Babylon when they returned from the Diaspora to rebuild the Temple. The canon of Jewish scriptures was probably worked on from the initial collection by Ezra and Nehemiah around 400 BC, and then by leading religious leaders from 200 BC to 70 AD.
Debates have raged for centuries about the veracity of Scriptures. The scriptures are books that have been found by groups of leaders to be authoritative and representative of a religion, and the people who wrote them (or sometimes rewrote them). The writers (or the people they quoted) were inspired to pass on this information about the nature of people's interaction with God. This information is presented to us so that we can study and learn and have confirmation for our faith in God. Scriptures do not tell us what to believe, which would be worshiping a book, not God, and would limit God in the future, so that faith would be incapable of growing. The many many contradictions in the Hebrew Scriptures (and Christian Scriptures) help us understand that while men were inspired to tell us about God, they were still fallible men whose interpretations are sometimes biased, and a mature faith looks at the entire picture for faith confirmation, not just single instances.
We learned from Saul that leaders have to be exemplary in their conduct. If they don't follow God's ways, then they must be removed from office. There is no room for corruption and other ungodly behavior among leaders, and there never has been. That's a prime directive.
Is there an angel who will come and tap us on the shoulder and say, "Do that?" Usually not. Are there people who have the power of God in them who do very powerful things and govern us and speak to us as prophets? That time seems to have passed, at least for now. Is there a prophet who will come and scold us for not following God's way? Ministers fill that function on a daily basis, but in many ways even that is fading.
During times of relative peace, as today, we all know what to do - there is no personal visit, no voice in a burning bush. We follow the laws of God and study the Scriptures. Through this, The Law of God becomes prominent in our hearts, which is the beginning of growth. We follow the Great Commandment of love, which is the journey and the fulfillment. During times of trouble we look for leadership, and God's voice in the leaders.
We don't always know the path we will take to get to our goals. God may give us the desire to do something, but take us on a winding course full of delays. Samuel anointed David King of Israel, but David wandered 22 years before becoming King of Israel. Samuel anointed him as a youth, but he still had to go through many wars with the Philistines and the existing King, Saul. Being anointed by God didn't relieve David of the responsibility of proving himself through hard work and long, diligent effort. But each time David had a choice to make he chose to do it God's way, unlike Saul. (David made enough mistakes of his own during his reign as King - no one is perfect.)
Josephwas sold by his brothers into slavery.*15 No doubt that fixed his problem with his arrogance that brought him into conflict with his brothers. But Joseph dared to be different - the unique person that God made him. His fortunes had various ups and downs in Egypt before the Pharoah took notice of him for his dream interpretations, and after proving himself in many responsibilities the Pharoah put Joseph in charge of preparing the land for drouts and warehousing food, which ultimately helped his father and brothers.
15. Joseph's story is not in this article, but is elaborated on in an excellent sermon by Joel Osteen.*17 Joel Osteen has a remarkable gift for making religion very personal and down to earth. I highly recommend his sermon on Joseph.
If I had published my first books earlier in my life, I would have had a lot of backtracking to do. God may send you in a direction, and you may think you know the goal and are pursuing it, but He may have something closely related or even very different in store for us.
We should try to talk to God often. I recently read, "If we only practice prayer in times of our greatest need, we significantly decrease the possibility of understanding or even hearing God's "still small voice."*16
16. Jim Coleman. Waiting on the Lord All the Day, A Positive Minute From The Hour of Power; Sun 6/27/2010. Copyright © Crystal Cathedral Ministries, all rights reserved.
17. I don't endorse or not endorse ministries or religions on this Web site, which may vary theologically somewhat from my own, but I do listen to various ministries and religions and cite them for their contributions to religion, spirituality, and faith.
Next: Spiritual growth during the time of Christ, the Apostles, and the early church - making decisions and walking in faith on a daily basis. (See index below.)
Let's talk about it. Social Media and One Spirit Resources Blog below. - Dorian Scott Cole.