Prophets, the Truth Tellers

We live in an anaesthetic culture. Several forces like media, movies, advertisements and religion promote this superficial culture, which has made people stuck in the frivolous and bling-bling. People are well adjusted to hedonism, narcissism and unloving lifestyle. For them injustice, inequality, exploitation and oppression are NORMAL. This consciousness has gripped not only the elite, but also the marginalised. Due to this the exploiters, oppressors and unjust, without any moral dilemma, continue in their task. On the other hand, the exploited, oppressed and marginalised yield themselves to their predators with little or no resistance, due to helplessness and hopelessness or lack of imagination of a better world. Into such a context entered the prophets.

Biblical prophets were not a rare breed. They did not come from a specific lineage. They were from various social and economic backgrounds. Moses was from the house of Levi and was tending sheep of his father-in-law when he was called by God. Isaiah was from an upper class family and was highly educated. Jeremiah was from a priestly family (Jer. 1.1). Amos was a native of the small Judean village of Tekoa and was a shepherd when God called him to be a prophet in the Northern kingdom Israel. Micah was from the common people and was a native of the small village of Moresheth in the Judean foothills southwest of Jerusalem. What is evident is that majority of prophets were from the fringes of the society. Prophets, who are representative voices of a widely felt grievance, tend to arise on the margins of society, as that is a social context where grievance appears to be more often and more deeply and intensely felt.

The common trait that joined the prophets together was their perception of the contemporary world and of the future, which was contrary to the common perception, and their rootedness in the covenantal tradition (the covenant between God and the people of Israel at Mount Sinai, Ex. 19. 1-8). They described their contemporary society differently since they saw it through the lens of covenantal relationship between God and the people of Israel, in spite of a strong opposition from the political and religious powers to silence their voice. Further, the prophets reminded the people of Israel that their relationship with God required a new mode of existence, which was rooted in the commandments of God. They insisted that the principles of Mount Sinai were decisive and definitive for the life of the people of Israel. Therefore, obedience to the commandments of God was imperative.

In short, the prophets did two things: they exhorted people to introspect their own lives and the life of their society in the light of their covenantal relationship with God; and they energized people with a hope of a better world by turning their eyes to the God who liberated them from the Egyptian bondage.

Critique on people and society

Critique is not simply aiming arrows at something that we disagree with. Prophetical criticism was not grumbling and complaining. It was, instead, an authentic experience of grief at the troubling social paradigms being faced by the society under oppression of dominant culture. The prophets addressed the enduring crisis of the subjugation of the people of God to the dominant culture, which was contrary to the culture based on the covenantal relationship between God and the people of God. Even as the prophets identified specific issues like the oppression of the poor, their central focus was the loss of their covenantal identity, which was reflected in their values and conduct, that underlied the evils in the society.

The dominant culture against which the prophets spoke was epitomised by the rule of the King Solomon. The reign of Solomon was characterised by, what Walter Brueggemann calls, “economics of affluence”, “politics of oppression” and a “religion of immanence”. This religion of dominant culture assumed a “captive God”, and allowed and even supported oppressive economics and politics promoted and practiced by the ruling class.

Economics of affluence

Brueggemann describes Solomon’s monarchy as one of “incredible wellbeing and affluence,” but one in which “affluence and prosperity is not democratically shared.” The affluence of Solomon’s reign was unprecedented: “Judah and Israel were as numerous as the sand by the sea; they ate and drank and were happy. Solomon was sovereign over all the kingdoms from the Euphrates to the land of the Philistines, even to the border of Egypt; they brought tribute and served Solomon all the days of his life. Solomon’s provisions for one day was thirty cors of choice flour, and sixty cors of meal, ten fat oxen, and twenty pasture-fed cattle, one hundred sheep, besides deer, gazelles, roebucks, and fatted fowl” (I Kings 4.20-23). This affluence served to insulate Solomon’s reign from criticism and change, and stifled questions of justice and compassion. Satiation bred indifference among the ruling class to the plight of the common people, and thus trumped the covenantal demands of justice and compassion (cf. Isa. 1:12-17; Amos 5:10-24).

Politics of oppression

Affluence demonstrated by the ruling class facilitated oppressive social policy. In fact, the affluence was made in part by oppressive social policy, which was evident in taxation, bureaucracy, forced labour and conscription (I Kings 4.1-19, 26-28; 5.13-18; cf. Amos 5.11-13, 8.4-6). Forced labour was used to build the temple of God and the house of Solomon (I Kings 9.15-21). It was the regime’s policy to mobilize workers to serve at the king’s court and its extravagant needs. For Solomon, the needs of the ruling class had become the prevailing agenda to which questions of justice and freedom were systematically subordinated. Common people were used by the ruling class to maintain their hegemony and luxurious life. Incidentally, it was the policy of forced labour that was the issue of contention during the reign of Solomon’s successor Rehoboam: “Your father made our yoke heavy. Now, therefore, lighten our hard service of your father and his heavy yoke that he placed on us, and we will serve you” (I Kings 12.4).

Religion of immanence  

The elaborate construction of the Jerusalem temple, made possible by forced labour, paved way for the state controlled religion. God and his temple had become part of the royal landscape, in which the sovereignty of God was subordinated to the purposes of the king. God became accessible to the king and those to whom the king granted access. That means, God became captive in the hands of the king and the ruling class. This had helped the king to claim “God’s support” for his agenda of economics of affluence and politics of oppression. There was no notion that God was free to act apart from and even against the regime. In other words, this “captive God” acted contrary to the covenantal values of justice and compassion of the God who liberated the people of Israel from the Egyptian bondage. This state controlled religion sanctioned and legitimised, on the one hand the marginalisation and bondage of the common people, and on the other hand the affluence and oppressive and exploitative policies and practices of the ruling class.

Also Solomon’s program of state-sponsored syncretism led to the steady abandonment of covenantal values of justice, love and compassion (I Kings 11.1-10).

The dominant culture was uncritical, defensive and resistant to change. It served to enforce the status quo. Protesting against this dominant culture was considered heretical and would evoke swift and certain retribution. Against such overwhelming odds and a social reality which appeared to be their destiny, the oppressed and exploited poor could not contemplate freedom or deliverance, or imagine an alternate reality. Change must come from the outside, from the critical voice of the prophet. Only when God’s voice through the prophets was uttered and heard could an alternate reality be imagined, and only when this voice persisted through the darkness and struggle was the dominant culture revealed to be presumptive fiction.

The only way to revive the Israel’s virtue of being an alternate community of God was through a radical reordering of social perception. Just as a seed is disrupted and dies before a new life emerges out of it, deconstruction, dismantling, disruption and death should take place in the lives of people of Israel in terms of their presuppositions and perception based on the dominant culture, before a new person with an attitude of deeper caring, i.e. love, compassion and social justice, was born. In other words, there should be delegitimisation of the dominant culture.

Prophets were not afraid to demand both the elite and the common people to self reflect and in the process turn the mirror on the society to see its own face. They exhorted a profound confrontation with one’s own self and self-improvement as required by their covenant with God. Because the dominant culture conditioned the mindset and worldview of both the oppressor and the oppressed to accept the status quo or to accept the matters as they were. In other words, the dominant culture worked like anaesthesia for people to become numb, impotent and indifferent to the evils of the society. So the prophets tried to penetrate through their conditioned conscience by focusing their eyes on the reality of their lives and the life of the society in the light of their covenantal obligations.

There was no glossing over the reality, but a public ownership of the problem and a rejection of the dominant culture’s tendency to bury its head in the sand. Prophets tried to eliminate public numbness and indifference towards the evils in the society by reminding them of their covenantal obligations of practicing love, justice, mercy and compassion. Their ministry was to bring the oppressed face to face with their sufferings and social death, and the oppressors with their violation of covenantal obligations. They did this to help them not only see the reality of the society, but also repent over their failure to live as an alternate community of God, for which the people were liberated from the Egyptian bondage.

People could begin to see the possibility of living in a new way only when the old presuppositions and worldview, which made them helpless, hopeless and numb, left them. Simultaneously the prophets turned people’s attention to a new reality of the free and liberating God who desired an alternate community characterised by equality, justice, love, mercy and compassion.

Instilling Hope

Prophetic ministry was not simply passing a critique on the people and the society. Transformation required more than criticism alone. Therefore, prophets simultaneously gave hope by placing before the people an alternate vision of a community where there was no injustice and oppression. So they tried to instil a new consciousness by bringing into memory the liberating acts of the free God in the history of their community. This was necessary because the dominant culture conditioned the minds of people so that they could not see any better future that either called the present into question or promised a way out of it. For the common people, the present order was full and final. Thus, the excessive claim of the dominant culture was premised on hopelessness. Hence the action of the prophets was more than social protest. While they were concerned with change, even fundamental change in the society, they aimed higher. They attempted to dismantle the dominant public consciousness that was responsible for the status quo and for the continuation of the ills of the society.

The prophets spoke in ways that evoked “newness” in the hearers. Isaiah proclaimed this hope to the people of Israel that God would give a new song to those who grieve, birth to the barren and nourishment to the hungry (eg. Isa. 54-55). Amos envisioned the restoration of fortunes of the people of Israel (Amos 9.11-15).

The hope was not based on some social strategy or political planning, but on the discernment of God’s movement in the darkness who was invisible to the ruling class and was more powerful than those who pretended to be the most powerful, and the willing embrace of God’s freedom to liberate them. God is with us, even if and because we are enslaved to apparently indomitable powers. Habakkuk vividly put this: “Though the fig tree does not blossom and no fruit is on the vines; though the produce of olive fails and the field yields no food…yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will exult in the God of my salvation. God, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, and makes me tread upon the heights” (Habakkuk 3.17-19).

The experience of the liberating God in the dark period of one’s life and the life of the society, and the memory of God’s faithful, liberating acts became the energisers for breaking with the dominant culture and for hoping an alternate culture. In this transformation, the pillars of the dominant culture, i.e. economics of affluence, politics of oppression and religion of immanence, were displaced by the corresponding pillars of the alternate culture, i.e. politics of justice and compassion, and the religion of the FREE God.


The present day society, church and Christian organisations are no better than the imperial world of Pharaoh and Solomon. They are enmeshed in corruption, oppression and exploitation. They are also characterised by the economics of affluence, politics of oppression and religion of a “captive” God. As in the imperial world of Solomon, so also today the prophetic alternative is a “bad joke” either to be stifled or ignored. But we believe the “bad joke” because it is rooted in the character of God himself, a God who is not a reflection of Solomon or a ruling class. He is a FREE God who is unknown in the courts of the ruling class, unwelcome in the temple. He is attentive to the cries of the marginal ones. He, unlike the ruling class, is One who is just, compassionate, loving and merciful.

If we are to be prophetic, we must acknowledge and admit that we bear a conflicted message and engage in a conflicted ministry. In so doing, we are reminded that the radical faith necessary for prophetic ministry is not an achievement, but a gift of God.


Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg/Fortress, 2001).


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