Where are our prophets today?

By Bruce Ryan, Executive Secretary of the Bishops’ Commission for Pastoral Life

My recent foray into the book of the prophet Isaiah in the Old Testament, particularly though John J Collins’ commentary in the “The Collegeville Bible Commentary” but in other sources also, suggested to me some interesting themes relevant to today’s circumstances: Crisis – Isaian prophesies made over a period of time address a series of crises including the Syro-Ephraimite War against Judah, the Assyrian threats to Israel and Judah and other nations, the Assyrian subjugation of Israel, Syria and Judah, destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, and the Babylonian Captivity. Fundamentalism – the yearning for a simpler and purer agrarian way of life over the wealth and luxury of the ruling class. Smaller Numbers – the notion of a remnant of the people being forgiven the sin of unfaithfulness and returning from the Babylonian captivity to form the nucleus of a restored Israel and rebuilt Temple. Confusion and Dismay – the suffering of the people through the various military threats and exile.

This may be one perspective; but are there deeper positive Isaian messages for the people of God then and now? For the Hebrew people this was a time of destruction, upheaval and desolation, but also of creative genius and restoration.

What could the Isaian Apocalypse (Is 24.1-25.13), for instance, possibly say to us now?

Isaiah 24.3-6 particularly strikes me as relevant today. Can it be read so?

“The earth lies polluted under its inhabitants;” (v5a) is strongly suggestive today of the threat of environmental disaster through human action causing global warming. If read in this context, the rest of the verse is instructive: “for they have transgressed laws, violated the statutes, broken the everlasting covenant.” Are we being called again to proper stewardship of the earth as God’s creation?

There is a risk in relying on isolated Bible quotations to justify an argument. Collins cautions generally, for example, about reinterpreting the Isaian Apocalypse as foretelling Jesus life. He stresses that the message written in its historical context cannot be ignored, but also suggests that we should seek “analogies from the prophet’s situation and our own” and ask how it can apply to our issues now.

The Isaian Apocalypse (Is 24.1-27.13) may lead us to certain conclusions about the way we live today.

Then the land was left desolate due to the sin of the people and now scientists say our environment and our planet are threatened by the nature and level of human activity.

Then the prophet accused the people of excesses of wealth, luxury and easy living and now we are being challenged by climate science in our indulgent (perhaps Western) carbon-consuming lifestyle.

Then the prophet condemned oppression of the poor by the rich so that they could live well and now we put food in the form of bio-fuels (10% ethanol petrol) into our petrol tanks when large numbers of people lack sufficient food and the food security of some countries is under threat.

Similarities between the historical context of the authors of the Isaian Apocalypse and our own times suggest that God may be calling us again to look to how we live our lives within the environment created for us. A legitimate reinterpretation of Isaiah for our own times would be instructive and a timely warning.

Is not that what the ancient prophets were all about?