The prophetic voice speaks with insight about our present reality. It finds hope in the midst of chaos. It finds the chaos and deception in perceived stability. While I call it the “prophetic voice”, it doesn’t always “speak”. You will find it in books, movies, and art. The most likely place you will find it is in poetry and music. For example, much of the prophetic literature in the Bible is communicated through poetry.1 Poetry is a powerful medium reaching beyond our intellectual reasoning to engage our emotions and imaginations.
And our regret has remained unconfessed.
Novels and essays serve but will not last.
One clear stanza [of poetry] can take more weight
Than a whole wagon of elaborate prose.2
When I talk about a prophetic voice, I’m not talking about predicting the future. It’s not necessarily religious. The prophetic voice is not possessed by an elite few — it’s more common than you think. Most of the prophets I know don’t even know they’re prophets. Intellectual study may provide background, but you can’t “learn” your way to having a prophetic voice. It’s usually developed and cultivated in silence, solitude, and trials, but most of all by “listening”, paying attention, and reflection.
The prophetic voice may communicate a warning, but encouragement, hope, and transformation typically lie beneath the surface. Many times the prophetic voice reinterprets the prophetic voice of the past and applies it to a modern context. The inability to reinterpret is why much modern day preaching and teaching is sterile. If Jesus had bound himself to the hermeneutical laws governing some of today’s preaching, we probably wouldn’t listen to his words today. Reinterpretation, of course, is not a license for ignorance or carelessness, but it is infused with imagination and grasps what’s happening in the “real world” to “real people”.
The prophetic voice will ultimately encounter opposition in one form or another. The prophetic voice will be ignored, stifled, attacked, silenced, or ridiculed. But this can be where the prophetic voice becomes strengthened and sharpened if it doesn’t shrink back. The opposition itself awakens the power of the prophetic voice.
Then the prophetic voice:
I can’t run no more
With that lawless crowd
While the killers in high places
Say their prayers out loud
But they’ve summoned, they’ve summoned up
And they’re going to hear from me3
Is Prepared and Persistent
And I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it
Then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’
But I’ll know my song well before I start singin’ 4
Exposes Violence and Injustice
I count no one, hold nobody’s ear
I sold you my hand once and you hit me in fear
I don’t stand for the devil
I don’t whisper in ears
I stand on the mountains and call people to hear5
Shrewdly Conveys the Truth
Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies . . .
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind — 6
Well I’m the enemy of treason
Enemy of strife
I’m the enemy of the unlived meaningless life
I ain’t no false prophet
I just know what I know
I go where only the lonely can go7
Learns to Filter Out the Garbage
And I listened because I hadn’t found my own voice yet
So all I could hear was the noise that
People make when they don’t know shit
But I didn’t know that yet8
Of course, you need to find your “own voice” before you can properly find your “prophetic voice”. Once you find your own voice, your prophetic voice will be honed by listening, reflection, the arts, and your own trials. You will discard agendas and refuse to simply be the voice of others. Then you will shape your “own” message rooted in the prophetic tradition.
The Lord God has given me
the tongue of a teacher,
that I may know how to sustain
the weary with a word.
Morning by morning he wakens—
wakens my ear
to listen as those who are taught.9
1 Notice the poetic typeset in much of the Prophets, Psalms, and Revelation.
2 Cheslaw Milosz. A Treatise on Poetry. 2001. Translation Robert Hass. HarperCollins Publishers Inc. New York.
3 Leonard Cohen. Anthem. The Essential Leonard Cohen. 2002. Columbia, Sony, Legacy.
4 Bob Dylan. A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall. The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. Columbia Records. 1963.
5 Laura Marling. Night After Night. A Creature I Don’t Know. 2011. Virgin Records. Producer: Ethan Johns.
6 Emily Dickinson: Tell all the truth, but tell it slant —
7 Bob Dylan. False Prophet. Rough and Rowdy Ways. 2020. Columbia Records.
8Fiona Apple. Fetch the Bolt Cutters (song and album). Epic Records. 2020.
9Isaiah 50.4. Holy Bible. New Revised Standard Version. 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of Churches. HarperCollins Publishers.