The Hebrew prophets are fascinating. They were an important part of Israel’s life, yet they often spoke of their rulers in very unflattering terms. When national life turned sour, the prophets were there to interpret geopolitical events from God’s perspective.
History to us is the record of human experience; to the prophet it is a record of God’s experience. (219)
In other words:
Prophecy, then, may be described as exegesis of existence from a divine perspective. (xxvii)
Abraham Heschel’s lengthy study on the prophets is poetic and insightful. The first half of the book is a survey of the various prophets and the main themes that consumed them. If you have ever struggled with reading the prophets, these chapters are a goldmine of information and inspiration.
The second half of the book is concerned with the prophets themselves. How is it that humans can speak for God? The answer centres on Heschel’s idea of God’s pathos. For Heschel, the Holy One of Israel, Maker of heaven and earth, is utterly transcendent. God never reveals himself to humans. Instead, he reveals his pathos.
The pathos of God is his heart of God for man, which takes on various forms such as “love and anger, grief and joy, mercy and wrath” (618). This is what the prophet engages when he or she encounters God. From the perspective of a prophet:
God’s presence is my first thought; His unity and transcendence, my second; His concern and involvement (justice and compassion), my third. (619)
Prophets are so in touch with God, they are able to sympathize with God’s pathos. Matters which may seem small to humans such as imbalanced scales take on cosmic importance when viewed through God’s justice.
The prophets are so moved by their encounters with God that they can seem unhinged to the rest of the world. Unlike the diviners of other contemporary cultures, however, they are not mad. The Hebrew prophets did not lose themselves in some sort of mystical absorption into the divine. Prophets (like Habakkuk, for example) can engage God in dialogue. They bring their own lives into the prophetic process.
I need to challenge Heschel on one point. He insists that the prophets never encounter the transcendent God. Instead, they encounter God-towards-man, or God’s pathos. “Revelation means, not that God makes Himself known, but that He makes His will known” (620). From a Christian perspective, the miracle of the incarnation is precisely that God has made Himself known in Jesus. In a very real sense, Jesus is the pathos of God made flesh.
Heschel’s comprehensive study of the Hebrew Prophets deserves continued engagement today.
—Abraham J. Heschel, The Prophets (New York: HarperCollins, 2001).