American Christianity has lost its prophetic voice, and the reason this has happened to us is that we have lost our prophetic eye. If we truly saw as we ought to see, then we would be able to speak as we ought to speak. This is because it is extremely difficult to see and then not say.
“Then I said, I will not make mention of him, nor speak any more in his name. But his word was in mine heart as a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I was weary with forbearing, and I could not stay.”
Jeremiah 20:9 (KJV)
But when a nation retains its prophetic eye, this is not because every part of the body sees. It is not necessary for every part of the body to see—but it is requisite that the eyes do. If the eye is full of light, the whole body is full of light (Matt. 6:22). Most of the body is totally blind, but we only say that a man is blind if his eyes cannot see. The eyes see on behalf of the entire body. And so what is the condition of our eyes?
“For the LORD hath poured out upon you the spirit of deep sleep, and hath closed your eyes: The prophets and your rulers, the seers hath he covered.”
Isaiah 29:10 (KJV)
By rights that prophetic eye, and that prophetic voice, ought to be located in the pulpits of our nation. But America, it seems, has gone stone blind, and is consequently mute. Would that the Lord would spit in the dust and apply it to our eyes. Would that the Lord would untie our tongues.
Now to say such things is to raise a few questions, and they are questions that really do warrant an attempt at an answer.
How We Tend to Think of Prophecy
One of the more striking features of prophecy is the ability to foretell the future. In the minds of many, this is the sum and substance of prophecy, which is unfortunate—and this is a problem that lies at the base of many of our modern confusions.
The heart of all prophetic ministry consists of seeing what is actually going on in the present. Because almost no one knows what is currently going on in the present—as T.S. Eliot once said, humanity cannot bear too much reality—the prophets of old would predict the future as a sort of verification. They would use that as a sort of calling card, or a badge of authentication. The prophet would demonstrate that he had the authority to speak for God concerning the present sinful delusions of the people by predicting what was going to come to pass. When the dogs ate Jezebel, then everyone knew.
This is why Isaiah throws out his challenge to the heathen gods:
“Shew the things that are to come hereafter, That we may know that ye are gods: Yea, do good, or do evil, that we may be dismayed, and behold it together.”
Isaiah 41:23 (KJV)
So foretelling is part of what the ancient prophets did, but their main concern was always the present. When someone is converted, and first brought into the Christian faith, if they are being taught well, they will soon learn that the prophecy of old was not simply foretelling, but was primarily forth-telling. This was not so much a matter of foresight as it was a matter of insight. And when I say insight, I am referring to profound insight, insight that sees clean to the bottom of things, down to the basalt.
So we must be careful here. It was insight into the way things actually were, which is not the same thing as common knowledge of current affairs. Isaiah knew which king had just died when he began his commissioned prophetic ministry (Is. 6:1), but that was no great shakes in that everybody else knew that also. That’s not what I mean by “the way things were.”
Rather, prophetic insight sees the roots underground. Prophetic insight understands which cogs and wheels are turning underneath the floor. Prophetic insight understands the mainspring of all the human action, and understands it with an uncanny clarity. And to see the present with this kind of clarity is to see the future.
It is not to see the future in any kind of spooky crystal ball sense, or in a way that would satisfy an inquiring heathen curiosity. It is not astrology, or the cryptic sayings of an oracle. Neither is it nostradamian murk. No, it is the clear-eyed prophetic realization that if we keep this up, we are going to arrive wherever it is we are going.
So modern preachers should not aspire to do precisely what Jeremiah or Isaiah or Ezekiel did. They really were vouchsafed propositional truth beforehand by the Holy Spirit, and could give inspired utterances about the future that would in fact come to pass. This is not what happens to modern preachers. But modern preachers are still called to conduct a prophetic ministry. In what sense should this be true?
Eyes That Really See
I am talking about a particular phenomenon that I have encountered many times—in the writings of Kuyper, or Dabney, or Van Prinsterer, or C.S. Lewis, or Chesterton, or Schaeffer. These were men who frequently were enabled to “call the shot.” And not a shot that they were going to take, but rather the shot that the course of the whole modern world was going to take.
I do not attribute this to them actually seeing the future, but rather to the fact that they saw their present far more clearly than did their contemporaries.
Let me give you just a handful of examples. Here is Chesterton, who died in 1936:
“We shall soon be in a world in which a man may be howled down for saying that two and two make four, in which furious party cries will be raised against anybody who says that cows have horns, in which people will persecute the heresy of calling a triangle a three-sided figure, and hang a man for maddening a mob with the news that grass is green.”Chesterton
And here is R.L. Dabney, who died in 1898.
But nearly all public men and divines declare that the State schools are the glory of America, that they are a finality, and in no event to be surrendered. And we have seen that their complete secularization is logically inevitable. Christians must prepare themselves then, for the following results: All prayers, catechisms, and Bibles will ultimately be driven out of the schools.Dabney
And Abraham Kuyper, who died in 1920.
“Modernism, which denies and absolishes every difference, cannot rest until it has made woman man and man woman, and putting every distinction on a common level, kills life by placing it under the ban of uniformity”Kuyper
These men plainly noticed something in their day that somehow escaped the notice of all the duly-certified stenographers of the zeitgeist. How did they do it?
Give Us an Example . . .
Examples of this kind of thing could be multiplied, and what these men foresaw was simply a function of what they saw. And the import of what they saw was frequently hidden from those around them. Gibes of “you’re crazy” were far more plausible to their spectators than the apparently disreputable option of taking their observations seriously.
And so then, when the predictions start to come to pass, and we really do descend into the morass of crazy which is now our appointed habitat, you should be able to begin to the see the true nature of the naked moral rebellion against the authority of God that is driving all of this. When all the dire predictions that these good men made are bouncing off our umbrellas like so many golf balls, I am tempted to point this fact out, and sometimes I do. And yet the denials continue.
“You have been predicting that all these absurdities would catch up with us. Why haven’t they? Huh? Give me just one example, if you can.”
“Sure. Cardi B’s song WAP was acclaimed as ‘song of year’ by the likes of NPR and Rolling Stone, while our national establishment rose to their feet as one man to denounce the moral degradation that has been implicit in the oeuvre of Dr. Seuss all these years. How’s that for an example of us all going to live in Demento Village?”
“Oh, great. We have a red-piller from Jesusland. Probably voted for Trump.”
Backbone in the Pulpit
The modern pulpiteer has been carefully trained to pull his punches. Like well-trained actors in movies with fight scenes, they have been trained to hit the other guy in what looks like a realistic way, with the sound effects to be added later. That is what the thoroughly educated Reformed types do. There are others, who do not care whether it seems realistic, and so their preaching is more like professional wrestling.
The more responsible ones preach the gospel all right, but very carefully. As Spurgeon once put it, they proceed gingerly, like a donkey eating a thistle. But the gospel cannot be carried into a broken world in that way. The one who brings good news is not supposed to come into the room with mincing steps. He does not enter on pointe in his ballet shoes. He walks in gospel boots.
We obviously must not be ashamed of the gospel (Rom. 1:16), but there is a background assumption that has to come with this. We may not be ashamed of anything in the Scriptures. These are the words of God, and so I repeat that we may not be ashamed on anything in Scripture. If an unbeliever points to a verse that is (remarkably!) out of step with some lunacy that our demented culture cooked up in the last twenty minutes, and has now made mandatory for any who would keep their reputations intact, what should we do? We should laugh at it, and preach through that text anyway.
So the only people who are genuinely unashamed of the gospel are the same people who are genuinely unashamed of the gospel’s carrying case, which would be the holy words of God contained in all of Scripture. And this means that ministers in the pulpit must be willing to say, out loud, that Paul returned a runaway slave to his master, a man who was the apostle’s dear friend and a member in good standing of the church at Colossae (Philemon 12). He must be willing to say, out loud, that wives should obey their husbands (Tit. 2:5). He must be willing to say, out loud, that Boaz purchased Ruth as part of a land deal (Ruth 4:5). He must be willing to say, out loud, that the Amalekites got what they deserved, good and hard (1 Sam. 15:18).
All of this—and plenty more where that came from—without any dithering, backfilling, waffling, noodling, or on-the-other-handing.