The Voice of the Prophets - A Lectionary Reflection for Epiphany 4B (Deuteronomy)
Deuteronomy 18:15-20 Common English Bible (CEB)
15 The Lord your God will raise up a prophet like me from your community, from your fellow Israelites. He’s the one you must listen to. 16 That’s exactly what you requested from the Lord your God at Horeb, on the day of the assembly, when you said, “I can’t listen to the Lord my God’s voice anymore or look at this great fire any longer. I don’t want to die!”
17 The Lord said to me: What they’ve said is right. 18 I’ll raise up a prophet for them from among their fellow Israelites—one just like you. I’ll put my words in his mouth, and he will tell them everything I command him. 19 I myself will hold accountable anyone who doesn’t listen to my words, which that prophet will speak in my name. 20 However, any prophet who arrogantly speaks a word in my name that I haven’t commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods—that prophet must die.
Moses was the one through whom God spoke to Israel as the nation traveled through the Wilderness toward the Promised Land. While the people of Israel decided they were not prepared to hear directly from God, fearing that getting too close to God might lead to their deaths, they decided to rely on the mediation of Moses. Now, as they drew closer to the Promised Land, Moses informed them that his time with them was growing short. He wouldn’t cross the river with them. That caused the people to get anxious. If Moses was gone, who would speak for God? Who would be the mediator? The verses just prior to this reading we hear a concern about the different voices that would be present in this land. How would they know what was from God and what was not? To this point, they put their trust in Moses. Yes, they did ignore his words on occasion, but still, there was a sense of trust. So, how would they hear from God in this new context if Moses wasn’t with them?
Moses tells them that God will provide. A prophet like him, will emerge from within the community. This prophet will speak for God. In the midst of this word of assurance, we also hear a warning. If you don’t listen to the prophet, you will be held accountable. On the other hand, be sure not to heed those who claim to speak for God but misrepresent God. Don’t listen to those voices that speak for other gods. The word here, to Israel is be discerning. Heed the word that is from God and stay clear of anything else.
If we read just beyond this passage, the author of Deuteronomy gives criteria for discerning a true word from God. If what is said comes to pass, then that is from God. If not, if what is proposed does not occur, then you have evidence of a false prophet. So, don’t be afraid of what they say. Be discerning.
The Hebrew Bible contains the words of many different prophets, all of whom claim to speak for God. When we put forth the criteria of fulfillment, we find ourselves in a difficult position. We don’t, necessarily, know the full story. We may try to read between the lines, but sometimes things get lost in translation (and in the course of time). They key is to remember that not every word spoken in the name of God is a word from God. Again, we must be discerning. As Paul put it: “Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil” (1 Thess. 5:20-22).
I am a preacher not a prophet. That is, I don’t claim to have a direct word from God to share with the people. However, when I stand in the pulpit and share a word with the congregation, I pray that this word will be used by God to build up the community. I believe that Karl Barth is correct that when we preach the Gospel that is rooted in Scripture and points to Jesus, who is the Word of God incarnate, then the sermon becomes a word of God. It is not the Word in the same sense that we understand Scripture to be, nor is it the Word as we proclaim Jesus, the Logos of God, to be (John 1:1-18), but still it can be a word from God. Perhaps the reason why I hesitate to claim the mantle of prophet is that I would rather not be held as responsible for the words of my mouth as seems to be suggested here in Deuteronomy. That is, I would rather not be put to death if I misrepresent God in any way. I also would assume that most of those who hear my sermons would not wish to be held accountable to them either, though the form of accountability intended by this message isn’t as clear as the word to the prophets.
Again, contextually, Moses is speaking to a community that faces the prospect of moving on without him. They had chosen not to hear God directly, but instead desired to hear God’s voice mediated to them through a prophet. He wants them to know that one like him will be raised up from among them, who will speak to them on behalf of God. He seeks to allay their fears of being left adrift. God will provide. Their next question, of course, has to do with discerning who that would be. How will they know. In a denominational context like mine, when a pastor leaves, a search committee is formed. The congregation is surveyed. Then a profile is created, which is given to the Regional Minister, who then seeks to match congregational profiles with clergy profiles. Hopefully, in the end a good match will be found. It doesn’t always work, but it seems to be the most efficient system, and it is designed to protect both congregations and clergy seeking a new call from entering bad matches. Love at first sight doesn’t always lead to a good outcome. In fact, some denominations follow an older pattern of arranged marriages—a bishop assigns a pastor to a congregation.
There is a phrase in this passage that should give us pause, but also opens possibilities. As Moses shares his word about the future, he tells the community that God will “put my words in his mouth, and he will tell them everything I command him” (vs. 9). At one level, it is rather disconcerting to even consider God providing words to the mouth of a prophet. To think that God might take over a person and start speaking. I’ve watched enough science fiction and fantasy movies and TV shows to know what this looks like. An alien species takes over a person’s body and starts using that body for its own purposes. On the other hand, as a pastor I take some sense of confidence that when I find myself needing a word to share, perhaps with a family who has lost a loved one, a word of comfort might come forth, even when I do not have words of my own. There are times, when my own reticence threatens to hold back when a word needs to be spoken about issues of great importance, and then in that moment a word comes (or more likely confidence that the word is from God), and I find myself able to speak.
Perhaps for us, we can take some sense of confidence in this simple prayer from the Psalms: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.” (Psalm 19:14). Then, we can take comfort in the knowledge that God raised up Jesus to reveal to us the true wisdom of God, in that he is the prophet whom God speaks through. We can take comfort in trusting in that word.