The true prophetic word, or, why things often feel so wrong

You’ve all heard the jokes that start out, “I have some good news and some bad news for you.” That could also serve as an introduction to the message of the Bible. The trouble is, no one wants to hear the bad news, but the good news doesn’t seem like much without it.

There’s no shortage of bad news in our mass media. We all know that the national economy is getting pretty soundly thumped. Some of us are getting pretty soundly thumped in our personal life, too. I’m going through a really serious thumping right now. Maybe some of you are, too. Maybe some of you are not going through it at the moment, but you have been thumped at some time in the past. And we all know that whatever is happening now, we’re likely to get thumped some time in the future.

The bad news of the Bible is that we deserve it. We have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Sin is not merely failing to be good enough. It is an out and out rebellion against the divine majesty. God takes that very seriously. He told Moses that he is gracious, merciful, and slow to anger, but in the same breath he said he would not let the guilty go unpunished. That’s why we all get thumped from time to time. God himself thumps us.

The good news is that we don’t get what we really deserve. God is not in the business of punishing sin. Oh, he punishes sin all right, but that’s not what he is about. His ultimate intention is not punishment, but restoration. He wants to have fellowship with us, but he wants us to be perfect. All that thumping is part of the process of causing us to become perfect.

Not long ago, I got an email from someone asking me to prepare a devotional on restoration, based on a passage in Jeremiah. I reached for my Bible and opened it to Jeremiah, but before I could read anything, I got interrupted. When I got back to my desk and saw the open Bible there, I found Jeremiah 37:7-10 and wondered, did that have to do with restoration?

I looked at the email again. Oops. Wrong chapter. It was supposed to be Jeremiah 31:7-10 . There is a real connection between the right passage and the one I read by mistake.

The Bible is full of passages like the first one I read—denunciations of sin and stern warnings about the consequences of continuing in it. We often think of the prophets delivering them with their teeth and fists clenched in indignation, but in fact they were more likely to speak with tears of sorrow streaming down their faces. We especially see it in Jeremiah and in Jesus.

Today, we come to the church hoping to hear the prophetic word. It seems to be rare in our day. The true prophetic word never omits denunciations of sin and stern warnings about the consequences of continuing in it. But it never stops there, either. The true prophetic word always holds out the promise of restoration and reconciliation. It always presents the love of God while not neglecting the wrath of God.

I heard about a church where the pastor was so unpopular that the congregation finally forced him to leave. They really liked the new pastor. One member told a visitor that he was lucky he hadn’t come while the former pastor was preaching. He was really bad news.

“Oh?” said the visitor, “why is that?” ”

“That other preacher constantly preached against sin and told us we would all go to hell if we didn’t change our ways.”

“Well, it sounds to me like that’s exactly what this fellow was saying.”

“Well, yes, but there’s a big difference. It seemed to make the other guy happy to think about it. This one’s sad about it and doesn’t want any of us to go.”

God doesn’t want anyone to go there, either. He is busy thumping us to let us know that he is serious about not accepting our sin. But beyond that, there is the promise that after he bruises us, he will heal us. After he scatters us he will gather us together. We might be weeping as we return, but our weeping will eventually turn to joy. No matter what we feel now, we can look to the future God has promised with eager expectation.

(Originally published in The All-Purpose Guru on August 11, 2009

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