Remember that old Bible story about the death of King Ahab? He was itching for a fight with the neighboring nation of Aram, so he enlisted the help of Jehoshaphat, the king of Judah, to march on the city of Ramoth Gilead and recapture it from the Arameans.
But Jehoshaphat first wanted to be sure that God would bless such a venture, so he and Ahab dressed in their royal robes and sat on their thrones by the entrance of the gate of Samaria and had all the prophets of Israel – about 400 men – brought before them.
The kings enquired of them, “Shall we go to war against Ramoth Gilead, or shall we refrain?”
And the prophets answered as Ahab had hoped, “Attack Ramoth Gilead and be victorious, for the Lord will give it into the king’s hand.”
But Jehoshaphat demurred.
“Are there any other prophets we’ve overlooked?” he asks.
Ahab’s answer is telling.
“There is still one prophet through whom we can inquire of the Lord, but I hate him because he never prophesies anything good about me, but always bad. He is Micaiah son of Imlah.”
It makes you wonder how the other 400 prophets got their job, doesn’t it?
True prophets are annoying. They don’t offer words of comfort to kings and rulers. They speak the truth even if it offends those to whom it’s directed.
In recent days, we’ve been hearing plenty of “prophets” telling rulers what they want to hear. As presidents and prime ministers are itching to get their economies back on track, these so-called prophets are simply tickling their ears with words like these:
“Quarantine is an infringement of our civil liberties.”
“Lockdown is imprisonment.”
“The banning of church services is tantamount to curbing our religious freedoms.”
Worse still, the church seems unusually susceptible to conspiracy theories about the coronavirus being a hoax. I’ve seen Christians promoting insidious theories about it all being a plot to make Donald Trump look bad, and that all these precautions are overkill designed to stop his rallies going ahead. I’ve received messages informing me that coronavirus was a Canadian bioweapon, stolen by China. Or that the primitive Chinese habit of eating bats caused the virus.
Untruth spreads like wildfire, and the church is often fuel to its flame.
Where is Micaiah when you need him? That guy knew how to speak truth to power. He told Ahab that the resulting battle would be disastrous, and that God forbade it. And for his trouble, Ahab promptly had him imprisoned and set out for war regardless.
Today, we need prophetic voices who speak without vested interests. When preachers tell us it’s time to start holding church services again, I can’t help but question their motives. When religious leaders appear to baptize the efforts of gun-toting protesters on the steps of the capital building I see fear, not courage.
Where are those prophets willing to risk arrest by King Ahab’s henchmen in order to tell the truth?
Instead of calling us to get back to normal, we need prophets who dare to announce that normal wasn’t working anyway.
It wasn’t working for the poor. It wasn’t working for the elderly. It wasn’t working for über-busy middle-class commuters. And it wasn’t working for the planet. This virus has revealed unsustainable levels of air travel. It has highlighted the chronic underfunding of public health, and the folly of yoking medical care to employment. It has put under the microscope centuries of structural racism that impoverished the health of minorities and indigenous groups. The virus has shown up the limitations of a just-in-time economy that runs on fragile supply chains.
This period of quarantine is an opportunity for us to break our addiction to consumption and the car, to indulgent travel, and social networks that rapidly spread misinformation. Now is the time to hear voices calling us to seize the opportunity to create a new normal.
I’m not overlooking the fact that coronavirus has wreaked untold suffering on our world. Millions of people will die. Whole economies will grind to a halt. Companies will collapse. I know. But before we rush headlong into getting the economy going again, look around. Something is happening.
Families are cooking together. Whole neighborhoods are singing together. Nursing homes are being overhauled. The freeways are free. There’s clear water in the canals of Venice and blue skies over Beijing. A quarter of the adult population in the UK have watched or listened to a religious service since the coronavirus lockdown began. One in 20 have even started praying. It’s as if people are recognizing their helplessness and looking to faith to make sense of things.
COVID-19 is turning out to be a truly apocalyptic event. And by that, I mean an unveiling event.
Apocalypse (or ἀποκάλυψις) is a Greek word, meaning “an unveiling or unfolding of things not previously known and which could not be known apart from the unveiling.”
Any prophet worth her or his salt wouldn’t be prophesying a quick end to it all and promising a return to prosperity. A true prophet, like Micaiah, would recognize the apocalypse and say,
“Wake up! Your greed has fractured families. Your greed has marginalized the poor, the refugee, the immigrant and the outcast. It’s your greed that sustains racism and injustice. It’s your self-centeredness that is destroying the planet. But a great unveiling is taking place. Open your eyes. Look around. A new world is possible. Repent.”
Micaiah tells Ahab exactly what he doesn’t want to hear. He tells him an attack on the Arameans will end in defeat. He tells the 400 court prophets they will all be undone. And while he languishes in prison, subsisting on bread and water, Micaiah hears the news that his prophecy has been fulfilled — Ahab’s army has been routed and the king himself is dead.
Ahab didn’t want to hear Micaiah’s prophecy because it didn’t comport with his plans. Similarly, today no one wants to hear a prophet scuttling our hopes for this apocalypse to end soon. But is that the word of the Lord to us?
Or is God unveiling something we need so desperately to hear and respond to?