The inspiration of scripture: prophetic sermons

Michelangelo’s painting of Isaiah in the Sistine Chapel Note: If this is your first exposure to this series, I’d appreciate it if you’d start with the introduction to the series and read through in order so that you’re able to put this post in context.

The previous installment in this series examined all the texts I could find in the Bible in which a heavenly being (God, the exalted Christ, or an angelic interlocutor) tells a human to write something, and discloses to that human the content that should be written, but does not quote an exact string of text that the human in question should write. In most of these few instances, the human writer is having or has just had some sort of visionary experience, which he (I haven’t found any such texts involving women) is told to communicate to someone else (as in Ezekiel 40–48). I also dealt with the closely related phenomenon of a biblical figure having a visionary experience and then communicating that experience to other people despite the absence of any divine command to write (as in Ezekiel 1). I called this “inspiration by disclosure” (because “inspiration by revelation” could create confusion with the biblical book of Revelation, and because “revelation” doesn’t start with a d —a point you’ll appreciate more fully later in the series).

But what about straight-up prophetic sermons that don’t derive from visionary experiences of the type associated with Ezekiel and Revelation’s visionary John? Do these represent instances of “inspiration by dictation,” “inspiration by disclosure,” a blend of the two, or something else entirely?

For myself, I am perfectly content to leave the matter fuzzy, and simply acknowledging that these instances live somewhere in the same neighborhood as “inspiration by dictation” and “inspiration by disclosure.” I hesitate to try to draw this distinction too sharply, because doing so requires, to some extent, speculating about the prophets’ subjective experiences of receiving revelation from God, and I’m nowhere near as confident as, say, Johannes Lindblom (not to be confused with Jack Lundbom) or Sigmund Mowinckel that I can accurately reconstruct those subjective experiences. However, I understand that some readers may wish for more specificity, and I do think that some useful observations can be made … so I will attempt to shine a little light on this issue nonetheless.

The books of the prophets (by which I mean the Latter Prophets) contain many different genres. For now, I’m going to focus specifically on “messenger speeches.” My previous post in this series already addressed prophetic and apocalyptic visions. As you’ll see later in the series, I don’t think we can approach prophetic biographies, prayers, and so forth the same way we approach visions and messenger speeches. Just in case anybody isn’t sure, by “messenger speech” I mean a speech in which a messenger speaks on someone else’s behalf, using first-person pronouns to refer to the sender. Messenger speeches often carry the marker “thus says so-and-so” (“so-and-so” being the sender); messenger speeches where God frequently use the marker “utterance (נְאֻם) of the Lord” instead of or in addition to the standard formula.

What does a biblical prophet’s use of a messenger formula imply about the composition of the exact words of the message? A little bit of technical terminology can help us here. In gospel studies, to deal with parallel passages where Jesus gives the same sermon or teaching in two or more different gospels with divergent wording, scholars sometimes distinguish between the “actual words” ( ipsissima verba ) and “actual voice” ( ipsissima vox ) of Jesus. The reasoning goes something like this: presumably, Jesus taught in Aramaic, so the gospels, written in Greek, actually present translations of Jesus’s teachings. This logic accounts for differences in wording between two gospels’ accounts of the same teaching; the Greek gospels don’t give us the  exact (Aramaic) words that Jesus spoke, but could give the actual voice or message that Jesus tried to convey. Put in these terms, when a prophet says “thus says the Lord ,” does the prophet want the audience to expect to hear God’s actual words, or “only” an authentic, genuine message from God perhaps given in the prophet’s own words?

Different biblical passages point to different answers for this question. Some passages, especially in the latter prophets, imply something pretty close to a transmission of  ipsissima verba. Jeremiah 3:12 is particularly striking; it reads, “Go proclaim these words to the north and say …” Here, unlike the usually singular “word of God,” we have “these words,” plural. Also, it’s interesting that when the prophet Nathan gives King David an off-the-cuff response to the proposed construction of a temple, he doesn’t use a messenger formula and his speech is fairly short, but after the Lord’s word comes to him, he does use the messenger formula and gives a longer speech (2 Samuel 7). In these passages and others like them, the author certainly seems to imply that a messenger speech claims to transmit God’s exact words, a script given to the prophet to repeat.

On the other hand, there are passages that imply that shaping appropriate messages, and proclaiming them under the rubric “thus says [sender],” was an expected and normal part of any messenger’s job. The most obvious example comes from 2 Kings 18 and Isaiah 36, chapters that are largely though not entirely parallel to one another. In this twice-told tale, an Assyrian official—let’s call him the “royal messenger,” as this term encapsulates his function, even if the precise lexical meaning of the Hebrew transliteration of his Assyrian title isn’t entirely clear—comes to deliver Sennacherib’s demands to Jerusalem. The situation here resembles the case of Jesus’s teachings: Sennacherib presumably gave the royal messenger his instructions in Akkadian, the typical language of Assyrian administrative documents, or perhaps in Aramaic, by then the go-to language for cross-cultural communications. It’s highly unlikely—well nigh unthinkable—that Sennacherib would issue instructions in Judean (Hebrew) to his royal messenger. Yet when the royal messenger shows up at Jerusalem, he speaks to Eliakim and the other officials in Judean (see 2 Kings 18:26)—even after they protest that they can converse in Aramaic just fine. Thus, it’s unlikely that the royal messenger gave Eliakim et al. Sennacherib’s ipsissima verba ; at most, he translated his king’s Akkadian or Aramaic instructions in the Judean with exacting care, but even this yields ipsissima vox , not ipsissima verba . Moreover, the back-and-forth of the conversation might imply that the royal messenger was composing his response to the Judeans’ response right there on the spot. In this light, the royal messenger does not appear to be a mere “parrot” of Sennacherib’s exact words, but more of a “press secretary,” composing appropriate words and attributing them to Sennacherib, accurately reflecting the king’s intentions, but not necessarily mirroring his vocabulary. Yet all of these messages are delivered with a messenger formula attached.

A similar, intra-Israelite example appears in Joshua 22:13, when the Cisjordanian Israelite tribes send Phinehas as an emissary to the Transjordanian tribes. Phinehas introduces his speech, “Here is what the Lord ’s entire community says.” The author of this passage can hardly expect readers to believe that the exact wording of Phinehas’s long speech (verses 16b–20) was written by a committee, much less a committee of the whole. Rather, the implication is that Phinehas was commissioned to deliver the sentiments of the Cisjordanian tribal leaders in a speech of his own composition.

Biblical prophets are, in effect, royal messengers in the service of the cosmic king, God. For at least some of the prophets, their authority and credibility derive from their claim to have witnessed the deliberations of the divine council. Micaiah (1 Kings 22), Isaiah (Isaiah 6), and Zechariah (Zechariah 3) may provide the clearest examples, but the analogy probably applies beyond them. For example, access to the divine council is what differentiates Jeremiah from rival prophets, according to Jeremiah 23:16–26. If we follow through with the analogy of prophets as royal messengers, we might well conclude that part of a prophet’s job description is to compose messages on God’s behalf, and to deliver those speeches under the rubric of the messenger formula. Assuming the prophet did his or her job well, listeners could consider those messages the ipsissima vox , but not the ipsissima verba , of the divine king, and it would be more appropriate to view such speeches as specimens of inspiration by disclosure rather than inspiration by dictation .

As I mentioned at the outset, I offer this analysis primarily for those readers who might be curious as to how I’d analyze prophetic sermons with messenger speeches in terms of the spectrum of inspiration that I’m  unfolding in this series. In my next post, I’ll move on to quite a different literary genre, which I think demands a quite different approach to “inspiration.”


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