It’s Bob Dylan, Not Nostradamus

Many of you are familiar with the books of the bible known as the prophets.

Located in the Old Testament, these texts are a mix of what we call the major prophets —  Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel — and the minor prophets — Amos, Micah, Joel, Habbakkuk and the others up to and including Malachi.  Major prophets are major because their books are longer, not because their message is more important. Isaiah, for example, has 66 chapters while Haggai has only two.

But here’s the dilemma for those of us who read the bible in English: we hear the word “prophet” and we immediately think:  Future telling!  Tomorrow predicting!  To find out what’s gonna happen at the end of time, just turn to the right page in Ezekiel and presto! there it is!

It’s Nostradamus with the biblical seal of approval.

Except that’s not what the compilers of the Scripture meant with the word “prophet.” A prophet in bible days was less someone who predicted the future and more someone who brought an artistic passion to interpreting events of the present.

Jeremiah is the “weeping prophet” not because he had a crystal ball telling him about events in the 21st Century but because his literary laments make the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of the Jews into Babylon all the more vivid and painful.

The best analogy I’ve come up with is this: these prophets are more like Bob Dylan than like Nostradamus.


Well, if you want to know the history of the Vietnam War, you can watch all of Walter Cronkite’s newsclips and you can read all of the New York Times’ headlines.  Then you would know the facts and nothing but the facts.

But if you want to know how people felt during those heady days, you’d want to listen to the longing of Blowing In The Wind and the sneer of Like A Rolling Stone.  The vitriolic art of those songs capture the feeling of an age better than a thousand newscasts.

In the same way, if you want to know the sequence of events surrounding the Babylonian exile, read 2 Kings 17-25.  That book — functioning as the “newspaper of record” for the ancient Jews — will give you an historical record of those sad events.

But if you want to know how people felt about the spiritual state of the people before and during the exile, try the book of Lamentations, Amos 5, or Psalm 137.

And turn the music on.