Reflecting on the Voice of the Lord

I am an academically-minded person who has been raised in a pietistic tradition. Oftentimes I have found these two aspects of my religious identity to be mutually complementary. However, at other times they have caused some conflict for me. Perhaps nowhere is this conflict more apparent than in my longing to hear God’s voice in my own life and experience.

Most of my training in exegesis and hermeneutics (that is, the tools, assumptions, and methods of biblical investigation and interpretation) have come from two schools rooted firmly in what is often called the ‘theologically conservative evangelical tradition’—Gordon College and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. In those contexts I came to appreciate the distinction traditional Christianity has drawn between the way God spoke to and through the prophets and apostles who wrote and edited the canonical Christian Scriptures and the ways in which God speaks to us today.

In these contexts, at least as I experienced them, it is deemed most appropriate to seek to hear God’s voice by a living engagement with Christian Scripture. In many ways I have found these exhortations persuasive.

However, my primary experience of Christian formation and community has been in the more pietistic tradition of the Church of the Nazarene, which has been shaped in fundamental ways by the American Holiness Movement of the 19th century. Whereas my formal education encouraged me to seek God’s voice through a disciplined study of the canonical Christian Scriptures, my pietistic upbringing also encouraged me to be suspicious of the sterilizing of God and of His contemporary accessibility and activity that I was warned often occurred in the ivory towers of academia. As a pietist, I am convinced that God still speaks, and I long to hear God’s personal voice speaking personally to me in the intimacy of a growing relationship with the Creator of all things.

As I have come to understand my own upbringing, the pietist in me is inclined to believe that the canonical Scriptures create space for God to speak, but the voice of God is more immediate, more immanent, and more personal than the voices preserved in the written Word of God. In many ways I have found these commendations to be persuasive, as well.

So, I find myself bearing the strange, and sometimes lonely, conviction that the Scriptures are inerrant (without error) in all that the writers of Scripture intended to contend for or against while at the same time being convinced that God did not stop interacting personally with His people after the death of the last of the apostolic witnesses (that is, the writers of the New Testament). Consequently, and perhaps paradoxically, I remain convinced that God speaks to us, and yet, I am also convinced that the only place we can be certain we have heard God’s voice is in living engagement with the canonical Christian Scriptures. These are the tensions out of which I read Scripture, and before I proceed to reflect on the ‘voice of the Lord’ today, I thought it best to place these assumptions on the table, so to speak.

So with these preliminaries before us, I want to begin to reflect on a story preserved in chapter 13 of the First Testament book of 1 Kings that has long perplexed me. After the death of King Solomon, his son Rehoboam became king over Israel. However, because of Solomon’s idolatry in the latter years of his life, God had covenanted to take the larger part of the tribes of Israel and give them to another, hence dividing the one nation of Israel into two. The man God chose to govern the northern kingdom of Israel was Jeroboam, son of Nabat.

Upon his coronation, Jeroboam began to move away from the instructions of the Law of Moses (Torah) almost immediately, and his motivations seem to have been primarily political. Rehoboam had retained kingship over the tribe of Judah, and it was in the tribe of Judah that the Temple of the Lord was located. Therefore, every time Jeroboam’s subjects were to celebrate the most important festivals of the yearly calendar, every time they were to make sacrifices for sin, every time they were to gather to praise and worship the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as a community, they would have had to enter into the jurisdiction of Rehoboam.

Jeroboam was a wise ruler. He realized that these traditions could eventually destabilize his rule. So, his solution was to create alternative worship centers within his own borders. He placed one in the far south of his territory, in Bethel, and one in the far north, in Dan. He then instructed his subjects to worship the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in these locations in place of Jerusalem.

Jeroboam faced another dilemma. The only family authorized to serve as priests were the descendants of Moses’ brother Aaron, and the only tribe authorized to serve at the temple was the tribe of Levi. It would seem that the Levites were remaining faithful to the Law of Moses and serving in the temple in Jerusalem (or, at least, Jeroboam believed they would remain faithful). So, Jeroboam moved even further from the Torah by ‘ordaining’ folks to be priests in his new worship centers who were neither Levites nor descendants of the Levitical family of Aaron.

In response to these quite politically pragmatic decisions, which went on to plague the northern kingdom of Israel throughout its ensuing history, the Lord sent a prophet from the tribe of Judah to prophesy against the worship center in Bethel. 1 Kings 13 preserves his encounter with Jeroboam.

While Jeroboam was standing by the altar to offer incense, a man of God came out of Judah by the word of the Lord to Bethel and proclaimed against the altar by the word of the Lord, and said, “O altar, altar, thus says the Lord: ‘A son shall be born to the house of David, Josiah by name; and he shall sacrifice on you the priests of the high places who offer incense on you, and human bones shall be burned on you.’ ” He gave a sign the same day, saying, “This is the sign that the Lord has spoken: ‘The altar shall be torn down, and the ashes that are on it shall be poured out.’ ” When the king heard what the man of God cried out against the altar at Bethel, Jeroboam stretched out his hand from the altar, saying, “Seize him!” But the hand that he stretched out against him withered so that he could not draw it back to himself. The altar also was torn down, and the ashes poured out from the altar, according to the sign that the man of God had given by the word of the Lord.[1]

In response to this, Jeroboam entreated the prophet to pray for his healing, which the prophet proceeded to do. And, after being healed, Jeroboam asked the prophet to stay and eat with him. Then the prophet revealed another message he had received from the Lord:

But the man of God said to the king, “If you give me half your kingdom, I will not go in with you; nor will I eat food or drink water in this place. For thus I was commanded by the word of the Lord: You shall not eat food, or drink water, or return by the way that you came.”[2]

After this the prophet began his journey home, and this is where the story has gotten perplexing for me. On his way home, the prophet ran into what the text calls ‘an old prophet’, who would prove to be a false prophet. He told the prophet from Judah that he received a word from the Lord instructing them to eat together. The prophet from Judah believed him, ate with him, and, as a consequence of his disobedience to the first word of the Lord he had received, got mauled and killed by a lion. Yeah, that’s right.

At least three questions arise from this narrative for me: (1) How did the prophet from Judah receive the word of the Lord that led him to Bethel? (2) How was the prophet from Judah so easily deceived by a false prophet? (3) Why was the consequence for his gullibility so severe? I’m sure there are more questions that might be asked, but I want to think a bit about these three queries in the context of what it meant then and what it means now to hear the voice of the Lord.

I listened to a message this week by Nazarene evangelist Dan Bohi entitled “The Voice of God.” Bohi addressed this passage specifically, and one of the things he seems to have assumed is that the prophet from Judah discerned the voice of the Lord in roughly the same way any of us would, perhaps as a sense or a feeling or a voice in our heads or an impression that comes to us personally in some way.

However, I think the details of the text suggest that prophets in these days might have been receiving a more direct kind of communication. When the false prophet reported the means by which he received his message from God, he claimed in 13:18 that an angel spoke to him. Angels (or messengers) from God are commonly referenced in the First Testament, and in every instance of direct communication with humans of which I am aware, the messenger always appeared to be a person and spoke real words into the real world. This experience is so common in the First Testament that both the writer of Hebrews (Heb. 2:2) and the Apostle Paul could maintain that the old covenant was given by angels.

19 Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring would come to whom the promise had been made; and it was ordained through angels by a mediator.[3]

In fact, in every instance of the First Testament that I can recall, when God spoke to a person, He spoke either through a real, tangible messenger, by direct encounter with God, or by a repeated dream confirmed by a specified, alternate interpreter. What I’m saying essentially is that the First Testament seems to assume that the voice of the Lord was not a deeply subjective type of communication that was to be personally and individually discerned.

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And it would seem that this is what tripped up the prophet from Judah in this story. The older prophet claimed to have had such an encounter, and the text implies, to my reading, that his son served as witness. Two witnesses were sufficient under the Law of Moses to verify such a claim, and so, the prophet from Judah assumed God had changed His mind. What he did not realize is that the older prophet was a false prophet intent on deceiving him. Was there any way he might have known to be wary?

The young prophet from Judah seemed quite clear on what God wanted him to declare in his confrontation with Jeroboam, which was confirmed by two signs (as required by the Law of the Moses)—the splitting of the altar and the shriveling of Jeroboam’s hand. He should have trusted the word entrusted to him. However, he did not allow God’s certain word to help him to discern the false word of the older prophet. He allowed the two claims to compete, and he paid the penalty for his gullibility.

Sadly, in Deuteronomy 13:1-4 the Torah had already prepared him for this sort of a dilemma.

13 If prophets or those who divine by dreams appear among you and promise you omens or portents, and the omens or the portents declared by them take place, and they say, “Let us follow other gods” (whom you have not known) “and let us serve them,” you must not heed the words of those prophets or those who divine by dreams; for the Lord your God is testing you, to know whether you indeed love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul. The Lord your God you shall follow, him alone you shall fear, his commandments you shall keep, his voice you shall obey, him you shall serve, and to him you shall hold fast.[4]

The Torah had warned that God would allow false prophets to live and to thrive among the people of Israel as a means of testing the faithfulness of the Israelites. No matter how persuasive a speech, how miraculous a demonstration of power, or how truthful a teaching might appear to be, there was a sure test of its truthfulness built into the Torah. If the prophet who performed the miracle or spoke the word encouraged disobedience to the instructions of God, that alone was proof of falseness.

The prophet of Judah might have known that the second instruction to disregard the first could not have been from God. Perhaps the consequence was so dire because the stakes of failing to discern authenticity are so very high for the people of God.

Jesus, too, it would appear, was cognizant of this teaching of Torah. He affirmed as much in Matthew 5:17-19:

17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19 Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.[5]

Jesus, too, insisted that however His teachings might be interpreted, they should not be understood as nullifying the Torah given to Israel. Paul’s use of Torah to mediate ethical disputes in the early church seems to flow out of this assumption, as well, as do the ethical instructions of the rest of the New Testament. Even the book that draws the sharpest distinction between the Old and New Covenants, the book of Hebrews, still exhorts believers to submit to the moral and ethical requirements of Sinai. For the writer of Hebrews, only those requirements of the Law completed by the ministry of Jesus both as sacrifice and as High Priest—sacrifices, purification rituals, separation rituals, etc.—need not be repeated any longer. My inclination is to believe that Jesus intended to clarify and perhaps even to expand Torah, but not to alter or diminish what had already been given.

False teachers and prophets proved to be as much of a challenge in the New Testament writings as they had been throughout the history of Israel to that point, and I suspect that their presence will remain with us as long as the Lord tarries. Further, my inclination is to believe that the criteria by which falseness might be discerned today remains much the same as it was for Israel. To quote the Apostle Paul in Galatians 1, speaking on behalf, I believe, of the prophets of Israel and the Apostles of Jesus:

But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed! As we have said before, so now I repeat, if anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed! [6]

Does God still speak today? I think He does. Will He speak a word today that invalidates the words He has delivered to us through the prophets of Israel and the apostles of Jesus? I think the answer is no. May those who have ears to hear, listen.

~ J. Thomas

[1] The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1989), 1 Ki 13:1–5.

[2] The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1989), 1 Ki 13:8–9.

[3] The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1989), Ga 3:19.

[4] The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1989), Dt 13.

[5] The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1989), Mt 5:17–19.

[6] The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1989), Ga 1:8–9.