Spirit of Prophecy

In my daily Bible reading, I’m coming up on Ezekiel, and he’s making me nervous.

Always in the back of my mind is a series of books that I want to write some day, about how people understand mystical experiences, the supernatural, prophecy, etc. I have in mind at least three books: The first one would cover the Old Testament and be titled, “Saul among the prophets,” referring to the two times that King Saul got distracted from whatever errand he was on because he ran into a group of prophets, had some kind of ecstatic experience, and ended up in a daze and naked. The second book would be called, “You may all prophesy,” from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, and it would cover what the New Testament church thought about these things. The third book would be about the early Christian era, and I would call it, “With a loud voice,” which is a quote from Ignatius of Antioch. Around 100 AD, he wrote a letter to the church at Philadelphia, where he asserted that what he said during a church service had been a prophecy, because he said it, “with a loud voice, with God’s own voice.” (What grand aspirations he has for a soldier, you say. It’s all right. I know of a newspaper man who once wrote a tome on Biblical authority.)

Anyway, because I have this in the back of my head, I’m always asking the question, “What exactly was this experience like?” When God said to Samuel, Look not to his appearance, what exactly did Samuel experience? Was it an audible voice, a thought inside his head? How did he know it was God and not his own idea? Was there some sort of sense of dread?

Ezekiel is especially hard to answer these questions. He has these dramatic experiences, where he is taken to some place, shown some awesome thing, and it’s not always entirely clear if what happened was in some sort of trance, or if he physically saw it with his eyes. Did he go afterwards and see char marks on the ground along the paths of the four living creatures?

But more close to home is that Ezekiel, being one of the most dramatic of the prophets, sets the standard for people who want to prophesy today. I am not a cessationist, and I think cessationists make their job too easy when they simply say the canon is closed. People have always had experiences. In former times, some of these were from God and some were nonsense. What help is it to say that now we are confident that all of them are nonsense? It’s a great help to those who want to be materialists and Christians also. But it’s kind of a Tolkien view of the world: In a former age, the world was flat and boundless, but in our current age, God has bounded it by curving it in upon itself. The way to the land of the Valar is now closed to mortals. They don’t seem to notice that, in Tolkien, the new rounded earth is a smaller, dimmer world.

But as I say, slamming the door closed on spiritual experiences is a kindness to folks who don’t have those experiences, and wonder if they should. But it’s a great harshness to people who continue to dream dreams and see visions. Those people are forced to resign the brighter half of their lives to the stuff of mental institutions and illegal pharmaceuticals. Yet they keep on seeing things.

As I said, Ezekiel in a lot of ways sets the standard for people who want to see visions. I mean, boy did he see them. But how much did he see them, and how much was it merely a divinely blessed imagination? I suspect the Hebrew word would have been the same.

It’s not an academic question for folks like me, with highly… enhanced… imaginations. If I’m meditating on a thing, and a picture comes into my mind, and boy what a humdinger, and with it comes a sense of dread and awe, how do I report it? How did Ezekiel report his experiences? “And saw a picture in my mind of four living creatures; whether they were real and imagined, I do not know. But as I contemplated these creatures, my heart rate was highly accelerated, and my hair stood on end.” Therefore: the word of the Lord. The ancient saints didn’t have the advantage of writing off Ezekiel’s visions simply because they were visions. (Unless they were Sadducees, but then the Sadducees were no saints.) There wasn’t any value in waiting to see if Ezekiel’s vision of the four creatures “came true.” There was no predictive element. Like all scripture, there was a certain component of his experience that must be self-authenticating.

And yet, charismatic though I am, I see in Ezekiel not only the authoritative word of God, but also the imaginative foundation of every two-bit quack and self-assured heretic in church history. Here is George Fox interrupting formal public meetings to ask why church houses are called churches. Here is William Blake writing vaguely seditious poetry, calling his acid-etched engravings visions of fire. Here is the hook for all the people Jude warned us about.

As the angel said to John, “The testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.” As surely as there are antichrists, there are prophets who testify for them. Their visions must surely sound and feel quite a bit the same.

Here is scripture, both our model and our instructor. Let us handle and divide it carefully.

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