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Abraham Heschel: The Prophet's Response

In view of the insistence by the prophets of Israel upon the divine origin of their utterances, one inclines to agree with the ancient conception of the prophet as a mere mouthpiece of God. A careful analysis, however, compels us to reject the characterization of prophetic inspiration as a mere act of passive and uncon-scious receptivity (see pp. 357f.) What, indeed, was the nature of the prophet's transmission of what he perceived? Was it an impersonal reproduction of an in-spired message, a mere copy of the contents of inspiration, or did prophetic experience involve participation of the person in the act of transmission or even inspiration? Is prophecy to be thought of as a technical activity like divination? Is the prophet a person whose consciousness, in consequence of divine influence, utterly dissolves in surrender to the divine word, so that all spontaneous re-sponse and reaction is excluded?

The conception of the prophets as nothing but mouthpieces, the assumption that their hearts remain unaffected, would almost compel us to apply to them the words that Jeremiah used of the people:

Thou art near in their mouth
And far from their heart.

Jeremiah 12:2

The prophet is not a mouthpiece, but a person; not an instrument, but a partner, an associate of God. Emotional detachment would be understandable only if there were a command which required the suppression of emotion, forbidding one to serve God "with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your might." God, we are told, asks not only for "works," for action, but above all for love, awe, and fear. We are called upon to "wash" our hearts (Jer. 4:14), to remove "the fore-skin" of the heart (Jer. 4:4), to return with the whole heart (Jer. 3: 1 0) - "You will seek Me and find Me, when you seek Me with all your heart" (Jer. 29:13). The new covenant which the Lord will make with the house of Israel will be written upon their hearts (Jer. 31:31-34).

The prophet is no hireling who performs his duty in the employ of the Lord. The usual descriptions or definitions of prophecy fade to insignificance when applied, for example, to Jeremiah. "A religious experience," "communion with God," "a perception of His voice". Such terms hardly convey what happened to his soul: the overwhelming impact of the divine pathos upon his mind and heart, complete-ly involving and gripping his personality in its depths, and the unrelieved distress which sprang from his intimate involvement The task of the prophet is to convey the word of God. Yet the word is aglow with the pathos. One cannot understand the word without sensing the pathos. And one could not impassion others and remain unstirred. The prophet should not be regarded as an ambassador who must be dispassionate in order to be effective.

An analysis of prophetic utterances shows that the fundamental experience of the prophet is a fellowship with the feelings of God, a sympathy with the divine pathos, a communion with the divine consciousness which comes about through the prophet's reflection of, or participation in, the divine pathos. The typical prophetic state of mind is one of being taken up into the heart of the divine pathos. Sympathy is the prophet's answer to inspiration, the correlative to revelation.

Prophetic sympathy is a response to transcendent sensibility. It is not, like love, an attraction to the divine Being, but the assimilation of the prophet's emotional life to the divine, an assimilation of function, not of being. The emotional experi-ence of the prophet becomes the focal point for the prophet's understanding of God. He lives not only his personal life, but also the life of God. The prophet hears God's voice and feels His heart. He tries to impart the pathos of the mes-sage together with its logos. As an imparter his soul overflows, speaking as he does out of the fullness of his sympathy.

From Heschel, Abraham. The Prophets (vol 1). New York: Harper, 1969 (pp. 25-26).