How NOT to Listen to Prophets
October 4, 2018
A couple years ago I wrote the campus a pre-Conference message on hearkening. (See https://president.byuh.edu/pacificponderings/hearken.) I spoke about how we should listen to prophets with the intent to obey. Today I want to share a similar message but from the negative perspective: how not to listen to prophets.
Scripture speaks of many ways not to listen to prophets. For example, Mosiah tells his people that they are not “to trifle with the words I shall speak” (Mosiah 2:9). We trifle with prophets’ words when we regard them merely as a rhetorical performance, as though prophets were orators. We trifle when we approach them merely with intellectual curiosity, as though prophets were philosophers or journalists. We trifle with prophets when we expect their words to tickle our itching ears with messages we want to hear, as though prophets were marketers.
Let me look at three scriptures that speak of each of these ways not to listen to prophets.
DO NOT LISTEN TO A PROPHET AS IF HE WERE MERELY AN ORATOR (Ezekiel 33): The Lord describes the people in Ezekiel’s day as misconstruing the prophet’s message by regarding it as a rhetorical performance: “And, lo, thou art unto them as a very lovely song of one that hath a pleasant voice, and can play well on an instrument: for they hear thy words, but they do them not” (Ezek. 33:32). A prophet’s words may be very well-written and delivered; indeed, the sermons of modern apostles often are. They appropriately fashion their words carefully so as to touch our hearts and minds. But the rhetorical beauty of their words, or lack of it, is not the point. The point is the inspiration and authority of the speaker. Our job as listeners is not to merely admire but to heed, hearken, repent, obey.
Imagine someone saying to the Savior after the Sermon on the Mount, “Well, that was an impressive discourse. I really liked the parallelism in the first section where you kept repeating “Blessed.” Very clever. Very effective. And your metaphors about light and salt. So well chosen! But that bit about plucking out your eye and cutting off your hand. Rather too grotesque, don’t you think?”
You see how beside the point this is. For the point is not to admire the rhetoric but to repent. The proper response to a prophet’s words is not, “My how lovely” but “Lord, is it I?” (Matt. 26:22).
DO NOT LISTEN TO A PROPHET AS IF HE WERE MERELY A PHILOSOPHER (Acts 17): The Athenians on Mars Hill also show us how not to listen to a prophet. We should not listen to a prophet as if he were a philosopher or journalist. The Athenians listen to Paul as a purveyor of novel ideas—ideas that one might have read about in an ancient version of the Athenian Sunday Times. The Athenians love to talk about and debate ideas; it is one of their favorite pastimes. They come to hear Paul on Mars Hill out of intellectual curiosity. Indeed, they “spent their time in nothing else, but either to tell, or to hear some new thing” (Acts 17:21). They welcome Paul to their public forum to learn “what this new doctrine, whereof thou speakest, is” (19). Paul’s message promises to provide interesting fodder for debate, a ball for the intellectual ping-pong that intellectuals enjoy in the agora or Areopagus.
But his message of resurrection proves to be even more bizarre than anticipated—completely out of the bounds of Greek philosophical discourse. So they send this seemingly lunatic Hellenized Jew away as politely as they can with, “We’ll hear you again another time.”
One can imagine a couple Athenians chatting with each other in their club the next day over wine and cheese:
Athenian 1: “Did you hear that crazy babbler Paul talking about a Jew who died and was raised from the dead? Ridiculous! Then he said that we would all come back to life! I almost lost it!”
Athenian 2: “What an absurd notion! But, it made for a diverting way to pass the afternoon. I might even write a thought-piece on barbarian religions. Who is on the hill today? I hope it is someone else from the provinces. I’m thinking of calling my piece ‘Strange Ideas from Strangers.’ Catchy, huh? More wine?”
Paul dressed his discourse in an ingenious way: “To the Unknown God.” But Paul’s claim on the Athenians, and on us, does not derive from his clever rhetorical skill or his intellectual profundity. It derives from his speaking the truth in the authority of an apostle. As Søren Kierkegaard says in a little essay called “On the Difference between a Genius and an Apostle,” that Paul was a genius has no more bearing on the spiritual importance of his message than that he was a tentmaker. There have been many great geniuses, but their words and beliefs are not binding on us. Paul’s eternal claim on our lives comes from his speaking for God as an apostle.
When we listen to prophets, we should listen by the Spirit for the voice of God speaking through them. That is, we should listen to them as prophets, not as philosophers.
DO NOT LISTEN TO A PROPHET AS IF HE WERE MERELY A MARKETER (2 Tim. 4) A third way not to listen to prophets is to mistake him for a marketer. We should not pay attention just to messages that please us, or that tell us what we want to hear. In Second Timothy, Paul calls this kind of listener someone with “itching ears” (2 Tim. 4:3). Modern translations explain that this unusual phrase means that people look for preachers to “tickle their ears” (NEB); “suit their own desires” (NRSV); and “tell them just what they want to hear” (Living Bible).
We should not listen to prophets to justify ourselves, nor choose to heed only the messages that validate our views. The most important messages for us may be those that we at first resist or find troubling, especially those that prompt us to repent. When prophets speak of sin, we should be like the publican rather than the Pharisee. The Pharisee thanked God that he is not as other men are. The publican, by contrast, “would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying God be merciful to me a sinner” (Luke 18:11-13).
So how not to listen to prophets? Not as though they were orators, philosophers, or marketers. This is not to say prophets are oblivious to style, argument, or audience, but these are not what we listen for. Nor should we regard prophets as celebrities, a common pitfall in our age. Prophets are not perfect. But these earthen vessels contain a treasure: the oracles of God (2 Cor. 4:7). And the Lord has admonished His people to “beware how they hold [the oracles of God] lest they are accounted a light thing, and are brought under condemnation thereby and stumble and fall when the storms descend, and the winds blow, and the rains descend, and beat upon their house” (D&C 90:5).
This scripture contains, by cross-reference, the key to how we are to listen to prophets. The cross-reference is to the very end of the Sermon on the Mount. Here Jesus tells his listeners exactly how they ought to listen to his sermon; this principle applies to all inspired teaching. Jesus explains: “[W]hosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, I liken him to a wise man, which built his house upon a rock” (Matt. 7:24). “And every one that heareth these sayings of mine and doeth them not, shall be likened unto a foolish man, which built his house upon the sand” (Matt 7:26).
I have written here about how not to listen to prophets. So how to listen to prophets? To listen with real intent—meaning with the intent to hearken, heed, apply, obey, become. And then to act on what the Spirit tells us. This is to build on the Rock.