Wednesday, September 19, 2018

The Burden of the Lord

In the years leading up to the Babylonian captivity, God spoke many times through his prophets to the people of Judah and their religious leaders. However, the message he sent them was not to their taste. The leadership, especially the false prophets and priests, were disinclined to accept any correction of their way of life, but were understandably reluctant to be seen to defy God in any obvious way.

Then they discovered a rather ingenious solution. Instead of prefacing their own declarations with “Thus says the Lord” or some other claim to God’s final authority over the message they brought to the people, they began instead to speak of something they called the “burden of the Lord”. This “burden”, they claimed, came to them in dreams, sufficiently foggy and amorphous that it was necessary for them to explain it in their own words rather than God’s.

This approach enabled them to claim sufficient heavenly authority to maintain their prestige and position without obliging them to say anything difficult or truthful that might offend their audience. It was the perfect compromise.

Under an Unprofitable Burden

But there’s a problem with such messages: they are fundamentally unprofitable. Since they are not initiated or empowered by God, they have no ability to change hearts, lives, families or societies for the better. They cannot bring about repentance. All they do is create confusion, so that nobody is quite sure where the real word of the Lord may be found, and create a false sense of spiritual security that comes from never having one’s ideas challenged or modified.

Naturally, God despised this manipulative device. He forbade the use of the phrase “the burden of the Lord” and threatened judgment against any alleged prophets who used it. Further, he challenged the people of Judah to force these false prophets to step up to the plate and speak a clear and unambiguous message:
“Thus you shall say to the prophet, ‘What has the Lord answered you?’ or ‘What has the Lord spoken?’ ”
These are specific questions that cannot easily be answered with vague generalities, messages plagiarized from real prophets, and personal opinions.

Under an Incontestable Burden

The second problem with false prophecies couched in deniable language is that they are incontestable.

Real predictive prophecies were open to being tested: they could be compared to the events that followed them and declared true or false, and the prophets who prophesied them could then be treated accordingly.

Real prophetic exhortations were also testable: they could be compared to the Law, the Psalms and the works of other authenticated prophets, and rejected if the words they claimed were God’s showed obvious inconsistencies with his revealed will.

But parsing speculations, generalities, opinions and other bafflegab is like trying to pick up a plateful of half-melted blancmange with your fingers: it slides away in every direction. There’s nothing specific enough to really challenge. And the danger of allowing men to get up in public and claim the authority of God without evidence is that their mushy pronouncements may be thought to carry the same weight of authority as the word of God itself.

An incontestable burden is a burden you can’t ever get rid of. That’s a problem.

Spiritual-Sounding Noises

We don’t have prophets in our churches anymore, and so we are usually preserved from having to hear too much about people’s dreams. Try pulling that one from the platform as the source of your spiritual authority and you’ll be called out fairly speedily, I would hope.

All the same, I have heard a great number of sermons preached in evangelical churches that were absolute mush. When you can get fifteen minutes into a message without the Bible being opened or a single scripture being quoted, you are probably listening to mush.

It might be earnest mush. Lots of it is. I’ve heard stories about dying grandfathers that made women weep and enthuse about the speaker’s empathy and platform presence. And sure, the air was filled with spiritual-sounding noises for a full 45 minutes. But there was no actual content to the message. It was a nice, sentimental backrub.

That’s not to say that every message we hear should riddle us with guilt and shame. There is a place for convicting ministry, and a place for reassurance and encouragement. But real exhortation is based on a real word from God. Real conviction is based on a word from God. And while the words of man are often needed to explain the words of God, we cannot allow the words of man to replace the message God has actually given us.

Every One to His Brother

Notice that the responsibility for fixing the problem in Judah was not given to the false prophets, who were corrupt and had no incentive to change their ways. It was given to their audience (“Thus shall you say, every one to his neighbor and every one to his brother”). That is not merely an Old Testament quirk: Luke commends the Bereans in the book of Acts for examining the scriptures to see if what Paul and Silas were teaching them was accurate. They were really asking themselves the same question, “What has the Lord spoken?”

There’s an easy way to test to see if a man is really speaking the word of God: call him on his platitudes. I don’t mean be nasty, or difficult, or truculent, or nit-picky. But if you hear a flaccid generality lobbed out authoritatively from the platform, and you know from your own study that it has no substance, then step up to the plate and challenge it afterward. Politely, sure. But go see if the Lord has really spoken. See what the guy has got up his sleeve.

Maybe you missed something, and he’ll draw your attention to it. Maybe he misspoke. Maybe he accidently forgot to make a necessary point, or left out a link in his argument because he had a bad case of nerves or was running short of time. It happens. If so, and if he’s a godly man, he may thank you for bringing it to his attention. A real servant of God, after all, wants to be effective. He doesn’t want to be misunderstood. He may even appreciate the fact that you were paying attention to what he was saying. That doesn’t always happen, I can assure you.

And even if he’s a total cad, asking him a direct question about the source of his authority will provide him with a good reason to be cautious about speaking without it again.

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