Heschel on Ecstasy, Poetry, and How Prophecy is like the Now but Not Yet Reign of God


In his well-known book, The Prophets, Jewish scholar Abraham Heschel defends the Hebrew prophets against claims of modern psychology (in the 1960s) which tried to explain the “enigma” of prophecy using the “theory of ecstasy.” Basically, “ecstasy” is an out of body experience in which the soul is united with divine being; sometimes ecstasy came in a wild, crazy, dancing form and sometimes its quiet, reserved, and sublime. Heschel goes to great lengths to show that the Hebrew prophets were not ecstatics.

Ecstasy requires a loss of consciousness; the Hebrew prophets always retained their ability to respond to God’s word. Ecstasy was associated with ANE religions which practiced alcoholic orgies, which were consistently opposed throughout the Biblical narrative. Ecstasy calls for union with God; the prophets knew that God was holy, transcendent, and should be feared. Ecstasy destroys genuine human personality; the prophets always retained a sense of self as they were empowered to dialogue with God. Ecstasy was a state willfully pursued by worshipers of orgiastic cults; the prophets were ones called by God against their wills.

Ecstasy takes the worshipper out of their consciousness into a state of detachment from the world; the prophets were profoundly concerned with the dealings of their world. Ecstasy leads to an experience which cannot be communicated; prophecy is not prophecy unless the word of God is spoken and heard. Ecstasy is a private affair; prophecy is fully public and designed to speak into the life of a people. Ecstasy has its end in itself; prophecy’s end is a people’s obedience to the will of God. Ecstasy is concerned only about spiritual, heavenly matters; the prophets were concerned about the everyday lives of people in the marketplaces, the courts, and the fields.

Ecstasy is based on a theology of “radical transcendence” which leads to a desire for complete “union” of humanity with God. However, the God of the prophets, the God of pathos, is not inaccessible and does not desire union. The God of pathos desires fellowship and community. The prophets have no need to strive for God’s presence because God is always and already approaching them. Yes, God is transcendent but God is not distant. This chapter was important for me because it reinforced God’s desire for me to become all that God has created me to be, to grow into more complete personhood so that I can fully participate with God – not simply be “used” by God like a shovel – in God’s mission of justice and righteousness. God desires personal wholeness and embodied integrity; not a fragmented, disembodied mind who must deny his “flesh” in order to be “holy.”

After dismantling the theory of ecstasy as an explanation for prophetic experience, Heschel changes his direction to take on yet another theory which attempts to solve the “enigma” of the biblical prophets: poetic inspiration. If the theory of ecstasy tried to limit the prophets to a totally transcendent, other-worldly sphere of existence, the theory of poetic inspiration takes the opposite approach by completely demythologizing the prophetic revelation and removing all traces of divine activity.

As poets, the prophets are merely exercising the power of their imaginations – albeit to a degree that set them apart from their peers. Heschel admits that the prophetic literature does at times take on the form and beauty of poetry, but he adamantly rejects the idea that the prophet’s message is simply poetic – originating within their own imaginations. The prophet’s spoke and acted because they had knowingly encountered the person of God; not because they were overwhelmed with a mysterious, faceless gust of creative energy. The prophets were not poets.

By examining both of these theories – ecstasy and poetry, Heschel brings up the “either-or” tendency in human thinking. In their attempts to explain prophecy, the theories of ecstasy and poetic inspiration reveal how difficult it can be to hold two seemingly opposite ideas in tension. The truth is that prophecy is simultaneously natural and divine; it has elements of the poetic and the ecstatic. As followers of Christ through the Spirit, the church’s existence is defined by this “either-or” tension as it lives in the “now but not yet” of God’s reign. Too often, I fail to hold this tension by losing track of the “not yet” of God’s new creation. I forget that neither I, nor anyone else, can “build” or “expand” God’s reign as if the saving of the world depended entirely on human effort and progress. The reign of God is a reality I am invited to “receive and enter” (Luke 18:17) — not “build.” On the other hand, it is one that I must “make every effort to enter” (Hebrews 4:11). Like prophecy, God’s reign is – for now – an enigma: not something to be solved, but a reality – a person (three persons actually!) – to be experienced and known in a community of pilgrims on the way.

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