A Prophet Like Fire

By Michael Fitzpatrick

A Reading from Ecclesiasticus 48:1-11

1 Then Elijah arose, a prophet like fire,
and his word burned like a torch.
2 He brought a famine upon them,
and by his zeal he made them few in number.
3 By the word of the Lord he shut up the heavens,
and also three times brought down fire.
4 How glorious you were, Elijah, in your wondrous deeds!
Whose glory is equal to yours?
5 You raised a corpse from death
and from Hades, by the word of the Most High.
6 You sent kings down to destruction,
and famous men, from their sickbeds.
7 You heard rebuke at Sinai
and judgments of vengeance at Horeb.
8 You anointed kings to inflict retribution,
and prophets to succeed you.
9 You were taken up by a whirlwind of fire,
in a chariot with horses of fire.
10 At the appointed time, it is written, you are destined
to calm the wrath of God before it breaks out in fury,
to turn the hearts of parents to their children,
and to restore the tribes of Jacob.
11 Happy are those who saw you
and were adorned with your love!
For we also shall surely live.


How did the ancient Israelite and Jewish communities know who were the prophets worth trusting? There are a lot of people running around the world today claiming visions about who should be the next American president, how God feels about the European Union, and where the Church should stand on the issues of the day. We certainly have our heroes of Christian practice, and we display little reservation in labeling them “prophetic voices.”

Our forebears had plenty of prophets both true and false, and I love these panegyrics in Sirach, because they reveal where the dividing line lay: integrity. Elijah neither reinforced the prevailing earthly powers like most false prophets did, nor did he side with the rebellious factions seeking to overthrow the establishment. His words “burned like a torch” and his “wondrous deeds” included letting a drought stand as God’s wrath on a people, raising the dead, and enforcing judgment on “kings” and “famous men.” After all his proclamations scorched civilization with the Word of God, this prophet of fire was taken up to heaven by fire.

Elijah provided no sanctuary to the powers of this world, nor did he seek any for himself. He propped up no political parties, signed no book deals, planted no houses of worship. Yet he is acclaimed a prophet whose glory is without equal. When I listen for prophet voices in the future, I’ll be listening for two things: are they acting for their own gain or to bring the Word of the Lord to a hungering world? And do their deeds bear witness to the power and integrity of God’s divine action in this world? Adorned with the love of God’s true prophets, we also shall surely live.

Michael Fitzpatrick is a doctoral student in philosophy at Stanford University. He attends St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Palo Alto, Calif., where he serves as a lay preacher and teacher.

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