The Weird, Wonderful World of Prophetic Communication
Sign Acts: The Weird, Wonderful World of Prophetic Communication
Whitney Woollard • September 12, 2018
If you’ve ever read the Prophets, you know they seem a little weird. Sure, there’s cherished passages like God’s promise to give his people a future and a hope in Jeremiah 29:11 or a new heart and new spirit in Ezekiel 36:26. But on the way to these beloved texts you come across strange scenes like Jeremiah smashing jars before an audience and Ezekiel baking bread over human waste (yes, poop). There’s also that episode of Isaiah walking around naked for three years. Weird, right? Well, yes and no.
Yes, the prophetic actions are weird in the sense that it’s rare to see a man walking around naked (unless you live in Portland, Oregon like me…then it’s not so rare). But, no, they’re not weird in that they’re random or meaningless. The prophets were communicators, and like all great communicators, they utilized a wide range of verbal and nonverbal elements in their prophetic speeches. They didn’t merely speak out prophecy; they acted it out as well. Unfortunately, the nonverbal components don’t get much press today, so we often mistake these sign acts as yet another prophetic oddity when, in fact, they’re a key ingredient in the compelling, multi-sensory presentations that fill the prophetic pages. This means that if we want to understand the weird, wonderful world of prophetic communication, we need to understand the sign acts.
Now I know what you’re thinking…
What’s A Sign Act?!
Good question. “Sign acts are nonverbal actions and objects intentionally employed by the prophets so that message content was communicated through them to the audience” (Friebel, Dictionary of the Old Testament Prophets). Think of them as “visual aids.” Who doesn’t love a good visual aid? Whether it’s in the classroom, the sanctuary, or on YouTube, visuals make instruction concrete in our minds, and they reinforce it in ways we remember. In the same way, sign acts were nonverbal actions that visually demonstrated and drove home the message being delivered by prophets.
What makes these visuals so interesting (i.e., “weird”) is that the prophet himself was intimately involved in the visual. He might use coordinated body movements, grand gestures, facial expressions, or complex actions with objects to make the divine point (imagine the game charades on steroids). Ezekiel, a prophet whose sanity is often questioned, is the most notable example of this. Just a few of his “enacted prophecies included lying bound in ropes (4:1-8), shaving his head and striking some of the hair with a sword (5:1-2), covering his face and digging through a wall (12:3-7), trembling (12:18), and avoiding the full mourning rituals for his dead wife (24:16-24)” (L. John McGregor, New Bible Commentary).
Ok, that does seem weird, but it’s the strangeness of his actions that drew the audience into his message, which is exactly what he wanted. The visual nature of the prophet’s presentation made his message unmistakably clear to a people who were notorious for muddying the waters of God’s Word. The Israelites could choose to ignore the prophet’s words, but they sure couldn’t miss them. Thus, the power of the sign acts. Pretty cool, right? Now that we know what they are, we need to figure out how to spot one.
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How Do We Spot A Sign Act?
Let’s start with what a sign act isn’t. The non-communication activities of the prophets, such as traveling to a location to deliver a message or writing down a message on a scroll, are not sign acts, nor are the activities that happen within a vision or the rhetorical commands that aren’t meant to be carried out. Sign acts also aren’t the same thing as symbols or signs (as in “signs and wonders”). In Hebrew, “signs and wonders” refers to miraculous events intended to be passed down and remembered from one generation to another. Prophets can indeed performs signs, such as Elijah raising a woman’s son from the dead (1 Kings 17:17-24), but that’s not a sign act. It’s a sign or miracle.
So how do we know when we’ve come across a sign act? First, it’s always communicated in a distinct literary form involving “two primary components: the divine command to the prophet to perform the specified action, and the interpretation of the sign act” (Friebel, Dictionary of the Old Testament Prophets). There’s the action carried out and the interpretation of the action. You can’t have one without the other. Imagine how easily actions could be misinterpreted if there were no explanations. Like, maybe Isaiah just liked being in the buff or Ezekiel wasn’t so fond of his wife. Obviously we need the interpretation. So when you see nonverbal activity coupled with verbal proclamation, you know you have a sign act. Here’s an example from Jeremiah 13:1-10:
Nonverbal activity: Jeremiah buys, wears, and buries a new waist sash and then digs it up to discover that it’s ruined, no longer good for anything (Jeremiah 13:1-7).
Verbal proclamation: “Then the word of the Lord came to me: ‘Thus says the Lord: Even so will I spoil the pride of Judah and the great pride of Jerusalem. This evil people, who refuse to hear my words, who stubbornly follow their own heart and have gone after other gods to serve them and worship them, shall be like this loincloth, which is good for nothing” (Jeremiah 13:8-10).
Another way to spot a sign act is to look for the description of the performance. Many biblical accounts detail the prophet acting out the command, the presence of eyewitnesses watching him, the responses of the witnesses, and a declaration that the event will surely come to pass. A drama this elaborate carried out in public to make a persuasive point can only mean one thing: you’ve stumbled upon a sign act! One of the best examples is the profoundly detailed performance that Ezekiel puts on in Ezekiel 4-5 involving multiple sign acts and meanings to communicate Jerusalem’s siege and captivity. If there’s a sign act of all sign acts, I’d say Ezekiel 4-5 is the one. You might want to read it and observe his performance. It would be great practice on how to spot a sign act.
A third way to recognize a sign act is to look for the use of similes, which are comparisons using “like” or “as.” Often the action and the interpretation of the action are connected through the use of a simile where the prophet takes on the role of God or of God’s people to draw a comparison and make the divine point. So when you come across the phrase, “Just as the prophet has done, so it will/has/should be done…” it’s like flashing lights telling you you’re reading a sign act. Here are two examples from Isaiah and Ezekiel:
Action: Isaiah walks around naked and barefoot for three years (Isaiah 20:2).
Interpretation: Then the Lord said, “As my servant Isaiah has walked naked and barefoot for three years as a sign and a portent against Egypt and Cush, so shall the king of Assyria lead away the Egyptian captives and the Cushite exiles, both the young and the old, naked and barefoot, with buttocks uncovered, the nakedness of Egypt (Isaiah 20:3-4).
Action: Ezekiel packs a bag for exile, digs a hole in the wall of his home, covers his eyes as he exits through the hole, and leaves the city (Ezekiel 12:3-6).
Interpretation: “Say, ‘I am a sign for you: as I have done, so shall it be done to them. They shall go into exile, into captivity.’ And the prince who is among them shall lift his baggage upon his shoulder at dusk, and shall go out. They shall dig through the wall to bring him out through it. He shall cover his face, that he may not see the land with his eyes” (Ezekiel 12:11-12).
Are you getting a feel for how to spot a sign act? If you want more, check out some classic examples of sign acts in Jeremiah 27 and 32 or Ezekiel 12 and 21. And if we haven’t geeked out enough yet for my Bible nerds, let’s consider one last question.
Sometimes people need strange to shock them into hearing a message they’d rather not hear.
How Do We Interpret A Sign Act?
This is an interesting question because various schools of thought have emerged over the years. Some people believe that the prophet’s performance set his depicted actions in motion to such an extent that the actions inevitably occurred. In layman’s terms, the sign acts cause the events. On the other hand, some understand the sign acts to express divine reality rather than cause it, relegating the actions to secondary importance to such an extreme that whether or not the action was actually performed is of little significance. Still others see them as “acts of power” legitimizing the prophets’ authority or street theater intended to persuade their audiences through dramatic performances. So which is it? A, B, C, D, or all of the above?!
There are legitimate elements in all of the interpretations. Often the sign acts did predict future events, express reality of the divine will, legitimize the prophets’ words, and act as dramatic street theater. However, we shouldn’t narrow the purpose and function of the sign acts to a single school of thought just to fit them neatly into one interpretative box. It’s better to interpret them broadly as rhetorical nonverbal communication (as suggested by K.G. Friebel) that accompanied the verbal elements of the prophetic message in order to persuade the audience of the divine word being communicated.
The action could definitely predict the future, but it could also serve as an indictment of the past or as a convicting warning in the present. We don’t need to limit it to predictive prophecy. And obviously the sign acts express the divine will, but that’s no reason to minimize the actions themselves. After all, they were the vehicle through which the divine will was communicated. As to the “acts of power” and “street theater” positions, the sign acts are less concerned with establishing the identity of the prophet or gaining the public’s attention as they are communicating a specific message. Does this make sense? We want to leave our interpretation of the sign acts broad enough to allow each sign act to speak for itself in the context in which it is recorded and in the manner in which it was carried out.
With that information tucked away, I’d like to welcome you to the weird, wonderful world of prophetic communication. Sure, it’s unconventional and a bit strange, but sometimes people need strange to shock them into hearing a message they’d rather not hear. And that’s exactly what the prophets did for their audiences through the sign acts. So next time you’re tempted to believe Ezekiel has lost his mind, remember that he’s a brilliant communicator and likely the most sane person in the book that bears his name.
Whitney Woollard is a long-time Bible Project Blog contributor, writer, speaker, and Bible teacher in Portland, OR. She holds her M.A. in biblical and theological studies from Western Seminary and loves sharing her passion for the Bible with others. You can check out her work at her website, whitneywoollard.com