The Music Man and the Prophets
In the NT the Hebrew writer (1:1) said that God spoke to the fathers by the prophets in "various ways". There were dreams, direct speech, visions while awake, apocalyptic images, historical events and more. As we work to understand these men this should help us to keep our eye on what should be obvious as we read them; but under pressure from our neighbours and the accepted orthodoxy it's the obvious that we often ignore. The Hebrew writer gives us permission to accept the obvious—the prophets communicated in more than one way Isaiah 1:1, Micah 1:1 and Amos 1:1 when they speak of the word that the prophet "saw," make explicit what most of the prophets take for granted. I'm certain that I don't understand all that they meant by "saw" and I'm also certain that I don't understand all the mechanics of inspiration but I believe the prophets "saw" their message as well as hearing it and I believe the message was received and delivered under God's superintendence.
Our English word "fantasy", with the rest of its family, comes finally from a Greek word meaning to "show or appear or become visible". The ability to fantasise is the ability to think in images, which is often what we mean when we say imagine. People who write fantasy write fantastic things even though at times they're making points about issues and truths known to (or should be) or experienced by people in general. People like Stephen Donaldson, C. S Lewis and Jonathan Swift make their point and gain our attention (and sometimes our agreement) by appealing to us via our imagination. Prophets were doing that kind of thing since the days of Joel and Amos nearly eight hundred years before Jesus.
People like "Longinus" (whoever that was) in a work on rhetoric called On the Sublime (15) spoke of phantasia as an important method in a speaker's armoury as he uses the strength of visualisation to inspire or frighten his listeners into some definite response.
The Music Man is a great movie at the entertainment level but it's also an education in communication. The con-man, "Professor" Harold Hill, wants to get the River City people to pour their hard-earned money into his pocket before he vanishes. He decides he'll persuade them to fund a school band, instruments, uniforms—the lot; but how will be go about it? He spots the beginnings of a pool-hall and paints pictures of the awful fruit that comes from pool-halls. Oh, yes, "there's trouble; trouble in River City" and the children are in danger. Look, already the tell-tale signs are showing! When he has them thoroughly frightened by the visions he's thrown up he shows them the cure—a school band with all the splendour and joy and innocence that goes with it.
At one point he has the kids marching through the main street pretending to play instruments and such is the power of the vision that the mayor and the mayoral committee are bragging on the glory of River City's band that's marching by them. They mayor says he thought their band was a match for any band this side of the Mississippi. It was only when Marion, the librarian, walked by and hissed in disbelief, "What band?" that they woke from their dreaming. The stunned and sheepish mayor said of Professor Hill, "He's a spellbinder!" An appeal to the imagination is a powerful element in persuasion.
Biblically and in regard to content, even sheer fantasy has its rules so while the images often could not be taken literally, they were not unintelligible. [We can visualise a star falling on the earth even though it isn't literally possible and we can imagine the sky as a piece of paper being rolled up. Even imagination depends on the normal use of speech.] And equally to the point, the images used had to be in the service of some definite point the speaker had in mind. Where there's no "plot" or "point" no one is going to get up and talk about fantastic things.
"So what's Demosthenes doing today?"
"What he does every day in the market—he's spouting verbal pictures."
"And what's his point?"
"He has no point; he just likes talking in pictures."
No one does that and certainly no prophet did. When it comes to images Daniel and Zechariah offer us more of the "fantastic" in their use of images though the prophets in general make a lot of use of imagery and they always had a point. The more "fantastic" and sustained imaging is characteristic of what has come to be called "apocalyptic" literature, which, though recognisably distinct, is really nothing more than the extension of something you can see everywhere in the Bible.
As I mentioned above, plot and point are essential.
Jeremiah 4 is part of a large section levelled against faithless Judah (4:3, 5, 11, 22) and the prophet outlines God's judgement that will come via the Babylonians. The people had heard of and experienced God's judgement before this time so the concept wasn't hard to understand (even if they thought it unwarranted). It was a local judgement the prophet had in mind—that is, it was Babylon coming to judge Judah; it isn't a discussion of the final judgement much less a discussion about individual judgement after death. What makes it noteworthy for us is how the prophet "sees" and tells it.
In 4:23-31 he says he "saw" a picture of the judgement and it turns out to be a vision of uncreation. It is Genesis 1 in reverse and it is the curse of the earth as in Genesis 3. Why does the prophet link the local judgement on Judah with the undoing of Genesis 1 or the curse in Genesis 3:17-19?
He is underscoring the profound sinfulness of sin.
He is telling us that there is a single narrative of sin—from beginning to end sin and sinning is a single story.
He is reminding us that sin has cosmic consequences—it affects the entire creation.
"If you think you understand what you see going on, you're mistaken. When you've talked of the political, economic, military and social elements involved here you haven't got to the bottom of things. There's more in it than meets the eye. If you think your sin affects only you you're as wrong as you can be." So a prophet would say.