Truth to Power

“Speaking truth to power” is a phrase that gets overused. Mostly it comes from the lips of those who want to speak some popular, ill-conceived cliche to the politicians in a western, liberal democracy in order to get some attention for their “cause.” They march into a state legislature or the Congress and make an nuisance of themselves, create noise, shout slogans, and wave some signs because they’re “speaking truth to power.”

Unsurprisingly, I would be shocked to ever see such individuals traveling to Iran, organizing a group, and marching up to the presidential palace to protest the regular execution of gays and to demand that gays be granted freedom and equal rights. I have yet to see them standing before the king in Saudi Arabia and demanding that women be granted the right to get a job, walk the streets unaccompanied by a man, or drive an automobile. I would be flabbergasted if any protesters visited Saudi Arabia to insist that the Saudi kingdom grant Christians the freedom to practice their faith openly, build churches, and preach the Gospel to their neighbors. Heck, they don’t even stand in front of the Saudi or Iranian embassies and wave signs. Genuine injustice and mistreatment of people by the abominations of the world is mostly ignored by all the “truth speakers.”

It is only on the rarest of occasions that we actually find examples of people “speaking truth to power.”

In 2 Samuel 12:1-15 the prophet Nathan speaks the unpopular truth despite the personal risk.

David had committed adultery with Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite, one of David’s “mighty men” who was off fighting a war for David. When she turned up pregnant, David tried to cover up the problem by recalling Uriah from battle so that he’d spend a night or two with his wife. Unfortunately for David, Uriah never slept with his wife, and so David resorted to getting Uriah killed. He sent word to his top general to put Uriah on the forefront of battle, then withdraw from him so that he’d be struck down and killed. David then married his widow and she gave birth to his son.

God was not pleased by David’s behavior and so he sent Nathan the prophet to talk to David. Nathan told a story about a man with a pet lamb, and how a wealthy neighbor had stolen it and butchered it for his guests to eat. Furious, David said that the man deserved to die, but he ordered the penalty given in Exodus, that the rich man pay his neighbor back four times for the stolen lamb.

Nathan then informed David that “you are the man.” David recognized his guilt, felt remorse, and repented. God forgave him, though he suffered much trouble for the rest of his life, including the rape of one of his daughters and the death of three of his sons (one of whom was the baby from the adulterous affair). Four lives destroyed in exchange for the one David took.

Nathan approached a powerful man to level criticism and bad news to him. The king of Israel was a man who could not just fire Nathan, but who could put him in the dungeon, or worse. It is not easy to actually speak the truth to power; it is far easier to speak what power wants to hear. Or to shout platitudes at those who can’t actually harm you. Those spouting popular rhetoric, like suck ups and the yes men of the world, seem to get ahead faster than those who don’t play politics quite so well. Really speak truth to power and see how well it turns out for you.

One must decide whether playing politics and getting ahead in the world is more important to you than being honorable and doing the right thing, because an awful lot of the time, those two are not at all compatible. In the New Testament, Jesus pointed out that you cannot serve both God and money (Luke 16:13). For most, the truth isn’t as important as they like to tell themselves it is; and what they take for truth, too often is not much more than an empty slogan.

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About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm a deacon at Quartz Hill Community Church. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
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