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.