One of the three divisions of the Old Testament, according to the arrangement of the books in the Hebrew Bible, is known as ‘The Prophets’. That collection includes books which Christians typically think of as history: Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings. These are sometimes referred to as the ‘Former Prophets’. There are 15 other books in that division which are the so-called writing prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and twelve ‘minor’ prophets (minor due to their size, not their stature or significance) Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi. These books are also found in our Christian Bibles. What was the message of these writing prophets and how do their words relate to us today?
As we think about the message of the prophets, it’s important to remember that they were God’s messengers. The prophets usually addressed God’s people as a whole rather than individuals, although on occasion they did that too. As we read them today, it’s important to bear in mind that their message is first and foremost a corporate message not an individualistic one.
The focus of the prophets’ message concerned the Lord, Israel’s God, and his relationship with his people; a relationship which was defined in terms of a bond or a covenant. That covenant, which was established at Sinai after God had delivered the people from bondage in Egypt, brought privileges, belonging to the eternal God being uppermost, but it also brought responsibilities as the people needed to live in accordance with his will as set out in the laws attached to that covenant. The bond with God needed to be reflected in the lives of the people in practical terms. The prophets ensured that the people knew how to live according to the covenant.
How did the prophets fulfil their role? A term that is sometimes used is that they were ‘forth-tellers’, that is they spoke forth God’s mind. There was, sometimes, another aspect to their ministry: foretelling. Many, perhaps, are inclined to think of this as being the most characteristic feature of their message. However, whilst the future could feature in their words, the prophets were not simply predictors of the future.
As we survey the prophetic books we find a range of topics and specific subjects, reflecting the varied times and circumstances of a given prophet, too many to consider here. However, there are some common emphases, given that they were all concerned, as we have seen, with the covenant relationship between God and his people. We’ll look at their message from four perspectives.
A word of rebuke
A significant element in the message of the prophets was to bring a word of rebuke as the people failed to honour their commitment to the covenant with God. This resulted in practical disobedience to the terms of the covenant relationship. Let’s look at some examples.
In Isaiah chapter 1:2-4, the prophet rebukes the people for demonstrating a disloyalty to their relationship with God: they behave as if they do not know God. The prophets could be very specific about the particular failures in the lives of the people. Very often, the prophets brought a rebuke on account of social failures, such as dealing unjustly with people, as in Amos 2:6-7. Quite often a link is made between social failures and religious practices as we see with the prophet Isaiah who says, ‘Even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood’ (Is. 1:15).
The prophets could go further, and announce judgement on God’s people, as Zephaniah does in chapter 1:4-6 and we should not forget the principle mentioned in 1 Peter 4:17 about judgement beginning with God’s household.
A call for repentance
Whilst the prophets could be unsparing in their condemnation, they also extended a call to return to God and to forsake wrong ways. The prophet Joel (2:12-14) does so in words that are heartfelt and full of reassurance: ‘Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful.’
For the prophets, repentance included taking concrete action:
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow (Is. 1:16-17).
The hope of restoration
If rebuke and the prospect of judgement were signalled by the prophets, they also held out the hope of restoration. Sometimes, the restoration might be in the near future. For example, in Isaiah 48, the prophet speaks of the departure of the people of God from Babylon, the place to which they had been taken into exile, as a result of God’s judgement upon them.
On other occasions the restoration might be more remote. We see an example of this in Isaiah also, such as in chapter 66, in particular from verse 18 onwards.
However, it’s not always easy to know whether the prophets are speaking of a restoration that is close at hand or further in the future and it can be difficult for us as readers to distinguish between them. To explain this, commentators have sometimes described the prophets as if they were looking through a telescope, so that that which is distant appears near. It’s as well to bear in mind that when the prophets do speak of future restoration, that restoration could be something that would take place at some point before Christ, or as a result of the coming of Christ and his ministry, or at a time that is still in the future, even for us!
We also need to remember that when describing the hope of restoration, the prophets can use very idealistic language. They often draw upon the language used by God when he set down the terms of the covenant with his people (such as in Leviticus 26), which included the threatened curses for disobedience and the promised blessings for obedience which might follow repentance. We see this in Joel 3:9-20, which is a passage speaking about the prospect of restoration using agricultural terms. This reminds us that when we read such passages we should not always press the details too literally.
The need for righteousness
If the prophets were uncompromising in identifying sins and failures, they were equally clear about reminding the people of God of their obligations and the need for righteousness in their lives. The prophet Micah summarised very succinctly what it was that would please God:
He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 5:8).
Again, the prophets could be very specific about this, as we find in Isaiah 58:6-10 where the prophet describes the quality of life of the people of God.
Messages for today
As we read the prophets, these same four aspects, rebuke, repentance, restoration and righteousness, speak to us. How sensitive are we to areas of our lives, as God’s people, that would call forth his rebuke? What is the reality and the sincerity of our repentance? What are our longings for restoration and are our hopes shaped by the prophets’ message? Do we merely give mental assent to a correct principle of righteousness, or do we see the implications in practice? Such searching questions are to be found in the message of the prophets for us today.