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The Basic Prophetic Message

We have seen that the prophets write in the theological context of Deuteronomy and in the historical context of an imminent invasion by either the Assyrians (against Israel) or the Babylonians (against Judah). What is their message in this context?

The prophets serve as the Lord’s prosecuting attorneys. They stand before the Lord, accusing and warning the people of the consequences of covenant violation. While there are numerous nuances and subpoints to their proclamation, their overall message can be boiled down to three basic points, each of which is important to the message of the prophets:

  1. You have broken the covenant; you had better repent!
  2. No repentance? Then judgment!
  3. Yet, there is hope beyond the judgment for a glorious, future restoration.

1. Under point 1, the prophets stress how serious the nation’s covenant violation has become and the extent to which the people have shattered the covenant. The prophets present a tremendous amount of evidence validating this charge. Evidence of this violation falls into three categories, all of which are explicitly listed in Deuteronomy. These categories reflect three major types of indictments against Israel or main areas of covenant violation: idolatry, social injustice, and religious ritualism.

a. Idolatry is perhaps the most flagrant violation of the covenant, and the prophets preach continuously against it. Israel engages in idolatry from their political beginning, with the golden calves in Bethel and Dan. But even Judah falls into serious idolatrous worship. Syncretism (the blending of religions) was in vogue with her neighbors, and Judah feels free to create a pantheon, worshiping Baal, Asherah, and other gods along with the Lord God. They attempt to maintain the ritual of worshiping the Lord in the temple while also sacrificing to the other regional gods and participating in their festivals.

This syncretistic idolatry climaxes in Ezekiel 8. The Spirit takes Ezekiel on a tour to the temple in Jerusalem. There he sees an idol at the entrance to the north gate, drawings and carvings of idols and unclean animals on the walls, women burning incense to the Babylonian vegetation god Tammuz, and the elders with their backs to the presence of the Lord, facing the east and bowing to the sun. “This,” the Lord declares, “will drive me from my sanctuary.” Indeed, in Ezekiel 10 the glory of the Lord departs. The old Mosaic covenant as defined in Deuteronomy comes to an end with the departure of the Lord’s presence in Ezekiel 10.

Idolatry is not merely a violation of the law. It strikes at the heart of the relationship between the Lord and his people. The central covenant formula in the Old Testament is the statement by the Lord that “I will be your God; you will be my people. I will dwell in your midst.” Idolatry rejects this relationship. Several of the prophets stress the emotional hurt that God feels at this rejection. For God the issue is as much an emotional issue as a legal one.

To aptly illustrate this, several of the prophets use the faithful husband/unfaithful wife image. This is perhaps the central imagery that paints the seriousness of the idolatry charge. The prostitute/unfaithful wife image runs throughout Jeremiah as one of his central images. Ezekiel also uses this relational picture in chapter 16. And poor Hosea lives out the heartbreaking drama in his own life.

The prophets not only proclaim that idolatry violates the relational and legal aspects of the covenant, but they also deliver scathing polemical diatribes against the idols, demonstrating how irrational and foolish it is to worship them. “Tell us, you idols,” Isaiah taunts, “what is going to happen. Tell us what the former things were . . . or declare to us the things to come . . . so we may know that you are gods. Do something,” the prophet challenges, “whether good or bad, so that we will be dismayed and filled with fear” (Isa. 41:22–23). Jeremiah also jeers at the idols and their impotence, mocking them with his imagery: “Like a scarecrow in a cucumber field, their idols cannot speak; they must be carried because they cannot walk” (Jer. 10:5).

b. The covenant in Deuteronomy, however, bound the people to more than just the worship of the Lord. Relationship with God required proper relationship with people. The Lord was concerned with social justice for all, and he was especially concerned with how weaker individuals in society were treated. Deuteronomy demanded fair treatment of workers (24:14ff.), justice in the court system (19:15–21), and special care for widows, orphans, and foreigners (24:17–22). As Israel and Judah turn from the Lord, they also turn from the Lord’s demands for social justice. The prophets consistently condemn this and cite it as a central part of the covenant violation. They frequently cite the treatment of orphans and widows as examples of the social failure of the people. They also state that this lack of social justice invalidates the sacrifices.

For example, in his opening salvo in chapter 1, Isaiah proclaims that the Lord will hide his eyes and not listen as they sacrifice because of their social injustice. Likewise, Jeremiah proclaims, “ ‘They do not promote the case of the fatherless; they do not defend the just cause of the poor. Should I not punish them for this?’ The declares the Lord” (Jer. 5:28–29). In similar fashion Micah underscores that justice is more important to God than the ritual of sacrifice. In Micah 6:7–8 he states:

7Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousand rivers of olive oil?
Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
8He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.

c. The nation is relying on religious ritualism instead of relationship. The people have forgotten that ritual is the means to the relationship, not a substitute for relationship. As Israel becomes more enamored with formalized ritual, they lose the concept of relationship with the Lord. They trivialize the significance of God’s presence in their midst. They think that only ritual is required of them. They draw the illogical conclusion that proper ritual will cover over other covenant violations like social injustice and idolatry. They rationalize their social injustice and their syncretism by focusing on the cultic ritual. This is hypocritical, the prophets declare, and not at all what God wants. Micah states this clearly in 6:7–8 (quoted above). Likewise, in Isaiah 1:11–13a the Lord asks, “The multitude of your sacrifices–what are they to me? . . . Who has asked this of you, this trampling of my courts? Stop bringing meaningless offerings!”

Sacrifice is not the only cultic ritual that the prophets critique. In Isaiah 58, the prophet criticizes fasting as well. “You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high,” Isaiah quotes God as stating. He continues:

6Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
7Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? (Isa. 58:6–7)

Idolatry, social injustice, and religious ritualism—these are the three interrelated indictments that make up point 1 of the prophetic message: You have broken the covenant; you had better repent! The call to repent is the other aspect of this point. The prophets beg the people to repent and to restore their relationship with the Lord. Even after the prophets proclaim that the judgment is imminent, they continue to plead for repentance. Jeremiah is the classic example, proclaiming the inevitability of the victorious Babylonian conquest, but all the while saying that it can be averted if only the people will repent.

2. The second point of the prophetic message is No repentance? Then judgment! The prophets plead with the people to repent and to turn back to covenant obedience. However, neither Israel nor Judah repents, and the prophets acknowledge that obstinacy, proclaiming the severe consequences. Much of the material in the prophetic books delineates the terrible imminent judgment about to fall on Israel or Judah. The major judgments predicted by the prophets are the horrific invasions by, first, the Assyrians and, later, the Babylonians. The most serious aspect of this is the loss of the Promised Land. The Lord is about to drive them out of the Promised Land, as he warned them in Deuteronomy.

3. The final point of the prophetic message is: Yet, there is hope beyond the judgment for a glorious, future restoration. The messianic promises and future predictions of the prophets comprise a large portion of point 3. The prophets do not proclaim a restoration after the destruction that simply returns to the current status quo. The theological and relational picture of God’s people in the future is different . . . and better. In the future, the prophets proclaim, there will be a new exodus (Isaiah), a new covenant (Jeremiah), and a new presence of the Lord’s indwelling spirit (Ezekiel and Joel). Forgiveness and peace will characterize this new system. Relationship will replace ritual.

All of the wonderful prophecies of Christ fall into this category. The prophets announce that the people have failed miserably to keep the law and the Mosaic covenant. Thus judgment is coming. However, after the destruction there will be a glorious restoration that includes the non-Jewish peoples (Gentiles). The Messiah will come and inaugurate a new and better covenant. Furthermore, the prophets stress, these events are not haphazard, nor are they driven by chance or by the determination of world nations. Quite to the contrary, the prophets proclaim boldly, all of these events, including the judgment and the restoration, are part of God’s plan, and the unfolding of these events provides clear evidence that God is the Lord over history.

Most of the prophets can be summarized by the three points discussed above. For example, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, Micah, and Zephaniah contain all three points. Amos, however, focuses primarily only on points 1 and 2 (broken covenant and judgment). Not until chapter 8 does he mention any future hope and restoration. Joel, by contrast, virtually skips point 1, apparently assuming that the people understand that they have broken the covenant. He goes straight into judgment (point 2) and then into the future restoration (point 3). Obadiah and Nahum do not follow the typical pattern at all. They are different because they preach against foreign nations (Edom and Nineveh, respectively) rather than against Israel or Judah. They play a minor role in the overall prophetic picture. The postexilic prophets (Zechariah, Haggai, Malachi) likewise have a different message because they write after the exile.

Jonah, however, is much more important to the basic prophetic message, even though he also preaches against a foreign city (Nineveh) and not against Israel or Judah. Our understanding of Jonah is that while the actual historical preached message is to the Ninevites, the literary message is an indictment against Israel and Judah. Jonah, one of the earliest prophets, sets up a foil for the ones that follow. The repentance of the Ninevites stands in stark contrast to the obstinacy of the Israelites. What happens in Nineveh is what should be happening in Jerusalem and Samaria, but does not.

For example, Jeremiah preaches in Jerusalem for decades, and the response is only one of hostility. No one repents, from the greatest to the least of them. Jonah, by contrast, preaches a short, reluctant sermon in Nineveh (of all places!), and the entire city repents, from the greatest to the least. The book of Jonah underscores how inexcusable the response of Israel and Judah is to the prophetic warning.


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