Interpretation and Application
It is important to have a good grasp of the central message of the prophets as discussed above because most of the prophetic texts you will encounter present one of the three major points or expounds on one of the three main indictments. Familiarity with these overall emphases assists you in determining Step 1 of the Interpretive Journey: Grasp the text in their town. What did the text mean to the biblical audience? Remember the historical-cultural and theological context. Read carefully and observe, observe, observe!
Next, you must identify the differences between the biblical audience and us (Step 2 of the Journey). We are not under the old covenant, nor are we facing the covenant curses in Deuteronomy. Likewise, we are not facing invasion from the Babylonians or Assyrians. We are also not a theocracy. The United States is not equivalent to ancient Israel.
Step 3 is crossing the principlizing bridge and developing one or more theological principles. Let’s suppose for a moment that you are studying a passage in which one of the prophets is proclaiming the first point of the prophetic message: You have broken the covenant; you had better repent! The obvious and most common theological truth from this is that disobedience to God is sin and that sin brings punishment if not dealt with properly. However, it is imperative that we consult the biblical map (Step 4) and pass this theological truth through the filter of New Testament teaching. In this step we will understand anew this truth in light of the cross.
In teaching about sin and covenant violation we must be careful lest we forget Paul and grace and become Judaizers. Remember our discussion in the last unit concerning the law. We are no longer under the covenant of law, so we must be careful in translating this principle down to today’s audience. We see two different situations for how this principle translates to concrete expression for people today, one for believers and one for unbelievers. Sin against God by the unbeliever does result in terrible judgment. However, when a believer sins, he or she is still covered by the atonement of Christ.
In attempting to grasp the meaning of these texts that announce covenant violation, we often find it more helpful to focus on the relational aspects that our sin, or covenant violation, affects. In the prophetic books, God used the marriage analogy and the unfaithful spouse image to convey the emotional pain he felt when Israel and Judah were unfaithful. However, most people, even Christians, in the broader culture of America tend to view sin against God in the same fashion as they view breaking secular laws—speeding laws, for example. If you break the law, you pay a price, but no one is hurt emotionally. Certainly, Uncle Sam couldn’t care less about our speeding tickets.
This particular attitude reflects a popular theology, that is, a theology arising out of our culture rather than out of the Bible. It is a theology that has a detached, emotionally neutral, impassive God, and it is a theology that is propagated through the culture both in and out of the church. In contrast, one of the most important theological truths coming out of the prophetic message is that when we are unfaithful to God, we damage our relationship with him, causing him to hurt emotionally. When one loves someone deeply, they open themselves up and become vulnerable. God has made himself vulnerable to our unfaithfulness, and we find ourselves in the incredible situation of being able to hurt God when we are unfaithful to our relationship with him. For the New Testament believer, the consequence of unconfessed sin is not a Babylonian invasion and exile, but rather a strained and damaged relationship with God, who has been hurt by our unfaithfulness.
To complete the Interpretive Journey we must move on to the application level (Step 5). This truth must be translated into specific real-life situations of individual Christians. A Christian today, for example, who attends church and professes Jesus but who regularly indulges in sexual promiscuity is not far from the eighth-century BC Hebrew who regularly offered sacrifices to the Lord but also participated in Baal worship. Both actions hurt God and damage the relationship. True repentance and a change of heart are called for in both situations.
As you read and study the prophets, you will also frequently encounter passages that contain one of the three indictments (idolatry, social injustice, religious ritualism). Each of these can be carried along on the Interpretive Journey across the river and through the New Testament into a contemporary context fairly well.
The charge of idolatry, for example, translates for us today into whatever it is that draws our worship and focus away from our relationship with God. For many American adults this is often a job, success, or the need to make more money. For younger adults, the more common idols are popularity, clothes, movies, TV, cars, sports, and even grades.
Social injustice, however, is more difficult to transpose into today’s context. Or, perhaps the expression of this concept is simply more difficult to accept once it has been transposed. The prophets preached often against social injustice, and they considered violations of social justice as serious as idolatry. They addressed numerous cases of social injustice, such as judicial bribery, marketplace dishonesty, or failure to pay just wages. One of the major social issue themes running throughout the prophets, however, is the abuse, oppression, or even the neglect of the underclass, whom the prophets identify as the widow, the orphan, and the alien or foreigner. Deuteronomy mentions this triad eight times, commanding that the people of God give them both legal justice and food (10:18; 24:17, 19, 20, 21; 26:12, 13; 27:19). Apparently, this group did not have enough political and economic clout in the society to fend for themselves, so the Lord commands his people to pay specific attention to caring for them. Both Israel and Judah failed miserably at keeping this commandment, and the prophets made this one of their major indictments against them.
So the theological principle for this indictment would be related to the fact that God is concerned for those who are weak, either physically or socioeconomically. Furthermore, he expects his people, since they have him living in their midst, to be actively helping and defending such people. Certainly, bringing this truth through the New Testament filter (Step 4) does not alter the demand for social justice. Jesus’ application of the Levitical commandment, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” in the story of the good Samaritan indicates that Jesus continues to exhort us to care for those in need, even if, or especially if, the one in need is racially or culturally different from us.
Application of this truth is often difficult today because frequently political affiliation and regional cultural outlook play greater roles in shaping the American Christian’s view of social justice than biblical theology does. If one were to stop Americans on the street at random, finding out their party affiliation tends to be a more accurate predictor of their views on social issues than finding out whether they are evangelical believers. This is troubling to us, and it lies at the root of the problem we face when we try to apply the prophetic exhortation on social justice. When biblical theology conflicts with strongly held cultural views, the tendency is to modify or conform the theology to the culture. This is, of course, backward, but it is also precisely what the culture in Jerusalem did to Jeremiah, and it resulted in the exile.
It is important to note that the prophets were in direct conflict with commonly held attitudes of their culture. Part of their message was that the social views of God’s people should be driven by the Word of God, not by the culture. One of the challenges for us, mentioned earlier in the course, is to realize that we bring a lot of cultural/political baggage with us on this issue. The biblical interpretive challenge for us is not to have Republican views or Democrat views, but rather Christian views—views anchored in biblical theology rather than in secular culture.
Thus, we need to ask several application questions. Who today does not have enough political and economic clout to get justice or food? Minorities? Illegal immigrants? The poor? The elderly? Children? Abused women? The unborn? The application process is not complete until we come to grips with the seriousness of the issue and until we realize that God holds us (his people) responsible for caring for those who do not have the political or economic power to care for themselves.
Finally, you will also encounter many passages that relate to the third indictment of the prophets, the charge of religious ritualism. Especially in Judah, the people believed that maintaining the rituals of worship was all that God required. They believed that ritual activity such as sacrifice fulfilled their obligation to God and therefore freed them to do anything else outside the covenant they chose. The prophets condemn this attitude unequivocally. Remember, of course, that ritual in and of itself was not bad. The Lord himself ordained many of the rituals that the prophets critique. So the prophetic message is not a blanket repudiation of ritual. The problem for Judah was that they used the ritual to replace the relationship rather than to enhance the relationship.
The theological principle emerging from this indictment is that God desires relationship over ritual. Rituals have validity only in that they assist in developing the relationship. As we cross into the New Testament, this principle is reaffirmed. The Pharisees of Jesus’ day were more concerned with Sabbath observance than with the needs and hurts of people. Jesus rebukes them strongly for this. Most of the rituals of the Old Testament were dropped in the New Testament, but the church quickly began to develop its own rituals. The goal of faith, however, then as now, is to develop a relationship with God. Ritual, then as now, can help God’s people in the development of that relationship.
However, without the relationship the ritual is meaningless. Once the ritual becomes the end rather than the means to the end, it becomes meaningless—or worse. Once it becomes the rationalized cover for a life devoid of social justice and true relationship with God, then the ritual is on the same level as idolatry. The expression of this principle for us today is that our Christian rituals (how we do church) are valid as long as they enhance the development of our relationship with God. The rituals are the means to an end (relationship), not the end themselves. Likewise, the observance of ritual, without the underpinning of relationship, is hardly a substitute for living a life characterized by social justice and authentic worship of God.
Spend a few moments evaluating the rituals of your religious life. Do your rituals function as tools to assist you in the development of your relationship with God? Have the rituals helped you to inherit the faith and relationship of the preceding generation, and will they help you to pass faith and relationship on to the next one? Or have your rituals degenerated into a replacement of a relationship with God? Is your goal on Sunday to relate to God or simply to attend church?
Now let’s give some thought to point 2 of the prophetic message: No repentance? Then judgment. In the discussion above we indicated that, for the biblical audience, this judgment took the form of an invasion by a foreign army, the destruction of the nation, the loss of God’s presence, and the loss of the right to live in the Promised Land. The theological principle behind this prophetic message should reflect the fact that sin is an offense against God’s holiness. Furthermore, sin demands appropriate judgment. Also, because of God’s holiness, continued sin places a barrier between God’s people and their relationship with him as he dwells in their midst.
As we carry the principle through the New Testament, we recognize that sin has not changed and that the consequences of sin have not changed. What has changed is that God has now transferred the judgment of death for the Christian’s sin onto Christ. However, sin in the New Testament believer’s life is still an affront to God’s holiness. God indwells each believer, and sin in the believer’s life offends the holy God dwelling within us. If we fail to repent and turn from our sin, our relationship with God will be damaged. We will lose the right to fellowship closely with him, and numerous negative consequences will follow.
Finally, let’s look at interpreting and applying point 3: Yet, there is hope beyond the judgment for a glorious, future restoration.Numerous Old Testament passages proclaim this point. It is imperative, of course, that we see the ultimate fulfillment of these promises in Christ, but the spectacular prophetic message of forgiveness and restoration can also be transposed up from the national level of the ancient Hebrews to a theological principle and then back down to us today. The theological principle expresses the reality that God is in the business of forgiving and restoring people. As we move into the New Testament, we see that forgiveness and restoration find their ultimate expression in Jesus Christ. There is no sin or situation in our lives that God will not forgive and restore if we turn to him humbly through Christ.
The specific applications of this expression are numerous. Many Christians struggle with depression. Many come out of horrendous family situations. Many are scarred deeply by the events in their past. These passages apply to them by demonstrating that God can completely restore what has been damaged or destroyed. God can renew anyone and give people hope. God is in the business of forgiving and restoring to newness of life.
For example, if we are applying Ezekiel 37, we need to stand with Ezekiel and gaze out over the valley of bleached and scattered bones as God breathes new life into them and restores them to wholeness of life. How hopeless was that situation? How dead were those people? How hopeless is your situation? Cannot the God whom Ezekiel describes breathe new life into you as well? If we leave the study of the prophets with a pessimistic, depressed outlook on life, we have failed to grasp one of the most critical elements of the prophetic message.