Every so often in my personal devotions, I decide to read the Bible cover to cover. Starting with Genesis 1, I work my way through, reading three chapters a day and five on Sunday. That’s no magical, spiritual formula, just a tip I got from one of my college professors for how to get through the Bible in about a year. When I do a read-through like this, I do so without any commentary or teacher holding my hand. I simply want to allow God’s word to speak into my story right now.
Often a verse leaps out at me, and I post it on my Facebook page. I include no added thoughts, no set-up, no discussion questions. I just let God’s word stand on its own, as it is more than capable of doing. Frequently, individuals respond with a simple “Amen,” which speaks volumes. Sometimes, people share more.
Currently I am working through the Hebrew prophets, which use rich poetry and imagery to illustrate God’s loving relationship with his people—and also, in some cases, with the surrounding nations. These writings are bold and fascinating – a joy to read. But reading these ancient Middle Eastern prophets from my little corner of the twenty-first century America makes me wonder: What could they possibly say to me today?
The context of the prophets is one of judgment. Israel and Judah—respectively, the northern and southern kingdoms of the Hebrew nation—have not simply ignored the teachings of Yahweh but have openly rebelled against them (think in terms of God’s chosen people giving God the finger). During this time, in a remarkable act of grace, God raises up a group of prophets to reveal truth. All of these prophets expose sin, warn of judgment, offer a way out through repentance, and preach the abundance of God’s lovingkindness and forgiveness. But, typical of human nature, his people don’t listen—in some cases even beating up these messengers of God’s mercy (ironic!). Finally, just as they predicted, God’s righteous judgment comes:
-First, Assyria invades and destroys the northern kingdom, dispersing its people (later referred to as the ten “lost tribes” of Israel).
-Eventually Babylon invades the southern kingdom and its capital city of Jerusalem, carrying the remaining tribes (of Judah) into exile.
So in ancient times, God’s purpose in sending the prophets was to warn his people to repent of sin, in order to avoid judgment and be restored to relationship with him.
Nowadays, however, Christians seem to read something different into these Old Testament books of prophecy. First, some use them to try to “decode” the future and God’s plan for the “end times.” These folks interpret all Old Testament books of prophecy as predictive of things yet to come: they believe the prophets spell out God’s plan for the future, and it is our job—our duty—to unlock the secrets. While I agree that the prophets do contain many prophecies about the future, particularly messianic ones, I think these books are meant for more than mere eschatological (end-times) proof-texting.
Second, some use the prophets to claim that God’s wrath is coming against unbelievers, or even against believers with whom they disagree. This approach may have a bit more validity since the prophets are obviously writing about God’s judgments, specifically against Israel, Judah, and the surrounding nations. But using the prophets to deflect blame onto others seems a little self-serving.
So how do we read the Hebrew prophets? Do we just ignore them—like, say, Leviticus? My answer is that I don’t think we should ignore any part of the Bible (including Leviticus!). Besides, many sections in these prophetic writings start with phrases like, “The word of the Lord says…”, indicating the importance of what comes next. For these reasons, along with others, we should read the prophets and meditate upon them.
But what do they mean to us today?
I don’t pretend to be Dr. Hebrew Scholar; I know these writings have deep layers of meaning, and I always enjoy reading the many scholars who know more about them than I. At the same time, I don’t think a degree is necessarily required to mediate on any part of God’s word.
So as I read the prophets, I try to focus on two simple questions: What was the purpose of the prophets’ message in their own time? And what is the purpose of their message today?
What was the purpose of the prophets’ message in their own time? Like all of the books in the Bible, the writings of the prophets were originally written for a certain group of people in a certain historical context. In other words, each prophet’s message had a clear meaning for his contemporaries – not just a cryptic message to be decoded centuries later, woven in and out of today’s headlines. It is always important to reflect on who the recipients were. What were they doing to warrant such strong words of warning? One need not be a Bible scholar or commentator to find out. The time during which the prophets spoke occurred primarily during the books of 1 and 2 Kings. In fact, the Jews have always considered 1 and 2 Kings as one book, and they list it not as a history book but with the prophets. So reading 1 and 2 Kings provides a good overview of people’s behavior during the time of the prophets, and of the context in which God was speaking.
By showing how messed up the people were and how they continually chose sin over God, the prophets clearly explain the justification of God’s judgment. However, in doing so, they also reveal the extent of God’s love.
-First, according to the prophets, God is offering his people a lifeline: Judgment will fall—but not without a clear and concise warning, and not without the chance to escape it through repentance.
-Second, amidst all of this judgment is a promise of redemption and restoration: the people’s defeat and exile would be severe, but also temporary, after which they would return home and rebuild the temple—God’s symbolic dwelling-place, and thus a symbol that he would come and live among them again.
What is the purpose of the prophets’ message today? After a quick run-through of the headlines from any typical news source, I always feel like society has “jumped the shark,” so to speak. I can hardly wrap my mind around what’s happening around me. It seems everyone’s gone crazy, and every day brings news that is crazier than the day before. Just as in the days of the prophets, people seem determined to come up with new ways to rebel against God, each one with a darker, more perverse twist than the last. The world is so screwed up, I tell myself, and so richly deserving of God’s wrath that no one should be surprised when it comes.
So it’s tempting to pull out a verse about God’s judgment and launch it against other people or groups.
For example, consider Ezekiel 24:14 (NIV):
“‘I the Lord have spoken. The time has come for me to act. I will not hold back; I will not have pity, nor will I relent. You will be judged according to your conduct and your actions, declares the Sovereign Lord.’”
Hooya! I could post that on Facebook, with my own little social commentary: “Ha ha! See, America? See, people I disagree with? See, sinners who aren’t me? That’s what happens when you kick God out of the culture! You really have it coming!”
But to do so is to remove myself from the equation. If I delight in the thought that God will judge others’ sins, I’d better be ready for him to judge mine too. So, instead of reading the prophets as a brilliant spotlight of judgment to flash into the eyes of others, I should reflect on my own life first.
The truth is, reading the prophets for ammo to attack the sins of others is the wrong motivation. The Bible has this incredible rhetorical ability to circle back to my own sin whenever I try to point it out in others.
So, just as the prophets had a two-fold message for their contemporaries, they have a two-fold message for us today. It’s a message of repentance and redemption.
-First, repentance: How is God convicting me personally through the prophets? How am I worshipping idols of pride and greed, like Israel and Judah (Ezekiel 23:30)? Where am I ignoring the poor, the sick and the helpless, as they did (Amos 5:11-12)?
-Second, redemption: In my brokenness and rebellion, how is God’s judgment redeeming me? How is he leading me through repentance and back toward restoration?
So this is the message of the prophets: They were relevant in their time, and they are still relevant in ours. They reveal the depths of human sin and rebellion, but also of God’s never-ending love and pursuit of sinners. They communicate the overall message of God’s relationship with his people, which is that we continually fail, but God redeems. He is always present to convict, to judge, and to restore those who will listen to him.