06 September 2019

Prophets in the bible: Read their books!

THE PROPHETS ðə 'prɑf.əts noun, plural. Biblical writings by and about God’s Spirit-inspired messengers.
2. [In Christian bibles and book order] Books in the Old Testament primarily consisting of prophecies. Usually Isaiah through Malachi.
3. [In Jewish bibles and book order] The second major grouping of the Hebrew scriptures: Books written between 1000 and 400BC; Joshua through Malachi.

Sometimes I refer to “the Prophets,” and I admit this can be confusing to Christians who grew up Jewish. To Jews, “the Prophets” are the middle part of their bible—Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Isaiah, and the 12 minor prophets.

But to Christians, “the Prophets” are the books with prophets’ names on them, specifically written by them, specifically full of their prophecies. Isaiah, Jeremiah (and Jeremiah’s book Lamentations), Ezekiel, Daniel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. Some of us throw in the New Testament book of Revelation, and others throw in the apocryphal book of Baruch.

And for too many of these Christians, these are flyover books.

Yep. Just like snobs on the east and west coasts assume the middle of the United States consists of irrelevant “flyover states” which one needn’t bother to visit, many Christians figure these books needn’t be read. ’Cause they were written to the ancient Hebrews, not us. And they’re too confusing. Too filled with hard-to-interpret visions. Too weird. Not relevant.

They figure the Prophets have only two functions; only two reasons why we bother to publish bibles including them. First of all, they’re full of predictions Messiah was coming, so they point to Jesus. So we keep ’em for the Messianic prophecies, in case anybody isn’t sure the Prophets did foretell Jesus’s first coming.

The other is because they also foretell Jesus’s second coming. They foretell the End Times. So “prophecy scholars” mine ’em for their End Times prognostications, for anything which might fill in the blank parts of their timelines.

Otherwise, these books are considered a hard read. So Christians don’t read ’em. We read the books we consider relevant: The New Testament. The Old Testament origin stories, or tales of great biblical heroes. The psalms, for the poetry. Proverbs, for the wisdom. Song of Songs, for the smut.

But not the Prophets. Otherwise you’d have to learn about the historical context these prophets were talking about, and that’s way too much homework for your typical Christian’s taste. Plus they’re a bummer, ’cause they’re full of condemnation and God’s wrath. So, as I said, they’re skipped. Mine ’em for proof texts in case there’s a “biblical principle” you’re pushing. But otherwise skip ’em.

This attitude is incredibly short-sighted for those of us who wanna hear from God.

Because these prophets likewise heard God. You wanna know what God sounds like? Read the Prophets. You need to hear what God’s legitimate messengers sound like.

Those cranks on TV religious programming? The wackjobs who send stuff to Charisma magazine? No. Stop looking at them. There are legitimate prophets mixed in amongst all the weirdos, and they’re mighty hard to hear over all the weirdo noise. But real people who really heard God: They’re in your bible. A big chunk of the scriptures were written by them. They’re not hard to hear and understand. We do ourselves a great injury when we ignore them. Or worse, listen to crackpots and fearful conspiracy theorists instead.

Skipping the Prophets is kinda like skipping the teachings of Jesus. Or the Law. You wanna know what God wants and expects of his people? Then read it. Don’t presume. Don’t figure it’s beyond our understanding, for it’s not. Read your bible. And if you’ve gotta research the bible’s historical background so you can understand it better, do that too.

The Prophets’ main themes.

People assume prophecy is all about doom and gloom, because they assume the Prophets are all about doom and gloom. To be fair, some of them were definitely gloomy pessimists, like Jeremiah and Jonah. Others not so much. In their books, you’re gonna find a lot of blessing, encouragement, and hope. More than you were expecting.

Problem is, much of the reason God spoke through his prophets was because they were listening to him while the Israelis weren’t. And the Israelis were sinning their brains in. Too many of ’em followed the LORD out of knee-jerk religious obligation and didn’t care about their formal relationship with him. Too many of ’em figured it was okay to break his commands; just sacrifice lots of animals and that’ll square us with him. You know, like Christians who sin first and ask forgiveness later. Cheap grace.

Part of God’s formal relationship with Israel, or covenant, was the fact there aren’t just blessings in it, but curses. If they kept breaking God’s commands, the cycle would kick in again: God would withdraw his blessings, and the pagan neighbors would have at ’em. And God didn’t wanna curse Israel. He wanted ’em to repent! Ek 18.32 He wanted to forgive, not judge. But the way things were going, judgment was coming.

No, God wasn’t siccing Israel’s hostile neighbors on them solely because God was offended by their sins. That’s the mistake today’s wannabe prophets keep making: They’re offended by pornography and homosexuality, so they assume these things outrage God to the point he’s gonna call down fire and brimstone on the United States. They likewise haven’t bothered to read the Prophets. When God decided to judge Israel, it wasn’t because they grossed him out. It was because they were exploiting the weak. Is 1.17 They were literally harming others. They were leaving them poor, starving, homeless, forced into slavery. That’s why God intervenes. Not because of our pet causes, but his.

In this sense, the prophets weren’t really saying anything new, nor making predictions which hadn’t already been made. Most prophecies simply reiterate what God said in the Law. He wanted them to be his people, Ex 6.7, Lv 26.12 to live ritually clean lives, Lv 10.10 and to actually obey him and stay in relationship. Not just violate that relationship first chance we get, then sacrifice animals to reestablish it.

That’s most of the historical context right there. The rest are the particular sins God was obligated to condemn (which sometimes the prophets named specifically), or the movements and forces within and without Israel. That, you can read all about in any decent bible commentary.

The major prophets.

Originally there was a book consisting of 12 prophets and their prophecies. The Septuagint split it into 12 individual books. These would be the “minor prophets”—because they wrote short books.

The other books we call the “major prophets”—simply because they’re not minor. Lamentations is a short book, but it was written by a major prophet, Jeremiah. (And in the apocrypha, Baruch was written by Jeremiah’s scribe. But today I’m gonna include that one with the minor prophets. It’s minor-prophet-size.)

ISAIAH BEN AMOCH. (Late 700s.) Isaiah, a Jerusalem priest, began his ministry during the peaceful reigns of Uzziah and Jotham. But by the time of Ahaz and Hezekiah, Assyria had become a threatening superpower. In 722BC it’d taken northern Israel into captivity. Isaiah tried to reassure the Jerusalem kings God still had control of world events. Some like Hezekiah listened. Some like Manasseh didn’t.

Isaiah’s first 39 chapters deals with the prophet’s life and prophecies. (Some either quote, or are quoted by, 2 Kings.) Though Isaiah reminded the people Jerusalem and Judah would be spared if they repented, God had warned him they wouldn’t. The Hebrews’ persistent sins would finally lead the nation to its destruction.

The last 67 chapters switch gears. Instead of talking about the future destruction and exile of Judah, it describes what sounds like a present-day exile in Babylon… which actually didn’t take place for another 130 years or so. It also spends a lot of time predicting the End. This switch in perspective led scholars to two possible interpretations:

  1. Whole different guy wrote chapters 40-66. Some scholars even call this part of the book “Second Isaiah.” They’re pretty sure it was written by a later, sixth-century prophet, instead of the eighth-century Isaiah ben Amoch. When Isaiah was finally put together from Isaiah’s various prophecies, somebody smooshed ’em together with Second Isaiah, not realizing they aren’t the same guy.
  2. Isaiah invented a whole new writing style. (’Cause why can’t writers mix it up from time to time? Many do.) He decided it was easier to describe the future as if he was already living in it. You know, like how God’s already living in it. Grabs our attention better.

Lastly I should mention Isaiah’s ideas about Messiah. Most folks back then, same as Pharisees of Jesus’s day, thought of their Messiah-to-come as a mighty warrior king who conquered Israel’s enemies. Ps 2.9 Isaiah instead wrote of a Suffering Servant: Someone who’d be tortured and killed, yet save Israel that way. Is 42, 53 The Pharisees found it impossible to reconcile these Messianic prophecies. That’s why they missed Jesus.

JEREMIAH BEN HILKIAH. (Late 600s.) Also a priest, from Anathoth, a suburb of Jerusalem. Jeremiah prophesied a century after Isaiah. So, during the reigns of Jerusalem’s last five kings—and several years after the Babylonians invaded and dragged the Jerusalem leadership into exile. A bunch of rebels forced him to escape with them to Egypt, and tradition is they murdered him.

So yeah, the Babylonians: Remember all the prophecies about future disaster and destruction? In Jeremiah’s day, they happened. For him and the people of Jerusalem, the End actually came.

Irritating thing is, Jeremiah knew it was coming. God told him so. But the people wouldn’t listen, so nothing would stop it. (As God also told him so.) What they would listen to were fake prophets, and Jeremiah regularly had to deal with fakes. Those people insisted God would never permit his precious temple to be destroyed. Never let his precious nation be conquered. Sound familiar?

For Jeremiah, being a prophet was a crappy job. He regularly had to speak out against lying prophets, despite how popular they were, despite how doing so made people accuse him of treason against Jerusalem. Nobody wanted to hear the truth! Not even his own family. He was cursed and tortured—even by himself, because his knowledge made him miserable. He didn’t wanna be a prophet! But he couldn’t tell God no.

LAMENTATIONS consists of Jeremiah’s mournful poems about the destruction of Jerusalem.

EZEKIEL BEN BUZI. (Early 500s.) Yet another Jerusalem priest, Ezekiel was captured by the Babylonians in 597BC and relocated to Tel-Aviv, Babylon (in present-day Iraq). Four years later, God appeared to him and made him his prophet to the Jerusalem refugees.

The LORD wanted it made clear he’s not just the God of Israel. He’s the master of Babylon and the rest of the earth. Throughout Ezekiel he’s אֲדֹנָ֣י יְהוִ֔ה/Adonaí YHWH, “My Master the LORD.” (Or as the KJV puts it, “Sovereign LORD”; or as the ESV has it, “Lord GOD.”) God rules all, and Ezekiel in comparison was just a בֶן אָדָ֜ם/ben adám, “son of Adam.” (KJV “son of man.”)

If you’ve ever wondered about certain people who claim to be prophets and engage in some really ridiculous behavior, God made Ezekiel do really bizarre things too. Like shaving his head and burning some of the hair. Or lying on his side for a year. Or eating nothing but bread cooked over burning cow dung. Or eating a scroll. Or telling filthy sexual parables (seriously, really filthy) to describe Israel’s promiscuous unfaithfulness to God.

But God also showed Ezekiel he’d restore the conquered nation. He’d bring Israel back to life, create a new Jerusalem, and the future would be even greater than Israel’s golden age. Arguably these visions are also about our future—of resurrection and New Jerusalem.

DANIEL. (Early 500s.) One of the Jerusalem nobles taken into exile by the Babylonians and renamed Beltešachar, Daniel was made a magi, one of the “wise men” educated in eastern philosophy and sciences. Yet as a devout Hebrew who maintained ritual cleanliness and his relationship with God, Daniel was given insight and prophecies which spoke to the kings of Babylon, Media, and Persia.

In the last half of the book, Daniel was given apocalyptic visions of what would happen between his time and Jesus’s. And beyond.

The Septuagint’s version of Daniel includes stories of his rescue of the falsely accused Susanna, and his destruction of the false idols of Bel and a dragon. Protestant bibles make these chapters separate books of the apocrypha.

The minor prophets.

HOSEA BEN BEHERI. (Late 700s, Samaria.) God ordered Hosea to marry whores, as an object lesson of how unfaithful Israel was, and his (and Hosea’s) great and loving forgiveness.

JOEL BEN PETUEL. (Unknown date, Jerusalem.) A then-recent infestation of locusts did in fact come from God. But worse things would happen on the great Day of the LORD, when God comes to judge and destroy Israel’s enemies.

AMOS. (Mid 700s, Bethel.) Amos of Tekoa, Judah, was sent to the calf-shrine at Bethel with God’s objections to northern Israel’s dishonesty and corruption, and a warning Egypt and Assyria were coming to destroy them.

OBADIAH. (Late 500s, Edom.) Obadiah was sent to Israel’s sister nation, Edom, to tell them their nation would be destroyed just as Israel had been. (Which it soon was, when the Nabateans conquered Edom and drove them out.)

JONAH BEN AMITTAI. (Early 700s, Nineveh.) Sent to Nineveh, Assyria, to proclaim judgment on it, Jonah tried to evade the job and escape to Spain. Likely you know the story: The LORD had him swallowed by a whale, and spit up at Assyria. The Assyrians actually repented, to Jonah’s annoyance—and God’s delight. Repentance is after all why he sends prophets.

MICAH. (Late 700s, Jerusalem.) Micah of Moreshet spoke about social justice—or the lack of it in Jerusalem and Samaria. The rich cheated the poor, the priests silenced the prophets, and the judges were corrupt. Worshiping God, Micah stated, isn’t as important as obeying him. Mc 6.8

NAHUM. (Late 600s, Nineveh.) More than a century after Jonah, Nahum of Elkosh declared Assyria’s time was finally up, and Nineveh would be destroyed.

HABAKKUK. (Early 500s, Jerusalem.) Exactly why does God allow horrible things to happen to good people? God’s answer: He’s doing something about it right now. Watch for it.

ZEPHANIAH BEN KUSI. (Late 500s, Jerusalem.) King Josiah’s cousin Zephaniah complained against Judah’s idolatry, warning of the soon-coming Day of the LORD.

HAGGAI. (Late 500s, Jerusalem.) After the Persians conquered Babylon, permitting the Jews to return to Jerusalem, Haggai warned the Jews’ leaders, Zerubbabel and Joshua, to rebuild God’s temple and get uncleanliness out of his worship.

ZECHARIAH BEN BEREKYAH. (Late 500s, Jerusalem.) A fellow prophet with Haggai, Zechariah likewise gave messages from God to Zerubbabel and Joshua. The second part (which some folks suspect was written by a Second Zechariah), are predictions of a coming Messiah.

MALACHI. (Mid 400s, Jerusalem.) In Ezra and Nehemiah’s time, God reminded the returning Jews to follow him wholeheartedly, not sloppily.

BARUCH BEN NERIAH, from the apocrypha. (Late 600s, Jerusalem.) After the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem, the people repented and begged God’s forgiveness.