Sunday, August 12, 2012

The Prophets (Isaiah through Malachi)

For surveys of other sections of the biblical books, please see my site The Love of Bible Study, chapter 7.

The prophets form the last long section of the Christian Old Testament.  Hopefully this informal overview inspires curiosity to understand aspects of the "sweep" of the Bible. As I indicate at the end, prophetic texts undergird the New Testament.  

In the Tanakh, the prophetic books below (except for Lamentations and Daniel) are grouped with the historical books (Joshua through Kings) because the prophets figure strongly during the historical period covered by those books. These are not the only prophets in Israel’s history: for instance, Moses himself, Miriam, Deborah, Samuel, Nathan, Elijah, Elisha, and several others.

A Bible explorer interested in the historical background of the Bible can, with the aid of a Bible chronology and commentaries, see how many of the prophetic oracles and material fits with certain periods in the histories of the Northern and Southern Kingdoms.  The story “arcs” of the Bible extend from the books of Samuel and Kings, over to the materials in the various prophets.  But a Bible explorer can also trace the “arcs” of prophecy from their 8th through 5th century origins to the 1st century AD, when the New Testament writers found fulfillments of prophecy in Jesus.

Surveying my notes in my old Bible, plus the annotations published there, I can develop a very basic resume of the prophets, which a Bible explorer can supplement.

Isaiah: The first 39 chapters contain words of judgment about the Northern Kingdom, as well as other nations, and also words of promise. Chapters 40 and following seem to be another prophet, or possibly two (“2 Isaiah” and “3 Isaiah”), writing during 500s BC, as the Israelites are restored by God, acting through the Persians. Here we find wonderful poetry of assurance concerning God’s redemption.

Jeremiah: The prophet preaches judgment upon the Southern Kingdom, and also promises of a renewed covenant in the future. We find tremendous pathos in Jeremiah, as also reflected in the following book, Lamentations.

Lamentations is a short, poetic book, written in sorrowful response to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by the Babylonians.

Ezekiel: A prophet (also a priest) of the time before and during the exile. Ezekiel has weird visions and prophet actions bordering on, and sometimes crossing over to, the perverse. But the book also has a loftiness in the prophet’s moral concern for problems such as human accountability.

Daniel: The book focuses on events in Daniel’s life and also apocalyptic visions of God’s kingdom, the “Son of Man,” and the last days, though many of the visions deal with the time of Antiochus IV, the evil Greek ruler who persecuted Jews. This book is included in the last section of the Jewish canon rather than among the prophets.

Hosea: A Northern Kingdom prophet of the 700s, Hosea used his own family crises to describe the unfaithfulness of Israel and, in addition to words of judgment, the heartache and tenderness of God.

Joel: Joel has aspects of both prophecy and apocalyptic, because he speaks of the Lord’s judgment against sin (in whatever time period he’s writing) as well as the last days. We get the wonderful prophecy of the coming of the Holy Spirit here (2:28-29).

Amos: A Southern prophet who spoke to the sins of the North; he speaks judgment against the kingdom of Israel: their apostasy, wealth, and oppression of the poor. His classic call for justice and righteousness is well known (5:21-24).

Obadiah: A short little book, by a prophet completely unknown besides this writing. The Edomites were descendants of Esau who were enemies of Judah, and Obadiah’s prophecies are directed at them.

Jonah: Unlike other prophetic books, this one is a story, almost like a parable. The fish is not the point of the story, but rather Jonah’s reluctant prophecy which was, surprisingly, highly successful, as well as God’s promise of patience.

Micah: A contemporary of Isaiah and Hosea, and a prophet during the reigns of Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah. His two themes are doom and promise, and his statement about Bethlehem (5:2), his lovely depiction of God’s kingdom where swords will become plows (4:1-4), and his requirements of anyone who loves the Lord (6:8) are also well known

Nahum: A counterpart to Jonah, in a way; Nahum pronounces doom upon Nineveh.

Habakkuk: An interesting book in that the prophet “dialogues” with God about the classic question: why do wrongdoers prevail? God may use an evil nation like the Chaldeans to accomplish his purposes, but they, too, will suffer the consequences. Hab. 2:4 is a classic text; Paul quotes it in Romans 1:17 as a beginning of his argument about the primacy of faith.

Zephaniah: The last minor prophet prior to the exile, Zephaniah preaches judgment and wrath, but also hope for the future.

Haggai: His topic is the rebuilding of the Temple following the end of the exile. Not a lofty writer, he straightforwardly urges the Temple’s completion. Interestingly, he praises the promised king by name, Zerubbabel, who eventually disappears from the record.

Zechariah: He also discusses the rebuilding of the Temple, but he writes with visions, symbols, and images of the coming messianic age.

Malachi: The last Old Testament prophet, from the 400s, who (with his interesting question-answer format) also posed Habakkuk’s question, why do the wicked prosper and the good suffer? Malachi’s innovation: his announcement that a messenger will herald the last days.

One of the basic literary units of the prophets is the proclamation: God announces judgment or salvation. These proclamations are addressed to God’s people but sometimes also to neighboring nations. The proclamations in turn made use of different kinds of discourse: indictment and verdict, hymns and songs, collections of sayings, and others. Later prophets also use longer kinds of writing like sermons and narratives. The prophets also record visions and descriptions of their own call.(1)

The prophets can be difficult reading. The grouping of material within some of the prophetic books is perplexing. The material is also frequently painful and depressing. The prophets express God’s anger at the Israelites, who have broken the covenant; in chapter after chapter, we find descriptions of wrongs, promises and descriptions of dreadful punishment, but also tender words and promises for the future. Our Sunday school class tackled Hosea’s thirteen chapters and were glad to move on to something cheerier (Lenten lectionary scriptures!). The prophets also use metaphors, allusions, and shifts of narration, which makes good commentaries essential for the modern Bible explorer.

Because the prophets preached during the time of the historical books that I discussed above, we find familiar themes in the prophets: the covenant and the land, the threatened loss of the land, the failures of the monarchy, the role of the Temple (and, in Jeremiah and Ezekiel, its loss), and others. The prophets connect back to God’s promises to Abraham and also Moses and the exodus, and also to the promise of David and of Jerusalem as they (the prophets) preached about God’s kingship and covenant.(2)

In these posts I’ve tried to trace interconnections among sections of the Bible.  In the previous section I touched upon the contrasts between the law and wisdom literature, and between prophecy and wisdom literature.  What about the contrast and connection between law and prophecy?

Themes of covenant, land, faithfulness, and others thematically connect Torah and prophets (see my discussion of both Torah and the OT historical books).  We also find connections—notably in 2 Isaiah—between God’s covenant with Israel and God’s identity as Creator (Gen. 1-2, of course).  But other aspects of the relationship of the prophets and the law are complex and are debated by scholars. Some prophetic passages seem very “anti-law” (Ez. 20:25, Jer. 7:21-26, and Jer. 8:8).  The prophets, however, do not deny the law but sharply warn that religious ritual must go hand in hand with justice, mercy, righteousness, and the repudiation of idols. Even passages that seem “anti-law” do not abrogate the law and the covenant but call for a deeper faithfulness. Within Judaism, the view has prevailed that “the primary role of the prophet was to serve as a vital link in the transmission of the law from Moses down to the present.”(3) For instance, Deuteronomy defines the role of prophets (13:1-5, 18:15-22) and upholds Moses himself as the greatest of the prophets (34:10); many scholars consider the “Deuteronomic Code” (Deut. 12-26) as a product of the 600s BC and deeply influenced by Jeremiah’s preaching.(4)  For Jews, the prophetic criticism of faithlessness remains a call for contemporary faithfulness.

For Christians as for Jews, the prophets’ stress upon justice and suitable worship are as timely a Word of God today as in the ancient world.  But for Christians, the prophetic scriptures are also crucial for understanding who Jesus is and how his coming fits within and fulfills God’s plans of salvation.  The issue of the covenant becomes a key for Paul as he preaches about Jesus and the law; Paul understands faithlessness as a more basic flaw in both human nature and the law, and thus we need Christ (Rom. 3:21-26). A passage such as Jer. 7:21-26 points to the need for new beginnings (Jer. 3:31-34).

We find many, many other connections of the prophets and the New Testament.  As Brevard Childs writes, “certain chords were sounded by Jeremiah and Deutero-Isaiah which resonated strongly in the New Testament (new covenant, vicarious suffering, new creation, suffering servant),”(7) and these “chords” permeate the New Testament.  We also find many specific connections of prophecy and typology; a Bible explorer can spend months and years tracing and delving into the prophetic roots of Christian faith.  Here are just a few.(5)

* John the Baptist (Isa. 40:3-5, Mal. 4:5-6, Mk. 9:1, Lk. 1:17)

* Jesus’ birth (Isa. 7:14, 9:6-7, 11:1-5, Mic. 5:2, Mt. 2:6, Lk. 1:30-33)

* Jesus’ authority and teaching (Is. 6:9-12, 9:1-2, Mt. 4:14-16, 13:14-15)

* Jesus the shepherd (Ez. 34:11-16, John 10:7-11)

* Jesus’ ministry (Isa. 32:3-4, 35:5-6, 33:22, 42:1-4, 61:1-2, Mt. 9:32-35, 12:17-21, Lk. 4:17-21)

* Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem (Zech. 9:9, Mt. 21:4-5)

* Jesus’ sufferings, betrayal, and death (Isa. 52:13-53:12, Zech. 11:12-13, 12:10, 13:7, in addition to Ps. 22, 69, and others)

* Jesus’ resurrection (Ez. 37:1-14, Jonah 1:17, Mt. 12:40, and among the psalms Ps. 16:10 and Ps. 110:1)

* The New Covenant (Jer. 31:31-34, Mt. 26:26-29, Rom. 11:26-36, Heb. 8:8-12)

* The Temple in relationship to Jesus (Isa. 56:7, Jer. 7;1, Mk. 11:15-18, John 2:13-23, Acts 7:47-51)

* “The righteous shall live by faith” (Hab. 2:4, Rom. 1:17)

* The Holy Spirit (Joel 2:28-29, Acts 2:16-21)

* The redemption of all nations (Isa. 2:1-4, 1 Peter 2:10)

* Related to the redemption of the nations: the metaphor of marriage between God and his people (e.g., Hos. 1-3, Rom. 9:25-26, 1 Pet. 2:10, Eph. 5:25, 32, Rev. 19:7, 21:2, 9)(6)

* The end times (Daniel 7:1-12:13, much of the book of Zechariah, Ez. 38-39). In fact, no other New Testament book quotes or alludes to the Old Testament as often as Revelation: nearly 200 references in all, especially Ezekiel, Daniel, Isaiah, but also Exodus, the Psalms, and other books.

* The prophet’s concerns for the poor and for justice continue in the New Testament. The Greek word dikaiosun√™, corresponding to tzedakah, means “righteousness” and “justice.” God takes the side of the poor, downtrodden, and powerless. Luke’s gospel, and passages like Matthew 25:31-46, very much echo God’s care for the needy. You could also think this way: As God demands justice for the poor, outcast, and powerless of society, God also takes the side of the spiritually powerless, bringing them into the circle of salvation and righteousness.

* Although I’ve known Christians (including me) who were quick to stress that Jesus is “more than a prophet,” he was frequently understood to be a prophet (Mt. 21:11, Mark 6:15, 8:28, Luke 7:16, 24:19, John 4:19, 6:14, et al.) and possessed the Spirit in a way that people considered prophetic (Mt. 12:28, Mark 3:28-29, Luke 4:18-20, et al).



Notes:

1. Harper’s Bible Commentary, James L. Mays general editor (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1988), pages 534-539.

2. Childs, Biblical Theology, page 177

3.  Harper’s Bible Commentary, page 540.

4.  Harper’s Bible Commentary, page 540.

5. Among others, one handy list of biblical messianic prophecies is found at http://www.scripturecatholic.com/messianic_prophecies.html

6. Goldsworthy, pages 172-173.