The Former Prophets

ElijahLast week I talked a bit about what are called the latter prophets, the prophets whose messages have been preserved in writing; this week I want to complete the picture on prophecy by talking about what are called the former prophets. I want to get this subject completed, because the next two Sundays are Palm Sunday and Easter, days on which we remember first the suffering and death of Jesus and second His resurrection, and we’ll be looking at those themes on those Sundays, although I hope still in the context of the whole Bible. We will have palms here next week, I hope, and we’ll put them in the context of Jesus’s passion and death, because in the Anglican tradition it is actually Passion Sunday, not Palm Sunday. But back to the prophets.

I probably should have begun last week by saying that the word ‘prophet’ is the Greek translation of a Hebrew word which I won’t try to pronounce, but which means a delegate or spokesman, someone who speaks on someone else’s behalf. In Exodus 7 Aaron is called the prophet of Moses because he gives the Pharaoh a message from Moses. Generally though when we speak of the prophets in the Bible we mean those who spoke for God. In the earliest times the prophet might be called a ‘seer’, a visionary, (I Sam 9.9), or perhaps it might be truer to say that those believed by the people to be seers were sometimes also used as prophets by God. ‘Seeing’ implies a skill in the ‘seer’, ‘prophet’ implies no ability other than that of speech, the authority for what is said in the one who sends the prophet rather than in the prophet himself. Verses like II Chronicles 29.25 suggest that a distinction between the two rôles continued into the period of the latter prophets, but there isn’t enough evidence for us to be dogmatic about the relationship between them.

As I mentioned last week, a major theme of the latter prophets is the national life of the Israelites, and that’s as true of the former prophets. The first book of the former prophets, Joshua, is the founding of the nation. It describes how the Israelites come out of the wilderness and into the promised land and begin their national life there. And although the word ‘prophet’ is not used of Joshua himself, he functions that way in his valedictory message: 23.6 Therefore be very steadfast to keep and do all that is written in the book of the law of Moses, turning aside from it neither to the right hand nor to the left, 7 that you may not be mixed with these nations left here among you, or make mention of the names of their gods, or swear by them, or serve them, or bow down yourselves to them, 8 but cleave to the Lord your God as you have done to this day… 16 if you transgress the covenant of the Lord your God, which he commanded you, and go and serve other gods and bow down to them. Then the anger of the Lord will be kindled against you, and you shall perish quickly from off the good land which he has given to you…  24.15 If you be unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell; but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord. The whole of the prophetic ministry was simply the application of the principle outlined by Joshua in these words.

The next book, Judges, begins with the people’s failure to live up to Joshua’s words. God had promised He would drive all the current inhabitants out of the promised land if the Israelites served Him faithfully (Joshua 23.5f), but in the very act of establishing their nation in its land they began to adopt the customs and values of the people already there instead of those given to them by Moses at Mt Sinai. The result was that God left some of the original inhabitants there; they shall be as thorns in your sides, and their gods shall be a snare unto you, the Lord told them. And from that day to this, the Israelites have lived in at best an uneasy peace and at worst open warfare between themselves and the other inhabitants of the land. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in its deepest sense, began over 3,000 years ago, and can only have a spiritual solution, even today.

As a result, we see the development of the prophetic ministry beginning in the period of the Judges, when each of the twelve tribes pretty much ran their own affairs. The first of the prophets (after Moses) was a woman, Deborah, who told the chief of the army how to fight a battle and led the celebration when victory came. Another prophet, not even named, appears in 6.8, sent because the people were in trouble, being attacked by bandits and marauders who stole their food and livestock with impunity. This nameless prophet brings a very simple message: Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: I led you up from Egypt, and brought you out of the house of bondage; 9 and I delivered you from the hand of the Egyptians, and from the hand of all who oppressed you, and drove them out before you, and gave you their land; 10 and I said to you, ‘I am the Lord your God; you shall not pay reverence to the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you dwell.’ But you have not given heed to my voice.

Their problem was not their lack of defences, warriors, or weapons, but their failure to obey the commandments. The Book of Moses is very clear that the commandments were given so that it may go well with you and your children in the land God gave them; when one ignores God’s guidance, naturally things don’t go so well. Fortunately on this occasion there is a man, not the prophet but a man named Gideon, who does follow God’s guidance and is able to rescue the people from their enemies.

Samuel was both a prophet and a judge, and the last of the judges in the sense used in the book of Judges. He is important enough that his contribution is recorded in the separate book that bears his name, now divided into two parts, I and II Samuel. He is sometimes thought of as the first real successor to Moses, because He spoke God’s word on a wide variety of subjects, from those of personal or local interest to the announcement of the kingdom. Like Moses, he was a political leader, more than a judge, but was also a priest, which Moses was not.

Prophecy became much more widespread in his time than previously. There were bands, or, more properly, guilds of prophets, perhaps promoted by him, the prototypes of the professional prophets found over the next few centuries.
Samuel played a crucial rôle in establishing the kingdom under David. When the people began to desire a king, instead of living under judges, leaders who were basically amateurs like Cincinattus and George Washington, Samuel brought the people a word from God about that (I Sam 8): 10 Samuel told all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking a king from him. 11 He said, ‘These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; 12 and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. 13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his servants. 15 He will take the tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and to his servants. 16 He will take your menservants and maidservants, and the best of your cattle and your asses, and put them to his work. 17 He will take the tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. 18 And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day. Yet when the people would not listen to him, but were determined to have a king whether God liked it or not, Samuel prayed to God on their behalf, and the Lord told him Hearken to their voice, and make them a king. And you all the know the story of how God chose David to be that king, even when everyone else thought there were better candidates. But that is typical of the work of the prophets, former and latter: applying God’s word to national life as well as personal life, and praying for both too.

Because of that concern for national life, once there was a king the prophets watched him pretty closely. The prophet Nathan brought God’s word to David, rebuking him pretty sharply at times, Gad did the same for David and Solomon, Ahijah of Shiloh to Jeroboam, Solomon’s successor, and Micaiah to Ahab. Both Nathan and Gad wrote some of their words down in books, but they have not survived (I Chronicles 29.29).

But the biggest names in the former prophets are those of Elijah and Elisha, who when the king disobeyed God did not merely rebuke him in private, as the earlier prophets had, but opposed him publicly, ‘ready even to promote a revolution in order to purify morals and worship.’ Elijah’s public preaching went beyond anything associated with the earlier prophets, because the need for obedience to God was a national need, not just a royal one. The king who most often felt the sting of Elijah’s tongue was Ahab, who owed some but by no means all of his mistakes to his wife Jezebel. Elijah didn’t mince words; the dogs will lick up your blood, he told Ahab, and that eventually proved true. The guilds of prophets were very active in the time of Elijah and Elisha, and were sometimes an important resource for them. When the time came for Elijah to go to his reward, he was guided by God to a successor, Elisha, who served in the time of King Jehosaphat.

The significance of the former prophets for the message of the whole Bible is summed up, perhaps, in the very last two verses of the New Testament, from the latter prophet Malachi, through whom God says I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. 6 And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the land with a curse. Some people said that Jesus was Elijah come again, but Jesus said that John the Baptist, who prepared the way for Jesus, was the last of the prophets, and added if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come, the one prophesied by Malachi. Three of Jesus’s disciples saw a vision of Jesus, Moses and Elijah together when they saw Jesus transfigured on the mountain. Jesus justified His ministry to outsiders, for which He was so maligned by the Scribes and the Priests and the Pharisees, by appealing to the way God used Elijah and Elisha, saying there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, when there came a great famine over all the land; and Elijah was sent to none of them but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon. And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha; and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian. Two outsiders, in other words. There are also foreshadowings of Jesus’s resurrection in the symbolic acts of Elijah and Elisha, both of whom raised children from the dead.

Not only John the Baptist, but all the prophets, those who wrote books and those earlier prophets of whom we only catch glimpses, were sent for the same reason, to prepare the way for Jesus. John was just the most explicit: He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God. He who believes in the Son has eternal life.

Let us fulfill the purpose of all the prophets by confessing our belief in the Son, and our hope of eternal life through Him, in the words of the Apostles’ Creed on p 5 of the leaflet.

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