The Latter Prophets

IsaiahToday I want to come back to the Old Testament and look at the Prophets. Remember how Jesus said everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled; we’ve looked at some of those passages in the law of Moses, today I want to look at some of what was written about Jesus in the prophets, and at some of the other ways in which the Holy Spirit can speak to us through the prophets today.

If you look at the table of contents in the beginning of the Bibles provided, you’ll see that the Prophets begin right after the five books of Moses; Joshua and Judges, then we skip three books to I and II Kings, then we skip to Isaiah, and all the books from Isaiah to the end of the Old Testament are the Prophets except Daniel. Daniel is part of the Writings, which we’ll consider in due course.

Now four of these books are more often called ‘historical books’ than books of prophecy; Joshua, Judges, and the two books of Kings, but there is a reason why the Jews considered them among the prophets, and we’ll come back to them next week, and see why. They’re called the Former Prophets, but for today I want to consider the rest of the prophets, called the Latter Prophets, and see how God speaks to us through them.

Mostly, the books are named for a particular prophet whose words they preserve, although this does not necessarily mean that the prophet is the author of the book. The words were more often than not written down by those who believed in the importance of the message the prophets were delivering, and were collected into books a bit later, although the prophets themselves clearly wrote some passages. The great theme of the prophets is what it means to live by God’s law, how men and women should respond to God’s word to us in the Book of Moses, and what God is doing for sinful humanity.

The prophets use many different forms of speech, and it’s important to recognise them and read them appropriately. The prophets sometimes speak in plain language, but they speak a lot in poetry, often using vivid metaphorical language. Remembering the difference between a simile and a metaphor helps: Isaiah says to the people of Israel you shall be like an oak whose leaf withers, and we all know it’s a comparison, he’s not saying people will be turned into trees. The word ‘like’ makes that explicit. But it’s just as common for prophets to use metaphor. Israel is a vineyard, Isaiah says, and then makes all sorts of comparisons based on that: God dug it up and cleared it of stones and planted it with the choicest vines. He built a watchtower in it and cut out a winepress as well. Then he looked for a crop of good grapes, but it yielded only bad. The points are implied rather than stated, we have to think about what Isaiah must mean when he talks about God clearing away stones and putting up a watchtower. If we are a vineyard, what does that mean for us? What are the rocks in our field, what is our watchtower? The prophets make us think, because they are not trying to get people to do what they say, but to get people to think about what God has said, to apply it to their own situation, and to live by it. They don’t want people who look to the prophets for advice, but people who look to God. As in all reading, if we interpret the difficult parts in the light of the plainer and clearer parts, we will be on the right track.

The prophets did not only speak in symbols like this, at times they acted out their message in symbolic ways. Sometimes this was done in a single demonstration, like a piece of performance art, at other times it was the way the prophet lived for long periods. For instance, when the city of Jerusalem was surrounded by a huge army that was about to destroy it and all the people in it, God told the prophet Jeremiah to pay another man in the city good money for a field that the man owned outside the city. It appeared to make no sense, because both Jeremiah and the owner of the field were about to be killed and the field was already in the hands of an invading army. But Jeremiah knew that this was God’s way of saying I haven’t finished with you yet, and after buying it, Jeremiah said to the people, thus says the Lord: Just as I have brought all this great evil upon this people, so I will bring upon them all the good that I promise them. Fields shall be bought in this land of which you are saying, It is a desolation, without man or beast; it is given into the hands of the enemy. Fields shall be bought, and deeds shall be signed and sealed and witnessed, in the places about Jerusalem, and in the cities of Judah… for I will restore your fortunes, says the Lord. Buying the field was a sign that one day God’s people would again dwell in Jerusalem in peace and prosperity. The prophet Hosea even married a woman whom he knew would be unfaithful to him, and remained faithful to her, in order to remind people that God would be faithful to them despite their unfaithfulness to Him. There are lots of symbolic acts like this in the prophets by which they also spread their message that God is not finished with His people.

One theme that runs through the prophets is how to live when the powers of this world are trying to press us to live some other way, and they are especially concerned with relationship between God and national life. The national life of the people in the time of the prophets was in great need of God’s guiding hand, and became more and more so as the people wandered further and further from God’s plan for them. The height of their national life was under David and his son Solomon, but after that there was rivalry and selfishness and civil war and permanent division, and that’s when God began to send the prophets, not just to speak to the king—He had done that before—but now to the people as well, because it was not just a few key individuals but the whole nation that needed to be brought back under God’s guiding hand. And when other nations started to put pressure on the Israelites, the prophets began to speak to the issues raised.

The process began with the rise of Assyria in the 8th century BC, and its threats to the northern kingdom of Israel. In roughly chronological order, Hosea, Amos, and Jonah all spoke God’s word to this situation. Eventually the northern kingdom was destroyed and absorbed into Assyria, and the much smaller southern kingdom of Judah began to face the same thing. As Assyria began to be overshadowed by its more powerful neighbour, Babylon, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel and some of the others took their turn, until Judah too was destroyed and its people taken into captivity. Ezekiel went into captivity with them, and after generations of captivity, the people began to return home, helped by the prophetic word of Obadiah, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi. But the context of all of it was what happened to national life when a people who have known God as a people, and made Him part of their national life, turn away from Him. That’s a situation in which our own nation increasingly finds itself, and we too are becoming smaller as nations like China become more and more powerful; if we are to preserve all the wonderful things God has given the people of this nation, we need to listen again to the prophets of God, not the prophets of Wall Street or Madison Avenue or Hollywood or Silicon Valley.

But important as it is, this theme is dependent on a still greater theme, the one implied by the symbolic acts of Jeremiah and Hosea that I just mentioned: man was created for a relationship with God, and every successful relationship involves concessions to the desires of the other party. Mankind wants God to make all the concessions, and any relationship in which one of the parties thinks they need contribute nothing will be stormy and full of difficult moments for ourselves as individuals and for our community life. The prophets call mankind to bear our proper share of the relationship, yielding to God’s will even when our desires pull us another way, because God actually wants better for us, both in our common life and our individual lives, than we want for ourselves.

The prophets also remind us that when we resist God’s will, there are terrible consequences. The destruction of Jerusalem was bad enough, and it was a real thing in the life of God’s people at the time, but really that destruction, and the equivalent disasters of our own day, are only symptoms of the eternal consequences of living by standards that depart from those to which God calls us. They constantly remind us that we are accountable for the things we say and do, and one day we will face God’s judgement on all the ways in which we refused to concede anything to Him in our relationship with Him, in which we wanted everything our way regardless of the consequences.

But because God’s purpose for us of an eternal relationship with Him will not be denied no matter how much we reject Him, the prophets also point to the ultimate concession God makes to us, to the coming of God Himself as Man to bear in Himself the consequences of our disobedience. In almost every prophet there are passages filled with promise that Christians believe are fulfilled in the coming of Christ. These are called the Messianic prophecies, and the New Testament quotes many which show that Jesus is the one the prophets promised.

Like the prophecy of Micah: But you, O Bethlehem… from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days… he shall be great to the ends of the earth. Micah was looking forward to Jesus’s birth, or at least God was looking forward to it when He gave Micah those words to encourage God’s people in the difficult period in which they were living. The same is true of Isaiah, who said there shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots, and the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him. Jesus did indeed trace His ancestry back through Jesse, David’s father, as you can read in the fist chapter of Matthew’s gospel, and the third chapter of Luke’s. It was Isaiah who foretold the virgin birth: The Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son. 800 years later, a virgin did conceive, and Jesus was born. His ancestry, the place of his birth, the manner of his birth—Jesus’s messiahship was made clear by way He fulfilled these prophecies from the very beginning. When the time came to fulfil His appointed task and He entered Jerusalem to die, the words of the prophet Zechariah, written 600 years earlier, were fulfilled, as we remind ourselves every Palm Sunday: Your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on an ass. There’s too many of these Messianic passages in the prophets for me to list them all this morning. But 600, 800 years before Christ’s time, these words were written of him as the prophets gave God’s people God’s word for their relationship.

The only difference between us and the people who first heard the prophets is the clothes we wear and the language we speak. Inside we are just like them; we want to be God’s people, but we also ignore God’s word in order to enjoy some passing pleasure, and so we bring about a life that is not what we want, and not what God wants for us. The word God sent through the prophets calls us back to God’s guidance. And that word, when we bring it into our hearts, not just our heads, makes that possible. As God said through Isaiah, my word that goes out from my mouth… will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it. You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands… This will be for the Lord’s renown, for an everlasting sign, which will not be destroyed. Amen.

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