Lecture 5: Will Power of the Prophets
Lecture: Will Power of the Prophets
Here we are back for a fifth session together and our final session in The Old Testament. If you remember with me, we started our journey sometime back and we laid out the biggest possible structure for the Bible. Remember, the Bible has 66 books; The Old Testament has 39; The New, 27. We divided those big pieces, Old and New Testament, into three big categories. We called them foundational, historical and instructional. As we worked on it – if I can use this as an example out of The Old Testament – we told ourselves that the foundational sections give us important principles and practices that carry through the rest of scripture. We have the first five books of The Old Testament in the foundational section.
We have The New Testament with its 27 books. We have four books, the gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. In the historical section in The New Testament we have one book, the book of Acts. In the instructional section we have also 22 books, basically letters from key teachers of the time, giving instruction into the history of the time. We will get to those in the sessions that we come to in The New Testament, towards the end of that. I’m looking forward to that, that will be a great time; and we are going to discover some interesting parallels between this section and that section when we get there. This will all be good along the way.
Today we need to take a look at the prophets, the writing prophets. Remember, when I talked through the poetical section with you, I mentioned that with regard to the prophets, there were lots of prophets in the Bible. In fact, there were lots of prophets all over the world at the time. Just about every country and every group of leadership had prophets. So prophetical kinds of things were pretty common in this period of time that we see in The Old Testament. Basically, among many things, what sets the prophets of the scripture apart is their link to these foundational things, their approach to culture – remember, the culture within a culture – and how they dealt with that, and then with regard to character; and then the creation part, how they saw the purpose of God’s creation and they stuck with that. We will find prophets in other places who tended to prophesy whatever made kings happy. You will find that the true prophets of The Old Testament generally were not the most popular people of their time. In fact, oftentimes they found themselves in bad spots because rather than prophesy what was popular, though likely untrue, they stuck by their stuff and as a result, ended up bringing messages that were important but oftentimes not well received.
These were unique individuals in their period of time, individuals who were the writing prophets, so we have information that got written down; these prophets basically amplifying the lives of these people living out foundational things in this history. We want to take a look at these folks, Isaiah through Malachi, and see if we can put this together in a way that helps us understand how they fit in this history. We already know they are going to focus on foundational things. They are going to focus on God’s people. They are going to focus on the condition of God’s people i.e. character. They are going to focus on the future of God’s people. Are they staying with the stuff that will get them to the promises or are they getting off track? They are going to be doing all of those things. You know all of that already. We have covered a bunch of that, so I think you are getting handles on that piece.
Now I want to connect these books, the 17 prophetical books, written books, really 16 that have prophets’ names attached and one, the book of Lamentations, that is written by the prophet Jeremiah. Those 17 books we want to fit into this history if we can. You say, “It’s a big deal to take 17 books and to see how we might manage those.” I want to take you back to some terminology you already know. Part of the terminology is going to be the word, “exile.” You know from this history that eventually in this history, through these books, that the kingdom gets divided; and as it gets divided, its leadership begins to drift further and further from the Lord. Both in the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah you find that pattern. As the leadership drifts and the people drift with them, eventually what happens is that judgment comes on both kingdoms. You remember, we said Assyria, the great and powerful power in the area of that time, comes and conquers Israel. They take the people out Israel and scatter them all over the empire. Then they take lots of people from other parts of the empire and settle them in Israel.
So judgment falls there and then later Babylonia conquers Judah and Babylonia is the power of the day. When they conquer, they have a foreign policy that says, “We’re going to take at least the key people from the places we conquer and we are going to take them back to Babylonia and we are going to turn them into Babylonians. “ So they strip a lot of the people out of Judah and take them back to Babylonia in a kind of time that historically and biblically is referred to as “the exile.” It is basically a 70-year period where a lot of the people of Judah are in exile in Babylonia. So I want to make the centerpiece of this. We are going to work around the notion of the exile. It is going to be our key theme in figuring out how these prophets fit into this history and some of what they are saying.
That means we are going to have another heading and in this one we are going to have what I will call pre-exile prophets: Prophets that speak in front of this exile period. As you have probably already guessed, in this other heading we are going to have post-exile prophets: Prophets that speak once these people who have been in exile for 70 years, are released from Babylonian captivity. Babylonia gets conquered by Persia. As the Bible ends, Persia is in control of this area. Persia has a foreign policy that the people they conquer, they let stay in their lands. If they conquer people who have been moved out of their lands, they let them go home if they want to. So many people at this time return from exile back to Jerusalem and Judah. So we have that going on. That is why we are going to take a look at this along the way.
Let’s think to ourselves about how this kind of plays itself out. If we are looking at dates, by the way, to kind of fit this together, we know the exile lasted 70 years, but let’s just say that this all is going to center around about 600 BC. Again, I’m doing this, not to be precise, I’m doing this just to give you the sense of the span of things. If we take a look at the pre-exile piece, we are basically looking at the prophets that worked from about 920 BC up to the 600s. If we look after the fact, we have 70 years that disappears, so we have about 530 BC down to roughly around 420 BC or so, 400 would be a good number as well. That kind of time frame is taken in by these prophetical books and some others we will take a look at. That is kind of the stream of things, about 500 years we are looking at here, through this whole period of time, covered by these writing prophets.
Again, as I have told you before, this part is a wide sweep of history. We are looking at big hunks of history and looking at them in a big picture kind of way. We are going to take these 17 books and we are going to put them into this history. We’re going to have some pre-exile, we are going to have some post-exile and we are going to have a couple of them in the exile, and that is where I want to start. So we’ll work around that.
This is people from Judah who have been carried away to Babylonia. Judah is conquered. It comes to an end for a while and many people are taken into captivity in Babylonia. Two prophets work in this period of time. One of those prophets is the prophet Ezekiel and the other is the prophet Daniel. Ezekiel and Daniel speak to people who are not in the land of promise so much as they are now out of the land. They are not unlike the people in the Pentateuch, who found themselves in the wilderness, who refused to follow God’s direction and under God’s judgment stayed out of the land of promise for 40 years while he taught them again. Now these people are folks who have fallen into a similar kind of judgment and they find themselves here in Babylonia and out of the land and with great sorrow, may I say. This is a sad time for them. Nevertheless, the prophets don’t stop speaking and they have kind of a different sort of message. The message here from these prophets, Ezekiel and Daniel, is a message of endurance. We know you are out of the land, we know you are under stress, we know you are being asked to do things here that you don’t want to do and shouldn’t do. We know that you are struggling every day to maintain yourself here in a very foreign and unusual context. We know all of those things. But we want to speak to you about enduring in that setting. This is important because God isn’t finished with you yet. The other element that comes to play here is an element of hope. Even though they are under God’s judgment, these things become crucial.
We have seen this before and we’ll see it again. In Job, we talked about this enduringly faithful man who under the worst of circumstances never lost sight of who God is and hung onto that, even though he went through incredible things. He stayed with this one foundational thing and it in a sense carried the day for him because that is the way things work. This has the same kind of pattern going on here in some respects. Ezekiel uses a lot of imagery and one of the most powerful perhaps is, he sees a valley of dry bones. If you read this section and I hope you will, he uses imagery in a wonderful way. In this particular image he sees a valley of dry bones; and as he watches, the dry bones come back to life. I don’t know how it works, I wasn’t there, but I can picture in my mind’s eye that he begins to catch a movement somewhere and then he realizes that these bones are beginning to somehow move back together and connect with one another, they are getting tendons and muscles and skin; and all of a sudden these are living things. And he uses that symbolism to say, “This is like you. In a sense, you feel like you are dead, but you are not dead and one day God is going to bring you, in effect, back to life.” So he encourages them to hang on, to endure and to hang on that hope.
Endurance is one of those interesting things that goes all the way through scripture. I’m not particularly fond of enduring, so I wish it didn’t. For instance, in James, James says, “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials.” Because basically when trials do their work, they create endurance. And when endurance has done its work, it makes you complete, lacking nothing, James says. So the truth of it is, you and I cannot become who God wants us to be without endurance being a factor in our lives. Write it down. It is a principle. These people are going to be called to endure. They are enduring because of judgment. We could be enduring just because of a trial that isn’t any part of judgment, it is just part of life. The fact is, endurance is important. That is what he is saying to these: “Don’t lose this aspect of it. You are enduring this because things are going to become different. Dry bones are going to come back to life.”
Daniel takes a little bit of a different approach. Daniel is self -revealing. Daniel shows us how he responds to the pressure to become a Babylonian. He does not respond to it positively, but creatively and successfully. Then he also points more out of the immediate toward the ultimate fulfillment of the promises of God. He is much more the seer in saying, “Look, don’t lose sight of the big things that God has promised because God is going to be faithful to those big things” and he talks of nations to come and kings and powers to come and go and to an ultimate consummation of all of God’s kingdom plans. It is a very powerful thing. He again is trying to, as we have seen in these other places, keep the people focused on foundational things, even though they are under judgment.
I need to say something else about this and I’m only going to say it briefly, but it is important that we wrestle with it. When the people here in Judah get hauled away into exile, not all of the people are necessarily guilty of the sin that brought on the judgment, but it did not excuse them from the consequences. Sometimes we need to remember that ourselves when we live in countries and live in contexts that are drifting very far from the foundational things, that we are likely to over time share in those consequences. That is why our understanding the foundational things and staying by them, that is why our developing the ability to endure, is a very crucial part. We have seen that along the way, our ability to have influence in the culture without being drawn into the larger culture which is drifting away from God; our sense of character and keeping our character intact even when things around us seem to be out of control. All of those things become significant because these people, through no doing of their own, end up in judgment. These people are likely the people who are going to make all of the difference for the others in that context. They are going to be the people who have the strength of character, the strength of personhood to endure, who are going to over time, change the day, even though it is going to be very difficult. Some of that is you and me. Even we will be called to do those things. Sometimes they will be very personal in our life; and in that context sometimes it will be within a family, sometimes it will be in a larger piece of community. It could even be in a whole cultural type of notion. I don’t know. But I know that the people of God have been called to be that throughout history and they will be called to do that again. We see that here. We can’t linger on that, but that is a crucial piece of that.
Post-exile. I’m doing the easy part first. Post exile, when Persia releases the people to go home, there are three books that fit here in terms of prophetic books: Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi. They are contemporaries with Ezra, Nehemiah and Esther if you are thinking historical books, so they fit in that piece. They are all about restoration. They are all about rebuilding. They are all about renewal. So when we think of this part, it is those kinds of words. How do a people get restored? How are they renewed? What are the important things that have to be brought back? How are they sustained? How do they stay on track? All of those things. In this era we have Haggai the teacher, basically teaching the people about important foundational things. We have Nehemiah being literally a re-builder of physical things that are important. We have Esther who is in a sense a protector, keeping these people who were working through restoration and renewal and to sustain themselves back in the land of Judah and needed to be protected from people who would not want that to happen.
That brings us to an important leadership principle and a spiritual principle. That is, you and I cannot live out our lives, following God with these foundational things in a history of our own, without facing opposition. You have to accept the fact that there will be opposition; that you will have a family member who does not like what you believe; that you will share your life with a friend at work and be rejected; that you might even find yourself not being eligible in certain places because of your values. In fact, you may feel a whole culture going in a direction away from you from time to time. Certainly, there would be reason to think that in North America even today when we think of our own values and the realities that we carry from scripture and how the larger culture is going. It is not new. It has happened to believers throughout history, we have seen that. That is really what is going on here. Rebuilding, renewing, but now you have opposition. Strengthening, getting back to the culture, what God had in mind; in fact, preparing the stage to some degree for what is going to come in The New Testament. We will see that in the next sessions we are together. So that is the emphasis here.
What is important and interesting, I meet with people every once in a while who I feel are just like these people in exile. They have drifted away from God and they are a mess. They are struggling with things. I am taking a lesion from Ezekiel and Daniel and the lesson is, when people are in that condition, don’t pile it on. Don’t go, “Oh, such an idiot! How can you not figure this out?” Don’t do that. What they do is say, “Yes, we are idiots.” Guess what? You’re going to have to endure this. But guess what? There is hope, there is a way out. Don’t pile it on. When the people come out, it is then not about criticizing the way they have been, it’s about taking them to where they need to be. There is ministry involved in that, is there not? I think so.
To my count, we have now used up five of 17 books. That means that everybody else is before the exile. Remember early on I said to you that process usually arrives during crisis. So if you ask yourself, “Why are most of these – 12 of them – over here?” The reason is that they see a crisis coming. God moves prophets, not one or two, but a bunch of them, to begin to speak into what that crisis is going to mean. That is how they show up. That is why there are so many here. The crisis comes. The prophets don’t stop; but now they are helping people handle the crisis. Eventually, as the crisis seems to pass, prophets are still there, teachers basically helping the people not to go back into the crisis, but to move on to where they need to be.
Here we have warnings. These prophets are looking over here to what is going on largely in II Kings and II Chronicles, you know it as the divided kingdom. They are saying, “This is going to end up badly.” God is saying, “You need to speak into this.” Let’s learn these real quickly, knowing that the emphasis with them is warning. God means what he says. If you keep violating the foundational things, eventually God will have to do what He says He will do and judgment will come. But it doesn’t have to. Unfortunately, they do not listen very well. So we have prophets who prophesy to Israel. There are two of them, Hosea and Amos. They basically warn the northern kingdom, Israel, about what is going to happen if they don’t move back to these things. The northern kingdom basically just blows off the warning and eventually they are conquered by Assyria and they are taken all over the Assyrian empire, as you already know.
There is one passage that speaks to the little nation of Edom, the prophet is Obadiah. Edom, they are related to the Jews, you might say they are brothers to the Jewish people. Yet, they are not very brotherly or sisterly. In fact, they basically join every enemy that exists of the enemies of the Jews. Eventually Obadiah basically says to Edom, “You need to change this process, or this is what is going to happen, you are going to be wiped off the face of the earth.” Not a real good thing to hear. They don’t change their process and they eventually do disappear. In fact, historically they disappear. There is not much said about the Edomites after the New Testament period. So that was their outcome. But there was a warning. They could have changed their way and they did not.
There were two that prophesied to Assyria, the enemy that conquered the northern kingdom and scattered the people. Is it not interesting? God is going to go to them and talk to them about what is coming. This great, powerful, evil, mean spirited, Gentile nation who conquered people, sticking bodies on poles, lighting them on fire and parading the conquered through cities, treating people miserably, putting the fear of Assyria into everybody. God is going to speak to them prophetically. He is going to speak first through Jonah and then through Nahum. Remember, Jonah gets a word from the Lord that he is to go to Assyria and prophecy to the Assyrians. Jonah is one of those stories that almost everyone knows, but probably not this part of it. Jonah basically says, “No thank you” and gets on a boat to go somewhere else because he hates Assyria. He knows these people. He does not want them to repent. He wants them to get everything that God can give them. So he basically escapes. But he doesn’t escape, does he? God turns him around. Don’t we see this so many times? He turns him around, brings him back to the decision he needs to make; and he grudgingly makes the decision and he goes to Assyria. He preaches to Assyria about coming judgment and low and behold, the Assyrians listen and repent; and Jonah is not very happy. But he does what God asks him to do, without joy. We can do what God asks us to do without joy. But God does what he always does. He listens to the Assyrians and He holds back the judgment. Eventually the Assyrians move back to their evil ways and Nahum comes as a prophet and says that “your sin is going to bring God’s judgment and that will be your fall. Babylonia will conquer you;” and he talks about that conquering like a flood, as it were, that would just overwhelm Assyria and “you will no longer be.” So there are two that are warning, interestingly enough, Assyria. So God is at work in other places as well as Israel and in Judah.
Prophets to Judah
We have seven left, we have done 10. The last group, seven, prophesied to Judah. The way I remember them, oddly, is by remembering the first letters of their names: H, I, J, J, M, Z, L. If you say it enough times, you’ll have it.
Habakkuk prophesied to Judah, he foresees the Babylonian conquest. He has asked God, “God, why don’t you do something about the sin of the nation?” God says, “Okay, keep your eyes on Babylonia.” Then Habakkuk says basically, “That is not what I had in mind.” But he challenges God, he watches God and eventually he accepts the reality of God. He, like Job, lets God be God.
Isaiah is one of those wonderful books, we call them major prophets because of the length of the writing. Of course, in Isaiah we get again one of those great Jesus glimpses, where he talks about the coming of the suffering servant and all that means in terms of life. So Isaiah speaks into Judah and largely takes them to task in the first half regarding their sin and their violation of foundational things, really in the first 39 chapters, kind of like the Bible. In the last 27 chapters he basically presents them with hope to be found in the coming of the Promised One, the Messiah, if you will, the person who is going to give his life for the salvation of his people.
The two Js are for Jeremiah and Joel. Jeremiah is one of those difficult books where he lives out his prophecies and God asks him to do some rather strange things that most of us would have a hard time doing. When you read Jeremiah, you realize how hard it was to be a prophet in these times. He was not well received. He stayed faithful to the message. He did the things God asked him to do. He offered the warning without embellishment. He was not afraid, even though his work took him into very frightening places. Joel speaks into that same context.
Micah helps the people begin to envision the reality of what is going to come. Zephaniah. The last bit that fits here really is not named for a prophet, but it is written by the prophet Jeremiah, it is the book of Lamentations.
These books are written as warnings to Judah. I love Lamentations in the sense of the message. The literature is magnificent. The warning is powerful. The reflection on God’s faithfulness is unforgettable. “Great is they faithfulness.” It is a marvelous hymn that we sing and have sung for generations. Really in Lamentations where in spite of everything that is to come, Jeremiah looks past those things to the reality of God and the foundational things and says of God, “Great is your faithfulness, Lord.” Powerful and wonderful thing.
These great prophets are speaking into this history, a very narrow part of history where things are very difficult in Judah and Israel. They are sending warnings in advance of coming judgment. The warnings in general are not heeded and eventually judgment comes and Israel gets scattered all over Assyria’s empire and pretty much gets lost in that process. But Judah, from whom the Messiah will come, is held together, placed in Babylonia. Two prophets speak to them, Ezekiel and Daniel, calling them to endurance and hope. God has said this judgment is only going to last so long, a period of 70 years. At the end of that period, Persia, who has now conquered Babylonia, lets the people of Judah go home. Three prophets, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi, bring messages of restoration and renewal and how to sustain themselves for the long term. The bad news is, by the time you get to Malachi, the people are again falling away from the Lord. So the warning aspect begins to come to play in the book of Malachi.
We have gone a long way through this process, have we not? I want to wrap it up with you in a couple of ways. One, you might guess, is to do a quick review of the biggest picture. The other is to leave you with one sort of application out of this, if you look at the whole picture.
Remember that we have the Bible with 66 books; The Old Testament having 39 of them; The New Testament, where next time we are together, that is where we will be, has 27 books. We have three sections: Foundational, historical, instructional. Five books foundational: Core principles to guide you in actions in the history. Twelve books in the history: People living out these things in this history. Instructional: Poets revealing the heart of the people in its history; the prophets speaking to the minds and will of the people in the history and instruction to help the people of God stay with the program of God for the sake of the promises of God. So you have these powerful things going on.
The New Testament will follow that same pattern of foundational: four books, the gospels giving us the life of Christ. The instructional comes out of that, the foundational things. Acts, about people living out those things in the history of the time. Then 22 others in the instructional section, giving instruction to the people living these foundational things out. So it follows the same pattern.
In between we had that period called the 500 silent years where no prophets speak in the land. But though no prophets speak in the land, God is very busy putting things in place for the coming of his Son, Jesus Christ. The next time we are together we will take a look at those things.
I want to call your attention to one thing that goes through all of the scriptures and give you four principles that go with it. One thing I mentioned the first time we were together in the first session is the notion of faith. I want to give you faith as it is reflected in this big section. I think this will help you to think of it in terms of your own life.
The first idea is that faith builds on foundational things. If there is a context of faith, it is Jude at the end of The New Testament. He calls people to contend for the faith. He portrays faith not as a feeling or something that you believe without it having substance. Faith has content. We need to contend for the faith and faith has content, you need to protect the content. You need to be able to sustain the content, live out the content, make the content live. That is always the case. A life of faith is built on, as it were, foundational things. There is content to it, foundational stones under it. Faith matures, however, through the application of foundational things. Yes, you need to know it, but it is not enough to know it, you have to apply it. You can’t live out faith without understanding the foundational things. Faith really does not have any impact until it has been applied. When it is applied, what it brings to your life and mine is what the scripture calls maturity. In The New Testament the author of Hebrews take people to task because though they should be teachers, they need to be taught again. The reason is, they have not applied what they know. They have not used the content of their faith in ways in their life. They have not taken this and translated it into the history they are living in.
The third thing you need to know is that faith thrives in the celebration of foundational things. That is found here in this section we call poetry; which is really a celebration of foundational things, from worship that is portrayed in the Psalms, to wisdom, the skillful living that really is part of worship in the Proverbs, to Ecclesiastes. In all of these we have the outpouring of God’s work in terms of writings and the celebration of foundational things. The author of Ecclesiastes celebrates a ton of things and they bring no joy. Then he says, “Here are the foundational things.” In Song of Solomon the marriage contrast and all that goes with it, and the foundational aspects of that, it really is a celebration of worship. When a marriage works well, it is an item of worship.
The point being is that though your teacher can be forgetful at times, it is that all of this points to the fact that faith lies in the context of worship, in the context of celebrating these things that God has put in place, and God Himself.
The last piece is that faith renews through the correction of failing foundational things. That though we would follow, and we would follow carefully, because we live in a broken world we will have failure, sometimes small ones, sometimes big ones; but faith is renewed in the context of correction, in the prophetical context of a word spoken to us that helps us if we are off track, get back on track; that encourages us if we are on track, to stay on track for good foundational reasons. This faith thing is a marvelous thing.
Here you have four pieces working their way out very much connected to exactly what we have covered as we have looked at this Old Testament story.
I don’t know about you, but I feel like we have run a marathon here. We are halfway there. We have five sections left. We will take a look at the 400 silent years and the foundational, historical and instructional pieces of The New Testament. Until that time, thanks for being here and we will see you at the next session.