4 - The Prophets
The message of the early prophets was about the holiness and righteousness of God with whom Israel was in covenant relationship. Although Moses had discovered something of the breadth of the Divine character, particularly when he met with Yahweh on Sinai, his task was to convey the need for Israel to obey laws that provided justice for all. Samuel took up this theme, which he administered with total integrity. David was well taught by the old prophet but within his kingdom there was violence and nepotism that belied the leadership of his mentor. Samuel, Nathan and Gad each in turn withstood the prejudice and partiality of royalty and by so doing reflected the terms of the covenant and the One with whom Israel had made it. In the century or so that followed Solomon's fall from Divine grace, there was in the divided kingdom a progressive deterioration in the administration of justice and fair play and these were replaced by pagan violence and royal dictatorship.
Elijah pleaded with God to exercise His prerogative to withhold the blessings of the covenant and he prayed that rain would not fall on the land of Israel (Deut 28.23 1 Kings 17.1). When he challenged the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel and called upon God to fire the sacrifice from Heaven, he was struggling to bring his countrymen back to their covenant with Yahweh (1 Kings 19.10,14). Later he challenged Ahab and Jezebel when they murdered Naboth and stole his vineyard and in doing so he was telling Israel that the land belonged to God and by the covenant was leased to families within the commonwealth. No king or noble lord in Israel could take that inheritance away from the poorest person in the land. All in Israel were equal before God and all were in covenant relationship with Him. Elisha continued the revelation of Israel's God in all kinds of practical blessings. A few of God's people learned about God's character and a 'remnant' discovered that He was not just their possession but the Creator of all the Earth who loved all that He had made. (Isa.37.4; 49.6; 60.3)
How far did the early prophets perceive the relationship of God to His people? Hosea, a prophet from the Northern Kingdom was directed by God to marry a prostitute (Hos.1.2). He obeyed and Gomer bore him a son. Soon she was off plying her trade until at last she had sunk to the level of a slave. Hosea searched for and found her. He forgave and redeemed her. He took her home, re-established his marriage with her and disciplined her. It was a startling message, understood only by those who experience a relationship with God such as that of Gomer to Hosea. The prophet's life was a parable of how God loved Israel with a faithfulness and depth of affection that human nature can hardly believe. From Abraham, through Moses, Samuel and Elijah, God had revealed Himself in a way that was not comparable to anything that the human mind had conceived and created. But this was something else for here was the ultimate compassion and faithfulness shown in the life of a simple peasant baker in Israel. God's people had by their imitation of pagan religions and worship of man-made gods, prostituted their piety and obedience that should have been for the eternal Creator. They exchanged their loyalty to God for a worthless and utterly sinful way of life. The modern media demonstrates that nothing has changed. Man's Adversary has a strange hold over human nature that God has permitted. Man has worshipped the artefacts he has made and conceitedly is wooed by his own creations. The ingenuity that was given by the Creator produces affluence and the lowest moral code. The wealthier man becomes the more readily he moves to his own destruction. Will they ever learn? Yet we have the promise that humanity will yet discover that the Lord they forsook is the source of love, goodness and justice. The passionate love that God has shown Israel will be demonstrated to all people.
One of the greatest figures in the covenant saga was Jeremiah. His story is particularly poignant because there are points of similarity with the experience of our Lord. From his earliest days Jeremiah took the Word of the Lord to Israel. He was associated with the young King Josiah whose servants found the Book of the Covenant in the Temple and who instituted a tremendous revival of the true faith in Israel (2 Kings 23). The Josiah reform was one of the great moments in Israel's history yet its effect, like other revivals, did not last and Israel rapidly forgot its Law and its God. Jeremiah supported the reform and in so doing raised the enmity of his own people in Anathoth (Jer.11.1-8; 12.6). The leaders of the land and the kings who succeeded Josiah caused a rapid deterioration of the national 'religion'. Jeremiah was one of the few who remained true to the principles of the Josiah reform and referred to it in a moving observation to a later king concerning his father, recorded in Jer. 22.15,16.
Earlier in his prophecies Jeremiah had made another vivid comment about knowing God (9.23,24) to which Paul referred in 1 Cor.1.31. It was this knowledge of God that made Jeremiah's orations so important in the message of the covenant.
In Jeremiah 23 the prophet used the picture of the sheep and shepherd concerning Israel's relationship with God. The under shepherds of God's people have a tremendous responsibility and it is vital that pastoral leaders understand what their role is and what God expects of them. Throughout Israel's history up to the time of Jesus they failed badly. Jeremiah singled out prophets and priests who by their corruption allowed the sheep to be destroyed and scattered. Ezekiel similarly condemned leaders (34. 1-6). In a different way teachers and priests of Jesus' day led the Jews into false religion and to their destruction in AD70.
In Isaiah 5.1-2 there is yet a third great parable of the covenant. Through the words of this prophet, Yahweh spoke of His vineyard and His longing for a good vintage. This remarkable natural picture was a reminder of the reconnoitring under Joshua. The representatives of the tribes brought back to Moses the bunch of grapes from Eshcol that needed two men to carry it. It was the symbol of Israel in later years.
Ezekiel also spoke of the plucked up vine, transplanted to the wilderness. She had the greatest privilege of all the ancient nations yet she had done something which none of them had done. She turned her back on the God that loved her far better than any human lover could do. But worse was to come before the wound of impiety was healed.
The cry of the prophets was not just one of religious worship. As Jeremiah showed in his reference to Josiah, knowing God was an ethical matter. One could not claim to know God and ignore the needs of the poor and underprivileged. Most of the prophets who left us a record brought to the attention of God's people that they must be concerned about the wellbeing of others. We cannot claim to love God and ignore those who He loves and wants us to serve. The prophets repeatedly warned Israel that their treatment of the poor would bring a response from God. Amos had warned the rich of the dangers of affluence. Micah had also warned and struck at the heart of his people's problems when he asked "What does the Lord require of you but to do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with your God". Oppression, selfishness, arrogance and pride were part of the Gentiles' way of life. Israel adopted them as her way of life until in deep bitterness they sacrificed their own children. That appears to be Israel's lowest point in breaking the covenant. How could the Lord God of Heaven who was later to be described as 'Love', walk with such people? How circumspect ought we to be, in this our day, who claim to be in covenant relationship with God. Justice and truth are part of God's character and they must be part of ours too.
Yet with all that the prophets said against the evils of Israel over centuries they all looked forward to a day when the things they condemned would be gone and Israel would once more be united to her God in holy covenant. This is the story of Hosea ‑ God buys back that which is already truly His own. The lesson would at last be learned but only after severe trials and long centuries of being parted from their God. These projections into the future are outlined in Jeremiah 31. The prophet of disaster and triumph, the prophet who came in his trials and suffering so near the heart of God, was the one who outlined the covenant of the New Testament and began to see how God could and would change the hearts of men.