“A voice says, “Cry out.” And I said, “What shall I cry?” Isaiah 40:6
Ask most people what a prophet might do and the answer would probably be that a prophet is someone who predicts the future; a prophecy is seen as a forecast of what will happen. When we look at the Bible, though, we see that being a prophet is about much more than someone who foresees things. The Hebrew word traditionally translated as prophet is ‘navi’, it means ‘spokesperson’. The Lord says to Moses in Deuteronomy Chapter 18 Verse 18, ‘I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their fellow Israelites, and I will put my words in his mouth. He will tell them everything I command him’.
The prophet will tell them everything commanded, but not simply by speaking words; acted prophecies occur frequently. In Jeremiah Chapter 35, the prophet is told to go to the Rekabites, who were total abstainers, and to offer them wine. The Rekabites, in accordance with their tradition, refuse to drink the wine and their action is shown as a sign of how they have been faithful to God while others have been unfaithful. We see Jeremiah acting out other prophecies. In Chapter 13 he buys a linen belt which he is told to bury; the belt rots and becomes useless as a sign of what will happen to Judah. In Chapter 19, he goes out to the valley of Ben Hinnom with the elders of the people taking with him a clay jar and he smashes the jar as a prophecy of what will happen to the people. In Chapter 27, Jeremiah is told to make a yoke from wood and leather and to walk around with it on his neck as a sign of how the people will be put under the yoke of the Babylonians.
In Isaiah Chapter 20, we see Isaiah being told to walk naked and barefoot for three years as a sign that the people were to become prisoners. In Ezekiel Chapter 4, the prophet is to lie on his side for 390 days and eat measured food to show that the city is going to be subject to a siege.
Being a prophet was a task that few people would have invited. We know from the experiences of Elijah in the First Book of Kings that it could bring arrest and even death. In Jeremiah Chapter 1 Verse 19, the prophet is warned by God that he will be attacked for the things for the things he says, ‘They will fight against you but will not overcome you, for I am with you and will rescue you,’ declares the LORD. Isaiah faces similar opposition, the people do not want to hear what God might have to say, In Isaiah Chapter 30 Verse 11, they say, ‘Leave this way, get off this path, and stop confronting us with the Holy One of Israel! ‘
Our idea of a prophet as someone who foretold the future has its roots in ancient Biblical tradition, where prophets were described as ’seers’, people who would try to discern what might be God’s will and what might lay ahead through visions and divination. The First Book of Samuel Chapter 9, Verse 9 says, ‘Formerly in Israel, if someone went to inquire of God, they would say, ‘Come, let us go to the seer,’ because the prophet of today used to be called a seer.’ Prophets were not necessarily Jewish, read the story of Balaam in Numbers Chapter 22 and we meet someone who is not Jewish, but is open to the voice of God.
Looking at the major prophets—called major because of the length of the writings associated with them rather than that they are more important than the other prophets—and we are looking at Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations—known as the Lamentations of Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel.
The book of Isaiah is seen by scholars as being the work of three (or more) writers who were writing at different times in the history of Judah and Israel. There are passages that are familiar, but, because of our scant reading of Scripture in church, other passages which we may never have heard before. The idea that the lion shall lie down with the lamb is familiar to many people although it is a misquote from Isaiah Chapter 11 Verse 6 which says, ‘The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them’. Similarly, we will all have heard the expression describing someone who is right but to whom no-one will listen as them being ‘like a voice in the wilderness’, which is a misquotation of Isaiah Chapter 40, Verse 3, ’A voice of one calling: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way for the Lord make straight in the desert a highway for our God’.
The first 39 chapters of Isaiah are prophecies of the fate that awaits Judah, the southern of the divided kingdoms, and of the fate that awaits those who oppose God, while Chapters 40-66 are optimistic, they prophesy the restoration of the nation and a new creation in God’s glorious future kingdom. Scholars consider Proto-Isaiah, Isaiah Chapters 1–39 to be the work from the 8-7th Century BC. Deutero-Isaiah, Isaiah Chapters 40–55 is thought to be written in the 6th Century at a time when the Exile in Babylon was drawing to a close. Deutero-Isaiah includes the four passages we call the Servant Songs, passages which Christians see as prophecies of the suffering of Jesus. Trito-Isaiah, Isaiah Chapters 56–66 is believed to have been composed by one or more authors in Jerusalem shortly after the Exiles had returned from Babylon.
The book of Jeremiah tells of the ministry and experiences of Jeremiah. It follows the history of Judah over the years before the fall of the kingdom and the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC. Jeremiah is warned at the beginning that life will not be easy, and it is not. People simply do not wish to listen to Jeremiah, and when things go wrong blame him for the problems, in Jeremiah Chapter 38 Verse 4, the officials complain to the king about Jeremiah, ’This man should be put to death. He is discouraging the soldiers who are left in this city, as well as all the people, by the things he is saying to them. This man is not seeking the good of these people but their ruin’.
It is a book with wonderfully human moments. Poor Jeremiah is thrown into a well, which, fortunately is dry, but he is sat in the mud at the bottom when a man called Ebed-Melek arranges to have him pulled out. He is concerned Jeremiah will be hurt and throws old clothes down the well and shouts in Jeremiah Chapter 38 Verse 11, ‘Put these old rags and worn-out clothes under your arms to pad the ropes’. The book of Jeremiah is followed by the book of Lamentations, an expression of sorrow at what has befallen God’s people.
The historical background of Jeremiah provides also the historical backdrop for the book of Ezekiel. The first exiles were taken to Baby lon in 597 BC and according to Ezekiel he was exiled in Babylon and experienced a series of seven visions during the 22 years from 593 to 571 BC. Ezekiel Chapter 1 Verse 2-3 says, ’it was the fifth year of the exile of King Jehoiachin — the word of the Lord came to Ezekiel the priest, the son of Buzi, by the Kebar River in the land of the Babylonians’. Ezekiel’s prophecy covers the ground one would expect, given the historical circumstances: Chapters 1-24 deal with God’s judgment on Israel; Chapters 25-32 turn to God’s judgment on the nations; and the book concludes with optimistic words on future blessings for Israel in Chapters 33-48. The best known passage from Ezekiel is probably Chapter 37, the vision of the valley of dry bones that come to life when flesh is put onto them and life is breathed into them is a picture that has been used many times.
The book of Daniel was probably written around the Second Century BC, but tells of times in Babylon. Chapters 1-6 tell of the adventures of faithful young men at the Babylonian court, while Chapters 7-12 tell of Daniel’s visions of a king who attacks Israel, defiles the Temple, the place of God’s presence and who suffers divine judgment for his actions.
The prophets cannot be divorced from history. Appointed as God’s spokespersons, they are to speak God’s words to the situations in which the people were living. God is actively interested in, actively concerned about the plight of ordinary people. When the prophets are read, we tend to see them as people from long ago concerned with things from long ago. When the prophets are read in many poorer places in the world, they are seen as people who are timeless concerned with things in the present.
If God is God, then he is concerned about our history, our society, our community—we need to read the prophets to understand what he is saying to us.