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The Message of the Prophets A survey of the Prophetic and Apocalyptic Books of the Old Testament
ZONDERVAN Copyright © 2010 J. Daniel Hays
All right reserved.
Chapter One Prophets and Prophecy
"And we have the word of the prophets made more certain, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place...." (2 Peter 1:19)
The apostle Peter underscores the nature of the Old Testament prophetic books when he writes that "no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet's own interpretation. For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit" (2 Peter 1:20-21). From the beginning of the Christian faith, the Old Testament prophets have played a critical role in understanding God's great redemptive plan for the world. The New Testament relies on the prophetic books repeatedly for its understanding of God and Jesus the Messiah. Jesus himself interconnects his message and his imagery with that of the Old Testament prophets and links them together inextricably.
Obviously, the prophetic books are an important part of our Scriptures. In fact, the prophetic books take up as much space in the Bible as the entire New Testament does! Clearly this is an important part of the Bible that God wants us to understand and obey.
The prophets are powerful and inspiring. Their criticism of sin and injustice is harsh, scathing, and unyielding. Yet their words to the faithful are gentle and encouraging. Furthermore, in the prophets we are able to engage with God himself, for he is a major character throughout the prophetic material. God speaks and acts. He grieves, hurts, explodes in anger, comforts, loves, rebukes, and restores. God reveals much about himself through the prophets. We see his transcendence - that is, his "otherness." He is sovereign over all the world and in total control of history. Isaiah will ask, Who can comprehend God or his ways? Yet we are also shown God's immanence - his presence with us and his "connectedness" to his people here on earth.
Likewise, the prophets have a lot to say about people. In the prophets we see a story unfold that recounts how the people of Israel (and their neighbors) responded to God and his revelation to them. We see a tragic story of rebellion against God, followed by terrible consequences. Yet at the same time the prophets show us God's great capacity for forgiveness reflected in his constant call for repentance and renewal of the hearts of his wayward people. Although most of the people will reject God's call for repentance, the prophets will also tell us their own personal stories - how they encountered God and then proclaimed his word valiantly and faithfully in dangerous and hostile situations.
Truly the prophetic books of the Old Testament are fascinating, even though they are not always easy to understand. The goal of this book is to help you understand the Old Testament prophets and their significance for you and your life today.
THE PROPHETIC BOOKS OF THE OLD TESTAMENT
In our English Bible, the prophetic corpus begins with the four large books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel, with the small book of Lamentations inserted on the heels of Jeremiah and before Ezekiel. Often these larger books (especially Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel) are referred to as the Major Prophets. Next come twelve smaller books, often called the Minor Prophets (Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi). The terms major and minor have nothing to do with importance. Rather, they refer to the length of the books. Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel are much longer than the twelve minor prophets.
The book of Daniel falls into a special category. Many scholars classify it as "apocalyptic" rather than "prophetic" because both its literary style and its message differ in some respects from that of the rest of the prophets. However, the Christian canon has traditionally included Daniel with the prophets, and thus the book of Daniel is included in this study. Likewise, Lamentations is included with the Writings in the Hebrew Bible, but in the Christian canon this book is associated with Jeremiah and is located immediately after the book of Jeremiah. Thus we will also cover the book of Lamentations in our discussion.
The structure of the Hebrew Bible is slightly different from the Christian Old Testament canon. The Jews refer to the Scriptures as the Tanak. This title is an acronym taken from the first letters of the names of the three basic structural units of the Hebrew Bible: the Pentateuch (Torah); the Prophets (Nebi'im); and the Writings (Ketubim). The Prophets section contains two parts: the Former Prophets (Joshua, Judges, 1-2 Samuel, 1-2 Kings), and the Latter Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Book of the Twelve, i.e., the twelve minor prophets). In the Hebrew Bible, Daniel and Lamentations are included with the Writings (along with Psalms, Job, Ecclesiastes, Ruth, etc.) rather than with the Prophets.
HISTORY OF PROPHECY IN THE OLD TESTAMENT
Beginning in the Pentateuch, the role of the prophet is closely associated with delivering the word of God. In Exodus 7:1 God tells Moses that Moses will be like god to Pharaoh and that Aaron will be his prophet, implying that Aaron's role will be to speak the word of God to Pharaoh. In Deuteronomy, however, it is Moses who is identified as the prophet, primarily because of his important role in delivering the word of God (most of the book of Deuteronomy) to the people. In fact, Deuteronomy 18:14-22 presents guidelines for the people concerning prophets and prophecy. In that text God promises to raise up another prophet like Moses, one they should listen to and obey. On the other hand, God strictly commands them to watch out for false prophets and not to listen to them.
In the historical books, especially 1-2 Samuel and 1-2 Kings, several prophets play key roles in the biblical story (Samuel, Nathan, Elijah, Elisha). The role of the prophet takes on a special significance in times when the Israelite monarchy and the Israelite priesthood turn away from God. Beginning in 1-2 Samuel and developing throughout 1-2 Kings, the Israelite monarchy grows both in power and in corruption. Especially in 1-2 Kings, the king often controls the priesthood and thus brings the worship system and its organization into his administration and under his control, often with an idolatrous orientation. Frequently, these Israelite kings worship idols and thus lead the entire nation into idol worship through their control of the priesthood.
God's true prophets, however, will stand outside of this theological and moral corruption and proclaim the true word of God to all of the guilty parties - the king, the priesthood, the false prophets, and the people. The prophets Elijah and Elisha (1 Kings 17-2 Kings 13) predate the literary prophets (Isaiah, Amos, etc.) by about one hundred years, but they set the pattern that many of the literary prophets will follow - confrontation with the king and other ruling powers, a call to repent and return to faithful obedience to Yahweh, and warnings of judgment on those who fail to heed the voice of Yahweh.
There are three major terms used in the Old Testament to refer to those special people who speak and transmit the word of Yahweh. The most common Hebrew term for such a person is nabi' (prophet). Two other terms, "seer" and "man of God," are also used. First Samuel 9:8-10 uses all three terms, indicating that they were nearly synonymous. "Seer" is used in several places throughout 1-2 Samuel as well as in 1-2 Chronicles. As in 1 Samuel 9:8-10, sometimes more than one of these terms is used to describe an individual. For example, in 2 Samuel 24:11 Gad is called "the prophet, David's seer." Likewise, when the antagonistic priest Amaziah calls Amos a "seer" in Amos 7:12, Amos replies by declaring that he is neither a "prophet" nor a "son of a prophet" (Amos 7:14). Yet 1 Samuel 9:9 implies that "seer" was perhaps an older designation, while "prophet" was the primary term in usage at the time when 1-2 Samuel was written.
The term "man of God" is closely associated with delivering the word of God. It is used of Moses in postexilic literature a few times (1 Chron. 23:14; Ezra 3:2) as well as of David (Neh. 12:24, 36). It is also used interchangeably with the term "prophet" in the Historical Books. However, "man of God" is not used of any of the literary prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, etc.).
Within the prophetic books, the major term used for Yahweh's spokesmen is "prophet." Yet this term is also used of people who speak falsely or who prophesy by the idols. Thus the term "prophet" is used for both true and false prophets.
The Names for God in the Prophets
There are two major Hebrew terms for God in the Old Testament. Elohim is a "generic" term, used both for the true God who created the heavens and the earth (Gen. 1:1) and for the false "gods" of the nations. Thus it can be translated as God (i.e., the true God) or as god (i.e., Baal or Molech). Technically, it is a plural form, and thus when used of pagan deities it can be translated as a plural (gods). However, when used of the God of Israel, it always has singular verbs as well as singular pronouns (he, not they) associated with it, clearly indicating a singular entity. When Elohim is used of the God of Israel, plural Hebrew form functions as a plural of majesty or intensification. Elohim occurs 2,570 times in the Old Testament and is normally translated as "God."
The other major Hebrew term for God in the Old Testament is Yahweh. This term functions more as the personal name of Israel's God. Occurring 6,800 times in the Old Testament, the name Yahweh has strong connotations of personal, covenant relationship. Thus God will frequently say, "I am Yahweh, who brought you up out of Egypt," or something along those lines. The name Yahweh is similar in sound and probably related to the verb "to be." Thus the name is closely associated with God's self-description as "I am who I am" (Exod. 3:14). The name Yahweh is often connected to the term Elohim to stress that Yahweh is Israel's God (Elohim). Thus in the great "Shema" of Deuteronomy 6:4 - 5, the text reads: "Hear, O Israel: Yahweh our Elohim, Yahweh is one. Love Yahweh your Elohim with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength."
In English Bibles the name Yahweh is usually translated as "the LORD" with LORD all in caps. But Hebrew has another word (Adonai) that means "lord." Thus, when you read LORD in your Bible, it is helpful to remember that this is a translation of Yahweh, the specific personal name for God in the Old Testament.
Yahweh is the primary term for God used by the prophets. Because of their emphasis on the covenant relationship between God and Israel, and because God gets very personal in the prophetic literature, the name Yahweh dominates the pages of the prophetic books (with the exception of Daniel). Thus throughout this textbook on the prophets, we will use the name Yahweh most of the time when referring to God, especially when discussing the prophets in their Old Testament context. When referring to the New Testament or to contemporary application, we will use the regular English word God.
Prophecy in the Ancient Near East
During the Old Testament era, prophet-like diviners and mediums were probably a common feature in the royal courts throughout the Ancient Near East. On the other hand, firm nonbiblical evidence of prophet-like activity comes primarily from two main contexts: literary texts found at Mari (eighteenth century BC) and Neo- Assyrian texts from the reigns of Esarhaddon (680-669 BC) and Ashurbanipal (668-627 BC). This literature reflects a rather wide range of terms and titles used for those individuals who sought to communicate with the gods and to bring oracles and other messages to (usually) the king. Such titles include "answerer," "cult functionary," "ecstatic," "diviner" (a word similar to the Hebrew nabi' or "prophet"), "proclaimer," "revealer" (a word similar to the Hebrew term translated as "seer"), and "sent one." In addition, this literature mentions numerous other individuals who act very much like prophets but who don't carry official titles.
These functionaries (by whatever term they were called) appear to be a fairly powerful class of people with a high standing at court. Generally they backed the king and supported his policies through their oracles and dreams. On a few rare occasions a court prophet might admonish the king, but this is always done mildly and is usually in response to the king's earlier refusal to heed a previous oracle or utterance of the gods.
Excerpted from The Message of the Prophets Copyright © 2010 by J. Daniel Hays. Excerpted by permission.
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