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 In the absence of homegroup meetings this series of reflections has been prepared by the Reverend Steve Painting of our Mission Community.   Each week a written paper accompanied by one or more audio files will be published here.

The Prophets – idolatry and injustice

Reflection 1 – audio 1       click here


In Matthew 5:17 Jesus is recorded as saying ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets. I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them.’ In session 2 of this series of reflections I focussed on the law, and suggested the ways in which Jesus fulfilled it. Jesus also claimed though, to fulfil the prophets. If the law revealed the general principles behind the way that people should live, the Old Testament prophets spoke into specific situations.

The prophetic ministry is a theme that runs right through the Bible. God speaks to people and those people speak to others. The actions of Noah were in many respects a prophetic witness to the people of his day. Abraham receives a number of prophetic insights including the situation concerning Sodom and Gomorrah. Joseph’s dreams are prophetic. Moses speaks prophetically to Pharoah and to his own people. The judge Deborah is a prophetess, Samuel is regarded as a prophet and King David has a number of prophets ministering to him, including Nathan who confronts him over his affair with Bathsheba. David himself speaks prophetically through the Psalms and as we go through the historical accounts of Kings and Chronicles we see a number of significant prophets come to the fore. Elijah’s ministry is to prophecy to the notorious king Ahab and his manipulative wife Jezebel. Elijah’s ministry is taken up by Elisha and as we go into the reigns of later kings we also find references to other prophets. Isaiah and Jeremiah were probably the most famous.

The main detail though, of the prophetic message of this period is found in the books of the prophets. The books were written at different times, some to the people of the northern kingdom of Israel and some to the people of the southern kingdom of Judah. The fact that the tribes of Israel had split in this way immediately following the reign of Solomon is illustrative of the conditions of disconnection that would continue through the generations.

There are 16 books of the prophets (17 if you include Lamentations which was thought to have been written by Jeremiah). Lamentations is in itself enlightening in its poetic description of the despair and desolation of disconnection. Four prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel are regarded as major prophets, because of the length of their writings. The other twelve are regarded as minor prophets, although their message is every bit as important to the integrity of the Bible as a whole.

Just as the law revealed that God’s design for creation is founded and dependent on essential relationships so the prophets speak into those same relationships. Last week we explored the way in which the human quest for power causes break-down of those relationships. It was the role of the prophet to shine God’s light on those things and be God’s voice to the people. In our look at the books of Judges, Samuel and Kings I put forward the case that when relationship with God breaks down the other essential relationships follow. I believe that the writings of the prophets make the same case. Primarily they highlight matters of idolatry and relationship with God but they also focus strongly on matters of injustice (the people’s lack of attention to their relationships with one another and to the relationships they have with the rest of creation). The prophets’ first role then was to highlight failings in the people’s essential relationships.

The second role of the prophets was to warn of the consequences of the people’s actions. They consistently signposted to their people, the coming of conquest and exile, prophecies that came to pass for Israel in 722 bc at the hands of Assyria and Judah in 586 bc at the hands of Babylon. For Israel and Judah this was the ultimate in disconnection. They were cut off from God, cut off from their homeland, scattered from one another and devoid of their sense of individual and corporate identity.

The prophets’ third role is to put forward to the people the hope of reconnection. In the first instance they pointed to the time when a remnant of exiles that remained faithful to God would return to their homeland. They also though looked beyond that, foreseeing God’s work of reconnection for the whole of creation. That would later be initiated in the person of the so-called messiah (literally translated, anointed one). 500 years after the last of the recorded Old Testament prophets, Jesus emerged onto the scene. Over 300 Old Testament messianic prophecies were fulfilled in his life, validating his claim to be the fulfilment of the prophets.

The prophets, in short highlighted the ways of disconnection and pointed towards God’s mission of reconnection. Their message is one that continues to be worked out.

Read Jeremiah 2

What are the broken cisterns that we trust in today?

What is the evidence that they are broken?

Can you think of a passage in the gospels where Jesus uses the image of living water to convey who he is?

Reflection 2 – Audio 2      click here


In the second part of this reflection I will look in more detail at each of the three roles of the prophets that I mentioned earlier.

The first role of the prophets was to shine a light on the failings of the people.

Ezekiel in Chapter 16 describes God’s relationship with Jerusalem in a moving, poetic, yet thoroughly explicit and stark passage. God is portrayed as a faithful husband and Jerusalem as a wife that engages in adultery and prostitution. Hosea’s message is similar but he has to take his message further. He is required to marry a promiscuous wife to drive the point home to those around him. The problem is idolatry. Judah has turned to other gods and the military power of other nations for her security and so broken her relationship with God. The problem with idolatry is spelt out in Jeremiah chapter 2. Like Ezekiel and Hosea, Jeremiah puts forward the image of Israel/Judah as a bride that has turned to prostitution. But in this chapter the people are also reminded of the faithfulness of God, what he has done for them, and how much the idols have proved worthless. The passage is perhaps summed up in verse 13 where God through Jeremiah says to the people, ‘My people have committed two sins, they have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.’

The prophets are equally vocal about injustice and draw attention to the pretence of religion. The people have put their trust in empty religious practices without being true to the requirements of an authentic relationship with God. The evidence is found in the way they treat others and exploit the poor as well as the land. Amos 5 and Isaiah 58 paint colourful pictures of the situation. They remind us that the practice of religion can be a tool to hinder justice and protect the powerful. Ezekiel also picks up this theme, condemning the shepherds of Israel (the leaders and kings) for exploiting the very people that in their position of authority have a responsibility  to care for and nurture (Ezekiel 34). Micah sums the whole thing up, bringing together the necessity of sound relationships with both God and others, saying ‘He has shown you O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.’ (Micah 6:8).

The second role of the prophets is to warn the people of the consequences of their actions

Ezekiel in chapter 10 describes with sadness a vision of the presence of God departing from the temple. The people had turned away from God and that it seems, leaves God with no choice but to leave them to fend for themselves. The people complain that he has abandoned them, yet, through the prophets he has shown them the way forward. He cannot force or coerce them to seek his help because that is not His way. Through the prophets he warns them that they cannot defend themselves or rely on other nations to protect them but the warning goes unheeded. Time and again the prophets repeat their message and time and again their message is rejected and they too are rejected. Jeremiah goes through particularly hard persecution for what would today be perceived as his negative spin. The people in effect, abandon themselves. They refuse to trust in the relationship with God on which they as a nation, were founded. They refuse to accept the wisdom in the words of the prophets. They refuse to adopt the ways of God that would have bring them back to the place of Shalom. Capitulation to the threat of powerful enemies is, according to the prophets, therefore inevitable. People then and people now, have the choice; the ways of the world and the power systems of the nations that lead only to disconnection and poverty or the ways of God that lead to peace.

Under these circumstances the only option for God it seems, is to let his people go through the foretold disaster. That is the only way back for them. Habbakuk’s message is a particularly fascinating one in this respect. It is also perhaps also a book that speaks into our own times and circumstances. The book documents the prayers of the prophet (representing the prayers of the righteous in the nation of Judah) and the responses he gets from the Lord. Habbakuk’s first prayer is a complaint to God about the godlessness and injustice of His nation and he asks why the Lord is not doing anything about it. The Lord’s response is that He is going to do something about it and that is to let the ruthless Babylonians do what they will with Judah. This of course leaves the prophet even more perplexed. His second prayer asks the following question in verse 13. Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrongdoing. Why then do you tolerate the treacherous? Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous than themselves? The Lord’s response is for Habbakuk to wait patiently with faith and allow God to work in His way. He reassures the prophet that the time will come when Babylon too will suffer as a result of her actions. Habbakuk’s final prayer is a wonderful example of a prayer of faith for those in troubled times. The whole of chapter 3 is worth reading but two verses stand out at the beginning and end of the prayer. Verse 2 reads, Lord I have heard of your fame; I stand in awe of your deeds O Lord. Renew them in our day, in our time make them known; in wrath remember mercy. Verse 17 reads Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vine, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my saviour. Like Habbakuk, I wonder if we too are crying out to see a more just and godly world? And what if God is saying to us wait in faith? The way forward for our times may not be easy and involve things like coronavirus but in spite of it all, we are to remember the goodness of God and the times he has met with us. In spite of it all we can still say I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my saviour.

Turning now beyond the affairs of Israel and Judah, the accounts of the prophets also illustrate God’s concern for the wider world. Jonah and Nahum both prophecy concerning the Assyrian city of Ninevah. Israel’s calling was to make God known to the nations. Only in New Testament times though would Israel represented by Jesus, the 12 apostles and the early church fulfil this call. Before this time she rigidly excluded Gentiles in the worship of God, which is partly why Jonah was so reluctant to go to deliver his prophecy to Ninevah. The other reason (aside from the obvious threat to his personal safety) was that Ninevah represented a substantial military threat to the northern kingdom of Israel. Knowing that God would have mercy, if Ninevah repented from its cruel and reckless ways, Jonah could see the political advantage to Israel of not delivering his prophetic warning. In the end he did deliver his warning, Ninevah repented, Israel didn’t and the Assyrian conquest of Israel came to pass. In contrast, the prophet Nahum delivers a prophecy against Assyria and Ninevah, who had quickly returned to their former ways of violence. Nahum was a prophet to the southern kingdom of Judah, which at the time were under threat from Assyria, but significantly, were going through a period of spiritual and political reform. Nahum denounces the cruelty, oppression and violence to which Assyria had returned and predicted the destruction of Ninevah and break-up of the Assyrian empire both of which came to pass in 612bc. Many of the other prophets also speak out against, and foresee the fall of other powerful nations and empires. There are several points to take from this. Firstly, God shows through the prophets that, even in the Old Testament, he is interested in the welfare of all nations not just Israel and Judah. Jonah’s warning to Ninevah is evidence of this as is Daniel’s interpretation of the dreams of the kings of Babylon, Media and Persia. Secondly neglect of relationship with God and with others has consequences. Practices opposed to the ways of God such as oppression, exploitation and pursuit of power are not sustainable in his creation. Nations and empires founded on the human drive for power inevitably fall. This was true for Israel/Judah every bit as much as the other powerful nations of the time. Thirdly repentance (returning to follow the ways of God) brings about peace and reconciliation for all nations including Assyria.

The third role of the prophets is to give the people hope of renewal and reconnection

The prophets then are people of God who see the big picture. They see through God’s eyes, the practices of kings and the people they serve. They understand that lack of attention to genuine relationship with God and the improper use of power by nations and people groups to oppress and exploit others simply leads to further disconnection and poverty. It therefore will not be permitted by God to persist.

The prophets though also see God’s progressive work of restoration and their third role is to bring future hope to the people of God. They see God working His way towards total reconnection within the creation even through situations of break-down and poverty. Daniel’s visions concerning the rise and fall of nations and empires, do culminate in the establishment of God’s kingdom of everlasting peace and righteousness (Daniel 2:44-45 & 12:1-4).

Other prophets envision that same end but see also the route through which it comes about. They foresee the return from exile, of a united people of Israel and their repopulation and restoration of Jerusalem. They see the raising up of the Messiah, the anointed one who will usher in and ultimately rule over the kingdom of God on earth. Isaiah particularly, has a focus on the ministry of the Messiah, with insights on his birth and life, his ministry and his suffering (see Isaiah 9:1-7, Isaiah 53, and Isaiah 61:1-3).

The prophets see a world in which people will be spiritually enabled to follow the ways of God. Peter in order to explain the manifestation of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost quotes Joel 2:28-32. Ezekiel 36:24-27 describes how people will receive a new heart through the giving of the spirit and in 37:1-14 describes a vision of God raising the dead to new life, breathing his spirit into restored physical bodies in a picture reminiscent of the bringing to life of Adam.

Finally the prophets have visions of what the kingdom of God will be like. Isaiah and Micah in almost identical texts describe a world in which all the nations learn and practice the genuine law of God; a world in which the weapons of war are turned into tools for agriculture; a world in which there is equal distribution of the earth’s resources; a world in which no-one will live in fear. It is a picture of life, in which all the essential relationships are restored (Isaiah 2:1-4 and Micah 4:1-5).

To conclude, I believe that the Old Testament prophets still speak to today’s world. There messages and the fulfilment of them, reveal that the life of any nation or society is dependent on its ability to sustain the essential relationships that we have been exploring in this series. They remind us that when people groups, societies and nations pursue a path of self-gain, seek power over others and neglect an authentic relationship with God, they bring upon themselves and others, disconnection and poverty. The message the prophets bring most vividly to a secular worldview such as our own is that there are consequences to face when God and the ways he reveals for the ordering of society are neglected in favour of human wisdom and pragmatism. If we are to avoid such consequences (and I believe that in many ways we are already facing them) we need to find the prophets of our generation. Whether society listens though is another matter. The wisdom of the Old Testament prophets was seldom heeded by those for whom power seemed more attractive, yet even if in our time the world doesn’t listen the people of faith can take hope from the prophets of old for it was their emphatic belief that whatever the ways and choices of humankind, God will ultimately complete his work of reconnection. We are nearer that today than we were when they delivered their message.

In my next reflection I’ll explore how the life and ministry of Jesus contributes to God’s work of reconnection.

Read Micah 6:1-8 & Isaiah 58

Spend some time reading through the passages asking God to show you what they say about the significance of relationship with God in maintaining sound relationships with others.

Listen to the worship song: O Lord, the clouds are gathering

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xfv9OI59_7o

Pray through the following lines of the song.

Lord, You stand appalled to see your laws of love so scorned, and lives so broken.

While precious children starve the tools of war increase, their bread is stolen (Pray particularly for Syria and Yemen)

Lord, let love reclaim the lives that sin would sweep away, and let Your kingdom come.

Lord, Your glorious cross shall tower, triumphant in this land, evil confounding

Pray through the Lord’s Prayer

Our father in heaven, hallowed be your name,

your Kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven.

Give us today our daily bread,

forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.

Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil,

for the Kingdom the power, and the glory are yours

now and forever,

Amen  



recon 4 audio 2.mp3 recon 4 audio 1.mp3