If you examine the Bibles of even the most diligent students, you may find a telltale band of white on the paper edges about halfway through. That mark of cleanness shows how seldom fingers touch the Old Testament Prophets. Although those 17 books fill about a fifth of the bulk of the Bible, they often go unread.
Why? I put that question to a Bible study class, and one young Christian bluntly summed up the class’s sentiments: “The Prophets are weird and confusing, and they all sound alike.” As I thought about his answer, I realized that he had captured the very problems that kept me away from the Prophets for many years.
Weird, yes. I gained my first impressions as a child at summer “prophecy conferences.” Banners hung across the platform—white bed sheets that were stitched together and filled with crude drawings of science-fiction animals. The drawings depicted visions from Daniel and Revelation, and speakers wielding long pointers would expound on the meaning of the various toes and horns and eyes. They were a strange lot, the prophets.
Confusing? Indeed. Each speaker had a private theory on how many months we Christians would have to suffer, and where on Earth the Antichrist was growing up even as we met together. Later, when I read a little church history, I learned that speakers had made such claims in the 1940s when Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini seemed to vie for the role of Antichrist; and in the 1840s when believers gathered on mountain-tops to await Christ’s return; and in the 1400s and the 400s and even in the first century A.D. All of them gave convincing reasons why the coded prophecies in the Bible would find fulfillment in their own day. If no one can agree on the Prophets’ meaning, I wondered, why read them at all?
“They all sound alike.” This, I confess, was my biggest obstacle. To me, the Prophets seemed boring. All of them gave variations of the same two-line message: “It’s going to get bad. Then it will get much better.” I had the image of fusty old men wagging their fingers at the world, the same image that has inspired countless caricatures in magazine cartoons.
The Most Modern Books
For reasons such as these I avoided the Prophets in my personal Bible study until one day I accepted an editing project (The Student Bible) that called for a close reading of them. Suddenly I hadto study the Prophets, as part of my job. And a surprising thing happened. As I read these books, I experienced a turnabout so abrupt that I would now claim the Prophets as my favorite part of the entire Bible.
Far from my prior stereotype of fusty finger-waggers, I found the prophets to be the most “modern” men imaginable. In chapter after chapter they deal with the very same themes that hang like a cloud over our century: the silence of God, society’s gross inequities, the seeming sovereignty of evil, the unrelieved suffering in our world. The prophets eloquently express the doubts, pains, and complexities that we all feel—that I feel. I came to see them as profound witnesses to the dilemma of being human.
Isaiah, normally a towering giant of faith, concluded at one point, “Truly you are a God who hides himself.” Another time he called out in near despair, “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down!”
Most of Habakkuk comprises a loud complaint to God, beginning with words that are echoed by many modern skeptics:
How long, O Lord, must I call for help,
but you do not listen?
Or cry out to you, “Violence!”
but you do not save?
Why do you make me look at injustice?
Why do you tolerate wrong?
Malachi and Jeremiah loudly protested the failure of “success theology.” In their day, God’s prophets were no longer blasting enemies with fire from the sky, like Elijah; they were being tossed into dungeons and wells, and even sawed in half. Jeremiah—he, after all, bequeathed us the English word jeremiad—filled the longest book in the Bible with a message forced out between sobs:
Oh, that my head were a spring of water
and my eyes a fountain of tears!
Oh, my anguish, my anguish!
I writhe in pain.
Oh, the agony of my heart!
My heart pounds within me,
I cannot keep silent.
What caused such agony? Beyond his own pain and that of his people, Jeremiah writhed over the seeming powerlessness of God. He put the question to God directly: “Why are you like a man taken by surprise, like a warrior powerless to save?” The atheistic philosopher Voltaire could not have put it better: How can an all-powerful and all-loving God permit such a messed-up world?
To the prophets, it seemed God was pulling farther and farther away. Why do godless nations flourish? they asked. Why so many natural disasters? Why such poverty and depravity in the world? Why so few miracles? Where are you, God? Why don’t you speak to us, as you used to. Show yourself, break your silence. For God’s sake, literally, act!
The most amazing feature of the Prophets, and the reason these 17 books merit close study, is that God answers the prophets’ bracing questions. He storms and explodes, defending the way he runs the world. He blocks their complaints with some complaints of his own.
In an ironic twist, God points to the prophets themselves—the very people who are questioning his hiddenness—as proof of his concern. (“Surely he does nothing without revealing his plan to his servants the prophets.”) How can a nation complain about the silence of God when they have the likes of Ezekiel and Jeremiah and Daniel and Isaiah?
The prophets were calling for miraculous signs of God’s power, such as had characterized the days of Moses and Elijah. But Israel had responded to those miraculous signs with stubborn rebellion, and now, through the prophets, God was turning instead to the power of the word. Evidently God did not consider “mere words” an inferior form of proof.
I cannot begin to mention all God’s answers to the prophets’ questions. He tells of the value of purging, recounts historical proofs of his love, promises a Messiah deliverer, and concludes always with a preview of the future when all that is wrong on Earth will be set right. But beyond such rational explanations, one important message shines through with great force: God passionately desires his people. Above all else, the Prophets demonstrate that we matter to God.
Forgive me if this analogy seems irreverent, but in reading the Prophets I cannot help envisioning a counselor with God as a client. The counselor gets out one stock sentence, “Tell me how you really feel,” and then God takes over.
I’ll tell you how I feel! I feel like a parent who finds a baby girl lying in a ditch, near death. I take the girl home and make her my daughter. I clean her, pay for her schooling, feed her. I dote on her, clothe her, hang jewelry on her. Then one day she runs away. I hear reports of her life of debauchery. She’s a drug addict somewhere. When my name comes up, she curses. I feel like she’s twisting a knife in my stomach.
I’ll tell you how I feel! I feel like a man who falls in love with the most beautiful, sensitive woman in the world. I find her thin and wasted, abused, but I bring her home to teach her manners and make herbeauty shine. She is the apple of my eye, and I lavish gifts and love on her. All this, and yet she forsakes me. She pants after my best friends, my enemies—anyone. She stands on a boulevard and pays people to have sex with her like a prostitute! I feel betrayed, abandoned, jilted.
God uses these examples and many others, all told with shocking candor, to express his sense of betrayal over the broken covenant with Israel and all humanity. How does God really feel? Listen to his own words in Isaiah 42:
For a long time I have kept silent,
I have been quiet and held myself back.
But now, like a woman in childbirth,
I cry out, I gasp and pant.
Punishment for human rebellion must surely come, but in the Prophets God announces it with grief and sadness, with a broken heart. It hurts God to punish, just as it hurts a human parent. “What else can I do?” an omnipotent God asks at one point (Jer. 9). As he explains through Isaiah (26), he has no choice: The world refuses to learn righteousness through grace, and so he must resort to punishment.
As I read the Prophets, and absorbed their passionate intensity, I came to realize how mistaken my early impressions had been. Those of us who have a fixation for prophecy-as-prediction, who read them mainly to find out what will happen in 1991, may easily miss the greatest message of all. Why read the Prophets? There’s only one worthwhile reason: to get to know God. They are the Bible’s most forceful revelation of his personality.
Yet, despite my new-found enthusiasm for reading the Prophets, I would be dishonest if I did not admit to some problems. The Prophets are difficult books, more difficult than any other part of the Bible. The three complaints my friend lodged—“they’re weird, confusing, and all sound alike”—do not easily disappear.
In many cases, the Prophets were not composed as books at all. Rather, they consist of sermons delivered over many years and later gathered into a collection, with few clues as to their original context. They are full of repetitions, shifts of mood, and strange, otherworldly images. Must one pore over commentaries for years in order to understand these books? Is there any way for the average person to wind through the labyrinth?
I have learned a few principles that help me see beyond the arcana to the essential message of the Prophets. First, the Now and Later Principle.
Now And Later
Sometimes we act as if the prophets lived primarily for the benefit of people not yet born—like us. Yet it becomes clear as you read the Prophets that now was more important to them than later. I roughly divide their predictions into three categories:
- Now: Prophecies that relate primarily to the prophet’s own day (Assyria will invade Moab; Israel’s alliance with Egypt will backfire).
- Later: Predictions of future events well removed from the prophet’s own time, but that have since been fulfilled in history (for example, the many messianic prophecies that New Testament authors apply to Jesus Christ).
- Much Later: Prophecies that seem still to lie in the future (These may include references to a time of tribulation, a millennium, and a future mass conversion of the Jews—but scholars disagree on the precise meaning of almost all such references).
One of the most confusing aspects of the Prophets is that they do not tell us whether the predicted events—invasions, earthquakes, a coming Leader, a recreated Earth—will occur the next day, or a thousand years later, or three thousand years later. In fact, near and distant predictions often appear in the same paragraph, blurring together.
Joel 2, for instance, describes the devastation caused by an army of locusts. Nearly everyone assumes Joel was referring to an actual invasion in his own day—the period I have called Now. But the same chapter speaks of a time when the Spirit will be poured out on all people, and sons and daughters will prophesy. Clearly, that passage refers to a Later event, the time just after Pentecost, for the apostle Peter says as much in his sermon in Acts 2. But what of this verse in the middle of the same paragraph: “The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord”? Joel goes on to describe a gathering of all nations for a final judgment (Much Later?), and then shifts back to a discussion of Tyre and Sidon, two of Israel’s contemporary neighbors.
To complicate matters, sometimes the Prophets describe events with two fulfillments, one Now and one Later. Isaiah’s famous prophecy, “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel” (7:14), fits this category. The next two verses make clear that the sign had a fulfillment in Isaiah’s own day (many scholars assume the child to be Isaiah’s own), and yet Matthew applies the prophecy’s final fulfillment to the Virgin Mary.
Biblical scholars have names for this common characteristic of the Prophets: double or triple fulfillment, part-for-the-whole, creative bisociation.
I believe that this prophetic device, admittedly confusing, offers an important glimpse into how God views history. The prophets, as “seers,” have insight into God’s perspective. And for a God who encompasses all time, sequence is the least important issue.
The Lamb, says the apostle Peter, “was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake.” In just such ways, God, a timeless reality, enters our time-bound history (as an artist would enter his own painting, suggests C. S. Lewis). Should we be surprised that incursions into time by a timeless Being would have overtones that resound in Isaiah’s day, and Mary’s, and also our own?
God arranged for prophetic visions to have meaning in Isaiah’s time as well as in the future. The prophesied birth of a child during the reign of King Ahaz confirmed Isaiah’s predictive ability, and thus gave evidence that Isaiah’s other, exalted prophecies of “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” would come to pass. Isaiah did not give a time frame for the final fulfillment of his prophecies—it is questionable whether he even understood such a time frame.
Almost all predictions had meaning for the original hearers as well as for us thousands of years later. The prophets told of a recreated heaven and Earth in order to demonstrate that history would be determined by the future—God’s future—and not by the present reality of suffering, chaos, and political upheaval. But to believe in such a lofty vision, their audience needed temporal evidence: events being worked out on schedule, according to prediction, in their own time, in the Now.
My own reading gradually changed as I began to see how the prophets themselves emphasized a flow from Later to Now. Formerly, I had studied the Prophets for clues into the future, the Much Later. Will there be a nuclear holocaust? Are we nearing the last days? But their real message should be affecting my Now. Do I trust in a loving, powerful God even in our chaotic century? Do I cling to God’s vision of peace and justice even when the church is often identified with war and oppression? Do I believe that God reigns, though this world shows little evidence of it?
Instinctively, we want to fly to the future. The prophets point us back to the present, but ask us to live in the light of the future they image up. Can we trust their vision and accept it as the true reality of Earth, despite all evidence to the contrary? Can we live Now “as if” God is loving, gracious, merciful, and all-powerful? The prophets remind us that indeed he is, and that history itself will one day bear that out. The World as It Is will become the World as God Wants It.
God’s Point Of View
The mixed-together time sequence—Now/Later/Much Later—hints at what I consider to be the chief contribution of the prophets: they give us God’s point of view. God granted them (and, through them, us) the extraordinary vision to see past this world, dominated as it is by great powers and larger-than-life tyrants, to a different level of reality.
The prophets present a kind of trifocal vision. Sometimes they render current events in the same style a daily newspaper would use: “The Philistines are amassing troops in the North.… A huge swarm of locusts is approaching our Southern borders.… Damascus is rumored to be joining a conspiracy against Assyria.” Portions of the Prophets (Isa. 36–39, for example) quote directly from historical books and record the day’s events in matter-of-fact prose.
Rarely did the prophets stop there, however. Much like medieval scops, who wrote songs to give meaning to each day’s events, the prophets interpreted the newspaper view of the world from a moral perspective. They saw military invasions and locust plagues not as mere natural occurrences, but rather as judgments of God. Such disasters inevitably follow when people exploit the poor, trample on the weak, and turn their backs on God. (Modern-day prophets serve this same function, as when Billy Graham relates the disruptions in U.S. society to a spiritual decline, or when Alexander Solzhenitsyn presents the massive suffering in twentieth-century Russia as a consequence of a society who forgot God.)
The moral view of history differs markedly from the newspaper view. In Isaiah’s day, for example, tyrants like Sennacherib and Sargon of Assyria dominated the headlines; history revolved around them, or so it seemed. When Assyrian armies steamrolled through Judah, everyone in the country cowered in fear—everyone but Isaiah, that is. With prescient moral vision, he scorned the Assyrian rulers as bit players, temporary tools that God would use and then toss aside. And he urged his people to put their faith in God alone.
Prophets like Isaiah had no more courage than ordinary people—their arguments with God prove that—but they did have a special vision, an insight into the “God within the shadows.” That vision cast history in a different light.
Who is really running the world? the Hebrew prophets asked. King Ahab or God? The Assyrian Empire or God? (Or, we might add, Reagan and Gorbachev or God?) With no weapon other than the sheer moral force of the spoken word, they stood against the powers of their day. And one of the great vindications of the prophets is that their predictions, which may have seemed ridiculous at the time, proved true. Assyria fell, as did Babylon, mighty Babylon.
Today, archeologists must dig through layers of earth to find any remnants of Babylonian culture. Nebuchadnezzar is a mere footnote of history. But the prophecies of Jeremiah and Daniel have been preserved and studied by millions around the world. And if the messages concerning Moab and Philistia and Israel and Assyria and Babylon proved true in precise detail, then what of their message about the end of all history?
Occasionally the Prophets add yet a third point of view to their newspaper and moral interpretations of the world. They pull aside a screen and permit a glimpse into the cosmic view of history. Daniel got a lesson about the cosmic point of view (chap. 10) when an angel explained that “the prince of the Persian kingdom” had delayed his response to Daniel’s prayer for three weeks. Zechariah and Ezekiel had numerous visions into “the history behind history,” and recorded them in scenes that have baffled scholars ever since.
The New Testament Book of the Revelation, however, offers the most vivid examples of the cosmic point of view. Consider Revelation 12, which surely ranks as one of the strangest chapters in the Bible. It tells of a pregnant woman clothed with the sun; and an enormous, seven-headed red dragon whose tail sweeps a third of the stars from the sky; and a flight into the desert; and a war in heaven. If you scour the commentaries, you will find as many interpretations of this chapter as you will commentators, but almost all of them say it has something to do with the Incarnation, and with the effect of Jesus’ birth on the universe.
In a sense, Revelation 12 presents the other side of Christmas. It adds a new set of holographic images to the familiar scenes of manger and shepherds and the slaughter of the innocents. What happened on Earth, and is recorded in Matthew and Luke, represented ripples on the surface; underneath, massive disruptions were shaking the foundations of the universe. From God’s viewpoint—and Satan’s—Christmas was far more than the birth of a baby; it was an invasion, the decisive advance in the great struggle for the cosmos.
Which is the true picture of Christmas: the account in the Gospels or that in Revelation? Is the enormous red dragon to be understood literally or “just” as a figure of speech? The phrasing itself gives us away. As C. S. Lewis and others remind us, mythic images are powerful carriers of truth. And when God really wanted to get through to his prophets, he gave them access to a cosmic point of view rich in mythic images.
Would it be too strong to say that the cosmic point of view most resembles the way God himself sees history? Let me explain. Most of us prefer a more literal, newspaper view. When we encounter cosmic images, such as in Revelation, we immediately try to explain them, to translate them into our own vocabulary of history. That is why the prophecy-conference speakers drape bed sheets across the platform and explain Daniel’s visions in terms of Jerusalem and Moscow and the European Economic Community. When given a glimpse of the cosmic point of view, we tend to translate it downward.
And yet, as the prophets tell us, the vicissitudes of history that so engage us—military alliances, who gets elected, the rise and fall of kingdoms—are merely the stage on which the real drama is being played out. The significant questions are not “How much territory does Nebuchadnezzar (or the Soviet Union) control?” but rather, “Is the kingdom of God advancing? Are God’s people staying faithful? Do we believe that God reigns?”
When a baby was born, the universe shuddered. When 72 disciples went on a short-term mission assignment (Luke 10), Satan fell like lightning from heaven. What happens here on Earth affects the future of the cosmos. From God’s point of view, the future has already been determined, and the prophets spell it out in glowing detail: swords beaten into plowshares, a lamb lying beside a lion, a banquet feast. That is what God wants for this Earth and that is what God will accomplish on this Earth. The end is settled. What remains is whether we will live believing it.
We cannot fully comprehend the cosmic point of view, and at times we all find ourselves overwhelmed by the crushing contradictions in our world. Like Job, like Habakkuk, like Jeremiah, we question God’s wisdom or his power or his love. Bound in time, we see history second by second, minute by minute, hour by hour. The Prophets call us beyond the fears and grim reality of present history to the view of all eternity, to a time when God’s reign will fill the Earth with light and truth.
Would it make a difference for blacks in South Africa or urban America, or for Christians in Iran, to know truly how God feels about their plight? Would it make a difference for any of us to know that God is indeed a God of justice and peace and hope, no matter how this world looks? The prophets call us to that vision of a deeper, underlying reality, toward (Tolkien’s phrase) “joy beyond the walls of the world, more poignant than grief.”
When you live time-bound in a world like ours, it takes faith to believe God’s view of history as presented in Isaiah 25 and 65 or Revelation 21–22. Faith, according to Hebrews 11, consists in “being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” The faithful ones described in that great chapter did not receive the things promised (v. 13), yet were still living by faith when they died.
I identify with the men and women of Hebrews 11. So far in my lifetime, swords are not being beaten into plowshares. Death, with all its ugly new mutations of AIDS and radiation-based cancers, is still swallowing people up, not being swallowed. Evil, not good, appears triumphant.
In strange, complex images, the prophets present a wholly different view of the world. They offer hope, and something else: they offer a challenge for us to live out the World as God Wants It in this life, right now. In settlements of God’s kingdom, we can participate in the great struggle that will someday usher in a new heaven and new Earth.
We may never figure out the toes and horns of Daniel’s beasts, or the intricacies of Revelation 12. But if only we could believe that our struggle really is against principalities and powers, if only we could believe that God will prove himself trustworthy and set right all that is wrong, if only we could demonstrate God’s passion for justice and truth in this world—then, I think, the prophets will have accomplished their most urgent mission.
I confess that, despite long hours of study in the Prophets, I have no clearer understanding of what will happen next year, or in the year 1999. But I have a much clearer idea of what God wants to accomplish in my life right now. And I am gaining, gradually, the faith to believe in the present what will only fully make sense when seen from the future.
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