- Written by Zac Klassen Zac Klassen
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Windows into the Word:
Peril and Promise, Judgment and Hope: Windows into the life of the Prophets and into our world
The last two Sundays we have covered large swaths of scripture in order to review and gain new insights into the Bible – this vast library of ancient texts whose dynamic life and relevance continues to speak God’s word to us today. Two Sundays ago, Wendy introduced us to the section of scripture called “Torah,” the first five books of the bible in which we hear and receive the instruction of God, given to the people Israel as a Gift and a promise which, by grace, we Gentiles too have been given. This Torah is not simply filled with Laws, as Wendy showed us, but filled with stories which demonstrate that “God is a covenant-making God who relentlessly loves and cares for all people and all creation.” Last Sunday Mark introduced us to the group of books spanning from Joshua to Esther which the Church calls “History.” Mark pointed out that these books represent Israel’s attempt at telling their collective story, of making meaning out of the past so as to shape the present and the future. Mark also helped us see how Israel’s telling of its story in those books, and our use of these stories to tell our own stories, is by no means a “neutral” or “uninterested” task. Rather, telling our stories is a highly creative and interpretive exercise which inevitably carries with it great promise and potential peril. This task carries with it great promise because we can tell our story in such a way as to encourage trust in God’s promises and faithfulness to God’s instruction. But this task also carries with it potential peril because we can and often do tell our story in such a way as to legitimize our own privilege, to stigmatize the “other,” and to treat what has been given as a gift as if it were our possession to do with as we please.
As we turn today to look at the section of scripture we call “the Prophets,” there are few words that could sum up better the message these provocative figures give to the people of God than “promise and peril.” Or, perhaps better to switch the order around and say that the prophets usually begin with describing the peril ahead and then the promise to come. Prophets often begin by announcing the judgment of God upon the people, and often this judgment includes a vision of dire consequences that will come as a result of abandoning the covenant with God. So, the prophets begin with peril and only then do they begin to envision the promise, the expected hope. We heard of this peril and promise already this morning in the reading of the scriptures: the LORD appoints prophets to “destroy and overthrow” but also to “build and plant.” Prophets tell of swords scattered on war-torn fields, but they also witness to a time when ploughshares will work a new abundance on the land. They speak truthfully about broken covenants, but point hopefully toward new or renewed covenants. Today, as we listen for the voice of the prophets, might we imagine these windows here before us to represent both “peril” and “promise” or “judgment” and “hope,” as uncomfortable as it might be to look through both two together without privileging one over the other.
Before looking at some specific prophetic figures, a little refresher on the prophetic books and the genre of prophetic literature that we find in the bible will help orient us. Sometimes the prophets are (perhaps misleadingly) divided into two categories, namely, the major prophets and the minor prophets. The major and minor division are not meant to indicate that the “major” prophets have a more important message than the “minor,” but are really only an indication of the size of the book. For major prophets we have four figures who have their books named after them: Isaiah and Jeremiah (whom tradition also attributes the writing of the book of Lamentations), and then Ezekiel, and Daniel. There are twelve minor prophets: Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. This last prophet, Malachi, appears as the last book in the Church’s Old Testament, and this is significant. You might remember how Mark noted last week that the very last verse of Scripture in the ordering of the Jewish Bible is 2 Chronicles 36:22, which speaks a message of hope and liberty for Jewish exiles – a new start in Jerusalem, in the land. Malachi, on the contrary, ends not with the promise of new hope in the present but of a coming time when the Lord “will send…the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes.” This, the very last verse in the Christian Old Testament, looks forward to that day when this “Elijah” figure “will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse [herem, utter destruction].” (Malachi 4:6) It is little wonder that the earliest disciples of Jesus read this ending of Malachi as a prophetic word about John the Baptist, an Elijah figure who we read about in the Gospels, who preached repentance and so made a path in the desert for the coming of the day of the Lord in his servant Jesus.
So, we’ve reviewed the names of the Prophets, but where do we find them and what were they up to? Have you ever been in a big city and encountered a self-proclaimed prophet? Usually they are standing on the street corner, likely with a sign in their hands describing a list of societal sins and coming judgment on the people, perhaps even shouting such judgment out. I can vividly remember several of these encounters over the last few years, and I have to confess that in each instance I experienced two conflicting reactions: first, my instinct is to self-righteously say, “what a wacko. Doesn’t this person know that the issue they are complaining about is so much more complicated and that pronouncing judgment on the street corner is only going to turn people off?” At the same time, however, I can never escape the feeling, even if I do disagree with the message being uttered and tactics being used, that perhaps what this person is doing is not unlike what the biblical prophets would have also done. There is little question that the biblical prophets appeared in public, were interruptive of the status quo, brought an unpopular message, and often did so in a way that subverts the regular bureaucratic channels. Perhaps more than anything we can see how these street-corner prophets awaken us to the importance of interruptive voices in our society – voices that are willing to publicly challenge the people to a better way.
We do well, of course, not to equate biblical prophets too easily with the street-corner versions of today. For one, the speeches of the biblical prophets are often quite a bit more poetic and imaginative. The biblical prophets often like to tell stories or even sing songs to get their message apart, perhaps not entirely unlike Jesus’ use of parables in the New Testament. A great example of this comes from the “Song of the Vineyard” found in Isaiah 5:1-7. There God speaks through Isaiah saying: “Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.…And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down…For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!” – This is certainly no mushy love song!
Beyond story and song, though, the biblical prophets often accompany their speeches with vivid symbolic acts, such as when Ezekiel laid down on his left side and then his right side for an inordinate amount of time to both physically bear and symbolically represent the punishment of Israel and Judah for their unfaithfulness (Ezekiel 4). Keeping all of the different performative dimensions to the prophetic vocation in mind as we look at the prophets will help us distinguish the vocation of the biblical prophets from a misconception of the role of a prophet as a mere predictor of the inevitable future. The prophets of scripture, while at times no doubt offering predictions, by no means want simply to predict the future. Rather, the prophets, under the inspiration of God, wish to shape the present and even to change what seems to be the inevitable future outcome of events. For this reason, I wonder if we might not see the prophetic voice at work in a great variety of different kinds mediums in our world today: music, art, theatre, political protests, all could potentially function as examples of performative prophecy; prophecy that speaks and shows forth the truth of a situation with the desire to see it named and reality transformed according to God’s purpose.
One of the great and familiar examples of prophecy as a word that is meant to change the outcome of the future comes from the story of Jonah where his prophetic word to the Ninevites, a Gentile nation, actually succeeds (much to the chagrin of Jonah) to turn the hearts of the Ninevites to the LORD. From Jonah we learn that prophets are given the vision to see the peril ahead for a community if it continues to abandon God’s law and at the same time, the promise ahead for the community as it renews its relationship to God.
Of course, sometimes the prophet’s word does not succeed in changing the outcome of a people’s disobedience. While in Jonah’s case his prophetic word helped the Ninevites repent of their sins, in the case of someone like Jeremiah, it slowly becomes apparent that a punishment of the people will occur, that no amount of warning will do, and that they will finally be exiled from the land that they live in and brought under foreign rule. Even in the case of Jeremiah, though, this punishment in the form of exile is not the last word, and there is talk of a “new-covenant” and a return to the land in the future.
Here again we see this double-aspect to the prophetic task: peril and promise; judgment and hope. From these brief examples we begin to see the unique role the prophet plays in the covenant community. Biblical scholar Walter Bruggemann sums up well all that we’ve been talking about so far: “prophets…reimagine the human process according to the holy purposes of God, which sometimes functions as criticism and sometimes functions as enormous buoyancy in a situation of defeat and despair.” (Like Fire in the Bones, 208.)
With this definition of the prophetic task in mind, it is much easier to see why the message of the prophets given “back then” has continued to matter to communities throughout the centuries up to today. Each new generation needs to hear and yes, indeed, also speak the prophetic voice in order to “reimagine the human process according to the holy purposes of God.” Each new generation needs to be exposed to the many critiques uttered by the prophets as well as the many visions of a hopeful future that they offer. While we’ve reviewed some of these critiques and hopeful visions already, we do well to review some more in detail.
First, we might note the prophetic critique that calls for greater devotion to God alone; that worship to God carries with it a certain element of exclusivity. This exclusivity rules out any devotion to idols – those objects of our desire that pretend to offer a better source of security and well-being than life in the covenant with God. Early on in Isaiah, he calls out King Ahaz for bringing in Assyrian aspect of worship into the Jerusalem temple. Isaiah is not upset with Ahaz just because of this act alone, however, but because of the motive behind it. Ahaz decided, in spite of Isaiah’s call to trust God, to trust in a political alliance with Assyria (Isaiah 7, 2 Kgs 16:7-8) and such an alliance carried with it the need to “honour” the God’s of his political ally. Here idolatry is shown in its inevitable political dimensions. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel are all prophets, however, who champion the cause of drawing Israel and Judah back into singular devotion to God, and at great personal risk they refuse to capitulate to any kind of worship of another God and all that such worship might entail. These prophets often speak of a jealous God to whom glory and praise are to be given exclusively (Isaiah 42:8). Hearing this prophetic critique should cause us to ask: “What are our idols today, and how have we transferred glory and praise to them instead of God? How have we come to rely more on them for security and well-being than God?”
Second, we should note the prophetic critique that we find in figures like Amos, through whom God declares hatred for religious “festivals” and “solemn assemblies” and demands righteousness and justice. The prophets, in other words, ask not only for a purity in worship of one God alone, but they also bring us face to face with the possibility that our very worship might be itself a kind of idol – a false God. The prophetic corrective is not to call for the abandonment of solemn assemblies, but to ask us whether our worship of God includes our welcoming and caring for the widow, the poor, the “other” among us (Isa. 1:16-17). Each new generation needs to submit their worship to this litmus test, asking if Amos’ words are timely for us. It certainly is not an easy prospect to consider, and it would no doubt be painful to hear that “the noise of our songs” and our harmonies stand under the judgment of the God who asks that we “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream (Amos 5:21, 23-24).
While these prophets offer biting critiques and present us with a picture of a jealous God, they also speak words of promise grounded in the mercy and forgiveness of God, and here we begin to see more clearly the hopeful vision that follows the judgment of the prophets. First, we should note that for the prophet’s, hope is never lost because the LORD is a God who will deliver his people from both their sins and their exile under foreign rule. This is the faithful God of covenant who, in spite of all the unfaithfulness of the people, will be faithful and will restore not only the hearts of people, but also their well-being in the land. This comes out powerfully in the vision of the Dry Bones in Ezekiel (Ezek. 37) where the LORD brings Ezekiel to a valley filled with dry bones and tells him to prophesy to them so that they may live. It becomes apparent that “these bones are the whole house of Israel” and they represent the total loss of hope Israel is facing in exile. But Ezekiel is told to prophesy to the bones, speaking the word of the LORD: “I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the LORD, have spoken and will act, says the LORD."
Ezekiel’s vision of resurrection teaches us that exile, and all of the horrors that come with it, will not be the last word. We do well to remember this as we ponder the significance of the prophets today. There can be little question that the prophets envision a world in which the very reality of exile, both for Israel and for the nations, would be overcome and that a universal peace would be established. I have been very struck lately, in the wake of the most recent horrors coming out of Myanmar and the extreme violence being perpetrated against Rohingya Muslims, to consider what the prophetic voice has to say to the Church today about the vast human tragedy of forced migration around the world. Of course, there are many complicated reasons for forced migration and in each specific case there are usually a number of extenuating factors including political, social, religious, or economic reasons. But these circumstances are really nothing new – the conflicts that humans faced in the days of the prophets and the conflicts we face today may have changed in form, but many of the basic reasons for the conflicts remain. The reality is that such conflicts displace people, now as they did then, and it is not a stretch to say that the displacement of peoples results from broken human processes that are in desperate need of repair and healing.
The prophets help us see a way through these immense conflicts and human tragedies through the vision they give of a new world. An example of this new world came out in the scriptures from Isaiah that were read for today. There we see the LORD come among the people as a judge and an “arbitrator” among the nations, as one who gives instruction to all so that they may make war no longer. In the context of ethnic, social, economic, and religious conflict, we long for such arbitration, and if we take up the prophetic imagination, perhaps we can begin to imagine ourselves as being addressed by the LORD, the great arbitrator. What is being asked of us? Surely at a bare minimum we are being asked to act “justly one with another…not oppress[ing] the alien, the orphan, and the widow…” (Jeremiah 7:5-6) and we are being asked to find alternatives to shedding blood. These basic, but difficult, steps are enough to help us begin to live into the kind of world the prophets envision. In light of the prophet’s message of peril and promise, of judgment and hope, would that we might leave today, gifted with a discerning mind to consider and a clear vision to see what the peril and the promise of our own community and our own world is. And would that we might allow that knowledge and vision that assist us in reimagining the human process according to the holy purposes of God, that we may join in God’s movement of healing the world.