Yesterday our Elder, Jonathan concluded our “Getting the most out of your Bible Series” with a teaching on Understanding the OT Prophets. Without properly considering the historical context of when a given prophet was active, it is very easy to come away with a view of God and prophecy that is not reflective of reality. By considering when and where prophets were active in the Ancient Near East, we can gain a greater perspective on what the prophet is addressing, and on the character of God. There are three major time periods in which the prophets were called: 1. Pre-Exilic Israel/Judah 2. Exilic Judah 3. Post-Exilic Judah. Today, we will just briefly mention these periods to develop a surface understanding of the tones in which the prophets spoke.
Israel was governed under a united monarchy from 1052BC-931BC. After the death of Solomon, Rehoboam became king in 930BC. It was under Rehoboam’s foolish leadership that the country was divided into two kingdoms. The 10 Northern Tribes then comprised the Kingdom of Israel. The 2 Southern Tribes comprised the Kingdom of Judah.
Israel was a kingdom until 722BC when the Assyrian Empire conquered them and exiled the inhabitants throughout their empire. The tribes of Israel never recovered from this. Their tribal identities are now lost to history. Elijah, Joel, Isaiah, Amos, Jonah, and Micha all prophesied while Israel was a Kingdom. In the prophets’ words that address the Kingdom of Israel, we often hear harsh tones. This is where we may walk away thinking “The God of the Old Testament is angry and vindictive.” Yet nothing could be further from the truth. We have these assumptions for 2 reasons. 1. We don’t rightly understand covenants. 2. We don’t rightly understand justice on a corporate level.
- Israel/Judah broke their covenant with God. From the establishment of the Sinai covenant, there were very defined parameters that determined the relationship between the Israelites and Yahweh. The biggest stipulations dealt with protecting the innocent and removing the wicked. Both of which Israel refused to do for centuries. This leads us to reason number 2.
- We don’t understand corporate justice. Westerners mostly live in an individualist society. In most cases, our culture dictates a criminal is only guilty for his own crimes. Believe it or not, that is a New Covenant Concept. In fact, many societies around the world, both historic and current, operate by an honor/shame culture. That is why honor killings in Islam are allowable in Islamic states. That is one of the reasons why Japan has one of the highest suicide rates. To not do well. To not excel and meet one’s parents’ expectations endangers the honor of the family. For those struggling, it is often too much of a burden to bear when they don’t perform as expected.
Add to that the horrendous violations of human rights the Israelites/Judahites were committing on a regular basis, and you have a recipe for God to mete out justice.
We hear, “God told armies to wipe our man, woman, child, and beast.”
We don’t hear that entire nation had a habit of burning babies alive in fires to please their gods.
We hear, “God is harsh toward Israel.”
We don’t hear Israel/Judah also burned their babies alive to a god named Molech.
We hear, “God is set on punishing Israel/Judah excessively.”
We don’t hear that the poor are having their property taken away from them by the rich, with no hope of getting it back–enforcing slavery.
When we read the pre-exilic prophets, we do well to keep in mind how vile and toxic Israel had really become. Something had to be done to stop the burning of innocent babies, the enslavement of fellow Israelites who fell on hard times, the bartering and trading of women as a luxurious commodity and status symbol. There is a lot to consider when looking at the harsh words of these prophets.
By 722BC, The kingdom of Israel had repeatedly snubbed God’s command to honor and protect all human life as a national entity. Until 722, there were warnings after warnings that God would enforce the consequences of rejecting His covenant.
Many of the Judahite kings followed suit with Israel. After 722BC, God raised up more prophets to speak to Judah, warning them not to follow in the footsteps of Israel. Some kings listened, some kings didn’t. It was the righteous kings in Judah that helped preserve the kingdom a bit longer.Zephaniah and Habbakuk were two of the prophetic messengers that warned Judah.
Eventually, Judah hit a point of no return under the reign of Manasseh, son of Hezekiah. So Judah was sent into exile in 586BC by the Babylonians. During the 70ish years of exile, Daniel, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Obadiah began to prophesy a message different from their predecessors. These prophets brought a message of hope and restoration. Their message is that God has not forgotten them. Though they are chastised for a while, they will be restored. God will set up a New and more enduring covenant that will fulfill all the other covenants.
As we mentioned, Israel was lost to history. Yet God preserved Judah for the sake of David. It was under Cyrus, King of Persia (538-444BC), that Judah was allowed to start moving back into their homeland. Spearheaded by leaders such as Nehemiah and Ezra, there was a hope for restoration. During the rebuilding phase, we get our final group of prophets declaring a future for Judah. Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi are the late era prophets that begin declaring God’s plan to restored Judah. Malachi is the last prophet of Judah until John the Baptist comes on the scene 400 years later.
Making Sense of the Prophet’s Messages
As you can see, each time period the prophets lived in had its own set of issues. The prophets were called to address very serious and very real behaviors committed by Israel and Judah. It would be unwise to look at the messages from the prophets to Israel/Judah and make a one-to-one correlation with our societies today. One of the major reasons for that is our day in age is covered and built upon the New Covenant. Many of the old covenant stipulations don’t apply, though the heart and principles do (all life is still sacred, the poor and weak need looking after, etc).
Getting the most out of the Prophets in the OT has very little to do with personal action points (i.e. do this and you will prosper). But rather seeing the dangers of hardening our hearts toward the things of God. When we understand the words of these prophets are coming from a God that loves us and has great things stored up for us in eternity, we allow ourselves to be compelled by His gracious call to walk with Him, act like Him, and see the world as He sees it. He wanted the best for Israel. He wants the best for His Church. By reading the prophets, we can come away with a sense of God’s heart to make us the best versions of ourselves, and what will hinder that.
I hope this post has encouraged you to read and understand the prophets in deeper, more loving way. As with all these pastor posts, May it help you create an environment where others can experience God’s