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Friday, August 17, 2012

Those Strange Prophecy Books

Those Strange Prophecy Books

A friend of ours was recently complaining about the problem he has understanding the Old Testament.  But more than anything our friend doesn’t like reading the books written by those strange confusing Old Testament prophets.  He has gotten discouraged and just doesn’t read those old prophecy books anymore.   Aren’t they outdated? And anyway they don’t make sense, he says.

There are seventeen books of prophecy in the Bible, not counting Daniel and our friend is correct.  They are all confusing and strange. The books of prophecy are Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentation, Ezekiel, (Daniel – not counted as a prophecy book in the Jewish Bible), Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi and Revelation.  Even though we most likely can never fully understand them, they are part of Gods’ Holy Word.  Surely if we prayerfully read them our eyes will be opened to seeing our world from a different perspective, a different level of reality.   

Our friend thinks that maybe those old prophets are outdated.  But the same problems those ancient prophets railed against thousands of years ago are still with us today. Injustice, war, suffering, the rich getting richer and the poor disenfranchised, natural disasters, depravity, and it seemed that through it all God remained silent!   The prophet Habakkuk wrote: “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?  And why do you tolerate wrong?”   (Habakkuk 1:2)

To the prophets (and to us) sometimes it seems as if God is far removed from it all!  During the time that God spoke through the prophets, powerful godless nations surrounded Israel and were threatening to destroy the nation and take the Israelites captive.  And where was God?

 But some things never change. We have the same fears and problems that the prophets wrote about.  And we are asking the same questions today that those prophets asked back then. Why does a powerful and loving God put up with such a screwed up world?  Why are evil nations allowed to prosper?  Where are all of the miracles?  The signs and wonders?  Why do bad things happen to good people? Why? 

When evil seemed to be taking over and pushing out all the good, the prophets would beg God to come down and wipe out the bad folks.  Why didn’t God just arrive in power and perform miracles like He had back in the days of Moses?  God had jumped in and taken care of things back then?  And you would think that the Israelites would have followed Him when they could see Him there with them in power and might.  It would be easy to obey God when He was performing miracle after miracle for them. But Scripture says that amazingly Israel had responded to God’s power and miracles with stubborn rebellion. So now God was doing a new thing.  He was not performing as many miracles as before but He was calling His people to follow Him through the word of the prophets.  God was choosing to use the power of His word to change His people.  And we today grow and change when we read His Word.        

Many people today are interested in reading Biblical prophecy for just one reason -to predict what will happen in the future.  But one of the best reasons for studying the prophecy books is to get to know God.  Phillip Yancey in his book, The Bible Jesus Reads on p. 175-176 writes: “Imagine a biographer stumbling across seventeen long letters from Abraham Lincoln addressed to his wife, his generals, and his secretary of state, revealing his innermost thoughts during the crisis times of the Civil War.  Some of the letters would cover the same ground, of course, but using different words and tone depending on when he wrote them and to whom.  Historians would dissect every fragment for insight into the inner workings of President Abraham Lincoln.  Why did he make this decision and not that one, act here and not there?” 

Like a historian could teach us a lot about the personality of Mr. Lincoln by studying his many letters, the ancient prophets offer such a window into the mind of God, since God has opened up and shared His feelings with them. They record God’s reactions to His beloved humans when we love Him as well as when we reject Him. These seventeen prophecy books reveal so much of God’s personality. 

In the prophets, God talks back.  And when we read the prophecy books in the Bible we encounter a passionate God with deep feelings. He feels frustration and anger, heartbreak, delight and love. He moans and weeps with disappointment and grief and is shocked with the behavior of human beings.  But the main message we take away from the prophets is that God loves human beings.  He passionately desires us.  We matter to God.  He is personally and intimately involved with His people.

 That is why He can get so angry with us.  Philip Yancey writes on p.177: “Abraham Heschel, one of the best Jewish interpreters of the prophets says, ‘It is staggering and hardly compatible with any rational approach to the understanding of God, that the Creator of heaven and earth should care about how an obscure individual man behaves toward poor widows and orphans.’  Yet God does, and the prophets bear out that concern.”

God had blessed Israel and given them the desires of their hearts.  But most of the Israelites had turned from God to worshiping and sacrificing to idols.  The Jewish nation had stopped taking care of the poor and sick within their gates.  God was angry and brokenhearted at the same time since He loved these people so much.  He asked the prophet Hosea to act out a drama.  Maybe when the Israelites could see Hosea playing out the role of the jilted lover, then maybe they would finally understand just how bad God felt about the way they had treated Him!

God asks Hosea to marry a prostitute named Gomer.  Hosea obeys God and marries Gomer and they have three children.  But then Gomer leaves Hosea for another man.  And after that she works as a prostitute along with having sex with anyone she can seduce. God speaks to Hosea again and tells him this:  “Go show your love to your wife again, though she is loved by another and is an adulteress.  Love her as the Lord loves the Israelites, though they turn to other gods….”    Here in the book of Hosea we find that God cares so much about His people that when they throw Him away and give themselves to another, He is brokenhearted and goes after them anyway hoping to bring them back.  We discover that we worship a God who loves us crazily and unconditionally.

Yancey p. 178 writes:  “God uses these examples and many others, all told with striking 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.”

Perhaps one of the reasons that the prophecy books are confusing to us is because they offer a glimpse into how God views history.  The prophets are allowed to see things that the rest of us cannot see.  The words in their books are written from God’s perspective and God lives outside the constraints of time. 

Phillip Yancey in his book, The Bible Jesus Read, p. 182 writes that often the prophets insights are roughly divided into three categories:  1) Now: prophecies that relate primarily to the prophet’s own day.  (Assyria will invade Moab, Egypt will help Israel, etc)   2) Later:  predictions of future events well removed from the prophet’s own time but later fulfilled in history (Jesus coming as Messiah) and 3) Much Later: prophecies that will come at the end of the age – (future mass conversion of the Jews, worldwide tribulation, Jesus coming again)   Many of the prophecies apply to not just one time frame but several.  Remember God lives outside of time. 

Yancey writes on p185: “The prophets project forward in time to a period when God will break His silence.  In that day, they tell us, God will move in forcefully to recreate heaven and earth.  He will swallow up death and dry all tears.  There will be no more poverty, or hunger, or violence.  A banquet feast will be spread and we will know God face to face, and all earth will serve Him.  …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.”

Yancey asks:  “Do I trust in a loving, powerful God even in our chaotic century?  Can I cling to God’s vision of peace and justice even when the Church is often identified with war and oppression?  Do we believe that God reigns, even though this world shows little evidence of it?  Like a bell tolling from another world, the prophets proclaim that no matter how things now appear, there is no future in evil, only in good.” Can we be encouraged to struggle on in this present troubled time by looking forward to the bright eternal and sinless future that God promises?  Does the shining hope of the future strengthen our faith now in the present?

When you and I live, time-bound in a world like ours, it takes faith to believe God’s view of history as presented by the prophets.  Can we do it?   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 truth and light.  The end is settled.  All that remains is whether we will live believing it.

Many of these ideas were taken from Phillip Yancey’s book  The Bible Jesus Read.   




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