The writing prophets can be classified as pre-exilic, exilic and post-exilic, depending on when they ministered with respect to the (Babylonian) Exile. While the focus of their ministry was the nation of Israel they did address foreign nations. Our concern here is to consider the basic teachings of the Prophetic Books taken as a whole, which contribute significantly to our understanding of the meaning of history.
The task of prophetic ministry may be accomplished through miracles, but mostly through prophecy, which may be accompanied by symbolic actions. A prophecy is an inspired speech based on direct revelation from God, usually received through dreams and visions (Numbers 12:6). It may be forth-telling (speaking forth God’s word into a current situation), or fore-telling (predicting or revealing the future). And it is often expressed through poetry to appeal to the imagination and emotion to shape perception; even when expressed through prose it is often filled with imageries for the same reason.
The most important perception the prophets seek to nurture, nourish and evoke is summarized in Jeremiah 9:23-24:
Thus says the LORD, “Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast of his might, let not the rich man boast of his riches; but let him who boasts boast of this, that he understands and knows Me, that I am the LORD who exercises unfailing love, justice and righteousness in the earth; for I delight in these things,” declares the LORD.
To really perceive who God is and what He delights in, we need to clearly perceive what God hates, which is sin expressed through injustice and unrighteousness. For the more we perceive how deeply God hates these things and at the same time perceive how readily He forgives sinners who repent, the more we perceive the breadth and depth of God’s unfailing love, expressed through His mercy and grace.
The prophets were particularly suited for the task of the prophetic ministry. According to Abraham Heschel (2001), “the significance of Israel’s prophets lies not only in what they said but also in what they were” (xxi). They were human beings exceptionally sensitive to evil: “The things that horrified the prophets are even now daily occurrences all over the world. … To us a single act of injustice—cheating in business, exploitation of the poor—is slight; to the prophets, a disaster. To us injustice is injurious to the welfare of the people; to the prophets it is a deathblow to existence; to us, an episode; to them, a catastrophe, a threat to the world” (3-4).
For instance, Ezekiel considers an injustice like charging interest on a loan to a needy neighbor as “bloodshed” (Ezekiel 22:1-7, 12). Is this a case of exaggeration through poetic license? Ezekiel is here speaking in prose and not poetry to begin with. “What seems to be exaggeration is often only a deeper penetration, for the prophets see the world from the point of view of God, as transcendent, not immanent truth” (17). Thus the prophets see as God sees.
They themselves have this perception of injustice because “the fundamental experience of the prophet is a fellowship with the feelings of God, a sympathy with the divine pathos, a communion with the divine consciousness which comes about through the prophet’s reflection of, or participation in, the divine pathos” (31). Thus they feel as God feels and so speak as God speaks. So "In speaking, the prophet reveals God. This is the marvel of a prophet’s work: in his words, the invisible God becomes audible” (27).
Therefore through the words of the prophets we hear the voice of the living God. As a result we not only sense how God feels about injustice but also how He feels for the victims (and so seeks justice for them) as well as the perpetrators (and so extends mercy to them).
The basic message of the prophets can be summed up in two categories: condemnation through forth-telling by enforcing the Mosaic Covenant (in the case of Israel) as well as the Noahic Covenant (in the case of the nations); and consolation through fore-telling of future blessings on the basis of the Abrahamic and Davidic Covenants (for both Israel and the nations). Though our focus is on prophetic consolation, we also need to consider prophetic condemnation as both contribute to the meaning of history.
Enforcing the Mosaic Covenant
As for Israel, when the king or the nation violated the Mosaic Law and refused to repent, the prophets through their inspired preaching would hold them accountable to the Mosaic Covenant. The condemnation not only expressed how God felt about His people and their disobedience but also often involved reminding them of the consequence God had warned them before through Moses: they would be exiled for refusing to repent even after experiencing a series of lesser calamities intended to goad them into doing so. This condemnation climaxed into an outright prediction of exile.
Even a century before the Exile God expressed through Isaiah His utter disappointment with His people by contrasting them with an ox and a donkey, which are considered dumb animals (Isaiah 1:2-3). For unlike these animals, which recognize their owner as master, God’s people rebelled against God their Master. This shows that even an ox or a donkey was smarter than them, for unlike these animals they did not understand that their welfare depended on God.
This disappointment came to a head when God described the rebellious nation as a vineyard planted with the best seeds on the best land and given the best care but yet produced worthless grapes (Isaiah 5:1-7). Nothing can be done to such a vineyard except to destroy it: “Therefore My people go into exile for their lack of knowledge” (Isaiah 5:13). It was by the mercy of God that the nation lasted another century.
Israel rebelled against God by violating the Ten Commandments (and refusing to repent), which means, they failed to love God with all their heart and did not love their neighbor as themselves.
The most conspicuous expression of this lack of love for God was their worshipping the foreign gods in the form of idols. Not long before the Exile God expressed through Jeremiah how sorry He felt for them: “They have forsaken Me, The fountain of living waters, To hew for themselves cisterns, Broken cisterns, That can hold no water” (Jeremiah 2:13). They forsook God, the spring or source of fresh water for idols that they themselves made, which proved to be broken cisterns that could not even hold stale water. What a pitiful contrast!
The most conspicuous expression of the lack of love for their neighbor is that the rulers, called to uphold justice, were oppressing the people. How God felt about injustice is best expressed through Micah, a contemporary of Isaiah. He considers unjust rulers as horrifying as cannibals: “Who tear off their skin from them, And their flesh from their bones, … And chop them up as for the pot, And as meat in a kettle” (Micah 3:1-3). Equating injustice with mere bloodshed (as in Ezekiel 22:1-7, 12) was thus relatively mild.
Though they had forsaken God for the idols and were unrepentant in perpetrating injustice, they had not, and would not, forsake the Temple and its services. They would even trust in the very existence of the Temple in their midst, apart from its services, to save them from disaster (Jeremiah 7:4). And God explicitly said through Isaiah that He rejected even their sacrifices offered at the Temple because they were unrepentant, insisting that they should first “Learn to do good; Seek justice, Reprove the ruthless; Defend the orphan, Plead for the widow” (Isaiah 1:10-17; cf. Amos 5:21-24).
In other words they treated the Temple and its services like they did the idols, as though these had intrinsic efficacy or magical powers to serve their interests. Hence in practice they had become polytheists. God warned them that He would allow them to remain in the Promised Land only if they repented from their idolatry and injustice, and that otherwise He would even do to the Temple (destroy it) like what He did to the Tabernacle at Shiloh because of the wickedness of the people then (Jeremiah 7:5-15).
However even after King Jehoiachin and most of the leaders had already been taken into exile to Babylon in 597 BC, there were false prophets both in Jerusalem and Babylon assuring the people that the disaster God had warned them through the (true) prophets would not happen; it was even predicted that those taken into exile to Babylon would return within two years (Jeremiah 28:1-4; cf. 29:15-20).
So Jeremiah wrote a letter to those already exiled telling them that they would be there for seventy years, adding that when the Exile had done its redemptive work on them they would repent and seek God with “all your heart,” which means, seek God and God only (Jeremiah 29:10-14), and not God plus the foreign gods (1 Samuel 7:3).
For only then would God be found by them and would bring them back from exile and restore their fortunes. For when they sought God plus the idols, the “God” that they had in mind was not the all-wise, all-powerful and all-loving God. If their faith was in the all-sufficient God of the Bible they would see no need to worship anything else. This was why their worship of “God” was in practice actually worship of the Temple and its services. The Exile was thus needed to change their perception of God to give them a future and a hope. Hence God’s plan, though it involved calamity, was not for calamity but for welfare (Jeremiah 29:11).
However it was not easy for God’s people to accept the Exile. Even the prophet Habakkuk, who had complained about God not punishing His people for committing “violence” (injustice), objected to God’s plan of using the Babylonians (a more wicked people) to discipline His people (a less wicked people). In His response God said, “the righteous will live by his faith” (Habakkuk 2:4b). This statement, as it stands, is pregnant with meaning and can be understood in different ways in different contexts.
In its original context it implies that Habakkuk and those like him who were righteous would and should continue to trust in God and so submit to Him and His plan, recognizing that God is all-wise (He will not use such a plan unless necessary), all-powerful (His plan will accomplish His purpose), as well as all-loving (His purpose is for welfare). As for Habakkuk he submitted to God and His will by confessing that though the impending disaster should come, “Yet I will exult in the LORD, I will rejoice in the God of my salvation” (Habakkuk 3:18).
However, the fact that the Hebrew word translated “faith” in Habakkuk 2:4b can also mean “faithfulness” reminds us that faith in God and faithfulness to God (righteousness) are inseparable. That is why God could reckon Abraham’s faith as righteousness (Genesis 15:6). Hence the statement, “the righteous will live by his faith,” can mean that one who lives by faith is already righteous—a righteousness that comes from faith (Galatians 3:6,11). Or it can mean one who is righteous will then live by faith—a righteousness that leads to faith (Habakkuk 2:4b; Hebrews 10:38). It can even mean a combination of both—a righteousness that is “from faith to faith” (Romans 1:17; cf. Robertson 1990: 181-182).
Ezekiel was one of those who were taken into exile to Babylon together with King Jehoiachin. While Jeremiah was ministering in Jerusalem until the eventual fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple in 586 BC, Ezekiel was ministering to fellow exiles in Babylon. Besides preparing the exiles for the fall of Jerusalem, Ezekiel also prepared them for the destruction of the Temple. For God gave Ezekiel a remarkable vision to be shared with the exiles. God revealed to him the blatant idolatry shamelessly practiced within the Temple itself, and how the Glory of God would depart from the Temple as a consequence (Ezekiel 8:1-6; 9:3; 10:18-19; 11:22-23).
The vision graphically signaled that the Temple was going to be destroyed—God had abandoned it and thus would not defend it. And when the Temple was destroyed after Jerusalem fell, it exposed the fallacy of their polytheistic trust in the Temple as a talisman—without God’s presence the Temple was just another building, which had no intrinsic power to protect itself, let alone the city.
There were at least two occasions when elders came to Ezekiel to inquire from God, but God refused to be inquired by them because they had set up “idols in their heart” (Ezekiel 14:1-3; 20:1-3). God had said that He would be found by them only when they searched for Him with “all your heart” (Jeremiah 29:13), which could not be the case when they had idols in their heart. They were still rebellious, “who have eyes to see but do not see, ears to hear but do not hear” (Ezekiel 12:1-2). The redemptive work of the Exile on their heart might not even have begun, as Jerusalem had not yet fallen and the Temple was not yet destroyed.
The experience of these elders was a form of the “famine … of the hearing of the words of the LORD” that Amos prophesied in reference to the impending fall of the Northern Kingdom to the Assyrians and the people exiled to Assyria (Amos 8:11). When people need to make sense of their life, especially after a tragic experience, they need to hear from a truly authoritative source. They need to hear from God; people who do not believe in God will have to turn to the best human opinions available.
There are two forms of famine of the hearing of God’s word. One is that God’s word is no longer available. This was the case of the exiles from the Northern Kingdom in Assyria, as there is no evidence of any prophet ministering to them there at any time of their exile (cf. Niehaus 1992: 475-76). When God’s word was available to them they rejected it. In exile they finally realized with regret that they needed, and so longed to hear, God’s word, but they could not find it no matter where they searched for it (Amos 8:12; cf. Lamentations 2:9).
The other form of famine is the case of the elders in Babylon. God’s word was still available to them, however they had “ears to hear but do not hear.” Ezekiel, God’s prophet in Babylon, was not only available to them to inquire of God, he was already preaching God’s word to them. But due to the idols in their heart, it was not what they wanted to hear and so they did not hear it. Instead they tried in vain to inquire of God hoping to hear what they wanted to hear. This made them vulnerable to the preaching of the false prophets, and hence the need for Jeremiah’s letter to them. A variation to this form of famine today is when the Bible is available but it is either ignored or abused.
The basic problem of those already in exile in Babylon as well as those still remaining in Jerusalem was that they refused to acknowledge that they had sinned against God to the extent that they deserved to be exiled (Jeremiah 16:10). They blamed their misfortunes on the sins of their forefathers (Jeremiah 31:29-30; Ezekiel 18:2-3; cf. Deuteronomy 24:16). It was easy for them to do that because it is true that God sovereignly decided to exile the Southern Kingdom to Babylon because of Manasseh’s sins (2 Kings 21:10-15; 23:26-27). But God made clear through both Jeremiah and Ezekiel that the calamity fell upon them because of their own sins. They needed to accept responsibility for the calamity so that they would repent and turn to God with all their heart.
This is another case of the paradox of divine sovereignty and human responsibility that we discussed in our exposition on Solomon. For on the one hand God said through Jeremiah that the Exile was a forgone conclusion because of Manasseh’s sins, and that even the prayers of Moses and Samuel would not change His mind (Jeremiah 15:1-4); on the other hand God also said through Jeremiah that if His people would repent the calamity would be averted (Jeremiah 18:5-12), and then declared that the calamity would surely come “because they have stiffened their necks so as not to heed My words” (Jeremiah 19:15; cf. Jeremiah 26:1-15).
The book of Lamentations consists of five poems lamenting the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple. It poignantly captures the intensity of the suffering of the inhabitants of Jerusalem as well as the severity of God’s judgment on them, which reflects how much God hates sin. It also recreates the sense of the spiritual and emotional devastation of those who survived the calamity. Like the laments in the book of Psalms, these inspired poems have the power to bring about spiritual and emotional healing.
Lamentations recognizes the sovereignty of God behind the suffering (1:12-15). Since the suffering is the consequence of unrepentant violation of the Mosaic Law, the poet, traditionally believed to be Jeremiah, leads the people to repent in confessing their sins (1:18-20), as well as to pray for God’s mercy to restore their fortunes (5:1,19-22). In this prayer we see again the recognition of both divine sovereignty and human responsibility: the calamity is due to the sins of their forefathers (5:7) as well as their own (5:16).
The recognition of God’s sovereignty and mercy reaches its climax in the third and longest poem. Here the emotion of the poet rises from despair to hope when he recalls: “The LORD’s unfailing love indeed never ceases, For His compassion never fails; They are new every morning, Great is Your faithfulness” (3:22-23). This sublime confession of hope is all the more remarkable when uttered in the midst of intense lamentation of despair.
The poet’s hope and his prayer for restoration are based not only on who God is, but also what God has specifically promised He would do. This is clear from the imprecatory prayer against nations that had rejoiced over the calamity. The imprecation specifically asks God to “bring the day that You have proclaimed, that they may be like me [Jerusalem],” which means, “Let all their wickedness come before You, and deal with them as You have dealt with me for all my transgressions” (1:21-22).
The “day that You have proclaimed” is the “the Day of the LORD,” a significant theme in the Prophetic Books. It is in fact the theme of the books of Joel (1:15-2:11) and Zephaniah (1:1-2:3). Simply put, this “day” refers to the times, and not a particular day, when God manifests Himself in the way He is expected to: disciplining sins and unrepentance in Israel by enforcing the Mosaic Covenant (Joel 2:12-17; Zephaniah 3:1-8); punishing evil in the world by enforcing the Noahic Covenant (Joel 3:1-3; Zephaniah 2:1-15); bringing salvation to Israel and the world in fulfilling (ultimately) the Davidic and Abrahamic Covenants (Joel 3:17-21; Zephaniah 3:9-20).
It is worth noting that for the third (salvific) aspect of the Day of the LORD, there is a significant difference in focus between Joel and Zephaniah. Zephaniah focuses on the fact of worldwide salvation (3:9-10); Joel focuses on the means: “I will pour out My Spirit on all humanity” (2:28-32; cf. Acts 2:17-21).
So the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple were a fulfillment of the first aspect of the Day of the LORD. This fulfillment would have given the lamenting poet expectations that the other two aspects of the Day of the LORD would also be fulfilled, which energized his imprecation against the nations and the supplication for Israel’s restoration. This explains why his emotion could rise from the deepest lamentation of despair to the highest celebration of hope.
The Day of the LORD is an answer to skeptics who question the existence of God in view of the persistence of evil and suffering in the world. This skepticism arises because God does not seem to manifest Himself in a way He is expected to. But God has revealed through the prophets that there had been, and will be, times when God would, according to His purpose, manifest Himself as expected. Skeptics expect God, if He exists, to manifest Himself on their, not God’s, terms. They do not recognize that if God were to manifest Himself on their terms, they would not be around to talk about it.
Even believers may question why God allows calamities in the world. As a result some may even question whether the Bible is true. But we have seen above that God uses calamity for His purpose. And we have also seen in our exposition of the Wisdom Books that God uses even undeserved suffering for His purpose. Reiterating a point made there, the Bible does not conceal, but in fact reveals, that the God we are called to believe in is a God who uses calamity. So calamities are consistent with the truthfulness of the Bible.
The real question then is whether to accept or reject such a God. If we reject God, it does not mean calamities will go away. And many calamities are due to human wickedness, including those caused by the ecological crisis due to human covetousness. So when a culture rejects God and does not fear Him, calamities will only increase.
In other words, rejecting God only means rejecting the very source of strength and comfort in times of calamity, when we can turn to no one except God. God’s word to Habakkuk and his generation of faithful believers still holds: “The righteous will live by his faith” (2:4b). In anticipating the calamity, Habakkuk was able to rise from fear to faith. In lamenting the calamity, the poet was able to rise from despair to hope.
Scripture assures us that in the ultimate fulfillment of the Day of the LORD, which Paul calls the Day of Christ (Philippians 1:6,10; 2:16; cf. Romans 2:5), what faithful believers look forward to will certainly come to pass: no more evil and no more suffering, not even tears, in the New Heavens and New Earth (2 Peter 3:10-13). This shall silence forever the skeptics. Meantime the righteous will live by his faith.
What all this means is that kingdom worship and spirituality requires a consciousness and perception of God that has to be nurtured, nourished, and evoked by Scripture.