The Old Testament Prophets in Retrospect

1642again. Going Postal
The Malmesbury Bible
Arpingstone [Public domain]

The Major Old Testament Prophets – Making Sense of Them

We have now reviewed in some detail the major Old Testament Prophets: Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel, the ostensibly minor prophet Jonah, and the meditation on the vicissitudes of life that is the Book of Job.

At first sight, other than the fact that they are all about ancient men of importance to the Hebrew faith, one might be forgiven for thinking that they are a pretty disparate bunch, from Elijah’s losing battle with the apostate kings of the northern kingdom of Israel, Elisha’s missionary focus, Jonah’s adventures and mission to dissuade the encroaching Assyrians from invading Israel, Isaiah’s prophecies about the eventual destruction of the southern kingdom of Judah and the coming of the Messiah in the far future and beyond, Jeremiah’s battles to save Judah from its own follies in its last days before the Babylonian conquest, Ezekiel’s prophecies about the same and the subsequent post Babylonian restoration, Daniel’s extraordinary prophecies ranging from his own days in captivity in Babylon until the End Times, and the Book of Job, who was not a prophet at all but rather a sort of Socratic dialogue about the human condition, the problem of pain and the meaning of life.

We have seen that they were written over several centuries, dating back to the 8th century BC until the mid-6th century, although part of Daniel seems to date to the 2nd century BC.  They were certainly edited into something like their present form during the Babylonian Exile in the first half of the 6th century BC but it seems pretty clear that much of Elijah, Elisha, Jonah, Isaiah and Jeremiah date to the time the books claim, and indeed scholarly opinion is moving in the direction of earlier and more original composition associated with the prophets themselves, albeit with later editing and additions.  This clearly adds to their credibility.  Ezekiel was written in Babylon during the Exile by Ezekiel or a scribe associated with him, and the Aramaic core of Daniel likewise if not the less important Hebrew chapters which are probably later additions.  Job was almost certainly composed during the Exile by Jewish writers as a meditation as to why their God had allowed His people to fall so low and asks all of the questions people ask in times of suffering and tries to provide some answers, projected back on to a far older folk hero.

So far so good, but they still seem pretty disparate and there are some surprises such as:

  • The brilliant and descriptive imagery present in the accounts, and turns of phrase that in their English translations have entered modern idiom, such as “the writing’s on the wall” and “the valley of dry bones” which have had an incalculable influence of western art and culture.
  • The vivid and apocalyptic nature of some of the prophecies such as Nebuchadnezzar’s statue of gold, silver, bronze, iron and iron-clay amalgam, and Ezekiel’s of the court of Heaven, and the descriptive genius of many of the stories such as Daniel in the lions’ den and Elijah being carried off in a chariot of fire. For sheer narrative verve one can see why they have had such a striking impact on non-Jewish cultures, at least equal to that of the Greeks and arguably far greater.
  • Elijah, one of the greatest OT prophets in the minds of later Jews, is revealed as a failure, a strident and powerful figure but one who was sacked by God for completely misunderstanding the spirit of the Creed he was expounding. In some ways he is the least of the prophets and his interpretation of Judaism was ultimately disastrous for its followers, leading to the doomed battles against Assyria and Babylon, their later rejection of Christ and second destruction of the Jews during their three revolts against Roman rule.  His was an exclusionist faith, one that saw the faithful as embattled and having to fight fire with fire, a politicised religion rather than a universalist one which teaches returning suffering with love, the Christian message.
  • Jonah, in a few short chapters, poignantly encapsulates the real message of Jehovah and finally comes to understand, and overcomes his moral cowardice; it is a gem of a parable in which Jehovah states his concern for all humanity, not just the Jews. Its brevity makes the profundity of its message all the more moving, albeit sadly this generally gets overlooked because the story of Jonah and the Whale.
  • Isaiah emerges for me at least as by some way the greatest of them all and I can quite see why some Christian writers have called his book the ‘fifth Gospel’, Isaiah being the first to look towards the first and second Comings of Christ in almost cinematic detail and with astonishing accuracy. That Isaiah accurately predicted the fate of Judah over a century into the future is very impressive.
  • The Book of Job is perhaps the greatest surprise of all for me from this exercise. Previously I had avoided it, thinking it a grim and dull litany of suffering.  Instead it emerges as a profound reflection on the mysteries of faith, the human condition and the meaning of life.  It shows an intellectual and philosophical sophistication that commands respect today and compares well with Plato’s Socratic dialogues.  It’s quite extraordinarily powerful when one understands what it is doing.
  • The Jews, whether of the kingdom of Israel or Judah, come out of it badly whereas their enemies, especially the Assyrians and Babylonians of Nebuchadnezzar, emerge from it surprisingly well. The Hebrew writers came in time to see that their people themselves were primarily responsible for their own downfall and their pagan oppressors as being instruments of divine justice who were also capable of redemption by Jehovah.  Here we see the first recognition among Jews that Jehovah worship was a univeralist faith for all people, and not one reserved to themselves, and that being the ‘Chosen People’ did not mean what they had thought it did.
  • Ezekiel was very much a mystic in a near heretical Jewish tradition, so much so that many Jews struggled with his writing, but he forecast the revival of Israel and its restoration after the ending of the Babylonian captivity, in a way giving hope to the despairing Exiles in the Babylonian captivity. Writers like Ezekiel helped the Jews to draw some of the right conclusions from the fall of their kingdoms, i.e. their flirtations with paganism and breaking of the Covenant of Jehovah, but Isaiah at least foresaw that they would not draw all the right ones.
  • The prophecies of Daniel, focusing on the hubris of kings and their eventual nemesis, could if stripped of their Jewish religious context compare quite comfortably with Herodotus’ Histories and other ancient literature of the Archaic era and their understanding of the moral laws written into the cosmos by the gods. This is significant because to the Ancients of this era the gods/God did not need to do anything specific because they/He had already built a kind of self-correcting sub routine into the nature of reality so that humans who got too big for their boots would become the authors of their own downfall.

These were all real surprises to me, but perhaps the greatest were:

  1. The universalist and merciful nature of Jehovah, and
  2. Prophecies about the nature of the Messiah (Christ) and His Mission

The Universalist and Merciful nature of Jehovah

When I was growing up I remember seeing the then grand old man of the Methodists, Lord Soper, being interviewed. He was that typical liberal cleric who has brought such ruin on Christianity in our times.  I remember him saying all too clearly that he did not consider the God of the Old Testament to be the same God as that of the New Testament.  That statement alone marked him out as a Grade 1 heretic and would one assume make his ministry incompatible with that of the Methodist church.  One also wonders if he ever studied the Bible closely!

The modern fashionable view of course if that the God of the Old Testament is vengeful, cruel and jealous, and the exclusive God of the Jews. It is a reason why so many liberals say they reject Christianity.  They see the idea of God as understood by Elijah to be the true nature of Jehovah, but ignore the fact that Elijah was sacked by that same God for his angry and vengeful ministry, that Jonah was angry with God for not destroying the Assyrians but allowing them to repent, and was reproved by God who say they were his people too and that they deserved mercy as much as the Hebrews.  Most of these prophets understood the universalist and merciful nature of their God.  Soper’s understand of the OT seemed to be superficial at best.

These articles have shown many indications, especially in Isaiah, the greatest of them all (a contemporary of Elijah), Job, Jeremiah and Daniel that Jehovah was merciful and universal for all peoples, not just the Jews, and if anything he was harder on the Jews because he had given them extra insights which they were supposed to share with the rest of humanity but didn’t.  In some ways the Jews are a case study for the lack of wisdom and arrogant folly of humanity, constantly succumbing to hubris and indolence, falling away from their faith, getting themselves into trouble, being saved by Jehovah, returning to the Covenant again, before it all repeats again.  Eventually God has to allow them to fall very low before they learn their lesson, for a time.

Finally, it is appropriate here to comment on a theological idea called ‘progressive revelation’, something liberals and heretics have distorted and used to their ruinous ends.  What ‘progressive revelation’ means is that mankind has the ability through scholarship and science to better understand God, His nature and the Bible: it’s why Christians have been so fundamental to the advancement of learning and science in all fields for almost two millennium.  It also means that all theological discourse is provisional, not final, and that humanity, perhaps with wisdom granted by God, can come to better understand His nature.

It is partly why God worked through prophets initially, and then came Himself in the guise of Jesus, and subsequently through insights granted to humans by the Holy Spirit progressively through history as mankind became ready for them.  It’s also why Christians have generally not taken every word of the Bible literally, unlike Islam, and why Christian doctrine has never ossified but remains open to new advances.  That said there are dangers in this openness and flexibility – it can be used by liberals or cultists to justify rewriting the fundamentals of the faith, whether the Trinity, the redemptive nature of Christ’s mission, the Ten and Two Commandments, the necessity for salvation through faith…  The 20th century saw liberals cause mayhem, twisting a useful openness to new learning against the fundamentals of the faith themselves, and it is down to individual Christians to understand the fundamentally consistent themes that run throughout the Bible and to dismiss any new ‘interpretations’ that run contrary to them.

Jesus versus Elijah

The Prophets also point to the nature of Christ in His first Coming, ‘the suffering servant’ Isaiah calls him in an unerringly accurate description of Jesus, his life and death, while Daniel speaks of ‘the Son of Man’, i.e. Christ.  The depiction of Christ is very much the Jesus we know from the New Testament, Sinless, poor, humble etc.  It’s very clear that the likes of Isaiah would have recognised Jesus if they were contemporary, so why did the Jewish religious authorities reject Him given their obsessive study of their own scriptures?

Here we get to the repeated folly of the Jews, and indeed humanity in general – they lost their humility and obsessed about the letter of their Law i.e. they could not see the wood for the trees.  Ultimately, they preferred the exclusive and vengeful nationalist Jehovah of Elijah to the universalist, loving God of Isaiah, Jonah etc.  Just as they ignored the warning of Jeremiah not to rebel against the Babylonians and suffered the consequences, they ignored the warnings of Christ that military revolt against the Romans would end in the destruction of everything they loved, had Him executed and then revolted three times against Rome and suffered almost complete genocide as a consequence.

One of the last appearances of Jesus was in the presence of Elijah and Moses to the Apostles – clearly a message to them that two of the greatest Hebrew national heroes were reconciled to the message and mission of Christ, and that it was time to set aside the Jewish preoccupation with the ‘Law’ and engage with the spirit of it as encapsulated in the person of Jesus.  They of course did not.

© 1642again 2020

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