Foundational Framework Part 41 - The Purpose of the Prophets

Foundational Truths: The Bible is God’s self-revelation.
God is the Eternal, Sovereign Creator; all that He creates is good.
Man is a responsible agent, held to a moral standard.
Sin originates within a person, separating us from God.
God declares one righteous by faith alone, apart from works.
The glory of God is the centerpiece and goal of all existence.
God’s glory is maximally realized in the promised, coming Kingdom.

The office of “prophet” came on the scene heavily after the division of the kingdom into Israel (north) and Judah (south). While prophets like Nathan (2 Sam 12:1, 25) and even Moses (Deut 34:10) were active in previous times, a surge of prominent men were brought to the forefront to deliver YHWH’s words to the people in tumultuous times of their own doing. Those who had been placed in power as the kings of both the northern and the southern kingdoms had largely become corrupted by power and many of them led the people that they presided over into the worship of false gods. The first to fall was the northern kingdom of Israel, which was comprised of all of the tribes of Israel with the exception of Judah and Benjamin. Mason summarizes the situation perfectly:

“After Solomon’s death his kingdom broke in two. The northern kingdom of Israel sunk deeper into idolatry and immorality (2 Kgs 17:14–18). Jeroboam, the first king of the divided Israel, established a pattern of apostasy (‘falling away’ from faith). Epitaphs for succeeding kings regularly recorded that the deceased ruler ‘did not turn from the sins of Jeroboam’ (2 Kgs 10:31; 13:11; 14:24; 15:9, 18, 24, 28). Assyria conquered the northern kingdom in 722 BC and took over 27,000 Israelites into exile, as had been predicted (2 Kgs 17:23). They were settled in cities along the tributaries of the Euphrates River and in Media. Assyrians from cities around Babylon in turn colonized Israel (2 Kgs 17:6, 24).”[1] The “sins of Jeroboam” consists of the constant violation of the theology of sacred spaces (Deut 12:5, 11, 14, 18, 21, 26) in which YHWH will determine where He will be worshipped, and He is not to be worshipped in any other place. The “high places” left over from the pagan rituals of the former inhabitants of the land were not to be utilized in worshipping the Creator of all things. He is not a common “god,” but the Creator God, being Self-Existent and Master over all. The disregard of the sacred space allotted by YHWH was due to the fear of Jeroboam that the people of the north would return to the Temple in the south to sacrifice and thus he would lose his kingdom (1 Kgs 12:25-27). Seemingly ignorant of history, Jeroboam has two golden calves fashioned and places one in Bethel and the other in Dan, calling on the people to worship them as YHWH (1 Kgs 12:28-30). This failure to return and worship at the Temple perpetuated this sin throughout the reign of the successive kings of the north.

The southern kingdom, comprised of Judah and Benjamin, fared better and therefore remained in the land longer, but not by much. Elwell writes, “the southern kingdom of Judah became a vassal nation to Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar won the submission of King Jehoiachim, carried off the choicest articles from the temple for his own temple in Babylon, and took the outstanding leaders and youth of Judah captive (2 Kgs 24:1; 2 Chr 36:5–7; Dan 1:1–4). When Judah revolted several years later at the instigation of Egypt, the Chaldean army captured Jerusalem in 597 BC. Judah’s new king, Jehoiachin, was deported at that time together with more of its leaders (2 Kgs 24:8–16). A second revolt in 594 BC by the Chaldean-appointed king (Zedekiah) resulted in a third invasion, the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC, and the exile of most of Judah’s citizens (2 Kgs 24:20–25:12; 2 Chr 36:11–21).”[2]

The prophets were those who carried God’s Word, being communicators of YHWH’s direct revelation. This became necessary due to the blatant dismissal of God’s previous revelation, which was spelled out clearly in the Law. Motyer explains, “The prophets are very reticent about how they received these messages. We are often told no more than that ‘the word of the Lord came’ (e.g. Jeremiah 47:1; Ezekiel 17:1; Zechariah 8:1). ‘Came’ translates the Hebrew verb ‘to be,’ meaning that ‘the word of the

Lord became a living, present reality,’ which tells us the content but not the nature of the experience.”[3] What we find in the message of the prophets is the communication of divine revelation in a particular moment in history that assessed current situations, mandated repentance, called for reforms, exposed evils and injustice, beckoned the people of Israel back to the Law of Moses, and painted a picture of the future coming Messiah who would be the ultimate Deliverer of the people and the glorious Kingdom over which He would preside in righteousness.

Having experienced the judgment of exile from their homeland, YHWH used the office of prophet to offer hope to the Jews, showing that His gifts of blessing and grace were to be sought rather than His necessity to discipline them because of their idolatry and rebellion.

Myers explains, writing: “Following the fall of Jerusalem in 587/586 and the deportation of the southern kingdom to Babylon, Judah’s future looked dismal indeed. Identifying himself with his fellow exiles near Babylon, the prophet Ezekiel spoke not in terms of judgment but prophesied about Judah’s new heart and spirit of obedience (Ezek. 36:26–27), its return to the land of its fathers (vv. 28ff.), the unification of the northern and southern kingdoms (37:15–27), their resurrection from the dead (37:1–14), and the new temple and distribution of the land (chs. 40–48). In the same vein, the prophet Isaiah or his successor mentioned Israel’s future restoration (Isa. 60–62) and Judah’s reign of peace (65:13–25), concluding his message of comfort with the picture of the new heavens and the new earth in which ‘all flesh shall come to worship’ the Lord (66:22–24).”[4] Such hopes serve in aiding our interpretations of the End Times events.

The Standard Previously Set by Which the Prophets Abided.

Deuteronomy 28:1-68. Verses 1-14 detail the blessings that YHWH will bestow upon Israel if they will hold fast to His commandments and walk

in His ways. Material blessings, gifted offspring, abounding produce, and international prominence all await them if they will simply hold fast to YHWH. Verses 15-68 unfold the horrors that await this nation if they turn away from following YHWH and his statutes. In these verses, we find curse upon curse, showing itself in pestilence, fungus, war, famine, capture and exile, boils, tumors, madness, blindness, adultery, thievery, and as a result of their unrepentant hearts, they will be thrust into idolatry and slavery, having been exiled from the land of promise. Those of a language that they do not understand will be over them. Resources will quickly dry up, devastation will cover the land, and they will even resort to cannibalism (2 Kgs 6:28-29). Plagues and chronic sickness will remain on them and the people will be scattered all over the earth, with no satisfaction and no rest.

The question may be, “How does this relate to the Prophets?” The answer is found in Israel’s covenant agreement with YHWH on Mt. Sinai, in which they vowed voluntary intimacy with and commitment to YHWH, bringing them into a conditional covenant (Exod 19-20). The message of the prophets will not be found without these blessings and cursings in the backdrop of their messages. YHWH has not changed His word toward Israel, nor has He failed to pursue intimacy with them despite their rebellion. YHWH seeks to lavish these blessings upon her and will discipline her if need be with the curses that she has earned by her rebellion (Deut 28:20, 45, 62). Thus, the prophets are simply calling wayward, idolatrous, stiff-necked, hard-hearted Israel back to the covenant that they had agreed to, exhorting them to faithfulness so that YHWH’s name and fame can fill the Earth (Deut 4:6-9).

The Prophets were to Call the People Back to Obedience.

Hosea 14:1-9. Hosea may seem like a strange book from the beginning seeing that YHWH commands Hosea to marry a prostitute and have children with her to which he uses to communicate a vivid message to Israel about their unfaithfulness to Him as their husband (Hos 1).

The restoration of fellowship between Israel and YHWH is predicated on their humility in light of their sin. At no time does YHWH soften His requirements or relax His standards for intimacy with Him. He is clear that they “have stumbled because of your iniquity” (14:1b). By repenting of their evil, Israel would be healed, restored, and thriving once again in (14:4-7). The use of the name “Ephraim” to describe Israel is from Genesis 48:14, 20; and 1 Chronicles 5:1-2, of which the birthright was transferred to the house of Joseph while the royal line was given to Judah (Gen 49:10). Hosea 14:9 gives a moral declaration to those who are wise and discerning that YHWH’s ways are right.

The Prophets Announced the Future Coming of the Messiah.

Jeremiah 23:1-8. The word “shepherds” in v.1-2 are used for those who were the kings at that time (probably King Zedekiah, the last king of Judah before their eventual exile into Babylon in 586BC). These rulers were not tending to Israel, providing for her, and pointing her toward YHWH. YHWH promises to repay these kings for their negligence. The answer to the failure of human rule over Israel is to bring forth a “righteous Branch” (23:5b), being One who will reign faithfully according to all that YHWH has commanded. Only Jesus could do this! The remainder of what surrounds this pronouncement is the fact that Israel will be scattered at a future time but will be brought back together by YHWH from the four corners of the earth (23:3-4, 8). The scattering of Israel is YHWH’s discipline due to their unfaithfulness (1 Kings 9:7).

Isaiah 11:1-10. This passage also speaks about the righteous Branch (See also Isa 4:2) which is the Messiah. This section not only speaks of the completeness of the coming King (11:1-5), but also about the tranquility that surrounds His coming Kingdom (11:6-9). What is important to notice here is that the future is hopeful! It is a certainty that is to carry the faithful along in times of Jewish waywardness. It is also a means of giving a firm incentive to return to the Lord because He is the Judge. He will not render His verdicts based on what is seen and heard, but without falsehood and according to righteousness, He will judge perfectly! In 11:10 we are told that all of the nations of the world will make their supplications to YHWH’s coming King. The Messiah will be a “signal” (flag, standard, rallying point) for the people and His Kingdom will be a place of rest and glory! Only the future, literal, coming Kingdom of Christ on Earth can fully capture the magnitude of this occasion.

The Problem of False Prophets.

As with real prophets, these are people who claim to speak on behalf of YHWH. The primary issue is truth, and more specifically who has been sent by YHWH to the people. False prophets are those that have been found suppressing the truth with unrighteousness and pointing the people toward other gods.

Deuteronomy 13:1-5. False Prophets are nothing new. Notice the specifics of this passage. The issue is not the performance of a sign and whether or not it comes true. The issue is the message that the prophet is conveying to the people (13:2). YHWH allows for this to “test” Israel in order to expose their love, or lack of it, for Him (13:3). Instead, the people are to follow and fear YHWH, keeping His commandments (13:4).

Of interesting note is the use of “listen,” and “cling” describing the proper way in which faithfulness is expressed. “Listen to His voice” would immediately take the Israelites to Mt. Sinai and Exodus 20:1-20 when YHWH spoke to the 1st generation audibly from the top of the mountain. It was a moment that was meant to leave an impression on them forever so that they would not sin (Exod 20:20). The word “cling” is the same word used by YHWH in the pronouncement of the first marriage union in Genesis 2:24 stating that the man will be “joined to his wife,” which is rendered in some translations as “cleave, hold fast, unite.” The idea is “keeping close” and sticking with YHWH no matter what. All of life was to be conformed to YHWH with His Word serving as the centerpiece of existence.

YHWH’s view of false prophets is serious because they espouse a distortion of His Word. The consequences of their lies are placed upon the Israelites to execute the prophet due to their attempt in making Israel turn away from YHWH’s Word. Moses even uses the word “seduce” meaning “to drive away from, to scatter,” showing that the prophet’s message would cause division between YHWH and His people. Execution is how the people were to purge this evil from their midst.

While such measures may seem severe, let us take a step back and think about what we are seeing. Are there competing truths? Can something more than the Creator’s perspective be true? In our current day, all-inclusive, “we are too afraid to offend anyone” culture, many would claim “yes,” which is the evidence that we have lost any real understanding of who God is. Mormonism, Islam, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and even the Catholic Church with its view that Scripture is held in subjection to the Church and its beliefs, would all be candidates for death had they been present in Old Testament times. Such evils are the leaven of society today, pulling people into a conflict of truth, placing the subjective alongside the objective only to usurp it every time. The death penalty removed the possibility of tainting the people of God and demonstrated the swift justice that such sin demanded.

Jeremiah 23:9-22. This passage gives a general flavor of the nature of false prophets. Again, the distinction is found in what they say and where their words lead the people. False prophets will always be found distorting the truth, giving false hope, and encouraging personal pleasure rather than obedience and justice. Ultimately, these are not men who have stood in YHWH’s council (9:18, 23).

The Cost of Faithfulness as a Prophet of YHWH.

While some prophets like Joel, Hosea, and Obadiah died in peace, many of the prophets did not. Isaiah was sawn in two, Habakkuk was stoned in Jerusalem by the Jews, and Zechariah was stoned to death in the Temple at the command of King Joash after he had called the people to account for forsaking the commandments of YHWH (2 Chr 24:20-22). While men would dabble in the darkest desires of their hearts, these prophets were calling for repentance, charging men with blatant sin and the fact that they had forsaken the God who loves them. Israel was to seek the restoration and renewal that only YHWH could provide.

The necessity of the prophets is ultimately a love problem. We must remember that the Bible is clear in how it expresses what constitutes “love” in a relationship. It is not an emotional whimsy that causes irrational behavior, nor is it a gratifying of personal urges that must be acted upon because of the inability of one’s self-control. “Love” is manifested in obedience and selflessness. It is a position that one voluntarily takes in life in order to place others before one’s self, even conforming actions, thinking, and one’s surroundings to make that effort a constant reality. This is just as Jesus (John 14:15, 21), John (1 Jn 3:16), Peter (1 Peter 1:22), and Paul commanded (Eph 5:25). “Love” is costly, calling us to forsake self, so that we experience the greater benefits of a better choice. This is no different from what YHWH was seeking to communicate to Israel in His relationship with Him (Hos 3:1). He wants the best for Israel and the best is Himself, blessing, protecting, and providing for His people, His firstborn son, Israel.

[1] James L. Mason, “Diaspora of the Jews,” Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1988), p. 623–624.

[2] Walter A. Elwell and Barry J. Beitzel, “Chaldea, Chaldeans,” Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1988), p. 424.

[3] Alec Motyer, “The Prophets,” Eerdmans’ Handbook to the Bible, ed. David Alexander, Pat Alexander (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1982), p. 371.

[4] Allen C. Myers, The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), p. 347.