What is a prophet? The easiest definition is a spokesperson for God. Aaron, you will recall, is a spokesperson for Moses. The prophet normally is called and frequently receives a vision. The prophets normally are clustered about crises--Elijah and Baal worship, the Assyrian and Babylonian crises, and the identity crisis of the post-exile community.
Prophecy usually is divided into the pre-classical and classical. Both Moses and Samuel are prophets of the pre-classical period; both led their people by virtue of their prophetic offices. Once kings appear on the scene, the prophet adapts the role of adviser.
Classical prophecy began in the 700s or the eighth century during the reign of Jeroboam II. Amos and Hosea are prophets in the north, while Micah and Isaiah are classical prophets in the south. The prophets spoke oracles (warnings) to the people and to the king. Each of the prophets has in mind an agenda of God; they stand out as social-spiritual commentators. The classical prophets bear a message to the people, recognizable in the formula "Thus says the Lord." The message is bound up in covenant theology: the Divine revealing itself to a chosen people and carrying out a plan in history. Both Isaiah and Jeremiah address such a plan: Isaiah cries, "Remember the former things, those of long ago; I am God, and there is no other... What I have said, that will I bring about; what I have planned, that will I do" (46.9-11). Jeremiah tells his people to stand by the crossroads and look for the old ways where there is truth and rest for the soul (6.16). Jeremiah, who announces the new covenant, nonetheless. knows God's plan in history is one plan: " I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts" (31.33). A proclamation is made to a contemporary audience, but the fulfillment comes in the unfolding of history. The role of the prophet is not a popular one: generally, the message is that the people have allowed their relationship with God to become broken; the prophet points out the broken relationship and calls for right relationship with God (spiritual) and with people (social).
The prophet's role then is as mouthpiece-leader, adviser, and social/spiritual commentator. In the pre-monarchy, Moses and Deborah are leaders; in the transition to the adviser role, we find Samuel; advisers are Nathan, Elijah, Elisha, and Micaiah; Jonah and Isaiah fill the transition between adviser and social/spiritual commentator, which becomes the role of writing prophets, Jeremiah, for example.
The oracular categories include indictment, or the stating of an offense such as not f obeying God or giving God proper honor; this usually includes idolatry, ritualism, and social justice. The second category, judgment, focuses on political and near future issues, often interpreting crises as punishment. Instruction oracles call for a return to God by ending wicked conduct and are usually addressed to particular situations. The final form, aftermath oracles, affirm future hope or deliverance, usually span a protracted time period which includes the religious Now, the socioeconomical Potential, and the political Eventual.
To be a prophet of God is actually to bear the burden of knowing both God's righteousness (in dealing with nations over time) and God's mercy (the forgiveness of individuals). You will recall that Jonah questioned God's mercy for Nineveh and was angry that the wicked should be given mercy; recall that Habakkuk admonishes faith for those who must endure wickedness, knowing only that vision is for the appointed time;: it speaks of the end, and does not lie; If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come" (2.3).
Yahwism required strict monotheism, jeopardized by religious syncretism. Interestingly, strict Yahwism, during the Greek and Roman eras, led to accusations of atheism (failure to worship the gods) and accusations of sedition (failure to observe religio-political rituals). In early church history, however, the new charge is paganism, or failure to worship one God (brought on by Trinitarian theology). The Hebrew people, given the fact that Cannan was not completely conquered, coexisted with the Cannanites, intermarried, and even worshipped Canaanite gods.
The people have committed spiritual adultery as well as prostituted themselves literally. Will justice not judge material and sexual excesses, idolatry, and abuses of power? Hosea says, "Come, let us return to the Lord; for it is he who has torn, and he will heal us" (6.1). Israel's continues to sacrifice to the Baals: "When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals and offering incense to the idols" (11.1-2). Hosea ends with a call to return: "Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God, for you have stumbled because of your iniquity" (14.1).
Traditional interpretation sees Hosea's relationship with the harlot Gomer as paralleling that of Yahweh with faithless Israel.
The content is Hosea's marriage to Gomer the prostitute, children of harloty, Gomer's unfaithfulness; Hosea's message is Israel's unfaithfulness and Yahweh's judgment, faithfulness, and love.
Reign of Jeroboam II (770s): Golden Age, affluence, apostasy
-Jeroboam continues military expansion, the nation's political and economic resurgence begun by his father, Jehoash.
-Rapid decline of the northern kingdom; a series of assassinations (four of six kings in thirty years).
Menahem--makes Israel a vassal state by paying tribute to Tiglath-Pileser.
Pekah--raids Judah as punishment for not joining Israelite-Aramean coalition against Assyria.
King Hoshea--unsuccessfully attempts to ally Israel with Egypt against Assyrians.
Israel is an agricultural society, and any natural disaster that destroys crops is seen as devastating to the people. Swarms of locusts would not be uncommon to the near East. A continuing belief is that natural disaster is brought about by the gods' anger. Practice included finding which deity was involved and appeasing it; for Israel, this God was Yahweh. The Day of the Lord is a day of vindication and punishment which can be escaped only by the mercy of God.
Acts 2.31 has Peter using Joel's prophecy to explain the endowment of the Holy Spirit and the need to call upon the Lord and be saved.
Joe's thrust is universalistic: "I will gather all nations" (3.2) and "Multitudes, multitudes in the valley of decision!" (3.14)
Date This book has been placed variously from the ninth to the second centuries. Considerations include use of "elders" rather than king; the sacrificial system was in place (1.9); "Day of the Lord" is characteristic of preexilic prophecy; Assyria and Babylonia are not mentioned; Greeks are mentioned (3.6).
History Knowledge of other prophets (1.15: Isaiah 13.6; 2:3: Isaiah 51.3, Ezekiel 36.35; 2.10: Isaiah 13.10; 3:10: Isaiah 2.4,Micah 4.3; 3.16: Amos 1.2, Isaiah 13.13; 3.17: Ezekiel 36.11, Isaiah 52.1; and 3:18: Amos 9.13) indicate a writer versed in pre-exilic prophecy. A post-exile setting puts the setting in the Persian period. Choosing a time between the two periods puts the setting closer to Haggai and Zechariah during Zerubbabel's time--with the temple reconstructed and Edom not yet destroyed, closer to the time of Esther.
Content The book addresses a current crisis of locusts interpreted as the Day of the Lord, judgment for offense unidentified. In chapter two, the plague escalates, and the prophet calls for repentance. By 2.18, the Day of the Lord is postponed. The future Day of the Lord with a consequent judment on the nations is addressed in 2.28-3.17. Israel prospers (3.18-20).
Amos: The Day of the Lord is Darkness and Not Light
Amos was a shepherd and sycamore fig farmer from Tekoa, south of Jerusalem. Traditionally, the book has been assigned to the middle or latter years of Jeroboam
Message The Lord will punish Israel's social injustice and religious arrogance by a military disaster. Amos' basic message is that "the end has come for my people" (8.2). Amos has to contend with the false priest Amaziah and tells him that his wife will become a prostitute in the city, that his sons and daughters will die by the sword, and that the land will be measured and divided up, and that Amaziah will die in a pagan country (7.10-17). This pronouncement is really a judgment of the whole nation.
Content Chapters one and two contain oracles against the nations of Damascus, Gaza, Tyre, Edom, Ammon, Moab, Judah, and Israel. Amos then turns to Israel, which he indicts, addressing the "cows of Bashan," telling those anxious for the Day of the Lord that it will be darkness and not light (5.1818-20). Israel's election (favored by Yahweh) Amos suggests is reason for judgment. Visions of judgment include the plague of locusts (7.1-3), a devouring fire (7.4-6), and a plumb line (7.7-0). Amaziah, the false priest, challenges Amos in chapter seven (10-17) and is followed by Amos' fourth and fifth visions: a basket of summer fruit (8.1-3) and the Lord standing beside the altar (9.1-4). Oracles of judgment are uttered in chapter eight.
Genuine faith shows itself in social justice or "doing right." Amos condemns Israel for its treatment of the poor, needy, and afflicted (2.6-7, 4.1), and he castigates the affluently rich women, merchants, lawyers, judges, and false priests. Amos calls on Israel to aid orphans and widows and avoid worldly pollution (1.26-27).
Obadiah: Day of the Lord for Wicked Nations (Edom) and Ultimate Triumph of Yahweh
Edom, one recalls, plays a role in the fall of Jerusalem, aiding King Nebuchadnezzar. Edom, also called Hor (Numbers 20.23) and Seir (Genesis 36.8-10), is populated by Israel's kin, the descendents of Esau. Edom coexisted peacefully with Israel until the reigns of Saul and David (I Samuel 14.47; 2 Samuel 8.13-14); Judah, in fact, controlled Edom as a satellite state until the time of lJehoram (853-842 B.C.E.) when it successfully revolted and reestablished autonomy. Incursions were made by Judean kings Amaziah and Uzziah. Edom not only helped Babylon in the sacking of Jerusalem but also occupied Judean villages until well into the Persian period. By the time of Malachi (500-450), the Edomite kingdom has fallen into ruins.
Message Edom has been proud but will be brought to the ground (3); as Edom has done violence to its brother Jacob (10), it will be punished in the Day of the Lord (8). As the Edomites have done, so will it be done to them (15).
A sovereign Lord administers divine justice in all of creation (1,10-14, 4, 8, 15).
Obadiah concludes with a promise of restoration for a remnant of israel(21). To the forefathers, Yahweh has promised Canaan will be an inheritance and everlasting possession. Obadiah appeals to history to instill hope in the Babylonian exiles and those who remained in Jerusalem as vassals to Nebuchadnezzar.
Jonah: God's Mercy
The prophet Jonah lived in the eighth century, although the dating of the book is without certainty. Jonah, the Israelite, is contrasted to Nineveh. The events of the book seem to come at a time of optimism for the northern kingdom of Israel. Assyria, which has flexed its muscles in the ninth century, has entered into decline.
Message Jonah receives a call but attempts to escape from it, and well he should. Nineveh, after all, is second only to Babylonia in its size and prosperity. Who would want to take the message Jonah is to take? Jonah is to go to Nineveh and cry out against it for its great wickedness (1.1). Jonah flees (1.1-16), is rescued by God (1.17-2.10), and is grateful; Jonah receives a second call (3. 1-9), and Nineveh responds to his preaching. Jonah becomes angry when God is merciful to Nineveh. Note, the man who has just been rescued becomes angry when others are rescued! Both Jonah and Nineveh learn a lesson: both face calamity; both respond by trying to avert the calamity (Jonah builds a hut, and Nineveh repents); action in itself is not sufficient, and the grace of God must intervene to bring relief (a plant for Jonah and relenting of God toward Yahweh). Jonah wants to negate God's grace toward Nineveh, and this, ironically, is exactly what happens to Jonah. Jonah's anger is focus on mechanism of grace, which he questions with respect to the wicked city of Nineveh; the message is the sovereignty of God to bestow mercy.
Does God have a right to be lenient toward the wicked? Jonah confirms this theodicy by showing that justice is not negated by grace. Habakkuk shows that in time, God's justice will be done, that the extensions of grace are not endless for nations; at issue is God's right to act outside human judgment.
Content Chapters one and two parallel three and four: a call from God and a response (1. 1-3, 3.1-3), pagans forced to consider the influence of God (1.4-11, 3.4-10), a confrontation
Jonah, in some ways, is a caricature of the prophet, yet he is struggling to make sense of God's actions. Jonah receives undeserved forgiveness, yet he is angry when God forgives others (Nineveh). The resolution to be worked out comes in the last verse: "And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?" (4.11).
Micah: God as Deliverer
Micah is a prophet of the 800s, contemporary with
Setting Micah prophesies during the reigns of Jothan, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, who reigned during the last half of the eighth century. Some identify the oracles of hope in chapters two, four, and seven as being later additions.
The crisis Micah addresses has been brought about by Assyria. Micah has been witness to the destruction and deportation of the northern kingdom. The incursions of Assyria into Judah happen several times during Micah's life, with the campaign of Senacherib against Jerusalem being particularly poignant. In this campaign, several cities of Judah are destroyed.
Micah's message comes to a people who are experiencing political upheaval and social unrest. The first half of the eighth century has brought economic prosperity and social inequity. Micah favors a Moses-Sinai tradition in which sins lead to judgment and punishment. Micah focuses on political and religious crimes and attacks the exploitation of the masses generally. The destruction of Samaria is cited as a warning to Judah of what will befall Jerusalem.
Major themes include deliverance and righteous requirements. The Deliverer can be interpreted on a contemporary level, although it is often interpreted as Messianic prophecy. Refugees from the Assyrian onslaught of Assyria in 701 gathered in Jerusalem, and the Lord brings relief relative to Hezekiah's request. Second Kings 19.35 records the Assyrians as being slain in the night by God's angel. Micah is clear that God will bring delivery (5.3) after judgment is complete. Identity and timing are disputed.
Concerning righteous requirements, no verse is more quoted than 6.8: "He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does he require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God."
Structure An indictment and judgment against the people is delivered in 1.2-2.11 followed with a reminder to hope (2.12-13). The leaders are indicted (3) and hope is revealed for better leadership and restoration (4.1-8). The current crisis is detailed (4.9-5.9) with a purging described to happen in the future (5.10-15). The nation is indicted (6.1-7.7). Hope for the nation ends the book (7.8-20). The movement is from people to leaders to nation.
Hope is for short-term deliverance (from the pressing Assyrians) to restoration for the nation in an indefinite future (4.1-5; 7.8-20). Micah's resolution is clear: "I will wait for the God of my salvation" (7.7).
Nahum: the Downfall of Nineveh
Nahum declares judgment upon the wicked city of Nineveh, the city against which Jonah is angry when God relents in punishment. Nahum comes a century after Jonah (sometime prior to the fall of Nineveh in 612). We need to remember that Nineveh is the capital of Assyria, rich and corrupt. This time, Nineveh will not be spared.
Setting In 3.8, Thebes of Egypt has already fallen (663 under Assyrian Ashurbanipal); by the time of Jeremiah, Thebes has been rebuilt. The kings of Judah are Manasseh(695-642) and Josiah (640-609). Manasseh is the most apostate of the Judean kings. He repented of his wickedness (II Chronicles 33.12) after he had been taken captive to Assyria. Many commentators connect Nahum to Josiah, under whom Judah experienced a revival, simply because the oracle is a favorable one.
Assyrian fell in the last decade of the seventh century, its breaking point coming mid-century. Within a few days of Ashurbanipal's death, the Babylonians achieved independence, and over the next two decades, they and the Medes dismantled the Assyria
Structure Begins with a psalm (1.1-8). Following this psalm, the doom of Nineveh is pronounced and the deliverance of Judah promised. The last part of the book details the siege of Nineveh (2.3-3.19).
Message Assyrian rule is coming to an end at the hands of the Lord; this end is punishment for actions at the hands of the Lord. God is sovereign and justice, sure.
"A shatterer has come up against you" (2.1). Nineveh is addressed as a city of bloodshed (3.1) whose cruelty (3.19)has been experienced by the surrounding peoples. Its time has come to be scattered, with no assuaging the hurt or the moral wound (3.19). Assyria had tortured, flaying, burning alive, and amputating body parts. Easily, one can imagine then that "All who hear the news about you clap their hands"( 3.19).
The picture of God is that of a "jealous and avenging one... slow to anger but great in power, and the Lord will by no means clear the wicked" (1.2).
With Assyria fallen, one of the arch villains of the Old Testament has experienced justice.
God's raising up the Chaldeans (Babylonians) is astonishing and unexpected. In Habakkuk, God deals with nations. When evil sufficiently outweighs good, judgment is required. This follows Jeremiah 18.7-10 in which successive generations are treated according to their deeds. At times, God's mercy alleviates judgment temporarily, but in time, the wicked are punished.
Setting Judah had its first confrontation with Babylon in 597 B.C.E. Josiah came to the throne in 640. Habakkuk describes negative conditions in 1.2-4. Since Josiah came to rule as a child, Habakkuk's complaints of injustice may have happened in his early reign.
Ashurbanipal (668)inherited a glorious empire which, by the end of his reign, was deteriorating. In the mid-650s, the Egyptians began to clear out the Assyrians; Ashurbanipal's own brother was trying to wrest control from him in the southeastern part of his empire. In 630, Ashurbanipal's son has control of his kingdom, and in 627, Babylon is seized. In the next year, Nabopolassar establishes an independent Babylonian empire and delivers control of the new kingdom to his son Nebuchadnezzar. Assyrian rule continued to disintegrate as the reforms of Josiah took hold.
Outline Following a prayer (1.1-4), Habakkuk utters an oracle of judgment: Babylon is to invade Judah (1.5-11). Habakkuk is divided into three discourses, each beginning with a prayer. The second discourse begins with a prayer questioning God's justice (1.12-17) which is followed by instruction from God (2.1-3) and an oracle of judgment against Babylon (2.6-20). The third discourse is one in which Habakkuk asks for mercy (3.1-2), reflects on the sovereign power of God (1.3-15), and accepts God's sovereignty (3.16-19).
Message The message of Habakkuk is that Assyria, the rod of God's wrath, is passing from the scene with Judah still unpunished. Babylonia will be the means of punishing Judah. God's justice can use a wicked nation, like Babylonia, as an instrument of punishment. A question looked at close up is God's justice in the face of a prospering, wicked people. Chapter three contains a theophany which displays God's presence, sufficient to promote trust even when answers are not forthcoming. In time, the Babylonians, too, are to be punished; in the meantime, mortal finiteness lacks ability to find answers. Human responsibility lies in responding to God, not in having all the answers. The righteous, Habakkuk says, are to live by faith (2.4).
Habakkuk begins by crying, "How long shall I cry for help?" (1.2) Shortly, the cry turns to astonishment: "Look at the nations, and see! Be astonished! Be astounded! For a work is being done in your days that you would not believe if your were told" (1.5). Habakkuk's resolve in two is to stand by his watch post and keep watch (1). In the final chapter, he reveals his faith: "Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines; though the produce of the olive fails, and the fields yield no food... yet will I rejoice in the Lord" (3.19)
Habakkuk focuses attention on justice and injustice, confidence and doubt, salvation and judgment, God and humankind.. The ultimate picture is one of the sovereign control of a just God in a world that often appears on the brink of self-destruction.
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