Back to the Bible - Revisiting the Old Testament
3: Four More Pre-Exile Prophets
The pattern established by Amos, Hosea, and Isaiah of denunciation for forsaking Yahve and predictions of impending doom interspersed with hopes for eventual redemption was continued by the prophets who came after them. However there began to be a gradual shift towards a more hopeful vision of a glorious future for a redeemed “remnant of Israel” along with a more compassionate Yahve.
Micah was a younger contemporary of Isaiah from a small Judean village who championed the pure worship of Yahve and social justice. In verses that might be applied to some wealthy church leaders today he warned against mercenary “prophets who lead my people astray.” A lengthy criticism of the established system of worship is followed by the oft cited, “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (6:8). There is the usual prophetic threat of divine judgement and ruin for wayward Israel and Judah. But Micah tempers his message of doom with a clearly stated promise of a future restoration of “a remnant of Israel.” For Yahve “does not retain his anger for ever. . . . He will again have compassion upon us. . . . (and) cast all our sins into the depths of the sea” (7:18-19).
Zephaniah is identified as the grandson of Hezekiah, presumably the king whom Isaiah healed. Zephaniah was active during the reign of Josiah (640-609 BCE). His strident attack on Baal worship implies a date prior to Josiah’s 621 reform which outlawed gods other than Yahve and restricted ritual worship to the Jerusalem temple. In no uncertain terms Zephaniah proclaims “The great day of Yahve is near, near and hastening fast. . . . A day of wrath is that day . . . a day of ruin and devastation. . . . A full, yea, sudden end he will make of all the inhabitants of the earth” (1:14-18). But he couples his prophecy of destruction with a new emphasis on the promise of a restored Israel. Yahve will purify his people, removing the unrighteous to “leave in the midst of you a people humble and lowly” (3:12).
In Zephaniah are the beginnings of the theme of a coming end of the world followed by a renewed, perfect world which would be further developed in Jewish and Christian apocalyptic literature. The older understanding of the convent between Yahve and Israel demanded perfect adherence to the terms of the covent. Israel’s repeated failings to meet Yahve’s expectations led inevitably to doom. According to Sandmel, Zephaniah offered a new vision of the covenant as “an unbroken and unbreakable relation between Yahve and his people as the ancient Hebrew religion developed into (what would become) Judaism.” Yahve was becoming less the harsh judge and more a compassionate deity with love for his erring children. As a psychotherapist who has spent many hours with guilt ridden people unable to forgive themselves for past mistakes, I like that perspective. It moves away from harsh perfectionism to a realistic and forgiving acknowledgment of human imperfection.
Nathum, which Sandmel describes as “the least religious of the prophetic writings,” is basically an expression of hatred towards the Assyrian center of Nineveh. The prophet’s diatribe is expressed in terms that are not what most people think of as biblical language: “I (Yahve) will lift up your skirts over your face; and I will let nations look on your nakedness and kingdoms on your shame. I will throw filth at you and treat you with contempt” (3:5).
The first chapter of Nathum is interesting in that it is an acrostic poem in which each line begins with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet in sequence with the first line, beginning with A (Hebrew aleph), second with B (beth), etc. Unfortunately the acrostic and the poem fade away in the middle of the alphabet due to the poorly preserved text. And of course the acrostic doesn’t translate into English.
Habakkuk dates to around the time of Chaldean (better known as “Babylonian”) ascendency in the ancient Middle East. They conquered Assyria in 625 BCE, Babylon (which became their capital) in 614, Nineveh in 612, and Jerusalem in 597. Parts of Habakkuk seem to be after the destruction of Jerusalem; in others it is still in the future.
More than the other prophets Habakkuk is concerned with theodicy, the problem of an all-powerful deity who seems to allow evil. The prophet dares to confront Yahve, accusing him of being “silent when the wicked swallows up the man more righteous than he” (1:13). The answer is that the Chaldeans who have seemingly destroyed Yahve’s people and their homeland are “an instrument of justice . . . a means of chastisement” (1:12). In time all will be made right. In the meanwhile the righteous person must continue in faith. As Rabbi Sandmel puts it, Habakkuk’s message is one of faith: “With faith, there is a prospect that events and experiences will become meaningful; without some faith all experience and life are meaningless.” This reminds me a lot of the similar viewpoint expressed by Dostoevsky, one of my favorite writers, in his novels.
In Habakkuk 2:20 are words that I often heard in my childhood religious experience: “The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him.” For Habakkuk it serves as a contrast to the worship of idols in the nations that oppress Israel and must date from before the destruction of the temple, the dwelling place of Yahve. Or perhaps it was added by a later editor during the time of the Second Temple in Jerusalem after the return of the captive Judeans from exile.
Habakkuk concludes with a prayer/psalm. As in some of the Psalms, there are parenthetical instructions for its ritual performance. The glory and righteous anger of Yahve is praised. Despite terrible things happening, one should continue with faith in Yahve and the promise of eventual redemption. “Though the fig trees do not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, and produce of the olive fail and the field yield no food . . . yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation.” (3:17-18).
I’ve been thinking back to what I was taught about OT prophecy so many years in my Seventh-day Adventist education. While it was acknowledged that the prophets were of course originally writing about the ancient Holy Land, “rightly understood” their prophecies were even more applicable to events in the modern world. Adventists were are in fact the contemporary “remnant of Israel.” We alone understood and followed God’s will. There would come a time when we, like ancient Israel, would be severely tested. Some SDA’s would, like God’s first chosen people who strayed from “the path of righteousness,” give into temptation and worship the modern equivalent of Baal. But a “faithful remnant” would be saved; everyone else was going to end up like the the enemies of ancient Israel.
© 2021 James Moyers