There seems to be a distinct formula for the majority of the prophetic books in the Bible. There is the gloom and doom of the people’s sins and disobedience. There is the prophecy of impending disaster because of the people’s sins. The disaster is the crushing defeat of God’s people and their being sent off into exile in either Assyria or Babylon. And there is a promise of restoration. Two prophetic books, Jonah and Nahum end with questions. Both of these books deal with the Assyrian city of Nineveh. But there are also a few other things that we find as well. One of those things is God’s sovereignty over all nations. In the ancient world nations often considered religion in terms of a national god or gods. For instance, the king of Aram believed Israel’s “gods” were tied to the hills and would not be able to act anywhere else. Never mind that Israel’s God made the hills…and everything Else! Jephthah demonstrated pagan heritage (judges 11:1-3) by saying the god Chemosh had given the Ammonites their land. By contrast, the prophet Amos knew that God alone had brought the Philistines from Crete and the Arameans from Kir. God had created the entire cosmos, not just Israel. So, the Lord was perfectly justified in requiring that nations conduct their affairs with justice and mercy.
There was one heresy among the people of both Israel and Judah and that was, in spite of their sinfulness God would eventually vindicate them because of His covenant with them. They developed a false sense of the Day of the Lord, believing that God’s intervention in history meant deliverance for them and destruction for their enemies. Amos confronted this very mistaken idea. It was nothing more than a false notion of privilege. In fact, the Day of the Lord would not absolve Israel. God would use it to punish them too. Israel’s position of privilege among the nations made them more responsible, not less. While the surrounding nations would be punished for their particularity grievous sins, Israel would be punished for all their sins. The New Testament develops the theme of the greater responsibility of God’s people: “to whom much is given, much is required.” Luke 12:48
Another thing we have heard a lot about is worship. Much of what we have heard revolves around pagan worship and how the Israelites were more serious about that than worshiping the Lord. Some mixed the two very divergent kinds of worship, adding the Lord to the list of idols they were worshiping. But if we go back to the Book of Exodus and read the Ten Commandments we will discover that they begin like this: “I AM the Lord your God. You shall have no other gods. You shall not make for yourself any graven images.” Israel had broken these commandments so many times only God could count that high. The Old Testament prophets realized that genuine worship depends on a proper understanding of God and His requirements. God’s authorized worship occurred in the temple in Jerusalem. The Lord roared from Zion and thundered from Jerusalem. Because the Lord is not part of this world and cannot be manipulated by it, He alone determines how people may come to Him. It was unacceptable for the Israelites to worship God in any place other than His authorized temple in Jerusalem. However, sacrifices and ritual are not substitutes for genuine piety. The shrines at Bethel, Gilgal, and Beersheba did not suffice; no matter how many sacrifices or how elaborate the rituals, these were not the places for worship God had chosen. In the New Testament, worship is no longer tied to a particular location. Worship may occur wherever believers choose to gather. But it must be conducted as God directs: “in spirit and truth” John 4:23-24. Jesus wholeheartedly agreed with the requirement that worship be authentic, not merely formal.
The prophet Obadiah spent his entire 21 verses prophesying about Edom. We know Edom as the descendants of Esau, twin brother of Jacob, the people who settled Judah. Their history is full of mistrust, fighting and hate. When the Israelites were moving through the wilderness towards the promised land, the Edomites were among the first who would not allow them passage. Edom was located south of the Dead Sea but north of the Gulf of Aqaba. The region boasts numerous mountains over 5,000 feet tall. There is some pasture land and a handful of oases. Many Edomite dwellings were cut into the faces of these high, craggy mountains. This gave rise to Obadiah’s description of the Edomites as people who live in the clefts of the rocks and soar like the eagles. Some of the ancient dwellings are still visible today. Edom prospered through its control of the major north south caravan route, known as the Kings Highway. They were also involved in the mining of iron and copper. King Saul fought against the Edomites, but king David conquered them. David’s general, Joab, killed many adult males during a six month occupation, although Hadad, a royal heir managed to escape and flee to Egypt. Later king Amaziah captured its capital, Sela and renamed it Joktheel. Edomites sometimes raided Judah. From 734 B.C. Until the fall of Jerusalem, Edom was under Assyrian domination. Edom prospered during this time and their population increased considerably. Obadiah made it clear that Edom participated in the 586 B.C. destruction of Jerusalem.
One of the challenges of making a living in the ancient Near East was the presence of locusts. The Book of Joel describes a calamity that befell ancient Judah when it was struck by a locust plague. However, this is still a problem in the Near East and Africa where swarms of locusts come and devour every bit of green plant life there is. They still cause famines throughout this region of the world. Locusts can do an astonishing amount of damage to agriculture. Over the past few hundred years not only did the Near East and Africa suffer with locusts but so did the American Midwest. The situation in the ancient world was exacerbated by the fact that almost all of the farming was subsistence farming. Catastrophic crop failure within a single year meant starvation or near starvation, as importation of food in sufficient quantities to make a difference was not feasible. Joel 1:4 uses four different words to describe the locusts. Translators have a difficult time distinguishing among them. The NASB says “what the gnawing locust has left the swarming locust has eaten and what the swarming locust has left, the creeping locust has eaten and what the creeping locust has left the stripping locust had eaten. Are there four different types of locusts? Are there four different stages of locust growth? It appears that a swarm of locusts moved in , in various stages of growth, devastated the land, and laid their eggs. The eggs then hatched and anything green that was left was devoured. Nothing was left after the last stage of locusts had eaten its fill.
As we look at these Old Testament prophets, each of them has a similar message but God used each one differently. For instance, Isaiah has more Messianic prophecy than any other prophet. The promises of one who would reign forever on David’s throne was a big part of his message. Ezekiel was of a priestly family and he was set to fulfill that ministry; until he was exiled to Babylon with the rest of the people of Judah and Jerusalem. There God used him as a prophet to convict the people of their sins and move them towards repentance. More than any other prophet, Ezekiel was used by God as an object lesson. The other prophet God used in this way was Hosea. His marriage to Gomer was a picture of God’s marriage to the people of Israel and Judah. The relationship was broken by the people yet just as Hosea took Gomer back, so God took His people back. Micah was concerned with social justice issues of the day, but really we don’t look much different today that God’s people did in the days of Micah. Of all the prophets, Jonah was the only one who didn’t want his message to succeed. He did not want Nineveh to repent but instead he wanted them to go on on sinning so God would punish them instead. Nowhere else in scripture does any other prophet disobey God’s call. But here we see the depth of God’s mercy. He not only provided a way to keep Jonah safe after he was tossed overboard, but he gave Jonah a second chance to do His bidding. We still have several prophets to read. Some of them will sound a lot like what we have been reading but each one has nuggets of wisdom. Instead of sighing because it seems like “second verse same as the first, little bit louder, little bit worse” look for those nuggets that are there.
In His Grip
Pastor Matt W