For June, July, and August we studied the Old Testament prophets in our Sunday School class. We had selections from the earliest prophets such as Hosea and Amos, from the great prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, and from the latest post-exilic prophets Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. These prophets addressed both Israel and Judah. They spanned a time frame from the eight to the fifth century B.C. They warned God’s people of the coming exile, they promised God’s disobedient people that God would again save them by delivering them from exile, and eventually they encouraged the exiles who had returned to live as the people of God.
This repeated, continuous exposure to the broad sweep of the prophets underscored the simple directness and constancy of their message throughout the varied circumstances of their lives and across the centuries in which they ministered. Some Sundays I said to myself, “What do I do? This lesson says the same thing as the last three lessons? What am I going to say differently this week?” This continuity is built on the fact that the prophets called God’s people back to the covenant God had made with them at Sinai and thus to the Mosaic Law. By living in obedience to this covenant they as a people were to reflect the character of the God they served before the nations—they were to “be holy” as their God was holy.*
Thus the message of the prophets clarifies for us what the concern of that covenant was and what it means to reflect God’s character—to be holy as He is holy. The prophets’ first concern was for God’s people to serve Him alone—to tear down every idol that would deflect their loyalty from Him. They were, indeed, to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength” (Deuteronomy 6:5, NKJV). Only then would their lives reflect God’s character. The clear message of the prophets, then, is that reflecting God’s character means living in integrity, sexual purity, self-restraint, justice, and mercy. Faithfulness to one’s husband or wife was a direct corollary of faithfulness to God. Integrity was to be expressed in honest business dealings, in the refusal to give or take bribes, and in keeping one’s word. Justice meant treating all people fairly. The meaning of mercy is evident from the prophets repeated concern for the helpless—for such people as the widow, orphan, and alien. Justice and mercy go hand in hand. Justice protects people from abuse but showing mercy or compassion to those in need is also the right or “just” thing to do. If we do not forget the prophets’ concern for sexual purity, the oft-quoted verse from Micah is a good summary of their burden—“And what does the Lord require of you, But to do justice, To love mercy, And to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8, NKJV). Note the emphasis on “love” mercy.
Some may object by saying the prophets also had other concerns—they condemned God’s people for not offering their best animals in sacrifice and for not keeping the Old Testament Sabbath. One must remember, however, that these were the ways in which Old Testament people showed their loyalty to God alone. (Freeing those dependent on you from work on the Sabbath was also an expression of justice and mercy, by the way). Thus the prophets’ concern for these things only underscores rather than detracts from their message of devotion to God, integrity, sexual purity, justice, and mercy.
Studying the prophets during these months has only emphasized the difference between what God requires and the personally and politically corrupt, greedy, cruel world in which we live. At the present moment it confronts those of us who profess to follow Jesus, the one who fulfills the prophets and in Himself embodies both the justice and mercy of God, with the hungry who cross our borders and with the plight of millions of Syrian refugees fleeing the violent destruction of their homes.
At https://pomegranateandbell.wordpress.com/2015/09/04/waves-of-mercy/ you will find a compelling blog on the plight of these refugees. If you haven’t already read it, please do so.
*For more on how to understand the Old Testament prophets and on their relevance for today see Christian Faith in the Old Testament: The Bible of the Apostles (Thomas Nelson, 2014) 195-220. Check out the page by that title on this web site.