Five Themes of the Prophets
The prophetic portions of our bible, while they contain some of the loftiest and most beautiful descriptions of God and his redemptive plan to be found anywhere in the scriptures, are yet among the most difficult portions to understand and interpret. They are gold mines that require a great deal of labor to extract and possess the vast riches hidden deep beneath the surface. Without a little guidance and reflection, one might wander aimlessly here and there, without making heads or tails of the bulk of what has been written. Even Martin Luther, whose exegetical abilities are beyond question, has said of the writing prophets, "They have a queer way of talking, like people who, instead of proceeding in an orderly manner, ramble off from one thing to the next, so that you cannot make head or tail of them or see what they are getting at." This observation is strikingly true. So how does one begin to find a structure that would aid in understanding writings that are so obviously structured differently from the logical, point-by-point, western way of proceeding? I have come to the conviction that the following five themes are central to the message of every writing prophet; and that, like so many threads, they are interwoven throughout the prophetic corpus, binding them together in a unified whole that fills a very specific place in the unfolding of redemptive history and revelation. One might view them as so many pegs upon which to hang the variously intermingled prophecies, and so have a basis for the comparison and conflation of the whole. Or else as so many facets, many of which inhere in each individual prophecy, relative to the angle at which one views it. I am indebted for many of the following observations to O. Palmer Robertson, whose book, The Christ of the Prophets, has been invaluable in helping me to think through these issues.
I. The prophets enforce and apply the Mosaic law.
The prophets did not come up with a new, strange theology or way of looking at the world. Everything in the prophets' message is there to some degree in the foundational work of the Pentateuch and other Old Testament writings. The prophets may become more specific in relating the meaning of God's law to the people, but there is nothing brand new in their prophecies. When the prophets denounced the sins of the people and pronounced coming judgment, they did so in strict accordance with the blessings and cursings of faithfulness or unfaithfulness to the covenant as recorded especially in Leviticus 26:1-39; Deuteronomy 4:15-40; and Deuteronomy 28:1-32:42. Understanding these passages will give us the necessary foundations for understanding the writings of the prophets. Involved in this application of the Mosaic law is both the cursing prophesied for unfaithfulness, and the mercy promised to all who walk according to its precepts. Leviticus 26, in particular, emphasizes both these elements that are found so often in the prophets.
Virtually every commandment given in the Pentateuch is used by the prophets to condemn and accuse the wickedness of Israel, and to pronounce coming judgment. Many prophecies refer to specific commandments which Israel had broken; for example, Hosea 4:2,3, which specifically refers to the third, ninth, sixth, eighth, and seventh commandments, and pronounces judgment on that basis. On the other hand, some passages refer to the law as a whole, and pronounce judgment because of a wholesale violation of all the commandments (Hosea 8:12,13).
II. The prophets emphasize God's eternal covenant with his people.
The prophets do not end with a message of cursing, promised as a retribution for unfaithfulness from the time of Moses. Their prophecies are also full of unconditional promises of hope, made on the basis of every covenant God had established. Some prophecies of hope even allude to many covenants in the same context, such as Ezekiel 37:24-26. Even though the people of Israel failed to observe the Mosaic law, the law, which came 430 years after the promise to Abraham, could not nullify the promise of God's eternal covenant (Galatians 3:17).
III. The prophets include every nation of the world in God's plans.
It was easy for the Israelites to assume that God was only concerned with them as a people; but the prophets clearly showed that God was actively governing in the affairs of the entire world. God will both judge and show mercy to nations other than Israel. The prophets contain many denunciations of Gentile nations, but these are not specifically related to the law which was given to Israel. Instead, they are usually condemned for pride, idolatry, and violence (Isaiah 16:6,7; Amos 2:1; Isaiah 19:1); more particularly, they are often condemned for their mistreatment of God's people (Jeremiah 50:17,18). But beyond just condemnation, the prophets also give much hope to the Gentile nations, on the basis of the New Covenant, which will turn the Gentiles into true Israel, the people of God's favor (Isaiah 66:19-22; Amos 9:11,12).
IV. The prophets' central message is the exile and restoration of Israel.
Central to understanding the message of the prophets is the idea of the exile (based on unfaithfulness to the law) and the restoration (based on God's continuing covenant of grace). The judgment of the exile is extreme, even to the point of God's casting off his people so thoroughly that they become "not my people" (Hosea 1:6-10). But the promise of the return is also extreme, so that those who were called "not my people" shall be called "my people." This restoration of true Israel involves God's creating a people for himself from every nation, just as Paul interprets this passage from Hosea in Romans 9:23-27. Hence, the promise of restoration extends beyond what happened when Cyrus sent the exiles of Israel back to Jerusalem. This was merely a type and a foretaste of the massive restoration that was yet to come in the time of Christ.
V. The prophets clearly display the centrality of Christ in every part of their message.
Not only is Christ the consummation of the prophets (Deuteronomy 18:15; Acts 3:19-23); he is also the fulfillment of all the prophecies. The prophets demand a curse for the breaking of the law: but they also prophesy that Christ would vicariously bear the curses of the law (Isaiah 53). They promise covenant blessings to God's people: but they recognize that only Christ could usher in all the covenant blessings (Isaiah 55:3-5). In fact, the presence of Christ himself among his people is the sole substance of what those covenant blessings are (Isaiah 9:6,7; Ezekiel 34:29,30). In addition, the central message of the prophets â€“ the exile/restoration motif â€“ is best understood when we view the work of the coming Christ in those same terms. God would reject his people. But this rejection, extreme as it is, could never be sufficient to placate God's wrath against sin, and usher in a restoration of mercy. However, there are prophecies of a coming Messiah, who would likewise undergo rejection and exile. Because of his perfect righteousness, he would be a sufficient sacrifice to placate God's wrath and purchase his mercy so that an undeserving people would know the restoration of his grace. In other words, "The very process that the elect nation must undergo in exile and restoration finds its personalized expression in the sufferings and exaltation of this distinctive servant of the Lord." (O. Palmer Robertson). Not only would Christ suffer exile, being "stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted;" he would also be "exalted and extolled, and lifted very high" (Isaiah 52:13;53:4). And not only would he win a glorious restoration for himself, but he would likewise purchase a worldwide restoration, that would affect the remnant of Israel, and all the nations, and even the very earth itself (Jeremiah 50:20; Joel 2:32; Isaiah 65:17-19). In light of the massive implications of the prophesied restoration, it becomes clear that, "Reconstitution of Israel in the land that underscores Jewish nationalism and builds walls of separation between them and the Gentile peoples cannot possibly qualify as the restoration depicted in the writings of the prophets" (O. Palmer Robertson).