Isaiah 1:1 - Introduction To The Prophets
Isaiah 1:1 is the first verse of the first chapter of the first prophetic book of the Bible. If you flipped forward from Isaiah 1, you would come across 17 prophets in total, essentially comprising the entire second half of the Old Testament. 5 of these major prophets and 12 are minor prophets. The major prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel and Lamentations, are simply the longest books. The 12 minor prophets are just the shorter 12 prophets. Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephanaiah, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi.
Now, if you’ve ever read the Bible at all, I would bet that there is one common experience that we can all relate to. These are the books that, when you get to them, you skip over and find something else easier to understand. (or you just trudge through, read and know you’re not going to understand)
In comparison with most of the rest of our Bibles, this section of Scripture which takes up ¼ of our Bibles (!!!) is rarely preached on, rarely covered in Bible studies, rarely the subject of morning devotions and rarely finds its way into our minds when we need to be reminded of God’s Truth.
If we’re all going to be honest, we can all probably agree that the prophets just seem too hard to understand and, at the end of the day, impractical, irrelevant and inapplicable for real life.
But this morning, I want to convince you otherwise. The prophets are for anyone who is fed up. Are you fed up? Let’s see.
In the last 5 years, Americans have discovered that racism in our country didn’t die in the 70’s. It’s been alive and well in the hearts of most of us.
We’re currently led by a president who’s an economic genius but whose standard of morality would make a grown man blush.
There are more orphaned children who are victims of neglect and abuse by their own parents in our country than ever before. Over 400,000 children in the foster system.
This country seems every day like it’s about to split at the seams over one or the other of a thousand polarizing issues that we demonize one another over. Whether it’s gender issues or immigration or abortion or global warming. There is no civil discourse. It’s just fire-spitting fury from the right side to the left and the left to the right.
Or just this last week, a prominent leader within American Christianity announced that he and his wife were getting a divorce. 2 days ago, he announced through social media that he’s no longer a Christian.
Stories like this seem to be more the norm these days than the exception, don’t they? Christians falling away from the faith on the regular.
And then there’s me. The individual Christian. The follower of Christ … who can’t get his act together. As fragile as a leaf on a tree – as soon as the light breeze of uncertain circumstances blow, I once again abandon hope in God and give into worry and panic. The follower of Christ who can tend to live one way on Sunday and then deny Christ with my lifestyle in a number of ways Monday-Saturday. The Christian who’s gentle and compassionate one day with my family and an irritable, angry, selfish, leave-me-alone-so-I-can-mindlessly-check-my-emails-on-my-phone dad and husband the next day.
And I’m fed up!
I’m fed up with the cycle of junk that’s going on in the world around me. And I’m fed up with the cycle of my own hypocrisy and inability to change!
If you, like me, are fed up with what you see going on around you or the pattern of inconsistency within you, then you need to read the prophets.
Because the prophets are a group of 17 books which leave you on your knees crying out to God, “we need you to break the cycle!”
Because the prophets speak on behalf of a God who is fed up with the nations’ evil and corruption and His people’s disobedience. The prophets are men who are fed up with a people who won’t listen to them. The people the prophets speak to are a people who are fed up with their own stubbornness and inability to break their own cycle.
The prophets tell us that since the first moment when sin entered into this world, the nations have been a mess and God’s people have been underwhelmingly righteous. And we need someone to break the cycle. We need a cycle-breaker.
This morning, I want to take a brief trip over the prophets and show you how imminently practical the prophets are. How they help you see yourself clearly. How they create a longing for God’s salvation of Christ. How they stoke the fires of affection for Christ.
Three simple headings:
Who are the prophets?
What was the message of the prophets?
When were the prophets?
1. Who Are The Prophets?
The prophets, put simply, were God’s spokespersons. Put technically, were God’s “covenant mediators”.
In the book of Exodus, the Israelites were in slavery to the Egyptians. Led by Moses, God delivered Israel from Egypt. He led them to the base of a mountain. And at that mountain, God established a covenant with Israel. A covenant is a binding promise between two parties, promising blessing for faithfulness to the promise and curses for disobedience. God told the nation Israel in Exodus 6:7 “I will be your God and you will be my people”. A moment of tremendous love and expression of the Creator living in relationship with the people He created. And then, through Moses, He proceeded to give them His Law. In other words, “My end of the promise is to be your God and bless you and give you a land and be your protection and to give you a relationship with your Creator. Your end of the promise is to be faithful to me. If I break my promise, curses to me. If you break your promise, the same to you.”
Moses was the very first prophet. He “mediated” God’s covenant to God’s people. He stood in the gap between God and His people and handed down the covenant.
And following Moses, the prophets were men who continued to speak on behalf of God to God’s people. Men who continue to mediate God’s covenant to His people.
Now, when you think of a “prophet”, you probably think of someone who predicts the future. Of a foreteller. And that’s true. They tell of what will become of God’s people. They tell of the coming covenant blessings. They tell of the coming judgment in light of unfaithfulness.
But even more pronounced in the prophets is their “forthtelling”, rather than their “foretelling”. What I mean by that is that in most cases, they have a message to tell God’s people. So, when you read the prophets, sometimes, they’re foretelling, but ore often than not they’re “forthtelling” God’s message to His people. They’re the mediators of God’s covenant to His people telling forth the message that God has for His people. And that brings us to the second point:
What was the message of the prophets?
2. What Was The Message Of The Prophets?
This is where we really begin to be able to understand the prophets. Before we get specifically to their message, we have to pull back and look at the grand narrative of Scripture. Stick with me here.
The Old Testament tracks two major stories. One story, we’ll call the “cosmic” story. This is the story of humanity in relation to God. It’s the story of God’s creation of humanity in His presence paradise, humanity’s fall into sin, God’s exile of humanity from paradise and from His presence and then humanity’s continued rebellion from God. We call this the “cosmic” story because it’s the story of all the nations of the earth, running in rebellion to God. This cosmic story is contained in Genesis 3-11.
But then, there’s Israel’s story. And Israel’s story is documented all the way from Genesis 12-2Kings 25. Israel’s story parallels the cosmic story. It’s identical to the cosmic story except for two things. One, it’s the cosmic story in miniature. Two, it’s the story of God’s chosen people. And it begs the question: will God’s chosen people fare any better than the nations? Yet, tragically, just like the cosmic story, following God’s covenant from Sinai through Moses, Israel’s story is one of a threefold cycle that happens over and over and over. Covenant unfaithfulness – sin. Followed by judgment. Followed by a promise of restoration.
Sin, promise, restoration.
And thus, the message of the prophets follows this very pattern.
a) Israel violates the covenant. And thus, the prophets, whoever God’s assigned prophet is at the time, “forthtells” proclaims, “repent of your sin! Turn from your sin. Turn back to God. Turn back to His promises.”
And the prophets get specific about the sins of the people. Among many others, there are 3 primary sins that the prophets identify and confront in their “forthtelling”:
Idolatry - worship of other gods
Social injustice – the orphaned, the widow and the foreigner
Religious ritualism – appearing to be faithful to God, but in reality, just performing dead religious ritual
And the prophets urge the nation to repent. To become faithful once again to the covenant. But in all 17 of the prophets. Almost nobody. Ever. Listens.
b) And so the second phase of the cycle. No repentance? Then judgment. Removal of God’s promises. God will remove His protection and allow the nations to ravage them. He will remove His promise of the promised land and send them into exile. He will remove His very presence of blessing from them.
Usually, this is when God’s people repent. Once they’ve experienced the consequences of their actions.
And how like humanity is that? It’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye. Or until mom finds out. Or until your spouse finds out. Or until a marriage ends in divorce. Or until you lose your job. We’re usually apologetic and humble once we’ve faced the consequences of our actions. But have an awful tendency toward pride and self-confidence even in the midst of unethical or immoral activity.
c) Following judgment, the prophets always proclaim the third phase of the cycle. Restoration.Not because the people have repented. But because God is merciful. And this is what’s most unexpected in the covenant. Because God’s not bound to restore them. It’s an expression of His character. He restores them. But every time, the good times only last for so long.
And they fall right back into their sin and rebellion. Into their idolatry. Their own lack of mercy for the least of these. Their own dead, dry godless ritualism.
And the cycle continues over and over and over.
The prophets are so valuable because they blend the cosmic story and the story of God’s people into one. They tell us that God’s people are no more able to break the cycle and escape judgment than the nations.
How is this applicable to us? It’s a mirror into our own souls. Because we’re just like God’s own Old testament people. In other words, you’re just like God’s Old Covenant people.
If you’re not fed up, you should be.
They show us that their cycle is our cycle – they pull us out of our laisses faire, ambivalent attitudes, confront us in our sin, identify there’s a problem that needs a solution.
We’re no more able to break the cycle than God’s Old Covenant people.
But let me ask one final question:
3. When Were The Prophets?
This might seem like a random and unrelated question, but let me show you why understanding this question will help you understand and apply the prophets.
Most prophets forthtold their message between 750 and 450 BC. Between 2500 and 2800 years ago.
At the beginning point of this range, Israel had split into two kingdoms after the reign of Solomon. The Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah. Both at this point had fallen “far from the tree.”
In 746, Israel allied with Syria to attack Judah. Judah then aligned with Assyria to defend themselves. To put this into perspective, this was like a quarrel between two brothers, but each brother goes and gets the help of leaders of local gangs to help them settle the quarrel. Syria and Assyria were thugs. They were the enemies of God’s people.
Long story short, Assyria conquered and destroyed Israel in 722 BC. The Northern Kingdom of Israel. Gone.
But while Judah remained, for the next 150 years, they fast and loose with all their other neighbors. Aligned with Assyria, but then attacked by Assyria, so they aligned with Egypt (who had enslaved them for 400 years), but then aligned with Babylon against Egypt and Assyria, but then switched from Babylon back to Egypt and in 586, Babylon captured Jerusalem, killed half the population and took the rest into exile into Babylon.
Almost all prophets wrote either before the Assyrian captivity or the Babylonian captivity. They forthtold the Israelites and the Judahites, “repent!” and they didn’t. They worshipped their own gods, were wicked toward the weak, practiced religious ritualism and trusted in God’s enemies to protect them instead of trusting in their covenant God. And so God’s judgment came in the form of the nations.
The application of the last point was, “if you’re not fed up, you should be”. The application of this point is, “If you’re fed up, you’re not the first.”
Because the prophets tell us that ever since sin entered the world, things have always been this way. The world around God’s people has always been filled with wickedness, with power-hungry leaders carelessly raping and burning and pillaging. And that God’s people have always been a mess, endlessly stuck in a cycle of unfaithfulness, sin and restoration.
The mainstream media of our day breeds fear and tries to convince you that things have never been this bad. However, these cycles have always existed.
The news of the Christian leader falling away grieves me but it doesn’t make me worry that the church is dying.
We live in an evil time, but nations – even God’s own people - have fallen away from God and become morally debased and corrupted for millennia
Humans, even God’s own people, have been pitiful excuses for goodness and righteousness since the beginning of time
But here’s why the prophets are so worth reading and studying and listening to. Because they remind us of how maddeningly this cycle is in our own lives. They remind us that this is nothing new. This cycle has been cycling round and round since the first sin. But remember that the prophets are primarily “forthtellers”. Remember that they’re also foretellers.
Even though the restoration is short-lived every time, the prophets all tell of a coming day when God will bring complete and total restoration. When in His Divine mercy, HE WILL BREAK THE CYCLE.
The prophets foretell of God’s promised cycle-breaker. And this cycle breaker will make a new covenant that can’t be broken, even by your cycle. This cycle-breaker will lead a new exodus out of captivity not to a nation, but out of captivity to the cycle. He’ll free you from your cycle. This cycle-breaker will bring a new presence of God’s Spirit among His people. This cycle breaker will write the Law on the hearts of God’s people.
This is what the prophets foretell. The prophets proclaim, prepare the way for, make us long for and fill us with gratitude for the cycle-breaker – the Messiah – Jesus Christ.
So over these next few months, we’ll meet three prophets and hear their messages. The message of Joel, beginning next week. Then the message of the prophet Micah. Then the message of the prophet Jonah.
And my prayer is that at the end of hearing all of their messages, we’re left with a longing in our hearts for the cycle breaker.