What is a Prophet?
Rabbi Abraham Heschel used to tell the following story to describe the calling of the people of God and of individuals to be prophets: Once upon a time there was an agricultural kingdom which prospered year after year. Everyone had plenty to eat and everyone was happy. But then, one year it was discovered that whoever ate that year's grain became crazy - really crazy.
Aware of the terrible crisis, the King and Queen gathered the wise men and women of the realm and met with them around the clock for several days. Then they called the kingdom together for a very important message. When the kingdom was gathered, the royal family began "It is clear that we are in a terrible, terrible crisis; but we have our response. From the kingdom, we are setting aside twelve men and women. They will eat last year's grain while the rest of us will be eating this year's grain. The twelve will serve a very important function. Their mission will be to remind the rest of us that we are, indeed, crazy."
There is no higher calling. But now, on to the three "major prophets," Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel.
THE MAJOR PROPHETS
THE CALLING OF THE PROPHETS: each called with a powerful vision and a commissioning.
ISAIAH (calling 742) His calling is described in Isaiah 6:1-5, 6-10. Some of the elements of that call are an overwhelming experience of Holiness (his words are reflected in the Sanctus) and a piece of burning coal applied to his lips (cleansing). Later, like Jeremiah, Isaiah believes he was called from mother's womb 49:1-3
JEREMIAH (calling 626) Calling: 1:4-8, 9 (reflected in Psalm 139) like Isaiah verse. 5 "touch my mouth." He complains that he is too young and unexperienced and, given God's charge, Jeremiah was totally unsuited temperamentally (the experience of the fool is described at: 1:10
Elements of his call:: like Ezekiel, Jeremiah "eats God's words," Is this reflected in the Collect: that we might read, mark, learn and inwardly digest Holy Scripture?
EZEKIEL (calling 593) His calling: 2:1-2; 3:1-3: elements of his call include a strong and bizarre experience of Holiness, as with Isaiah a piece of coal is applied to his lips, and he describes the power of the Spirit. Like Jeremiah, Ezekiel eats God's words.
CHARACTERISTICS OF THE THREE PROPHETS
ISAIAH: He was an artistocrat and very aware of foreign realities -- much like a Teddy Kennedy or our own Bill Stewart. His language is majestical -- some of the most eloquent in all of Scripture. He also has an almost unique vision of the whole of humanity under the love and mercy of God -- his phrase is that Israel is to be a light to the nations, bringing them into the wholeness intended for the People of God.
JEREMIAH: he began his ministry at an early age – not with the same sense of awe (as Isaiah and Ezekiel). On the other hand, he struggles and wrestles with God -- much like an Ann Sexton or John of the Cross.
Much of the book of Jeremiah is "biography," written down by his secretary Baruch. Some of the best of the book are his confessions, prayers, and inner reflections. He has an intensely personal relationship with God – exhibiting deep faith in God as well as intense anger at God for what he experiences as betrayal. Another way of considering this is the tension between his own personal inclinations (wanting to party with his friends) and his deep sense of vocation.
His stress on personal experience of faith helped define a new foundation for faith after the Exile.
EZEKIEL: his message is defined by vision of absolute holiness, otherness of God – the last part of Ezekiel is very similar to the Holiness Code (Leviticus 18ff.).
Ezekiel was a pastor and fiercely protective of his flock – also bound to speak against them. His tirade against the Watchmen (pastors) who do not attend to the deeper needs of their people is searing.
THE BOOK OF ISAIAH: its setting is when Uzziah was King 783-742 – Judah was at its most powerful; but Uzziah becomes proud and attempts to usurp power of priesthood. Confronted, he becomes leper and the power and influence of the nation goes into decline. There are two quite different people and time periods in the two major sections of the book, identified as I Isaiah 1-39; II Isaiah 40-
I ISAIAH The setting for Isaiah's prophesies is the nation's interest in political intrigue/alliances. Isaiah sees all of this as a betrayal of God's rule and protection. For him, the world is in God's hands – it is folly to enter into alliances. Thus, he rails against
-- reliance on world power – rely not on weapons, but on God.
-- subservience to nation like Assyria – which will mean accepting their gods and cults.
-- alliance with Assyria meant involvement in her military operations.
King Ahaz - in treaty w/ Assyria for protection:he was willing to compromise religious principles to curry favor.
King Hezekiah wants alliance with Egypt – Isaiah, to illustrate futility of such dependence, walks naked through the streets of Jerusalem. .
For Isaiah, problem is not foreign policy, but the inner state of the nation.
Two Stages in I Isaiah: disaster is coming and a remnant will return Isaiah 33:15. Then from the remnant, there will be redemption for all nations. God's covenant will be not only with people, but with Zion and with the land.
Of special interest: Apocalyptic vision of Messiahnic Banquet Isaiah 25.6f. which is not just for Israel.
II ISAIAH 40-66 Doom is no longer relevant and there is the promise of Return.
High Points of II Isaiah:
His description of the character of God 40:1-5, 40:11; v12f. and creation ex nihilo (42:).
Description of the calling of the military man, Cyrus as instrument of God in freeing the Jews from captivity. Cyrus, a foreigner, was first to be referred to as "Christ" 45:1ff.
Vision – which is reflected in what we sing in Handel's Messiah.
His descriptions of the the Suffering Servant (read during Palm Sunday and Holy Week) – is this Isaiah? the Jewish people/nation? One to come? This suffering is not a penalty – but a privilege, sacrifice.
Light to the Nations (here it is God, not Isaiah, talking to Israel)
God said to Jeremiah: "I appointed you as a prophet to the nations," to Isaiah: "I appointed you as a light to the nations." 49:6. This vision of our being Light to the nations 42:6-7, 42:1-4
JEREMIAH b. 650 in Anathoth, 4 mi. north of Jerusalem, called to be prophet 626.
Jeremiah's mentors were Isaiah, Hosea, Amos and Micah (quotes Habbakuk's words of struggling with the notion that the evil seem to go unpunished)
Lived through Josiah's Reform 621, but found it dealing with externals only - and thus inadequate.
Heschel – p. 105 for description (3/2)
Much of Jeremiah is introspective:
psychological 20:4-11. Abraham Heschel notes that Jeremiah's words about betrayal are better translated as a virgin being seduced/a married woman being raped.
Internalizes religious faith – out of faith comes practice. This is a big step from religion as obedience to rules.
Jeremiah's sense of God's initiative. Like Ezekiel, at the end Jeremiah has a well defined belief in Grace.
Jeremiah's high moral sense: 22:13-19 29:7f.
Baruch – when Jeremiah could not appear in public because of threats on his life, he enlisted Baruch 36:4-8 to take down his speeches and deliver them. Baruch also chronicles the inner life of Jeremiah, as well.
1In first part of Jeremiah, he preaches wrath: all are l under condemnation. 2:8: later, those who repent will be saved. 7:5-7
Speaks of the Fatherhood of God 3:19
Restoration: 29:10f It is God who has sent Jews into exile – and God who called Persian military leader to free them.
High Points in Jeremiah
1. My favorite image: Cisterns 2:13f.
2. Morality: 22:13-19 very similar to the prophet Amos. Later, he counsels those in exile not to rebel against Babylonians, but to find their lives where they are. 29:7f.
3. What do you do as you are trying to exit your country before it is overrun? Jeremiah buys property! 32.6ff
4. Jeremiah's Book of Hope, chapters 30-33 (motto of OT 30:3) This forms much of the basis the teaching of Paul & Jesus.
The Big Oops: a delightfully humorous piece: 34:8-11. everyone suddenly becomes religious – so what happens?
Notion of Grace: 31:1-6 v. 3
Jeremiah elucidates the theme of OT "in spite of everything, I have remained faithful."
The most important part of the Book of Jeremiah: The New Covenant 31:31-33, v. 4
EZEKIEL: The structure of the book: Judgment: 1-24; Hope 25-32; Restitution of Israel 33-48 (Chapter 40f. similar to Leviticus 19ff. Holiness Code.
1. As pastor of exiles – felt responsibility for each individual
2. Certainty of ruin of Jerusalem & Judah as a result of their idolatry and moral iniquity.
3. Judgment is not disciplinary or redemptive – it is simple punishment.
4. Promise of Restoration and Renewal. Powerful notion of the New Covenant - 11:17-20 based on Grace - an interpolation of Jeremiah.
5. Individual Responsibility - huge step forward in Hebrew religion: 18:1-9; 20f. (especially verse 23)
6. High Doctrine of Holiness (we are to be holy because Yahweh is holy)
7. Restoration of Israel: God takes initiative, doesn't wait for our repentance.
Vision of the Dry Bones 37:1-14. Note that the dead are soldiers.
Yahweh, the Good Shepherd 34:11ff. God is gathering flock from everywhere.
Gift of New Heart/New Spirit 36:25-27, 31. Truly Majestic!
8. Restoration Complete only if God lives in midst of people 40-48
Plans and dimensions for new Temple
Priests in charge of Temple (no foreign helpers as before)
Emphasis on the Cult (very much in the Priestly tradition).