The Message of the Prophets
Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, that is, the Old Testament, one finds many books written by the prophets. Their influence was great as they proclaimed the Lord’s message to their people. However, people down through the centuries who have studied the Scriptures have been strongly influenced by the ancient Hebrew prophets. People who seek to be faithful to God do well to read the writings of the prophets and take heart in their message. What they wrote spoke to their people and it speaks to all who seek to be faithful to the Lord God. This morning I am going to highlight some important Hebrew words and some of the teaching of the prophets. Perhaps we too can take heart in their teaching and draw closer to the Lord God.
What is a prophet? It is a person directed by inspiration of God to proclaim God’s will to the people and their leaders. It is a person who spoke divinely inspired messages. The Hebrew prophets proclaimed God’s word and will to His people. Many people today think that prophets tell the future. God’s prophets were not so much future tellers as they were people who spoke to the corrupt culture of their day. They often gave divinely inspired messages that the people and leaders did not want to hear. The prophet Jeremiah was a thorn in the side of the king and leaders of Jerusalem. They even dumped him into a cistern to try to stop him from proclaiming God’s message. Prophets are quite troublesome to leaders and kings who are operating outside of God’s will and who were not being faithful to Him. You might be familiar with some of God’s prophets as you read or studied the Bible. In doing so, you likely ran into people like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Micah, Nahum, Malachi, and others who still speak to us in Scripture today.
In ancient Israel there were genuine prophets of God and there were also false prophets. The false prophets were, according to Dr. Israel I. Mattuck, “used by men to get what they wanted from God, [while] the other kind of prophet was used by God to tell men what He wanted from them.” Throughout the world there are Christian ministers who one might characterize as false prophets. They preach what the people want to hear. Some call the message that they preach “the prosperity gospel.” They teach that God wants to bless us with health, happiness and wealth. God certainly wants to bless us but there are an abundance of Christians in our world that are suffering persecution and poverty. And suffering from illness is no sign that we are unfaithful to the Lord. We are wise to stay away from the professional prophets and learn from genuine prophets of God. There were false prophets in ancient Israel who told people and leaders what they wanted to hear, not a genuine message from God.
The prophets remind us that we are to live out God’s standards, not human standards. Faith in the Lord God means that we follow His moral standards, not the culture’s standards. Dr. Mattuck writes, “Their [the prophets] experience of God impressed on them the urgent need for higher standards” and “True religion always imposes the duty to examine, and judge, the generally accepted moral standards.” Jesus’ teaching is in the stream of prophetic thought. He calls us to God’s high moral standard. Jesus said, “But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things [the things we need for life] will be given to you as well (Matthew 6:33).”
I want to teach you three important Hebrew words used by God’s prophets. (1) The first word is Chesed. It is spelled c-h-e-s-ed. It is usually translated into English as loving-kindness, kindness or mercy. Dr. Mattuck writes that chesed “describes an attitude of God towards men, the right attitude of men towards God, and of men towards one another.” Chesed means a faithful, devoted love, loving devotion, or affectionate loyalty to God. Some of God’s prophets write that God desires chesed rather than animal sacrifices. Loving-kindness is a one of the key characteristics of the Lord God, and He calls us to be kind and loving to one another.
(2) The second important word for the prophets is mishpat. It is translated into English as justice. In ancient Israel, judges could be bribed and the wealthy oppressed the poor. That behavior is in clear violation of the law of God. God is a just God and requires of us to be just to others. Dr. Mattuck writes, “It may be that when a prophet pleads for mishpat he means justice in the most inclusive sense, right decisions by judges, just laws by rulers, and, in general fair treatment of others.” The prophets proclaimed God’s message of mishpat, justice. It is a message for all time that speaks to all cultures and nations.
(3) The third important Hebrew word that the prophets used in proclaiming God’s message to the people of Israel is tsedakah. In English tsedakah is translated righteousness. One writer comments that love and justice together constitute righteousness. It is the religious obligation to do what is right and just. The Lord God is righteous and we are to emulate Him as we live life with others. Tsedakah is right living versus being selfish and morally deficient. The prophets taught tsedakah as a godly requirement for faithful living.
Given that we learned three key words the prophets used—loving-kindness, justice and righteousness--now let us look at some of the teaching of the prophets. Amos’ occupation was as a shepherd. I imagine he spent many nights under the magnificent sky of the Middle East. I remember the first time I walked out of our tent at night in the Arabian Desert. To use an Irish term, I was gobsmacked. The stars appeared to be so low that one could reach out and touch them. The Milky Way was nothing but magnificent. I felt a powerful sense of the divine and was in total awe of the Creator. It is likely that Amos experienced the powerful presence of the Lord God and through God’s presence he received His prophetic message for his people. Amos writes, “Seek good, not evil, that you may live. Then the Lord God Almighty will be with you,just as you say he is. Hate evil, love good; maintain justice in the courts.Perhaps the Lord God Almighty will have mercy on the remnant of Joseph (Amos 5:14-15).” Surely this is a message we can take heart in. The people of America need to seek good, not evil, so that they may live. Amos uses that powerful word for justice, Mishpat. He also writes, “But let justice [mishpat] roll down like waters, and righteousness [tsedakah] like an ever flowing stream (Amos 5:24).” Amos was a prophet who proclaimed God’s justice and righteousness to a people who needed correction.
Micah was another of what the scholars call the twelve Minor Prophets. Their message was anything but minor. He is likely not a priest or expert in the Law of Moses but one of the common people. He was highly critical of the privileged class. Micah writes, “He has told you, O mortals, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice [mishpat] and to love kindness [chesed], and to walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:8).” Certainly, Micah’s message from God is one we can meditate on and take heart in.
There are correct interpretations and false interpretations of prophesy. One has to be careful and have a good understanding of Jewish history and culture in order to properly interpret Hebrew prophesies. I recall being at a Christian youth meeting when I was a teenager. The speaker was dynamic and passionate. He spoke at length about a prophesy that predicted automobiles. He quoted the prophet Nahum in the King James Version of the Bible: “The chariots shall rage in the streets, they shall jostle one against another in the broad ways; they shall seem like torches, they shall run like lightenings (Nahum 2:4).” I thought that was interesting and read the chapter. Nahum was not predicting 20th century automobiles. He was describing a chariot invasion and battle in a city. One has to know the context into which the prophets spoke or one may run off on a foolish rabbit trail.
The prophet Joel is another of the Minor Prophets. In Hebrew his name means, “The Lord is God.” Joel writes, “Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts, not your clothing. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing (Joel 2:12-13).” Joel speaks of chesed, the steadfast love and mercy of the Lord God who wants people to return to Him and have genuine life.
Monday is the national holiday recognizing and celebrating the life of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He was a Christian who was highly influenced by the teaching found in the Bible. He spoke of faith as “taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.” That certainly makes sense to me. The prophets would say a big amen to this quote: “True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.” We would expect to see the teachings of Jesus in his speeches and sermons and we do. He writes, “We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies.” Love and justice were core teachings of Dr. King. He says, “That’s love, you see. It is redemptive, and this is why Jesus says love. There’s something about love that builds up and is creative. There is something about hate that tears down and is destructive. So love your enemies.” Dr. King’s teachings come out of the prophets and from the Lord Jesus Christ.
It is interesting that one way to neutralize a prophet is to set him up on a pedestal and perhaps make a national holiday for him. It seems America has forgotten Dr. King’s witness of faith as we have honored him. The nation needs to hear the voice of the prophets. We need to hear Amos, Micah, Joel and the other Hebrew prophets. We need to hear the words of Dr. King who was clearly a man sent by God to proclaim God’s message of justice to a Nation that needed to repent. Today we see violence in the cities. We see theft and looting of retail stores. The use of opiates and other drugs for recreation in America has facilitated the evil cartels and is killing many of our citizens. A large number of people have no sense of morality, no sense of loving-kindness and justice. Where are the prophets for today? It is time for, in Amos’ words, to “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream (Amos 5:24).” It is time for people to seek the Lord while He may be found.