The Big Story #4: God's Prophets
Jesus told a parable of a man who planted a vineyard (Mark 12). He let it out to some farmers and after some time sent back a servant to collect some of the fruit. However the farmers seized him, beat him and sent him away. The man sent another servant with the same result. Again and again he sent another servant, some of them were beaten, and others were killed. Finally, the owner of Vineyard decided to send his son, whom he loved. ‘Surely they will respect my son’ he thought. But to no avail, the farmers took him, killed him and threw him out of the vineyard.
It doesn’t take Sherlock to find the link between this parable and God’s line of prophets leading to Jesus. Jesus’ ministry follows on from the ministries of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel etc., and of course John the Baptist. He was on a mission from the very same God to the very same people.
The prophetic books in the Bible, the big 4 and the minor 12, are generally set either shortly before Israel’s destruction by their enemies, during the exile that followed, or in the period immediately after their return from exile. If the Exodus from Egypt was the most significant moment in the history of God’s people, the Exile would be second.
2 Chronicles 36:15-16 sums up the story when it says: “The LORD, the God of their ancestors, sent word to them through his messengers again and again, because he had pity on his people and on his dwelling place. But they mocked God’s messengers, despised his words and scoffed at this prophets until the wrath of the LORD was aroused against his people and there was no remedy.” That’s why so much of the prophets’ words are rebuke, judgement and proclamation of God’s wrath. God’s people just weren’t getting the message, they were disobedient, idolatrous and living in rebellion to God. The defeat of Israel by their enemies and exile was God’s judgement.
But God never left it like that. For every pronouncement of judgement there would be a promise to restore. Should God’s people turn back to him he would forgive them.
It is in these prophetic books that alongside the warnings and rebuke we have some of the greatest glimpses of Biblical hope, as the prophets describe God’s promises to redeem and restore his people. Here are some examples:
“Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” (Isaiah 40:4-5)
“For thus says the Lord: When 70 years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfil to you my promise and bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” (Jeremiah 29:10-11)
“And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.” (Ezekiel 36:26-27)
“I will strengthen the house of Judah, and I will save the house of Joseph. I will bring them back because I have compassion on them, and they shall be as though I had not rejected them, for I am the LORD their God and I will answer them.” (Zechariah 10:6)
You’ll find some books such as Esther and Daniel tell the story of God working in his people, even whilst they’re in exile. But you’ll also find books which tell how the Israelites were able to return from exile: Ezra and Nehemiah.
But whilst there was a return and in a sense the exile was over, it is also true that the full restoration described in the prophetic books never happened. Many Israelites had been scattered across the region when the Kingdom of Israel fell and not everyone returned. The city of Jerusalem and the temple were rebuilt, but this post-exile era never felt like a final and complete victory as the Jewish people continued to be pushed around by foreign empires. The hopes and dreams of the prophets were still awaiting their full resolution and so God’s people kept waiting for God to scatter their enemies and redeem them once and for all.
Roughly 400 years pass between the end the Old Testament and the start of the New. In the gap between Malachi and John the Baptist the people of Israel were victim to regional politics following Alexander the Great’s defeat of the Persian Empire and as the Roman Empire grew into the dominant force in 1st Century BC. The so-called ‘400 years of silence’ left God’s people wondering what the future held, they were waiting for God to save and deliver them, but they couldn’t have imagined it would happen the way it did.