God of Justice

Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Micah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel

Israel is conceived in God's covenant with Abraham, born in the exodus from Egypt, and brought through childhood in the wilderness to full maturity as a nation under the leadership of David and Solomon. But then, like one grown old, the health and strength of Israel begins to fail. The death of Solomon marks the end of an era, for the kingdom of Israel is soon split into two kingdoms: Israel in the north, and Judah in the south.

The books of Kings and Chronicles tell the stories of these two kingdoms and their leaders. Kings are judged for allowing worship at the "high places" outside of Jerusalem, and prophets like Elijah and Elisha rise up to call the Israelites back to their covenant with God. Elijah especially is remembered for his boldness in challenging the priests of Baal on Mt. Carmel, for hearing the word of God as "a still small voice," (1 Kings 19:12) and for being carried up to heaven at the end of his life in a chariot of fire. Men and women of faith will later expect Elijah to return, before the messiah comes to save the world.

For a time both kingdoms maintain their independence, but by the middle of the eighth century B.C. Israel is subjected to the control of Assyria. In the seventh century the southern kingdom of Judah is also brought under Assyrian rule.

The end of the Assyrian empire brings only a brief respite for the Israelites, as the Babylonians soon gain control of all of Palestine. Finally in 587 B.C. Jerusalem is sacked and destroyed. Many of the people are taken as slaves into Babylonia and Egypt, and others are simply dispersed throughout the Middle East. With the end of Israel comes the beginning of the life of a dispersed people, who will one day be known as the Jews.

Up to the end of the united kingdom Israel knew its share of strife and tribulation, but prevailed with the help of God. From a band of wandering tribes Israel grew into the strongest nation in Palestine. Its decline begins with the division of the kingdom in the tenth century. The books of Kings and Chronicles record the conflicts of the next several centuries.

By the seventh century B.C. it is clear that history has turned against Israel. Weak and divided, the Israelites are no longer a match for other nations in the Middle East. The story of Israel, which once followed a line of ascent, now appears to have come full circle. The people who were brought forth out of bondage are once again enslaved and exiled from their land.

The decline and fall of Israel not only leads to suffering and hardship for the people, but also precipitates a crisis of faith. The people are hard pressed to understand how the God who called them into being can allow their destruction. Israel has always worshipped a God who rules over history and authors the events of time. God freed Israel from its bondage in Egypt, watched over Israel in the wilderness, fought against Israel's adversaries in the successful settlement of Palestine, and strengthened the Israelite kings.

Now with Israel's immanent destruction it seems that God is abandoning Israel, or is being defeated by more powerful gods. The destruction of their nation leads Israelites to question the faith of their forefathers.

The Prophets

In the eighth century, however, individuals rose up to affirm that Israel's historical change of fortune is the will of God. The writings of these men are contained in the major and minor books of prophets compiled in the Bible. They were not seers, for they did not pretend to read the future. Instead they claimed to speak for God about the errors of the present and the judgment of the coming time. Their writings as well as their lives differ in style and emphasis. Some report visions, others do not. Their lives span times of peace and war. However, come what may, all proclaim the continued presence and purpose of God in the life of the people of Israel.

In the middle of the eighth century B.C. a man called Amos comes from Judah to the royal sanctuary of Bethel in the kingdom of Israel. He is the first among the prophets of this period whose words have been recorded in the Bible. Amos condemns Israel for its neglect of the poor and for its elaborate cultic rituals.

In a scene reminiscent of Nathan's confrontation with David, Amos speaks the harsh words of the Lord to Amaziah, the chief priest of Bethel: "I am no prophet, nor a prophet's son," he asserts, thus distinguishing himself from those who made their living through prophecy; "but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees." When his authority is questioned by Amaziah, Amos says that his prophecy comes from the Lord. Before returning to his own land, he tells Amaziah that the judgment of God is just and that "Israel will surely go into exile away from its land." (Amos 7:10-17)

Hosea proclaims much the same message in a different way a few years later. Amos spoke to the northern kingdom of Israel during a time of peace and relative prosperity, but in the time of Hosea Israel is at war with Assyria and near collapse. Hosea hears God telling him to take "a wife of harlotry and have children of harlotry, for the land commits great harlotry by forsaking the Lord." (Hosea 1:2)

So he marries the prostitute Gomer, who bears three sons and then leaves him. However, the Lord tells Hosea to take Gomer back and to love her, "even as the Lord loves the people of Israel, though they turn to other gods." (Hosea 3:1) Hosea prophecies that Israel will be "without king or prince" for many days, but will return "in fear to the Lord and to his goodness in the latter days." (Hosea 3:5)

A few years later the prophet Isaiah is writing in the southern kingdom of Judah. Isaiah's call to prophecy comes in a vision of "the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up." Above the throne are seraphim, angels, each with six wings: "with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew." Isaiah hears one of the seraphim call to another: "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory." (Isaiah 6:1-3)

When Isaiah protests that he is a man of unclean lips, one of the seraphim flies to him and touches his lips with a burning coal "taken with tongs from the altar." Then the seraphim says to Isaiah, "your guilt is taken away, and your sin forgiven." Thus, when God calls for someone to prophesy to the people, Isaiah calls out, "Here am I! Send me." (Isaiah 6:6-8)

Micah is a younger contemporary of Isaiah in Judah. Unlike Isaiah he comes from a small village and writes critically of the city of Jerusalem and the way of its inhabitants. No call similar to Isaiah's is recorded in the writings of Micah, but his words are equally fervent and compelling.

Micah prophecies that Jerusalem will be destroyed. "Hear this," he writes to its rulers, "who abhor justice and prevent all equity, who build Zion with blood and Jerusalem with wrong." Because of their iniquity "Jerusalem shall become a heap of ruins, and the mountain of the house a wooded height." (Micah 3:9-12) Micah goes on to assert that "in the latter days" Israel will be raised up again, and "out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem." In that time nations "shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks." Then "nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more." (Micah 4:1-4)

The latter part of the seventh century B.C., just before the time of King Josiah's reform in Judah, marks the beginning of the prophecies of Zephaniah and Jeremiah. Of these two prophets, Jeremiah is by far the better known. When called by the Lord Jeremiah, like Moses, argues that he is unequal to the task. "I do not know how to speak," he answers, "for I am only a youth." As with Isaiah, the Lord touches the lips of Jeremiah, and thus "the word of the Lord came" to him. (Jer. 1:6-10)

Jeremiah is a resident of Jerusalem in Judah and lives through the fall of that city to the Babylonians. Unlike Isaiah he does not spare Jerusalem in his prophecy. Because of his outspoken criticism of the priests of the temple, he is persecuted and threatened with death. Jeremiah is remembered especially for the prophecy concerning a new covenant with the people of Israel: "Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord," when "I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts." Then, the Lord says, "I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more." (Jer. 31:31-34)

Habakkuk and Ezekiel also write while Jeremiah is still alive. Ezekiel describes his call to prophecy in great detail. He sees a fiery chariot borne by four winged creatures, who remind us of the seraphim seen by Isaiah. Seated on a throne above the chariot is "a likeness as it were of a human form," clothed in brilliant bronze and fire. (Ezekiel 1) Ezekiel is given a scroll to eat, to confirm his call, and then instructed by God to prophesy. Prior to the fall of Jerusalem he joins Jeremiah in warning the people of God's coming judgment. After the fall of Jerusalem he speaks to them of God's promised restoration. His famous vision of a valley of dry bones is from this later period, as is his less well known vision of the restored temple in Jerusalem.

Joel, Haggai, and Zechariah voice their prophetic messages near the end of the sixth century. Haggai and Zechariah write to urge the restoration of the temple in Jerusalem, asking that the governor provide the necessary men and materials and that the chief priests conform worship in the temple to the law of Moses. Both look forward to the coming of the messianic age.

Still later Malachi, whose names means "My Messenger," also writes about the coming day of the Lord and the end of time. Malachi urges the people of Israel to return to their covenant with God, who he describes as the father of them all.

The Prophetic Voice

In our reading of the prophets we discern a common message: they all have the audacity to proclaim that Israel's suffering is the will of God, that God is using or will use the enemies of Israel to punish the people for their faithlessness, and that the suffering of Israel is therefore just.

Many of the prophets speak before Israel is attacked and destroyed by its enemies, and therefore we can well imagine how unpopular they were in their own time. Amos is banished from the northern kingdom for speaking his peace, and Jeremiah is accused of treason. Yet, the words of the prophets are preserved and later recognized, by the editors of scripture, as having divine inspiration. They are, of course, an appeal to their own people in a distant time. However, by attending to these ancient writings of faith, we may gain insight as well into the kind of faith that may be called for in our time.

The prophets are unwavering in their affirmation that Israel's suffering is the will of God. The God who had directed the events of time is still in control. "Does evil befall a city," asks Amos, "unless the Lord has done it?" (Amos 3:6) For the prophets, God is either in control or not. The latter conclusion is unthinkable for them.

In the writings of Jeremiah the Lord says: "Behold, I am bringing upon you a nation from afar, O house of Israel." (Jer. 5:15) The hand of God is identified with the enemies of the people. The language is even stronger in a passage from Isaiah: "the anger of the Lord was kindled against his people, and he stretched out his hand against them and smote them, and the mountains quaked; and their corpses were as refuse in the midst of the streets." (Isaiah 5:25)

When asked why Israel is to suffer and why God is so angry with the people, the prophets respond that the people have been unfaithful and broken their covenant with God by worshipping false gods and living unjustly.

Hosea, speaking for God, describes Israel as a harlot who has forgotten her husband, and asserts that there "is no faithfulness or kindness, and no knowledge of God in the land." (Hosea 4:1) Isaiah begins his prophecy with this lament by the Lord: "Ah, a sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, offspring of evil doers, sons who deal corruptly! They have forsaken the Lord, they have despised the Holy One of Israel, they are utterly estranged." (Isaiah 1:4) Isaiah goes on to speak of the Lord's judgment of the elders and princes of the people: "It is you who have devoured the vineyard, the spoil of the poor is in your houses. What do you mean by crushing my people, by grinding the face of the poor?" (Isaiah 3:14)

The prophetic message is that the people have broken their covenant with God, even as generations before in the wilderness they were "stiff-necked" and rebellious. Thus God will punish them, as the people were punished in the days of old, so the covenant may be renewed and the faith of the people restored. "I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies," says the Lord in the writings of Amos. "But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream." (Amos 5:21-24)

The prophets assert that God's judgment of the people is just, because the covenant made between God and Israel is for all time. In the face of the destruction of the nation and the enslavement of the Israelites, it would be facile to claim that all the individuals who suffer do so in direct proportion to their sin. Clearly, in this catastrophe the good and the wicked suffer together, as do the aged and the newly born.

The prophets do not mouth the arguments of the friends of Job, who claim each person is responsible in some manner for his or her personal suffering. Instead, they affirm that God's covenant is with the people, as a community over time. Thus, God's judgment for the breaking of the covenant is not an individual judgment, with punishment to be rendered on a case by case basis, but a judgment against the nation itself.

The prophet Habakkuk at one point asks the Lord: "Why does thou look on faithless men, and art silent when the wicked swallow up the man more righteous than he?" (Hab. 1:13) The answer throughout the prophetic writings is that God's judgment will be enacted through the events of history, with respect to the people as a whole and its life over time. The judgment of God cannot be described as just or as unjust, simply because of its effects on individual men, women, and children.

The prophets then go beyond the announcement of God's judgment to suggest that the suffering imposed on Israel is God's means of renewing the covenant. In the writings of Zechariah, God indicates that two thirds of the people will perish: "And I will put this third into the fire, and refine them as one refines silver." This purification will result in a renewed relationship between God and Israel: "They will call on my name, and I will answer them." (Zec. 13:9)

In a comparable passage in Isaiah the Lord also uses the image of refining metal and then goes on to explain the purpose to Israel's suffering: "For my own sake, for my own sake, I do it, for how should my name be profaned? My glory I will not give to another." (Isaiah 48:11)

A similar word comes to Amos: "You only have I known of all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities." (Amos 3:2) Israel's punishment will renew her relationship with God, unlike the suffering of the other nations of Palestine, who are also to be crushed by the conquering armies. Thus Israel looks with hope to a restoration in God's due time.

Crisis of Faith

For the author of the latter part of Isaiah, however, God is not understood merely to be whipping a wanton people back into faithfulness, but as creating a new relationship with all peoples by the suffering of Israel. This theme is developed in what are called the "servant songs," which appear in the last sixteen chapters of the book of Isaiah.

In the last and most familiar of these songs the servant of God is described as an offering for the sin of the people and as a lamb taken to the slaughter. In this passage the suffering of God's chosen one, or at least the severity and extent of this suffering, is not seen as a punishment for injustice or faithlessness, but as a means by which God will bring all the peoples of the earth into a new relationship with their Creator.

The people are like sheep who have "gone astray" and the Lord has laid on the servant their iniquity. Blameless, the servant becomes an offering for sin and is put to grief and bruised by "the will of the Lord." Bearing the "sin of many," the servant makes "intercession for the transgressors." (Isaiah 53) Thus not only Israel, but all peoples, are redeemed of their sin through the sacrifice of the servant.

These passages are read today by Christians as foretelling the suffering and death of Jesus of Nazareth. At the time they were written, however, they were understood to refer to the suffering of Israel.

In the past the Israelites sought to maintain their covenant with God through animal sacrifice. They sacrificed to acknowledge their sin and to remain obedient to the law of Moses. In addition, they shed the blood of their boys in the ritual of circumcision, as a part of keeping the covenant with God which had been made with their father Abraham.

These sacrifices were made for themselves, for their children, and for their future as a people. However, now in the prophecies attributed to Isaiah, we find the sacrifice of Israel identified with a new purpose: the calling of all peoples into a new covenant with God.

Israel's sacrifice is thus not for itself, but for the sake of others. The servant songs in the book of Isaiah involve a tremendous leap of faith, for to believe in this new purpose of God requires not only a new understanding of the place of Israel in history, but of God's covenant with Israel. Not only is Israel to suffer for the sake of other peoples, but the God who has been Israel's Lord is now to be the Lord of all nations.

The prophetic writings lead again to questions about God. Why is all this suffering necessary? Surely among the nations of the earth Israel is no more sinful than others. For where do the poor and the needy receive care and comfort, and where are the wealthy more concerned with justice than with a life of ease?

What the prophets describe is not unique to Israel nor to any period of history, and can be said even of our own nation today. Why then should the judgment of God be so harsh? Why instead do we not read of God's forgiveness and mercy?

Once again we have come back to questions as to why things are as they are. Suffering and injustice are not uniquely the experiences of Israel, but are a part of the lives of all persons and all peoples. There are no logical answers to such questions, as Job discovered when he raised them, but only the knowledge that life is given and taken away by a power greater than our own and beyond our comprehension.

Thus the prophets look to the events of their own time and discern the presence and purpose of God. While often rejected in their own time, their insights are affirmations of a continuing faith on the part of Israel in the Lord of life and history.

The end of the united kingdom of Israel and the persecution of the people at the hands of traditional enemies leads to a crisis of faith. It seems that the blessings of God are being taken away, and that in their place a curse is being laid upon the back of the chosen people. To the extent the people have come to understand God's presence in terms of their success and prosperity, the end of that success and prosperity threaten their very faith in God.

It is hard now to believe that God is on their side, in the unsuccessful struggles with other nations. Thus the prophets affirm that the decline and fall of Israel is God's way both of renewing the covenant with the people and of creating with all peoples a new covenantal relationship.

The prophets, therefore, remind us more of Abraham than of David. They proclaim faith in God even as they assert that God is now asking for the sacrifice of the children of Israel. Moreover, when God's hand of judgment is not stayed, as it was with Abraham, and the sons and daughters of Israel are actually slain and sacrificed, then it requires more than logic or insight to maintain, as the prophets do, that the ways of the Lord are just and altogether righteous.

In faith beyond understanding, with words forged in fires of the night, with pens dipped in the blood of their people, the prophets bear witness to God, in their time, and for all time.

Readings:

Amos 3-6; 7:10-17 Prophecy against Israel, Amaziah.

Hosea 1-3 Call of prophet, judgment on Israel.

Isaiah 1-4 Oracles against Judah, Jerusalem restored.

Isaiah 6-7 Call of prophet, sign of Emmanuel.

Isaiah 9:2-7; 11:1-16; 35 Messianic age, Zion restored.

Isaiah 42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-11; 52:13-53:12 Servant songs.

Micah 4-6  What the Lord requires.

Jeremiah 1-3 Prophet's call, apostasy of Israel.

Jeremiah 11:18-12:6; 15:10-21; 17:14-18; 18:18-23; 20:7-18  Personal laments.

Jeremiah 30-31 Return and restoration of Israel, new covenant.

Jeremiah 36-45 Trials and sufferings of Jeremiah.

Ezekiel 1-3 Call of prophet.

Ezekiel 15-17 Allegories.

Ezekiel 18-20 Judgment of Israel.

Ezekiel 36-39 Valley of dry bones, the new Israel.

 

 Bob@rtraer.com © Robert Traer 2016