Daily Bible Study Tips: The Prophets
Introduction, Jeremiah 1:4-10
Isaiah 1:1, 10-20
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7
Jeremiah 32:1-3, 5-15
Jonah 3:1-5, 10
Copyright information, disclaimers, and sponsors
Return to homepage
Being called by God to be a prophet is awe-inspiring, humbling, more than a little frightening, and often dangerous:
- Moses: "Who am I? ... What shall I say? ... They will never believe me. ... I am slow of speech."
- Isaiah: "Woe is me! I am lost!”
- Jeremiah: "Ah, Lord God: behold, I cannot speak, for I am a child.”
- Ezekiel: After the vision in which God calls him, "For seven days I stayed with them, dumbfounded."
- Hosea: God said to him, "Go. Take a prostitute for a wife, and get children of her prostitution; for like a prostitute, this land is unfaithful to the LORD."
- Jonah: He kept quiet, but immediately bought a ticket for Tarshish (roughly equivalent to Timbuktu.)
- Daniel: Thrown into a den of lions.
- John the Baptist: Imprisoned and beheaded.
In similar circumstances, all we can do is say, with Isaiah, “Here am I. Send me.” God’s assurance is that he will go with us, protect us, and tell us what to say.
Isaiah 1:1, 10-20
We who are reading these scriptures every day probably regard ourselves, with good reason, as "religious." Unfortunately, God is not impressed by religion, and in fact, when religion is accompanied by obdurate sinfulness, God is out and out offended
by religion. What God wants from us is not religion but righteousness, which is in pretty short supply most of the time. God does not leave us in doubt about what he wants us to do: "cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow's cause."
By the way, Isaiah is not talking to Sodom and Gomorrah. He's talking to Judah, and telling the nation that it might as well be Sodom and Gomorrah, the way it's acting.
When David became king, he conquered the city of Jerusalem (which was held by a Canaanite tribe) and made it both his capital and the center of Jewish worship. Jerusalem came to be a symbol of the Jewish nation and of its relationship with God. One of the main themes in Messianic prophecy is "the exaltation of Zion," which means roughly that Jerusalem will become important to all nations as a place of worship of the one true God.
The emblem of the vine is probably the one most strongly identified with the people of Israel (followed closely by the adulterous wife!). Both of our passages today talk about God as the husbandman of the vineyard. He plants it, guards it, waters and fertilizes it, and what happens?! Bad grapes! So he breaks down the wall and lets it be trampled. There is never any suggestion in the Old Testament that God was not justified in punishing his people, but rather, an acknowledgement that they deserved punishment for their sins. See also Psalms 80:1-2, 8-19
"Seraphim" means "burning ones," and they are a kind of angel. (A single angel of this type is a "seraph." Don't make the mistake I read recently of referring to "a seraphim." One seraph, two seraphim.) I know people are interested in angels, so I wanted to look up all the references to seraphim for you. Imagine my surprise to discover that this passage from Isaiah is the only one in the whole Bible that talks about them. "Seraph" or "Seraphim" also occurs in the Hebrew in Numbers 21:6, 21:8 and Deuteronomy 8:15--where it clearly means some sort of poisonous snake; and Isaiah 14:29, 30:6 – where it also looks like a snake. In these places it is translated "fiery serpent" in the King James Version. In some of these verses they fly. It may help you to think about "cats" = meowing pets and "cats" = jazz musicians.
Anyway, that's not what I intended to talk about. Last Sunday Pastor Craig told us that he was called to the ministry when he was fourteen years old, but he didn't say how it happened. Isaiah doesn't tell us how old he was, but he does give us a detailed picture of the vision that he saw. He saw God sitting on a high throne. He saw seraphim and heard their thunderous voices. A seraph touched his lips with one of the coals from the altar, so that he was cleansed. Then he heard the voice of God, asking "Whom shall I send?"
One of the Old Testament scriptures most familiar to Christians is "Behold, the young woman shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel." We almost invariably think that this scripture refers to Jesus, and it does. What many of us don't realize, however, is that it also referred to an event that was coming in the year or so after the prophecy was first uttered. Jerusalem was under siege by the kings of Israel and Aram, and King Ahaz of Judah was trying to decide what to do about it. Isaiah gave him a message from the LORD, "stand with me, or you will not stand at all" (vs. 7:9), but Ahaz was skeptical. The LORD offered Ahaz a sign through the prophet Isaiah, but Ahaz made an alliance with the Assyrians anyway. As Isaiah had prophesied, both Israel and Aram were overrun by Assyria (vs. 16). Nevertheless, the alliance led Judah further into apostasy and closer to destruction. Knowing whether someone is a true or false prophet is typically pretty easy. If their short-term prophecies come true, they are true prophets, and vice versa.
There's a joke about a little old lady who went to see a play by Shakespeare. Asked how she liked it, she said that she wasn't impressed, because "all he did was string together a bunch of cliches." She didn't realize that people quote Shakespeare all the time. I'm sure you all know that the description of John as "a voice crying in the wilderness: Prepare ye the way of the LORD" is quoted from Isaiah (exactly, in the Greek). Very often, though, we don't recognize the numerous New Testament quotations from the Old Testament. If your Bible doesn't have cross references between the various parts of the scriptures, I encourage you to get one that does.
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
Remember the skit the Sunday before last? Johnnie B. said that he knew all that prophecy stuff cold, but Jesus still beat him in Bible Jeopardy. While no such school competition is recorded in the Bible, it is true that both John and Jesus knew the prophets extremely well. We saw earlier in the week that John quoted Isaiah to explain his ministry. Today we read the passage from Isaiah that Jesus used in beginning his own ministry. I especially like the translations of vs. 1: "the Spirit of the LORD has taken control of me!" The more common translation is "is upon me," but I think "taken control" reflects the meaning better in American English.
Years ago Pastor Russell Parchman preached a sermon about this time of year in which he pointed out that a football fan is for
his team, but he's not with
them. He's sitting comfortably at home watching the players out on the field getting pounded. Isaiah said, "In all their affliction He was afflicted," and the writer of Hebrews said, "Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted." The Rev. Parchman's point was that God is not just for
us, God is with
us. The miracle of Christmas is not that God can
come to earth as a baby, but that God was willing
to come to earth as a baby. Christmas celebrates the good news that God is with us.
Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28
Jeremiah is sometimes called the "weeping prophet." My main tip is this: Never read Jeremiah or Lamentations on an overcast day. Jeremiah preached before and during the Exile of Judah in Babylon. God was very angry and disappointed about Judah's continued worship of other gods, and finally God had had enough. Most prophets give a fairly simple message: continue in your current wicked ways and die, or repent and live. Jeremiah is the only prophet I know of who is not at all sure that God will take the children of Israel back. Their sins were so many and so pervasive that Jeremiah did not promise them that they could repent and live.
Both my parents smoked. They complained about the cost, the bad taste, the yellow teeth, and the difficulty of quitting. My sister and I made the same decision: not to start. We were able to learn from the previous generation's experience. God punished the northern kingdom, Israel, for its continued sins by sending the people into exile in 722 BC. More than a hundred years passed, and Israel was never restored. Did the southern kingdom, Judah, learn from Israel's experience? Unfortunately, no, and now we are down to the last days of the kingdom of Judah. The prophet Jeremiah and the poet Asaph can see that exile is looming because it is too late for repentance. Now they are asking, "How long, O Jehovah? Will You be angry forever?" For the moment, there is no answer. See also Psalms 79:1-9
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7
The Jews of the kingdom of Judah have been defeated and deported, and now they are in Babylon. As near as they can tell, they will be there for 400 years, the same amount of time that they were in Egypt. Jeremiah gives them the message that God wants them to make the best of the situation, and in particular that he wants them to pray for Babylon and seek peace for it. Remember every day to pray for your enemies and seek peace for them. Tough message for the Jews; tough message for us.
Jeremiah 32:1-3, 5-15
Many of the prophetic books tell us exactly when and to whom the prophecy was delivered. Jeremiah is particularly good about this, because he even tells us when various parts
of the book were delivered, e.g., "the word of the LORD came in the days of Josiah the son of Amon, king of Judah, in the thirteenth year of his reign. It came also in the days of Jehoiakim the son of Josiah, king of Judah, and until the end of the eleventh year of Zedekiah, the son of Josiah, king of Judah, until the captivity of Jerusalem in the fifth month" (Jer. 1:2-3). Other books are less specific, merely saying that the prophecy came during the reigns of certain kings. Still others give little or no explicit indication of when they were delivered. Since 1 and 2 Kings are separated by several books of writings from the prophetic books, and since the prophets are not arranged in chronological order, it can be a little tricky to follow who is saying what to whom. Jeremiah prophesied to the kings of Judah shortly before and during the Babylonian exile. Note that Zedekiah wasn't interested; he had Jeremiah locked up.
When most of us think about the prophets, what springs to mind are the prophecies about the coming of Jesus, which are called "Messianic prophecies." We typically read this type of prophecy during Advent, which begins next Sunday. Messianic prophecy has several threads running through it. We see some of these in today's readings:
See also Psalms 25:1-10
- The descent of the Messiah from David;
- The humble but just and righteous character of the Messiah, and
- The "Exaltation of Zion," which means roughly that Jerusalem will be recognized by all nations as a place holy to God.
Here's my main tip. If you are feeling sad, don't read today's scripture.
We are reading two laments for Jerusalem and Judah, both written during the exile of the Jews in Babylon. Jerusalem was razed and burned and her walls torn down. The Temple was looted. The people were taken into exile, and the countryside was left without anyone to take care of it. And the worst thing of all was this: the Jews realized that they deserved it all! God deserted them long after they had deserted God.
Code words: "She" is sometimes Jerusalem and sometimes Judah, personified as a woman. The "lovers" and "friends" are the nations with whom Judah made alliances rather than trust in God. Zion is the mountain on which Jerusalem is built, and thus also stands for Jerusalem. See also Psalms 137.
The metaphor of an adulterous woman to represent the people of Israel when they had turned away from God was a familiar one. When the prophet Hosea married an adulterous woman, people knew exactly what he was saying to them. Then he named his first son Jezreel, as a reminder of the bloodbath that Jehu had wrought upon the house of Ahab in the Valley of Jezreel. His daughter's name, Lo-Ruhamah, means "Not Pitied." His third child, a son, was named Lo-Ammi, "Not My People." The children's names were warnings of what would happen if the nation did not repent. The truly amazing thing is that when Gomer went off to pursue her adulterous pastimes and fell into slavery, Hosea bought her back! God punishes his people when they deserve it, but he is always willing to buy us back if we repent.
Hosea preached while Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah were the kings of Judah, and Jeroboam son of Jehoash was king of Israel. Assyria threatened Israel and forced them to pay tribute money to keep the peace. Ahaz, king of Judah, made an alliance with Assyria against Syria and Israel. Unfortunately it just meant that Judah also became a vassal of Assyria. Both Judah and Israel tried to ally with Egypt (at different times), but both times ended in political disaster for the Jews when the Egyptians were defeated and the Jews deported. How ironic that the children of Israel made alliances with their former master, Egypt! How sad that they trusted in politics rather than God! Paul was devastated that his own people, the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and the people of God, continued to refuse to accept God's plan for them. See also Romans 9:1-5.
After the death of David's son Solomon, Israel and Judah broke apart into two kingdoms. Remember how David brought the Ark to Jerusalem, which meant that all adult men had to show up there a few times a year? The first king of Israel, Jeroboam, figured that his kingdom wouldn't last long if his people were going down to Jerusalem to worship, so he set up shrines at Dan, in the north of Israel, and Bethel, in the south. Each shrine contained a golden calf. This made it "convenient" for people to worship without going all the way to Jerusalem. The kings of Israel did quite a number of evil deeds, but the writers of I and II Kings gave them the worst marks for "continuing in the sin of Jeroboam," that is, maintaining the apostate shrines at Dan and Bethel.
My daughter Dianna has been reading a novel by a Christian writer, and in it a character who used to be very devout has turned into a person who really is a bit poisonous. Another character quotes a Bible verse to show that the first character has lost her salvation. Dianna recognized the verse and looked it up to confirm that it was originally directed at a church, not an individual. She wanted to know what I thought of the practice of applying verses in this way. In general, the practice is a bad one. God has plans and strategies for the salvation of the universe. Individuals need salvation; nations, as well as individuals, may or may not participate in the strategy.
A message meant for a nation might make sense when it is applied to a person, but the burden of proof is on the person using scripture in this way. For example, the LORD tells the Kingdom of Israel through Amos, "This is the end for my people Israel. I won't forgive them again. ... You [Israel] will go all over the earth, seeking a message from me, the LORD. But you won't find one." The nation
has been cut off from God for its behavior. But many, many other scriptures tell us that God always answers the earnest prayers of individuals who seek him and will forgive all who truly repent. I am unaware of any scripture that says God will not answer the prayers of people who belong to him—the petition may be denied or the response delayed, but eventually there will be an answer. So it would be incorrect to apply these verses that were meant for the Kingdom of Israel to an individual.
Jonah 3:1-5, 10
The point of Jonah is not that God can make a great fish, nor even that God can save me from the belly of a great fish. These things are not in dispute. The point of Jonah is that God is merciful and loving to those who repent, even to those whom I personally would rather not see receiving God's mercy or love.
When the Jews returned from the Babylonian exile, Jerusalem was in ruins. The walls were down, and the Temple had been robbed and razed. The prophets Haggai and Zechariah led the effort to rebuild the Temple. Note that Zerubbabel is a descendant of David in the royal line and the 9th-great-grandfather of Jesus (Matthew 1:13-16).
The prophet Habbakuk asks God, "Why do you allow violence, lawlessness, crime, and cruelty to spread everywhere?" The answer seems to be that unless you are free to sin, your restraint from sin is meaningless. What I notice is that we only ask this question when we are the current victims of other people's sins or when we have gotten caught for our own sins. While we are in the process of committing sin we just take it for granted that we can do this.
2007, 2008, 2009, 2010 by Regina L. Hunter. All rights reserved.
Opinions expressed on this page are solely those of the
author, Regina Hunter, and may or may not be shared by the sponsors or the
Bible-study participants. Thanks to the
Holy Spirit for any useful ideas presented here, and thanks to all the readers
for their support and enthusiasm. All
errors are, of course, the sole responsibility of the author.
St. John’s United Methodist Church, “Transforming Lives
2626 Arizona NE, Albuquerque, New Mexico 87110
Traditional worship services are held Sundays at 8:15 and
11:00 a.m. in the sanctuary. Contemporary worship services are held Sundays at
9:30 a.m. in the Family Life Center.
Ducks in a Row, Inc., developers of
Home Safe Software™.
Keep It Safe™ - Home inventory software so easy anybody can
Safe at Home™ - Home risk-assessment software for you and