Relevant Verses: 1 Sam. 8:10-18; Amos 8:4-6; Micah 7:18-20; Ezek. 34:2-4; Isaiah
Leading Question: Given the fact that the harsh judgments of the prophets were rarely successful in reforming God’s people, is there any clue from Scripture as to what might have happened if the prophets had been more gentle, more affirming?
Comment: The official study guide has dedicated one lesson to the “Cry of the Prophets.” So how can we encompass the messages of three “major prophets” (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel – Daniel is apocalyptic prophecy, and is found in the Writings, not the Prophets), and twelve “minor prophets”?
The author of the official study guide has focused on just a sample from the prophets, choosing Isaiah (ca. 745 – 685) and Ezekiel (ca. 593 – 570) from the three “majors,” and Amos (ca. 757 – 753) and Micah (ca. 740 to 700) from the twelve “minors.”
Amos was the earliest of these prophets and the only one who “officially” served both the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah, at a time when both kingdoms were rich and prosperous under kings who reigned nearly half a century, Israel under Jeroboam II (ca. 793 – 753) and Judah under Uzziah (ca. 790 – 739). But note the dates: After Amos’s ministry, Israel would have only some thirty years before it would be conquered and sent into exile by the Assyrians in 722. Without exception, the prophets would say that Israel was destroyed because it failed to meet the needs of “the least of these.”
Isaiah began his five-decade ministry to the southern kingdom of Judah soon after Amos concluded his. Isaiah served under one of Judah’s best kings (Hezekiah, ca. 729 – 686) and one of the worst (Amon ca. 641- 639), and was probably put to death by Judah’s all-time worst king, Manasseh (ca. 696 – 641), almost as soon as Manasseh took the throne.
[Note: The authors of Kings and Chronicles differ in their convictions about “worst” king. The author of 2 Kings bluntly states that destruction “came upon Judah at the command of the Lord, to remove them out of his sight, for the sins of Manasseh, for all that he had committed, and also for the innocent blood that he had shed; for he filled Jerusalem with innocent blood, and the Lord was not willing to pardon” 2 Kings 24:3, 4, NRSV.
By contrast, the Chronicler records Manasseh’s exile to Assyria/ Babylon, where he repented and was then restored to his kingdom in Jerusalem. The Chronicler records Manasseh’s earnest efforts to undo the damage that his apostasy had caused (2 Chron. 33:10-17). The author of Kings tells us nothing about any exile, repentance, and restoration.]
Micah’s four-decade ministry in Judah (ca. 740 – 700) closely paralleled that of Isaiah. He condemned the same social and religious evils that Isaiah did.
Ezekiel’s ministry lasted some twenty years (ca. 593 – 570). He was an exilic prophet, calling Judah to account from Babylon, where he and a number of Judah’s elite had been taken captive by Nebuchadnezzar.
If the official study guide has given us a four-prophet sample of the prophets, this study guide will narrow our study even further to just a sample from each of the four prophets
|Amos (ca. 757 – 753)||Judah||Uzziah: Judah (ca. 790 – 739)|
|Israel||Jereboam II: Israel (ca. 793 – 753)|
|Isaiah (ca. 745 – 685)||Judah||Amon: Judah (ca. 641 – 639)|
|Micah (ca. 740 – 700)||Judah||Hezekiah: Judah (ca. 729 – 686)|
|Ezekiel (ca. 593 – 570)||Judah||Zedekiah: Judah (ca. 597 – 586)|
|Babylon||Nebuchadnezzar: Babylon (ca. 605 – 562)|
Dangers of royal power. According to 1 Samuel 8:10-18, when Israel first demanded a king from Samuel, he warned them of the dangers:
10 So Samuel reported all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king. 11 He said, “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; 12 and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. 13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. 15 He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. 16 He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. 17 He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. 18 And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”
Question: Does the acquisition of power pose a threat to any authority, leading them to abuse and/or neglect “the least of these”?
Amos: Trampling on the needy. The standard study guide list several passages from Amos that vividly describe how God’s people abused the poor (Amos 3:9-11; 4:1, 2; 5:10-15). But the one that is our focus here in 8:4-6:
4 Hear this, you that trample on the needy,
and bring to ruin the poor of the land,
5 saying, “When will the new moon be over
so that we may sell grain;
and the sabbath,
so that we may offer wheat for sale?
We will make the ephah small and the shekel great,
and practice deceit with false balances,
6 buying the poor for silver
and the needy for a pair of sandals,
and selling the sweepings of the wheat.”
Question: What principles should govern whether or not and when we can draw on biblical passages to apply to our day?
Micah: A clear word. Micah 6:8 is one of the most famous passages in the prophets: “The Lord God has told us what is right and what he demands: ‘See that justice is done, let mercy be your first concern, and humbly obey your God’” (CEV). Like Amos, Micah records a number of pointed rebukes for the people’s neglect of those in need (e.g. 2:8-11; 3:8-12). But perhaps we should take this opportunity to cite a promise of restoration to the people after God had announced judgment against them. Micah closes with these hopeful words (7:18-20):
18 Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity
and passing over the transgression
of the remnant of your possession?
He does not retain his anger forever,
because he delights in showing clemency.
19 He will again have compassion upon us;
he will tread our iniquities under foot.
You will cast all our sins
into the depths of the sea.
20 You will show faithfulness to Jacob
and unswerving loyalty to Abraham,
as you have sworn to our ancestors
from the days of old.
Question: In the popular mind, do these hopeful words tend to lessen the impact of the prophet’s more confrontational and sobering words?
Ezekiel: False shepherds. Ezekiel is particularly noteworthy because he served the people before Jerusalem and Judah fell to Babylon. After the fall, he continued to minister to them. Thus he gives us a before-and-after view of prophetic ministry. But one of the more vivid passages in Ezekiel is an indictment of the false shepherds (34:2-4):
2 Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: prophesy, and say to them – to the shepherds: Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? 3 You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. 4 You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them.
Question: Ezekiel’s words are highly critical of the shepherds for not being gentle enough with the sheep, but could it not also be said the more strident messages of the prophets might be just as damaging to the wounded sheep as the shepherds failure to heal the sick and bind up the injured?
Isaiah: The people’s choice. Both Isaiah and Ezekiel are in the top six “longest” books in our Bible, but they are quite different. Isaiah includes some significant and unique messages: the “Child “ (Isa. 9:6-7), the vegetarian kingdom (Isa. 11), the “Servant” songs, especially Isaiah 53, the Sabbath fast (Isa. 58), the new earth (Isaiah 65, 66). In one way or another, each of these addresses the theme, “The Least of These.” But what would be your choice, your favorite from Isaiah, and how might it fit in with the theme for this quarter?