The Significance of the Prophets
God sent the Hebrew prophets to interpret His deeds and to explain His holy principles. Here is the gist of their messages: God does not change. He is not a man that He should repent, that is, change His guiding principles. All the prophets build upon this premise. To put it in another way, God is predictable. When certain circumstances occur, He is bound in loyalty to Himself (His personal integrity is at stake) to act in judgment. Happily, adequate repentance on our part usually releases Him from His strange, distasteful work of judgment, and He acts in redemption. Therefore, we find two recurrent themes: Judgment and Redemption. The two are found typically as early as the first two verses of Genesis, illustrated powerfully in the story of the Exodus, and again and again in the subsequent history of Israel. In all these narratives, God’s revelation of His character is consistent, and we who know His Son are immediately and repeatedly struck by the similarity of the Jehovah of the Old Testament to the Christ of the Gospels. Contrasts drawn by unbelievers between a harshly severe Hebrew deity and the Jesus of the Gospels are grossly exaggerated. It would be easy to demonstrate from the sayings of Christ, that in Him were combined the same dual characteristics of Judge and Redeemer.
But why is there so much failure recorded in the Old Testament? In Paul’s words, they happened unto them “typically” (literal rendering of the Greek adverb), and were recorded for our “admonishment.” Therefore, Paul urges, let the Christian “take heed.” We are quite capable of the same sins, and in the light of God’s revelation of Himself there is very good reason to fear swift punishment. It cannot be stated too often, or urged too strongly, that God has not changed. The old themes of the goodness and severity of God are stated repeatedly in the New Testament, and ought not to be brushed aside. Unhappily, in some extreme views of “dispensational truth,” the sting has been deftly removed from the warning passages in the New Testament by assigning them to the future peoples of the Tribulation or Millenium or other distant period. By compartmentalizing the Scriptures, they have fostered a smugness in some Christians that strongly recalls the pseudo-pious prattle of backsliding Israel in the days of Amos, or that of the Scripture-quoting Pharisees in the days of our Lord. Ananias and Sapphira, and not a few former members of the church at Corinth, can testify to their eternal loss that God has not changed from the days of Achan, or of Uzziah, King of Judah.
In a remarkable passage in his first letter to the Corinthians (chapter 10), Paul uses the narratives of the Old Testament as a deadly solemn warning that we should conduct ourselves with caution. God, he seems to say, is not to be trifled with. Paul reviews the wilderness experiences of the pilgrims to the Promised Land, and names five sins committed by them. The frightening aspect is that three times over, the stroke of judgment fell, and it is this that gives teeth to the passage. Paul would have had no sympathy with some modern psychologists who speak glibly about “guilt complexes” and who seek to convince patients that everything is all right. On the contrary, according to Paul, writing as prompted by the Holy Spirit, twenty-three thousand fell in one day when Israel committed fornication; others perished by serpents when they tempted the Lord; others fell before the destroyer when they murmured. “Wherefore, let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall,” continues Paul. What is meant by this? A moral fall? A sin like that committed by the Israelites? If it were only that, the illustrations used were decidedly overdone. He is not here suggesting that we too retain the old nature and are therefore capable of sin; this important theme is handled elsewhere. Here Paul is dealing with the consequences of sin, and is urging the lessons of history on the Corinthians. There is good reason for us to fear a similar stroke of judgment. That this is the true meaning of the twelfth verse is confirmed by the following chapter, in which Paul tells them that because of irreverence at the Lord’s table, God had already executed some Corinthian believers, and others were wasting away at that very time. Here, then, is an important use of the Old Testament: to find instruction about conduct, in the light of God’s unchanging principles of judgment.
Now let us return to the prophets and their significance. In our Bibles, the books are arranged in a way that may tend to isolate the prophetic from the narrative portions. Actually, the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings are included in the Book of the Prophets in the Hebrew Bible. These books must be studied together. Isaiah, for example, is largely unintelligible without constant reference to the historical books of Kings and Chronicles. The prophets cry for repentance and warn the people that unless Baal worship is repudiated finally and in all its forms, God will act. The Assyrian and Chaldean powers are regarded in the historical books as enemies of Israel, and so they were. But in the prophets, they are seen to be the arm of the Lord, raised to strike down idolatrous, incorrigible Israel. The history itself is merely incidental. Of course, it must be recorded to serve as a framework for the revelation of His principles. But the viewpoint is unique, and matter that will not serve the immediate purpose is discarded. This explains the blank areas that madden secular historians and critics who approach the Bible as though it were just another textbook of ancient history. To use the sacred writings only as a source of information about Semitic peoples is like spending priceless golden coins for cheap candy bars. It can be done, but it is certainly a misuse of rare treasure.
Today, the prophets have special significance. Why? They were sent to Israel at a time of decline, when the attractions of Baal worship had successfully seduced and lured the nation dangerously near to the point of no return. The prophets held up a red warning flag. They warned that Jehovah who had acted in judgment in the past would be forced to do so again. No new disclosures about His character were given; rather, historical references to the nation’s experiences were made. “Yet destroyed I the Amorites before them;” similar language is employed by all the prophets, and, yes, by the New Testament writers as well. By Divine aid, they read the signs of the times accurately, and reaching back into the past history of God’s dealings with Israel, they came up with disturbing applications to the present time. Patterns of behaviour, they asserted time and time again, provoke consistent patterns of Divine action. Because they were men of God, they grieved when Israel sinned against Him; patriots, they were alarmed at the unmistakable signs of approaching disaster. Clearly, the Old Testament prophets have much to contribute to our knowledge of godly conduct. And their mission today is the same as it was during the seventh and eighth centuries before Christ: to arrest, if possible, the decay that eats away the life of men and churches, and even nations. This is a neglected ministry. The great vital field of Christian ethics—how we ought to behave ourselves under every circumstance—is largely unexplored by many Christians.
Now we are ready to read the words of Amos. As we read, let us remember that God continues to speak through this herdsman of Tekoa, and that on every page, Christ is revealed to seeing eyes and hearing ears. Here, there is instruction of the greatest importance; instruction in conduct. In Amos’ times, there was a meticulous observance of the ceremonial law, but the heart of the nation was rotten, and God detested their sacrifices and their empty obedience to a ritual that was meaningless when performed by men without genuine spirituality.
In Amos, we find no passages about the Suffering Servant, no promise of a Branch, as given through Jeremiah and confirmed by Zechariah. There is no reference to lowly Bethlehem, no sad prediction of the smiting of a Shepherd, no hope of a golden daybreak when the Sun of Righteousness will arise with healing in His wings. There is little that develops the idea of a Messianic hope.
What we do find, however, are vivid pictures of what God hates in man, and what He requires in them with whom He has made an agreement. And in every burning word of denunciation of sin, we are reminded of Him Who was holy, harmless, and undefiled. In the pronouncements of doom that will not be averted, we are caused to look forward to a final Day of the Lord, when in flaming fire, Christ shall return to have vengeance on them that know not God and believe not His gospel. In this expectation, it is impossible not to read Amos with profit.
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In wisdom God marks out a path for our feet. His hand may seem heavy in His discipline or His governmental ways with us, but His heart is behind His hand and “God is love,” love without alloy.
The tears of suffering saints are valued in Heaven. The Psalmist could say, “Put thou my tears into thy bottle: are they not in thy book?” (Ps. 56:8). They are measured and treasured by heaven, and recorded there, not to be forgotten—marvellous consideration! Divine Persons alone can fully understand the tears of saints; for they only know what is in the heart when it is too full for words.