The Significance of the Prophets
According to Elihu, “God speaketh in one way, yea in two, though man regardeth it not” (Job 33:14 R.V.mg). Nevertheless, this He does with significant differences. God’s work of revealing Himself is summed up in two clauses in the Epistle to the Hebrews: “God, having of old time spoken unto the fathers in the prophets by divers portions and in divers manners.” This clause declares that in ancient times Jehovah spoke through the Hebrew prophets in a variety of ways. The second clause, “Hath at the end of these times spoken unto us in a Son,” discloses that oracles begun in the prophets were continued in Christ. The source was always the same, Jehovah, no matter how varied the means by which He made Himself known. Thus, in these concise words we have a doctrinal statement of the unity of the Scriptures. Whether delivered in the king’s chapel during the reign of Jeroboam 2, or centuries later in parabolic form by the Master Teacher beside Galilee’s shores, or dictated carefully and then signed by a manacled hand of the prisoner of Christ, they are a whole.
This truth of the unity of the Scriptures is occasionally overlooked by readers of the sacred writings. Curiously, the verse quoted is sometimes construed to mean that the prophets’ messages died with them, and having been superseded by something better, are no longer suitable for New Testament readers. This point of view, while relieving us of the work imposed by conscientious study of 39 books, can only impoverish the soul by denying it nourishment essential to spiritual maturity.
A tireless contributor to the Canon of the New Testament defined the proper use of the former writings in his last word to a younger brother. “From a child thou hast known the sacred writings, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation.” “Every Scripture inspired of God is also profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for instruction… that the man of God may be compete” (2 Tim. 3:15-16). We cannot exaggerate the significance of this passage. As an analysis of their uses, it provides solid instruction in how we are to use the Old Testament writings. Here, in a parenthetical remark, it may be said that whether we prefer the Authorized Version or the Revised Version translation of the 16th. verse, the meaning is the same. According to scholars of unquestioned ability, such as W. E. Vine, either is grammatically permissible, and both are reverent in their treatment of the doctrine of the inspiration of the Holy Writings. The translation given here appeals, since. it appears to insist upon inclusion of the later writings (as, for example, those of Paul, some of which were in circulation at the time), and thus guards against a rigid “orothoxy” which then existed and which would have limited the Sacred Writings to those ending with the book of the prophet Malachi.
The Apostles appealed frequently to the Old Testament in confirmation of their messages. Examples may be found illustrating the uses mentioned by Paul. Below are a few, all taken from the Epistle to the Romans: to show how to be saved (Rom. 4:23-24), to teach (Rom. 9-11), to reprove (Rom. 3:10-18) (Gk. elegmos, conviction) to correct (Rom. 12:19) (Gk. empanorthosis, restoration to upright state, resulting in improvement in character or life) and to instruct in righteousness (Rom. 13:8-9) Gk. paideia, training).
Clearly, the Old Testament cannot be dismissed as obsolete, suitable only for the Smithsonian Institute, or at best occasionally perused by students of curious things. Incomplete it is true, without the New Testament, nevertheless it forms a solid basis for intelligent reading of the later writings. In their witness to Christ, the pre-Christian writings show us how to be saved; they teach, convict, correct, and give training needed for spiritual maturity. In short, they are an essential part of the Sacred Library, and if we neglect them we can neither understand the New Testament nor develop fully as men of God.
Here we pause to consider an improper approach to the Old Testament. At great loss to ourselves we generally confine our reading to those passages which are patently “Messianic,” such as the moving Songs of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah, or the obviously “typical” passages, which illustrate by referring to the Passover Lamb of Exodus 12. As a result of this spotty reading, vast areas of the Old Testament are still uncharted for many believers. Probably all of us have groped wearily through the Old Testament once, but failing to find, as we determinedly pressed on, anything to compare with, say, Isaiah 53 for its power to thrill our souls, or with Exodus 12 for clearness, we made a mental note never to pass that way again.
Here, perhaps, is the root of the trouble: a misunderstanding of the commonly stated truth that the Old Testament bears witness to Christ. The whole of the Sacred Writings bears witness to Christ in the sense that every line was written in preparation for His coming. In Him, Who is God seen and handled and heard, was completed the revelation that had been given piecemeal and progressively during the slow centuries of twilight knowledge. Christ was the long-range Object but not always the immediate Subject of the oracles. Much of the record is historical narrative, much is poetry setting down in measured sentences the perplexity of men like us as they grappled with ageless problems. Long passages in Job and Ecclesiastes utter sententious folly that was not right, and thus darkened counsel. God, of course, was not responsible for the nonsense. Inspiration, in these cases, was concerned with recording uninspired thinking, and every line of it, yes, even the genealogies that make our heads swim, was vital to an understanding of the character and will of God.
Take, for example, the historical narratives. The story of Creation was history, but not mere history; at the very least it is a revelation of God’s almighty power and wisdom. The successive histories of the patriarchal characters, the bondage and the Exodus, the aimless wanderings of the ragged hordes that followed Moses, the conquest under Joshua of the Amoral tribes of Canaan, the rise and decadence of the monarchy, the Assyrian and Chaldean desolations; in all these God was speaking through His actions. How were the people to know that God was active at all? The answer is that He sent the Hebrew prophets to be interpreters of His deeds. In this we see the importance of the prophets. Their ministry was vital. All other nations were wallowing in the muck of idolatry, prostrated before their fancied gods, but God had something better in store for Israel, a class of men whose mission in life was to interpret His deed and in this way to explain the principles upon which a holy God acted.