Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The thankless job of Old Testament prophets

The Old Testament prophets were holy men who were persecuted by kings and ostracized by religious elders. If truth be told, their contemporaries had no use for them. And it is not an exaggeration to say that they were called by God to embrace a thankless job. Yet, several years after they had died, their writings were enshrined into the Old Testament canon. That's right. They were eventually heralded by the Jews as great men.

To be sure, the writings of the prophets took on great importance for the faith of the Jews in the centuries to come. They even had national significance for Israel. And after the Apostles were sent out into the world, the writings of the prophets were honored by many nations throughout the world.

Eventually, it was understood that these prophets spoke and had written the very words of God. Nevertheless, it took the destruction of Israel (the Northern Kingdom) and Judah (the Southern Kingdom) in order for the Hebrews to realize this. Indeed, it wasn’t until after Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 B.C. and the people of God were deported from their homeland that the writings of the prophets were seen for what they were- the inspired Word of God!

The suffering that afflicted Israel and Judah was captured in the writings of Habakkuk: “How long, O LORD? I cry for help but you do not listen! I cry out to you, ‘Violence!’ but you do not intervene. Why do you let me see ruin; why must I look at misery? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and clamorous discord.” (Habakkuk 1:2-3) As for the prophets, during their lifetime they received little respect. They had to be content with being outsiders for the Lord’s sake.

The reason why the Old Testament prophets were met with such hostility when they communicated God’s message was because Israel enjoyed considerable prosperity and comfort at that time. Between the years 950 and 740 B.C., for instance, not a few citizens had a regular home and a vacation house. At the same time, however, many Israelites had fallen into idolatry and had practiced the lowest forms of immorality. The poor were neglected. Sexual deviancy was rampant. And child-sacrifices were even performed to appease their new gods.

Is it not true that false gods demand innocent blood? Pardon the digression, but I wonder if America has drifted towards a new god; certainly not a Greek god like Zeus or a Roman god like Jupiter, but modern god like the State. Keep in mind that prosperity or political power- by themselves –are no indication that God’s favor is upon those who enjoy it. Historian Guglielmo Ferrero, in his book, "Ancient Rome and Modern America," (1914) reminded us of this truth when he said, "A civilization is not always in reality richer and stronger in times when it bears the most visible marks of so being. We are rather apt to find that when it is most dazzling and outward seeming, its decadence has already begun."

In any event, the prophet Amos was from the southern kingdom of Israel known as Judah. He was called by God to minister to the northern kingdom; then known as Israel (Israel used to be one kingdom but it divided into two nations in about the year 740 B.C.). He was just a plain old farmer minding his own business when God called him.

In his book, he briefly mentioned the way in which he was called by God. Such a calling won him no friends among his contemporaries. In his book, he writes about how he was treated by the religious elders of Israel: “To Amos, Amaziah said: ‘Off with you, visionary, flee to the land of Judah! There earn your bread by prophesying, but never again prophesy in Bethel; for it is the king's sanctuary and a royal temple.’ Amos answered Amaziah, ‘I was no prophet, nor have I belonged to a company of prophets; I was a shepherd and a dresser of sycamores.’” (Amos 7:12-14)

That’s right. Amos and his message were not welcomed. In times of ease, spiritual sacrifices and repentance is rarely a popular thing. The rejection of the Amos probably had something to do with what he prophesied to the nation of Israel. He said, “Hear this word, O men of Israel, that the LORD pronounces over you, over the whole family that I brought up from the land of Egypt: You alone have I favored, more than all the families of the earth; Therefore I will punish you for all your crimes.” (Amos 3:1-2)

As harsh as this message was to hear, it was one of liberation. Neither the kings of Israel nor the religious establishment took heed in the prophet’s words. But if the Israelites had taken to heart the Word of God as spoken by Amos, the nation most likely would have been saved. But no, Israel had to learn the hard way…like many nations throughout history. In fact, Israel (the Northern Kingdom with ten out of the twelve tribes) was totally destroyed by the Assyrians in 722 B.C.

The vocation of an Old Testament prophet was not an easy one; rather, it was lonely and strenuous. The prophet Jeremiah was a fine illustration of this very point. The Lord just happened to communicate His Word through his wild series of emotional highs and lows. Things would get so bad for Jeremiah, that he regretted the day he was born. At one point, he cried out: “Cursed be the day on which I was born! May the day my mother gave me birth never be blessed! Cursed be the man who brought the news to my father, saying, ‘A child, a son, has been born to you!" filling him with great joy.’” (Jeremiah 20:14-15)

He, like Amos and Habakkuk, knew what it meant to see his own people- a nation he grew up to love – disregard its great traditions and even the Word of God. And as a bearer of that Word, he knew all too well that a prophet is never accepted in his home town.

Perhaps it is better to say that a prophet is never accepted by the generation he is born into. Most of the time it would take years for people to take in and appreciate the depth, wisdom and value of what a prophet of God had to offer his contemporaries.

I just hope that America doesn’t take as long as Israel took to rediscover what God told us long ago: "For he who finds me finds life, and wins favor from the LORD; but he who misses me harms himself..." (Proverbs 8:35-36)