Every morning — well, the ones when I wake up on time — I read a chapter or two in the Bible and read the study guide notes at the bottom of the page (because why have an NIV Life Application Study Bible if you’re not going to read the notes, right?). It’s nothing fancy, but it works for this stage of my life, when I feel like I’m rediscovering the Bible and what it means for me on a day-to-day basis.
I didn’t really pick the prophets. Maybe they picked me.
An acquaintance of mine in a men’s group said he recommended to people just starting to read the Bible for the first time to start with Jeremiah. I thought it was an odd choice, but as I was trying to restart a scripture-reading habit, I figured I’d give that a go. Having read through Jeremiah … I still think it’s an odd choice; I wouldn’t recommend it to someone just starting out. But for my life, where I was at the time — and where I still am a lot of the time — starting there and just continuing on actually worked.
From Jeremiah, I moved through Lamentations, then Ezekiel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah and Jonah. I’ve just finished Micah. In a way, the minor prophets reward you because they’re short, and you can work through one in a week — or, in Jonah and Obadiah’s case, a day. But they’re not easy books to read.
For one, there is a lot of anger. God spends most of these books instructing his prophets to condemn the nations of Israel and Judah using every manner of colorful metaphor, analogy and description, some subtle, some not. In Ezekiel and Hosea, God minces no words by describing the countries as prostitute sisters in quite a bit of detail (Apparently, God didn’t get the memo that “G” and “PG” are the only appropriate ratings for Christians because that’s definitely some “PG-13″- to “R”-level stuff.)
In his wonderful blog, one of Dr. Richard Beck’s frequent exhortations is to capture “the imagination of the prophets.” For Beck and his belief in universal reconciliation, this means understanding that judgment is not a permanent state, that the prophets always follow despair with hope.
I certainly don’t disagree with that analysis, but for me, I’m finding that the language of the prophets is a window into the very heart of God. These are God’s words to the people he chose, pleading with them to come back to him, warning them desperately of the consequences of living apart from his protection, willing to accept them no matter what they’ve done, eager to “repay you for the years the locusts have eaten.”
And as a record of God’s efforts to communicate directly to his people, it seems the prophets are especially instructive for us. After all, we too are his people. And I keep seeing a thread revealed throughout these books, written over a span of hundreds of years. See if it becomes clear to you, too:
“Among my people are wicked men who lie in wait like men who snare birds and like those who set traps to catch men. … Their evil deeds have no limit; they do not plead the case of the fatherless to win it. They do not defend the rights of the poor. Should I not punish them for this?” declares the Lord. “Should I not avenge myself on such a nation as this?” Jeremiah 6:26, 28-29
“Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom or the strong man boast of his strength or the rich man boast of his riches, but let him who boasts boast about this: that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight.” Jeremiah 9:23-24
Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. Lamentations 3:22-23
Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. Ezekiel 16:49
I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from al your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. Ezekiel 36:25-26
I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you in righteousness and justice, in love and compassion. I will betroth you in faithfulness, and you will acknowledge the Lord. Hosea 2:19-20
I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies. Even though you bring me grain offerings and burnt offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the noise of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream! Amos 5:21-24
With what shall I come before the Lord and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with 10,000 rivers of oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has shown you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. Micah 6:6-8
God is a God who loves to dispense mercy and forgiveness. Not because he has to or feels obligated by some covenant he set up thousands of years ago. But because he wants to. Because what he wants most of all is for us — for me — to be with him. I love the imagery God employs through his spokesmen: a heart of stone replaced by a heart of flesh, a holy betrothal, the aforementioned repayment of destroyed property. We are broken people, and God has an eternal supply of glue and paint.
Believe it or not, it’s taken me quite a long time for me to learn that. It’s so easy to project onto God our own failings of character, our own imperfect ideas of love, forgiveness and justice. It’s so easy to make being a Christian about what we think we can do and forget it’s about what he’s already done and what he’s asking us to do in return.
Because, yes, it seems clear that God definitely has some expectations for his children, just as I have expectations for my daughters and any good but imperfect parent has expectations for their parent (“How much more will your Father … ?”). And what are those expectations?
They are summed up so well in Micah 6:8, but I fear that verse has become something of a cliche, probably around the time it became part of a Steven Curtis Chapman song. The context is so much more meaningful to me, especially when viewed in light of the other prophets and what they have to say on the same subject.
Amos and Micah both ultimately say: God cares nothing for my prayers, my songs, my churchgoing, my sacrifices — none of it — if I cannot practice justice, mercy and humility in my daily walk with others. And the indictments God levels against his people in Ezekiel and Jeremiah indicate that these qualities manifest themselves chiefly in how I treat those less fortunate than I am. In how we as Christians treat those less fortunate than us. The mercy I’ve received means nothing if I cannot pass it on to others who need a glimpse of it so desperately.
You’ve probably noted the title of this post, and perhaps you can sense where this ultimately is going, but we’ll get to that later. For now, I’d rather focus on the language of the prophets — the beautiful, timeless language of mercy.