Something started God’s prophets to writing. By the time they were finished, they had produced a body of literature unparalleled in human history. Nothing before or since has equaled the corpus of literature produced by the prophets of Israel.1 But what was it that moved the prophets to produce this unique body of writing?
For a good many years, the prevailing approach in biblical criticism asserted that the prophets originally delivered their messages only in oral form as short, abrupt declarations. These rather irrational, ecstatic utterances were later written down and then repeatedly revised by a series of subsequent editors.2 More recently, greater credence has been given to the view that the original prophets themselves wrote more of their messages than was previously recognized.3 Obviously, from any perspective it must be
1“Wholly unique” is the characterization of the prophetic material given by Clements. He continues: “Nowhere else from antiquity has there been preserved such a literary collection.” Prophetic literature on the scale of the Old Testament “remains a wholly unique product” of ancient Israel; Old Testament Prophecy, 203.
2See Mowinckel, Prophecy and Tradition; and Rowley, Servant of the Lord, 93. Von Rad, Old Testament Theology, 2.6, categorizes the idea of a “straight line of development” from ecstatic bands of prophets to Isaiah and Jeremiah as an “inadmissible oversimplification.” The earlier opinion of scholars was largely based on the then-prevailing perspective that viewed the prophetic materials as the product of an evolutionary process. On the basis of this philosophical presupposition, the early prophets of Israel were perceived as more or less primitives who uttered their prophecies in a state of ecstasy, while only later did the religion of the prophets evolve into a more coherent system of belief.
3See von Rad, Old Testament Theology, 2.40–45. Lindblom, Prophecy in Ancient Israel, 221, affirms that it is an “incontestable fact” that the prophets themselves “sometimes” wrote their oracles. According to Fohrer, Introduction to the Old Testament, 359, “most” of the prophetic sayings were written down “while the prophets were still alive.” In analyzing God’s command for Ezekiel to eat the scroll presented to him, Zimmerli, “From Prophetic Word to Prophetic Book,” 430, concludes that “it is evident that the prophet was already familiar with scrolls of this kind, inscribed with the prophetic word.” In a peculiar twist of recent scholarship, some now propose that in contradistinction to the procedures of the preexilic prophets, the postexilic prophets exclusively wrote their messages without ever proclaiming them orally. It is rather interesting to find these recent perspectives anticipated by a scholar of the previous generation who took the witness of the prophetic material more seriously than is generally done: “In some cases the prophet, under the protecting inspiration of the Spirit of God, may have written down long sections of his messages shortly after having delivered them orally. On the other hand, it may be that some of the prophecies were never delivered orally, but were purely literary products” (Young, Introduction to acknowledged that somebody at sometime in Israel’s history wrote a great deal of material that has come to be known as “prophetic.”
Certainly its creation may be legitimately attributed to the movement of God’s inspiring Holy Spirit. Isaiah’s rapturous vision of “the Lord, high and lifted up” with cherubim covering face and feet as they flew; Joel’s prediction that “in the last days” God would “pour out his Spirit on all flesh” so that men and women, young and old, would see visions and dream dreams; Ezekiel’s imagery of the valley of dry bones, with the inquisitive challenge to his faith, “Son of Man, can these bones live?”—these words, these images, and hundreds of passages like them throughout the prophets—these are not the normal productions of human scribblings that can be easily duplicated. They impress any impartial reader with a sense that these words are indeed extraordinaire.
But again the question must be raised, What was it in time and history that spurred on this outpouring of inspired literature across decades, even through centuries of time, manifesting a form and substance that had never occurred before and has never been repeated since?
In the pattern of scripture, the great saving events in Israel’s history that first brought the nation into being were recorded so that posterity could understand their significance. According to the Pentateuch, the exodus from Egypt did not occur merely as the dramatic deliverance of one more people from the bondage of enslavement. These great events were instead a redemptive action by God himself in which he delivered his chosen people from their sinful pollution through the blood of the Passover lamb.
Likewise, the laws of Israel were not merely the refinements of an upward spiral of humanity’s ascent to moral perfection. Instead, the “ten words,” the Ten Commandments, came in the context of a divine covenant initiated at Mount Sinai, a solemn bond of a blood-sealed oath by which the self-revealing Covenant LORD committed himself and his people to one another for eternity.
These mighty, formative acts of God in behalf of his chosen covenant people were carefully recorded and their abiding significance preserved in writing for the generations to come. Consequently, every future age is able to confirm for itself the intent of God in forming this people in the processes of human history and to join with Israel in the covenant that was intended to make them a blessing to all the nations of the world.
A similar circumstance surrounded the peak, the climactic epoch of God’s dealings with his people under the auspices of his covenant with Israel. The history of divine blessing in the covenant reached its pinnacle in the days of David and Solomon almost five hundred years after Israel’s deliverance from the oppression of pharaoh. In this glorious era, God’s binding oath of the kingdom covenant was confirmed specifically with David and his descendants. God would have a “house,” a dwelling place, a temple for his worship that would remain located squarely in the midst of his people’s land. There he would meet with them, bless them, and make them a blessing to all the nations. At the same time, David would have a “house,” a dynasty, a line of descendants that would reign on the throne in Jerusalem forever (2 Sam. 7:10–16; Ps. 89:19–37; 132:1–18). The merger of these two houses in one place on Mount Zion established the reality of God’s kingdom on earth. As a consequence, the messianic kingdom of righteousness, forgiveness, justice, and love would expand eventually to embrace all other kingdoms of the world. God’s anointed messiah would rule from sea to sea and from the river to the ends of the earth (72:1–17). God would subdue all enemies of righteousness and justice under messiah’s feet (Ps. 2). This simultaneous establishment of David’s throne and God’s throne in Jerusalem marked the highest point of the realization of God’s purposes in the history of Israel. The messiah and his kingdom stood at the center of all other nations, positioned so that God’s work of redemption from sin and its consequences could spread throughout all the peoples of the earth.
Understandably then, this climactic event in the movement of redemptive history was also recorded by inspired writings, this time by the poets of Israel. If the nation was to be properly led in worship, a body of literature must inspire the adoration of the people. So David, the “sweet psalmist of Israel,” spoke of the heavens that declare the glory of God and the firmament that proclaims the work of his hands; he wrote of the exaltation of man in creation and redemption, man who was made “a little lower than the angels” but “crowned with glory and honor”; he described the blessedness of the man whose transgressions are forgiven and whose sins are covered; he praised the Lord who served as his light and his salvation, the strength of his life; and he paid homage to the appointed messiah as God’s son installed on Zion’s holy hill, who would inherit the nations and overrule the abuses of power by earth’s selfish monarchs. These psalms of David’s day celebrated the glories of the messiah and his kingdom that had come and were yet to come.
But what then in the movement of redemptive history was the role of the writings of the prophets? What distinctive developments in history brought forth this great and glorious body of prophetic literature? If the climax in Israelite history had been realized in the establishment of the messianic monarchy, what was left? Vos is undoubtedly correct in his observation that “the new organization of the theocratic kingdom under a human ruler” brought forward the prophetic ministry in Israel’s history.4 This “epochal onward movement” of the establishment of an anointed king who ruled for God represented a dramatic step forward in the manifestation of the saving purposes of God. Fittingly, Samuel made his appearance in conjunction with the establishment of Saul and David as Israel’s first kings. Throughout the remainder of the history of Israel’s kings, the prophets often addressed their messages particularly to the rulers of both Israel and Judah.
But clearly a difference existed between the ministry of the early prophets such as Elijah and Elisha and the later prophets as represented by Isaiah and Ezekiel. In the first case, the personal histories of the prophets themselves served as the focus of their ministries, while their recorded words are few. Elijah dramatically confronts King Ahab on Mount Carmel, but says very little, while the history of his protégé Elisha includes as many as eighteen miraculous actions. But while the lives of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel have some significance as an embodiment of their message, it is the record of their words, now in written form, that represents the distinctive core of their ministry.5
But once more the question may be asked, what was it in the processes of Israel’s history that led to the creation of such a significant corpus of written materials as the focus of the prophetic ministry?6 If the establishment of the monarchy represented the apex of redemptive history in its progress under the old covenant, what was left? The tragic was the thing that was left. This chosen, favored people of God’s covenant would fail in their commitments. Rather than serving as God’s light to the nations, this chosen people would display more depravity than the peoples surrounding them. As a consequence, they must be rejected by God, exiled, returned to their place of origin beyond the river. This nation that had been highly favored for fourteen hundred years since the time that their father Abraham left Ur of the Chaldees must now be forcibly returned to the land of the Chaldeans as God’s righteous judgment for their persistence in rebellion.
But what in the purposes of God could this tragic development mean? How could the banishment of God’s elect nation aid the progress of God’s plan for redeeming a people from fallen humanity? How would it all conclude? If God’s people became “not my people,” what could the future hold for a divine working that would revitalize a universe groaning in travail, waiting for redemption?
It was Israel’s exile, and the future beyond the exile, that the literary prophets of Israel were called and commissioned to explain. They were prophets because their calling was to speak more than to act. They would not lead the nation into actions of a redemptive nature comparable to the deliverance from Egypt under Moses or the consolidation of the kingdom under David. As prophets, they were called first and foremost to speak, and by their speaking to demand repentance from the transgression of God’s law and faith in God’s word of grace.
But this group of God’s servants was also commissioned to write. They were called to write because of the very nature of the historical moment in which they lived. The nation would be devastated, destroyed, annihilated. First the northern kingdom would be overrun by the Assyrians, carried into captivity far beyond its own bounds. But then the absolutely unthinkable would occur. The kingdom of Judah, harboring the hallowed place of God’s dwelling, would disappear from the face of the earth. How then would even a thread of hope regarding God’s redemptive purposes be maintained? What was left for Israel and consequently for all the nations that they were to bless with the good news of redemption? Where now was God’s great work of revitalizing a corrupted earth?
Into this vacuum of apparent hopelessness the prophets were called to speak and to write. They must write as well as speak so that the continuity of hope could be maintained across the generations. As the period dawned in which arose “the great Asiatic universal monarchies” that were destined by God to be the instruments for the chastisement of his chosen nation, some affirmation of the unthreatened sovereignty of their God must be provided.7 If nothing remained of the institutional activities of temple life in Jerusalem that were so perfectly designed to pass on the expectations of redemption to the generations to come, something else must arise to fire a flame of hope in the hearts of future sons and daughters. That something else would be the inspired writings, the preserved predictions not only of exile but also of restoration after devastation. If the exile itself were anticipated in the written records of the prophets, then when that awful moment came, its place in the purposes of God could be comprehended.
Instead of creating an atmosphere of unbelief, the exile as anticipated by the prophets would challenge the remnant of God’s people to a faith that would see the Covenant LORD’s just, purposeful hand in it all. At this critical juncture, it became necessary to establish the omniscience and omnipotence of the one true living God over the “apparent superiority of the gods of the heathen, as this became prominent in the victory of the worldly powers over the theocracy.”8
Simultaneously, prophetic predictions of a restoration even after the devastations of exile could only have the effect of moving the people to a faith that looked to the future. For if God were true to his word in the message about the exile, he could be expected to be true to his word in the message about restoration. And this restoration, what would it be? Would it mean simply a return to the old state of things that prevailed before exile? Would it anticipate a cycle of decline into sin followed inevitably by repeated divine judgments? Would the future kings of a restored Israel be no better than the kings of the past that were so roundly condemned by the prophets?
Not according to the writings of these same prophets. Preserved for posterity was the hope of a restoration far more glorious than the days before exile. A new covenant, a new Zion, a new temple, a new messiah, a new relation to the nations of the world—these were the expectations designed to create future hope for the people who would have to endure the trauma of deportation from their land. But not only for their own generation were these inspired writings divinely designed. They were meant for all future generations, until the time of the triumphant coming of the expected messiah, which would eventually bring about the creation of a new heaven and a new earth.
So for all generations even until today the inspired writings of the prophets speak. Without the turning to God in faith and repentance that they demand, their words will not be rightly heard. But for all generations and peoples who will read and hear with the understanding that only faith can give, they will forever bring the message of hope and restoration.
It is for this reason that the writings of these prophets of old must be heard anew. They speak today just as clearly as they spoke at the time of their inspiration. With renewed faith let the generation of today hear this prophetic message, which centers on the coming messiah and his glorious kingdom once more.