(This is the Old Testament series I’m doing right now, trying to explain how the actions of the God of the OT aren’t those of a malicious deity, but one’s that work toward the greater development of His plan of salvation for mankind)
I think people do a terrible job understanding prophecy and the prophets who speak it. They seem to have this impression that prophets are these negative fortune tellers or something that like to pronounce doom on people that they can’t escape from, even if they repent. Having grown up in a Pentecostal church, I can definitely say that ideal hasn’t really left prophecy there (when it was actually orderly from time to time).
This view gets transferred not only onto prophecy that occurs in the church in general, but also the books of the Bible specifically known as the prophets. They get a really bad rep for being these terrible doom sayers who were always talking about how terrible Israel was and how God was going to judge them. I think some scholars have these mental images of Isaiah or Ezekiel as those old homeless guys with beards in NYC, standing there with signs saying, “The End Is Near!” While it’s quite possible they did indeed have beards, they were SO much more than that, and I think we need to start understanding them in another light.
From Scripture, we can understand that, though prophets were not limited to such a position, kings of Israel and Judah kept a host of prophets to consult their decisions with, not unlike kings keeping fortune tellers and such for predictions over political and military decisions. Prophets were considered a direct link to God, acting as His mouthpiece here on Earth. Here’s the catch: kings often preferred to listen to the prophets who prophesied in FAVOR of their ideas. The good kings who followed the Lord would heed the words of a prophet who cautioned against an action. Also, it’s not like it was entirely difficult to know God’s thoughts on a matter; he had given them the Law of Moses as a guide for decisions. So when a good prophet saw a king doing evil things against the Law, he spoke up, often to his own demise.
Nor were prophets limited to just being interpreters of the Law, either. Take Amos for example. He has his own book of the Bible, and it’s of a decent length, but it gets sandwiched in the purgatory of the Minor Prophets, which hardly anyone reads and hardly any pastor preaches on unless they don’t have any ideas. The cool thing is: he was just a shepherd, and openly says so, but still calls out the King for being a royal jerk. All of this says the first thing I want to point out about the Prophets: they can come from anywhere.
So what did these dudes from anywhere do? Well, they spoke from God. They were meant as the balance for the kingship (which God never intended), a way of keeping Israel connected with God. The problem here is that Israel didn’t listen well. They were constantly turning to other gods, oppressing the poor and the sojourner, and straying far away from the God that loved them and rescued them. So the prophets, like Isaiah, Ezekiel, Amos, Hosea, and many others stopped and said “ENOUGH IS ENOUGH! God doesn’t want your sacrifices from the bulls you took from the poor. He wants justice, and he wants it in a big way! And God will GET his justice if you don’t turn, repent, and stop doing everything He told you to stay away from!” In a way, the prophets were great champions for social justice as well: they were always speaking up for the poor, whom the rich oppressed and extorted regularly. They also stood up for immigrants, whom the Israelites were supposed to take care of when they came to their land.
Point #2: God spoke through the prophets of his anger with their disobedience and evil ways, and unless they turned back to Him, judgment was coming.
Here’s the key that makes this POV on prophets different from what we’re used to seeing: Israel’s actions were not only disobedient to the Law, but they left them open to attack from other nations around them. When they let their customs and laws to overtake what God had set up for them, they gave them the perfect foothold for invasion. It was these invasions, effectively, that the prophets were warning them about. The prophets warned people of impending events that came as a result of their behavior.
There is good news, though: these events could be avoided, provided you stopped acting stupid and got back on track with God. Prophecies didn’t HAVE to come true; I’m sure the prophets would rather they didn’t. The cool thing is: sometimes people listened. Take a look at Jonah and Haggai: they both spoke up, one to the people of Ninevah (who weren’t even Hebrews; talk about salt in a wound) and the other to the people of Israel. The people got the point and repented, and judgment was stayed (later, though, when Nahum spoke to Ninevah, they didn’t listen so well…).
In all, the prophets were some cool dudes who spoke from God for people who didn’t have a voice, and told the oppressive upper classes to knock it off quick. So next time you read them (in the next ten years, maybe) read a little closer, and see what they were calling Israel out on, and apply that to your own life.