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Today, the term prophecy is often applied to predictions of the end of the world—regardless of whether those predictions are thought to come from the Bible, or Nostradamus, or the Mayan “2012” calendar.
However, all of this is a far cry from actual Old Testament prophecy. The biblical prophets were concerned with the goodness and greatness of God, and the people’s response. They had a passion to proclaim the word of the Lord as they received that word, pure and simple. Sometimes that word dealt with what the future held, but it was always in relation to God’s work of judgment, blessing, and redemption. The prophets’ words of long ago were never meant as a way to predict current events—except that the eternal themes of grace, obedience, and hope always apply to the human situation.
The prophets represent a breakthrough in human history. Their divine message connected the dots, making it clear that there was a purpose behind every event. “Stuff happens” was definitely not their mantra. Rather, they viewed all of life as being under the direction of the sovereign, loving, and holy God. For God’s people, there was a high standard. Faithfulness led to righteousness and peace; idolatry resulted in terrible defeat. Pride was taken down, yes. But in times of hopelessness and humiliation, the Lord picked up the pieces and restored the blessing. Sometimes in reading through, we may be overwhelmed by all the punishment for sin. But don’t miss the words of peace and renewal; don’t miss the message that ultimately God overcomes sin and restores the broken.
The prophets’ North Star was the glory of God, and the purity of worship: “You shall have no other gods…” This constant was reflected (or not) in how Israel treated their neighbors, and cared for the least among them. In other words, their faithfulness to the Lord was in part measured by humble, decent living. Wrath came whenever they turned from God and God’s compassionate ways. Loyalty to God, and God’s blessing, went hand in hand with compassion toward others. Living in such a way as to bring praise to God was key to Israel’s vocation.
We learn in Isaiah that tiny Israel has a cosmic role to play: “I will make you a light to the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.” (Isaiah 49:6) Israel was being prepared for a bigger mission. Christians see in the words of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and all the prophets, a foreshadowing of Jesus Christ. Passages such as Isaiah 42:1-4, point us to the One who would live among us, bringing forgiveness, salvation, and true justice. As we read, we should look for those texts that proclaim the coming Savior, and God’s new covenant of grace.