Friday, May 14, 2010

But they do not know the thoughts of the LORD.

My journey through the prophets continues.

And I’ve finally made it through the big boys. It took me the much better part of a year to work through Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel. But since I posted some notable quotes from Hosea a few weeks ago, I’ve finished off Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, and I’m now halfway through Micah. I like reading the shorter prophets. I feel like I’m accomplishing more.

We’ll find our way back to the prophets later in this post. I just want to rhapsodize about the Bible for a second.

My appreciation for God’s word has been deepened by learning a little bit about the holy book of Islam, the Qur’an. (I hope to read all the way through the Qur’an this summer. More on that later.) The Qur’an is pretty scattered and difficult to read, but it’s delightfully united. It’s a no-nonsense kind of scripture. It was entirely recorded by one man in two cities over two decades. There are few contradictions or mysteries therein. Muslims proudly assert the unity and completeness of their revelation.

Comparatively, the Bible is a complete mess. Sixty-six books (or more, or less, depending on who you ask), all seemingly at cross-purposes, written by around forty different people over several thousand years, many of them officially anonymous, many of them obviously having been tampered with (See, e.g., Mark 16, John 8, Genesis 1-2, Ezekiel 1:2-3, etc., etc.) To top it all off, at some point in the Middle Ages, somebody divided all these books into chapters and verses, and did a truly terrible job of it. Supposedly, these stories, parables, letters and oracles are all held together by some master “plan of redemption.” I believe that, but even that plan is rarely explicitly spelled out; theologians are left to fill in a lot of holes. I’m reminded of the show Battlestar Galactica. In the show, the villainous Cylons are trying to wipe out the remnant of humanity, but forgo lots of obvious chances to do so, and none of their villainous schemes seem to make much sense. But at the beginning of every episode, the viewers are reassured by a title screen that “They [the Cylons] have a plan.” (By Season Four, the writers apparently decided that it was impossible to think up any “plan” that would explain everything the Cylons had done, and the show quietly dropped the title screen.)

Knowing that this is the book God chose to reveal himself through is a special comfort. Rather than a list of rules or a ten-point plan or “Four Spiritual Laws,” God gives us a poorly-edited spiritual anthology, sends us the Holy Spirit, and tells us, “Now watch what I’ll do with this.” It reminds us that our primary task is not to figure all this out, but to trust in God, his Spirit and his word. God is Lord and Judge, not us. He will make all things right in the end.

In addition, the Bible gives us the privilege of hearing the word of God as it was delivered to many different groups of people in many different contexts: from the first humans to the liberated Israelites to the Jewish exiles to Israel’s enemies to the early persecuted church. This means that not every word of scripture is directed at us, but that scripture as a whole gives us a richer insight into the nature and will of the God we serve.

Anyway. Back to the prophets.

In Jeremiah 18:7-10, God says,
If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned. And if at another time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be built up and planted, and if it does evil in my sight and does not obey me, then I will reconsider the good I had intended to do for it.

I’ve encountered more than a few prophecies that don’t seem to have come even close to being fulfilled. Just about every prophet speaks of the reunification of the ten northern tribes with Judah. No one has heard from those tribes in 2700+ years. In Ezekiel 40-46, God sends Ezekiel a vision that details the plan for a new temple in exhaustive detail. Nothing like this temple was ever built, and since Christ has now done away with sacrifices for sins, it probably never will be. In Daniel 11, Daniel’s angelic visitor predicts the future reigns of the Ptolemies and Seleucids perfectly, until we get to verse 36. From then on, the prophetic narrative doesn’t match anything we know about Greek history. Ezekiel 29:12 says, “I will make the land of Egypt desolate among devastated lands, and her cities will lie desolate forty years among ruined cities. And I will disperse the Egyptians among the nations and scatter them through the countries.” As far as we know, this has never happened.

Evangelical Christianity’s use of the prophets has often been preoccupied by two pursuits: an attempt to “prove” the Bible’s truth through fulfilled prophecy, and the quest to map out the future history of the Middle East and the world based on the prophets’ words. For these two enterprises, the Bible’s unfulfilled prophecies are disastrous. But if we choose to view prophecy not solely as a crystal ball, but as a part of God’s relationship with the world, a relationship that includes warnings, judgment, and mercy, then the unfulfilled prophecies are less troubling. At one point in Ezekiel’s grand temple tour, an angel tells him, “Son of man, describe the temple to the people of Israel... Write these down before them so that they may be faithful to its design and follow all its regulations” (43:10-11). Perhaps this prophecy was not a prediction, but a prescription – a prescription that the Israelites clearly did not follow when they returned from Babylon. Perhaps the Maccabbees’ decision to revolt against the Seleucids, rather than await the aid of Michael (Daniel 12:1), postponed God’s judgment on the nations and the final resurrection described in Daniel 11:36-12:3. We could go on in this fashion.

This morning, I was reading Micah on a caffeine high, and the following passage blew me away (as otherwise-ordinary things are wont to do to me when I’m on a caffeine high):

You will go to Babylon; there you will be rescued. There the LORD will redeem you out of the hand of your enemies.

[So far, standard prophetic fare.]

But now many nations are gathered against you. They say, “Let her be defiled, let our eyes gloat over Zion!” But they do not know the thoughts of the LORD; they do not understand his plan, he who gathers them like sheaves to the threshing floor.

Rise and thresh, O Daughter of Zion, for I will give you horns of iron; I will give you hoofs of bronze and you will break to pieces many nations.

- Micah 4:10-13

The going-to-Babylon part is pretty straightforward. We all know that story. But the end of that story is: the Jews return, they are conquered by the tolerant Ptolemies and later the evil Seleucids, have a tiny kingdom of their own for about a hundred years, get conquered by the Romans, and later pulverized by them. Where does Zion breaking the nations to pieces come in?

The nearest thing I can think of is the modern State of Israel breaking the Arab armies to pieces three times in thirty years (1948, 1967, 1973). But what does that have to do with the redemption story?

Is this an uber-figurative description of the spread of the gospel throughout the nations, which broke the Roman empire (among others) to pieces? Is this a promise that was canceled on account of Israel’s perpetual disobedience? Is this a description of Christ’s victory over the nations at his Second Coming, still in the future? Is it all three?

“They do not know the thoughts of the LORD.”


Some excerpts from the other prophets I finished recently:

“Judah will be inhabited forever and Jerusalem through all generations. Their bloodguilt, which I have not pardoned, I will pardon.” The LORD dwells in Zion!

- Joel 3:20-21

This is what the Sovereign LORD showed me: He was preparing swarms of locusts after the king’s share had been harvested and just as the second crop was coming up. When they had stripped the land clean, I cried out, “Sovereign LORD, forgive! How can Jacob survive? He is so small!”

So the LORD relented. “This will not happen,” the LORD said.

This is what the Sovereign LORD showed me: The Sovereign LORD was calling for judgment by fire; it dried up the great deep and devoured the land. Then I cried out, “Sovereign LORD, I beg you, stop! How can Jacob survive? He is so small!”

So the LORD relented. “This will not happen either,” the Sovereign LORD said.

This is what he showed me: The Lord was standing by a wall that had been built true to plumb, with a plumb line in his hand. And the LORD asked me, “What do you see, Amos?”

“A plumb line,” I replied.

Then the Lord said, “Look, I am setting a plumb line among my people Israel; I will spare them no longer. The high places of Isaac will be destroyed and the sanctuaries of Israel will be ruined; with my sword I will rise against the house of Jeroboam.”

- Amos 7:1-9

“The day of the LORD is near for all nations. As you have done, it will be done to you; your deeds will return upon your own head. Just as you drank on my holy hill, so all the nations will drink continually; they will drink and drink and be as if they had never been.

“But on Mount Zion will be deliverance; it will be holy, and the house of Jacob will possess its inheritance.”

- Obadiah 15-17

“Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs. But I, with a song of thanksgiving, will sacrifice to you. What I have vowed I will make good. Salvation comes from the LORD.”

- Jonah 2:8-9

No comments:

Post a Comment