Today we take a look at the Prophets of the Old Testament. Many people think of a prophet as someone that foretells the future, like a fortune teller. But this popular notion is based on Ancient Greek beliefs. They believed the future was all settled ahead of time, and that you simply needed to foretell what that future was. So they used divination and oracles to try to get a peek at what was coming. Once previewed, however, it was unchangeable. The future was settled already, so you had no power to alter it. The best you could hope for was to try and prepare. So in this way, the ancient Greek prophets were quite fatalistic.
Hebrew prophecy, by contrast, was rarely like that. Hebrew prophets are different, warning if you don’t change, this is what *could* happen. They basically say “this is the road we are on” and where we will end up if we don’t change our ways. So this way of foretelling the future was imbued with a sense of hope because the future was NOT set in stone, it was something we had a little bit of say-so in. (See Jeremiah 18 for more on how God can change his mind.)
The first dominant theme we look at with respect to the prophets is the concept of righteousness. This refers to both right-relatedness, as well as care of the vulnerable.
Right relatedness is our relationships in the four directions of love: To God, ourself, others, and the earth & animal kingdom. It’s making sure we are living in harmony in all four of these aspects.
But another critical element of righteousness is defined by our treatment of the vulnerable, also known as justice. Most people think of justice in terms of retributive justice, or punishing criminals. But biblical justice is more like a verb, not a noun — we are expected to DO justice by exhibiting godly treatment of the most vulnerable among us, most often specifically mentioned as widows, orphans, foreigners and the poor. These four groups are mentioned so often that some theologians refer to them as the “quartet of the vulnerable.”
There are literally scores and scores of verses that emphasize just how important justice is to God, and what a central defining part of godliness this quality is. “Mishpat,” the Hebrew word for this kind of godly justice toward the vulnerable is mentioned 400 times in the Old Testament alone. Righteousness is mentioned 130 times. So this subject is no small deal to God!
Here are just a few verses:
“You are to distribute this land among yourselves according to the tribes of Israel. You are to allot it as an inheritance for yourselves and for the foreigners residing among you and who have children. You are to consider them as native-born Israelites; along with you they are to be allotted an inheritance among the tribes of Israel. In whatever tribe a foreigner resides, there you are to give them their inheritance,” declares the Sovereign Lord.
In the ancient near east, tribalism was so ingrained that even the word for human being is whatever they themselves were — for example, if you asked the ancient Egyptians what people were, they would say other Egyptians. But other groups were not people. Assyrians were not people. They were dehumanized in their very definitions and most likely thought of as evil so it was okay to defeat them.
So in this cultural environment, for the Jewish culture to come out and say that foreigners were to be treated as natural born citizens, and that they would be given an inheritance to the land — this was a massive break from the surrounding traditions.
Woe to those who make unjust laws,
to those who issue oppressive decrees,
to deprive the poor of their rights
and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people,
making widows their prey
and robbing the fatherless.
What will you do on the day of reckoning,
when disaster comes from afar?
To whom will you run for help?
Where will you leave your riches?
When society is based on an unjust hierarchy, it is on its way toward destruction! Isaiah is saying that this truth is built into the very fabric of the world, that when you are not rightly related, you are paving your way towards destruction.
The people of the land practice extortion and commit robbery; they oppress the poor and needy and mistreat the foreigner, denying them justice.
Refusing to treat the vulnerable among us as one of your own is more than simply unjust — it is on same level as robbery!
As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, your sister Sodom and her daughters never did what you and your daughters have done.
“‘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.
Here the prophet Ezekiel compares Israel to Sodom, a city so bad that God destroyed it (see Genesis 18). What catches Ezekiel’s eye here about Sodom, apparently even more vile than the sins of raping and robbing visitors, is that they were arrogant and overfed and did not care about the poor and the needy. This is the definition of greed — Having more than you need and not sharing.
Or, as summarized in Deuteronomy 24:17,
“True justice must be given to foreigners living among you and to orphans, and you must never accept a widow’s garment as security for her debt. Always remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God redeemed you from your slavery. That is why I have given you this command.”
Now, many will hear this message and assume that Greg is trotting out his liberal politics again. Maybe they will assume that he is in favor of open borders, or free citizenship for all. But if you are thinking that, your brain has been politicized! This is not a political issue any more than murder is. It is simply biblical. We have become politicized by watching so much right or left wing media that we start to think everything has to do with politics — which side are you on, he’s wrong or he’s right. But we are not talking about policy here. Just simple biblical righteousness. The bible makes it clear what God considers to be right.
A good way of thinking of this that Greg heard a while back was that Democrats and Republicans are like two divorced parents arguing about whose fault it is that their son is drowning in a lake, WHILE their son is drowning in a lake!
If caring for vulnerable people is a high priority on God’s list, then it has to be a priority for us.
Of course no country does a good job of this, we are all oppressed spiritually. But at the very least the American church should reflect God’s priorities. And on the whole, the issue of justice for the vulnerable, including foreigners, has been off radar screen. Most think it is the government’s job (and many in the government think it is the church’s job!)
Whether the government does anything about this or not, Jesus says justice is OUR responsibility. The Good News is only good if it applies to the whole person. People need not only a saved soul, but a place to live, shelter, food, and clothes. God loves the whole person.
Jesus personally identifies with the vulnerable in Matthew 25:34-40 and holds up our treatment of the vulnerable as the defining characteristic that separates the sheep from the goats. This topic is of premium importance to God.
If the church’s priority is to reflect God, then you would expect that to be reflected in budgets. Not just what you say, but follow the money. The budget should reflect that. But all too often it is not. Greg shared the story from back when Woodland Hills was thinking of getting their own building, they met with a builder who showed them another church they had done. They believed, like many, that opulence and abundance was a sign of being blessed. And this clearly was true for that church — the closet in the pastor’s office was bigger than Greg’s whole office is now! And meanwhile a homeless community was just down the street, and there were drugs and poverty everywhere. Without judging that church, it did cause the Woodland Hills board to question, do people sleeping in the street in January, while the pastor sits behind an imported cherrywood desk bigger than your car really reflect God’s priorities?
So this informed how Woodland Hills chose their current location, with lots of space to use on other projects like our food shelf, homeless shelter in the winter, and, more recently, we are home to a new nonprofit called Settld, who builds tiny homes for those experiencing homelessness. The vision is to create tiny home villages in the large and often unused parking lots of churches. WH has given them the use of 70,000 indoor square feet to build these tiny homes regardless of weather.
The second main point that we can pull from the prophets has to do with the dry bones vision, a prophecy in Ezekiel 37. It details a vision revealed to the prophet Ezekiel, where he sees himself standing in a valley full of dry human bones. He is told to deliver a prophecy, and when he does, the bones connect into human figures, the bones become covered with tendons, flesh and skin. They represent the lifeless Israel — there is no life in dry bones, but they would come back to life with muscles and tendons and become God’s righteous army.
What Ezekiel is predicting here is that the law and work by itself led to death, but that Christ would come and fulfill it by breathing life and flesh back into us, allowing us to rest in his grace, saving us from the inside out.
In Galatians 3:23-25, Paul saw that Israel did not just happen to fail in fulfilling the law – It’s that they couldn’t have kept the law if they had tried. The whole purpose was to demonstrate that we can’t keep it, and instead we have to ask God to save us.
In Hebrews 8:13 This is repeated, that there is something obsolete about first covenant. The old covenant was all an accommodation, meant eventually to lead us to the new covenant with Christ.
As we always teach at Woodland Hills, if you want to know what God is like, look at Jesus. Now that we have Jesus, we can stop looking at the shadow of God that we find in the old covenant, and we can look instead at the real thing. And, trying to find life through the law, apart from grace, you are like dead bones.
This requires that we trust that God is really as beautiful as that — and to be wiling to die to the old, and surrender to God to breathe life into you. But this surrender means we have to carve out time to let God breathe life into us. It is a kind of rest, which is hard for us in this country where we are used to achieving all the time. Grace requires resting in God. We have to carve out time for this. He loves you and wants to spend time with you.
Just like when you get married and have kids and before long you and your spouse stop hanging out together. You forget reason you got married in first place. And this is what “date night” is all about! You have to carve out time to keep that connection alive.
Knowing your are loved, and experiencing that love — this is the fuel of the kingdom. When we do this, we stop trying to get life from our adherence to the law, and instead we become full from the inside out as predicted by the vision shown to Ezekiel. And when this happens, the rest takes care of itself.
It’s not that sin does not matter, and it’s not that our works (such as justice) do not matter. It’s that our works by themselves leave us dead, but when we rest and allow God to breathe into us from the inside out with his love, we start caring about works like justice for the vulnerable because we feel like we have enough to spare. When we are filled with the love of God, we become motivated by love, which is the greatest motivation of all.
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