If you remember from last week, the nation of Israel parted ways with Judah, effectively resulting in periodic civil war between the two nations. The books of Kings and Chronicles tell the story of the successive political factions in each country, comparing each with the attitude and relative righteousness of King David (Judah) and King Jeroboam (Israel).
The spiritual leadership in both nations deteriorated, faster though in Israel than in Judah. As you read the histories, you see them building to a climax of defeat and exile, with Israel being overcome and destroyed first, followed by Judah. In the passages from this week, this destruction hasn’t occurred yet, but we’re on the brink of it. As things decline, the writings of the prophets become very important in recognizing the warnings that God provides to the nations.
The first prophetic book, chronologically speaking, is Jonah. Jonah is introduced briefly to us in 2 Kings 14:23-27, within the context of the reign of Jeroboam II (no relation to the original Jeroboam).
In the fifteenth year of Amaziah the son of Joash, king of Judah, Jeroboam the son of Joash, king of Israel, began to reign in Samaria, and he reigned forty-one years. And he did what was evil in the sight of the LORD. He did not depart from all the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, which he made Israel to sin. He restored the border of Israel from Lebo-hamath as far as the Sea of the Arabah, according to the word of the LORD, the God of Israel, which he spoke by his servant Jonah the son of Amittai, the prophet, who was from Gath-hepher. For the LORD saw that the affliction of Israel was very bitter, for there was none left, bond or free, and there was none to help Israel. But the LORD had not said that he would blot out the name of Israel from under heaven, so he saved them by the hand of Jeroboam the son of Joash.
Our main information about Jonah comes from the book that bears his name. It’s only 4 chapters long. It tells the story of Jonah being called by God to preach a call to repentance to the inhabitants of the Assyrian city of Nineveh. Assyria was a major superpower in the region at the time and was threatening to conquer and destroy Israel (which they will ultimately do). Jonah rebels against God’s call because of his hatred for Assyria and his knowledge of God’s forgiving nature when a people truly repent of their sin. Eventually Jonah does preach repentance in the city, and the city does repent, and God spares them of destruction for a time.
Chronologically, the book of Amos comes next. Amos was a shepherd, called by God to leave his herds and preach a word of warning to Jeroboam II (Israel’s king). The priests in Israel (who were not Levites, by the way) called Amos a liar and asked Jeroboam to send him away to Judah. Amos’ message was not only a warning to Israel, but to all of Israel’s local surrounding nations, warning them that they would all soon be crushed by the rising Assyrian empire because of their disobedience to God. But he also promises that a remnant of future Israelites will be restored to their land.
Notice from the chart above that some prophets were sent by God to preach mainly to the leaders of either Israel or Judah, and some were sent by God to both. Elijah, Elisha and Jonah were prophets in Israel. The other prophetic books were written by prophets who preached in both nations.
Isaiah’s ministry spanned a number of kings. His book is also not written in a linear fashion, but to be read chronologically, you must follow clues about who he’s conversing with (or follow a chronological guide such as this one!) His book is really broken into two parts. The first section (chapters 1-39) is a series of warnings to Israel and to Judah about God’s coming judgment. The second part (chapters 40-66) is a series of passages of hope and comfort about the coming days of fellowship with God after his judgments are finished. Isaiah also has a number of very important messianic prophesies in it as well. We encountered two of them in this week’s readings.
First, in Isaiah 7:10-17, Isaiah confronts king Ahaz of Israel, who is in rebellion against God. Isaiah tells Ahaz to ask God for a sign to indicate that his pronounced judgments will indeed happen. Ahaz, in a statement of fake humility, says he wouldn’t think of testing God (even his whole life is a life of rebellion against God).
Again the LORD spoke to Ahaz: “Ask a sign of the LORD your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.” But Ahaz said, “I will not ask, and I will not put the LORD to the test.” And he said, “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary men, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey when he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the boy knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land whose two kings you dread will be deserted. The LORD will bring upon you and upon your people and upon your father’s house such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah—the king of Assyria!”
Now this is a prophecy of both the immediate and the distant future. In the short term, the “virgin” refers to Isaiah’s wife, who will soon become pregnant and the resulting child is the sign that the Assyrian’s are about to conquer Israel (Isaiah 8:1-4). In the more distant future, another virgin (Mary) would give birth to a son (Jesus) as a sign of the fulfillment of God’s greater judgment on the sins of the whole world (Jesus’ death on the cross) and subsequent removal of the penalty for sin (for all who believe in Jesus and receive him (John 1:11-13).
Isaiah later (9:1-7) reveals more about this coming Messiah. He would be a baby born with a messianic destiny known from his beginning, he would come to be associated with the region of Galilee, he would be known simultaneously as God himself (the Father) and as God’s son (Prince), and that he would be a descendant of David, but would reign for all eternity. He would be a source of light (salvation) for all nations, not just the Jews. His coming and reign would be because of God’s zealous love for all people (cf. John 3:16-21).
But there will be no gloom for her who was in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he has made glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone. You have multiplied the nation; you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as they are glad when they divide the spoil. For the yoke of his burden, and the staff for his shoulder, the rod of his oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult and every garment rolled in blood will be burned as fuel for the fire. For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.