Prophets warn judgment, promise mercy

Published: January 16, 2010

This is the sixth column in a six-part series

By Clifford M. Yeary
Associate Director, Little Rock Scripture Study

God was vitally connected to ancient Israel’s life through three distinct sources. The Temple in Jerusalem was cherished as a unique dwelling place for the creator of all things. There, through the sacrifices offered by priests directly descended from Moses’ brother Aaron, God’s flawed people could gain access to the holy one in spite of their many failings as a people. The kings of Israel and Judah were considered God’s anointed leaders, and they were to administer justice in God’s name throughout the land.

Living VoiceKings and priests alike were subject to yet another divine institution, one which asserted its authority with indifference toward theirs and without any legal mandate. This last institution came and went at God’s leisure and asserted itself through the power of the word. The prophets of Israel courageously faced the most powerful in Israel with messages from God that were often considered treasonous (see Jeremiah 38:1-6).

We find more than one type of prophet in the Old Testament. When Saul was king, bands of prophets could be recognized by their peculiar, ecstatic behavior (1 Samuel 10:5-11). Perhaps they jerked and flailed as they were seized by a prophetic spirit. We also find that the kings of both Israel and Judah employed a cadre of prophets to assist their decision-making, especially during warfare (see 1 Kings 2:10-13). These latter prophets were very unreliable, apparently more intent on pleasing earthly powers than speaking for God.

The prophets that were called directly by God were given an ominous task. Jeremiah recorded his calling and its challenge with these words: “Say not, ‘I am too young.’ To whomever I send you, you shall go; whatever I command you, you shall speak. Have no fear before them, because I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.”

Then the Lord extended his hand and touched my mouth, saying, “See, I place my words in your mouth! This day I set you over nations and over kingdoms, to root up and to tear down, to destroy and to demolish, to build and to plant” (Jeremiah 1:7-10).

Despite modern misconceptions, the prophets through whom God spoke fervently and passionately were not focused on predicting the future. Their proclamations were firmly rooted in Israel’s present, with Israel’s future vividly described as a consequence of their faithlessness and neglect of justice toward the poor.

Judgment and mercy, the twin realities accompanying God’s presence in Israel’s midst, were the constant themes of the prophets. God’s judgment was coming, and it would be devastating. But the prophets, in varying degrees, also frequently reminded the suffering poor of Israel that God had not forgotten them. They were to hope in the unfailing mercy of God that would one day bring them a righteous and compassionate king.

The prophet Isaiah seems to have been quite hopeful that King Hezekiah of Judah (715-687 B.C.) would prove to be a true godsend to the nation. He assured Hezekiah of God’s protection, and when the Assyrians attacked Jerusalem (701 B.C.), Isaiah, through prophetic signs, was able to convince Hezekiah to resist any urge to surrender.

The Assyrian assault ended under what could only be considered miraculous circumstances (Isaiah 36:1—37:37). Later in Hezekiah’s reign, Isaiah became increasingly doubtful of his leadership. As a prophet, his utterances turned from reassuring Hezekiah to warning him of Judah’s eventual destruction at the hands of the Babylonians (Isaiah 39:1-7).

It was during this time of bitter disappointment in Hezekiah that many scholars believe Isaiah made one of his most quoted proclamations concerning a future king: “On that day, the root of Jesse, set up as a signal for the nations, the Gentiles shall seek out, for his dwelling shall be glorious” (Isaiah 11:10). Jesse was the father of David, and the promised root that the Gentiles would seek out has consistently been understood by Christians as being fulfilled in Jesus.

Today, through the voice of Israel’s biblical prophets, God continues to call Christians and Jews alike to a commitment to justice while assuring us of God’s steadfast mercy and love.

Study Questions

1. What are three sources through which God is said to have connected with the life of Israel?
2. Where can you see judgment and mercy in the description of Jeremiah’s call? Why are these themes so important to God’s people?
3. What messages of hope have you found in the words of the biblical prophets?
4. In what current circumstances could your faith community echo the voice of God’s prophets within your own civic community?


This article was originally published in Arkansas Catholic Jan. 16, 2010. Copyright Diocese of Little Rock. All rights reserved. This article may be copied or redistributed with acknowledgement and permission of the publisher.