This is the fourth sermon in the Understanding the Bible series. Throughout, I’ve tried to be honest about the limitations of this rapid journey through the Bible. Today, I will probably do the greatest injustice to Scripture as we cover about 1300 years of history and several hundred pages in the average Bible…in about 15 minutes. In most churches, these texts get very little attention and are mostly unfamiliar, so I am hoping, by keeping it very simple, to give you some context for stories you may have learned in church or Sunday school, and that in this context they start to make sense, and perhaps make you want to read more.
Let’s get to it. You will remember that we’ve been tracing a theme through the Bible as our organizing principle. The Bible is a story of the Creation of a covenant between God and the world, the breaking of that covenant, and the repair and recreation of that Covenant—a cycle that repeats again and again. Today we are looking at that theme in the books of the prophets. Following the first 5 books of the Bible, commonly known as Torah, or the books of the Law, the books of the prophets occupy the vast majority of the Old Testament. This part of the Bible starts with Joshua and Judges, and continues with the books of Kings and Samuel; it then goes on to include what are known as the Major Prophets: the longer books called Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, and the Minor Prophets, shorter books like Micah, Zechariah, and Malachi. Along the way, we’re skipping some books and we’ll return to them in the next lesson when we talk about Wisdom literature.
It’s a lot of material. But it is held together by the theme. The many different voices of the prophets are all participating in the Covenant cycle we’ve been talking about. Their stories contribute to a common history. So let’s start with the history.
Connected to this sermon is a Timeline of the Bible. I’ve zoomed in to what we’ve covered so far and where we’ll go today. So far we looked at this covenant cycle through Genesis and Exodus. Where we left off in the Book of Exodus, the Israelites were wandering through the Wilderness of Shur in search of the Promised Land. They enter into a Covenant with God, which we talked about as a way of life that claims them as God’s people. It is an alternative way of life from the one they had in Egypt with Pharaoh as their king. They spend 40 years wandering around in the wilderness to try to get used to this new way of life, trusting in God to lead them. Moses dies, and the people are led out of their time of wandering by Joshua into the land that will become their home, where God places Judges over them. These Judges lead the people by being interpreters of God’s way of life.
Unfortunately, the people still get pulled away from God, tempted by life outside of the covenant. The perfect example of this is found in 1 Samuel 8. In this story, the people say to Samuel, who is a prophet of the Lord: ‘we’ve been led by these judges and prophets long enough, ask the Lord to give us a king.’ God replies that they don’t really want a king because a king will do what kings do: he will take their daughters for his harem and send their sons to war and make them pay taxes. God’s way of life is better than this one. But even faced with this reasoning, the people insist on having a king, and they say specifically, give us a king “so that we also may be like other nations.” (1 Sam 8:20) So God relents and gives them a king. His name is Saul, and after him comes King David and after him comes King Solomon. In their stories, we begin to see the brokenness of these human leaders and how they, and the people along with them, fall away from God’s way of life.
After the reign of Solomon, things get worse. Greed and power struggles lead to a dividing of the Kingdom, and a period begins during which there is a Northern Kingdom known as Israel with its capital at Shechem, and a Southern Kingdom known as Judah with its capital in Jerusalem. As a result of falling away from the Covenant with God and God’s way of life, a series of kings rule poorly over Israel and Judah and their kingdoms become progressively weaker. In the 8th Century BCE the Kingdom of Israel falls to the Assyrian Empire, and in the 6th Century BCE the Kingdom of Judah falls to the Babylonian Empire.
When Jerusalem falls to the Babylonians, the Temple that King Solomon had once built is destroyed, and the people are dispersed and enter into the darkest period of the history of Israel known as the Babylonian Exile. In the Covenant cycle we have been learning about, this is where things really hit bottom. But, to make a very long story very short, God is always working for renewal of the Covenant, and so a few generations later, there is a good king of the Persian Empire named Cyrus, who defeats the Babylonians and when he does he allows the Israelites to return to their home and to rebuild their Temple. This is what biblical history calls the Second Temple period and it lasts through to the end of what we know as the Old Testament and until about the year 70 CE.
That, in about 5 minutes, is the history—and you can follow it on the timeline: Wilderness; Judges; the people ask for a king; a United Kingdom, a Divided Kingdom, the fall of both kingdoms and a horrible period of exile, and the restoration of the Covenant with the building of a new Temple. In very broad strokes it is all one long story of the breaking and remaking of the covenant. And if you read more closely, you will see that again and again, it tells, individual stories of the Creation, Brokenness, and Renewal of God’s Covenant.
Now, I want to turn to the biblical texts themselves and show you how the individual Bible stories themselves show the progression of this Covenant cycle through some scriptures which may be familiar to you.
You will remember that earlier I referred to today’s portion of the Bible as the books of the Prophets, and to understand these books, it’s important to define that word. Some of us have been given the impression that prophets are fortune tellers who predict the future. The more accurate description is that prophets are interpreters of the present situation and the health of the Covenant between God and the people. Prophets speak to the kings and the people and tell them how they are doing at keeping God’s Covenant and living according to God’s way. The fortune teller description isn’t really accurate in that the prophets are magical, but it is true in the sense that they say things like: If you people keep departing from God’s ways, things will not go well for you. And as the history we looked at indicates, the prophets are right. Let’s look at three examples, and put some individual stories into context.
The first one is from the Prophet Amos. Amos was a prophet, like many others, deeply concerned with the keeping of God’s Covenant, and he was unafraid to tell it like it is. So the judgment on the people is harsh, but God’s forgiveness and mercy are equally gracious:
“Thus says the Lord:
For three transgressions of Judah,
and for four, I will not revoke the punishment;
because they have rejected the law of the Lord,
and have not kept his statutes,
but they have been led astray by the same lies
after which their ancestors walked…
Did I not bring Israel up from the land of Egypt…?
[But] The time is surely coming, says the Lord,
14 I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel,
and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and drink their wine,
and they shall make gardens and eat their fruit.
15 I will plant them upon their land,
and they shall never again be plucked up
out of the land that I have given them,
says the Lord your God.” (Amos 2:4; 9:7b,13-15)
The witness of Amos is that the people have departed from the Covenant, but that the broken covenant will one day be restored.
The second example comes from the Prophet Isaiah and may be familiar to you because Christians read it during Advent and Handel included these texts in Messiah. Isaiah writes, “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light…,” and calls that great light: “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” (Isaiah 9:2,6b) This is a vision of a good king in Jerusalem who will lead the people under God’s intended Covenant. Later, when then kings and people fall away and are taken into exile, the people are in anguish, and Isaiah writes, “Comfort ye, my people…” (Isaiah 40:1). And later, when a vision emerges of returning from Exile to their Jerusalem, Isaiah writes that in that day: “The wolf will lie down with the lamb and the leopard with the kid…” All these familiar texts Christians read during Advent are from the story of God’s Covenant, created, and broken, and restored.
Finally, the third example is what you heard in today’s Scripture Lesson. The Prophet Jeremiah writes during the time of the Babylonian exile and toward the end of it, he writes explicitly about the restoration of the Covenant when the people return from exile. God speaks through the voice of Jeremiah: 31 The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 32 It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. 33 But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” (Jeremiah 31:31-33)
These three examples are, of course, hand-picked examples that illustrate my point clearly, and I have gone very quickly through an immense amount of history and text. However, even in reading on your own, this cycle of a Covenant—created, broken, and restored again—is a tool you can use to understand the Bible. And the vast majority of the stories you may already know in the Old Testament fit somewhere into this cycle. When King David commits adultery with Bathsheba, the Prophet Nathan comes and tells him that he is falling away from the Covenant. When Ezekiel prophesies in the Valley of Dry Bones, he is creating a vision of the restoration of the Covenant. When the Prophet Micah tells the people to “Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God,” he is reminding the people of God’s way of life to which they have been called through the covenant. This is how the Covenant cycle becomes a key to understanding the Bible.
Here’s where I will end today. I wonder if you have found in your life, as I have in mine, that sometimes life is not fair. You look around in the world and you see good people who make all of the right choices and strive to do the right thing, but bad things keep on happening to them. And you see people who do all kinds of awful things and seem to be doing just fine. This would seem to suggest that God’s way of life does not work. We are connected to the ancient people of the Bible in that they made the same observations that you and I make, that often things do not work out as they should. There is a significant body of literature in the Bible that speaks to this very problem. And that is what we will study in Part 5. Amen.