The Jewish Prophets, Jesus and the Prophetic Voice Today
This essay describes the socio-political conditions and the prophetic voices of Jeremiah and Second Isaiah (ch 40-66) in the Southern Kingdom of Israel, also called the Kingdom of Judah and Jerusalem, during the seventh to the sixth centuries BCE.[i]
Like Isaiah (ch1-39) and Micah before them, these prophets criticized the people of Judah for broken covenant relationship with Yahweh. Jeremiah predicted the destruction of Jerusalem, while Second Isaiah accompanied the Jewish people after their return from Babylonian exile.
Jeremiah began to prophesy about 627 BCE and continued to do so during the reigns of kings Josiah (641-610 BCE), Jehoiakim (609-598 BCE) and Jehoiachin (597 BCE), and accompanied his people into exile in Babylon (597-537 BCE). He proclaimed Judah had forfeited God’s protection because of its idolatry. In response, he predicted God would bring suffering through famine, conquest and captivity in a foreign land.
Jeremiah’s prediction of doom was decried by the people who accused him of ill-will, as if he were to blame for the disaster he predicted. Some considered him a traitor, working on behalf of the Chaldeans (Babylonians) (42:2-3). The priests and the prophets of Judah pronounced him worthy of death (26:11). Even the people of his native village, Anathoth, spoke against him and sought to take his life (11:21; 12:6). They would not repent of any wrongdoing.
They have spoken falsely of the Lord,
and have said, “He will do nothing.
No evil will come upon us,
and we shall not see sword or famine.”
The prophets are nothing but wind,
for the word is not in them! (5:12-13)
The destruction of Jerusalem and its temple came in 586 BCE and with it followed Babylonian captivity (586-538 BCE). However, God’s attachment to Israel could not be shaken. The crowning point of Jeremiah’s prophecy became the promise of God’s forgiveness (50:20), restored covenant relationship and the complete transformation of Judah. God would instill in them “one heart and one way” and make them “an everlasting covenant” which would never be violated (32:39-40).
And just as I have watched over them to pluck up and break down, to overthrow, destroy and bring evil, so will I watch over them to build and to plant, says the Lord (31:28).
Behold the days are coming, says the lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely. And this is the name by which he will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness.” (23:5-6)
Following Jeremiah, Second Isaiah, an anonymous prophet in the line of the eighth century prophet Isaiah, arose just prior to the fall of Babylon in 539 BCE and continued to prophesy for the following generation. While acknowledging Judah’s blindness to covenant relationship as the source of its suffering, he also experienced the harshness of the Babylonians (62:1; 6-7; 51:9; 68:8-12; 63:15). He registered his complaint before God that his people had suffered far out of proportion to their guilt. But in the end, he accepted the mystery of divine wisdom in God’s redemptive plan for Israel.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
For as the heaven is higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts. (55:8-9)
Then, as Persia rose to overthrow Babylon’s power and dominance of the region, Second Isaiah proclaimed God would soon redeem the Jewish people as king Cyrus of Persia had been empowered by God to permit their return to Jerusalem and begin the restoration of their temple (41:5-7; 44:28).
It was Second Isaiah who eventually came to see the Jewish people as the suffering servant of Yahweh, interpreting their hardships in Babylon not so much as punishment from God, but as a privilege, and even self-sacrifice on behalf of the salvation of all the nations the world (52:7-9, 53:5, 7, 11-12). For with Judah’s redemption would come the redemption of all people.
God had watched and endured Judah’s suffering, but the time of restraint and silence had come to an end. God would now act on their behalf as a means to achieve God’s universal salvific plan.
Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins. (40:1-2)
For soon my salvation will come,
and my deliverance be revealed. (56:1)
The restoration of Israel was to be more than an instrument in God’s hands. She was to be “a witness to the peoples.” (55:4)
I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness,
I have taken you by the hand and kept you;
I have given you as a covenant to the people,
a light to the nations,
to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who are in darkness. (42:6-7)
For Second Isaiah, God’s universal plan for salvation awaited the help of God’s chosen people (63:5). As God’s servant, they were to be a light to the nations so that salvation “may reach to the end of the earth” (49:6)
Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street.
A bruised reed he will not break,
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
He will not fail or be crushed
until he has established justice in the earth;
and the coastlands wait for his teaching. (42:1-4)
Second Isaiah depicts the Jewish people and their return to Judah as an event of both universal and cosmic significance. From distant lands, nations will come to Jerusalem and declare: “God is with you only, and there is no other” (45:14) and will sing to the Lord a new song (42:10-12). “For behold, I create a new heaven and a new earth” (65:17). Those who wait for me shall not be put to shame.” (49:23)
The task of the prophets up to Second Isaiah had been to threaten, shock and challenge Israel to return to covenant relationship with Yahweh. In contrast, Second Isaiah’s task was to give “power to the faint” and “strength to the powerless” (40:29). Others had called upon Israel to mourn their sinfulness; he calls upon her to sing and rejoice.
For Second Isaiah, Israel’s transgressions were insignificant when compared with God’s love. Iniquities pass, but God’s love for Israel will never vanish (Is 43:4; 49:15; 54:7-8; 54:10).
A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” (40:3-5).