JONAH: Potential

After the Pre-Assyrian time period, things begin to shift. The Assyrians come in and destroy much of the civilized world, including the northern kingdom of Israel. As they are making their move on the southern kingdom of Judah, Hezekiah makes an incredible stand of trust and God sends the Assyrians back to their homes in the north. Apparently, Judah — for a moment in history — heeds the warnings of the prophets. Hezekiah repents of their disobedience and leads reforms from one end of Judah to the other. (Do you remember the story of Beth Shemesh?) I feel like this is an important point to make, because we always seem to hear the voices of the prophets as an exercise in futility. They don’t listen and God destroys them, right?

Wrong. Apparently, upon the repentance of Judah, God stays the judgment that is predicted in Micah and helps save the Jews from the Assyrians. Of course, it won’t last forever, and Judah will continue to receive warnings from God in this historical time period, as well, but it’s important to see the repentance of Judah and the patience of God.

The northern kingdom of Israel has been destroyed and taken captive by their enemies to the north; Judah is still dealing with what it means to walk the path faithfully. And the first Assyrian-time-period prophet we need to deal with is Jonah.

Jonah is one of those stories that we’ve heard a million times. For anyone who grows up in the church, Jonah is reviewed about every other month in Sunday School. And this is part of the problem with the story of Jonah — we miss the big questions. Here are a few observations about the book of Jonah:

Jonah is the worst prophet in biblical history. One of the first things to stick out to the original reader is the disobedience of God’s prophet; Jonah is the only prophet to run from the call of God! He does a poor job of repenting in chapter 2, has to be reminded of God’s call in chapter 3, and then delivers one of the most uncompelling prophetic messages known to man: “In forty days, the city of Nineveh will be destroyed.” Who is this guy?

The whole book is backwards. The prophet is disobedient. God is not in “paradise” (the meaning of Tarshish), but in Nineveh (the capital city of Assyria). The pagans in the boat worship God while the prophet is uncaring and wants to die. The Ninevites repent at Jonah’s simple message, including the king. God sends judgment on His prophet (more than once) and not on the enemy. This story is wacky.

The ending is completely frustrating, making the reader wonder if we lost a piece of the scroll. The last paragraph of Jonah leaves the reader hanging in complete disbelief that this would be the message for God’s people as they sit in captivity in Assyria.

Well, do you remember the days back in Genesis? Whenever we read a story that lacked particular details and was laden with problems, what did we begin looking for?


Jonah is no different. See the theme map below to notice the chiasm:

“…the great city”
    Jonah wants to die
        Jonah repents
            3 days in the fish
                THE GREAT CITY
            3-day walk in Nineveh
        Nineveh repents
    Jonah wants to die
“…the great city”

So what’s the deal with this “great city”? Nineveh is most certainly not a great city. We know more about Assyrian warfare than we know about a lot of ancient warfare and what we know about the Assyrians is that they are brutal. They tortured captives, raped women, murdered babies. This is not a great city. One person wrote me the other day to point out how many times the word gadowl (translated “great”) appears in the book; everything appears to be “great” — the city, the storm, the fish. However, the one thing you EXPECT to be great — God’s anger/wrath, the east wind (representing judgment) — is strangely not. I think it is a wonderful observation.

Why does God not stand up and strike down the Assyrians?

One of the most interesting parts of the book of Jonah is the vine that God makes grow over Jonah at the end of the book. It’s interesting because Jonah has already made a shelter to give himself shade, yet God makes a vine grow to give him “more” shade? God then destroys the vine and the east wind comes and Jonah’s head is burned. The vine might remind Israel of their call to bless the nations (the midrash goes to great lengths to teach this point, numbering the leaves of the vine to 153… [more on this later]) and provide shade for the Gentiles.

Why does God not stand up and strike down the Assyrians?

Because the Gentiles have great potential. For more on fleshing this conclusion out, I invite you to find Rabbi David Fohrman’s teaching on Jonah (which has deeply influenced my own) or listen to a teaching I once gave here. The depth of literary tools in the book of Jonah and the history of its use are astounding.

In short, the book of Jonah is about the potential of people — particularly our enemies. The book of Jonah is a striking tale that invites us to consider what our role in the world is. It’s a call to remind us of our story and what God expects when he plants a vine (or a vineyard). As the people of Israel listened to the story of Jonah, they would have resonated with his anger, his frustration, and his retort to God. Yet, God’s message to His people remains steadfast.

“Should I not care about this great city?”

There’s so much potential that lies in His creation. He invites us to trust Him in that and help Him put the world back together, whether we find ourselves in Tarshish or Nineveh.


1 ISAIAH: the Vineyard

We need to hear one more Pre-Assyrian voice before we move ahead to the next historical time period. We have heard two prophetic voices who spoke into the northern kingdom of Israel. We have also heard our first Pre-Assyrian voice that is speaking into the southern kingdom of Judah.

Now, before we make it too far, we’re going to need to deal with the questions that have arisen out of my title for this post. I’m sure some of you are wondering where I got the crazy idea that there is more than one prophecy of Isaiah. The last time you checked, there was only one — and it’s a big one. (You may even be thinking that we don’t need any more.)

In fact, most scholars are in agreement that we have multiple authors at work in the book of Isaiah; they also believe that the work/content of Isaiah covers a very wide breadth of history. However, this is the point where the agreement ceases. There will be a thousand opinions on the finer details of questions: How many authors are at work in Isaiah? How is the book divided up? Is it divided up cleanly or has it been pieced together by the work of a redactor like a patchwork quilt? I’m certainly not the expert and it would be futile for me to try to explain the debate in a blog post, but I will give you my opinion.

The ancient language of Isaiah seems to make it clear that we have different writings from different times; that being said, I think it’s obvious even to the English reader that we have some major shifts in the book of Isaiah. Part of the problem is that we get so lost in the gear-shifting and woes of the middle of the book that our eyes begin to glaze over and we lose our grasp of the “larger picture” of the prophetic movement of the book. If you were to keep your attention focused on the literature of Isaiah, I believe you would feel an obvious shift between the content of Isaiah 1-12 (or so) and Isaiah 13-39.

Needless to say, I am going to suggest that we will hear three distinct voices in Isaiah which I will refer to as 1 Isaiah, 2 Isaiah, and 3 Isaiah. This first voice is to be heard in the first twelve chapters of Isaiah, during the reign Uzziah — a Pre-Assyrian voice to Judah.

The content of 1 Isaiah is pretty straight forward and to the point, which will make wrapping up this post a little cleaner. There are some things we’ve consistently talked about with each prophet.

Each prophet contains the message of hope. In many of the “minor prophets,” the package/message is so small that the message of hope is tucked into the prophet’s ending, almost as a postscript to the larger message. However, in these larger prophets (like Isaiah), we are going to find these messages of hope sprinkled throughout the larger message. You can find these messages of hope in places like Isaiah 2:1–5, chapter 4, and chapter 7, to name a few. These messages can often feel sporadic and lacking context; to be honest, I’m still studying and wrestling with how one is supposed to “hear” these pronouncements of doom and hope so close to each other. There are many theories, yet my point remains — the hope is clearly there.

Each early prophet has a sense of warning. Some of my favorite prophetic passages of the Tanakh come in places like Isaiah’s opening chapter. He tells the people of Judah exactly how He feels about this “trampling of my courts.” It’s so poetic and electric and straightforward, I can’t help but hear the heart of God.

Prophets often have an image that drive their message. One of the most famous images of the prophets is the image of the vineyard in Isaiah 5. This image will drive more of Jesus’s parables than any other single image. This depiction of God’s people will serve as the basis of a poetic understanding of who God sees His people to be and what He thinks about what they are doing.

"My beloved had a vineyard on a fertile hillside..." Isaiah 5

And throughout the message of 1 Isaiah, God’s frustration is abundantly clear. They are not taking care of the alien, the orphan, and the widow. They deprive the poor of justice and are overcome by their greed.

They are too busy building their own empires to worry about God’s kingdom. And God’s had enough: Shalom is about to come crashing into earth, one way or another.

And so God speaks of planting a vineyard (His people) on a fertile hillside. He talks about all the things He did for His vineyard to set it up for success. He even claims that He built a wine press — a silly thing to do, and a clear sign of His belief and confidence in His vineyard. (It takes five years to produce your first harvest of grapes. You would never dig a wine press without waiting to see if the vines took.)

Yet when He came with excitement to see His vineyard’s good fruit, He found only betushiym. Betushiym is a condition that grapes get when they aren’t tended. The grape never matures and it becomes diseased and useless.

And then, God makes a play on words. God says He came looking for righteousness, but instead heard cries of distress (5:7). The word for righteousness is tzedekah. And we’ve ran into the word for “cry out” before — tze’ekah. God says He came looking for tzedekah, but instead all He found was tze’ekah.

God tells us what kind of fruit He’s looking for.

He planted a vineyard and was looking for partners.

He wanted to reap a crop of mercy and generosity and grace.
Instead, He found greed, selfishness, and injustice.

I think it may be wise for us — as individuals AND communities — to heed the voice and call of the prophets. Because I believe that God comes to each generation looking for a crop of good grapes.

And I’m not sure how He’ll feel about what He finds.

We have a garden to tend to. And it’s not enough only to make sure we’re matching up to the morality parade and following all the rules correctly.

God cares about people. The rules are supposed to help us love people.

And one day, when a King reigns in righteousness, rulers will rule in justice. And we’ll know that the Kingdom of God is among us when people find shelter and shade from the heat of the day.


MICAH: the Judge

Indeed after looking now at two prophets from the Pre-Assyrian time period, perhaps we have seen the two sides of this narrative coin. While Amos was unabashedly touting a critique right in line with the Chronicler, we also saw a story of adultery (a common theological sister to idolatry) that would fit nicely with the theme of the writer of Samuel and Kings. Both of these two prophets were written to the northern country of Israel and so we now get an opportunity to turn our sights to the message that God chooses to send to their brothers in the south, the countrymen of Judah.

If prophets often had an image, then Micah’s image would be that of the LORD as the Great Judge. If Amos’s image was that of a plumb line (God has hung His plumb line and found you crooked…) and Hosea’s image was that of a harlot (you have prostituted yourselves to other gods…), then Micah’s image would be that of a gavel (pardon the western judicial image, but it communicates well here) poised and ready to come down with the judgment from God.

Let’s take a look at some of the things that God says through Micah.

After some ominous statements about what awaits the people of Judah, we hear these words to open chapter 2:
Woe to those who plan iniquity,
    to those who plot evil on their beds!
At morning’s light they carry it out
    because it is in their power to do it.
They covet fields and seize them,
    and houses, and take them.
They defraud people of their homes,
    they rob them of their inheritance.

It appears as though we may be back on track to see a lot of talk about injustice. The case is being made against this people that they plan wickedness as they fall asleep; they sit on their beds and plan how they might build their own empires bigger and bigger. They covet fields, assets, and property — and they seize them. They desire houses and take them. They are frauds who rob people of their rightful inheritance. Idolatry? Sure, in a sense. Idolatry that lies behind their plans? Absolutely. But that’s what idols promise, isn’t it? Don’t idols sit in all of their grandeur and make promises they can’t deliver?

You see, at the end of the day, idolatry is really about MY KINGDOM and MY NAME. God’s story is the only one that invites you to trust that you already have everything that you need and insists that you are free to lay down your life on behalf of others.

And isn’t the real tragedy of our buying into the wrong story that it ends up hurting other people? The real tragedy is that the idol encourages you to build your own kingdom and building your own kingdom comes at a price. It is too often built on the backs of those you’re having to trample in order to get to the top.
Then I said,

“Listen, you leaders of Jacob,

    you rulers of Israel.

Should you not embrace justice,

    you who hate good and love evil;

who tear the skin from my people

    and the flesh from their bones;

who eat my people’s flesh,
 strip off their skin

    and break their bones in pieces;

who chop them up like meat for the pan,
 like flesh for the pot?” 

Then they will cry out to the Lord,
 but he will not answer them.

At that time he will hide his face from them

    because of the evil they have done. 

And later:
Hear this, you leaders of Jacob,
    you rulers of Israel,
who despise justice
    and distort all that is right;
who build Zion with bloodshed,
    and Jerusalem with wickedness.

But God invites us to trust the story — to live in something better:
Listen to what the Lord says:

“Stand up, plead my case before the mountains;

    let the hills hear what you have to say. 

“Hear, you mountains, the Lord’s accusation;
 listen, you everlasting foundations of the earth.

For the Lord has a case against his people;

    he is lodging a charge against Israel.

“My people, what have I done to you?
 How have I burdened you? Answer me.

I brought you up out of Egypt

    and redeemed you from the land of slavery.

I sent Moses to lead you,

    also Aaron and Miriam.

My people, remember
 what Balak king of Moab plotted

    and what Balaam son of Beor answered.

Remember your journey from Shittim to Gilgal,
 that you may know the righteous acts of the Lord.” 

With what shall I come before the Lord
 and bow down before the exalted God?

Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,

    with calves a year old?

Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,

    with ten thousand rivers of olive oil?

Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression,
 the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.

    And what does the Lord require of you?

To act justly and to love mercy
 and to walk humbly with your God. 

Listen! The Lord is calling to the city—
 and to fear your name is wisdom—
 “Heed the rod and the One who appointed it.

Am I still to forget your ill-gotten treasures, you wicked house,

    and the short ephah, which is accursed?

Shall I acquit someone with dishonest scales,

    with a bag of false weights?

Your rich people are violent;
 your inhabitants are liars
 and their tongues speak deceitfully.

It seems as though we’re hearing an awful lot about justice these days. The LORD has pleaded His case and His gavel is poised. The judgment is coming — and yet, we are still not left without hope. In addition to the words of Micah 5, we are also given the epilogue in chapter 7:
Do not gloat over me, my enemy!

    Though I have fallen, I will rise.

Though I sit in darkness,

    the Lord will be my light.

Because I have sinned against him,
 I will bear the Lord’s wrath,

until he pleads my case
    upholds my cause.

He will bring me out into the light;

    I will see his righteousness.

Then my enemy will see it
 and will be covered with shame,

she who said to me,

    “Where is the Lord your God?”

My eyes will see her downfall;

    even now she will be trampled underfoot

    like mire in the streets. 

The day for building your walls will come,

    the day for extending your boundaries.

In that day people will come to you
 from Assyria and the cities of Egypt,

even from Egypt to the Euphrates

    and from sea to sea
 and from mountain to mountain.


HOSEA: The Prostitute

One of the next prophets to bring a message to the people of God is the prophet Hosea. Before the people have been ransacked by Assyria, they will continue to be confronted with a message of repentance. The message is stunningly clear.

Again, God chooses to speak through His prophet in the form of pictures and images. A prophet was very often performing a version of “guerrilla theater.” It was subversive and provocative. It was poetic and electric. It was something that would have gotten everybody talking. A prophet was known for being somebody who would run into the square, set up a little drama, speak a thunderbolt of a message, and run off — leaving the crowd to talk about what they had just seen.

Prophets often had an image that drove their message, or maybe more appropriately said, a message that’s buried in an image. And some of their images might have been chosen by the prophet himself. However, we do know some of the prophets received their image directly from the LORD. Hosea is one of those prophets; and the picture that God has him put on display is certainly a provocative one.

Hosea is instructed to marry a prostitute named Gomer. When they begin to have children, God gives them the instruction to name their three children “Not Loved,” “Not My People,” and “Jezreel” (which means ‘scattered,’ probably in a negative sense).

Sounds like fun! It gets worse.

Gomer then abandons the family and returns to her life of prostitution. God, who seems to have had this up His sleeve the whole time, tells Hosea to go and buy Gomer back and marry her again, this time changing the names of their children to “Loved,” “My People,” and “Jezreel” (probably in a positive sense this time).

The life picture of Hosea is clear: This is what Israel has been like to me.

One immediately begins to think back to all of the imagery that floods the Text throughout the narrative. One thinks back on the wedding ceremony at Mount Sinai and God’s initial grace and forgiveness with the golden calf. One remembers the command to put tassels on the corners of their garments so that they would not forget the commands of the LORD and “prostitute themselves to other gods.”

And yet, this is who Israel has become. They have forgotten where they come from and have traded a marriage with the King of kings for a lifetime of prostitution to the gods who demand appeasement.

She’s a dirty harlot.

But this reminds us of one thing that is true throughout the prophets. With only one or two exceptions (I would argue none at all), each and every prophet issues a declaration of hope. Gomer is not lost. Even though she feels like a worthless harlot and even though her offspring will feel at times like they are not loved and have no redemptive identity, scattered all over the earth, they are, in fact, pursued and loved by their husband. And even though her husband will let her choose and pursue the life she desires, he will never stop loving her with a jealous, passionate love that would chase her to the ends of the earth.

The same is true for Israel: There is hope. Even though they have chosen to return to their former days of prostitution and forsake their true Bridegroom, they are loved. Even though they act as if they are not God’s people and will find themselves scattered by Assyria all over the earth, they will be pursued. Even though they feel abandoned and alone, they will be redeemed.

The prophets offer warning.
The prophets offer woes for failure to heed the warning.
But the prophets offer hope.

This isn’t to say that their plea for repentance isn’t true, genuine, angry, and urgent. The threat posed by Assyria will be brutal and the punishment from God will be graphic. People will starve; children will die. Women will be raped; the elderly will be taken advantage of. This is not some light or trivial lesson about God’s fluffy CareBear love. I don’t want to downplay the graphic messages of the prophets.

But again, just like our fascination with the “sin cycle,” I feel that the fame of the prophets is in their endless pronouncements of doom and not in their explanations of God’s discipline or their assurance of God’s presence and grace.

And that’s a shame. Because God’s discipline is often real. And it can hurt. And there are consequences for our sin.

But God never leaves us or forsakes us.

And somewhere, out of the ashes of the mess of Hosea’s life, comes the heralded refrain of Hosea in chapter 2. It’s part of the prayers and blessings that Jews recite every morning.  Right before they say Sh’ma, many Jews recite this passage:

I will betroth you to myself forever.
I will betroth you to myself in righteousness, and in justice, and in love, and in compassion.
I will betroth you to myself in faithfulness and you shall know the LORD.

And the Jew renews their wedding vows, every morning:

Hear, O Israel, the LORD is our God, the LORD alone. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might…

That we might never leave him again.


AMOS: the Plumb Line

The first voice to come screaming into the mess that is the divided kingdom will be the voice of Amos. This shepherd is sent to Israel (from Judah, mind you) with a very straightforward message for the people of God. Now this is important, because as I’ve suggested, the prophets will really be the place to dial in and listen to whether we hear an emphasis on the plot of Samuel/Kings and the moral failures of Israel, or whether we will hear the condemnation of empire and an overwhelming concern for justice as we hear from the Chronicler. So a good, clear-cut message from Amos ought to be a great starting place to begin our investigation. I was taught that the prophets come in with guns a-blazing, denouncing the idolatry of Israel. Let’s see if that’s the case.

Amos has what I see as a brilliant bait-and-switch in the first chapter of his prophecy. Amos starts by condemning all of Israel’s neighbors. What is interesting to note is that each of Israel’s neighbors are denounced not for their idolatry, but for the way they treat their neighbor (almost as if the whole Law and the Prophets were to hang on such a command — huh, funny).

Damascus, Gaza, Tyre, Edom, Ammon, Moab — they all are chastised for not looking out for other human beings.

Then, as chapter 2 begins, we move into a denouncement of Israel’s brother Judah. You can almost feel the glee of Israel as they hear that God is indeed on their side and against their neighbors and their way of life.

But then the thunderbolt comes. The prophecy shifts toward Israel and will stay there as the eight other chapters will begin to outline the litany of Israel’s offenses and God’s loss of patience.

So let’s see what it is.

Oh, and please read all of Amos for yourself, just to make sure I’m not cherry-picking verses out of the book; please go and find all of those references to idolatry I was told about and get back to me.

Let’s start at the beginning of Israel’s problems:
This is what the Lord says:

“For three sins of Israel,

    even for four, I will not relent.

They sell the innocent for silver,

    and the needy for a pair of sandals.

They trample on the heads of the poor
as on the dust of the ground

    and deny justice to the oppressed.

Father and son use the same girl

    and so profane my holy name.

They lie down beside every altar

    on garments taken in pledge.

In the house of their god
they drink wine taken as fines.

Even the few lines that appear to be about idolatry to begin with turn into judgment upon their lack of hospitality to those in need. They “lie down next to every altar on garments taken in pledge” — a direct violation of Deuteronomy’s call to take care of those in need. They drink wine in the house of their god, but it’s the fact that the wine is taken as a fine that becomes the issue. But let’s not make any hasty judgments; let’s just keep reading.

How about chapter 4?

Hear this word, you cows of Bashan on Mount Samaria,
    you women who oppress the poor and crush the needy
    and say to your husbands, “Bring us some drinks!”

Seems like a justice issue to me. But we need to make sure.

You levy a straw tax on the poor
and impose a tax on their grain.

Therefore, though you have built stone mansions,

    you will not live in them;

though you have planted lush vineyards,

    you will not drink their wine.

For I know how many are your offenses

    and how great your sins.

There are those who oppress the innocent and take bribes

    and deprive the poor of justice in the courts.

Therefore the prudent keep quiet in such times,

    for the times are evil.

Seek good, not evil,
that you may live.

Then the Lord God Almighty will be with you,

    just as you say he is.

Hate evil, love good;

    maintain justice in the courts.

Perhaps the Lord God Almighty will have mercy

    on the remnant of Joseph.

Are we preaching yet? One more, just for good measure.

“I hate, I despise your religious festivals;
    your assemblies are a stench to me.
Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings,
    I will not accept them.
Though you bring choice fellowship offerings,
    I will have no regard for them.
Away with the noise of your songs!
    I will not listen to the music of your harps.
But let justice roll on like a river,
    righteousness like a never-failing stream!

And Amos will travel around with an image that drives his message. In chapter 7, Amos will discuss a vision that God gives him of a plumb line, which is an ancient (and not-so-ancient) architectural instrument. It was used for the same things we use a level for today. A plumb line is essentially a weight on a string, which when held up and assisted by gravity, shows you a straight line — “true to plumb,” they say. It means your wall is straight and not leaning.

God says: I have hung my plumb line against my people and found them to be crooked beyond repair. My only course of action is to tear down the wall and start over.
And God has made it quite clear what’s wrong with his wall. There is a lack of justice for the poor and needy.

But in the midst of this woe is a point that we will make over and over and over again. God does not forsake His people forever. He does not abandon them. There is never a point where God leaves us without a future. Even in the midst of the greatest of disciplinary action, there is always the bright hope of tomorrow.
“In that day

“I will restore David’s fallen shelter—
I will repair its broken walls

    and restore its ruins—

    and will rebuild it as it used to be,

so that they may possess the remnant of Edom

    and all the nations that bear my name,”

declares the Lord, who will do these things.

“The days are coming,” declares the Lord,

“when the reaper will be overtaken by the plowman

    and the planter by the one treading grapes.

New wine will drip from the mountains
and flow from all the hills,

    and I will bring my people Israel back from exile.
“They will rebuild the ruined cities and live in them.

    They will plant vineyards and drink their wine;

    they will make gardens and eat their fruit.

I will plant Israel in their own land,

    never again to be uprooted

    from the land I have given them,”
        says the Lord your God.