If you’re like me, the first part of the Old Testament is pretty smooth sailing on the comprehension side of things – reading a narrative is simple enough. But, after Chronicles it gets a little wild – because prophecy and poetry is pretty tough and it’s not easy to know where we are in the storyline. The Chronological plan will help us because it makes us read the prophets alongside the kings. Here’s a handy timeline to help you situate all of the kings and prophets in your head. This week, we’re in Isaiah, Amos, and Micah. Two are prophesying against Judah and one against Israel.
As you read, it will help to remember two things about the prophets: (1) the prophets are primarily concerned about the people’s faithfulness to Mosaic covenant, and because of this (2) the prophets usually hold the kings and the people accountable by proclaiming judgment (forthtelling) rather than “predicting the future” (foretelling). Prophets definitely look to the future, but more often than not, they’re taking the people to task for their idolatry and unfaithfulness. As we think about applying these to our own lives, we’ll want to remember that God is dealing with his covenant people, so the most consistent application for our time will be to God’s new covenant people – individual believers and the church as a whole.
Isaiah is speaking to the kings of Judah. The first chapter is all about how the people have rejected the covenant stipulations. Chapter 2:1-5 is a quick glimpse toward the future, “the latter days”. But, then 2:6-4:6 is back to reality and the quickly-coming judgment. What’s amazing about the prophets is that even in the midst of judgment, there is always a glimmer of hope, a glimpse of grace at the end of the dark tunnel of destruction, a lingering reminder that God will not always punish his people.
Chapter 5 begins with a wonderful song about the Lord’s care for his vineyard, but the song becomes a tragedy as the vineyard produces wild grapes (5:2), justice turns to bloodshed (5:7), and woes pile up on the wicked (5:8-30). But into the wickedness bursts a vision of the Holy One, high and lifted up, who commissions Isaiah to confront a calloused congregation with a message of exile. In chapter 7, Ahaz’s unbelief confirms the Lord’s message and results in a strange sign of the virgin’s son named Immanuel who is – at the same time – a sign of judgment and a sign of hope. It is the paradox of God’s presence. Judgment because destruction is coming swiftly near the time of his birth. Hope because his name means “God with us.” The end of chapter 8 is a clear reminder to us – no matter our age or stage of life – that the Lord God is the only one we should honor as holy. Yet, his holiness and righteousness can be a sanctuary for us, especially because of the finished work of Christ on the cross.
The first chapter of Amos is basically the LORD helping Amos lock-in the scope of his prophetic sniper rifle. The bullseye is the northern kingdom of Israel, but Amos shoots first at Damacus in northeast, then Gaza in the southwest, then Tyre in the northwest, then Edom in the southeast, then the Ammonites north of Edom along the Jordan, then Moab north of the Ammonites, and then he crosses the Jordan to target Judah. Then, in 1:6-16, Amos finds the bullseye when he targets Israel. The rest of Amos deals with the northern kingdom Israel. In today’s reading, you’ll see three specific speeches begun with the phrase “Hear this word…” (3:1, 4:1, and 5:1). Chapter 3 is a reflection on the uniqueness of God’s covenant with Israel. Chapter 4 is about their unwillingness to repent. Chapter 5 is the Lord declaring destruction – yet holding out the promise of life if they seek the Lord. The last section of chapter 5 turns up the heat by announcing a “woe” against Israel for their failure to do justice.
The end of chapter 5 ended with a woe to those who desired the appearing of the Lord but were just going about “church” without meaning it. Chapter 6 begins with a woe to those who are “at ease” who are rich and not grieved over the devastation of their country. Honestly, when I think about those two groups of people and those issues, it feels very close to home. People don’t really change, do they? In Chapter 7-8 the Lord shows Amos four images of the coming judgment: locust, fire, plumb line, and summer fruit. Twice Amos intercedes for the people asking the Lord to relent – and he does… but judgment must come and it will be harsh (Pay attention to 8:9-10 – it should sound like the Passover plagues and the Crucifixion). Amos finishes the book with chapter 9’s vision of the Lord by the altar in the temple bringing destruction, but also a word of hope and restoration for the booth of David. So the book ends leaving us longing for David’s greater son and the restoration of the true Temple, which we see in Christ.
We see the transition from Uzziah to Jotham to Ahaz in 2 Chron. 27, which gets us up to speed with Isaiah 7-8 before we read chapters 9-12 today. You remember the end of Isaiah 8 included judgment and darkness, but Isaiah 9 breaks forth into bright light for those “in the latter time” living in Galilee of the nations. What Amos is saying to the northern kingdom of Israel, Isaiah is saying to the southern kingdom of Judah. On the heels of blessing in 9:1-7 is judgment in 9:8-10:34. But again, from judgment comes the hope of the righteous branch from Jesse’s stump who ushers in a global kingdom of shalom.
What Amos is saying to the northern kingdom of Israel, Isaiah is saying to the southern kingdom of Judah… and Micah joins the party alongside Isaiah (compare Micah 4 and Isaiah 2). Micah starts off with a word to “all the peoples” in chapter 1, moves on to condemn the “oppressors” in chapter 2, and confronts the “heads and prophets” in chapter 3. With that, he’s got just about everyone covered in the present, so he looks ahead to the distant future. We get a punctuation of good news in chapters 4-5 about the people of God, on the mountain of God, walking in the ways of the Lord, following the Shepherd of the Lord so that a remnant might be delivered. But in chapter 6, the Lord calls his people into the courtroom and demands an answer for why they left him. He had been nothing but good to them and desires that they walk with him in humility. But as it stands, the Lord cannot put off his judgment forever. Yet, the Lord will not stay angry forever and will again have compassion on them.
The false piety Ahaz showed in Isaiah 7 is now revealed to be a complete farce. He’s mostly interested in what gets him the most power and comfort. It should be shocking that the northern kingdom of Israel is “more righteous” than Judah in 28:8-15. The account in Kings juxtaposes it nicely when it says “Ahaz..the king of Judah…walked in the way of the kings of Israel.“ The emphasis on Ahaz’s unfaithfulness continues to build as the Chronicler explains that because Ahaz sacrificed to the gods of Damascus (which we read about in detail in 2 Kgs. 16:10-18), “The LORD humbled Judah because of Ahaz…” and “he became yet more faithless – this same King Ahaz.” Meanwhile, as Ahaz is spiraling out of control, things really go off the rails in Israel. Assyria conquered them, sent them into exile, and repopulated the northern kingdom with foreigners, who combined worship of Yahweh with worship of other gods (Here’s a foreshadowing for the events of Ezra and Nehemiah). But, if you pay attention to anything, read 2 Kings 17:7-20 carefully and note God’s faithfulness and the people’s unfaithfulness to the covenant. Be careful what you worship – lest you become what you behold.