What hope do the Prophets of Israel give re Israel’s future? Is this hope linked to Israel’s return from exile, the coming Messiah or modern Israel? – Part 1

The following paper was written by Ben Vialle on the subject of Prophetic Literature:

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A simplistic reading of the Bible may lead one to associate the Old Testament prophetic literature with only judgment and condemnation. However, this superficial reading betrays a significant element that is powerfully contrasted with judgment throughout the prophetic message: hope. Thus, when Israel’s judgment comes to fullness in destruction and exile, the question to be asked of the prophets is, ‘what hope is there now? What is the nature of this hope? To what or when does it apply?’ In hindsight we can ask if this hope is linked to the return from exile, to the promised Messiah, or to some eschatological future Israel. One could be forgiven for being utterly confused in the process of answering these questions. Frankly, the prophetic hope is somewhat mysterious, and greatly ambiguous. Furthermore, we must take care not to read our own assumptions into the Old Testament texts; our goal is to identify the prophetic hope as Israel understood it. We will see that while the messianic hope and the eschatological hope are indeed present in the prophetic message, the hope offered by the prophets regarding Israel’s future is primarily linked to the postexilic restoration.

In human experience, it is crisis that drives us to seek hope. As far as the prophetic literature is concerned, the events of c.587 B.C. are that crisis. In fact, Brueggemann refers to the exile, seemingly above even creation or the exodus, as “the determining and defining event of the Hebrew scriptures.” (Brueggemann 1997a, p.630) At this time of Babylonian supremacy, Jerusalem was burned, the temple destroyed, the king exiled, Judah’s leaders were deported and public life drew to an abrupt end. It was this exile that was the context and focus of much of the prophetic literature. Allen writes, “the prophetic revelation was grounded in a particular segment of human history, an experience of crisis that cast deep shadows before and after it.” (Allen 1992, p.165) And indeed, this crisis drove Israel to seek hope; it was precisely this experience that made the question of God’s mercy so acute (Brueggemann 1991, p.16). It is this exile, this “great divide between judgment and salvation” (Allen 1992, p.163), this “crisis of dismantling” (Brueggemann 1986, p.2) that the Old Testament prophets addressed, and offered hope within. It will become clear that messianic and eschatological aspects of that hope are offered, but this hope is directed principally toward the end of the crisis itself: return from exile.

The messianic hope was no doubt present in the Jewish mind prior to the life of Jesus, and one element of the prophetic literature is that of messianic prophecy. This kind of prophecy “predicts the fulfillment of redemption and the establishment of the Kingdom of God through the Messiah.” (Freeman 1968, p.126) This figure was linked in particular with the Davidic covenant, and was expected as a divine king to restore Israel. Thus, some prophetic writings that point to this glorious future kingdom of Davidic rule include Jeremiah 23:5-6 and 33:14-17. Isaiah also paints a portrait of the messianic figure in Isaiah 9:6-7 and 11:1-5. These prophets are offering the hope of the coming Messiah, even though the Davidic dynasty ended with exile. As Davidson points out, despite Jerusalem’s destruction, Judah’s exile and the end of the monarchy, the Messianic hope remained (Davidson 1964, p.222).

Further passages that can be connected to the coming Messiah are those that portray not his royalty but his humility, and his nature as the suffering servant. Such passages include Zechariah 9:9 and Isaiah 53. However, our tendency is to read passages such as these in light of Jesus’ life. It is difficult to say how the hearers of these prophecies made sense of them with regard to the traditional ‘Davidic’ understanding of the coming Messiah, and whether such prophecies really nurtured the messianic hope at all. Furthermore, it is similarly difficult to discern the true nature of the messianic hope; that is, though this divine king is predicted by the prophets, when and how the Messiah would come remains unanswered. For this reason it may be overly optimistic to presume that this aspect of the prophetic hope applied, in the most significant sense, to an exiled Israel. McKeating, for one, wrestles with whether Isaiah’s trust in the Davidic covenant produces a messianic hope that is short-term or long-term, and connected with a dynasty or an individual (McKeating 1979, p.111); in other words, the messianic hope is no simple, clear-cut idea.

Thus, it can be said that the prophets of Israel do indeed offer hope by pointing toward the coming Messiah. However, this aspect of the prophetic message is not necessarily predominant; it is somewhat ambiguous and reasonably muted. Kaiser argues not that “the Messiah may be found behind every proverbial bush in the Old Testament… But it cannot be denied that the heart of the promise-plan of God is christocentric without being christoexclusivistic.” (Kaiser 2003, p.113) In other words, the messianic hope need not saturate the prophetic literature. While on the whole, God’s plan of redemption does hinge on the person of Jesus Christ, the primary hope emphasized to Israel by the prophets is not that of a Messiah. Such a hope is indeed present and fostered, but the real focus of the prophetic optimism is elsewhere.

Indeed, the messianic hope is given an added ambiguity in that some messianic prophecies may well refer to Christ’s second coming and ultimate reign; that is, they are eschatological. Similarly to the messianic hope, eschatological hope of some kind is arguably evident in the prophetic literature: for example, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Amos, Joel, Obadiah, Zechariah, Zephaniah and Malachi all predict a ‘day of Yahweh’, a term with possible eschatological connotations; many prophets also refer to ‘an age to come’ as distinct from this age (Lindblom 1962, p.360-1). This raises further questions about the hope offered to Israel by her prophets: is this hope perhaps linked to some far-off future, involving modern Israel or the end times? Some key passages are Joel 2:31-32, Malachi 4:1-3 and Isaiah 60, 65. It seems clear that many Jews indeed looked forward to an eventual day of ultimate redemption, when God’s kingdom would come in fullness. However, this hope is as multi-faceted and mysterious as the messianic hope; it is unclear to when it applies or even just how much weight it had in the exilic Jewish mind. Indeed, though all the aforementioned prophets do predict a ‘day of Yahweh’, this is a highly ambiguous phrase; Amos, for one, explicitly announces that this is not a day to hope for after all (Amos 5:18). Furthermore, the subject of eschatology is notoriously misinterpreted and laden with modern Christian bias. For example, Dumbrell points to God’s promise to not remember Israel’s sin (Jer. 31:34) as an indication of an eschatological future, beyond even the present Christian experience, “when the total efficacy of the cross of Christ will be implemented.” (Dumbrell 1994, p.102) However, though we may (quite legitimately) make such a reading in light of the New Testament, this arguably wasn’t the hope extended to Israel by the prophets themselves. When examining what hope the prophets of Israel give regarding Israel’s future, it is important to contextualize rather than simply discuss what hope they give us. Lindblom draws attention to the fact that the prophets primarily had a message for their own time, and that many prophecies which have been re-interpreted with an eschatological focus quite clearly deal with events that they expected “within the normal course of history.” (Lindblom 1962, p.362) Dumbrell goes on to argue for a messianic and eschatological reading of Jeremiah’s ‘new covenant’ prophecy in 31:31-34 saying that this passage does not find fulfillment for Israel after exile, but will do with the second coming and the end times. He writes, “The fulfillment of their hope for a postexilic Promised Land… is simply postponed for Israel ” (Dumbrell 1994, p.102). Though Dumbrell may be correct to some extent in his eschatological interpretation, his statement also suggests to us that their hope – Israel’s hope – was indeed for a postexilic Promised Land; that is, homecoming was their focus. Thus, while the prophets may, to a certain degree, offer an eschatological hope to Israel – one involving the far-off future and the end times – this again was somewhat vague. Though present in the prophetic literature, the eschatological hope is secondary to the hope for postexilic restoration.

To be continued…

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