A World Waiting To Be Won  

14. People Matter

14-1 People Matter || 14-2 A Feeling God || 14-3 The Personal Pleading Of The Prophets || 14-4 Passionate Preaching And Prayer

15. Hearts That Bleed

15-1 Hearts That Bleed || 15-2 The Parable of The Three Friends || 15-3 Passion For The Lost || 15-4 Loving Our Brethren || 15-5 Reaching Those Who Left Church || 15-6 The Heart Of Jesus || 15-7 The Value Of Persons || 15-8 A dehumanized world || 15-9 Grieving for others || 15-10-1 The Spirit Of Prophecy || 15-10-2 The Counter-Cultural Message Of The Hebrew Prophets || 15-10-3 Frontal Attack On Indifference || 15-10-4 The Prophetic Attack On Pride And Wealth || 15-10-5 The Prophets And Injustice || 15-10-6 The Prophetic Criticism Of Israel’s Religion || 15-10-7 The Prophetic Experience And Prophetic Consciousness

15-10-2 The Counter-Cultural Message Of The Hebrew Prophets

Israel had come to perceive of Yahweh as a god like the gods of the other nations and tribes around them. The prophets consciously brought home the fact that He is unique, and not at all like any local pagan deity. The pagan gods were thought to punish their people for minor infringements of ritual, or simply because deities were cruel at times. Yahweh wasn’t like that; His judgments came only after passionate pleading, after being deferred time and again, and even then, they came in order to bring about correction, as a purging (Is. 1:25,26 and often), and not as an expression of irritation or mere anger of a capricious, unstable deity. “He has torn, that He may heal us” (Hos. 6:1). Amos speaks of Israel’s final judgment as a day of their meeting their God, and he urges them to prepare to meet Him (Am. 4:12). This was no grim fatalism, an angry final statement. The language is shot through with allusion to how both Israel and Moses were told to prepare to meet Yahweh at Sinai (Ex. 19:11,15; 34:2). But that meeting involved a declaration of God’s Name, the foremost characteristic of which was that God is a God full of mercy and love for His people.

The Love Of God

The Canaanite tribes spoke of how their gods were married to their land and would defend it. But the prophets, especially Hosea, reveal Yahweh as married to His people. “Thus says the Lord, O my dear people [bath ‘ami- as if they are God’s partner]… make mourning… for suddenly the destroyer will come upon us” (Jer. 6:22,26). God delicately speaks as if He is married to Israel, and that even in their sufferings, He would suffer with them, as a husband suffers with his wife. “The destroyer will come upon us” even sounds as if God let Himself in a way be ‘destroyed’ in Israel’s destruction; for each of us dies a little in the death of those we love. The idea of God being destroyed in the destruction of His people may be the basis of the descriptions of Zion as being left widowed (Lam. 1:1; Is. 54:1-8). We ask the question- if she was a widow, who died? Her husband, God, was as it were dead. The very idea of the death of God  is awful and obnoxious. But this was and is the depth of God’s feelings at His peoples’ destruction. In a context where the first person pronouns clearly refer to God and not Jeremiah, we read: “Woe is me for my hurt! My wound is grievous… truly this is a grief, and I must bear it. My tabernacle is spoiled… my children are gone forth… there is none to stretch forth my tent” (Jer. 10:18-20). This is the almost unbelievable extent of God’s pain and hurt for His people. Truly did it hurt God more than His children knew to punish them. Jer 6:8 and Ez. 23:18 speak of how God's soul "departed" from His people- but the same word is translated to hang / crucify (Num. 25:4; 2 Sam. 21:6,9,13). It's as if God was crucified in His pain for Israel. And in the death of His Son He went through that pain. And so never, ever, ever... can we nor Israel complain that our pain is greater than God's. Never. The pain of God at Israel's sin leads Him to exclaim (almost in the language of piercing and crucifixion): "Before me continually is grief and wounds" (Jer. 6:7). We can wound God by our sin, so sensitive is He to us. In the end, we read that God's "soul" departed from them, because "the Lord has rejected you" (Jer. 6:8,30). This is the same language used about Saul- God rejected him, and so His spirit departed from him (1 Sam. 15:23; 16:14). The implication was that God's very soul / spirit is "with" us, and therefore He can be so terribly wounded by us in His heart by the rebellions of those in covenant relationship with Him. For His heart / soul / spirit is so close to us His beloved people.

God left Himself as a mighty man that cannot save, as a wayfaring man wandering through His own deserted land (Jer. 14:8,9). “The Lord of hosts” even calls the mourning women to come “and raise a lament over us” (Jer. 9:17,18). The “us” is God and Israel. The tragedy is awful, beyond words. All commentary is bathos. His love is wondrous. “Thy love is better than life”, David said (Ps. 63:3)- ‘more than my own life do I value God’s love, hesed , covenant love, for me’. Indeed, Hosea’s reference to daath elohim, the knowledge of God, has been observed as strikingly intimate, hinting as it does of God ‘knowing’ His people and them knowing Him, in the same way as a man ‘knows’ a woman. Hence the utter pain of Hos. 5:4: “The spirit of harlotry is within them, and they know not [i.e. sexually] the Lord”- although they ‘knew’ so many others, they were sexually obsessed. This was God’s pain, lived out by Hosea. It was that very “knowledge of God” which He desired, rather than burnt offerings (Hos. 6:6). For as Amos put it, “You only have I known…” (Am. 3:2). No wonder the prophets needed psychological strengthening to be able to share in these tragic feelings of God. But this was part of their spirit, and it is to be the spirit of our urgent appeal to men to respond in faithfulness to God’s love. When we read: "Oh that my head were waters, and mine eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night for the slain of the daughter of my people... Oh that I might leave my people!" (Jer. 9:1,2) we can too easily assume that these are the thoughts of Jeremiah. But the references to "my people" in the passage point us toward God as the person expressing these feelings. And then in Jer. 9:3 we have the speaker defined: "... and they know not me, said the Lord". These were God's thoughts. He wished He had human tear ducts to weep with... this was how He felt for them.

The Wrath Of Love

The metaphors used to describe the anger of God with Israel are pretty awful. Her children to be slain with thirst, she was to be stripped naked by her husband (Hosea 2), gang raped by her lovers, having her nose cut off and left a battered, bleeding mess in the scrubland (Ez. 16,23), to have her skirt pulled up over her head and her nakedness revealed (Jer. 13:20-27), wishing to pluck off her own breasts for shame (Ez. 23:34). Jerusalem is to be raped, violated and humiliated, according to Ezekiel. Indeed, Ezekiel’s images verge at times on what some would consider pornographic. He speaks of the woman Israel’s pubic hair, breasts, menstrual cycle (Ez. 16:7,10); the gang rape by her enemies which God would bring about, leaving her mutilated and humiliated (Ez. 16:37; 23:22-49); about the size of her lovers’ sexual organs and coital emissions, and how she let them fondle her breasts (Ez. 23:8,20). This is shocking language, which perhaps we skip over in our Bible reading from sheer embarrassment- and we are 21st century readers brutalized by exposure to this kind of stuff in the media. For early Israel, it would all have been even more shocking. It all seemed out of proportion to having ‘merely’ made a few political alliances with Egypt and Assyria. Was that really like a wife letting other men fondle her breasts and have sex with her, admiring their bodies as she did so? Did it all have to end in such brutality and vulgarity? Today, sex and violence are what attract attention. From lyrics of songs to advertising and movies, that’s clear enough. And the prophets are using the same tactics to arrest Israel’s attention, all the more so because nudity and sex were things simply not up for public discussion. There’s an anxiety which any talk about sex seems to arouse in us, and it was the prophets’ intention to make us likewise get on the edge of our seats, anxious, rapt, sensitive for the next word… realizing that really and truly, this is what human sin does to God. The outrageous sex talk was to bring out how outrageous and obscene are our sins and unfaithfulness to the covenant we cut with God in baptism.

God paints Himself as acting with the anger of a very angry husband, whose anger is rooted in the profoundness of His love for His wife. There is a dark side to intimacy. It’s why families, lovers, both spiritual and natural, experience the heights of both love and frustration / anger with each other. With a love like God’s, it’s inevitable that there is a strong element of jealousy and potential hurt over us. It has to be so. And yet as we know the story of the prophets never ends with the angry judgment- amazingly, given this level of anger and judgment / retribution, there is always the passionate appeal for Israel to return, to recover love, romance and intimacy in the relationship. Taking as it were a snapshot of the nature of the judgments God expressed, this is indeed hard to swallow. It’s hard to read Jer. 31:16-34, how God will slay Rachel’s children, leave her weeping for them, and then dry her eyes and speak of a new covenant and new relationship with her. But the point of it all is that this indeed is how radical the cycle of sin, judgment and repentance really is in the lives of each of us. If a movie were to be made of all this, none of us would be able to resist it. The story of how through love gone sour, estrangement, rape and battery, a couple triumph in love and true, eternal intimacy. But this is the wonder and power of true repentance. And it is also a powerful window into the consequence and nature of human sin. These metaphors and images of God as the jilted lover convey the reality of sin and reconciliation in a way that no amount of prose ever could. And yet it wasn’t only metaphor- all this was lived out in the feelings of Hosea for Gomer. He could only have had those feelings if he very deeply loved her. The whole story, the images and ideas… surely leave us knowing once and for all that our religion and relationship with God simply can never be merely abstract contemplation of Biblical ideas, devoid of commitment and passion in response to God’s love. All these wonderful ideas come down to us through reading and reflection upon Scripture. But Bible reading, understood and felt as it should be, can from now on for us surely never again be a passive, neutral, private experience. If we truly are in covenant relationship with this wondrous God, it demands our all. Our failures, forgiven as they are, will haunt us for their awfulness; and the wonder of His love will never cease to move us to real tears in the midst of this unemotional, too busy, post modern world. And the experience of God’s ever new love and forgiveness will lead us to rise above all the examples of failed relationships and marriages we are surrounded with, to realize quite simply that those whom we love, we forgive. And the vastness of God’s love means that He genuinely forgives us. And we too will go on risking ourselves, making ourselves vulnerable, to love again, to forgive again, knowing His love for us. But of course all this hinges around our perception of our sins and unfaithfulness being what it is.

The shocking sexual language and imagery of the prophets was in order to help Israel see that this was how far they had outraged God. It was and is a rhetoric that cannot be forgotten, shrugged off, re-interpreted. The rhetoric pushes relentlessly for a response in our consciences (2). Just as for a woman to have her skirt ripped above her head and her nakedness displayed was ultimately humiliating for her, so Israel had humiliated God by their sin (Jer. 13:25-27); their actions were just as shocking and obscene. And yet we… so minimize sin. Just a bit of injustice, a little touch of selfishness, a moment of hypocrisy… but all this is obscene treatment of our God. We read the description of the red clothing, gaudy jewellery and heavy make up of the harlot Israel in Ezekiel and Jeremiah… and this is how inappropriate is mere external religion (Jer. 4:30). And we’re all guilty of that, in some ways at some times. And we all know the downward spiral into sin… how once we start, we can’t stop. But when Israel were like this, they are likened to a female camel in insatiable heat (Jer. 2:23-25; 5:7-9). We’d just rather not read that, or retranslate the words to make it seem somehow different. But we’re dealing with serious matters here. Sin is serious to God.

Knowing God: The Spirit Of Prophecy

The prophets shouldn’t be seen as angry old men. They were filled with the wrath and emotion of God. But God’s wrath is, as they frequently say, but for a moment. Always there is hope in His wrath, that it will bring about reformation. We’re helped not to see the prophets as angry old men if we perceive the difference between anguish and anger. They spoke with more anguish than anger. In this context it needs to be noted that the language of “Woe!” is not to be read as angry threat and rage, but rather is it anguish, “a summons to grieve a death” (1).

Hosea dreamt or fantasized about the day when, he hoped, Gomer [cp. Israel] would return to him. And we find God through the prophets doing this often, as an expression of His love for them. He dreamt of how Israel as His vineyard would again be fruitful: “In that day: A pleasant vineyard, sing of it!... I [will] guard it day and night; I have no wrath” (Is. 27:2,3). He had wrath, and yet at the thought of Israel’s blessed future with Him, He could say “I have no wrath”. The God who spoke of slaying Israel with thirst in Hosea could then comment: “I will not execute my fierce anger, I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and not man… and I will not come to destroy” (Hos. 11:9).

God hasn’t wound up this world and left it ticking by clockwork, dispassionately looking on as Israel and all His people make such a mess of things. He sends the rain, consciously; not a sparrow falls from the air [i.e., as the result of a man’s sling stone- for birds die in their nests usually, not in mid-flight] without Him being aware, and, by implication, grieving for it. He even knows how much sparrows are sold for (Mt. 10:29). Any serious study of Bible teaching about the Angels reveals just how intensely God is working every moment, how much energy He consciously expends. We know that e.g. the decision to kill Ahab involved a large amount of discussion, suggestion and rejection of various Angelic plans etc (1 Kings 22). When we read that “Surely the Lord does nothing without revealing his secret to his servants the prophets” (Am. 3:7), we might tend to take that as a statement of absolute principle that is obvious to all the Angels. But we find an Angel discussing with others: “Shall I hide from Abraham [who was a prophet] what I am about to do?” (Gen. 18:17). My point quite simply is that the Angels have more debate, expend more mental and physical energy than we surely realize, in order to operationalize things which we might consider to be standard and automatic in God’s work with men. In our context, what this means is that when men reject the machinations and schemings of God’s love, they reject an awful lot; and it grieves and disappoints Him, and appears tragic to those like the prophets who see things from His viewpoint.

(1) J.H. Hayes, ed., Old Testament Form Criticism (San Antonio: Trinity University Press, 1974) pp. 164,165.

(2) See Phyllis Trible, God And The Rhetoric Of Sexuality (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1978) pp. 31-71.