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Prophets in Perspective by B. Davie Napier


B. Davie Napier, at the time of this writing was Holmes Professor of Old Testament Criticism and Intepretation at Yale Divinity School. He later became President of Pacific School of Religion. He is a minister of the United Church of Christ and an author of several books on the Old Testament. Published by Abingdon Press, New York, Nashville, 1962, 1963. This book was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Chapter 5: The Faith of Classical Prophetism


In that succession of prophets beginning about a century after Elijah there is that which is distinctly new. There is the new that is external, the emergence out of pragmatic history, out of the actual course of real events, of that which earlier was not, and could not have beeen anticipated. This is the new of the new page in history, the new of the new epoch -- created out of the old, surely, but materializing as one of an inconceivably broad range of inconceivable possibilities. In Israel in the eight century it was a new charged with tragedy.

There is of course also the internal new, but it is inseparable from the external. Israel’s historical existence, which was first brought into being out of Egypt, is seen in classical prophetism to be turning back again into that same essential abyss, that same chaos, that same unendurable meaninglessness. For those of the prophetic disposition from Moses to Elijah and Elisha, Egypt lay only behind. Until the middle of the eighth century Israel’s future, while uncertain and often highly insecure, could be seen as in continuum with the present, as holding in prospect essentially more of the same. Now, for that same prophetic intuition "Egypt" was both before and behind. Out of an Egyptian existcnce formless and void Yahweh had created for Israel a life relatively formed and ordered. Now, in the mind of classical prophetism Israel was destined to "return to the land of Egypt" (Hosea 11:5) as Yahweh’s judgment for her failure to fulfill herself as the covenant people.

The new, both of the external history and the related internal prophetic mind of classical prophetism, was initially produced, beginning in the middle of the eighth century, simply by the aggressive ambition of Assyria, backed, for the first time in several centuries, with leadership and power to implement it.1 Tiglath-pileser III assumed the throne of Assyria in 745 B.C., the first of an uninterrupted series of great soldiers on the throne of Assyria. He and his immediate successors quickly brought the Neo-Assyrian Empire to the peak of its power and created a political-military institution which for the first time united almost the whole of the ancient Orient under Assyrian rule.2 Indeed, within a single decade of the accession of Tiglath-pileser all the oriental world was clearly his, either in fact or potential. By 721, when the Northern Kingdom of Israel fell to Assyria, any hopes of political existence independent of Assyria were simply fatuous. From Tiglath-pileser’s days (745-27) through the successive reigns of Shalmaneser V (727-22) , Sargon II (to 705) Sennacherib (to 691) , and Esarhaddon (to 669) , Assyria’s position of world domination was beyond serious challenge. The succeeding reign of Ashurbanipal (669-32) -- unlike his predecessors, a patron, not of the art of war, but of literature -- was the beginning of the undoing of Assyrian world rule. Assyria succumbed to the vicious powers of the Chaldeans out of Babylon, the Medes out of the mountains of Iran. and the bands of Umman-manda (apparently Scythians) from the steppes of Russia. The long death agony of Assyria was finally ended in decisive battles of 612 and 610 B.C. This provided, however, at best only a brief respite, not any fundamental departure, from surviving Israel’s (Judah’s) untenable position. Assyria’s position in the world was simply appropriated by Neo-Babylonian power. The political center of the ancient Middle East was moved from Nineveh to Babylon. The sentence of political death was imposed upon Judah by Nebuchadnezzar in the first two decades of the sixth century. The cycle was complete. Israel once more became without form and void. She was once more swallowed up in the chaos of captivity. From uncreation to creation. she was now relegated again to the uncreated: Out of Egypt, into this land, back into Egypt.

Classical prophetism rises, then, first in the consciousness that Israel now stands between Egypts, that what she was she will be again. Heretofore in Israelite Yahwism the meaning of the present was taken primarily from the understanding and interpretation of the past, as, for example, in the ancient cultic confession of faith recorded in Deut. 6:20 ff. and employed precisely to answer the question of the meaning (so vs. 20) of the present: "We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt; and the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand . . . that he might bring us in and give us the land which he swore to give to our fathers." (6:21, 23.) Israel’s present relatively ordered existence is the creation of God out of former disorder and is to be understood and accepted as his creative gift in fulfillment of his free promise to the patriarchs. The confession addresses the future, if at all, only implicitly. In quality the future is of a piece with the present: "now" embraces tomorrow and tomorrow3 -- in all of which, appropriate response to the confessional knowledge of meaning in history is faithful participation in the Yahweh cultus. Such is the sense of Deut. 6:24 (cf. 26:10, the interpretative conclusion of a comparable cultic confession in 26:5-9) "And the Lord commanded us to do all these statutes, to fear the Lord our God, for our good always, that he might preserve us alive, as at this day."

Preclassical Yahwism understands the past and present chiefly in terms of Yahweh’s positive action on behalf of Israel. If the future is addressed at all, it is with the confident expectation that it will be in predictable conformity with the past. The prophets from Amos on are forced to reinterpret the meaning of the present in terms of an immediate future to be charged with tragedy -- but a tragedy no less the result of divine action than the great formative event of redemption from Egypt. For the classical prophet the two-member scheme, "out of Egypt, into this land," has become the three-member scheme, "out of Egypt, into this land, into Egypt again."

Yahweh, who redeemed the nation for his own purposes will now for the same essential purposes commit the nation to its preredeemed status of chaos and meaninglessness. Why? What lies beyond the second Egypt? Is there a fourth and final member to be added to the three-member scheme? What does all this mean? How does this qualify the nature of existence under God in the very present time? These were questions consciously and unconsciously addressed by the classical prophets, questions the answers to which are conditioned and shaped by the great prophets’ understanding of a number of concepts, notably, Word and symbol, election and covenant, rebellion, judgment, compassion, redemption, and finally, consummation. Five of these concepts appear in integrated form in the eleventh chapter of Hosea. Whether or not this is from the prophet Hosea, it is a fully characteristic expression of the mind and faith of classical prophetism. The first of these concepts, Word and symbol, is everywhere prominent in the prophetic canon. The seventh and last appears most prominently in the collection of prophetic utterances now under the name of Isaiah, and especially in the block of chapters conventionally assigned to the so-called Second Isaiah, chs. 40-55.

"Thus Says Yahweh": Word and Symbol

We have already discussed the nature and significance of the Word of Yahweh in its role in pre-Amos prophetism. The concept obviously underlying the use of the Word in the Elijah narratives makes clear that certainly by the eighth century the prophetic understanding of the Word was matured and substantially established. As we have seen, it was regarded as an entity containing and releasing divine power to accomplish itself -- that is, to perform or bring to pass its content. The Word of Yahweh was, emphatically, a dynamic Word.

In the classical prophets it appears in a new relationship with the prophet himself and the prophet’s call, his sense of vocational commitment. To a greater or lesser degree in all the great classical prophets one sees the phenomenon of the psychology of captivity, a self-consciousness in vocation characterized by feelings of having been overpowered by the Word of Yahweh.

The lion has roared;
who will not fear?
The Lord Yahweh has spoken;
who can but prophesy? (Amos 3:8.)

Here is the same instrumental Word, exercising the power of seizure over the same prophet: "The Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’ " (Amos 7:15.)

The role of the Word of Yahweh is essentially the same in the remarkable call narratives of Isaiah (ch. 6) , Jeremiah (ch. 1) , and Ezekiel (chs. 1 ff.) , but the sense of professional bondage to the Word is everywhere apparent in the prophetic canon and appears most eloquently and movingly in the so-called Confessions of Jeremiah -- not always explicitly, to be sure, but quite unmistakably. In one of the most intense of these outbursts, the sharp entity of the Word of Yahweh and its commanding power over the prophet are thus expressed:

The Word of Yahweh has become for me
a reproach and derision all day long.
If I say, "I will not mention him,
or speak any more in his name,
there is in my heart as it were
a burning fire shut up in my bones,
and I am weary with holding it in,
and I cannot! (20:8b-9.)

The prophetic sense of the entity and power of the Word explains in great part the concentrated emotional character of the prophets and their sometimes deep anguish in proclaiming the negative message, the pronouncement of doom upon the life of the political state. If the prophets suffer in their role it is not merely the result of a natural distaste for uttering what is unpleasant to their hearers. Rather, the prophetic anguish is the product of the prophet’s inevitable sense of participation in and, consequently, responsibility for the negative Word. To speak in the name of Yaweh and under the formula "Thus says Yahweh!" of approaching catastrophe is, in the prophetic psychology, to take a positive hand in the destructive event -- to release, in the very proclamation of doom, the power to produce the debacle. This negative Word may and often does carry within itself the quality of contingency. Destruction is predicated on the present faithless and rebellious structure of the total life of the covenant people. The word of destruction may be cancelled by repentance, a possibility which renders the prophetic proclamation only the more intense, desperate, and anguished.

What is true of the Word is also true of the symbolic acts of the prophet. Hosea’s and Isaiah’s symbolic naming of their children, for example (Hos. 1; Isa. 7 and 8) and the singular and sometimes weird dramatizations of Jeremiah, and even more Ezekiel, are graphic extensions of the Word, possessing both for the prophet and his observer-hearer a quality of realism psychologically unfathomable to the Western mind. When the prophet speaks that which he represents to be the Word of God it is to him emphatically the Word of God. The prophets’ use of the phrase is no courteous condescension to conventional piety, no variety of innocent lie thoroughly stylized to mean in fact the word of man. In the prophetic psyche this Word is initiated by God. It is impellingly dynamic. It breaks through human life, human time, and into human history, and in doing so, it possesses and releases its own power, with or without the consent of the human instrument through whom the Word is proclaimed. Observe in the Old Testament that even the word of a man, solemnly spoken under certain more or less formalized circumstances, for example, in curse or blessing, cannot be retracted or set aside. Once spoken, the power inhering even in the human word is released beyond recall.4 How much more so with the Word of Yahweh in the mouth of the prophet!

The symbolic act of the prophet was regarded in ancient Israel, and especially in the prophets’ own understanding, as, then, an even more intense and efficacious phenomenon than the spoken Word. These sometimes strange and always dramatic actions of the prophets charged with dire symbolic meaning are never merely symbols. The dramatized Word even more than the uttered Word is deemed to be charged with the power of performance.

Now if, in addition to all of this, we recall another psychological phenomenon in ancient Israel, the normative sense of corporate personality among the people of Israel (and the East in general, as over against the West) , we are in a position to understand as fully as is possible the personality of Jeremiah or Ezekiel. In Word and symbol they become. in a sense, executioners acting at the command, with the authority, and under the power of Yahweh. But in their sense of corporate personality, their understanding of community life in terms of the one identified with the many and the many caught up and embodied in the one, these prophets become in effect their own executioners. In the destructive Word and symbol directed at the people they are themselves, in profoundly realistic psychological meaning, destroyed!

From this sense none of the great classical prophets is totally free. Amos is misinterpreted as an "objectifier" of the nation, phychologically extricating himself therefrom. Ezekiel is often charged with the successful suppression of any instincts of a participating, identifying compassion. That Ezekiel appears in pronounced contrast to Jeremiah in this respect is certain. But I think we rightly understand Ezekiel only when we recognize that the intensity and frequency of his destructive symbolisms must have made a self-induced callousness imperative. Not that Ezekiel succeeded in this endeavor with consistency, as witness, for example, 9:8; 11:13; 36:25-32.

The prophetic use of the efficacious Word and symbol is probably an item of survival out of primitive magic. Much in the Old Testament is derived from the pagan, the crude, the superstitious, to be refined and re-created in the Yahweh faith of Israel. If the prophetic use of symbol represents a survival of sympathetic -- that is, mimetic -- magic the transformation is striking. Magic is coercive of the unseen powers. The prophet is overwhelmed by the sense of Yahweh’s coerciveness, and the prophetic symbol, so far from aiming at control of the deity, is inspired, performed, and interpreted at the behest of the Word of Yahweh to bring to pass the judgment and will of Yahweh in Israel and the world.

"Out of Egypt I Called My Son": Election and Covenant (Hos. 11:1)

The notion of Israel as a chosen people elected by Yahweh for special reasons and for a particular purpose is by no means peculiar to the classical prophets. Election is primarily expressed by the verb baher, bhr, to choose. It is the sense of the term that one object is freely chosen from among multiple possibilities. The idea of election is also positively conveyed in varying qualities in terms of the call, qr’, of belonging, qnh, of separation, hibdil, of setting apart, hiqdish, and of knowing, yd’.5

The actual term for covenant, berit, appears rarely if at all in the classical, pre-exilic prophets. The few occurrences of the term have been regarded as unauthentic by most literary critics. The proposal that the term itself is essentially of postexilic origin in Israel is hardly tenable. It may be that the word "covenant" was deliberately avoided by the great prophets because it was popularly misunderstood and misappropriated. Covenant no doubt often represented Israel’s superiority and so became the very basis of a narrow, prideful, exclusive nationalism. But though the term is rare or even non-existent in the classical prophets, the sense of covenant is unmistakably present -- covenant as the working extension and implementation of election, the formal application of what is implicit in election, namely, the concrete responsibilities assumed by the Elector and the obligations of the electee freely undertaken in response.

Election is perpetuated and realized in covenant.6 Covenant in the Old Testament is the working contract between unequal parties, initiated by the senior partner in the act of election. The two concepts must be seen together.

This condition of having been chosen and of continuing to exist in a state of chosenness is expressed by the prophets in a variety of analogies. The relationship of Yahweh to Israel is expressed in the father/son image (for example, in addition to Hos. 11, Isa. 1:2) , owner/vineyard (Isa. 5; 27) , shepherd/flock (especially Isa. 40:11) , potter/clay (so Jer. 18; see also Isa. 29:16; 64:8: Heb. vs. 7) , and of course predominantly, husband/wife (Hosea, as the fundamental thesis; Jer. 2:1-7; 3:11-22; Ezek. cbs. 16 and 23; Isa. 50:1; 54:5; 62:4-5) 7

In classical prophetism the interpretation of Israel’s existence is everywhere dependent upon the concept of election/ covenant. The meaning of Israel’s historical life, past, present, and future, is prophetically apprehended and proclaimed upon what is deemed to be this absolutely fundamental reality. If the prophets speak, as they do, with fierce eloquence on behalf of justice and righteousness in the social and economic life of their people, they are preaching no general, abstract morality, no goodness-for-goodness’-sake ideology, but specifically and pointedly an election covenant ethic. The sense of the prophetic ethic and morality is always something like this: "You shall refrain from this practice, or you shall do thus-and-so, because I am Yahweh who brought you up out of Egypt [election] and you are a people voluntarily committed in return to the performance of my just and righteous will [covenant]." The motivation of the prophetic ethic is election. The nature of that ethic is determined by the covenant.

So it is, emphatically, in what now follows under the headings rebellion, judgment, compassion, redemption, consummation. As the prophet addresses himself with intense concentration to his own generation in his own land he indicts his people on behalf of the deity (for their rebellion) , proclaims God’s negative response (judgment) , identifies his own and God’s anguish and effects its resolution with the declaration of the love of God for Israel (compassion) , moves to the proclamation of the nation’s fulfillment (redemption) , and finally beyond that to her completion of universal mission (consummation) All this he does in the immutable context of election/covenant.

"They Went from Me": Rebellion (Hos. 11:2)

It is important to observe that the prophetic castigation embraces, if apparently sometimes incidentally, not simply Israelite man, but man. One thinks in this connection, not only of direct indictment in prophetic discourse (for example, Isa. 10:5 ff. and Amos 1-2) , but also of the collection and arrangement of oracles against foreign nations going on in prophetic circles and resulting in such blocks of material in the prophetic canon as Isa. 13-23; Jer. 46-51; Ezek. 25-32. In the prophetic faith, if not always in specific articulation, all men and all nations are in rebellion against God, denying in multiple ways the appropriate terms of human existence under the active rule of the righteous Yahweh.

For the prophet, however, Israel stands immovable, inextricable, at the very hub of human existence and as the precise nucleus of the vast area of God’s concern. She is the electee of God, the covenanter with him. She, and in a profound sense she only, is the wife, the clay, the flock, the vineyard, or the son of God, who is in turn, and respectively, the husband, the potter, the shepherd, the landowner, or the father. Not that prophetism as a whole would exclude non-Israelites from meaningful relationship with God:

"Are you not like the Ethiopians to me,
O people of Israel," says the Lord.
"Did I not bring up Israel from the land of Egypt,
and the Philistines from Caphtor
and the Syrians from Kir?" (Amos 9:7.)

In that day Israel will be the third with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth, whom the Lord of hosts has blessed, saying, "Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my heritage." (Isa. 19:24.) 8

But the prophet does assume in the God-Israel relationship a different quality from the God-nations relationship. There is an intensity and intimacy, and ultimately a purpose and mission, uniquely present here which leads Amos, for example, to cry in the name of Yahweh:

"You only have I known
of all the families of the earth;
therefore I will punish you
for all your iniquities." (3:2.)

Israel’s rebellion against God is shared by all peoples, to be sure, but her rebellion is uniquely and totally conditioned by the quality of her relationship to God and is therefore, in prophetic judgment, the more heinous.

Her rebellion against Yahweh is grossly, flagrantly displayed in the totality of her life. The whole head is sick and the whole heart faint. The alienation is willful and complete. Israel is utterly estranged. (See Isa. 1:4 ff.) The extended and most bitter indictments in the three largest prophetic collections9 as well as the sweeping, often ferocious, denunciations in Amos, Hosea, Micah, and the later Isaiahs10 make it clear that no distinction existed for the prophet between the rebelliousness expressed in social-economic-political malpractice on the one hand and cultic-religious-theological deviation on the other. Finally, the totality of Israel’s rebelliousness is, in the prophetic understanding, the shocking betrayal of Israel’s pride and arrogance, which appear all the more reprehensible against the background of such relationships as father/son, owner/vineyard, and husband /wife:

Sons have I reared and brought up,
but they have rebelled against me. (Isa. 1:2.)

What more was there to do for my vineyard,
that I have not done in it?
Yet when I looked for it to yield grapes,
why did it yield vile-smelling [R.S.V., wild]
grapes? (Isa. 5.4.)

I remember the devotion [hsd] of your youth,
your love as a bride. . .
And I brought you into a plentiful land. . . .
But when you came in you defiled my land,
and made my heritage an abomination. (Jer. 2:2, 7.)

I plighted my troth to you. . . .
But you trusted in your beauty and played the
harlot. (Ezek. 16:8, 15.)

Israel’s rebelliousness is infidelity; her infidelity, pride. And the rebellion against God that is human pride is ultimately in prophetism castigated in all men; for Israelite prophetism knows, if Israel forgets, that Israel’s rotten, unholy pride, productive only of a sickness unto death, is fully shared by all men! 11

"They Shall Return to Egypt": Judgment (Hos. 11:5)

In Hebrew "to judge," shpt, and its derivatives convey considerably more than corresponding English terms. The act of judging is one in which wrong is righted, either by punishment of the aggressor, by restitution to the victim, or by both. In the Old Testament the underprivileged are to be "judged" (e.g., Isa. 1:17: "judge the fatherless, plead for the widow") as well as willful offenders. Judgment, then, is the realization of justice.

We have already observed that the sense of impending negative judgment upon Israel is a formative characteristic of classical prophetism. The prophets of the eighth to the sixth centuries are all predominantly oriented in catastrophe -- either the fall of the Northern Kingdom in 721 or the end of the surviving Southern state in 587 -- whether they stand before or after the envisaged tragedy. Unequivocally for them this temporal-historical-political event is divine judgment, the creation and establishment of justice, the rebalancing of the scales between Yahweh and Israel. The judge, the performer of the act of judgment, is Yahweh himself. The object of the judgment is Israel. The act of judgment is political death, a figurative return to Egypt. If this is an experience seemingly of unqualified catastrophe for Israel, if it is a return to an existence formless and meaningless, it nevertheless had its own kind of order and meaning. It rights the wrong, and more, much more, it provides the now rectified context for a resumption of the relationship between Yahweh and Israel which obtained after the first Egypt and before the conditions responsible for the bitter experience of the second Egypt.

Judgment is right. It is of Yahweh. And he still rules.

The prophets, from Amos and Isaiah before the destructive events, to the subsequent Isaiahs and other prophets after the final catastrophe, proclaim the judgment with staggering power and in stunning language. They entertain personal hopes that it may be averted or that it will work for good in an Israel that loves God, but this affects not at all the uncompromised character of the negative proclamation.

Thus says the Holy One of Israel,
"Because you despise this word,
and trust (sic) in oppression and perverseness . . .
This iniquity shall be to you
like a break in a high wall . . .
which is smashed so ruthlessly
that among its fragments not a sherd is found
with which to take fire from the hearth,
or to dip water out of the cistern!" (Isa. 30:12-14.) 12

The character of the judgment is conditioned by the character of Israel’s rebellion. The totality of the judgment is the appropriate and necessary rectifying of the nation’s totally willful, arrogant rejection of Yahweh.

Thou hast smitten them,
but they felt no anguish;
thou hast consumed them,
but they refused to take correction.
They have made their faces harder than rock;
they have refused to repent . . .
They have spoken falsely of Yahweh,
and have said, "He will do nothing". . .13
Therefore says Yahweh, the God of hosts:
"Because they have spoken this word,
behold, I am making my words in your mouth a fire,
and this people wood, and the fire shall devour them. . . ."
(Jer. 5:3, 12, 14, but see the full section vss. 1-17.)

For all their invective, the prophets are misunderstood if their proclamation of judgment against Israel is interpreted as an arbitrary or vindictive action of Yahweh. They want to make it plain (they are demonstrably often hard put to do so because of the intensity of their own feelings and emotions) that it is judgment in the full sense -- justice, the setting right of the woefully wrong. They make this plain in their not uncommon joining of the issue between Yahweh and Israel in terms unmistakably drawn from current Israelite judicial practice (cf. Amos 3:1; Hos. 4:1; Isa. 1:2, 18ff.; 3:13; Mic. 6:1 ff.) God accuses, he renders the verdict, and he is himself responsible for the execution of judgment against Israel.

In other passages (cf. Amos 1:3 ff.; Jer. 1:15 ff.; Mic. 1:24; Zeph. 3:8; Joel 3:2 ff., [Heb. 4:2 ff.]) the judicial setting is convoked not against Israel, but against the nations. We shall reserve our discussion of judgment that is also eschatological for the final paragraphs of this chapter, under the heading consummation.

"How Can I Give You Up?": Compassion

(Hos. 11:8)

One doubts that any of the classical prophets pronounced a divine verdict of unconditioned doom. Amos has often been so understood. Others of the prophets have been read as proclaimers exclusively of the negative aspects of divine judgment by resort to a literary criticism which neatly attributes the prophetic word of God’s compassion to secondary sources. Now, obviously, much more originated with Amos than what is brought down to us as prophetic utterance under his name in the canon; and in what we have there is reflected the unmistakable attribution to Yahweh of the prophet’s own sense of compassion. In the repeated phrase "yet have you not returned unto me" Amos makes it clear that the very catastrophe which Yahweh visits upon his people is itself an expression of his love and faithfulness, since out of this negative action he seeks to bring about a reconciliation with prideful rebellious Israel. (See Amos 4:6-1 1.)

The mood and language of the classical prophets as a whole to say nothing of their faith, hope, and love, make emphatic their conviction that rebellion and judgment in the context of election/covenant at once call forth compassion and redemption. The Hebrew terms denoting compassion -- noun, verb, and adjective from a root rhm of uncertain original meaning -- appear not uncommonly through the prophetic books, and sometimes in conjunction with the root denoting love, ‘hb. But the unique quality of Yahweh’s compassion is best expressed by the prophetic language in the term hesed.

Hesed is necessarily subject to several different English renderings, according to context -- mercy (a relatively infrequent sense, although so commonly rendered in the Septuagint) , kindness, devotion, faithfulness, grace. It is a term primarily describing and qualifying relationships -- man/ man and God/man. Its fundamental root sense conveys the quality of sustaining strength, strength in duration, and it is commonly in the Old Testament an attribute of covenant, either God/Israel or such family "covenantal" relationships as husband/wife or father/son. Hesed is the strength of faithfulness which constitutes the very life of the relationship. This sense of the word is best illustrated in Hosea, where the ghastly double rupture of marriage and covenant is in prophetic consciousness a fait accompli, and where the prophet draws an analogy between the relationship of husband and wife and that of Yahweh and his people. The prophet now speaks for Yahweh:

"In that day . . . I will betroth you to me forever:
I will betroth you to me in righteousness
and in justice and in hesed [R.S.V., steadfast love]
and in compassion [from rhm: R.S.V., mercy]
. . . in faithfulness
and you shall know Yahweh." (Hos. 2:16 ff., Heb. vss. 18 ff.)

In the prophetic use of the term (notably in Hosea, Jeremiah, and Second Isaiah) hesed quite escapes the confines of covenant, or perhaps it would be better to say that as a quality of covenant it is chiefly responsible for a transformation in the concept of covenant. That covenant of which hesed is a part becomes in the exercise of hesed something vastly more than that pedestrian covenant which it was in its inception. Look again at the passage just quoted and at its context. The covenant here, both the man/woman and the God/people covenant, is finished, terminated. It comes to an end with a rupture of incredible violence and proportion. But hesed becomes operative in this now shattered covenant to such a transforming degree that what was covenant-with-hesed now becomes hesed-with-covenant. Covenant it still is, but utterly recreated and transformed by compassion that is hesed.

The same essential expansion of hesed beyond the limits of covenant is to be seen also in Jeremiah and Second Isaiah.

"Return, faithless Israel," says the Lord.
"I will not look on you in anger,
for I am hasid [adjectival form of hesed]," says the Lord;
"I will not be angry for ever." (Jer. 3:12.)

In Hosea the divine compassion which converts the judgment and reconstitutes the covenant is expressed in Yahweh’s cry:

"How can I give you up, O Ephrain~!
How can I hand you over, O Israel!
. . . for I am God and not man,
the Holy One in your midst. . . ." (11:8 ff.)

In Jeremiah it is, "For I am hasid!" -- this is the quality of my judgment and my covenant! In Second Isaiah the transforming development is completed:

"For a brief moment I forsook you,
but with great compassion [rhm] I will gather you.
In overflowing wrath for a moment
I hid my face from you,
but with everlasting hesed
I will have compassion on you," says your Redeemer, Yahweh!

(Isa. 54:7 if.)

As the poetic parallelism makes clear, the character of Yahweh’s compassion is the hesed character -- the steady, enduring strength of fidelity, devotion, and commitment which partakes of the quality of grace precisely because it is more than the convention of covenant can appropriately command, because it is greater than the relationship which first produced it, and because it is able, in breaking out of the relationship, to recreate the very relationship in transformed dimensions. If besed begins in the structure of covenant, it ends with covenant as its own renewed creation.

"For the mountains may depart
and the hills be removed,
But my hesed shall not depart from you,
and my covenant of peace shall not be removed,"
says the Lord, who has compassion on you. (Isa. 54:10.)

It is unnecessary to add that compassion of this sort is inseparably related to love, that besed compounded of grace is itself rooted and sustained in the love of God, as it is so precisely put in Jer. 31:3:

I have loved you with an everlasting love;
this is why I have maintained my hesed toward you.

"I Will Return Them to Their Homes": Redemption

(Hos. 11:11)

Prophetism is the total achievement of that unique movement spectacularly witnessed in concentrated power in the eighth, seventh, and sixth centuries, but developing from the time of Israel’s birth as a people out of Egypt and continuing to find essential expression in the final six or seven centuries of biblical time. This prophetism found its very being in the efficacious Word of Yahweh. This prophetism comprehended and condemned Israel’s (and all men’s!) appallingly arrogant posturing. This prophetism was persuaded of Israel’s inescapable, cataclysmic judgment. This prophetism was equally persuaded in faith of the efficacious quality of divine compassion and hesed and in the unimpedable fulfillment of the divine purpose back of Yahweh’s Word and Israel’s election and covenant. Such a prophetism comes inevitably to the affirmation of Israel’s historical redemption, even before the historical imposition of judgment.

In doing so, prophetism reveals the magnificent, full body of its faith. It also betrays, perhaps, the always attendant measure of its unfaith, since by and large the prophets are quite unable to envisage any ultimate establishment of divine sovereignty apart from the re-created and re-substantiated historical Israel. The prophets do not of course allow this as a point of pride. That Israel remains a part of Yahweh’s redemptive purpose results, not from any indispensability of Israel to Yahweh, but simply because Yahweh so wills it. This is emphatically expressed both in Ezekiel (see 36:22-25, 32) and in Second Isaiah (Isa. 48:11) in the insistent interpretation of Israel’s redemption in the divine phrase. "For my own sake I do it!" Furthermore, in the full development of prophetism faith is the victor over unfaith even in this regard. In the Servant Songs of Second Isaiah, Israel herself is seen to be ultimately expendable on behalf of the cause of the knowledge and reign of God.14

Prophetism exploded into full, vocal, self-conscious maturity in the historical era of Israel’s existence "between Egypts." In acute awareness of an impending second Egypt (see Hos. 8:13 and 11:5) prophetism added a third member to the older two-member scheme: Out of Egypt, into this land, and now, back to Egypt. This was not the end, however. Out of the mind and faith of prophetism a fourth member in the meaningful scheme of Israel’s history was added, a second act of divine redemption from chaos, redemption by return again to the land, redemption by the reconstitution of the people Israel. Out of Egypt, into this land, back to Egypt, back to this land!

Not only the third negative member, but the fourth positive element of the scheme is the work of prophetism in the eighth century. The two cannot be separated. The first Isaiah was convinced of the destruction of his people, but he was also and at once persuaded of God’s compassionate purpose in judgment-justice. He was persuaded of a judgment-justice never centrally punitive in intention and quality but always itself redemptive. If judgment is wrath it is purposive wrath, not vindictive wrath. Divine judgment is never an end in itself, but that dire necessity which makes redemption possible.

I will turn my hand against you
and will smelt away your dross. . .
and remove all your alloy. (Isa. 1:25.)

The prophetic declaration of a surviving remnant beyond the coming catastrophe must be understood in this light.14 If this points to Yahweh’s negative action against Israel, it is also positive in its import. We recall again Israel’s habitual identification of one and many, her sense of total participation as people in all the meaningful events of her history, past and even future, involving one Israelite, a few, or many.15 In the faith of Israel the glorious survival and reconstitution of a remnant is Israel’s glory and Israel’s re-establishment.

The understanding of historical judgment as positive in divine purpose may well be already implicit in Amos (see 4:6-11 and the discussion above) But still in the eighth century, it is most warmly expounded in Hosea (see especially 2:14-23; 5:15; 11:11) It is a pervasive if often only implicit element in the utterances of Jeremiah and makes possible that stunning declaration of a new covenant with Israel "after those days" of judgment:

"I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each man teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest," says Yahweh; "for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more. (Jer. 31:33-34.)

Redemption was purposed in the very judgment. The reconstitution, rebirth, re-creation, of Israel which was inherent in the prophetic understanding of Israel’s anguished demise is given singularly vivid expression in Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of death, Israel’s vast open grave exposing the bare skeletons of the house of Israel. In this scene of dry death, Yahweh commands the prophet, "Prophesy [i.e., speak as prophet, speak prophetically, from the root nb’] . . . and say. . . , O dry bones, hear the Word of Yahweh!" (37:4)

So I prophesied as he commanded me . . . and they lived. . . . Then he said to me, "Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. Behold, they say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are clean cut off.’ Therefore prophesy [as above], and say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord Yahweh: "Behold, I will open your graves, and raise you from your graves, 0 my people; and I will bring you home into the land of Israel. And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land; then you shall know that I, Yahweh, have spoken, and I have done it, says Yahweh."’ (37: 10-14.)

The form of prophetic utterance as handed down to us seldom if ever presents the single, unmitigated word of doom. The much disputed positive ending of Amos, for example 9:8b ff.) , may indeed be out of place, or a later addition to the text of Amos, but it is true to the structure of prophetism.

We come, now to the very eve of Israel’s second historical redemption, fraught with such incredibly high hopes. The so-called Second Isaiah, believing that this second exodus signals the realization of the Word of Yahweh to the elected, covenanted Israel, speaks words moving and profound in consolation, but words which, literally taken, were only very briefly and highly approximately validated in the actual history of Israel’s second redemption. (See, for example, Isa. 40:1-31; 44:21 ff.; 49:8-13.) In a lyrical, soaring projection of faith which summons the act of creation and the dramatic first exodus into the single moment of time occupied by the second exodus, the prophet cries:

Awake, awake, put on strength,
O arm of Yahweh;
awake as in the days of old,
the generations of long ago.
Was it not thou that didst cut Rahab in pieces,
that didst pierce the dragon? (51:9.)

This employs the old mythological language of creation and recalls the creation of the world into order and meaning by the destruction of Chaos (Rahab, the dragon)

Was it not thou that didst dry up the sea,
the waters of the great deep;
that didst make the depths of the sea a way
for the redeemed to pass over? (Vs. 10.)

In the same breath, as it were, and with the same overwhelming sense of contemporaneity, the prophet brings into the present moment of time both the creation of the world and the creation of Israel, the one by the conquest of chaos, the other by the conquest of the waters of the Red Sea. Now, with no encumbering sense of disparity in time, he couples with the acts of creation and exodus the event of Israel’s second redemption which is about to take place:

And the ransomed of the Lord shall return,
And come with singing to Zion;
Everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away. (Vs. 11.)16

Faith in such a measure of passion and proclaimed in such rapture cannot ultimately be contained in any concept merely of Israel’s historical redemption. Prophetism produces its theology out of a process of meditation on history and the meaning of history. When its meditation is focused on what Yahweh has done in creation and exodus it is quite capable, as here, of taking wings and soaring above the plane of pedestrian history. The same prophetic theology, however, is always brought sharply back again to the realities of a frustrating historical existence. It is this tension between the alternating experiences of flight and the grim march which produces inevitably a prophetic eschatology.

A Light to the Nations: Consummation

From any point of view other than that of faith, affirmations pointing, if not beyond history, at least to a history radically transformed, are unthinkable. But if Israelite prophetism is, from our perspective, singularly nonlogical it is not nonreasonable; it adheres to its own reasonableness. If the face of existence appears to be, with only intermittent relief, as hard and as featureless as the rock, it remains an existence Yahweh-given and Yahweh-ruled. If existence appears to be obdurate, it only appears to be so, or it will be so only for a short time. All is Yahweh’s, and his countenance is neither featureless nor hard: "He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love" [hesed]. (Joel 2:13) 17 Moreover, Yahweh has spoken the Word that in Abraham/Israel all the nations of the earth shall be blessed (Gen. 12:3) His word cannot but accomplish that purpose to which he sends it (Isa. 55:11)

So, again we observe that the concept of Israel’s historical redemption alone could not contain the prophetic faith or answer the questions of prophetismn about the meaning of Israel’s existence. Prophetism was compelled to abandon all notions -- even its own -- of divine purpose fulfilled in terms limited to Israel. It may even be that where the terms are of Israel’s redemption, the intent (expressed in the intensity of feeling, conviction, and emotion) is universal. This is true of Isa. 51:9-11, quoted above. It is equally true of such passages -- in form of Israel, in intention of all men -- as Hos. 2:18-23, Jer. 23:5 ff., 29:10-14; 31:4 ff., and Isa. 9:2-7.18 The idea of a coming Day of Yahweh as Israel’s day of justification, fulfillment, and aggrandizement was violently exploded. Some prophets appear to identify the Day as the actual, historical judgment/catastrophe of 722 or 587 (see Amos 5:18-20) , while others make it the symbol of the final, universal judgment (see Zech. 1:14-16; Joel 2:30 ff.) Within the movement of prophetism it finally becomes that Day when Yahweh "will become king over all the earth," when "Yahweh will be one and his name one." (Zech. 14:5-9.)

Of course prophetism has its ambiguities. The structure of faith as apprehended within the whole company of the prophets was hardly without its contradictions, but the projection in faith of a final consummation embracing all prophetism’s high affirmations is variously and eloquently proclaimed, and such raptured extensions of prophetic faith represent the ultimate words of prophetism.

It is appropriate now to let prophetism speak its own lines. This can best be done, I think, through the tradition of the Isaiahs. In these selected lines it is not always possible to distinguish between reality and symbol, between expectation and hope, but in prophetism’s faith in consummation such distinctions are uncritical. Nor need we be concerned with the "source" of these declarations, since all come unmistakably out of Israelite prophetism.

Here is the vision of consummation to be effected through the Servant of the Lord. Nor need we be disturbed about the identity of the Servant in original prophetic understanding -- whether Israel personified; the remnant of Israel; one, someone, out of Israel; or, in differing contexts, differing identities. Certainly later biblical prophets, whose works appear in the New Testament, had no hesitation in identifying Jesus Christ as the Servant.

And now Yahweh says,
who formed me from the womb to be his servant. . . .
"It is too light a thing that you should be my
servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob
and to restore the preserved of Israel;
I will give you as a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth." (Isa. 49:5-6.)

Whatever the form of the next passage, whatever the intentional identity of Servant and speaker, the proclamation of consummation is unambiguous, and all the more so if it is the nations who speak:

Surely he [the Servant] has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions,
he was bruised for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that made
us whole and with his stripes we are healed. (Isa. 53:4-5.)

Especially in the light of the next verse it is no wonder that Christianity sees in this Servant Song the highest projection of prophetic faith:

All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned every one to his own way;
And Yahweh has laid en him the iniquity of us all. (Isa. 53:6.)

In Isaiah 11:1 if. "a shoot from the stump of Jesse" will be totally endowed with the Spirit of Yahweh.

He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.

The vision moves with tender perceptiveness to lower orders of creation among whom also the peace of righteous rule is attested with these lines in climactic description of the consummation:

They shall not hurt nor destroy
in all my holy mountain;
for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of
Yahweh as the waters cover the sea! (11:6 if.)

Hear, finally, these incomparable lines referred to as the Floating Oracle because they appear both in Isaiah (2:2-4) and Micah (4:1-4) :

It shall come to pass in the latter days
that the mountain of the house of Yahweh
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
and all nations shall flow to it,
and many peoples shall come, and say:
"Come, let us go up to the mountain of Yahweh,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths."
For out of Zion shall go forth the law,
and the Word of Yahweh from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations,
and shall decide for many peoples;
And they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more. (Isa. 2:2-4.)

The book of Micah, quite possibly out of the same Isaianic circle of prophetism19 adds a verse which contains in itself the power, the faith, and the ultimate expectation of Israelite prophetism:

They shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree.

and none shall make them afraid;

for the mouth of Yahweh of hosts has spoken! (4:4.)

Notes:

1 In this discussion I am particularly indebted to Von Rad, Theologie, I. pp. 72-76. Von Rad sees three other matters of historical change that touch intimately an understanding of the emergent form of classical prophetism. He calls attention to (1) the degeneration in syncretism of the old Yahweh faith prior to the appearance of the eighth-century prophets; (2) a kind of "emancipation" from Yahweh in increasing dependence upon the maturing structure of the political state; and (3) the dissolution of the old tribal social order with the shift of economic power to the cities, the increasing inability of the farmer, because of the burdens of heavy taxation, to maintain himself as a free man, and the growing concentration of land in the hands of a few wealthy urbanites (cf. Isa. 5:8 and Mic. 2:1 ff.)

2 So Martin Noth, The History of Israel (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1958) p. 253.

3 See Chap. 2, fn. 1.

4 Cf. the Blessing of Isaac (Gen. 37) and the Oracles of Balaam (Num. 22-25)

5 See further Edmund Jacob. Theology of the Old Testament (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1958) , pp. 201 ff.

6 But see H. H. Rowley’s discussion of "Election without Covenant," The Biblical Doctrine of Election (London, 1950) PP. 121 if.

7 Cf. Jacob, op. cit.

8 Probably not from Isaiah of Jerusalem, probably relatively late, but in any case, of the very essence of classical prophetism.

9 See especially Isa. 1:2-18; 2:6-17; 9:8-11; 29:13-16; 50:8-17; Jer. 2:4-15; 5:20-31; 7:8-11; Ezek. 16.

10 E.g., Isa. 59:1-15.

11 "See Napier, From Faith to Faith, pp. 182 ff. Parts of the present discussion of pruphetisin appear in condensed form in my Song of the Vineyard, pp. 296 ff. The whole of the present study is a revision and expansion of my long article "Prophet and Prophetism" in The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1962) , pp. 896-919.

12 See now the full chapter (Isa. 30) and compare the equally unequivocal statement of judgment in 22:14.

13 The Hebrew here reads, literally, "He is not!" And as in the Babel story (Gen. 11) , this is the most horrendous apostasy -- the denial, if not of his actual existence (although possibly that in Jeremiah) then of his relevance to existence. To all intents and purposes, Yahweh had as well not be.

14 "Especially in the fourth song (Isa. 52:13 -- 53:12)

15 See, for example, Isaiah’s symbolic naming of a son "A Remnant Shall Return" (Isa. 7:1 ff.)

16 Consider again, for example, the old cultic confessional phrase of Deut. 6:21, repeated generation aftcr generation: "We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt. . . ."

17 Cf. Von Rad, "Das tbeologische Problem des altestamentlichen Schöp-fungsglaubens," Werden und Wesen des Alten Testaments, edited by J. Hempel (1936) , and my article "On Creation -- Faith in the Old Testament," Interpretation, Vol. XVI, No. 1 (January, 1962) , Pp. 21-42.

18 Joel 2:13, cf. Jonah 4:2.

19 Heb. 9:1-6. This distinction between "form" and "intention" is after C. H. Dodd, The Kingdom of God in History, p. 18, as quoted by R. B. Y. Scott, The Relevance of the Prophets, p. 153.

20 See Chap. 2, fn. 10.

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