This is from what may be the most useful resource in my personal library, The Complete Biblical Library – a multi-faceted commentary series of the entire Word of God by a whole passel of international saints with hearts as big as Texas.
The days of “Thus saith the Lord” are long gone. Beware of any person or group that approaches you in that fashion. Of course our great God gives us revelation, both personal and corporate, on what He has already revealed and written in His holy Word, the Scriptures.
Here is a quote from this marvelous work on prophecy: “The prophets’ call (in the Old Testament) was always and consistently to faithfulness, justice and mercy. Prediction always was incidental and subordinate to that central purpose.”
THE NATURE OF BIBLICAL PROPHECY –From The Complete Biblical Library, OT, Jeremiah, Overview
We will understand Jeremiah, the Book and the man, only as we understand God’s intentions in biblical prophecy. We must begin with the idea that God took a familiar concept and practice and vested them with new meaning. God did this with several important objects and concepts in the Bible. God understood long before modern educators did that humans learn best when they can associate something new with something familiar.
Thus, the Tabernacle invested with deeper meaning the already older concept of sacred space. God’s covenant with Israel was modeled on second millennium B.C. political treaties that Moses, at least, as a prince of Egypt, would have known. By the same token, biblical prophecy took old, familiar ideas of how humans can find out about the future, corrected them, and invested them with far greater significance than mere fortune-telling.
Common practice in the ancient Near East, including Israel, was to go to someone trained in reading the signs of the future. This might take the form of divination, such as interpreting the pattern of arrows dumped on the ground from a quiver, reading and interpreting the livers of sacrificial sheep, interpreting the pattern of a drop of oil as it spread on water in a bowl or any of numerous other practices. The common denominators were that they always were concerned with the prediction of the future, and they always required trained persons to interpret them correctly.
These mentioned practices were forbidden to ancient Israel, but we know some Israelites did them anyway. God did allow practices which acknowledged that the information obtained came from Him. Thus, a person could go to a prophet of God, who asked Him about the concern being raised, and then brought back his answer. God also provided for the consulting of the Urim and Thummim (perhaps a pair of colored stones which could answer questions framed to expect yes or no answers). These were in the possession of, and controlled by, the high priest. God sometimes indicated the preferred choice or revealed crucial information through the casting of lots.
But all this was concerned only with the revealing of the future (including decision making which directed or influenced the course of future events). Furthermore, it always involved the initiative of the human enquirer. But God was interested in much more than this. The emphasis of biblical prophecy, though it began with old familiar forms and personnel, was deeper and broader. The prophecy recorded in the Bible came almost always at God’s initiative and almost always through a prophet (man or woman) whom God had called. Some of these, including Jeremiah, God called for a lifetime. Others, such as Amos, God gave a specific message or set of messages to be delivered on one occasion only. When these were delivered, that person’s career as a prophet was over.
An even more important change in focus lay in the content of biblical prophecy. In contrast with the prediction of the future which made up (and still today makes up) the bulk of popular prophecy, biblical prophecy actually is very little concerned with predicting the future. The first way we know this is from the content of the section called Prophets in the Hebrew Bible arrangement of what Christians usually call the OT. The section called Prophets has two subsections, the Former Prophets and the Latter Prophets. The Latter Prophets include Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and The Twelve (in English Bibles they usually are called the Minor Prophets).
But the Former Prophets are the Books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings. (The last two were not divided into 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings until later.) These Books record the highlights (and lowlights) of Israel’s history in the land from the entry under Joshua to the deportation of Judean survivors at the end of the Judean kingdom in 586 B.C.
The Former Prophets presented Israel’s and Judah’s history; they represent the world’s first legitimate historiography, or history writing. They wrote their history from a particular point of view, but that is something all history writing must do. It would be impossible to write history without being selective, and selection must be governed by an honest, consistent, and clearly stated perspective.
But how is this prophecy? It is prophecy because it is history written in the same spirit and from the same theological and historical perspectives as the classical written Prophets we usually think of as prophecy. It is prophecy concerned with the appropriate interpretation of Israel’s history, with the purpose of encouraging Israel (and future believers) to remain faithful to God or to return to faithfulness to God. That is the aim of all biblical prophecy, whether it discussed Israel’s and Judah’s past, their current situations or their future. And, of course, from the perspective of biblical prophecy, the future of Israel and Judah extends far beyond the few centuries B.C. of their independent, political existence as nation-states.
The Latter Prophets did not present a connected, sequential history, but they did comment extensively on Israel’s and Judah’s past. However, the Latter Prophets were much more concerned with Israel’s and Judah’s current situations in the prophets’ own times. Their commentary on current events occupies more space than commentary on the past or prediction of the future. God intended their prophecy to make a difference in the religious, political, cultural and ethical climate of their day.
It is important to affirm that the Latter Prophets did make predictions about the future. Some say they did not, or that everything presented as a prediction really was written after the predicted events already had occurred. But this is to deny that God can or does interact with the world He has created. From the time of God’s call upon Abraham, Judeo-Christian tradition has affirmed that HE desires and has made provision for relation with humankind. God’s initiative, if it occurs at all, includes his power and right to reveal aspect of the future, if and when He chooses to do so.
However, we want to understand biblical prophecy as God gave it and as He intends it. If we would not distort His intent, it is of the utmost importance to notice and keep in mind that when biblical prophecy does predict the future, it is never prediction for prediction’s own sake. It always prediction for the purpose of calling God’s people then and since, back to faithfulness. This include: faithfulness to God; it includes also the just, righteous and merciful treatment of all people.
Another issue is the conditionality of the prediction. Some predictions, we see by hindsight were unconditional. Sometimes, God gave glimpses of the future that, by his sovereign will, was to come. But these were not nearly so clear to those who received them as they are to us, who have the advantage of knowing they already have been fulfilled and can understand them as history. The prophecies of the future that remain yet unfulfilled in our day are not very detailed or clear to us either. They too await fulfillment to be clearly understood.
Yet another factor requires our consideration. Most of the prophecies of the OT that did pertain to the future (defined as yet future to the prophets and their first hearers or readers) were conditional prophecies. This means they could have been avoided. Israel and Judah would have avoided these threats of judgment if they had returned to faithfulness to God and justice to their fellow citizens. God had to carry out these judgments only because Israel and Judah failed to repent.
Putting all this together, it becomes clear that we err seriously if we look to Jeremiah, or any other prophet, first or most importantly, for information about the future as we wait to experience it. Telling their first hearers, or any generation of believers since then, about the future was never the prophets’ first concern. God did give some glimpses into the future which did, or may, turn out to be unconditional. But even these never were, and are not now, for their own sake. They are for the same purpose as all the prophecies dealing with Israel’s and Judah’s ancient pasts, and those dealing with the situations at the time of the Prophets themselves: that overarching, all-important, preeminent purpose which have been called prescriptive or forth telling.
God, in giving prophecy to and through the prophets of old, strove to call ancient Israel and Judah (and all God’s people since) to continued (or renewed) faithfulness to Him. This always has included, and always will include, justice, righteousness, lovingkindness and mercy toward fellow human beings, especially to those without the power to ensure them for themselves. Justice and mercy are established only by God, whether for the powerless and the disenfranchised or those perceived as powerful and/or able to influence the future. The prophets’ call was always and consistently to faithfulness, justice and mercy. Prediction always was incidental and subordinate to that central purpose.
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