In early 2009 I began working at a coffee shop. In one sense, I was pumped. I love coffee, it was a great environment with fantastic co-workers, and I needed additional income. But I was also a little apprehensive about the skill-set required to actually do the job. The task of learning what people meant when they said they wanted a “grande upside-down skinny caramel macchiato with peppermint” seemed daunting and unattainable. But I learned and got to the point where I could have made something like that in my sleep.
What helped me learn that stuff wasn’t simply memorizing recipes, though. Instead, what helped me was getting a proper framework of how to make espresso drinks. Things became so much easier to learn when I understood a) what a latte is (espresso and steamed milk), and b) that so many of the drinks I was making were just variations of that foundational drink. That gave me a starting point from which I could understand so many other variations of that drink.
I’ve come to dub that experience as “The Latte Test.” The principle is simple: once you have a framework in place, you can then begin to categorize all the other details.
Recently in my life I’ve been growing in my love and understanding of the prophetic books of the Old Testament. Before you think I’m a freak, know that that’s more due to the fact that I’m growing in my desire to study the parts of the Bible that are most bewildering to me. And bewildering they are. And long.
But just as learning to make complicated drinks for me came down to learning one basic drink, I learned quickly that I couldn’t begin to understand all the complexities of the prophetical books without understanding the one main thing the prophets were talking about: the exile. O. Palmer Robertston writes:
It was the event of Israel’s exile, and the future beyond the exile, that the literary prophets of Israel were called and commissioned to explain.
Knowing this is the first step in understanding all the details of the prophets.
Why the Exile Happened
In Genesis 12, God chose a man named Abram in which to bring about his plan to send an “offspring” who would crush the head of the serpent who had tempted Adam and Eve to sin (Gen.3:15). He promised Abram offspring, land, and that all the nations of the world would be blessed in him. Much later, the descendants of Abram (later renamed Abraham) made their way down to Egypt to escape a famine. While there they grew in number and were eventually enslaved by Pharaoh.
In response to his covenant with Abraham, God took action and brought his people out of Egypt so that they could dwell in the land promised to them. Before bringing them to the land, he stopped his people at Mount Sinai so that he could give them the law through Moses. The law served to instruct them how they were to live as God’s people in God’s presence.
In Leviticus 26 and again in Deuteronomy 28, we see an extended discussion about the blessings that the people of Israel would experience if they were obedient to the law and the curses that would fall on them if they weren’t. (In a sense, the rest of the Old Testament is the answer to the question of which path they’ll take.) Prolonged disobedience would result in exile.
Where the Prophets Fit In
The law casts a long shadow over these books. The prophets were God’s “covenant watchdogs.” That is, their role was to hold the nation accountable to the law. As God’s people (now divided up into two kingdoms: “Israel” in the north, and “Judah” in the south) continued to walk in disobedience to it, God sent the prophets to warn them about what he said he would do in response to their disobedience and to plead with them to repent. The northern kingdom was destroyed and exiled by the Assyrian Empire in 722 BC. Judah lasted until 586 BC, when Jerusalem was destroyed and the people were carried off by the Babylonian Empire. There were prophets who ministered before, during, and after the exile.
The Message of the Prophets
God’s people had been called to be a light to all nations. But they were consistently unfaithful to God and his covenant, which meant they would bear the ultimate curse of covenant disobedience. The destruction of the northern kingdom was significant, but the destruction of the southern kingdom was even more so. Why? Because Judah’s capital was Jerusalem. And Jerusalem was where God’s temple was. And God’s temple was where God dwelt. So when the Babylonian armies destroyed Jerusalem and the temple of God, to the Israelites it looked like God had been beaten by the gods of Babylon.
On top of this, it raised other questions. God had promised Abraham that he would be the father of a nation, that they would dwell in this land, and that they would be a blessing to all nations. But now? Their population was decimated, they were removed from the land, and they were slaves in a foreign land once again. Not only that, but God had promised David that one of his descendants would sit on his throne forever. But now there wasn’t even a kingdom to be king over. Did God lie? Was he unable to fulfill his promise? Everything they had known and believed in was thrown into question.
Into this hopelessness and despair, the prophets spoke God’s message to his people. They assured them that not only was God still undefeated, but that it was actually his hand that was behind Jerusalem’s destruction. They explained what was happening to them by reminding them of God’s holiness and their sin and encouraged them to repent. Some prophets predicted the exile in advance so that when it happened, it would be confirmation of God’s control over history rather than a source of despair. Additionally, the prophets went even further into the future and anticipated a restoration beyond the exile.
But even if the relationship between God and his people was restored, what’s to say that they wouldn’t just fall back in to the same cycle of sin and get booted out of the land again? Restoration from exile sounded great, but how comforting was it in the long run? Just what kind of restoration are we looking at here?
It wouldn’t be a mere restoration of how things once were. Rather, God would do something new. In the words of Robertson, the kind of restoration promised involved a “new covenant, a new Zion, a new temple, a new messiah, a new relation to the nations of the world.” And as if that weren’t lofty enough, Isaiah went on the prophesy about new heavens a new earth.
“Restoration” then didn’t just have implications for the remnants of Judah in Babylon. It had universal implications. It wasn’t confined to just getting them back from Babylon. After all, the last three prophets in the Old Testament (Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi) ministered to the people who had returned to rebuild Jerusalem, people who were now disillusioned by how not awesome it was being back in the land.
Getting back to Jerusalem wasn’t the end game. Instead, it was a crucial step in God’s plan of a much greater restoration from a far more serious exile: humanity’s exile from God’s presence which had resulted from Adam’s sin. The new messiah would be the light of the world that Israel had failed to be. The process of restoration he would usher in would be to save his people from their sins and form not just a new Israel, but a whole new humanity. Eventually this new humanity would inhabit a new earth free from the presence of sin and filled with the presence of God. In doing so, he would fulfill God’s promise to Abraham to bless all the nations through him as well as God’s promise to David to put one of his descendants on his throne forever. This is the significance of the very first verse of the New Testament:
The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.
So Why Read the Prophets?
Because they don’t just cover the contemporary issues of their day. They describe a restoration process that includes saving people from their sins as well as living in a world without sin. So from Isaiah to Malachi, we have a ton of references to the gospel. So much of the New Testament is the fulfillment and unpacking of what we find in these books.
God’s promises- all of which find their fulfillment in Jesus- fill the pages of the prophets. So the more we study them, the better our understanding will be of what Jesus came to do in his first coming. We’ll also enhance our understanding and excitement of what he’ll do upon his return.
So exile. Start with that. Then grab a latte and read them.