The prophets are obviously important. They wrote almost half of the Old Testament, 17 of the 39 books. They answer the critical question, “If we are God’s people, how come we suffer?”, claiming the people brought pain on themselves by breaking the Mosaic Law and losing touch with God. They must repent and return to God’s ways. If they do, the prophets promise God cannot help but forgive because of his steadfast, unconditional love for his people (Jeremiah 3:12 Hosea 11: 8, Isaiah 54: 7, 8). Contrary to the silly talk of the televangelists, prophets do not make predictions. They make promises.
Prophets confront the powerful with God’s Word. Think of Nathan accusing King David of adultery with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband (II Samuel 12: 1-15) and Elijah accusing King Ahab and Queen Jezebel of killing Naboth and stealing his vineyard (I Kings 21: 1-19).
Prophets label sin idolatry, worshiping powerless hunks of material that do no more than scarecrows (Jeremiah 10: 1-5). But they believe idolatry is ultimately breaking the moral law. “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? (Isaiah 58: 6-9) It is not that prophets denounce worship but rather warn that worship without justice and righteousness is useless. (Amos 5: 21-24, Micah 6: 6-8)
The prophets’ understanding of sin simply echoes the Mosaic Law. Sin ignores the needs of the alien, widow and orphan (Isaiah 1: 14-17, Jeremiah 10: 1-5, Hosea 2: 4-8). It is expressed by wealthy business people impatient for the religious festivals to end so they can bring out their dishonest weights to cheat the vulnerable (Amos 8: 4-6). Like Ahab they covet the fields of the poor and are willing to sell the needy for money (Micah 2: 1, 2). Princes act like thieves who take bribes to abuse the helpless (Isaiah 1: 23). They place their trust in weapons which kill women and children (Hosea10: 13-15). Adultery is so rife that sexual abuse can be used as a metaphor for the people’s unfaithful relationship with God. And worst of all are those religious who are supposed to speak for God but say “Peace, peace, all is well” (Micah 3: 5). The prophet who speaks the truth suffers for the sins of the people.
After accusing the people of sin, and calling for repentance, the prophets promise God’s unconditional love will still bring a new day when the worst kind of sin will be forgiven (Isaiah 1: 14-20) and a peaceable kingdom shall come. (Micah 4: 3-5, 6: 11-13)
I promised to begin relating this to modern society. It is easy to see by biblical standards ours is a thoroughly pagan society. The 4th paragraph above describes our contemporary situation as accurately as the ancient. Our cowboy capitalism has led to a sharp separation of the rich and poor in which the poor have grown poorer ever since 1972. Long ago we agree to ignore the cries of the poor in our cities and recently many want to refuse health care to the needy. There is a question if any of the recent wars are justified. We refuse to abide by the just war theory or the Geneva Convention. Winning at any cost is the standard for international relationships as well as professional sports. The tremendous lobbying of our political officials is clearly bribery to purchase special privilege. The divorce rate reflects a flagrant abandonment of accountability as men, especially men, simply leave their responsibility to women and children for “true love”. And we throw out all sorts of red herrings to divert attention, such as making homosexuality the ultimate litmus test for a good church, homosexuality which gets only very minor mention in the purity section of the Mosaic Law.
Many of us would agree with this prophetic judgment of our society, but see no need to confess these sins at Church. The Bible believed the people shared responsibility for their leaders’ sin. All were part of the community. Strangely, we who live in a democracy take advantage of our society’s sin while claiming no responsibility. Although the government is “us”, we unabashedly absolve ourselves from judgment, claiming God deals only with isolated individuals. The prophets would either laugh or cry.