The Pursuit of God

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The Prophetic Books of the Bible: Who’s Talking?

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When you’re taught to view every word in the Bible as falling from the lips of God, you don’t notice that a vast amount of verbiage in the Bible isn’t being spoken by God at all, but rather by human beings.  Speaking for God is an entirely different thing than speaking about God.  Once God Himself confirms to your soul that a prophet has spoken directly for Him, then you need to treat what was said as a direct message from God, because that’s what it was.  But if a prophet is only speaking about God, or interjecting his own thoughts in the middle of messages from God, well, that needs to be handled quite differently.

In the prophetic books of the Bible, we find a whole lot of interjecting going on.  Certainly men like Isaiah, Moses, Jeremiah, and the apostle John in Revelation are at times quoting God.  But they are also slipping in their own comments, thoughts, and feelings about what God is saying.  This means that you can’t just crack open Isaiah and think that anything your eye falls on is a direct quotation from Yahweh.  Like the other prophets in the Bible who record long series of messages from God, Isaiah does a lot of rotating between quoting God and quoting himself.  Once you become aware that this is going on, you will be quite surprised to discover that many of Christendom’s most cherished Bible quotations weren’t spoken by God at all, but by a human who was responding to God.  The famous quotation from Isaiah 55:6 is an example of this.

Seek the Lord while He may be found; call to Him while He is near.

God often speaks in the third person when prophesying, however He isn’t speaking here.  This is Isaiah the man interjecting his own thoughts into the conversation.  Does it matter?  Yes, it matters very much.  You see, when a man is talking on his own, what he says can be quite wrong.  In the book of Jeremiah, the prophet Jeremiah slips in a lot of extra comments that are simply not pleasing to God.  Jeremiah frequently complains about the contents of Yahweh’s messages.  He misrepresents his own countrymen by putting repentant words in their mouths which they wouldn’t at all say.  Jeremiah even goes so far as to insult Yahweh’s Character both in Jeremiah and in Lamentations.  We certainly don’t want to call a prophet’s irreverent griping “Divinely inspired” or “honoring to God,” because it’s not.  Insulting God by telling Him He’s being an unfair meanie to discipline spiritual rebellion is a totally inappropriate attitude for Christians to have.  So we need to be asking God for discernment when we’re reading through prophetic passages and remember that there’s a big difference between a man quoting God and a man quoting himself.

IDENTIFYING SPEAKERS

So how do you tell when a prophet suddenly changes who he’s talking for?  You can’t rely on the prophet himself to tell you, because often he won’t.  Instead, you need to pay attention to paragraph breaks, and quotation marks.  Be aware that not all Bibles format the text the same.  When trying to study the prophetic books, you really need to use a translation which uses clear paragraph breaks and quotation marks or you’re going to drive yourself crazy.  Then, as you read, look for responsive comments.  To give you a feel for how this works, let’s use a passage from Jeremiah, because he is a fellow who makes frequent speaker switches.  Jeremiah not only rotates between speaking for Yahweh and speaking for himself, but he also likes to role play for his countrymen.  Jeremiah’s messages read like dramatic scripts in which he creates conversations between Yahweh, himself, and the people who Yahweh is speaking to.  Let’s now read through Jeremiah 4:5-16 and we’re going to insert subtitles to show you when the speaker is changing.

Yahweh Says To The People Of Judah:

“Announce in Judah and proclaim in Jerusalem and say: ‘Sound the trumpet throughout the land!’ Cry aloud and say: ‘Gather together! Let us flee to the fortified cities!’ Raise the signal to go to Zion! Flee for safety without delay! For I am bringing disaster from the north, even terrible destruction.” (Jer. 4:5-6)

Jeremiah Now Adds This Warning To His Countrymen:

A lion has come out of his lair; a destroyer of nations has set out. He has left his place to lay waste your land. Your towns will lie in ruins without inhabitant. So put on sackcloth, lament and wail, for the fierce anger of Yahweh has not turned away from us. (Jer. 4:7-8)

Yahweh Says:

“In that day,” declares Yahweh, “the king and the officials will lose heart, the priests will be horrified, and the prophets will be appalled.” (Jer. 4:9)

Upset By This Message, Jeremiah Complains To Yahweh:

Then I said, “Alas, Sovereign Yahweh! How completely You have deceived this people and Jerusalem by saying, ‘You will have peace,’ when the sword is at our throats!” (Jer. 4:10)

Yahweh Responds To Jeremiah:

At that time this people and Jerusalem will be told, “A scorching wind from the barren heights in the desert blows toward My people, but not one that can be used to winnow or cleanse; it will be a wind that is far too strong for those things for it will come from Me. And now I will pronounce My judgments against them.” (Jer. 4:11-12)

A Distressed Jeremiah Personally Responds To The Vision He’s Seeing:

Look! The enemy advances like the clouds, his chariots come like a whirlwind, his horses are swifter than eagles. Woe to us! We are ruined! (Jer. 4:13)

A Frightened Jeremiah Now Speaks To His Fellow Jews:

O Jerusalem, wash the evil from your heart and be saved. How long will you harbor wicked thoughts? A voice is announcing from Dan, proclaiming disaster from the hills of Ephraim. (Jer. 4:14-15)

Yahweh Speaks Again:

“Tell this now to the nations! Proclaim over Jerusalem: ‘A besieging army is coming from a distant land, raising a war cry against the cities of Judah. They surround her like men guarding a field, because she has rebelled against Me,’” declares Yahweh. “Your own conduct and actions have brought this on you. This is your punishment. How bitter it is! How it pierces to the heart!” (Jer. 4:16-18)

Isn’t this fascinating?  In just this short passage, Jeremiah has changed focus eight times. If you were to read this passage just thinking it’s all Yahweh talking, you’d really miss what’s going on.  The prophetic books are filled with drama—not only are God’s messages shocking, but there’s a bunch of tense back and forth happening between God and the prophet He’s speaking through.  You’ll find Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Habakkuk, Amos, and John in the book of Revelation all reacting with great alarm at some of the things Yahweh says.

PRACTICING DISCERNMENT

Now once you identify a particular passage as a prophet’s own interjection, then you need to practice discernment by asking God to show you if what the prophet is saying is right or not. Prophets are just humans, and humans often embrace the wrong priorities when they’re feeling upset.  Humans are also quick to put promises in God’s mouth that God never made—we find the psalmists doing this sort of thing a lot as they put words in Yahweh’s mouth which merely echo their own carnal sentiments (see Psalm 82).  Just because a man quotes God as saying something doesn’t mean God actually said those words.  Far more often, we humans are just making stuff up that we wish God would say.  How do you sort it out?  Well, what would you do if you read a quote in the news from a friend of yours?  You’d go to your friend and say, “Hey, I read that quote from you in the news—is that really what you said?”  In the same way, you need to pray to God and say, “I see that You’re being quoted here in the Bible—is that really what You said?”  Don’t just believe what some human wrote about God—always check with God Himself.

Now to give you a chance to exercise those discernment muscles, let’s check out some specific examples of times when prophets throw their own thoughts into the mix.  In each case, we’re going to be trying to discern if what the prophet is saying should be viewed as a God honoring sentiment or not.  The Bible is filled with good and bad examples of how to treat God, and we can learn from both as long as we’re properly identifying them.  When we start labeling snarky prayers and bad attitudes as “good,” that’s when we run into trouble.  And by the way, all of this bossing God about that you see going on in the Church today is an imitation of bad examples in the Bible.  Today we’re imitating the bad examples far more often than the good ones, and then we’re calling bad “good.”  This is what happens when people are not looking to God directly for wisdom in life.

ISAIAH 55: DRAW NEAR TO YAHWEH

Throughout the Old Testament, we find Yahweh’s chosen people being impossibly rebellious. In the book of Isaiah, we find many long passages in which Yahweh is railing at the Jews for being such defiant brats.  He keeps urging them to repent while He is still willing to forgive them.  He makes it clear that His patience has limits and that His wrath is a terrifying thing.  To motivate His people to repent, He rotates between emphasizing how horribly they will suffer if they keep defying Him, and emphasizing how wonderful their lives can be if they will submit to Him.  Our Gods are very generous Rewarders of those who sincerely seek Them—this is a theme that Yahweh really hammers in the Old Testament.  At the start of Isaiah 55, Yahweh is the One speaking, and He is emphasizing how wonderful Israel’s life could be if she would just get over herself and submit to Him.

Yahweh says, “All you who are thirsty, come and drink. Those of you who do not have money, come, buy and eat! Come buy wine and milk without money and without cost. Why spend your money on something that is not real food? Why work for something that doesn’t really satisfy you? Listen closely to Me, and you will eat what is good; your soul will enjoy the rich food that satisfies. Come to Me and listen; listen to Me so you may live. I will make an agreement with you that will last forever. I will give you the blessings I promised to David. I made David a witness of My power for all nations, a ruler and commander of many nations. You will call for nations that you don’t yet know. And these nations that do not know you will run to you because of Yahweh your God, because of the Holy One of Israel who honors you.”  (Isa. 55:1-5)

Now, Isaiah the man pipes up with his own thoughts.  Like all of the Jewish prophets, Isaiah really wants to see his own countrymen thrive, so he urges his stubborn people to stop rebelling and submit to Yahweh.

Seek Yahweh while He may be found; call to Him while He is near. Let the wicked one abandon his way and the sinful one his thoughts; let him return to Yahweh, so He may have compassion on him, and to our God, for He will freely forgive. (Isa. 55:6-7)

Notice how the first passage was in the first person: Isaiah was quoting Yahweh as saying “I will do this” and “I will do that.”  Then Isaiah flips into the third person as he adds his own thoughts: “People, turn to God while He is still willing to take you.”  Changes in voice like this can sometimes indicate a change in speaker, but be aware that Yahweh often speaks about Himself in the third person, because this was a common practice in Jewish culture.

Today, when modern day English speakers are talking about themselves, they always speak in the first person: “I am a patient person.  I like ice cream.”  A woman named Sandra would not say, “Sandra is going out to lunch today,” because that sounds weird.  Sandra would say, “I’m going out to lunch today.”  Well, back in Bible times, it was not considered strange for a Jewish man to talk about himself in the third person.  We find Jewish psalmists doing this frequently, and when Yahweh is talking to Jews, He talks like a Jew.  This is why we find Yahweh talking in the third person about Himself when He passes in front of Moses in Exodus 34.

Then Yahweh passed in front of Moses and proclaimed: “Yahweh—Yahweh is a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger and rich in faithful love and truth, maintaining faithful love to a thousand generations, forgiving wrongdoing, rebellion, and sin. But He will not leave the guilty unpunished, bringing the consequences of the fathers’ wrongdoing on the children and grandchildren to the third and fourth generation.” (Ex. 34:6-7)

This sounds wrong to modern day English speakers.  We want Yahweh to say “I, Yahweh am a compassionate and gracious God.”  But this is because our cultural style of speaking is different.  No one style is “right”—they’re just different.

Being aware that the ancient Jews used the third person to talk about themselves helps you understand why you can’t just assume God isn’t talking whenever the third person is being used.  You have to look more closely than that and pay attention to what is actually being said.

Now in Isaiah 55, a clear switch is being made.  In verses 1-5, Isaiah is quoting Yahweh as speaking in the first person.  Then Isaiah pauses to interject his own “amen” to what Yahweh is saying in verses 6-7 as he urges his fellow Jews to return to “our God.”  Then, starting in verse 8, he jumps back into the first person as he starts quoting Yahweh again.

Yahweh says, “My thoughts are not like your thoughts. Your ways are not like My ways. Just as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts higher than your thoughts…” (Isa. 55:8-9)

Isaiah is helping us out with the switches in this passage by starting his direct quotations from Yahweh with the words “Yahweh says.”  Happily for us, the prophets in the Bible often do this to emphasize when they are speaking directly for God.  But be aware that the psalmists also use this language, even though the psalmists are not prophets.  When a psalmist writes, “Yahweh says,” he’s just expressing what he wishes Yahweh would say.

Today, the vast majority of folks who are promoting themselves as Christian prophets are just lying blowhards who have no fear of misquoting God.  So don’t be impressed with the phrase, “God says.”  Always wait for God Himself to confirm to you whether a message is really from Him or not.  And any prophet who gets mad at you for not instantly accepting his message as legitimate is either a liar or very immature.  True prophets should understand that humans can’t illuminate each other.  When God wants someone to know He’s speaking, He knows how to make that clear to them.  It’s never a prophet’s job to make others believe him—his job is just to say the message how and when God tells him to.

So here in Isaiah 55, we have a little sandwich happening: God speaks, Isaiah speaks, then God speaks again.  We now want to focus on what Isaiah the man added in to see if his thoughts are God honoring or not.

Seek Yahweh while He may be found; call to Him while He is near. Let the wicked one abandon his way and the sinful one his thoughts; let him return to Yahweh, so He may have compassion on him, and to our God, for He will freely forgive. (Isa. 55:6-7)

What’s most important here is that Isaiah is promising that God will freely forgive any spiritual rebel who repents and submits to Yahweh.  The world abounds with people who are promising and predicting what God will do in various situations, and plenty of them are way off the mark.  So is Isaiah correct in telling the Jews of his time that Yahweh will freely forgive them?  Well, does this line up with what Yahweh Himself is saying to those Jews?  Yes, it does.  In the first part of this chapter, when Yahweh Himself was speaking, He said:

“Listen closely to Me, and you will eat what is good; your soul will enjoy the rich food that satisfies. Come to Me and listen; listen to Me so you may live.” (Isa. 55:2-3)

Yahweh is telling these Jews that if they listen and align with Him, He will bless them and they will “live.”  When Yahweh is talking about spiritual rebellion, He uses the terms living and dying as references to eternal judgment.  To die in this context means to be eternally damned—to end up in Hell.  To live means to be accepted by Yahweh, which involves the forgiveness of one’s sins.  Under the Old Covenant, God refusing to forgive someone’s sins under any circumstances was the same as Him saying He was eternally damning that person.  We find several incidents of Yahweh saying this to people in the Old Testament.  It’s all bad when Yahweh says, “No matter what you do, I won’t forgive you” (see Three Priests Who Went to Hell).  But it’s a huge sigh of relief when He says something like:

“Though your sins are like scarlet, they will be as white as snow; though they are as red as crimson, they will be like wool.” (Isa. 1:18)

Here in Isaiah 55, when Isaiah pipes up and urges his countrymen to turn from their rebellious ways, submit to Yahweh and receive His forgiveness before it is too late, his words align nicely with what Yahweh Himself is saying.  Isaiah isn’t changing God’s message or promising things that God Himself isn’t promising.  Instead, Isaiah is honoring God by reiterating what God is saying and telling everyone to listen.  Isaiah won’t always be this right on, but he’s doing well in this passage.

AMOS 7: AMOS PROTESTS

Let’s now turn to the book of Amos for an example of a prophet modeling the wrong priorities. Both in the past and today, God often shows His prophets pictures of what He’s planning to do.  These mental images or visions can be metaphorical or literal.  Metaphorical visions are far more common, as is the problem of prophets misinterpreting what they see.  Metaphorical visions are also very easy to invent out of your own imagination, and the vast majority of symbolic dreams and visions which you find modern day prophets going on and on about are pure baloney.  So before you get all anxious because Prophet Pompous reports having a dream about red frogs leaping out of her refrigerator croaking about the coming of the antichrist, remember that most prophets are delusional blowhards, and you need to check with God before you accept any message as legitimate.

In the start of Amos 7, Amos describes his personal reaction to Yahweh showing him some visions of Israel getting spanked with Divine discipline.  The first vision shows a plague of locusts devouring a huge volume of crops in the land, which would result in an epic famine.

This is what the Sovereign Yahweh showed me: He was preparing swarms of locusts after the king’s share had been harvested and just as the late crops were coming up. I watched as they stripped the land clean, then I cried out, “Sovereign Yahweh, please forgive! Jacob is so small—how can he survive?”

So Yahweh changed His mind about this and said, “It shall not be.” (Amos 7:1-3)

As a Jew, Amos is naturally distressed at the idea of his homeland getting trashed like this.  But as a follower of Yahweh, Amos is supposed to be putting God first.  He knows what rebellious creeps his people are.  He sees how the Jews in the north are obsessing over false gods and flaunting their hatred of Yahweh.  No one is repenting, yet here Amos pleads for Yahweh to forgive.  Is this a God honoring request?  No, it’s quite disrespectful.  Yahweh is not some short tempered Ogre.  Yahweh is far more merciful and patient than we are.  So if Yahweh is saying He’s angry, He has a right to be.  As God, Yahweh has a right to be angry whenever He wants, and since He is the Supreme Authority, it is totally out of line for us to tell Him to calm down.  The fact that Yahweh chooses to be so gracious and kind towards us all makes our protests that much more obnoxious, and here Amos is being totally inappropriate to protest Yahweh’s plans.

Now today, many Christians would read this passage, notice how Yahweh changed His plans after Amos protested, and take this to mean that it is productive and right to gripe at God whenever we don’t like what He’s doing.  Well, no, it’s not.  In the Bible, we’ll find Yahweh graciously accommodating all sorts of twerps—that doesn’t mean we want to imitate the twerps.  The goal for the serious Christian is to continuously improve our treatment of God, not just expect Him to eat it while we rag at Him to conform to our own agenda.  Amos didn’t want to see his homeland destroyed.  Well, Amos should have cared a lot more about seeing His God so grossly disrespected.  Amos’ priorities are lousy in this passage and we need to not let God’s gracious response blind us to what a rotten little example Amos is being.

EZEKIEL PROTESTS

Let’s now jump over to Ezekiel 9 to check out another example of a prophet responding to a vision of destruction.  The prophet Ezekiel begins preaching just before the epic destruction of Jerusalem, and he continues to preach after Jerusalem is destroyed.  Before the city falls, Yahweh gives Ezekiel many messages, parables, and visions to explain what is coming and to keep reminding both Ezekiel and the Jews he is preaching to why Yahweh is so angry.  The Jews living in and around Jerusalem are excessively wicked and nowhere close to repenting.  At this point in history, Yahweh’s Temple is stuffed with demonic idols, and the Jews are doing everything they can to flaunt their hatred of Him.

In Ezekiel 9, Yahweh gives His prophet a dramatic vision of angel warriors being dispatched into Jerusalem with war clubs.  God then commands the angels to go through Jerusalem and slaughter everyone: men, women and children.  But before the bloodbath begins, one angel is dispatched to put a special mark on the foreheads of the few people who sincerely care about Yahweh, and those people are not to be destroyed.  The whole vision is actually a very encouraging reminder of how Yahweh never loses track of the souls who sincerely care about pleasing Him—even when those souls are greatly outnumbered by hardcore rebels.  Well, as Ezekiel watches this vision, he’s not appreciating how sweet Yahweh is being to shield His faithful few from His wrath. Instead, Ezekiel is choosing to focus on the mass slaughter of his countrymen and, like Amos, he quickly forgets what his priorities are supposed to be.

Then I heard Yahweh say to the other men, “Follow him through the city and kill everyone whose forehead is not marked. Show no mercy; have no pity! Kill them all—old and young, girls and women and little children. But do not touch anyone with the mark. Begin right here at the Temple.”

So they began by killing the seventy leaders.

“Defile the Temple!” Yahweh commanded. “Fill its courtyards with corpses. Go!” So they went and began killing throughout the city.

While they were out killing, I was all alone. I fell face down on the ground and cried out, “O Sovereign Yahweh, will Your fury against Jerusalem wipe out everyone left in Israel?”

Then He said to me, “The sins of the people of Israel and Judah are very, very great. The entire land is full of murder; the city is filled with injustice. They are saying, ‘Yahweh doesn’t see it! Yahweh has abandoned the land!’ So I will not spare them or have any pity on them. I will fully repay them for all they have done.”  (Eze. 9:5-10)

Is it appropriate for Ezekiel to protest what Yahweh is doing here? No, it’s not.  And if you read about all of the visions Ezekiel has received before this point, you will discover that Ezekiel is very well informed about the extent to which his countrymen are hating God.

What’s with this rotten pattern of God telling His prophets, “I’m tired of being insulted and I’m now going to discipline rebels,” only to have His prophets respond by saying, “No, Lord, don’t—people will die”?  What happened to caring about God’s feelings? What happened to putting Him first in life?  What is Ezekiel’s point in protesting what Yahweh is doing—is he saying that Yahweh is wrong to not be willing to forever endure insults?  Well, yes, this is what he’s saying.  It’s also what Amos was saying when he had that little meltdown about Yahweh hitting Israel with a famine.  You see, these men are so fixated on the preservation of their own ethnic group that they are refusing to show appropriate respect for God’s feelings.  Yahweh can just keep getting spat on, as far as they’re concerned, because God being defied is not nearly as important as the survival of Israel. Are you seeing the problem with this logic?

As Christians, we’re supposed to be putting God first—not our country, not our families, not our own ethnic group, and not our stuff.  Amos and Ezekiel are being very rotten role models when they protest God’s plans.  Notice how Yahweh responds to Ezekiel’s protests by saying, “No, Ezekiel, I won’t be merciful.  These people are spitting in My face they will be punished for it.”  We find Yahweh giving similar answers to Moses, Isaiah, and Jeremiah when those men protest the way He’s dealing with rebels.  You see, it’s not our place to tell God what to do.  We’re supposed to be submitting to Him, not criticizing Him.

Now as humans, we can’t help feeling upset by much of what God does.  But there are God honoring ways to respond to being upset.  Instead of saying, “No! Stop! Don’t!”, we should be saying, “God, help me to get on Your page here. I’m having a hard time with this, but You’re the King, and I want to be treating You with the honor You deserve.”

So where are you at today?  What kind of language do you use in your prayers when you’re talking to God about things that upset you?  When a loved one comes down with some frightening health problem or when you find yourself in some kind of crisis or read about bad things happening in the news, are you praying, “No! Stop! Don’t!”?  Or are you asking God to help you respond to the situation in a way that honors Him?  There is much we can learn from reading through the prophetic books of the Bible about what kinds of soul attitudes please our Gods.  It is the cultivation of right attitudes, not the imitating of bad biblical examples, that will help us mature.

FURTHER READING:
Lessons Learned When Isaiah Pleads for Leniency
The Snarky Prophet: Lessons Learned from Jeremiah 14-15
Distinguishing Between the Real End Times & the Day of Yahweh
Identifying False Prophecy About the End Times

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