The way of peace they do not know;
there is no justice in their paths.
They have turned them into crooked roads;
no one who walks along them will know peace.
So justice is far from us,
and righteousness does not reach us.
We look for light, but all is darkness;
for brightness, but we walk in deep shadows.
Like the blind we grope along the wall,
feeling our way like people without eyes.
At midday we stumble as if it were twilight;
among the strong, we are like the dead.
How well do you know the books in the Bible called “the Prophets”? If we’re honest, many of us only think about this part of the Bible during the holidays, when we reach back for ancient writings about the Messiah. We’ve memorized passages that make sense of Jesus’ birth, suffering, and death, but rarely do we delve much deeper.
The fact is, the prophets are hard books to read. They’re written like poetry—obscure poetry. And some of the passages aren’t just obscure: much of it is dark and intense.
Another reason we might steer away from these books is we assume they are written to tell the future. Some of it we assign to ancient Israel’s future, now long past. Some of it we assume is still to come. But the truth is, most of the Prophets are written not to tell the future but to tell the truth. God sent truth-tellers to point out the discrepancy between God’s justice and shalom, and how the people were living. It’s not okay to use God’s name and call yourself God’s people if you aren’t doing what God asked, they said. What God wants, the prophets tell us, is to rebuild our communities around caring for the poor and vulnerable, making sure we aren’t benefitting ourselves at the cost of others.
Maybe the number one reason we don’t often read the Prophets is that these ancient words of God shine a light on our own false worship, too. The more I read the Prophets, the more convinced I am that today’s Christians, including me, have a lot in common with the people originally confronted by these truth-tellers.
Today’s reading in Isaiah is, obviously, from the Prophets. But Jesus has quite a bit to say about prophets and prophetic words in our Matthew reading as well. He ends with these relevant words:
Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven…Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash. (Matthew 7:21, 24-27)
Questions for reflection and discussion: How familiar are you with the books of the Bible called “the Prophets”? What do you think we have in common with the original audiences? What aspects of Isaiah’s and Jesus’ teaching do we need to learn from, and in response change direction?