Selections From the Prophets Week 15
Director, Center for Biblical and Theological Education
Read this week’s Scripture:
I love to read aloud the children’s story Madeline, which begins:
In an old house in Paris
That was covered with vines
Lived twelve little girls
In two straight lines.
They left the house at half-past-nine
In two straight lines, in rain or shine.
The smallest one was Madeline.
The tidiness of the rhyming verse, the symmetry of Ludwig Bemelmans’ narrative, and his illustrations provide a certain comfort. Twelve little girls all walking in straight lines, all brushing their teeth at the same time (what kind of alternate universe is this?), all dressed in lookalike sailor hats with bows and identical coats, and so on. Yet, in the middle of the story, into this picture-perfect completeness comes an exclamation from their leader. Dear Miss Clavel sits straight up in bed one night and out of the blue declares, “Something is not right!”
This Lectio series, Selections From the Prophets, written by Dr. Jeff Keuss, has drawn us into the company of a very different set of characters — a motley band of prophetic voices. No balanced proportions, no straightforward lineups here. We’ve heard from the likes of a pruner of sycamore trees (Amos); an exiled vegetarian who interprets the foreign king’s crazy dreams (Daniel); a vocational escapee tossed off his boat while running away to vacation land (Jonah); and— perhaps most bizarre of all —a man who follows God’s command to marry a harlot and give his faithful love away (Hosea).
Through their eyes we’ve seen wild images: wheels in the sky, eight night visions (including a man with a measuring line plotting the dimensions of a city without walls), and four-headed beasts (Ezekiel); and “portents in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke”; and “[t]he sun … turned to darkness, and the moon to blood” (Joel 2:30–31).
Theirs is not a feel-good fairy tale whispered in our ears to lull us to sleep. These are more like nightmares than bedtime stories. These brash, clanging prophetic notes explode into our consciousness and shatter the covers; they wake us, stir something deep within, and sound a clarion call that necessitates a response. These loud biblical voices create a deafening cacophony that resounds with the same message we hear from Miss Clavel: “Something is not right!”
According to Walter Brueggemann in his provocative and powerful book The Prophetic Imagination, this chorus of prophetic voices sounds something like this:
- Something is not right!
- In order to name and overcome the not-rightness, that which currently has power and authority in our lives and in our world must be called into question.
- When we can express the deepest yearnings of our heart and minds — our fears as well as our hopes — we join in this chorus, and God breaks the spell of unspoken but disabling disillusionment, despair, and numbness.
- There is an alternative, Yahweh-shaped reality, a kingdom-of-God certainty that calls out to us with a promise of justice, hope, and righteousness.
- As we reflect on and lament that which is not right, and as we engage in doxology and praise to the one who is all-righteous, we participate in this reality of a God far greater, far more powerful, far more mysterious and inscrutable than we ever imagined.
- Yet it is precisely our imagination — a freed, restored, and baptized imagination — that is to be employed as we move towards belonging and living into this Yahweh-shaped kingdom.
It is no coincidence that the first refrain we hear in this canonical chorale is Hosea — that puzzling, oft-ignored, but amazingly grace-filled prophetic voice. Hosea — the prophet who in obedience willingly extends his love to a wife he knows is a harlot.
The LORD said to me again, “Go, love a woman who has a lover and is an adulteress, just as the LORD loves the people of Israel, though they turn to other gods and love raisin cakes.” (3:1)
Hosea — who allegorically identifies for Israel “that which is not right” as a relational problem and calls it out as whoredom.
For a spirit of whoredom has led them astray, and they have played the whore, forsaking their God. (4:12)
As first among the Minor Prophets, Hosea sets forth the problem in shocking depictions of inappropriate intimacy and offensive language that graphically illustrates how out of tune we are with God’s purposes.
When their drinking is ended, they indulge in sexual orgies; they love lewdness more than their glory. (4:18)
Ephraim is oppressed, crushed in judgment, because he was determined to go after vanity. Therefore I am like maggots to Ephraim, and like rottenness to the house of Judah. (5:11–12)
Do not rejoice, O Israel! Do not exult as other nations do; for you have played the whore, departing from your God. You have loved a prostitute’s pay on all threshing floors. (9:1–2)
These images leave no question — something is not right! And that something is relational in essence. Israel’s problem — our problem — isn’t simply wrong behavior or immoral action: that which is not right is misplaced affection, intimacy, and worship. In other words, idolatry.
The consequences of this unfaithfulness have dire implications for all of creation:
Hear the word of the LORD, O people of Israel; for the LORD has an indictment against the inhabitants of the land. There is no faithfulness or loyalty, and no knowledge of God in the land. Swearing, lying, and murder, and stealing and adultery break out; bloodshed follows bloodshed. Therefore the land mourns, and all who live in it languish; together with the wild animals and the birds of the air, even the fish of the sea are perishing. (4:1–3)
The initial consequences are human brokenness (swearing, lying, murder, stealing, adultery) that morphs into violence and bloodshed. But ultimately the created order itself bears the brunt of our infidelity. We have only to look around to see that today our land is mourning and many are languishing; our air and water and wildlife are being destroyed, and we are responsible. Our collective faithlessness and disloyalty to God have destructive results for the created order.
Unlike the problem in the story of Madeline, in Hosea there’s no quick fix for that which is not right, no simple call to the doctor to whisk us into surgery and remove an aberrant appendix. No, this relational problem encompasses far more and hits closer to home. While we can “blow the horn in Gibeah” (5:8) and readily see evidence of a diseased and broken world “out there,” more challenging is the look into our churches and families that identifies an infiltrating poison in our sacred circles. But most agonizing and most essential of all is a Holy Spirit examination of our lives that reveals that “something is not right” deep within us. Ours is not an offending organ to be surgically removed. Rather, it is a systemic idolatry — dare I suggest an idolatrous addiction in our DNA — that permeates our lives and shapes our day-to-day priorities.
And, like Israel, we all too often look the wrong way for healing.
When Ephraim saw his sickness, and Judah his wound, then Ephraim went to Assyria, and sent to the great king. But he is not able to cure you or heal your wound. (5:13)
Rather, it is in returning to Yahweh that we find wholeness. As Brueggemann prescribes, in order to name and overcome this not-rightness, that which currently has power and authority in our lives must be called into question. And, as Hosea makes clear, this is first and foremost a relational issue. To whom have I given power to shape my sense of self? Who has the authority to tell me who I am? To what voices do I listen in order to have a sense of wellness, to know I am okay? To whom or to what do I look in order to know that I am loved or that my life has meaning?
We “play the whore” with our souls, the very core of our identity, when we look to, give authority to, lust after, worship, and are consumed by that which is not God. And when we turn to worship these idols — our financial security, our lust for approval or recognition, our preoccupation with our bodies, an addictive relationship, even a distorted image of our family put on a pedestal — we become what we worship.
But they came to Baal-peor, and consecrated themselves to a thing of shame, and became detestable like the thing they loved. (9:10)
Hosea calls us to grieve, to confess, and to turn away from that which we idolized and instead to turn toward Yahweh, to press on to know our gracious God who seeks us out in spite of our unfaithfulness.
Come, let us return to the LORD; for it is he who has torn, and he will heal us; he has struck down, and he will bind us up. After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will raise us up, that we may live before him. Let us know, let us press on to know the LORD, his appearing is as sure as the dawn; he will come to us like showers, like the spring rains that water the earth. (6:1–3)
But our tendency is to move too quickly into a quick-fix modality. We simply don’t like to sit in pain for long. Yet listening to Hosea’s voice requires it. He repeatedly cries out for that which is not right:
What shall I do with you, O Ephraim? What shall I do with you, O Judah? Your love is like a morning cloud, like the dew that goes away early. (6:4)
And then again,
Woe to them, for they have strayed from me! Destruction to them, for they have rebelled against me! I would redeem them, but they speak lies against me. They do not cry to me from the heart, but they wail upon their beds; they gash themselves for grain and wine; they rebel against me. (7:13–14)
Yahweh’s striking lament over us proliferates and pierces our hearts. In truth, how quickly my love for God evaporates like the dew! How often do I wail upon my bed, but fail to cry out to God from my heart!
The intensity of this prophetic voice assaults our sensibilities. Yahweh’s jealous affection for us as his beloved whom he will “allure … into the wilderness, and speak tenderly” (2:14) translates into passionate anger at the forsaking of our vows to him. And while this anger may startle and shatter our distorted ideas of a “nice” God, it is the measure of Yahweh’s zealous love, a love that refuses to leave us in adulterous idolatry, a love that calls us to painful restoration.
Our job is to learn the language of lament. When we own the truth of Miss Clavel’s chorus in our idolatrous relationships, when we name that which is not right in our misplaced worship, our protective bubble is burst. When we express the deepest yearnings of our hearts and minds — those fears and dreams we haven’t dared utter or even acknowledge — new space is created for hope.
But this requires a big God, a God we can’t define, a God who doesn’t fit our preconceived notions about how things are supposed to be, a passionate God who tells Hosea:
Plead with [Israel], plead … that she put away her whoring from her face, and her adultery from between her breasts, or I will strip her naked and expose her as in the day she was born, and make her life a wilderness, and turn her into a parched land, and kill her with thirst. (2:2–3)
In order for us to name the truth of our not-rightness, we need a vision of another, an alternative, Yahweh-shaped reality. We need new ears to hear and new eyes to see and new hearts to respond in faith. This is what the prophetic voice offers. It eerily sings a kingdom-of-God symphony that evokes deep within us a longing for promised justice, hope, and righteousness. It provides a glimmering glimpse of who we can be within this kingdom.
I will heal their disloyalty; I will love them freely, for my anger has turned from them. I will be like the dew to Israel; he shall blossom like the lily, he shall strike root like the forests of Lebanon. His shoots shall spread out; his beauty shall be like the olive tree, and his fragrance like that of Lebanon. They shall again live beneath my shadow, they shall flourish as a garden; they shall blossom like the vine, their fragrance shall be like the wine of Lebanon. O Ephraim, what have I to do with idols? It is I who answer and look after you. I am like an evergreen cypress; your faithfulness comes from me. (14:4–8)
Our job is to learn the language of doxology. When we praise a passionate, puzzling God, a God we can’t control, understand or decipher, when we adore a God far greater, far more powerful, far more unfathomable than we ever dreamed, we participate in this alternative reality. We live beneath the shadow of the one who allows us to flourish. We blossom like the vine. We are as beautiful as the olive tree. We smell like good wine. God’s evergreen faithfulness becomes ours.
Gracious, powerful, personal God of baffling images, of incongruous melodies, of intimidating intimacy, I pray that you will free, restore, and baptize our imaginations so that we may catch a glimmer of your unlimited truth and grace, so that we may courageously offer both lament and praise, so that we may live into your Yahweh-shaped kingdom where all is good and all is right. In the name and power of Jesus, our prophet, priest, and king. Amen.
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