When people listened to the prophets of the Old Testament, things went well. When the prophets were disregarded, ignored, or even done away with, things went badly wrong. That much seems to make sense. But if you track the spiritual trajectory of the nation of Israel, it’s like that of a schoolboy’s paper aeroplane – it might have a few upturns, but it’s headed downward no matter which way you look at it.
Throughout it all, over the course of more than a thousand years, God commissioned prophets to warn, to exhort, to comfort, cajole, and correct. Despite the best efforts of men like Moses, Elijah, Hosea, Isaiah and Jeremiah – and regardless of some very creative strategies, Israel couldn’t (or wouldn’t) pull out of their nosedive. In human terms the mission of the prophets, taken as a whole, failed. Israel didn’t fly like an eagle. But in divine terms, were there any success stories in the fellowship of the prophets? Yes in every case. Whether Israel listened or not, the prophets were speaking the truth – God’s truth – into their society and into their culture. That is always the right thing to do, even if no one pays any attention. So they succeeded at least in being obedient to their call (although Jonah nearly let that one slip through his fingers).
Also the prophets documented the on-going truth that God keeps His word. We all know the benefits of keeping our word. If we say we will do something, we should do it. That’s easy to think about in terms of doing positive or pleasant deeds, such as rewarding good behaviour. But most parents know the agony associated with following through on the promise of discipline for bad behaviour.
God had indeed promised countless blessings to His people in the Promised Land if they were prepared to follow Him. But if they chose to reject or ignore Him, God also described in very clear terms that there would be consequences. The Book of Lamentations is Jeremiah’s poignant reflection on the fact that God was simply following through on promises made through Moses almost a thousand years before. It could so easily have been the reward instead of the rod, but the nation had chosen to go its own way. The prophets made sure that fact was not swept under the rug.
So the prophets were obedient to God in the face of human rejection, and they made sure that the warnings embedded in Israel’s decline would never be forgotten. They often lived out lives of tragedy and hardship. Their message was frequently received with scorn and violence. To the casual onlooker, their careers were usually disastrous – absolute failure if their charge was to bring about a righteous society. But they are counted among the saints in Hebrews 11:32; too numerous to list by name, too important to God to go without mention. We can take our cue from them.