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Story of the Bible, Act 5: The Prophets

The Old Testament prophets spoke the words of God into their own situations. Sometimes these words were fiery rebukes for the people's sin; sometimes they were prophecies of judgement on their enemies; sometimes they were words of comfort in their distress. But none of them is just bound to a particular point in history: all of them have messages for us today as well. We can often see our own experiences in what they talk about – and there are often foreshadowings of what God was going to do in Jesus. The New Testament writers drew on the prophets to explain how God intervened in the world in the person of his Son.  

One book that speaks powerfully of this is Isaiah, whose author was described by St Jerome as 'more evangelist than prophet'. Another Church Father, Gregory of Nyssa, said that he 'knew more perfectly than all others the mystery of the religion of the Gospel'. Of the 37 quotations from the prophets in Paul's letters, 27 are from Isaiah.  

Chapter 40 is a great example of a prophecy that spoke into a particular situation, but has several different layers of meaning. Parts of it are family from Advent readings or from their use in Handel's Messiah – 'Comfort my people' (verse 1), 'Prepare in the wilderness a road for the Lord' (verse 3). Towards the end is the beautiful promise that those who trust in the Lord will 'rise on wings like eagles' (verse 31).  

The promises here that God will come to rescue his people reflect their situation as exiles in Babylon: God will intervene and bring them home in triumph. Perhaps when the prophet wrote, the return from exile was just on the horizon.  

But these promises also speak of his intervention to save the human race and bring it home to him. Mark begins his Gospel by quoting from this chapter (1.3): the 'voice' that cries out is John the Baptist, who heralds the ministry of Jesus. The prophecy looks forward to Christ, whether the prophet realised that or not.  

And the words of the prophecies are deeply personal, too. We don't have to relate them to great world events to be blessed by them: God comes into our lives when we're lost and hopeless; we find new strength and 'rise on wings like eagles' too.  

So the promises are for all of us, whatever the trials we face: God has come to save us in Jesus, and God will save us out of all our troubles. 

We read the books of the prophets in the light of the times they were written in, but also in the light of the gospel of Christ.  

Author: Mark Woods, 27 May 2020 (Last updated: 29 July 2020)

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