The Final Minor Prophets: Malachi, Jonah, and Joel

The Uniting Church Basis of Union declares that we are followers of Jesus, and that in Jesus, God made a representative beginning of a new order of righteousness and love. It is righteousness and love which is at the heart of God, and it is righteousness and love which is at the centre of the work that Jesus undertakes. That is the perpetual dynamic that expresses the essential nature of God—and, indeed, that describes the demands and requirements of living with others in society.

We have considered prophets from Miriam in the story of the Exodus, through Deborah in the prime of the judges, through the time of the divided kingdoms (Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Micah, and others), after the conquest of the northern kingdom, as the southern kingdom continues (Huldah and Jeremiah) into the time of exile in Babylon (Jeremiah, still, as well as Ezekiel and Second Isaiah), and on into the return to the land after exile (Third Isaiah, Haggai, and Zechariah). Today we move beyond those periods into the ongoing life of post-exiled Israel.

Each of these prophets wrestles with this dynamic; how does God express deep seated covenant love to show his mercy, whilst holding the covenant people to the terms of their agreement, living in a just and righteous manner, and executing punishment for their failure to uphold what that covenant requires. Righteousness and mercy, judgement and grace, belong together in an unbroken whole within God. That is the dynamic that each prophet is aware of, and that each prophet articulates in the oracles the speak to their people.

As the later Jewish writer Ben Sirach, a scribe and sage in the 2nd century BCE, wrote: “Do not say, ‘His mercy is great, he will forgive the multitude of my sins,’ for both mercy and wrath are with him, and his anger will rest on sinners” (Sir 5:6). That phrase, “both mercy and wrath are with him”, articulates the tensions inherent in the developing Jewish understanding of God.

The final group of prophets that we consider now are also grappling with that same dynamic. The tension between mercy and anger, between gracious forgiveness and fierce punishment, between righteousness and love, runs through these books. How do they deal with this?

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The prophet Malachi was active after the Babylonian Exile, soon after Haggai and Zechariah had been prophesying. The city and temple had been fully restored and worship was now active in the temple. In this context, Malachi called the people to repentance, starting with the priests, whom he attacks for their corruption (1:6–2:9); “the lips of a priest should guard knowledge, and people should seek instruction from his mouth, for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts; but you have turned aside from the way; you have caused many to stumble by your instruction; you have corrupted the covenant of Levi, says the Lord of hosts” (2:8–9).

He then turns to the religious profanity of the people; “Judah has been faithless, and abomination has been committed in Israel and in Jerusalem; for Judah has profaned the sanctuary of the Lord, which he loves, and has married the daughter of a foreign god” (2:11), and instructs them to “take heed to yourselves and do not be faithless” (2:16). God threatens punishment in graphic terms: “I will rebuke your offspring, and spread dung on your faces, the dung of your offerings, and I will put you out of my presence” (2:3).

Malachi then identifies a range of ways by which social inequities are practised; God threatens, “I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts” (3:5). He notes that people regularly shortchange the Lord with incomplete tithes (3:8–15); rectifying this will result in blessings from God (3:10–12).

The prophet looks to the coming of a messenger from God (3:1) who will bring judgment “like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness” (3:2–3).

The fierce imagery continues with a description of “the day [which] is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch” (4:1). The motif of “the day” has run through the prophets, from before the exile (Amos 5:18–20; Isa 2:12, 17; 13:6–8; 34:8; Zeph 1:7, 14–15), during the years of exile (Jer 35:32–33; 46:10), and on into the years after the return from exile (Joel 2:1–3, 30–31).

What is required of the people is clear: “remember the teaching of my servant Moses, the statutes and ordinances that I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel” (4:4). Adherence to the covenant undergirds the claims of this prophet, as indeed it does with each prophet in Israel.

This short book ends with a memorable prophecy from Malachi: “Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse.” (4:5–6). These words are picked up in the Gospel portrayals of John the Baptist as the returning Elijah (Matt 17:9–13; Luke 1:17), turning the hearts of people so that they might receive the promise offers by Jesus. Whether Malachi himself understood these words to point to John and Jesus, of course, is somewhat dubious.

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The final two “minor prophets”, Jonah and Joel, are hard to locate within the timeline of Israel. Whether Jonah was an actual historical figure is hotly debated; in fact, the four chapters of this book tell a rollicking good tale, that makes us suspect that it was, in fact, “just a story”, rather than actual history.

The large city in this book is Nineveh (Jon 1:2; 3:1–10); it was the capital of Assyria (2 Ki 19:36; Isa 37:37) and we learn at the end of the story of Jonah that it had a huge population of more than 120,000 people. The story thus appears to be set during the period of Assyrian ascendancy, in the 8th century BCE. But many of the literary characteristics of this book reflect a later period, perhaps even a post- explicitly time.

It is true that 2 Kings 14:25 mentions that God speaks through “Jonah son of Amittai, the prophet” during the time of Jeroboam II (about 793–753 B.C.), but this was a time before Nineveh was the capital of Assyria. There is no other indication that this individual was the prophet whose story is told in the book of Jonah, for it does not provide any specific dating; nor does the mention of Jonah in 2 Kings indicate how he exercised his prophetic role.

The charge that Jonah is given is a stock standard prophetic charge: “go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me” (1:2; cf. Amos 1:3; Isa 6:9–13; Jer 1:9–10; Ezek 2:3–4; 3:18–21; Nah 1:2–3; Hab 2:2–5; Zeph 1:2–6). The response of Jonah is like some of those prophets: an initial reluctance to accept the charge (Isa 6:5; Jer 1:6; and see Moses at Exod 3:11, 13; 4:1, 10).

However, whilst other prophets accede to the divine pressure to take up the challenge and declare the judgement of the Lord to a sinful people, Jonah holds fast to his reticence—when commanded to go northeast to Nineveh, he immediately flees in the opposite direction, boarding a ship that was headed west across the Mediterranean Sea, to Tarshish, “away from the presence of the Lord” (Jon 1:3).

The escape of Jonah from the command of the Lord may be deeply troubling; but the narrative spins the story into burlesque, as “the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea”, all the cargo on the ship is thrown overboard, and then Jonah (blissfully sleeping, apparently unaware of the great storm—as if!) is interrogated by the sailors, and eventually offers himself as a sacrifice to save the boat (1:12).

The sailors try in vain to save the ship; realising that this is futile, they throw Jonah into the sea—and immediately “the sea ceased from its raging” (1:15). Then, adding further incredulity to the unbelievable narrative, “the Lord provided a large fish to swallow up Jonah” (1:17). The three days and three nights that he spends “in the belly of the fish” before he is vomited onto dry land (2:10) add to the comic exaggeration.

The psalm that Jonah prays from inside the fish (2:1–9) and the successful venture to Nineveh, where even the king “removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes” (3:1–10) apparently demonstrate that Jonah should have obeyed the command of the Lord in the first place. However, Jonah’s response continues the exaggerated response of a burlesque character; “this was displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry” (4:1).

Jonah’s resentment and his plea for God to take his life (4:2–4) and his patient waiting for God to act (4:5) lead to yet another comic-book scene, as a bush grows and then is eaten by a worm and Jonah is assaulted by “a sultry east wind” (4:6–8). The closing words of the book pose a rhetorical question to Jonah (4:9–11) which infers that God has every right to be concerned about the lives of pagans in Nineveh. The last laugh is on Jonah; indeed, he has given his readers many good laughs throughout the whole story!

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The final prophet for us to consider is Joel, who speaks words of lament and calls for repentance amongst the people of Judah. Nothing in this book provides any clues as to the time when Joel was active. The identification of the prophet as “son of Pethuel” (Joel 1:1) gives no clue, as Pethuel appears nowhere else in the Hebrew Scriptures—indeed, the name Joel, itself appears nowhere else. The name appears to combine the divine names of Jah and El, suggesting that it may be a symbolic creation. Was Joel an historical person?

Joel calls on the “ministers of God” to “put on sackcloth and lament” (1:13); this reminds us of the response of the pagans in Nineveh (Jonah 3), whilst his remonstrations that “the day of the Lord is near” (1:15) echoes the motif of “the day” already sounded by other prophets (Amos 5:18–20; Isa 2:12, 17; 13:6–8; 34:8; Zeph 1:7, 14–15; Jer 35:32–33; 46:10).

This day forms the centrepiece of Joel’s undated prophecies, as he describes that day as “a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness!” (Joel 2:2), when “the earth quakes before them, the heavens tremble, the sun and the moon are darkened, and the stars withdraw their shining” (2:10). He describes the response of the people “in anguish, all faces grow pale” (2:6).

However, Joel adheres to the constant thread running through Hebrew Scriptures, that the Lord is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing” (2:13). Because of this, he yearns for the people to “turn with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning” (2:12), sensing that there might be hope of restitution for the people.

Joel calls for the people to gather (2:15–16); the oracle that follows paints a picture of abundance and blessing (2:18–27), affirming that “my people shall never again be put to shame” (2:27).

The prophet then speaks words which have been given a central place in the later story of the Christian church, when he foreshadows that the blessings of God will be manifest through the outpouring of the spirit: “your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions; even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit” (2:28–29). This promise is specifically for “all flesh”; this universal vision informs the whole outward impulse of the movement of followers of Jesus, after the day of Pentecost, which Peter interprets as being a fulfilment of this prophecy (Acts 2:14–21).

The day of the Lord that is then envisaged (2:31) will signal a significant reversal for Israel. The Lord laughs at other nations (3:1–8), a reversal that pivots on a turn from despair to hope, from the threats of judgement to a glorious future (3:9–21). Joel repeats the irenic vision of swords being beaten into ploughshares (3:10; see Isa 2:4; Mic 4:3); he sees a ripe harvest (3:13), the land will drip with sweet wine, and there will be milk and water in abundance (3:18). The voice of the Lord “roars from Zion, and utters his voice from Jerusalem, and the heavens and the earth shake” (3:16; cf the similar pronouncement of Amos at Am 1:2; 3:8).

The last word of this book, “the Lord dwells on Zion” (3:21), provides assurance and certainty for the future. These words of hope promises a peaceful future for the nation. When Joel might have been speaking these words cannot be definitively determined; it could have been under the Assyrian threat, during the Babylonian dominance, in the time of exile, or after the return to the land—the promise of hope holds good in each of these scenarios.

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I have chosen you … rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion (Haggai and Zechariah)

Alongside the writings of Trito-Isaiah, there are a further two prophets whom we can date to the specific time soon after the exiles had returned to Jerusalem. The books of Haggai and Zechariah each open with a specific date, both placing their activity in the time of Darius, King of Persia. Malachi is not dated, but is generally considered to have been written fairly soon after Haggai and Zechariah. (The remaining “minor prophets”, Jonah and Joel, however, contain no such indication as to their date.)

Haggai and Zechariah are located in the period when the exiles in Babylon are returned to Judah late in the 6th century BCE, by decision of the Persian King, Cyrus (whom Deutero-Isaiah, you may remember, described as God’s “Messiah”). In his decree, Cyrus acknowledges “the Lord, the God of heaven” and states that “any of those among you who are of his people … are now permitted to go up to Jerusalem in Judah, and rebuild the house of the Lord, the God of Israel” (Ezra 1:2–4).

Under Nehemiah as Governor, worship is reinstituted in Jerusalem (Ezra 3:1–7), the walls around the city of Jerusalem are rebuilt (Neh 2—6, 12), and the Temple is rebuilt and rededicated (Ezra 5–6). After this, the Law is read in the city under the guidance of Ezra, a priest who is also described as a scribe (Neh 8) and the covenant with the Lord is renewed (Neh 9–10).

Initially, there was opposition to the rebuilding works from “the enemies of Judah and Benjamin” (Ezra 4:1–16), and with intervention from King Artaxerxes, work on the temple ceased (Ezra 4:17–24). The narrative in Ezra reports that “the prophets, Haggai and Zechariah son of Iddo, prophesied to the Jews who were in Judah and Jerusalem, in the name of the God of Israel who was over them” (Ezra 5:1), and work on restoring the temple recommenced (Ezra 5:2).

Further opposition emerged (Ezra 5:3–17), resulting in intervention from King Darius that decreed “let the house be rebuilt … let the Governor of the Jews and the elders of the Jews rebuild this house of God on its site … let it be done with all diligence” (Ezra 6:1–12).

The end result is that the prophets of the Lord and the rulers of the Persian Empire together ensure that the temple is restored: “So the elders of the Jews built and prospered, through the prophesying of the prophet Haggai and Zechariah son of Iddo. They finished their building by command of the God of Israel and by decree of Cyrus, Darius, and King Artaxerxes of Persia” (Ezra 6:14).

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What is it, then, that Haggai and Zechariah say to the people? The prophetic words of Haggai are nestled within a relatively brief narrative telling of this return to Jerusalem; they were delivered over a short period of time from “the second year of King Darius, in the sixth month, on the first day of the month” (Hag 1:1) until “the twenty-fourth day of the ninth month, in the second year of Darius” (Hag 2:10, 20).

In the course of those three months, Haggai condemns the people for failing to rebuild the ruined temple while people live in “paneled houses” (1:4), encourages the people to “go up to the hills and bring wood and build the house” (1:8), and then declares that “the latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former, says the LORD of hosts; and in this place I will give prosperity, says the Lord of hosts” (2:9).

Haggai then relays an ominous word of the Lord: “I am about to shake the heavens and the earth, and to overthrow the throne of kingdoms; I am about to destroy the strength of the kingdoms of the nations, and overthrow the chariots and their riders; and the horses and their riders shall fall, every one by the sword of a comrade” (2:21–22). Yet this short book ends with a positive note for the future, promising to make Zerubbabel, who led the first wave of exiles to return to Judah, “like a signet ring, for I have chosen you” (2:23).

(An excerpt from Haggai appears in the lectionary on the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost.)

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Zechariah dates his opening prophecy to “the eighth month, in the second year of Darius” (Zech 1:1), which places him as a contemporary of Haggai. Zechariah begins witha familiar prophetic refrain: “return to me, says the Lord of hosts, and I will return to you, says the Lord of hosts” (1:3), noting that when this message was presented to earlier Israelites, “they repented and said, ‘the Lord of hosts has dealt with us according to our ways and deeds, just as he planned to do’” (1:6).

What follows this opening salvo is a report of eight visions (1:7—6:8). They are dated to “the twenty-fourth day of the eleventh month, the month of Shebat, in the second year of Darius” (2:7), two months after the final prophecy of Haggai. The visions combine glimpses of hope with reminders of the need to remain faithful to the covenant: “if you will walk in my ways and keep my requirements, then you shall rule my house and have charge of my courts” (3:7). The fourth vision (3:1–10) includes the figure of “the accuser” (ha-satan in Hebrew) standing at the right hand of Joshua, to accuse him (3:1).

At the conclusion of the eighth vision there follows words of condemnation (7:1–7) and punishment (7:8–14), citing classic prophetic notes: “render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another” (7:9–10).

Then come words of promise (8:1–23): “I will return to Zion, and will dwell in the midst of Jerusalem; Jerusalem shall be called the faithful city, and the mountain of the Lord of hosts shall be called the holy mountain” (8:3). Once again, prophetic injections are offered: “speak the truth to one another, render in your gates judgments that are true and make for peace, do not devise evil in your hearts against one another, and love no false oath” (8:16–17).

An oracle pronouncing judgement on other nations then follows (9:1–8), followed by a joyful celebration of the restoration of Judah (9:9–11:3), introduced by a rousing shout of joy: “rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” (Zech 9:9). This verse is well-known, of course, from its quotation in the story of Jesus’s entry into the city of Jerusalem (Matt 21:5).

The remaining chapters continue the note of exultation about the future, reworking the motif of “the day of the Lord” so that it signals joy for Jerusalem and terror for other nations (12:3, 4, 6, 8, 9, 11; 13:1, 2, 4; 14:1, 4, 6, 8, 9, 13, 20, 21). A triumphant note of universalism is sounded: “on that day “the Lord will become king over all the earth” (14:9) and “all who survive of the nations that have come against Jerusalem shall go up year after year to worship the King, the Lord of hosts, and to keep the festival of booths” (14:16).

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Gathering the outcasts, envisaging the new creation (Isaiah 56–66)

The third section of the book of Isaiah (chapters 56–66) begins with a familiar prophetic announcement: “maintain justice, and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed” (Isa 56:1). Written during the period when the people of Judah were returning to their land, to the city of Jerusalem (from the 520s BCE), the book demonstrates what this justice will look like through a series of powerful oracles.

The prophet sounds a vivid counter-cultural note in the midst of the events of his time. He begins with the promise to foreigners and eunuchs that “I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off” (Isa 56:5). This is a striking contrast to the narrative provided in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, which tell of the return to the city, the rebuilding of the walls, the renewal of the covenant and the public reading of the Law, the rededication of the Temple—and actions designed to remove foreigners (especially women) from within Israel (see Ezra 10; Neh 13).

Ezra and Nehemiah exhibited a zealous fervour to restore the Law to its central place in the life of Israel. Ezra, learning that “the holy seed has mixed itself with the peoples of the lands” (Ezra 9:2), worked with “the elders and judges of every town” to determine who had married foreign women; the men identified “pledged themselves to send away their wives, and their guilt offering was a ram of the flock for their guilt” (Ezra 10:19). (So much for the importance of families!)

Nehemiah considered that this project to “cleanse [the people] from everything foreign” (Neh 13:30) was in adherence to the command that “no Ammonite or Moabite should ever enter the assembly of God, because they did not meet the Israelites with bread and water, but hired Balaam against them to curse them” (Neh 13:1–2; see Num 22—24). The restoration of Israel as a holy nation meant that foreigners would be barred from the nation.

The oracle at the start of the third section of Isaiah stands in direct opposition to this point of view; “the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord … and hold fast my covenant—these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” (Isa 56:6–7).

Jesus, of course, quoted this last phrase in the action he undertook in the outer court of the Temple (Mark 11:17). Later, the welcome offered to the Ethiopian court official by Philip, who talked with him about scripture and baptised him, a eunuch (Acts 8:26–38), is consistent with the prophetic words, “to the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off” (Isa 56:4–5). (From the earliest days, the church practised an inclusive welcoming of diversity that was consistent with this prophetic declaration.)

Other words in this last section of Isaiah also resonate strongly with texts in the New Testament. The ingathering of the outcasts (56:8) and the flocking of all the nations to Zion (60:1–18) together are reflected in the prediction of Jesus that “this good news of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the world, as a testimony to all the nations; and then the end will come” (Matt 24:14).

The statement that those coming from Sheba “shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord” (60:6) most likely informed the story that Matthew created, concerning the wise ones from the east who came to see the infant Jesus and “offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh” (Matt 2:11).

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Further oracles set out exactly what the justice that God desires (56:1; 61:8) looks like. The extensive worship of idols (57:1–13) will bring God’s wrath on the people; “there is no peace, says my God, for the wicked” (57:13). Rather, “the high and lofty one who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy” chooses “to revive the spirit of the humble and to revive the heart of the contrite” (57:15).

Because God indicates that “I will not continually accuse, nor will I always be angry” (57:16), the prophet conveys what the Lord sees as the fast that is required; not a fast when “you serve your own interest on your fast day,

and oppress all your workers” (58:3), but rather, a fast “to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free,

and to break every yoke … to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin” (58:6–7). These words resonate with the actions of “the righteous” in the well-known parable of Jesus, as they gave food, water, a welcome, clothing, and care to those sick or imprisoned (Matt 25:31–46).

The prophet laments that “there is no justice … justice is far from us … we wait for justice, but there is none … justice is turned back … the Lord saw it, and it displeased him” (59:8–15); he declares that, as a consequence, God “put on righteousness like a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation on his head; he put on garments of vengeance for clothing, and wrapped himself in fury as in a mantle” (59:17)—a description that underlines the later exhortations to the followers of Jesus to “put on the whole armour of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil” (Eph 6:10–17).

Because the Lord “loves justice” (61:8), the prophet has been anointed “to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour, and the day of vengeance of our God” (61:1–2)—words which are appropriated by Jesus when he visits his hometown and reads from the scroll of Isaiah (Luke 4:18–19); “today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing”, Jesus declares (Luke 4:21).

Adhering to this way of justice, practising the fast that the Lord desires, means that he will give Israel a new name: “you shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate; but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married; for the Lord delights in you, and your land shall be married” (Isa 62:4). We have already seen the symbolic significance of names in considering the prophet Hosea and in Isaiah 8.

By contrast, vengeance will be the experience of Edom; using the image of trampling down the grapes in the wine press, the prophet reports the intention of God: “I trampled down peoples in my anger, I crushed them in my wrath, and I poured out their lifeblood on the earth” (63:1–6). So vigorously does God undertake this task, that he is attired in “garments stained crimson” because “their juice spattered on my garments and stained all my robes” (63:1–3). Once again, the prophet speaks in graphic terms about the consequences of sinfulness.

Confronted with this display of wrath and vengeance, the prophet adopts an attitude of penitence, yearning for God to “look down from heaven and see, from your holy and glorious habitation” (63:15). His plea for the Lord to “tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence—to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!” (64:1–2) must surely have been in the mind of the evangelists as the reported the baptism of Jesus, when he “saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him” (Mark 1:10).

The book ends with a sequence in which the prophet reports the words of the Lord which indicate that Israel will be restored (65:1–16), followed by the statement that the Lord is “about to create new heavens and a new earth” (65:17–25; 66:22–23). (This passage appears in the lectionary on the 23rd Sunday flyer Pentecost.)

This vision is taken up and expanded in the closing chapters of the final book of the New Testament (Rev 21:1–22:7). The closing vision of Trito-Isaiah incorporates a number of references to earlier prophetic words: building houses and planting vineyards (65:21) recalls the words of Jeremiah (Jer 29:5–7); the image of wolves lying with lambs and lions “eating straw like the ox” recalls the vision of Isaiah (Isa 11:6–7).

The promise that “they shall not hurt or destroy all on my holy mountain” (65:25) recalls that same vision of Isaiah (Isa 11:9), whilst the next promise about not labouring in vain nor bearing children for calamity (65:23) reverses the curse of Gen 3:16–19. The story of creation from the beginning of Genesis is evoked when the Lord asserts that “heaven is my throne and the earth is my footstool … all these things my hand has made” (66:1–2); these are the words which Stephen will quote back to the council in Jerusalem (Acts 7:48–50) and will lead to his death at their hands.

Even to the very end of this book, the judgement of the Lord is evident; the prophet declares that “the Lord will come in fire, and his chariots like the whirlwind, to pay back his anger in fury, and his rebuke in flames of fire; for by fire will the Lord execute judgment, and by his sword, on all flesh; and those slain by the Lord shall be many” (66:15–16).

Nevertheless, the glory of the Lord shall be declared “among the nations” (66:19) and “they shall bring all your kindred from all the nations as an offering to the Lord” (66:20). The universalising inclusivism that was sounded at the start of this prophet’s work is maintained through into this closing oracle. In “the new heavens and the new earth which I will make … all flesh shall come to worship before me, says the Lord” (66:22–23). The vision lives strong!

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Comfort and hope: return from Exile (Isaiah 40–55)

“Comfort, comfort all my people”, sings the prophetic voice which opens the second major section of the book of Isaiah (chapters 40—55). Widely considered to be written in a period later than the time when the earlier sections are located, this section of Isaiah is called Deutero—Isaiah, signalling that it is the second main section of the book. (The third main section, chapters 56—66, is called Trito—Isaiah.)

The comfort sung about by the prophet signifies the situation of the people: their forebears had been taken into exile by the Babylonians in 587 BCE, and now a new generation (perhaps four to five decades later) yearns to return to the land of Israel, given to the people in ancient times, as recounted in the foundational myth—story of the Exodus. Other parts of the Hebrew Bible reflect the anguish of the people during their time of Exile (Ps 137 is the most famous instance). Deutero-Isaiah, however, focuses consistently on the hope of return to the land of Israel.

Looking to the new power of Persia to permit this return, the prophet of this later period speaks with hope and joy, to the people living in exile, using vivid imagery and dramatic scenes of promise and confidence. A joyous, positive tone runs right through the oracles in this section of Isaiah. “I am about to do a new thing”, says the Lord; “I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert” (43:19). “I will pour water on the thirsty land and streams on the dry ground”, the Lord continues; “I will pour my spirit upon your descendants, and my blessing on your offspring” (44:3).

The return to Israel is depicted in vivid scenes: “I will make of you a threshing sledge, sharp, new, and having teeth; you shall thresh the mountains and crush them, and you shall make the hills like chaff” (41:15). It is especially envisaged as a re-enacting of the Exodus through the Red Sea; “I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert, for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert” (43:19–20); “when you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you” (43:2).

The imagery reaches back to the start of Genesis; “the Lord will comfort Zion; he will comfort all her waste places, and will make her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the garden of the Lord” (51:3). Indeed, the Lord as creator is emphasised a number of times (40:28; 43:7, 15; 44:2, 24; 45:12, 18; 48:1).

Key to this promised return to the land of Israel is Cyrus, the Persian ruler, who lived from about 600 to 530 BCE. Cyrus led the Persians to dominance in the region from around 550 BCE onwards. The Persian Empire stretched around the eastern edge of the Mediterranean Sea, from the Hellespont (the Dardanelles) in the west to the Indus River in the east.

A defining feature of Cyrus is that he respected the religious practices and cultural customs of the lands he conquered. The evidence for this,policy comes from an artefact known as the Cyrus Cylinder, made of clay (and now broken into a number of pieces). The Cylinder was found in modernity in 1879 during an expedition under the auspices of the British Museum, near a large shrine to the chief Babylonian god Marduk.

The Cylinder articulates the policy which undergirded the decision of Cyrus to allow the exiles in Babylon to return to the land of Judah (2 Chron 36:22–23; Ezra 1:1–10). The Cylinder does not refer directly to Judah or Israel, but it does include the line, “the gods, who resided in them [a list of cities across the Tigris], I brought back to their places, and caused them to dwell in a residence for all time, and the gods of Sumer and Akkad … I caused them to take up their dwelling in residences that gladdened the heart”.

Because of this policy, Cyrus is most strikingly described by Deutero-Isaiah as the Lord’s anointed one (45:1), the one of whom the Lord says, “he is my shepherd and he shall carry out all my purpose” (45:28). The prophet affirms that the Lord says, “I have aroused Cyrus in righteousness, and I will make all his paths straight; he shall build my city and set my exiles free, not for price or reward” (45:13). (The Hebrew word used, mashiach, is the same used to refer to the one anointed as Messiah at Dan 9:25–26; it is translated into Greek as Christos, from which Jesus is known as the Christ.)

Choosing a foreigner, the ruler of the dominant empire of the time, to carry out the will of the God of Israel, is a bold claim indeed. It is a striking development in Israel’s theology, especially since an intensified nationalism—indeed, xenophobia—is evidenced in literature from the time when people have returned (Ezra and Nehemiah, in particular).

After the return to the land under Cyrus (2 Chron 36:22–23), the narrative books which follow immediately, Ezra and Nehemiah, recount the details of this return as the walls around the city of Jerusalem are rebuilt (Neh 2—6, 12), the Temple is rebuilt and rededicated (Ez 3, 5–6), the Law is read in the city and the covenant with the Lord is renewed (Neh 8—10).

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Because of this word of good news about the fate of the exiles, God is regularly described as Redeemer (Isa 41:14; 43:14; 44:6, 24; 47:4; 48:1, 17; 49:7, 26; 54:5, 8). God is also regularly named as “the Holy One” (Isa 40:25; 41:14, 16, 20; 43:3, 14, 15; 45:11; 47:4; 49:17; 49:7; 54:5; 55:5), picking up a title found already in other texts (1 Sam 2:2; 2 Ki 19:22; Job 6:10; Ps 71:22; 78:41; 89:18; Prov 9:10; Isa 1:4; 5:19, 24; 10:17, 20; Ezek 39:7; Hos 11:9, 12; Hab 1:12; 3:3).

Later, Jesus is described in ways that use both terms: as “the one to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21; see also Rom 3:24; 1 Cor 1:30; Gal 4:5; Eph 1:7, 14; Col 1:14; Tit 2:14; Heb 9:11–12), and as the “Holy One” (Acts 3:14; 1 John 2:20).

Within these oracles of promise and hope, the theological understanding of monotheism is clearly articulated for the first time in the history of Israel. “Is there any god besides me? There is no other rock; I know not one” (44:8). The phrase, “there is no other (god)”, recurs a number of times in this section (42:8; 45:5, 14, 21, 22; 46:9).

This is in contrast to the way that the God of Israel had previously been portrayed, as “among the gods” (Exod 15:11; Judg 2:12; Ps 86:8), with the commandment to have “no other gods before me” (Exod 20:3; Deut 5:7) distinguishing this God from those other gods whom Israel was clearly forbidden to worship (Deut 6:14; 7:4; 8:19; 11:16; 13:1–18; 17:2–5; 18:20).

Time after time, the straying of Israel to worship these ”other gods” resulted in punishment sent by the Lord (Josh 23:16; Judg 2:11–23; 10:13; 1 Sam 8:8; 1 Ki 9:6–9; 11:9–13; 14:6–14; 2 Ki 17:7–8, 35–40; 22:14–17; 2 Chron 7:19–22; 28:25; 34:24–25; Jer 1:16; 7:16–20; 11:9–13; 16:10–13; 19:4–9; 22:6–9; 32:29; 35:15–17; 44:1–19; Hos 3:1—4:11). Monotheism was not in view in earlier, pre-exilic literature.

As a consequence of this development, if the Lord God is the only god, then the Lord must take responsibility for all that takes place: “I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe; I the Lord do all these things” (45:7). This affirmation creates problems; if God causes both good and bad things to happen, he is accountable for all that takes place.

Over time, this theological development would lead to the development of another theological milestone: the creation of an opposing force who would be held responsible for all evil. The accuser from the heavenly court, delegated by God to prosecute cases (Job 1:6–12; 2:2–8; 1 Chron 21:1; Zech 3:1–10) would become Satan, tester of Jesus (Mark 1:13), fallen heavenly being (Luke 10:18), and “deceiver of the whole world” (Rev 12:9; 20:2–3).

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Deutero-Isaiah is fundamental, in other ways, for the theological developments that we find in the New Testament. Scattered through this section, we find four Songs of the Servant—three relatively brief (42:1–9; 49:1–7; 50:4–11); and the fourth, best-known within Christian circles, a longer description of the servant who “was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity” (Isa 52:13–53:12).

The resonances that this longer song has with the passion narrative of Jesus are crystal clear. The song is explicitly linked with Jesus six times in the New Testament (Matt 8:14–17; Luke 22:35–38; John 12:37–41; Acts 8:26–35; Romans 10:11–21; 1 Pet 2:19–25); furthermore, so many of the details of the passion narrative are shaped in the light of this song, along with a number of psalms of the righteous sufferer. (See https://johntsquires.com/2021/03/22/3-mark-placing-suffering-and-death-at-the-heart-of-the-gospel/)

The list of connections with details in the passion narrative is impressive. The prophet describes the marred appearance of the Servant (52:14); he is despised, rejected, and suffering (53:3), bearing our infirmities (53:4), and wounded for our transgressions (53:5). The Servant is led like a lamb to the slaughter (53:7), suffering “a perversion of justice” (53:8), not practising violence or speaking deceit (53:9), and is buried with the rich (53:9).

The Servant gives his life as “an offering for sin” (53:10), carrying the iniquities of many (53:11), making them righteous (53:11), bearing the sin of many (53:12), making “intercession for the transgressors” (53:12). The role that the Servant plays in relation to sin, for the sake of the many, shapes the important saying of Jesus, that “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).

Deutero-Isaiah as a whole is the most-quoted part of Hebrew Scripture in New Testament texts. Another element in the Servant songs shapes the way that Luke envisages the story of Jesus and his followers. The Servant is given “as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations” (Isa 42:6), as “a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isa 49:6).

The phrase is cited at critical moments by Simeon (Luke 2:32), Paul and Barnabas in Antioch (Acts 13:46–47), and Paul alone when on trial in Caesarea (Acts 26:23). Jesus foresees that witness to the good news will take place “in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

Further, the Servant is given as “a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness” (Isa 42:6–7), words which resonate with the later scriptural citation spoken by Jesus in Nazareth: “the Spirit … has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free” (Luke 4:18).

The author of the fourth Gospel also made much of what was spoken to the Servant, “you are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified” (Isa 49:6), a description of what happens to Jesus which recurs regularly in this book, when “the Son of Man has been glorified” (John 13:31; see also 7:39; 11:4; 12:16, 23, 28; 13:32; 17:10).

The prophet reports the decision of the Lord: “I have taken from your hand the cup of staggering; you shall drink no more from the bowl of my wrath, and I will put it into the hand of your tormentors” (51:22). Accordingly, any oracles of judgement and threat of punishment are directed squarely towards Babylon, (43:14; 45:20-47:15), not Israel (54:9).

The closing oracles of this section of Isaiah promise abundance and peace to the exiles, looking towards their return to the land. “Enlarge the site of your tent, and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out … you will spread out to the right and to the left, and your descendants will possess the nations and will settle the desolate towns” (Isa 54:2–3). Israel is invited to “come, buy wine and milk without money and without price” (55:1), with the assurance that “as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty” (55:10–11).

Deutero-Isaiah ends with a portrayal of cosmic joy as the exiles prepare to return to Israel: “the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands” (55:12). All will be well.

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See also

I have been a sanctuary to them for a little while: the God of the prophet Ezekiel (2)

Ezekiel the priest; Ezekiel the ben adam, the human one; Ezekiel was captured by the Babylonians in 599 BCE, sent into exile, but nevertheless was seized by the spirit, given visions from the Lord, and charged with speaking the word of the Lord not only to the people with him in exile and to those later taken into exile in 587 BCE, but also to those who remained in the land of Israel after the Babylonian conquest at that time. His dramatic, vivid visions, and his potent, articulate proclamations, make for exciting—and troubling—reading.

See part one at

After Ezekiel is granted his numerous visions by the spirit, he often enacts them with tangible items. He sees the siege of Jerusalem, and portrays it with a brick and iron plate (4:1–8). He sees the destruction of Jerusalem, and uses a sword to shave his hair, to dramatise this (5:1–17). He sees the ravaging of the altars of idols throughout the land, and claps his hands and stamps his feet to demonstrate the destructive anger of the Lord at this (6:1–14).

“On the sixth year, in the sixth month, on the fifth day of the month”, says Ezekiel (with his relentless priestly eye for detail), “as I sat in my house, with the elders of Judah sitting before me, the hand of the Lord God fell upon me there”. He describes the “figure like a human being” that he sees, and in characteristically careful detail he describes the scene unfolding before him; a scene of “the great abominations that the house of Israel are committing here, to drive me far from my sanctuary”, as God laments (8:1–18).

So extensive are these abominations that God concludes, “I will act in wrath; my eye will not spare, nor will I have pity; and though they cry in my hearing with a loud voice, I will not listen to them” (8:18). As a result, “the glory of the Lord” leaves the temple and is taken by the cherubim up and away from the earth (10:1–22). Those in exile are informed that their exile is due punishment from the Lord (11:1–12), but also that after sufficient punishment, they will return to the land (11:14–25). The “glory of the Lord” remains absent from the city until, in the final sequence of his visions, Ezekiel sees the new temple, built in the city, and “the glory of the Lord filled the temple” (Ezek 43:1–5; see also 1 Ki 8:11; 2 Chron 7:1–2; Exod 40:34–35; and cf. Isa 6:1, 4; Rev 15:8).

One of Ezekiel’s visions uses typical prophetic imagery to portray Israel as a female child, abandoned by her parents, but taken in by the Lord, who waited until she was  at an age for love, and then he “spread his cloak over her” – that is, he seduced her (16:1–14). He then complained, “you trusted in your beauty, and played the whore because of your fame, and lavished your whorings on any passer-by”, worshipping other gods, even engaging in foreign rituals of child sacrifice (16:15–34).

As a result of this, God threatens that he will execute a fulsome punishment. The blame is placed squarely on Israel, depicted as a woman engaging in countless acts of adultery—even though, in the patriarchal society of the time, the male priests, kings, and elders were the ones responsible for the decisions to erect images of other gods and to encourage the worship of pagan deities.

Only after he visits his punishment, does God then say, “I will satisfy my fury on you, and my jealousy shall turn away from you; I will be calm, and will be angry no longer” (16:35–43). And so, God promises forgiveness; “I will remember my covenant with you in the days of your youth, and I will establish with you an everlasting covenant” (Ezek 16:60; also 37:26), echoing the exact phrase also used to describe the covenants with Noah (Gen 9:16; and perhaps Isa 24:5), Abraham (Gen 17:7, 13, 19; 1 Chron 16:17), and David (2 Sam 23:35; Isa 55:3), and indeed with Israel as a whole (Ps 105:10; Isa 61:8; Jer 32:40; 50:5).

The character of God in this sequence of events is deeply troubling, and takes us to the heart of the issue; both deep loving kindness and savage wrath are part of this God’s nature. The prophet gives consideration to punishment as retribution (18:1–32), the need to abstain from idolatry (20:1–32), and judgement on idolatry and injustice practices (“father and mother are treated with contempt in you; the alien residing within you suffers extortion; the orphan and the widow are wronged in you”; 22:1–23). In each case, God wrestles with the tension between executing judgement and withholding wrath, between upholding justice and demonstrating covenant love.

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A dramatic enactment ensues, when Ezekiel proclaims that God declares judgement on “the bloody city”, saying “set on the pot, set it on, pour in water also; put in it the pieces, all the good pieces, the thigh and the shoulder; fill it with choice bones; take the choicest one of the flock, pile the logs under it; boil its pieces, seethe also its bones in it … heap up the logs, kindle the fire; boil the meat well, mix in the spices, let the bones be burned” (24:1–14). The meat being placed into the pot is nothing other then the residents of “the bloody city”. The savage imagery is brutally confronting.

Yet judge the falls not only on Jerusalem; Ezekiel declares God’s judgement on the Negev (20:45–49) and, in an extended series of oracles, on Ammon, Moab, Edom, Philistia, Tyre, Sidon, and Egypt (chs. 25–32). The repeated words, “raise a lamentation over … “ (19:1; 26:17; 27:2, 32: 28:12; 32:2, 16) and the relentless reference to “the day” (26:18; 27:27; 30:2–3, 9, 18; 31:15; 32:10) drive home the message that God’s justice brings persistent terror and requires harsh punishment. “The day of the Lord is near; it will be a day of clouds, a time of doom for the nations” (30:2–3)—the motif appears regularly through the prophets, and into later apocalyptic literature.

As the destruction of Jerusalem occurs (33:21–29), Ezekiel berates “the shepherds of Israel”: “you have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them” (34:4).

Where is God during this time of exile? Ezekiel affirms that God is present: “I will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness” (34:11–12). The extended oracle ends with the affirmation, “you are my sheep, the sheep of my pasture and I am your God, says the Lord God” (34:31). The mercy of God is bound up with the justice of God. The resonances with Psalm 23, as well as the sayings of Jesus in John 10 and the well-known parable of Jesus found in Luke 15 and Matt 18, are clear.

There follows an extended blessing on Israel (36:1–38) and the vision of bones brought to life in the valley (37:1–28), followed by visions relating to Gog and Magog (38:1–39:20; and see Rev 20:7–8). Finally, the exile ends, and Ezekiel speaks of the restoration of Israel to their land (39:21–29); “I will never again hide my face from them, when I pour out my spirit upon the house of Israel, says the Lord God” (39:29).

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The issue of being in exile, away from the land that the Lord God had long ago given to the people of Israel, was a difficult situation for those who sought to remain faithful to the covenant with the Lord God. This matter exercises Ezekiel. He knows that exile is the consequence of Israel’s idolatry and infidelity (5:1–7:27). “Alas for all the vile abominations of the house of Israel—for they shall fall by the sword, and by pestilence … and any who are left shall die of famine” (6:11–12), say the Lord; “I will make the land desolate … then they shall know that I am the Lord” (6:14). Exile, it would seem, is a fair punishment.

The sense that the psalmist expresses—“how could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” (Ps 137:4)—is not a view that Ezekiel would have agreed with. Whilst the psalmist grapples with the loss of all that is familiar and valued—no temple, no familiar rituals, no priests, not being in the homeland—Ezekiel is able to find spiritual nourishment in his exile. The many visions he sees and oracles he proclaims attest to the robust nature of his own spiritual life!

Indeed, it appears that there were some who had been able to remain in Judah who maintained that the exiles had forfeited their place within the people of God, for “they have gone far from the Lord; to us this land is given for a possession” (11:15). Ezekiel disputes this, stating that the Lord God has said, “though I removed them far away among the nations, and though I scattered them among the countries, yet I have been a sanctuary to them for a little while in the countries where they have gone” (11:16). The promise is that God will not abandon the people in exile, nor regard them as no longer his people.

As a sign of his confidence that God will maintain his commitment to Israel, Ezekiel tells in detail his vision of the new temple that would, he believed, be built in the land (40:1–43:27), as well as the role of the Levitical priests in that temple (44:15–31) and various provisions that would be in force after the return to the land (45:1–46:24).

The priests in this temple would be charged with the range of expected duties relating to the sacrifices and offerings, but Ezekiel also indicates that “they shall teach my people the difference between the holy and the common, and show them how to distinguish between the unclean and the clean; in a controversy they shall act as judges, and they shall decide it according to my judgments” (44:23–24).

This detail is quite telling; it shows that Ezekiel considered priests to be learned in Torah and to have judicial responsibilities, making decisions about adherence to holiness prescriptions. This is the role that prophets took to themselves, instructing the people about the ways that they keep God’s justice and the ways that they fail in this; it is also the role that the scribes and Pharisees exercise when we encounter them in the New Testament. In the opinion of Ezekiel, the law of the Lord continues to be completely relevant and vitally important, through all the trials of the times in which he lives.

A final vision details the water flowing from the temple, the abundant trees growing beside the river, and the food sources for the people (47:1–12). The portrayal of the river evokes the scenes of Eden, where “a stream would rise from earth, and water the whole face of the ground” (Gen 2:6; cf. Ezek 47:1), providing fertile ground for the Garden of Eden, in which “the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food” (Gen 2:9; cf. Ezek 47:7–12), and from which four rivers flow in abundance (Gen 2:10–14).  The vision of Ezekiel offers a wonderful ecologically vibrant scene!

This vision ends with an affirmation that Israel will be a broad, inclusive society: “the aliens who reside among you … shall be to you as citizens of Israel … in whatever tribe aliens reside, there you shall assign them their inheritance” (47:21–23). Ezekiel ends by reporting how the land will be divided schematically amongst the twelve tribes (48:1–35), in the way that the book of Numbers provided a systematic allocation of the land prior to the conquest of Canaan (Num 34:1–15). And so, from the first verse to the last chapter, Ezekiel’s book provides careful, schematic, detailed information, as befits a prophet who is a priest.

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See also

In my mouth, it was as sweet as honey: Ezekiel the prophet (1)

Like Jeremiah, Ezekiel was both a prophet and a priest (Ezek 1:3). The opening verse of the book exhibits characteristic priestly concern to document details; in this case, a very precise date is recorded: “in the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, on the fifth day of the month”. The year correlates with what we know as 593 BCE. No other prophet gives the precise day of his seeing “visions of God”!

Six years earlier, Ezekiel had been exiled to Babylon during the siege of Jerusalem by King Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon (599 BCE; see 2 Kings 24:10–17). His prophetic activity was thus undertaken entirely in exile. He addresses both those in exile with him in Babylon, and also those left behind in Judah. His prophecies continue through the period when the people in Judah were conquered and taken to join Ezekiel in exile (587 BCE; see 2 Ki 25:1–21), and then for some time after that.

A 14th century fresco of the chariot in Ezekiel’s vision
from Pomposa Abbey, Codigoro, Italy

A dramatic vision opens the book, in which “the glory of God” appears in the form of a fiery, flaming chariot (1:4–28). Priestly attention to detail marks the account of this vision—the scene is reported in scrupulous detail, with many references to other scriptural stories. The bright cloud and flashing fire evokes the scene on Mount Sinai, when God gave Moses the Law (Exod 19:16–19) and the “burning coals of fire” (1:13) remind us of the burning coals in the scene of the call of Isaiah (Isa 6:6).

Then, “the bow in the cloud on a rainy day” evokes the sign of the covenant made with Noah (Gen 9:12–17). The creatures with wings that touch perhaps evoke the golden cherubim overlooking the mercy seat in the Tabernacle (1 Ki 6:23–28), while the wheeled chariot may have been inspired by the chariot that carried the ark of the covenant in procession (2 Sam 6:3).

However, the four creatures, each with four faces and four legs, sparkling “like burnished bronze” (1:6–7), with the appearance of a human being, a lion, an ox, and an eagle (1:10) are unusual. Their presence has invited much speculation about their significance. In the early centuries of the Christian church, these four figures were interpreted as symbols for the four Gospels included in the New Testament. They are found also in the first vision of the seer John, in exile on Patmos, many centuries later (Rev 4:1–8).

Similarly, the description of the crystal dome over the heads of the creatures (1:22) and the sapphire throne with a human form seated on it (1:26) signal to us that this prophet has a vivid imagination, and that there will be much symbolism in the oracles that lie ahead! The remainder of the book continues relentlessly in this style; exotic scenes, vividly imagined, described in detail, conveying a consistent theological perspective.

The point of this dramatic opening comes immediately, when Ezekiel reports a further vision, of a scroll (2:1–10) which he is immediately commanded to eat (2:8, 3:1–3). This second vision is at the heart of the call that Ezekiel receives, to “speak my very words to them [the people]” (2:7; 3:4). Ezekiel the priest has become Ezekiel the prophet.

These words “of lamentation and mourning and woe” (2:10) nevertheless taste “as sweet as honey” to Ezekiel (3:3). However, he knows from the start that the task he has been given will be difficult, for “all the house of Israel have a hard forehead and a stubborn heart” (3:8). They will not listen to him. The scene is set for the difficult career of this prophet-in-exile.

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A key issue for Ezekiel relates to whether God continues to be the God of the people of Judah who are in exile in Babylon. Ezekiel offers a development in understanding that God continues to care for the people even when they have no land and no temple, when they can no longer “go up to the house of the Lord” and offer sacrifices.

Ezekiel is impelled to play his role as a prophet by “the hand of the Lord” (1:3; 3:22; 8:1; etc); indeed, he says, “the spirit lifted me up” (3:12). That same spirit continues to lift him up with regularity (8:3; 11:1, 24; 37:1; 43:5) to show him vision after vision. More than this, Ezekiel declares that “the spirit entered me” (3:24), a process which he promises will be experienced by Israel as a whole (36:26–28)—for the Lord says he will “pour out my spirit upon the house of Israel” (39:29).

This emphasis on the renewing spirit of God is seen, most dramatically, by Ezekiel when he is taken by the spirit into “the middle of a valley … full of bones” (37:1) and sees a vision that he conveys in what must be his most famous oracle. What Ezekiel sees in this valley of dry bones is the work of God, as God puts sinews and flesh and skin on the bones, and breathes into the bodies so created, so that they live (37:5–6, 8, 10). The scene is a dramatic reworking of the creation scene in Genesis, when God creates humanity out of the dust, breathing “the breath of life” into human beings (Gen 2:7).

The vision indicates what God will do: “I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil” (37:14). The end of the exile, it seems, is in sight. This passage is often interpreted in a Christian context as a pointer both to the resurrection of Jesus, and also to the general resurrection; for Ezekiel, however, it is not a far-into-the-future prediction (foretelling), but a word of hope to the people in their immediate situation (forthtelling).

Indeed, the very next section of this chapter reports a proclamation of Ezekiel which is quite directly forthtelling. The two sticks that he takes (37:16) stand for Judah and Israel; as he joins the sticks, so he points to the return of these peoples from their exile, their return “to their own land”, and a cleansing which will mean “they shall be my people, and I will be their God” (37:21–23, 27).

That final phrase is a common covenantal affirmation made by God (Lev 26:12; Ruth 1:16; Jer 7:23; 11:4; 24:7; 30:22; 31:1, 33; 32:38; Ezek 11:20; 14:11; 36:28; Zech 2:11; and Hos 1:10–11, overturning Hos 1:9). The reunited people shall have one king (37:24) and they will observe “an everlasting covenant” (37:26).

The Lord God addresses the prophet Ezekiel in a distinctive way; 94 times, he begins his words to the prophet with the Hebrew phrase ben adam—traditionally translated as “son of man” (meaning a human being), in the NRSV rendered as “o mortal”. We could simply say, Ezekiel, o human one. My NIV has the footnote, “the phrase son of man is retained as a form of address here and throughout Ezekiel because of its possible association with “Son of Man” in the New Testament”. Certainly, this distinctive address in Ezekiel resonates with the use of this distinctive phrase in the Gospels (although another scriptural usage, in Dan 7:14, offers a different take on this phrase.)

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Continued at

‘Here I am; send me’: the prophet Isaiah (Pentecost 9C, 10C)

In the lectionary, the next two Sundays include passages from the prophet Isaiah—namely, the opening oracle (1:1, 10–20) this Sunday, and the story of the vineyard and its failure to produce good fruit (5:1–7). So, in the course on The Prophets that Elizabeth and I are teaching, we come to Isaiah.

We are considering the book of Isaiah in three parts, as most scholars believe that these three sections originate from three different periods during the history of Israel. The first section (chs. 1–39) is located in Judah in the eighth century BCE, as the final decades of the northern kingdom of Israel play out. Two decades after conquering the north, the Assyrians attempted to gain control of the southern kingdom, but that effort failed. These events provide the context for the activity of Isaiah and the oracles include in chapters 1–39.

The second section of Isaiah (chs. 40–55) dates from the time of exile for the southern kingdom, after the people of Judah had been conquered by the Babylonians in 587 BCE; it offers words of hope as the people look to a return to the land. Then, the third section (chs. 56–66) is dated to a time when the exiles had returned to Judah, sometime after 520 BCE. By convention, the three parts are known as Isaiah, Deutero-Isaiah, and Trito-Isaiah.

The opening verse of the book of Isaiah says that Isaiah son of Amoz saw a vision concerning Judah and Jerusalem “in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah” (Isa 1:1). That places his prophetic activity over a period of some decades in the latter part of the 8th century BCE. Amos and Hosea had been active a little before Isaiah, but in the northern kingdom. Isaiah was a contemporary of Micah in the southern kingdom; both prophets would have known about the attacks on towns in Judah by the Assyrian king Sennacherib in 701 (see 2 Kings 18–19; Micah 1:10–16; Isa 7:17; 8:1–4, 5–8).

*****

Isaiah was based in the southern kingdom, and the account of his call (6:1–13) takes place in the temple in Jerusalem, for Isaiah “saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple” (6:1). This location, as well as a number of subsequent passages, suggest that Isaiah served as a “court prophet” to various southern kings; we see Isaiah providing prophetic advice to Ahaz (7:1–17) and Hezekiah (37:1–38; 39:1–8; 39:3–8).

Isaiah, by Jean Louis Ernest Meissonier (1815–1891)

The call narrative is dated quite specifically (“in the year that King Uzziah died”, 6:1), suggesting that Isaiah began his activity right at the end of Uzziah’s reign, around 740 BCE. The prophet, initially reluctant (6:5), eventually accepts the call (“here I am; send me!”, 6:8), and hears the difficult charge given to him: “Go and say to this people: ‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand.’ Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes, so that they may not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds, and turn and be healed” (6:9–10). It’s a charge that we hear at a number of places in the New Testament: beside the Sea of Galilee (Mark 4:10) and in a house in Rome (Acts 28:26–27).

*****

In the opening oracle (1:1–31), the prophet berates Judah as a “sinful nation, people laden with iniquity, offspring who do evil, children who deal corruptly, who have forsaken the Lord, who have despised the Holy One of Israel, who are utterly estranged!” (1:4). Justice and righteousness have disappeared (1:21–22); the rulers “do not defend the orphan, and the widow’s cause does not come before them” (1:23). The covenant with the Lord has been seriously damaged.

The main substance of this oracle involves a criticism of the worship practices in the Temple (“bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me; new moon and sabbath and calling of convocation—I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity; your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates”, 1:10–15). Instead of these rituals, God demands that the people “wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (1:16–17).

The prophet indicates that God will countenance repentance and a return to the covenant: “Zion shall be redeemed by justice, and those in her who repent, by righteousness” (1:27); but if there is no repentance, the familiar prophetic indication of divine punishment is heard: “rebels and sinners shall be destroyed together, and those who forsake the Lord shall be consumed” (1:28). Thus, the dual themes of punishment and forgiveness are sounded early; they recur throughout the rest of this section of the book.

*****

There are many well-known oracles in the ensuing chapters. First comes the vision of when “nations shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (2:1–4; the same oracle appears in Micah 4:1–4). Next, the concept of the faithful remnant is introduced (4:2–6; see also 10:19–23; 11:10–11, 16; 28:5).

Isaiah tells the story of the nation in God’s “love-song concerning his vineyard” (5:1–7); after “my beloved” undertakes all the activity required to establish and nurture the vineyard, only wild grapes were produced; and so, “he expected justice (mishpat) but saw bloodshed (mispach); righteousness (tsedakah) but heard a cry (seakah)” (5:7). What follows is a searing denunciation of the ills of society: the excesses of a debaucherous elite, the oppressive state of the lowly (5:8–23). As a result, the Lord threatens invasion of the land (5:24–30); “he will raise a signal for a nation far away, and whistle for a people at the ends of the earth; here they come, swiftly, speedily!” (5:26). The threat from Assyria looms large in this oracle.

There is mention made of a group of disciples of the prophet (8:16–22), as well as the children of the prophet, who serve as “signs and portents in Israel from the Lord of hosts, who dwells on Mount Zion” (8:18). These children are named as Shear-jashub, meaning “a remnant shall return” (7:3), and Maher-shalal-hash-baz, meaning “the spoil speeds, the prey hastens” (8:3).

Both names provide testimony to the fate that lies in store for Judah: the planned attack by Assyria will fail (7:4–9), and “the wealth of Damascus and the spoil of Samaria will be carried away by the king of Assyria” (8:4). The mother of these two sons, unnamed, is simply “the prophetess”, who “conceived and bore a song for Isaiah (8:3)—although married to the prophet Isaiah, might she have been a prophet in her own right?

*****

Chapters 7–11 deal with the Assyrian threat; we know about the Assyrian interest in Israel and Judah from 2 Kings 15—20 and 2 Chronicles 28—33. These chapters of Isaiah include oracles that are well known in the church because of their Advent connection, when the lectionary offers them, inferring that they are “predictions of the coming Messiah”. Isaiah speaks of “the young woman [who] is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel” (7:14); in context, this is a promise to king Ahaz, that God will not desert him and his people, even as they experience “such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah—the king of Assyria” (7:17). What lies in store for Judah (7:18–25) will need this assurance to help them survive it.

Then comes reference to “the “child [who] has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (9:6), and the “shoot [which] shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots; the spirit of the Lord shall rest on him” (11:1–2). This will lead to the promised time when “the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them” (11:6)—a wonderful Messianic prophecy.

However, in reading Isaiah, we need to banish thoughts of a Messiah to come centuries later; in each case, Isaiah was not foretelling a far-distant event, but forthtelling to the king and the people of his time. In the midst of injustice and aggression, the prophet assures Judah that, in their own time,j “the root of Jesse … will raise a signal for the nations, and will assemble the outcasts of Israel, and gather the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth” (11:10–16).

*****

Chapters 14 to 21 contain a string of oracles against other nations (Babylon, Assyria, Philistia, Moab, Damascus, Ethiopia, and Egypt). The destruction of Jerusalem is foreseen (22:1–25) before resuming further oracles, against Tyre (ch.23) and against the whole earth (ch.24). God’s wrath is cosmic in scope: “on that day the Lord will punish the host of heaven in heaven, and on earth the kings of the earth” (24:21). Anticipatory celebrations are reported (chs.25 to 27) before further oracles of judgement erupt, against corrupt judges, priests, and prophets (28:1–29), who have entered into a “covenant with death … [an] agreement with Sheol” (28:18).

The siege of Jerusalem is graphically described by the prophet (29:1–24) and further oracles reinforce his message: both judgement, “they are a rebellious people, faithless children, children who will not hear the instruction of the Lord” (30:9); and compassionate mercy, “the Lord waits to be gracious to you; therefore he will rise up to show mercy to you; for the Lord is a God of justice; blessed are all those who wait for him” (30:18).

Foreign alliances are futile (chs. 30–31), for “a king will reign in righteousness, and princes will rule with justice” (32:1). Under this king, justice will prevail (chs. 33–34) and “the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing” (35:1–10).

In the wonderful vision of chapter 35, “the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water” (35:5–7). One commentator calls this “a majestic poem on God’s final salvation of his people” which goes “beyond restoration to the land … it speaks of a restoration of all creation” (McConville, Exploring the Old Testament, vol. 4, The Prophets; SPCK, 2002, p.21).

*****

The final scenes of the first section of the book involve Isaiah and Hezekiah, who was king from 716 to 687 BCE. Whilst most of the book comprises oracles in poetic form, chapters 36–39 are prose narratives concerning the events of around 701 BCE, when the Assyrians pressed into Judah. Isaiah provides Hezekiah with a prediction of the failure of the Assyrian assault, saying that the Lord had told him, “I myself will put a spirit in him, so that he shall hear a rumor, and return to his own land; I will cause him to fall by the sword in his own land” (Isa 37:7). And so it comes to pass; Judah is saved, the future looks positive—for the moment.

*****

See

Hope in a broken world (Job 23; Pentecost 20B)

The second in a series of sermons on the book of Job, by the Rev. Elizabeth Raine; Tuggeranong Uniting Church, 10 October 2021

***** *****

Last week, we left Job engaged in the task of theodicy, the theological examination of why a just and all-powerful God could allow suffering and evil to exist. Job had become convinced that God was not particularly reasonable and was personally responsible for the suffering of the world. Just to remind you, Job’s words about God were as follows:

To paraphrase the words of David Hume, Job seems to have accepted that God must be somehow malevolent (able, but not willing to prevent evil), as he doesn’t understand why suffering should exist if God is able and willing to prevent it.

When Job’s friends arrive to comfort him, this spirited debate continues as they all decide join in the exploration of theodicy and whether God is just, as well as defending Deuteronomy’s assertions that the wicked are punished and the righteous are rewarded.

The lectionary has made a big jump here from last week with 21 intervening chapters left out. These chapters have largely been poetic speeches by Job and his friends, where they assert Job must have some secret sins, and where Job responds by strenuously denying this. Job’s friends are convinced that God rewards the righteous and punishes the guilty, so they try to convince Job that he must repent of his secret sin. Job, however, refuses, as he believes that he is innocent, a fact we readers know is correct.

This lament of Job reveals his anger, loneliness and frustration. God has become very distant to him, and he cannot find God no matter where he looks.

His grievance at his suffering spurs him to call out to God to demand a day in court where he can put his case to God about the injustice of his treatment, and he is convinced that he will be vindicated. His well-intentioned friends have failed to satisfy him with their orthodox answers, indeed have failed to listen to him.

So even if he is being rebellious, Job decides that he needs to take a risk and deal with God directly, and he therefore becomes much more insistent and increasingly frustrated as God refuses to answer. Karl Jacobsen, in his article on Working Preacher, points out that “Job is clearly ready for his day in court. But therein lies the problem; Job can’t find his way to the courthouse…[and] God is nowhere to be found. God’s hand, it seems to Job, neither leads him nor holds him fast.”

Until God appears in the whirlwind, we have an impasse. Job has scorned the counsel of his three friends. He has decided that he they see blindly and listen deafly. They, on the other hand, cannot understand his stubbornness. They do not recognise that in his suffering, it is Job who actually approaches a closer understanding of God, as distasteful as that understanding might be. Though God might crush him, Job, almost defiantly, still declares his trust in God.

Throughout Job’s speech, there is a great sense of longing for God’s presence, for God’s attention and for God’s caring. This is surely a feeling that can resonate with us all and many of us may have experienced in tragic circumstances.

All of us have sought comfort in disturbing times through prayer, and even today, in the uncertain times of climate change, pandemics, warsand natural disasters, we continue to seek the presence of God in the midst of suffering and injustice. Suffering will always challenge a person’s sense of relationship with God, but it does not need to destroy that relationship. As Christians we believe that, in the midst of suffering God, does come to the afflicted and affirm the presence of grace.

Spill the Beans this week suggests that Job’s anger, like that of the author of Psalm 44 (“Wake up, Lord! Why are you asleep?”), raises important questions about what is and is not permissible to say to God in prayer. Are we honest with God? Do we allow ourselves to lament to God about the unfairness of the tragedies we encounter in life?

Surely it is important that such questions can be voiced before God. There is an honesty in Job’s story that challenges the superficial type of faith that crumbles when tragedy strikes, and there is a freedom here that gives us permission to say what we need to say to God even if we need, like Job, toapologise later. God can take it, and surely God’s grace and love will be there waiting for us.

Part of the power of the book of Job is the fact that it realistically addresses addresses the painful questions of life. Tragedy and suffering are never simple issues; they challenge faith and can create a sense of helplessness and hopelessness. Like Job, we often find that there is no shortage of opinions from others trying to explain the pain they are not suffering, and simplistic answers are offered in response to life’s most painful questions.

The strength of Job’s book is that it allows all sides of the issue – the simple answers of the friends and the emotional turmoil of Job – to be heard and heard again. So though it seems to go on and on, repeating the same arguments over and over again, and then failing to provide any answers, this is often the way the problem of suffering is experienced, especially when it comes to the enormous issues of world poverty and economic injustice.

We need to sit as long as we can with those who have suffered and are suffering from injustice and immense suffering. And perhaps, as we ponder our own tragedies, and the fate of the uncounted and unnamed men, women and children who have died in war or ethnic violence, or pray for the current victims of poverty, famine and disease in our world, we might find our thoughts connecting with experiences and the suffering of Job.

And while we cannot measure how God heals, or answers every sufferer’s prayer, or upholds us in the experience of pain, grief or fear, as Christians who understand the grace of God we can surely still believe that God is there waiting for us, even if God seems momentarily absent, in the midst of God’s suffering people.

So from the paradox of faith, we remember:

from silence, comes the song of praise;

from darkness, shines forth the light;

from mystery, comes the kingdom of God.

It is this that allows us to continue to praise God, and to continue to seek out hope in a broken world.

For other sermons on Job, see https://johntsquires.com/2021/10/02/living-through-lifes-problems-job-1-pentecost-19b/

https://johntsquires.com/2021/10/17/celebrating-creation-job-38-and-psalm-104-pentecost-21b/

https://johntsquires.com/2021/10/24/coping-with-chaos-and-death-the-wisdom-of-job-pentecost-22b/

For other sermons on Wisdom, see https://johntsquires.com/2021/09/12/in-the-squares-she-raises-her-voice-lady-wisdom-in-proverbs-pentecost-16b/ on Lady Wisdom, and https://johntsquires.com/2021/08/17/in-order-that-all-the-peoples-of-earth-may-know-your-name-1-kings-8-pentecost-13b/ on the wisdom of Solomon

What can love hope for? A review.

Bill Loader is widely-known, much-consulted, and greatly loved across the Uniting Church. He has had a fine career as a leading biblical scholar, teaching for decades at Murdoch University and publishing prolifically with prestigious international publishers.

This academic career has sat alongside an active involvement in the Uniting Church, preaching in local Congregations, teaching regular sessions with lay leaders, and forming ministers and deacons for their ministries. His website with its scholarly yet accessible discussions of lectionary texts (http://wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader/home.html) attracts regular readership, not only from Uniting Church people, but from preachers right around the world

Out of this wealth of experience comes this slim but rich offering: ten succinct chapters (most only ten to twelve pages long) on topics of key theological import: the significance of Jesus, the good news for the poor, how to understand the cross, the place of other faiths, God’s wrath and God’s justice, the place of the Law, miracles and faith, God and love–and, of course, marriage and sexuality. All in 110 pages.

Each chapter ends with a focused “question for reflection”, to encourage ongoing consideration of the topic at hand. The book itself ends with a bonus afterword, setting out Bill’s personal journey “from fundamentalism to fundamentals”. The afterword concludes, “we all walk with some grit in our shoes in religious and cultural contexts where its awareness is possible even if, by and large, its removal is not” (p.130).

Loader seeks to work with the irritants provided by this “grit” in a constructive and hope-filled way, to indicate how, in the midst of contentious discussions, people of faith are able to discern “what brings life and health”. In Chapter 5, whose title also provides the title of the book, he concludes that we ought “to be a just and caring society that is inclusive and to care for the world and its future inhabitants” (p.46).

It’s no surprise that the enduringly contentious issue of marriage and sexuality is addressed (in chapter 10, the longest chapter). Bill Loader has made many contributions to the long-running discussions of these matters–leading workshops and producing resources pitched at a popular level, undergirded especially by the academic research and writing undertaken during his five years as a professorial fellow with Australian Research Council funding.

This chapter makes clear the two key pillars of his well-considered views: one, that Paul reflects the common first century belief that “all people are heterosexual”, so anyone identifying as homosexual is “in an unnatural state of being as a result of sin” (p.111); and two, that in some circumstances “it is not appropriate, indeed it is irresponsible, to apply what Paul says” to contemporary situations (also p.111).

Thus, Loader affirms that “the Bible does not tell it all on these matters any more than it did on matters of women and divorce” (p.112). Such honesty about matters hermeneutical is to be commended. As is the case in each chapter, the reader is invited to give serious personal consideration to how biblical passages are to be brought into engagement with contemporary situations and considerations.

But the book is not just about marriage and sexuality. There is much more that is explored in its pages.

Chapter 5 (whose title, as we have noted, provides the title for the whole book) begins with a further observation about the process of interpretation: “There is a 2,000-year gap between believers in today’s twenty-first-century world and those of the first century”, such that “to engage the writings of the New Testament is to engage in a cross-cultural encounter with all the respect and opportunity for learning and enrichment which that entails” (p.35).

Starting with the fact that New Testament texts expect a return of Jesus within the lifetime of those then alive, the chapter canvasses the eschatological vision of the kingdom, various parables of Jesus, the function of the risen Jesus, and the resurrection body, leading to the conclusion that we, today, are to “reconfigure our approach to hope, retaining the central [first century] substance, but not their notions of timing and manner of its achievement” (p.45).

In this way, Loader models the task of the interpreter, be they preacher, Bible study leader, scholar, or individual disciple. Immersion into the culture, customs, languages, perspectives of the ancient texts is as important as thoughtful, reflective consideration of what is heard and seen in the text, in the light of contemporary understandings, insights, and perspectives. (Somewhat like what paragraphs 5 and 11 of the UCA Basis of Union affirms.)

There is much more to be said about this delightful book; but only one comment needs to be made here. This is a book worth buying, reading, studying (alone or with others), and engaging with wholeheartedly.

This whispering in our hearts: potent stories from Henry Reynolds

I have recently finished reading This Whispering in our Hearts, by the doyen of living Australian historians, Henry Reynolds. (Thanks to Barbara Braybrook for loaning me her copy and suggesting I read it, because she thought I would appreciate it. I have, and I did!)

The whole career of Reynolds has been devoted to researching and writing about the Indigenous peoples of Australia—including his investigations of the stream of violent confrontation and massacre of indigenous peoples in what he has, memorably, called “The Frontier Wars”.

The book tells a story that all Australians need to know. It is an inspiring narrative with potent stories. We need to hear the words, sense the passion, know the sagas of our recent post-invasion history.

Time and time again, as I was reading the book, I found myself greatly appreciating its accounts of courageous, deeply-committed people in early Australian society. They saw and spoke out against the terrible racist attitudes towards Australian Aboriginal people, and especially the many massacres that have peppered our history since the late 18th century.

However, I found it equally a rather depressing account. I had to read it in “chunks” of a chapter or two at a time. I needed to let the information in each chapter settle in my mind, as the battle between passionate advocates and redneck racists was played out over decades.

The book is based on Reynolds’ research into debates, and actions, that took place in white Australian society throughout the 19th century, into the early 20th century. There are numerous quotations from all manner of primary sources—letters, speeches, sermons, pamphlets, newspaper articles, books, and more.

“All over Australia there were men and women who stood up and demanded justice for the aborigines”, writes Reynolds (p.xvi). The book tells the stories of nine such men and women—although, truth be told, only one, the 20th century activist Mary Bennett, is a woman.

Mary Bennett, pioneering feminist and advocate for Indigenous Australians

The others canvassed include Lancelot Threlkeld, George Augustus Robinson, Louis Giustiniani, and Robert Lyon (active in the 1830s and 1840s); John B. Gribble and David Carley (from the 1880s); and Ernest Gribble (from 1926 to 1934).

Pictured: Lancelot Threlkeld (top);
G. A. Robinson and Louis Giustiniani (middle);
Robert Lyon, John B. Gribble, and Ernest Gribble (bottom).

The regions of Australia under scrutiny include the colonies of New South Wales (Threlkeld and Robinson), the Swan River (Giustiniani and Carley), Queensland (with fascinating quotations from letters published in the press in the 1880s), and then Western Australia (both Gribbles, father John and then son Ernest).

The title comes from the closing line of a public lecture delivered by a Sydney barrister, Richard Windemyer, in 1842, a year before he was elected to the Legislative Council. Windemyer had set out to undermine the words and actions of humanitarians who had been advocating for the rights of Aborigines, but ended with the wistful observation, “how is it our minds are not satisfied? what means this whispering in the bottom of our hearts?”

Richard Windeyer (1806-1847),
journalist, barrister and politician

That whispering is still with us, into the 21st century, as we have lived through the High Court judgements of Wik and Mabo, the Stolen Generations Report and the Royal Commission into Deaths in Custody, the Reconciliation March and the National Apology, and the Statement from the Heart at Uluru. And still, despite these and other important happenings, the life expectancy of indigenous Australians is lower and their incarceration rates are far higher than the Australian average; and awareness that white Australia is premised on living on stolen land is still low amongst the general population.

The most recent NAIDOC Week slogan–Always Was. Always Will Be.–has much distance to go to before it gains traction amongst the general Australian population. As Reynolds notes in the final paragraph of the book, “if true reconciliation is ever consummated in Australia and justice is not only done but seen to be done … after 200 years, the whisper in the heart will be heard no more” (p.251). What he wrote in 1998 remains still the case today. We wait in hope …

*****

From the earliest days, Reynolds reports, there was a clear awareness that the indigenous peoples had the right to possession and ownership of the land, and the British colonisers were there because of an act on invasion. Before Cook, Banks, and the crew of the endeavour had set sail, they were in receipt of instructions from James Douglas, President of the Royal Society until his death in 1768, which clearly stated, “they are the natural, and in the strictest sense of the word, the legal possessors of the several Regions they inhabit”.

James Douglas, 14th Earl of Morton
(portrait with his family by Jeremiah Davison, 1740)

Douglas continued, “no European nation has a right to occupy any part of their country, or settle among them without their voluntary consent”, and asserted that “shedding the blood of these people is a crime of the highest nature”, and that “conquest over such people can never give just title … they may naturally and justly attempt to repel invaders who they may apprehend are come to disturb them in the quiet possession of their country” (quoted on p.xii).

The book recounts how all nine of these people, along with others, advocated for Aboriginal people, and how all nine of them encountered various pushbacks—arguments, rejections, persecutions or sackings. In the face of strong community resistance, biased legal judgements, and pure racist political leadership, these people continued their prophetic tasks of advocacy, social work, political strategising, and grassroots activism.

The courage, persistence, and zeal of these nine humanitarians, advocates and activists, and of the many others who worked with them, is offset, at times, by the character evaluation that Reynolds provides. Robinson was “thought to be a tiresome and discredited officer, a pompous, prickly upstart” (p.55). Ernest Gribble was “relentlessly self-centred, tactless, self-righteous, courageous” (p.181). Mary Bennett was “excessive in her righteous passion” (p.241).

Yet the dogged, even intransigent, nature of their various characters was probably what fitted them for the roles they undertook, in the face of massive public opinion oriented in the opposite direction. The closing chapter of the book documents the very significant shift that occurred in the aftermath of, first, the 1926 Forrest River Massacre, and then the 1928 Coniston Massacre.

Both of these massacres occurred in Western Australia, long the heart of racist repudiation of any rights for Aboriginal peoples. This shift in the 1930s was only possible because of the persistent and penetrating critique of the time, driven from the eastern states, with leadership from Elizabeth Bennett and active participation from Christian churches.

The commitment of Christian voices throughout the decades is one striking element in the story that Reynolds tells. He cites a number of early clergymen who argued that discrimination against “the Natives” was contrary to the clear teaching of scripture, by which all races are “of one blood” (drawing on the old translation in the King James Version of Acts 17:26).

Ministers of religion were frequently at the forefront of activism in colonial Australia. Their advocacy for the view that black-skinned people are humans with the same capacities and rights as white-skinned people was clear; but, sadly, not compelling enough. After a century and a half of British settlement, the federal parliament actually legislated for a racist policy, popularly known as the White Australia policy.

Before I read this book, I knew about some of these activist-advocates (for instance, I had blogged about Gribble senior in https://johntsquires.com/2019/08/18/dark-deeds-in-a-sunny-land-the-expose-offered-by-john-b-gribble/).

However, there was much that I did not know. This year, as we approach Invasion Day, January 26, commemorated officially as “Australia Day”, I think it is appropriate that we remember, and give thanks, for those who in years past have spoken and acted in support of the First Peoples of Australia and its surrounding islands, as Henry Reynolds reminds us.

See also https://johntsquires.com/2020/11/08/always-was-always-will-be-naidoc2020/

https://johntsquires.com/2018/08/13/affirming-the-sovereignty-of-first-peoples-undoing-the-doctrine-of-discovery/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/01/16/the-profound-effect-of-invasion-and-colonisations/