Reading the prophets can be an unsettling experience. Here we see God’s utter, absolute fury against sin. The graphic accounts of what God is going to do to His own faithless, immoral, complacent people constitute some of the scariest words in all of literature, making our horror movies seem like My Little Pony.
And then, amidst the righteous rage, the bodies heaped up and the cities ravaged, the carnage is suddenly interrupted with sheer tender grace and spot-on predictions of what Jesus will do to make Himself the object all of this wrath. Jesus takes all of this fury onto Himself, whereas we, who deserve everything the prophets call down on sinners, receive His righteousness.
In addition to the theological and devotional impact of the prophets, these books of the Bible played a major role in Western civilization. For Israel’s neighbors, the king was, literally, a god. In Egypt, the pharoah was thought to have descended from the sun god. For the Babylonians and Persians, the king was considered to be a deity. This was true of the Canaanites and of paganism in general, from Rome’s divinized emperors to the chieftains of tribal societies.
For the pagans, the customs of the culture — whether the techniques of planting grain or the necessity of sacrificing one’s children — are inextricably tied up with their religious beliefs. Nature, culture, government are all divine.
Pagan cultures resist change. New Guinea tribesmen, we say, are still in the stone age. Why don’t they change? Why wouldn’t knowledge accumulate from generation to generation? The answer has to do with their deepest religious convictions: The status quo is sacred. The cycles of life are to be repeated, like the cycles of nature, over and over again.
When the pharoah of Egypt commanded that babies be slaughtered (Ex. 1), his people had no conceptual framework for questioning that order. When the king of Persia commanded his people to pray to no god but him — as Darius did (Dan. 6:7) — his people were unable to conceive of an objection. How can one question a god?
The Hebrews, though, did question and defy those kings. They knew that there is only one God, who transcends nature and culture. His moral law applies even to kings. By that moral law, cultures can be judged. Cultures are not sacred. Therefore they can be changed. And when they contain evils, they must be changed.
The Hebrew midwives knew not to kill babies, no matter what the pharaoh said. The prophet Moses stormed into the sacred presence and demanded, in the name of the true God, that he release his slaves. The prophet Daniel refused to pray to the self-deified Darius, even though that meant the lion’s den.
The problem is that all cultures want to make themselves sacred. We would really like to have a government to be our deity. Our natural, fallen inclinations pull us in the direction of paganism.
This certainly happened with the Hebrews. They wanted kings like the other nations had, so despite the prophet Samuel’s warnings, they got what they wanted (1 Sam. 8). A good number of those kings set themselves up as deities, changing the God-ordained worship and installing idols in the Temple itself. Hebrews emulated their pagan neighbors in other ways, to the point of sacrificing their own children.
Enter the prophets. As channels of the word of God, they excoriated their own kings. Nor were priests, merchants, or pillars of the community shielded from prophetic denunciation. You exploit the poor. You shed innocent blood. You use false measures. You are hypocrites. God will wipe you off the face of the earth like cleaning a dirty plate. God will even use those pagan divinized kings — since He is sovereign even over them — to destroy the Holy City of Jerusalem and His own Temple that you have polluted.
The prophets made divinized rulers and sacred cultures impossible. The early church, which also refused to worship the allegedly divine emperor, brought the Bible into the larger civilization. The words and the example of the prophets opened up a conceptual basis for a higher law above that of the government, to which the government must be held accountable.
It became possible to criticize one’s rulers. It became obligatory to criticize one’s culture. Not only to criticize it, but to change it.
Western civilization, unlike that of the New Guinea tribesmen, is one of change after change. We are never satisfied with the status quo. We are never satisfied with our rulers, at least for long, because we scrutinize them for their faults. We hold them to a higher law beyond the laws they pass.
This habit of mind we owe, in large part, to the prophets. As scholars such as Herbert Schneidau and M. Stanton Evans have shown, this biblical legacy opened up a conceptual space that made political freedom possible.
True, today’s cynics have the habit of criticism while rejecting the transcendent morality that makes criticism logically possible. They smash everything, like vandals.
The prophets, in contrast, smashed idols and hammered the human heart until it broke with repentance. Then their words from God proclaimed the good news (Ezek. 36:25–27).