Themes and Transformations in Old Testament Prophecy (In Review)

Derek Ouellette —  May 21, 2010

Themes and Transformations in Old Testament Prophecy
By Samuel Meier

4.5 Stars (out of 5)

The more I read Old Testament scholars the more aware I become that the “standard categories” of a deterministic God and future is not so “standard” after all. These Biblical Old Testament scholars make the jobs of Systematic Theologians difficult because the nature of God cannot be so neatly settled as they’d like. This also makes for upsetting the received paradigm tradition which is why these scholars are often either ignored (which is usually the case) or waved aside as not being “Evangelical” by popular writers, preachers and theologians. Yet no matter their take on inerrancy or infallibility, these scholars take the Old Testament serious to the extreme, maybe even more than traditional Evangelical scholars who are sometimes prone to explain away a difficult passage because it may not align well with their paradigm.

Over the past year or so I have read the works of Brent Sandy (Plowshares and Pruning Hooks), Walter Brueggemann (An Unsettling God), John Goldingay (Old Testament Theology Vol. 1), and Samuel Meier (Themes and Transformations in Old Testament Prophecy) and the consensus seems to be this: the Hebrew testimony is that the future is at least partly open.

Samuel Meier: Discontinuity among O.T. Prophets

In this post I want to zero in on Samuel Meier’s study on themes and transformations in Old Testament prophecy. Unlike other works which simply take the Old Testament as a whole in terms of “themes”, Meier emphasizes the transformation or progressive reality of these themes. And when the question is put forth, ‘is the future determined according to Old Testament prophets?’ Meier answers: ‘yes and no, depending on what period you are asking about’. He writes

If God waits for temporally-bound creatures to make decisions that affect the destiny of humans [a case he makes in the preceding chapter], this raises the perennially perplexing question as to the contingency of the future: has the fate of humanity already been decreed, or is the future yet an unwritten chapter whose outcome is – at least in some details, if not in its entirety – open to negotiation?

What Meier discovers in his study is that the prophetic attitude toward a determined future progressed from an “open” future where God is portrayed as truly dialogical and the future is largely determined by human decisions and actions, to an extreme view of a closed future where all beings in the universe are mere pawns on the divine chess board and God is the only player. (It is this progression in prophetic attitude that may account for the positions of Calvinists and Open Theist, where Calvinist’ stress the works of the later prophets – the future is closed – and Open Theists stress the works of the earlier prophets – the future is partly open.)

Earlier Prophets: Partly Open Future

Samuel Meier highlights the fact that the word “perhaps” is used frequently throughout the earlier prophets (800 – 600 B.C.) indicating that these prophets were never certain exactly how the future would unfold. Their general attitude was “Repent because maybe God will hear and the disaster will be averted” as happens to be the case with Hezekiah when God changes his mind (2 Kings 20:1-5). Zephaniah prophecies, “Seek righteousness, seek humility. Perhaps you will be hidden in the day of Yahweh’s anger” (Zeph 2:3). Amos prophecies, “Hate evil, and love good, and establish justice in the gate. Perhaps Yahweh, the God of hosts, will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph” {Amos 5:15). Joel prophecies “Tear your heart and not your garments. Return to Yahweh your God… Who knows whether [i.e. maybe] he may return and relent, and leave a blessing in his wake?” (Joel 2:13-14).

There are no shortages of these examples (Jonah 3:9; Gen 18:16-33; 2 Sam 24:14-25; Ezek 12:1-3; 1 Sam 9:15-17 cf. 1 Sam 15:11; et. cetera), but what Meier finds most stunning is that God himself sometimes seems uncertain what the future holds:

Thus said Yahweh, ‘Stand… and speak… all the words that I have commanded you to speak to them. Do not omit a word! Perhaps they will listen and each person will turn from his evil way, so that I may relent of the evil that I intend to do to them because of the evil of their deeds.’ (Jer 26:2-3, also Jer 36:1-3)

In the above passage it is not the prophet speaking, but God himself. God states plainly that he has intended to do evil to them because of their evil deeds, but if they repent he will “relent” – i.e. change his mind. What is stunning about this passage is that God makes no statements of certainty regarding the future – will what he intended happen or not? – because what God intends to happen totally depends on whether or not the people repent! As Meier put it, “God is doing all he can through his prophet to prompt his people to repent, but God is unsure that the effort will be successful” [p.30]. This characteristic of an open future seems to be a pattern of the earlier prophets and numerous other examples could be listed of God “relenting”, “repenting”, “changing his mind” and so on (cf. Jer. 18:7-10).

Later Prophets: God Plays Alone

In the chapter preceding the one called “is the future determined” Meier observes a shift in the prophets standing before God. It seems that the earlier prophets were often invited into the very council room of God so that God could engage them in conversation and dialogue, often about something which God is deliberating about (cf. Amos 7:1-6; Ezekiel 1:26; Isaiah 6:1-2; Jer 23:16-22). According to Meier, when God is depicted in Ezekiel 10-11 as departing the Temple during the Exile a shift takes place. For the first time in Israel’s history God is not in Israel or Judea; instead he is with Ezekiel in Babylon!

These new circumstances correspond to a new depiction of the prophets’ relationship to the divine council; no longer does Ezekiel stand among the hosts of heaven…. God is still on his throne, and the angelic retinue is present, but the prophet no longer sees nor participates in the deliberations of the council. The council comes to him, so to speak, with a decree that is not negotiable… After the exile, a further transformation – indeed, deterioration – of the prophet’s relationship to the divine council occurs: no prophet is explicitly depicted as taking part in God’s council.” [p. 24]

The point is – if we fast-forward to the present chapter – the broad consensus is that the idea “that the future is negotiable runs through a number of prophets, all of whom… appear before the postexilic period” but, Meier continues, “this consensus does not carry over into the postexilic period” [p. 34]. After the exile the future is often depicted as a non-negotiable. God’s made a decision and the prophets no longer have input.

Consequently the prophets after the exile speak with much more confidence about the future, “Return to me and I will return to you” (Zech 1:3; Mal 3:7); notice the absences of the word “perhaps”! In Haggai, Malachi and Zechariah there is never a “perhaps” or “maybe” or “who knows”; everything is absolutely certain. Of course everything remains conditioned by the actions of people – of this the Old Testament is emphatic about (Mal 3:9-11: blessing will come if they are obedient; Hag 1:8-9, Hag 2:17-19: if they rebuild the temple then God will bless them), but whatever the person chooses, there is an absolute response from God – no question about it in these later prophets.

When the discussion is carried over to Daniel a deterministic future is taken to the extreme. Because the future was been worked out in the details one may learned in advance specifics “such as how many kings will reign and how they will behave (Dan 7:23-25; 8:21; 11:2-45), as well as how the righteous will fare (Dan 7:21, 25; 8:24; 11:32-35)” [p. 36]. Meier connects this to his discussion in the previous chapter about how the prophets after the exile are no longer privy to engage God in dialogue about things which may occur:

Where future consequences could be presented as not entirely clear in the early prophets, and where it becomes less vague and more predictable in the later prophets, in apocalyptic [i.e. Daniel] the future becomes exceedingly predictable. In fact, the future in apocalyptic is already determined in its entirety.” [p. 36]

Conclusion: Prophetic Demotion?

Meier draws out many more progressive themes in the Old Testament such as the theme of angels which suggests that the early prophets always had direct access to God, “Yahweh said to …” whereas for the later prophets angels become mediators. Another example is that early prophets had a gift of being able to “see” precisely what God wants them to see whereas the later prophets need the visions to be spelt out for them (here for examples). In every case the pivotal point of change is the Exile. After the exile there seems to be – in a sense – a demotion of the prophetic ministry and a change in the way God interacted with Israel’s prophets and the future.

There was a time when God invited human representatives (i.e. the prophets) into the divine council chambers (which includes angels) and dialogued with them about things which may be. The human representatives were able to add their opinions and sometimes even sway the divine intent – it was truly a relationship. This privilege is taken away after the Exile. God no longer invites human representatives into the council to consult them on what may happen; now he simply decrees what will happen and their job is to simply listen and convey the message (Daniel does not interact with his visions in a dialogical fashion, he is simply an observer who is instructed to document what he sees [Dan 7:1]).

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Derek Ouellette

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a husband, new dad, speaker, writer, christian. see my profile here.
  • Eric Gregory

    This is a great post – I’ll be putting these books on my Amazon wishlist presently.

    Thanks, Derek!

  • Derek Ouellette

    Great Eric, I’m glad you liked it.
    .-= Derek Ouellette´s last blog ..Progressively Deterministic Future =-.

    • Tallin

      Thanks for conrtbiiutng. It’s helped me understand the issues.