God is the betrayed one.
God's restraint marks an interlude of mercy. He restrains himself for our benefit.
The most amazing feature of the prophets is not their "modern" outlook or their passionate cry of disappointment. The reason these seventeen books merit a close look is that they include God's own reply to the prophets' bracing questions.
God talked back, defending the way he ran the world. He lashed out, stormed, and wept. And this is what he said:
I am not silent; I have been speaking through my prophets.
We tend to rank God's revelations by their dramatic effect, with spectacular personal appearances at the top, supernatural miracles just below, and the words of the prophets at the bottom. The fireball on Mount Carmel, for example, seems more convincing than one of Jeremiah's doleful sermons. But God acknowledged no such rating. In an ironic twist, he pointed to the prophets themselves — the very people who were questioning his silence — as proof of his concern. How can a nation complain about the silence of God when they have the likes of Ezekiel and Jeremiah and Daniel and Isaiah?
God did not consider "mere words" an inferior form of proof. Miracles, after all, had never had much lasting impact on the Israelites' faith; but the prophets would inscribe a permanent record, to be passed down over generations, of God's overtures toward his people. Sometimes God pointed to past miracles as proofs of his love, but more often he said something like this, in the familiar tone of an exasperated parent: "From the time your forefathers left Egypt until now, day after day, again and again I sent you my servants the prophets. But you did not listen to them or pay attention." God concluded that the people did not really want a word from the Lord, and they proved him right, warning Isaiah, "Tell us pleasant things, prophesy illusions.... and stop confronting us with the Holy One of Israel."
I have indeed withdrawn my presence.
When the prophets complined loudly about God's hiddenness, God didn't argue. He agreed with them, and then explained why he was keeping his distance.
To Jeremiah, God expressed his disgust with what he saw in Israel: dishonest gain, the shedding of innocent blood, oppression, extortion. He covered his eyes, he said, refusing even to see hands spread out in a posture of prayer, for those hands were covered with blood.
To Ezekiel, God explained that once Israel's rebellions had passed a certain point, he simply "gave them over" to their sins. He withdrew, letting the people choose their own way and bear the consequences.
To Zechariah, he said, "When I called, they did not listen; so when they called, I would not listen."
My slowness to act is a sign of mercy, not of weakness.
When God did not punish quickly, the people of Israel presumed he had lost his power: "He will do nothing! No harm will come to us; we will never see sword or famine." They were wrong. God's restraint marked an interlude of mercy, a time of probation he was granting Israel. Reluctantly, like a parent out of options, God resorted to punishment.
For Israel, punishment took the form of foreign invasions. But the prophets also speak of a "day of the Lord" at the end of time. Sandwiched between their shining accounts of a new heaven and new earth are some of the most dreadful apocalyptic visions ever set to words. Before we can hear the last word, said Dietrich Bonhoeffer, we must listen to the next-to-the-last word. And the more I study the prophets' accounts of the last days, the more content I become with God's apparent "shyness" to intervene in human affairs.
In my own times of disappointment with God, I have called on him to act with power. I have prayed against political tyranny and unfairness and injustice. I have prayed for miracle, for proof of God's existence. But as I read the prophets' descriptions of the day when God finally will take off all the wraps, one prayer overwhelms all others: "God, I hope I'm not around then." God freely admits he is holding back his power, but he restrains himself for our benefit. For all scoffers who call for direct action from the heavens, the prophets have ominous advice: Just wait.
Though my judgments appear stern, I am suffering with you.
God exposed his deepest feelings to the prophets. For example, here is how he felt about the destruction of Moab, one of Israel's enemies:
I wail over Moab,
As for his chosen people of Israel, whatever shame and humiliation they endured, God also endured. The Israelites watched in horror as Babylonian axmen hacked apart the cedar beams of the temple — but it was God's own house they were invading, and He felt that invasion as a personal desecration. As the temple was razed, His dwelling place was razed. As the Jews were led captive, He was led captive. And when the conquerors divided the spoils of Israel, they joked not about the Israelites but about their weakling God. "Wherever they went among the nations they profaned My holy Name, for it was said of them, 'These are the Lord's people, and yet they had to leave his land'."
A single, elegant sentence from Isaiah summarizes God's point of view: "In all their distress He too was distressed." God may have hidden His face, but that face was streaked with tears.
Despite everything, I am ready to forgive at any moment.
Often, in the midst of a stern reproof, God would stop — literally midsentence — and beg Israel to repent. Ahab, the most wicked king of Israel, got another chance after Mount Carmel, and then another, and another. "I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked," God explained to Ezekiel. "Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, O house of Israel?" He told Jeremiah that if He could find just one honest person in Jerusalem, He would spare the whole city.
Nothing expresses God's yearning to forgive better than the Book of Jonah. It contains but one line of prophecy: "Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned." But, to Jonah's disgust, that simple announcement of doom sparked a spiritual revival in hated Nineveh and changed God's plans for punishment. Jonah, sulking under a shriveled vine, admitted he had suspected God's soft heart all along. "I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity." Thus the whole madcap scenario of balky prophet, ocean storm, and whale detour came about because Jonah could not trust God — could not, that is, trust Him to be harsh and unrelenting toward Nineveh. As Robert Frost summed up the story, "After Jonah, you could never trust God not to be merciful again."
Although God answered the prophets' questions directly, His explanations did not satisfy Israel. Knowing the reason behind a disaster does not lessen the sense of pain and betrayal. And in truth God's rational "defense" seems tossed in almost as an aside. The prophets are not as concerned about intellectual questions as they are about God's passion. How does it feel to be God? To understand, consider the human images stressed again and again by the prophets: God as parent, and as lover.
Follow around some first-time parents. Their conversation seems limited to one topic: The Child. They crow that their wrinkled, ruddy baby is the most beautiful child ever born. They spend hundreds of dollars on equipment to videotape the first babbling words and the first lurching steps — ordinary skills mastered by almost all seven billion people on earth. Such strange behavior expresses a new parent's pride and joy in a human relationship like no other.
In choosing Israel, God was seeking such a relationship. He wanted what any parent wants: a happy household of children who return their parent's love. His voice sings with pride as he reminisces about the early days: "Is not Ephriam my dear son, the child in whom I delight?" But the joy fades away as God abruptly shifts from the perspective of a parent to that of a lover, a wounded lover. What have I done wrong? he demands in a tone of sadness, and horror, and rage.
I supplied all their needs,
In reading the prophets I cannot help envisioning a counselor with God as a client. The counselor gets out one stock sentence, "Tell me how you really feel," and then God takes over.
"I'll tell you how I feel! I feel like a rejected parent. I find a baby girl lying in a ditch, near death. I take her home and make her my daughter. I clean her, pay for her schooling, feed her. I dote on her, clothe her, hang jewelry on her. Then one day she runs away. I hear reports of her debased life. When my name comes up, she curses me.
"I'll tell you how I feel! I feel like a jilted lover. I found my lover thin and wasted, abused, but I brought her home and made her beauty shine. She is my precious one, the most beautiful woman in the world to me, and I lavish on her gifts and love. And yet she forsakes me. She pants after my best friends, my enemies — anyone. She stands by a highway and under every spreading tree and, worse than a prostitute, she pays people to have sex with her. I feel betrayed, abandoned, cuckolded."
God does not hide his hurt. He employs shocking language, comparing Israel to "a swift she-camel running here and there, a wild donkey accustomed to the desert, sniffing the wind in her craving — in her heat who can restrain her?"
As if words alone were too weak to convey his passion, God asked one brave prophet, Hosea, to act out a living parable. On God's orders, Hosea married Gomer, a woman with a most unsavory reputation. From then on, the poor man lived a soap-opera existence. Time after time Gomer wandered off, fell for another man, and moved out. And each time, incredibly, God instructed Hosea to welcome Gomer back and forgive her.
God used Hosea's unhappy story to illustrate his own whipsaw emotions. That first blush of love when he found Israel, God said, was like finding grapes in the desert. But as Israel broke his trust again and again, he was forced to endure the awful shame of a wounded lover. His words carry a tone not far from self-pity: "I am like a moth to Ephriam, like rot to the people of Judah."
The powerful image of a jilted lover explains why, in his speeches to the prophets, God seems to "change his mind" every few seconds. He is preparing to obliterate Israel — wait, now he is weeping, holding out open arms — no, he is sternly pronouncing judgment again. Those shifting moods seem hopelessly irrational, except to anyone who has been jilted by a lover.
The words of the prophets sound like the words of a lovers' quarrel drifting through thin apartment walls. A neighbor of mine endured two years of such conflict. In November she was ready to kill her unfaithful husband. In February she forgave him and invited him back in. In April she filed for divorce. In August she stopped the proceedings and asked her husband to return again. It took two years for her to face the ugly truth that her love had been rejected forever.
And that is the precise cycle of anger, grief, forgiveness, jealousy, love, pain that God himself went through. The prophets show God struggling for a language, any language, that might break through to his people. Just as my neighbor would hang up the phone on her estranged husband, God would tell the prophets that he would no longer listen to the prayers of Israel. And just as my friend would soften, God would soften and beg his people to try again. Sometimes his love and anger seemed to collide. But at last, all alternatives exhausted, God concluded that he must give up: "What else can I do because of the sin of my people?"
My friend Richard described to me his deep sense of betrayal when God "let him down." He felt exactly as he had when his fiancée abruptly cut him off. But the prophets, and especially Hosea, communicate one message above all others: God is the betrayed one. It was Israel, not God, who had gone a-whoring. The prophets of Israel had expressed a profound disappointment in God, accusing him of acting aloof, unconcerned, silent. But when God spoke, he poured out emotions pent up for centuries. And he, not Israel, was the truly disappointed party.
"What else can I do?" God's poignant question to Jeremiah points up the dilemma of an omnipotent God who has made room for freedom. The stork in the sky knows her seasons, the ocean tide rolls in on schedule, snow always covers the high mountains, but human beings are like nothing else in nature. God cannot control them. Yet he cannot simply thrust them aside either. He cannot get humanity out of his mind.