Halfway through this period which had its beginning in Moses and its ending in Christ, there came into prominence a development that was to be of the utmost importance in the outworking Plan of God. That development was the emergence and the work of the body of men known as the Hebrew prophets. Over a period of some four hundred years, from the ninth to the fifth centuries B.C., a succession of strong and fearless men arose, characterised by a strong and inflexible faith in God and a most remarkable insight into His purposes. The New Testament declares (2 Pet. 1. 21) that these men were influenced by, and owed their enlightenment to the power of the Holy Spirit, and there can be no dispute that this statement is literally true. These men were serious-minded, deep thinking students of the ways of God and the ways of man, and what they had to say was the combined result of their own experience and observation, and their inward illumination of mind consequent upon their possession of the Holy Spirit, which in turn was theirs because they were men in whom God could put His Spirit. Not all men, and nor many men, are like that. The fact that some of them, like Elijah and John the Baptist, habitually attired themselves in the most primitive of animal-skin garments and lived on simple and frugal fare, no more denotes an unbalanced mind or sub-normal mentality than it did in the case of one of the greatest men of the twentieth century, the Mahatma Mohandas Gandhi, who ordered the outward trappings of his life in much the same fashion. And the contribution these prophets have made to human progress and to religious thought is incalculable. Judaism found its culminating point in their work. Christianity is founded and rooted in it. The whole Plan of God is revealed in it, and a complete picture of the coming Age, when God’s purposes will converge at last in the complete happiness of all creation, is forth shown in it. The Hebrew prophets took the legal, formalistic conception of God and His ways, which the Israelites had learned from Sinai, and clothed it with the dignified and graceful outlines of a Plan which reveals the love and wisdom of a beneficent Creator.
Here, more than anywhere else is to be seen the beginning of preparation for the coming of Christ. The Law of Sinai had given Israel a consciousness of ritualistic guilt which could be atoned by animal sacrifice. Year by year, continually, the smoke of burning beasts went up from the Temple altar and all Israelites went home satisfied that God had accepted the offerings and they were free from sin. Now the prophets gave them a consciousness and realisation of sin which only a greater sacrifice could blot out. They began to perceive and to tell the people that God has no pleasure in the offering of slain beasts, but looks rather for obedience and devotion. “Has the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the LORD?” (1 Sam. 15. 22). “You do not desire sacrifice, or else I would give it; You do not delight in burnt offering. The sacrifice of…a broken and contrite heart—These, O God, You will not despise.”(Psa. 51. 16-17 NKJV.) “He has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6. 8 NKJV). This was strong meat indeed to a nation whose whole tradition was one of ritual observance, and it is not surprising that as a nation they never did reach up to the heights scaled by their prophets. The important thing is that these prophets were speaking and writing, not only for their own people among whom they lived and to whom they ministered, but also for the Christians of two thousand years of Christianity later on, and it is that ministry of theirs which has had more far-reaching results.
The work of the prophets reached its culminating point in Isaiah, who is the prophet of Christ. He described that judgment that must come on the godless world and the following Age of righteousness and sinless living. He explained that the Lord Jesus Christ must come as a servant to earth, be rejected and die.
Throughout a great portion of his written work, Isaiah insists that the redemption of mankind from the sin and suffering in which it lies, can only be by means of one who is himself both able and willing to suffer in like manner. This one insists Isaiah, must himself be innocent and yet willingly take upon himself the burden and the suffering of the guilty. He must be greater than man, and in every respect superior to and infinitely above man, and yet prepared to lay all that on one side and become like a man that he might in every respect appreciate man’s fallen condition.
He must have all power so that he need not be hurt of any enemies, and yet refuse to exert that power even though those enemies work their will upon him, nor use that power in self-defence, nor until he can use it for their good. He must be altogether and completely devoted to the service and redemption of his fellows, so that by means of his suffering they may ultimately be released from theirs. And the object of the whole of this is that those for whom the “suffering servant” thus gives himself even unto death may eventually renounce their own condition of alienation from God and come willingly into full harmony with Him. So will evil and sin and suffering be finally and permanently overcome? Isaiah was perfectly clear about all this.
He knew that such a one would come and he saw him in vision as clearly as though he actually stood before him. “He was led as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so He opened not His mouth…He shall see of the labour of His soul, and be satisfied. By His knowledge My righteous Servant shall justify many, for He shall bear their iniquities.” (Isa. 53. 7-11 NKJV) Isaiah’s great achievement was this realisation that the Redeemer’s unjust death was not the end. There would be a resurrection from the dead, and the One who had allowed Himself to be put to the extreme of suffering and death upon man’s behalf would come again with all power in heaven and earth to lead those same men to the heights of His salvation. The latter part of Isaiah’s work is a vivid pen-picture of the Messianic reign, when the One he had first beheld in the guise of non resisting lamb, is seen again as an all-powerful King. The glory of the vision is that this King, alone of all men who have ever lived, has given practical proof that He is of all men the One to be trusted with full power over mankind. He refused to use that power for Himself; He is, therefore, to be trusted to use it wisely and well for the happiness of others.
That Messiah whom Isaiah saw in vision is, of course, our Lord Jesus Christ. Seven hundred years were yet to elapse before the reality came, and for three hundred years after Isaiah’s own death the Hebrew prophets were to continue the work of “making ready a people prepared for the Lord”. They finished their work, the task for which God had called them in the development of His fulfilling purpose. The prophets came to a nation believing only in a God of justice. They left as their legacy to the future a nucleus of people who believed in a God of Love. It was to that nucleus that Christ came and was received, and out of that nucleus that Christianity was born.
“He was led as a lamb to the slaughter, And as a sheep before its shearers is silent, So He opened not His mouth…He shall see the labour of His soul, and be satisfied. By His knowledge My righteous Servant shall justify many, For He shall bear their iniquities.” (. 7-11NKJV)