Wisdom and warnings from ancient times.
by Dave Skipper
The world of human action is suffused with noise: sounds diffused, silence refused, intents infused. Actions result in reactions: pseudo-spherical complex vibrations propagate at every detectable level, sensor-shifting movements intimately integrated into our physical and emotional planes. Sounds constantly distance themselves from their sources, yet remain indelibly linked, each soundwave’s pivots and divots bearing the thumbprints and scars of their generation. Materials, angles, densities, shapes, trajectories, collisions, strikings, scrapings, chemical reactions, guttural cries, the list is as endless as history’s lexicons.
Does the domain of sound and noise have anything to say about the past and the future? Does the domain of sound and noise connect in any meaningful way to issues of choice and ethics? Does the domain of sound and noise have any valuable role in matters of judgment and salvation? Does the domain of sound and noise in the natural world impinge on the spiritual life of humanity? Does the domain of sound and noise resulting from human action generate hope and/or despair? Does the domain of sound and noise have deeper layers of meaning and purpose than is normally afforded it?
The Old Testament prophets give a resounding “Yes!” to all of the above questions, and it is their words that are the subject of this article series. [Note: the Old Testament part of the Bible is the books written pre-Jesus, while the New Testament is comprised of the books written post-Jesus.]
Who were the Old Testament prophets?
The tagline of this blog is ‘connecting the Bible and noise.’ One year in and I’ve hardly scratched the surface, and I haven’t even begun to look that rich vein of goldmines of noise in the Bible, the Old Testament prophets. This series will go some way to rectifying that.
There are 16 books of the prophets, including some famous names like Isaiah, Daniel, and Jonah. Between them they cover a total of 245 chapters. That’s a lot of space when you consider that the whole of the Old Testament spans 929 chapters, plus 260 chapters in the New Testament. When were these prophets alive and active? Between approximately 800-400 B.C. Where did they live? Most of them lived in the kingdom of Judah, where many of their messages were directed to the kings of Judah. Some were in Israel, speaking to the kings of Israel. But this was also the period of the Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian empires, so their kings are also often referenced or even addressed directly, some of these from within the context of the Jewish exile into Babylon and subsequent return to their homeland. The prophecies were not just given to kings, however. Many of the messages were directed also to the religious leaders and to the people at large.
Among the most common and recurring themes throughout the prophets include:
- A reminder of God’s holiness and faithfulness, especially in how he rescued his people out of slavery in Egypt;
- A call to repent from breaking God’s laws and to return to him in humility, and to pursue justice and goodness in ethical practices, social attitudes and civil/religious structures;
- A warning of coming judgments against the land at the hands of the surrounding nations;
- A promise of safety and peace for those who take refuge in God, and turn their hearts to him;
- A promise of a coming Messiah, who will finally defeat all God’s enemies and bring about full restoration.
All of these can be summed up in one word: covenant. This is one of the most vital concepts throughout the Bible. A covenant is a solemn and abiding agreement between two parties, with stipulations and consequences laid out for keeping or breaking the terms of the covenant. The prophets were primarily engaged in bringing a ‘covenant lawsuit’ against God’s people because of their continual and systematic disregard for God’s law, reminding them of the commands and promises that God had given them centuries earlier through Moses. The Old Testament covenant which the prophets are appealing to is primarily encapsulated in the book of Deuteronomy, the fifth book of the Bible. The other early books of the Bible were in view too, but Deuteronomy is pre-eminently structured and laid out as a covenant document. One of the relentless themes of the prophets is that God is always faithful to his covenant promises, even when and even though his people persist in their unfaithfulness to him. Thus the goodness and mercy and grace of God are always present alongside his holiness and justice and wrath.
[Note: the whole Bible is itself one big covenant book; in fact the word ‘testament’ – as in Old Testament and New Testament – is simply another word for covenant. It’s such a major theme that I have some future articles planned that will be devoted to the topic, and it will actually form the entire structure of the forthcoming article series The Noisician.]
Tools for interpretation
Studying noise in the prophets in-depth would take many years and a very large book (maybe a retirement project for me to look forward to?) so the format of this series will differ from most of my other articles. Instead of attempting too much in the way of analysis, I will predominantly aim to let the text speak for itself whilst I just offer a few thoughts and pointers along the way.
However, at the outset I need to outline my basic approach and guidelines for understanding such a complex and demanding series of books, so this introductory article will serve that role on behalf of the series as a whole.
The basic tools for understanding the Bible (hermeneutics) that I adhere to are as follows:
- The Bible is inerrant and sufficient. In other words, it is true and accurate because it is divinely inspired, and no additional sources or scriptures are required for knowledge about God, Jesus, the nature of man and sin, and salvation. Nothing necessary is missing, and it is the definitive record of divine revelation given to mankind. “No prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation, for prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit.” (2 Peter 1:20-21)
- The Bible is internally consistent, self-reinforcing, and self-interpreting. This nevertheless allows for paradoxes and for diversity in styles and themes, for reality and truth are rich and layered.
- God’s character is unchangeable in his holiness, power, love, justice, glory, and so on. “For I am the Lord, I do not change.” (Malachi 3:6a) “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” (Hebrews 13:8)
- Jesus is the meaning and fulfilment of all Scripture. “And beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, He [Jesus] expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself… Then He said to them, ‘These are the words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me.’” (Luke 24:27,44)
- Clearer passages shed light on more complex or obscure passages.
- Understanding and interpreting Scripture must entail practical application. The Bible knows of no such thing as theology for theology’s sake. Knowledge of God should lead to a closer walk with God, steady growth in character, greater love and service to others, a clearer vision for meaningful work of all kinds, and a transformed perspective on history, creation, ethics, mankind, and God. “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17)
- Regarding prophecy in particular, it is vital to understand that Biblical prophecy does not equate to predicting the future. For sure there is often a revelation of future events, but even in these cases predictions are always subordinate to greater purposes. Prophecy is intended to turn the listeners’ minds and hearts to the character and works of God by demonstrating how ethics, history, creation, and kings are all under his sovereign control and eternal plans. Hence the focus on covenant as a real and dynamic relationship between God and his people. The purpose of prophecy is to urge the hearers to worship God and to submit to his rule in all areas of life.
Layers of meaning
One of the keys to understanding the Old Testament prophets is to recognise the simultaneous interlocking layers of meaning and application that exist in the text by design. It can take some work to discern and unravel these layers, but the approach is not mysterious or subjective. I don’t believe the Bible should be interpreted esoterically (à la Kabbalist mysticism).
So what are the multiple layers of meaning we should be on the lookout for? There are four of them. They are not all always equally present, but they interweave, overlap and interplay in various ways throughout the prophetic writings.
- Short-term historical, partial fulfilment in the events of Israel and Judah. Practical benefit today: God’s sovereignty and reliability in history and the affairs of men and nations; the accuracy and trustworthiness of the Bible as God’s revealed Word; foundation for accurate archaeology.
- Significant fulfilment in the coming, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Practical benefit today: the only and complete basis for understanding human nature and the sovereign grace of God in procuring eternal salvation for his people; templates and examples of how to read history and Scripture as intended (i.e. as Christocentric).
- Ongoing fulfilment in the history-bound lives of God’s people, both individually (Christians) and corporately (the Church). Practical benefit today: models for how to apply God’s character and God’s laws to real circumstances, situations, and issues – including how to form a meaningfully Biblical approach to the role of sound and noise and music and the arts!
- Complete cosmic fulfilment in the restored and perfected New Creation after Christ’s second coming and final judgment on the Last Day. Practical benefit today: sure hope beyond the grave; dire warning of eternal judgment; the exciting prospect of a rich and diverse new creation to be explored forever for God’s glory!
Why have these prophecies been preserved? Because their meaning and application and value is timeless, spanning the ages from the time of their delivery until beyond the end of time itself.
The dominant (though by no means exclusive) noise theme in the OT prophets is that of the noise of destruction and judgment. Violence in the form of natural disasters and the terrors of war are often portrayed vividly as indicators, metaphors, downpayments, avenues, or inflictions of divine justice and retribution on evildoers. This admittedly often makes for uncomfortable reading. I will deal with this issue head-on in the series A Brief History of Noise (sub-series Curse of Noise) and in the series The Ultimate Noisician (sub-series Violence of Noise), and doubtless elsewhere too. But here are some general points:
- God does not delight in the destruction of the wicked. “Say to them: ‘As I live,’ says the Lord God, ‘I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live.’” (Ezekiel 33:11a)
- God would not be good if he didn’t deal with the evil in the world.
- God would not be just if he didn’t deal with the evil in the world.
- God would not be powerful if he couldn’t deal with the evil in the world.
- The prophecies of judgment, coupled with his already-revealed law and covenant to his people, were real and stark warnings which nevertheless provided ample knowledge and opportunity for the hearers to stop their wicked ways and turn back to God, i.e. they were without excuse.
- Promises of safety, hope, and deliverance in the midst of storms and wars form a major current through the prophets.
- The ultimate purpose of God’s judgments are to pave the way for a future restoration of the creation to a suffering-free, conflict-free, death-free eternal state.
- Crucially, all of God’s judgments were inflicted on the suffering servant (as he is vividly portrayed in Isaiah’s prophecies) – the Messiah, Jesus Christ – in his death on the cross. He bore the full wrath and curse of God described in the judgment passages, so that believing in him we can enter full freedom as children of God.
The foregoing points are meant to be kept in mind as the consistent backdrop to the OT prophets. But as I stated in the introduction, my main focus in this series is simply to highlight the noisy parts of the text without delving into the context, structure, issues, questions, and alternative interpretations every step of the way (that’s what that (very) thick book will be needed for, remember!)
Maybe for some readers the above theology all sounds like noise in your ears: an unwanted, jarring cacophony that you wish to shut out. But stick with me; once we get into the nitty-gritty of the actual noisy texts dispersed throughout the prophets’ writings, I hope you will agree with me that there is a lot to intrigue and enchant and inspire. I hope you enjoy the viscerality and intensity of noise and noise-related themes that pervade the prophets. Yes these themes are designed to give raw insight into the holiness, power, glory, justice, and wrath of God, alongside the hope, security, peace, freedom, forgiveness, mercy, and embrace that He makes available in the Great Fulfiller of all the prophecies: Jesus Christ. But along the way we will discover plenty of ideas, concepts, and insights that can inspire fresh understandings and approaches to listening to and making noise!
The prophetic potential of noise awaits our discovery!
[Note: usually on this blog I use the NIVUK (New International Version) Bible translation as it clear to understand. But in this series I will use the NKJV (New King James Version) which I prefer and is generally regarded as one of the more accurate translations from the original languages. The slightly more difficult language of the NKJV is mitigated by what I perceive as its richer phrasing and heightened poetic beauty.]
He who has ears to hear, let him hear!