Now the LORD is about to lay
waste to the earth and make
and he will twist its surface and
scatter its inhabitants.(1)
As a nation and people, Israel has certainly been no stranger to the disasters of antiquity. The pages of the Old Testament chronicle times of war, conquest, chaos, exile, and hardship. Jewish theology has come up with a number of ways to deal with the hardships brought upon them by the god who was supposed to protect them and lead them into a new land. Some interpreters have seen these times as payment for sin. Others prefer to believe disaster as part of a process to test Israel's faith in their LORD. Eventually, it was believed all God's wrath would accumulate into a final day of retribution. This is the Day of the LORD, a time when it was believed God would strike down upon all those who had sinned and restore the kingdom he had promised to David.
This paper will focus on the eschatology themes in the books of Amos, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Jeremiah. Amos is the earliest of these accounts, relating to events during the Assyrian Period, approximately 900-600 B.C.E. Amos himself was believed to have been active near the middle of this period, at about 760 B.C.E. The book of Isaiah records events that occurred between about 783 B.C.E. and 539 B.C.E., during the beginning of the Babylonian Period to the End of the Exilic Period. Most scholars agree the book can be divided into three distinct sections, each possibly by a different author. This was a time of chaos and conquest as the seat of power in the ancient Near East shifted from Assyria to Babylon to Egypt and back to Babylon. Jeremiah and Ezekiel both take place during the period of exile, after the year 587 B.C.E. While each prophet is unique in his approach and style, there is a great deal of similarity for "each prophet had faced a specific need in his day."(2)
Themes of the Day of the LORD
There are several accounts of the Day of the LORD, but there are common themes that are prevalent through out all the accounts. These themes are the destruction of the world, oracles against the Israel and the nations, the surviving remnant, and the restoration of the Davidic Kingdom. Many of these themes echo events of days long past and reflect important events in the Old Testament, or even reverse these themes.
Desolation is the first of these major themes. The reader is faced with visions pertaining to God's creation, the natural world. Some of these events may have been based on actual natural phenomena, such as solar eclipses, draught, or unusual flooding. Amos records that it shall begin with darkness, and "the sun will go down at noon, and darken the earth in broad daylight."(3) Isaiah speaks of a particularly dire fate for the earth, the sun, the moon, and even the gods of other nations. Here it seems drought is the LORD's weapon of choice:
The earth shall be utterly laid
waste and utterly despoiled;
for the LORD has spoken
The earth dries up and withers,
the world languishes and
the heavens languish together
with the earth.(4)
These oracles mirror Exodus, as God passes judgment upon the divine and sacred forces of Egypt as seen in nature with the first, seventh, and ninth plagues. The LORD attacks the vital resources of the land, the water, earth, and sun, for without them there can be no life. There can be no soil in which to grow crops, no water for man or animal to drink, and no sunlight to sustain life. Isaiah also mentions judgment upon the pagan gods, forces with which Israel has been in conflict with through much of its ancient history.
Another characteristic of the Day of the LORD are oracles against the nations. Amos pronounces several such oracles before confronting Israel itself (1:3-3:11). These prophesies get him into trouble, for in chapter 7:10-17 he has a conflict with the priest Amaziah. Indeed Amos was revolutionary, for he "is going far beyond what any nabi before him had ever dared to say."(5) He is foretelling the doom of his own people. The Israelites were all too accustomed to hearing their prophets speak out against other nations, but how could the LORD turn on his own people? These oracles generally threaten the traditional enemies of Israel, like Moab, Egypt, Tyre, and Babylon, with destruction by divine fire or human sword. Other prophets pronounce them as well, and these oracles are often relevant to the military campaign of the day. For example, Ezekiel gives numerous oracles against Egypt for her involvement in the Babylonian conflict as a failed ally of Judah. Like so many of the events in this book, these oracles are filled with vivid mystical and mythological imagery. Twice the prophet likens Pharaoh to God's eternal nemesis the cosmic dragon and emphasizes the shame that will be brought upon him by saying his body will be scattered to the winds instead of receiving the traditional kingly burial (29:3-7, 32:2-6). For the Pharaoh, this would be the ultimate slap in the face. Improper burial could easily lead to the second death, or "the complete destruction of all trace and memory of a person upon earth."(6)
But the question still remains of how the LORD could turn on the people he swore to protect. Quite simply, they were guilty of breaking the covenant. The prophets speak of "a people that had lost touch with its special identity."(7) The Israelites were certainly unique among the nations of their time. They were an island of monotheism in a sea of paganism. Part of the agreement covenant was to avoid the worship of foreign gods, and so the first commandment instantly sets Israel apart from the nations. Since they believed God to be on their side, many Israelites "looked forward to the Day of Yahweh at the end of time, when he would exalt Israel and humiliate the other nations."(8) But instead the prophets have the unpleasant duty of announcing "God's declaration of war on his own people, a war in which the Divine Warrior of Israel would inflame foreign armies to break out" against his chosen nation (italics his).(9) But idolatry isn't the only charge God has against Israel. He also accuses them of injustice against their neighbors. The LORD often speaks of how he brought Israel out of slavery, and in remembrance of this favor He asks that Israel treats her people well and expresses a concern for social justice, especially for the weak and poor. But the prophets tell of "a society characterized by double-dealing and deceit, by a wide disparity between the powerful and rich and the disenfranchised poor, and by ruling classes that simply ignore the prevailing injustices."(10) So for these wrongs, Israel would need to be punished.
Though for all the hardship he brings upon Israel, the LORD always offers the slightest bit of hope, the remnant. The prophets speak of a small part of Israel's population being saved as "God's promise that he will not destroy Jerusalem or the temple on Mount Zion completely."(11) However, the prophets don't always speak of this remnant in the most favorable terms. Amos likens the remnant to the leftover animal parts a shepherd might rescue from a hungry lion:
Thus says the LORD: As the shepherd rescues from the mouth of the lion two legs or a piece of an ear, so shall the people of Israel who live in Samaria be rescued, with the corner of a couch and the part of a bed.(12)
Isaiah plays on a similar idea, but chooses to reverse theological ideas of earlier times. His oracle of the remnant pictures Israel like sand of the sea:
A remnant will return, the remnant of Jacob, to the mighty God. For though your people Israel were like the sand of the sea, only a remnant of them will return.(13)
Here the prophet plays on the words of Genesis 22:17, where God promises to make the descendants of Abraham as numerous as the stars in the sky or the grains of sand by the sea. Jeremiah has what is perhaps the gentlest description of the remnant. He uses the well-known motif of picturing the LORD as a shepherd, as well as drawing off the words of Genesis 1:28:
Then I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply.(14)
While his fellow prophets use common themes and images to describe the remnant, Ezekiel takes a more unusual approach. Rather than describe the remnant, he symbolically acts out the fate of Israel at the LORD's command (5:1-4). He is told to cut off all his hair with a sword and divide it into three equal parts. One third of the hair is burned, one third is cut by a sword within the city, and one third is thrown to the wind. Of the remaining hairs, he is told to gather them within the folds of his robe. But even these survivors aren't safe. The prophet is told to take some of them and throw them into a fire. Ezekiel presents a picture of the LORD's complete and total wrath. Few are safe, most will be claimed by fire and sword or else deported to foreign lands.
After the destruction comes the restoration. The promise of a renewed Davidic Kingdom served as the only hope for the Israelites during their times of trouble. The prophets used a variety of images to describe this future, but there seems to be a common theme of comparing the restored Israel to plants. Amos describes it as a time when the city of David will restore itself, the people shall return home, the mountains will flow with wine, and the earth will be so fertile it will practically grow by itself. Amos concludes his oracle by likening Israel to a plant that will never be torn from the earth again (9:15). Isaiah gives several accounts of the restoration. He uses the wine/vineyard motif, where he compares Israel to a vineyard that he will guard day and night (27:2-3). Another interesting motif in Isaiah's oracle is he mentions the punishing of Leviathan by God's sword (27:1). Jeremiah also draws on the plant motif to describe the restored Israel. He compares the Israelites to figs, good and bad. The bad figs will be cursed with famine, war, and disease and not be allowed to enter the promised land (24:10). But of the good figs, God says he "will plant them, and not pluck them up."(15) Ezekiel draws on the plant motif as well. Chapter 17: 22-24 compares Israel to a spring from a cedar, which he will plant and turn into a fruitful tree. Even the other nations are seen as trees when God proclaims that "all the trees of the field shall know that I am the LORD."(16) For a culture based in the arid regions, the plant motif is a powerful one. Drought and storm can easily wipe away all the crops a farmer works for. So the promise of being planted like a good crop without the fear of being removed would certainly be reassuring and an image well understood. Ezekiel has another interesting vision of the restoration in chapter 37. He sees a valley of dried bones, and at the LORD's command the bones are again covered with flesh and sinew, allowing them to live again. God explains the meaning of this vision. The dry bones represent Israel, cut off from hope. But the LORD tells Israel he will open their graves and bring them back home. The most unusual aspect of this vision is that of resurrection. There is little in ancient Judaism to support the return from the grave. Wisdom passages in the Old Testament seem to indicate the Sheol is a permanent home, the path to which is only traveled once.
The prophets during this period make one thing clear: their society is breaking down. Amos speaks of this breakdown with his repetitious use of the words justice and righteousness. The prophet "connects the injustice he sees around him to a society bent on wealth and prosperity and forgetful of the true worship of God."(17) He lashes out against the upper class in particular, and in one of his most powerful oracles, he compares wealthy women to cows (4:1-3). Koch finds a modern day comparison to this shocking speech. He writes "imagine someone in London or Washington declaring at the top of his voice that the wives of the Prime Minister and the President are fat cows, wallowing in luxury at the cost of the taxpayer."(18) Isaiah shares some of Amos' concerns. He also attacks the upper class who seemed to show little concern for the nation's poor. He denounces those who "join house to house, who add field to field, until there is room for no one but you."(19) He is attacking the rich land owners who try to possess as much property as they can, leaving nothing for the weak and poor. He also criticizes those who drink their lives away. He sarcastically laments for these people: "Ah, you who are heroes in drinking wine and valiant at mixing drink!"(20) Amos and Jeremiah also criticize those who partake in the marzeah, or ritual mourning feast. Apparently, "these feasts lasted several days and were accompanied by excessive drinking. Wealth and affluence apparently were prerequisites for participation."(21) Their behavior draws them away from the important things in life, like worshipping God. Archeology supports the existence of these feasts. Ivory bowls and couches have been recovered from ancient Samaritan archeology sites, many of which contain pagan images or inscriptions. This evidence indicates a return to idolatry, "which may have outraged Amos as much as the luxury and affluence that the ivories reflected."(22)
The prophets during the exile had an especially difficult task ahead of them. Jeremiah's "work is precisely linked to the issues surrounding the crisis of 587. His task is to help his community to face the loss of the old world of king and temple and to receive a new world defined by Yahweh."(23) Isaiah points to an even more important issue. He stresses the return of internal devotion to the external practices of worship. He voices concern for his countrymen. He proclaims that God will not listen to their prayers or take their sacrifices until Israel has learned to work for justice rather than personal profit (1:15-17).
An interesting trend between some Isaiah and Jeremiah was to see other nations as tools of God. Isaiah speaks of the Persian king Cyrus as God's Messiah (45: 1-4) and Jeremiah claims the Babylonian king Nebuchadrezzer as God's servant (25:9). "The old partisan God of Moses would have cast Assyria in the role of the enemy; the God of Isaiah saw Assyria as his instrument."(24) The LORD needed to use these foreign nations to discipline the nation that couldn't keep his laws. This must have been a rude wake up call to Israel, who long thought of themselves as the most righteous of nations. These scriptures point to a breakdown of the moral state of society. So to sum up the prophets' message: the drama of the religious ritual is meaningless without an equally dramatic display of faith in the heart. So when the children wouldn't listen, God would need to turn to their enemies to make this message clear.
The words of the prophets point to one conclusion: Israel was not keeping up its part of the covenant. "Instead of compassion, there was self-aggrandizement. In place of truth came unprincipled calculation."(25) In earlier days, the LORD stressed the importance of serving God and loving one's neighbor. But those laws had been violated. The poor were trampled upon, slaves were violated, there was idolatry, and the people ignored God's word. So what would be a more fitting punishment than to reverse the covenant? That is exactly what the LORD did. For example, one of the most well-known parts of the covenant was the promise of a land for the Israelites. According to Deuteronomy, God will bring his people into a great new land filled with wonders:
When the LORD your God has brought you into the land that he swore to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give to you-a land with fine, large cities that you did not build, houses filled with all sorts of goods that you did not fill, hewn cisterns that you did not hew, vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant-and when you have eaten your fill, take care that you do not forget the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.(26)
But things take a turn for the worse when Israel strays from Torah, the LORD reverses that which he has done:
Therefore because you trample
on the poor
and take from them levies
you have built houses of
but you shall not live in them;
you have planted pleasant
but you shall not drink
Only after Israel has repented, can the devastation be again reversed so the nation may prosper:
I will restore the fortunes of my
and they shall rebuild the
ruined cities and inhabit
they shall plant vineyards and
drink their wine,
and they shall make gardens
and eat their fruit.(28)
These are the benefits of returning to God. Israel had become prideful of her privileged place in the sight of the LORD, and she would need to learn that the covenant "meant responsibility, not privilege."(29) If Israel is to enjoy the full favor of God, she must first earn it by taking responsibility for the world around her; justice must be strived for, good must be done, and the temptation to do evil must be avoided. At times, it may appear the LORD is punishing Israel for no reason, but God has his reason for bringing on this terrible day. "The real issues concerned responsiveness to Yahweh, obedience to Torah, care for neighbor."(30) Israel would need to return to God before returning home.
For all its visions of doom, the Day of the LORD is about restoration. It is a cycle, much akin to Ragnarok or the Five Suns. It is a cycle of the nation of Israel. Israel was a nation born from the love and hope of the LORD. But the day would come when the children would rebel like defiant teenagers. Then God, the chastising parent, needs to step in to set his children strait. The punishments are terrible: fire, famine, and the whip of the opposing nation. But the people who survive this terrible judgment come to know the true love of God, and in the end they reap the rewards. During times of trouble, God may seem distant and untouchable, perhaps even uncaring, but the Israelites needed "to see that the blows of history were not random and arbitrary but had a deeper logic and justice."(31) Everything is a part of his plan to see a new world of justice and righteousness replace the old world of greed and wickedness.
Armstrong, Karen. A History of God. New York, Ballentine Books, 1993.
Boadt, Lawrence. Reading the Old Testament: An Introduction. New York/Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1984.
Brueggemann, Walter. Hopeful Imagination: Prophetic Voices in Exile. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986.
King, Philip J. "The Marzeah Amos Denounces." Biblical Archeology Review 14, 1988.
Koch, Klaus. The Prophets: The Assyrian Period. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1982.
Spencer, A.J. Death in Ancient Egypt. London: Penguin Group, 1982.
Urbrock, William J. "Jeremiah: A Man for Our Seasoning." Currents in Theology and Mission 5, 1978.
2Lawrence Boadt, Reading the Old Testament: An Introduction (New York/Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1984), 314.
4Isaiah 24: 3-4.
5 Klaus Koch, The Prophets: The Assyrian Period (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987), 37.
6A.J. Spencer, Death in Ancient Egypt (London: Penguin Books, 1982), 142.
7William J. Urbrock, "Jeremiah: A Man for Our Seasoning," Currents in Theology and Mission 5 (1978): 147.
8Karen Armstrong, A History of God (New York: Ballantine Books, 1993), 65.
11 Reading, 331.
12 Amos 3:12.
13 Isaiah 10: 21-22.
14 Jeremiah 23: 3.
15 Jeremiah 24: 6.
16 Ezekiel 17: 24.
17 Reading, 317.
18 The Prophets, 47.
19 Isaiah 5:8.
20 Isaiah 5: 22.
21Philip J. King, "The Marzeah Amos Denounces," Biblical Archeology Review 14 (1988): 36.
22"The Marzeah," 40.
23 Walter Brueggemann, Hopeful Imagination: Prophetic Voices in Exile (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986), 12.
24A History, 43.
25 Hopeful, 33.
26 Deuteronomy 6:10-12.
27 Amos 5:11.
28 Amos 9:14.
29A History, 46.
30 Hopeful, 33.
31A History, 59.
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