Each of these has its place – the first in biology, the second in physics, the third in secular history. But none was time as the prophets understood it. The prophets saw time as the arena in which the great drama between God and humanity was played out, especially in the history of Israel. If Israel was faithful to its mission, its covenant, it would flourish. If it was unfaithful, it would fail. It would suffer defeat and exile. That is what Jeremiah never tired of telling his contemporaries.
The second prophetic insight was the unbreakable connection between monotheism and morality. Somehow the prophets sensed – it is implicit in all their words, though they do not explain it explicitly – that idolatry was not just false. It was also corrupting. It saw the universe as a multiplicity of powers that often clashed. The battle went to the strong. Might defeated right. The fittest survived while the weak perished.
The prophets opposed this with all their force. For them the power of God was secondary; what mattered was the righteousness of God. Precisely because God loved and had redeemed Israel, Israel owed Him loyalty as their sole ultimate sovereign. And if they were unfaithful to God they would also be unfaithful to their fellow humans. They would lie, rob, and cheat: Jeremiah doubts whether there was one honest person in the whole of Jerusalem (Jeremiah 5:1). They would become sexually adulterous and promiscuous: “I supplied all their needs, yet they committed adultery and thronged to the houses of prostitutes. They are well-fed, lusty stallions, each neighing for another man’s wife” (Jeremiah 5:7-8).
Their third great insight was the primacy of ethics over politics. The prophets have surprisingly little to say about politics. Yes, Samuel was wary of monarchy but we find almost nothing in Isaiah or Jeremiah about the way Israel/Judah should be governed. Instead we hear a constant insistence that the strength of a nation – certainly of Israel/Judah – is not military or demographic but moral and spiritual. If the people keep faith with God and with one another, no force on earth can defeat them. If they do not, no force can save them. As Jeremiah says in this week’s haftarah, they will discover too late that their false gods offered false comfort:
“They say to wood, ‘You are my father,’ and to stone, ‘You gave me birth.’ They have turned their backs to me and not their faces; yet when they are in trouble, they say, ‘Come and save us!’ Where then are the gods you made for yourselves? Let them come if they can save you when you are in trouble! For you have as many gods as you have towns, O Judah” (Jeremiah 2: 27-28).
Jeremiah, the most passionate and tormented of all the prophets, has gone down in history as the prophet of doom. Yet this is unfair. He was also supremely a prophet of hope. He is the man who said that the people of Israel would be as eternal as the sun, moon and stars (Jeremiah 31). He is the man who, while the Babylonians were laying siege to Jerusalem, bought a field as a public gesture of faith that Jews would return from exile: “For this is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: ‘Houses, fields and vineyards will again be bought in this land’ ” (Jeremiah 32).
Jeremiah’s feelings of doom and hope were not in conflict: there were two sides of the same coin. The God who sentenced His people to exile would be the God who brought them back, for though His people might forsake Him, He would never forsake them. Jeremiah may have lost faith in people; he never lost faith in God.
Prophecy ceased in Israel with Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi in the Second Temple era. But the prophetic truths have not ceased to be true. Only by being faithful to God do people stay faithful to one another. Only by being open to a power greater than themselves do people become greater than themselves. Only by understanding the deep forces that shape history can a people defeat the ravages of history. It took a long time for biblical Israel to learn these truths, and a very long time indeed before they returned to their land – reentering the arena of history. We must never forget them again.