The Bible’s missing middle

“And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.” (Luke 24:27)

“They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace.” (Jeremiah 6:14)

When Jesus spoke about “the law and the prophets,” this was shorthand for the Hebrew Scripture we call the Old Testament that also contained “the writings”: Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, etc.

Back then the order and categorization of the books were different, but now that we have the full complement, the prophets (major like Isaiah through minor like Malachi) are in the middle. In total pages, the prophets are actually comparable in length to the New Testament. (I thought they were less until I took a look.)

I call them “missing” for a couple of reasons. First, as a young believer in college learning how to study the Bible inductively, quotes from the prophets turned up most frequently as messianic predictions in the gospels and Paul’s letters.

This is as it should be. “He came unto his own,” and these writers wanted to demonstrate the continuity between the Old Testament prophecies and their New Testament fulfillment. The kingdom was at hand because the King had said so and confirmed it by demonstrations of kingdom power.

But at that point I didn’t understand very much about the history leading up to this moment. Israel (the northern 10 tribes) and then Judah had, in turn, been invaded and the people deported. The temple had been destroyed.

Up until then, the Lord God had been their king, but from that point forward they were subject to other, human kings such as Nebuchadnezzar, Darius and Cyrus. And at the time of Jesus’ ministry, they were a Roman province. It had been centuries since they had been free and prosperous.

What was “missing” from my understanding was the sometimes contentious exchanges between prophets and people, the startling announcement that God himself was going to raise up the Babylonians (Hab 1:5-11) and give them leave to overrun the nation, and the grievous and sometimes horrible consequences of ignoring God that followed in their wake (read Lamentations, for example, but not all at once).

It’s no small thing that a nation of ex-slaves from Egypt that had become a nation, then a powerful nation under the likes of David and Solomon, should be taken into captivity far from their Promised Land, enslaved a second time. So “the middle” is too big to ignore.

But I did for about the first six years I was a believer, from college freshman through grad school then on to a short-term stint in overseas missions. But that changed when my life changed.

Yes, Scripture takes precedence over experience, but experience which is, after all, guided by the Holy Spirit (“the steps of a man are established by the Lord, when he delights in his way,” Ps 37:24), can be a lens through which we read Scripture and see ourselves therein.

For example, Isaiah 54:1 announces, “’Sing, O barren woman, you who never bore a child; burst into song, shout for joy, you who were never in labor; because more are the children of the desolate woman than of her who has a husband,’ says the Lord.”

This isn’t addressed to a married woman with children, literal or metaphorical. It’s for the “barren woman.” It’s a powerful yet tender word of consolation to those whose physical, emotional and spiritual barrenness has left them bereft of joy and hope because of long suffering. It’s a balm for the wounds caused by such suffering. But if you haven’t been wounded you just won’t feel it the same way. (Re-read the whole chapter if you haven’t recently; it’s prophetic consolation at its best.)

Jeremiah 29:11, “I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future,” is an incredible promise, like cold water on a blistering hot day, against the background of a nation frog-marched into exile far from their pleasant habitation.

This was their lot: “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. There on the poplars we hung our harps, for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’ How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?” (Ps 137:1-4).

This is what it was like to be captives in a strange land. To hear phrases like “plans to prosper you,” “to give you hope and future” would have sent their spirits soaring in contrast to the taunts of their captors.

Remove Jeremiah 29:11 from its context, however, and it has just an artificially sweet taste. It can be just a greeting card sentiment (which it is, of course) or a tee-shirt testimony. It’s not that it’s no longer true, but some (most?) of its life has been drained off.

It’s a truism that if we want “the whole will of God” (Acts 20:27) no part of the Scripture can be airbrushed into sepia sentimentality or erased altogether. Times have changed in just six short months (or maybe not so short to you). For many, things seem to have gone dry.

If we have, in effect, dug our own cisterns for too long, “broken cisterns that cannot hold water” (Jer 2:13-14), we have to ask ourselves the question in the very next verse: “Is Israel a servant, a slave by birth? Why then has he become plunder?”

The answer, I believe, is in the prophets.

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