The writings of the Hebrew prophets are, for many people, the cornerstone of the Hebrew Bible. In some of the most vivid and beautiful language in all literature, the Hebrew prophets castigate the wrongdoer, denounce injustice, offer consolation to those in misery, call for repentance and righteousness, predict calamity and envision renewal and peace.
So powerful are the prophets as literary and historical figures, so majestic are their words, that we tend to think of them as a monolithic group. But it is important to remember that the prophets were active over a span of centuries in widely different locales, responding to very different national crises.
The prophet Nathan, for example, denounced King David in Jerusalem sometime in the early tenth century B.C. for his adultery with Bathsheba and for arranging the death of her husband, Uriah the Hittite. Elijah humiliated the priests of Baal on Mt. Carmel, near Israel’s northern coast, about the middle of the ninth century B.C. The prophetic careers of Amos and Hosea occurred in the northern kingdom of Israel in the middle of the eighth century B.C.,a at a time when that kingdom was coming under tremendous military pressure from the Assyrians. Isaiah and Micah were active in the latter half of that same century, but in the southern kingdom of Judah. Judah, too, was attacked by the Assyrians but, unlike its northern counterpart, it withstood the onslaught.
Jeremiah and Ezekiel prophesied as Jerusalem fell to the Babylonian general Nebuchadnezzar in 587/586 B.C. That great national catastrophe, and the ensuing Exile in Babylonia, naturally dominated their messages. It is also to the Exilic period that scholars assign the figure called Second Isaiah, or Deutero-Isaiah (Isaiah 40–66). It is widely held that the Book of Isaiah is the record of at least two, and possibly three, prophets (perhaps even schools of prophets) who lived hundreds of years apart.b
Even later were Haggai and Zechariah, who foretold the return of the exiles and the rebuilding of the Jerusalem Temple early in the reign of the Persian king Darius, about 520 B.C. Finally, Malachi, the last prophet included in the Hebrew Bible, was active in the first half of the fifth century B.C. From Nathan (not to mention the even-earlier Samuel) to Malachi stretched a span of 500 years.
However, despite their separation in time and locale, the Hebrew prophets shared, to a very great extent, a specific set of metaphorical images with which they expressed themselves.
Brides, harlots, lambs, lions, grapes, briers, wine, vomit—these are among the vivid word pictures used over and over again by the prophets. Their poetic imagination creates a tapestry so crowded with images that our prosaic 20th-century minds may have trouble discerning the messages within the pictures. But as we read and reread the prophets, we find their images grouped in clusters, and we discover that different clusters are often used to tell essentially the same story.
This article will focus on four such image clusters: images of sexual relationships, of animals, of vineyards and of the drinking of wine. Tracing these four different image clusters through the prophetic books, we see the prophets repeatedly using them to develop a single drama centered on the relationship between God and his chosen people. This divine-human drama is played out in four acts. As the curtain goes up on Act I, God and his people 040enter a covenant; God will ensure his people’s security and prosperity in return for adherence to the code of conduct spelled out in the Pentateuch (the five books of Moses). In Act II the people rebel and go their own willful way. In Act III they suffer punishment for their rebellion. Act IV envisions God reaching out to restore his people to full life and the relationship with him he intended them to have all along.
This basic plot line is played out differently, depending on which of the four image clusters is being utilized, as follows:
Sexual relationships: God takes his people as his beloved bride, but the bride turns adulteress or harlot and is humiliated by her lovers before she is finally restored as God’s wife.
Animals: God’s people are his domesticated animals, but they turn wild and are ravaged by wild animals before they are rescued by their rightful master and returned to his care.
Vineyards: God’s people are a vineyard he plants and tends, but the vines grow wild and the vineyard is ruined before God again makes fruitful vines grow.
Drinking of wine: God’s people enjoy the good wine God provides, but when they misuse it and become drunk, they must drink the cup of God’s wrath before God again gives them new wine to enjoy.
Only rarely does a prophet describe the entire four-part drama with a single image cluster in one oracle. More often, the prophets introduce images drawn from the four different clusters in a seemingly haphazard way. But the images have a cumulative effect: As we see the same patterns over and over in the different prophets, we gradually learn to visualize the whole drama in all its power each time one of the images appears.
Let us look at each act in the four-part divine- human drama to see how the prophets mix and match images to add dimension and impact.
Act I: The Covenant Between God and His people
God is the sympathetic leading character in the prophets’ drama. In the imagery of sexual relationships, he is the suitor, the husband, the lover. like a 041bridegroom, he delights in Israel, the nation he has chosen to love. His heart is bound up with her. He provides for her every need and showers her with special gifts, wanting to make her as lovely as possible. He is faithful to her, and naturally expects her to be faithful to him. The husband/wife imagery is used most fully by Hosea (2:1–13) and by Ezekiel in the following passage:
“[W]hen I looked at you and saw that you were old enough for love, I spread the corner of my garment over you and covered your nakedness. I gave you my solemn oath and entered into a covenant with you, declares the Sovereign Lord, and you became mine.
“I bathed you … I clothed you … I adorned you …. So you were adorned with gold and silver; your clothes were of fine linen and costly fabric and embroidered cloth. Your food was fine flour, honey and olive oil. You became very beautiful and rose to be a queen.”
The prophets, when they use animal imagery, give us a somewhat different slant on the relationship God wants to have with his people. They are domesticated animals and God is their master. God is depicted as superior to his human creatures, guiding and directing them. Oxen images, for example, emphasize the people’s responsibility to submit to God’s yoke so they can do his work. Micah portrays God’s people as oxen carrying out his plans:
“Rise and thresh, O Daughter of Zion,
for I will give you horns of iron;
I will give you hoofs of bronze
and you will break to pieces many nations.”
Animal imagery is also used by the prophets to suggest the total dependence of Israel on God’s care. Sheep metaphors, in particular, emphasize that the people need to be fed and led and protected by God. He gladly provides these services for them, even as he exercises mastery over them:
“See, the Sovereign Lord comes with power,
and his arm rules for him.
See, his reward is with him,
and his recompense accompanies him.
He tends his flock like a shepherd;
He gathers the lambs in his arms
and carries them close to his heart;
He gently leads those that have young.”
The third type of imagery, which pictures God’s people as vines in God’s vineyards, is used most memorably by Isaiah:
“My loved one [God] had a vineyard
on a fertile hillside.
He dug it up and cleared it of stones
and planted it with the choicest vines.
He built a watchtower in it
and cut out a winepress as well.
Then he looked for a crop of good grapes,
but it yielded only bad fruit …
‘What more could have been done for my
vineyard than I have done for it?’ ”
Isaiah 5:1–2, 4
Here we see that God has a purpose for his people: He expects them to produce good fruit on the land that he has prepared for them.
The last image cluster within Act I—the covenant between God and his people—focuses on drinking wine. God provides the gift of wine; his people are stewards who ought to use the gift properly and praise God. Isaiah expresses the ideal relationship: “[T]hose who gather the grapes will drink [the new wine] in the courts of my sanctuary” (Isaiah 62:9). Here the people who have toiled with God to produce the wine celebrate by drinking it in his presence.
All four image clusters picture the intended relationship between God and his people as one in which God takes the initiative, showering his loved ones with all they could ever need or desire. In return, God longs for his people to respond by submitting to restraints, by becoming who he wants them to be and by doing what he wants them to do.
Act II: The People Rebel
Using the four image clusters, the prophets vividly portray the damage the chosen people do to themselves when they rebel against God. God’s bride, though cherished and chosen to enjoy intimacy with him, turns to adultery and prostitution. God’s domestic animals rebel and stray, trading the security of stall or pasture for the dangers of the wild. God’s vineyards produce bad fruit or thorns and briers, and God’s gift of wine is used not for celebration but for drunkenness.
When people turn away from God, God’s gifts to them are spoiled. When Judah turns to worshipping idols, Jeremiah declares:
“I gave faithless Israel her certificate of divorce and sent her away because of all her adulteries. Yet I saw that her unfaithful sister Judah had no fear; she also went out and committed adultery … with stone and wood” (Jeremiah 3:8–9).
Jeremiah also pictures the people of Judah as headstrong animals who resist their divine master’s control:
“Each pursues his own course
like a horse charging into battle ….
My people do not know
the requirements of the Lord.”
Even in the imagery of vineyards, Jeremiah portrays God’s people as choosing to turn away from him:
“I had planted you like a choice vine
of sound and reliable stock.
How then did you turn against me
into a corrupt, wild vine?”
Isaiah describes the people’s pursuit of drunkenness as they ignore God:
“…[T]hose who rise early in the morning
to run after their drinks,
who stay up late at night
till they are inflamed with wine …
have no regard for the deeds of the Lord,
no respect for the work of his hands.”
The prophets recognize that it is God’s very love and generosity that enable his people to rebel. The more gifts he gives them, the more self-sufficient they think they are, the more likely they are to turn their backs on him:
“ ‘… your fame spread among the nations on account of your beauty, because the splendor I had given you made your beauty perfect,’ declares the Sovereign Lord. ‘But you trusted in your beauty and used your fame to become a prostitute. You … took fine jewelry I gave you, the jewelry made of my gold and silver, and you made for yourself male idols and engaged in prostitution with them.’ ”
The prophets also use the four image clusters we have been exploring to show that people who choose the way of rebellion gradually lose their power to choose. Ezekiel decries those who prostitute themselves; they soon are controlled by the lust they have unleashed:
“How weak-willed you are, declares the Sovereign Lord, when you do all these things, acting like a brazen prostitute! [Y]ou were unlike a prostitute because you scorned payment …. Every prostitute receives a fee, but you give gifts to all your lovers, bribing them to come to you from everywhere.”
Ezekiel 16:30–31, 33
When Jeremiah uses wild animals to picture God’s chosen, his flock, the prophet is intimating that those who rebel against God may find it impossible to turn back. They can no more choose to do good than a leopard can choose to change its spots (Jeremiah 13:23).
With vineyard and wine imagery, the prophets show two kinds of evil choices made by rebellious people that lead them to lose their freedom: They misuse wine and then succumb to drunkenness (Joel 1:5); they turn tended vineyards to unproductive wild vines (Micah 7:1–4). At some point a person crosses the line and is trapped in his bad actions. The drunk must eventually stagger and fall unconscious; the wild vine can no longer produce good fruit.
Thus these four image clusters make powerful statements about how people lose their freedom when they rebel against God.
Act III: Rebellion Brings Punishment
The prophets make it clear that terrible and just consequences inevitably follow rebellion against God. “As you have done, it will be done to you; your deeds will return upon your own head” (Obadiah, v. 15).
The prophets use all four image clusters to demonstrate God’s “poetic justice” for his rebellious people. Since God’s bride has behaved like a harlot, running after the gods of other nations, she should not be surprised when those nations turn on her to shame her and to expose her lewd behavior:
“Because you poured out your wealth and exposed your nakedness in your promiscuity with your lovers … I will hand you over to your lovers, and they will tear down your mounds and destroy your lofty shrines. They will strip you of your clothes and take your fine jewelry and leave you naked and bare.”
Ezekiel 16:36, 39
If God’s domesticated beasts choose to turn away from the master who has cared for them, behaving instead like wild animals, it is fitting that their enemies should attack them like wild beasts, and that they should lie unburied like wild beasts. Sometimes the prophets picture God himself as a ferocious animal punishing his rebellious people:
“When I fed them, they were satisfied;
when they were satisfied, they became proud;
then they forgot me.
So I will come upon them like a lion,
like a leopard I will lurk by the path.
Like a bear robbed of her cubs,
I will attack them and rip them open.
Like a lion I will devour them;
a wild animal will tear them apart.”
If God’s vineyard turns wild and fails to produce good fruit, God devastates the vineyard:
“When I looked for good grapes,
why did it yield only bad? …
I will make it a wasteland,
neither pruned nor cultivated,
and briers and thorns will grow there.
I will command the clouds
not to rain on it.”
If people choose to enjoy God’s good gifts without acknowledging his lordship, they experience a harvest that is far from joyful (Jeremiah 6:9; Joel 3:13) and are forced to drink the cup of God’s wrath (Jeremiah 25:15–31, 48:26):
“Then tell them, ‘This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: “Drink, get drunk and vomit, and fall to rise no more because of the sword I will send among you.” ’ But if they refuse to take the cup from your hand and drink, tell them, ‘This is what the Lord Almighty says: “You must drink it! …” ’
“The Lord will roar from on high:
he will lift his voice from his holy dwelling
and roar mightily against his land.
He will shout like those who tread the grapes,
shout against all who live on the earth.”
Jeremiah 25:27–28, 30
Often nakedness figures in the imagery of appropriate punishment. The harlot’s nakedness will be exposed (Jeremiah 13:22, 26). Victims of war, plague and famine will be left exposed to the elements; their carcasses will lie unburied where wild animals can mutilate and devour them (Jeremiah 7:33–8:2). In the harvest of God’s wrath, the vines will be stripped bare (Jeremiah 49:9–10), and in drinking the cup of wrath, people may be expose and disgraced (Habakkuk 2:15–16). Such images of nakedness are effective, at least in part, because they are essentially images of animality. Clothing is one of the distinguishing marks that set human beings apart from animals. Since rebellious people have chosen to be less than God made them to be, they will ultimately have all vestiges of human dignity stripped away.
One phrase summarizes the imagery of the people’s punishment: “Being carried away.” Three of the image clusters show people choosing to let themselves be carried away by lust or animal violence or strong drink. Soon they become helplessly addicted to these passions. Then others take advantage of their helplessness to attack them. God orchestrates these attacks, for they are his punishment for their rebellion. Ultimately exile is the perfect image of appropriate punishment, as the people who chose to be “carried away” are in fact carried away into Babylon. Note the number of images of “being carried away” Jeremiah uses when he describes Judah’s impending captivity in chapter 13:
“This is what the Lord says: I am going to fill with drunkenness all who live in this land, including the kings who sit on David’s throne, the priests, the prophets and all those living in Jerusalem. I will smash them one against another ….
“I will pull up your skirts over your face
that your shame may be seen—
your adulteries and lustful neighings, your
“My eyes will weep bitterly, overflowing with tears,
because the Lord’s flock will be taken captive…
All Judah will be carried into exile,
carried completely away.”
Jeremiah 13:13–14, 26–27, 13:17, 19
Act IV: God Restores His People
The last act of the divine-human drama demonstrates that God has no intention of letting rebellion have the last word. Though disobedient humans have gotten themselves into a tragic mess, God plans to bring at least some of them back into harmony with himself and to restore their full humanity. The prophets suggest that he will somehow “undo” all the damage their rebellion has done.
Isaiah paints a beautiful picture of how God will restore the marriage relationship with his people:
“ ‘Do not be afraid; you will not suffer shame.
Do not fear disgrace; you will not be humiliated.
You will forget the shame of your youth
and remember no more the reproach of your widowhood.
For your Maker is your husband….
The Lord will call you back as if you were a wife
deserted and distressed in spirit—
a wife who married young only to be rejected,’
says your God.
‘For a brief moment I abandoned you,
but with deep compassion I will bring you back.
In a surge of anger I hid my face from you for a moment,
but with everlasting kindness I will have
compassion on you,’
says the Lord your Redeemer.”
Though God’s people deserve reproach because they have rejected and abandoned him, God takes the role of the offender on himself, speaking to his people as if he were the one who had rejected and 044abandoned them. Though it is the wife who has been unfaithful, it will be the husband reaching out, humbling himself in order to undo her sin’s damage.
In Jeremiah, this same theme of canceled sin is combined with imagery of a restored flock as God promises that he will bring his people back to their land:
“ ‘I will bring Israel back to his own pasture … In those days, at that time,’ declares the Lord, ‘Search will be made for Israel’s guilt, but there will be none….’ ”
Ezekiel 34 gives us the most extended picture in all the prophets of how God will restore the relationship with his strayed sheep:
“For this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I myself will search for my sheep and look after them … I will rescue them…. I will bring them out from the nations and gather them from the countries, and I will bring them into their own land…. I will tend them in a good pasture … I myself will tend my sheep and have them lie down, declares the Sovereign Lord. I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak.”
Again all the initiative lies with the Lord. As the shepherd of his people, he will personally do what needs to be done to erase the consequences of human sinfulness. Being lost, the injuries, the hunger, the fatigue will disappear as his people feed on rich pastures and lie down at ease in his presence.
Isaiah goes a step further in his use of animal imagery to picture restoration. Not only will the domesticated animals be restored to God’s tender care, but even the wild animals will now be tamed and included in God’s harmonious kingdom:
“The cow will feed with the bear,
their young will lie down together,
and the lion will eat straw like the ox.
The infant will play near the hole of the cobra,
and the young child put his hand into the viper’s nest.
They will neither harm nor destroy
on all my holy mountain,
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.”
In Amos we find the most vivid pictures of Israel as a replanted vineyard and of God’s people drinking new wine in the restored kingdom:
“ ‘The days are coming,’ declares the Lord,
‘when the reaper will be overtaken by the plow man
and the planter by the one treading grapes.
New wine will drip from the mountains
and flow from all the hills.
I will bring back my exiled people Israel;
they will rebuild the ruined cities and live in them.
They will plant vineyards and drink their wine;
they will make gardens and eat their fruit.
I will plant Israel in their own land,
never again to be uproot from the land I have given them,’
says the Lord your God.”
God will plant his people again, and this time they will be securely rooted in dependence on him. Drawing their nourishment from his generous love, they will fulfill the purpose he intends for them. Their lives will be filled with constructive effort (plowing, planting, reaping, treading grapes, rebuilding), followed by rich enjoyment of the fruits of their labors. Here again God undoes the damage sin has done, for all this exuberent productivity is the very antithesis of the destructive cycles which the people set in motion when they rebelled against their creator.
Restoration passages in the prophets frequently combine images from two or three of the clusters we have been examining to create a particularly lyrical picture of God’s love and his determination to carry out his intentions for his people. Hosea 2:14–23 is a good example. Imagery of a love relationship pre-dominates as God states his intention to “allure” his people, “speak tenderly” to them and “betroth” them to himself forever (Hosea 2:14, 19). But there is animal imagery as well, as God promises to make a covenant with “the beasts of the field and the birds of the air and the creatures that move along the ground … so that all may lie down in safety” (Hosea 2:18). And images of vineyards and new wine round out the picture (Hosea 2:15, 22–23). Hosea envisions a time when God in his graciousness will reach out to overcome the terrible alienation created by his people’s unfaithfulness:
“I will show my love to the one I called ‘Not
my loved one.’
I will say to those called ‘Not my people,’ ‘You
are my people’;
and they will say, ‘You are my God.’ ”
The Prophets’ Images in the New Testament
The four image clusters we have explored also play a role in New Testament writings. The Old Testament prophets painted poetic pictures of how Act IV—the restoration of God’s people—would be played out. Their visions applied to a future time, a time they would not live to see. In contrast, the Gospel writers believe they have already seen the curtain go up on Act IV. When they echo the images used by the Old Testament prophets, it is with the conviction that in Jesus the Old Testament prophesies are being fulfilled. God, through Jesus, takes the initiative to restore people to fullness of life and to right relationship with him.
Jesus is the divine bridegroom who has come for his bride (John 3:28–29; 2 Corinthians 11:2; Ephesians 5:25–27; Revelation 19:7).
Jesus is the gentle master who invites sin-weary creatures to find rest under his yoke (Matthew 11:29–30), and he is the loving shepherd who seeks his sheep and lays down his life for them so that they may have abundant life (Matthew 9:36; John 10:1–18; Hebrews 13:20).
Jesus is the vine whose followers can be fruitful branches if they will only abide in him (John 15:1–8).
In his death, Jesus drinks the cup of God’s wrath (Matthew 26:36–45; John 18:11) so that his followers can joyously drink the wine of the new covenant, the new relationship which he makes possible between God and sinful people (Luke 22:19–20).
Tracing the imagery of sexual relationships, of animals, of vineyards and of wine-drinking through the Old Testament prophets and on into the New Testament, we are gripped anew by the power of the biblical drama.
The writings of the Hebrew prophets are, for many people, the cornerstone of the Hebrew Bible. In some of the most vivid and beautiful language in all literature, the Hebrew prophets castigate the wrongdoer, denounce injustice, offer consolation to those in misery, call for repentance and righteousness, predict calamity and envision renewal and peace. So powerful are the prophets as literary and historical figures, so majestic are their words, that we tend to think of them as a monolithic group. But it is important to remember that the prophets were active over a span of centuries in widely […]