As part of our Lenten preparation for the Pascha of our Lord, the Orthodox Church has assigned regular Old Testament readings for each day of Great Lent. Through the course of Lent, large portions of the books Isaiah, Genesis, and Proverbs are prescribed to read. And of course, at the Vesperal Liturgy of St. Basil on Great and Holy Saturday, we read fifteen passages from the Old Testament, all of which prophecy the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ our Lord.
Let’s be honest. Hearing fifteen readings in a row can be a bit overwhelming. During these readings, we might find ourselves zoning out. Maybe we’re thinking about all the varieties of food we’re going to eat in a few short hours. And even if we’re able to concentrate, we might find it difficult to see the connection between the Old Testament prophecies being read and Pascha. Especially difficult to answer can be the thoughts, “What does this have to do with Pascha? What does this have to do with me?”
But in response to these hypothetical questions, the Church emphatically responds, “It’s got everything to do with Pascha. It’s got everything to do with you!” We read these prophecies during our services to remind us that just as God prepared His people Israel for many centuries for His appearance in the flesh, so are we, the true Israel of God, being prepared to encounter our resurrected Christ.
In this reflection I will give a brief introduction to the Old Testament prophets. We will begin with a survey of the Old Testament, then discuss the prophets’ historical context, their place in Scripture as a whole, who they were, and finally, what message they have for us, especially during the Lenten season of repentance.
Our readings from the Old Testament confront us with the entire span of salvation history, so let’s begin in the most logical place: the very beginning.
In the beginning, Adam and Eve were created for union with God. They were created to be in relationship with Him. As we read in the passage from Genesis on the first Wednesday of Great Lent, “God said, ‘Let us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness’” (Genesis 1:26). We were created with the innate potential to resemble God in virtuous living, to live forever in the dynamic life of spiritual growth in His deifying grace. As Orthodox Christians, we believe that God even intended for them to become gods (little “g”) by grace.
Adam and Eve had been commanded to not eat the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, or else they would die. So, they had the choice before them of obedience to God and the gift of immortality, or disobedience and death (Genesis 3).
But by eating the forbidden fruit, by disobeying His commandment, they chose death for themselves and for all mankind. The image of God in them was not destroyed, but rather tarnished, darkened.
God came looking for them, but they hid from Him. “Adam, Eve, where are you? What have you done? Come back to Me.” And instead of taking responsibility for their actions—instead of repentance—they blamed others. Adam actually blamed God: “This woman whom YOU gave me made me do it.” Likewise, Eve did not take responsibility for her sin, but blamed the serpent: basically, “The Devil made me do it.”
Adam and Eve’s children wandered further from God. They began to take human lives, they got used to debauchery, they became enslaved to sin (Genesis 6:5). Our Lord desired to bring them back into a relationship with Him. He desired to grant us immortality and release from our slavery to sin.
But just as you don’t teach a toddler calculus, God started with the basics. They were spiritually children, after all. We remember that God appeared to Abram, and said to him, “Get out of your country, from your family and from your father’s house, to a land that I will show you. I will make you a great nation…” (Gen. 12:1-2a.). Abraham was faithful to God and did all that the Lord commanded him.
We remember how God worked in the life of Abraham’s son Isaac, and Isaac’s son Jacob, and Jacob’s son Joseph, how by God’s Providence Joseph saved his brothers from the famine in Canaan (Genesis 24-50).
We remember how the Egyptians enslaved the Hebrews, until the Lord God revealed Himself to Moses. Through God’s mighty strength, God led the Hebrews out of Egypt, and destroyed Pharaoh’s army in the Red Sea. Miriam, Moses and Aaron’s sister, led the people in song with the words, “Let us sing to the Lord, for He is greatly glorified. Horse and rider He cast into the sea” (Exodus 15:21).
We remember that the Lord gave Moses the Law on Mount Sinai, and the people of Israel entered into a covenant with God (Exodus 19ff). They agreed to worship Him alone, and He promised that as long as they were faithful to Him, He would be a God of protection to them. But He also promised to punish their disobedience with whatever means would make them come to their senses (Deuteronomy 28).
God led them to the Promised Land, but they complained most of the way, and didn’t believe that He could defeat their enemies. Even while they were chewing the quail that God gave them for their survival, they complained (Numbers 11:33).
We remember the judges who ruled Israel once they got to the Promised Land: Gideon, Barak, Samson, and Jephthah, among others (Cf. Hebrews 11:32). Sometimes the people were faithful to the Lord and were given His power to defeat their enemies; sometimes they were unfaithful, and God punished them by allowing their enemies to capture their cities. But even then, when they cried out to the Lord, He delivered them (Judges).
We remember that the Lord called Samuel to be his prophet, to do His will among God’s people Israel. The people wanted a king like the other nations, so Samuel anointed Saul king, God giving His disappointed approval (1 Samuel 8).
But Saul did not trust God completely, and so the Lord chose David to be the new king, a man after His own heart. According to the Lord’s command, Samuel anointed him in Saul’s place, taking him from his sheepfold to shepherd God’s people Israel (2 Samuel 7:8).
We remember that during the reigns of David and his son Solomon, Israel was one, unified kingdom. But after Solomon, the kingdom split in two: Israel in the north, and Judah in the south, with its capital at Jerusalem. It is during this period, the “divided monarchy,” that the prophecies of Christ were proclaimed to the people, from about 900 to 500 B.C.
During the time of the prophets, both the Jewish kingdoms, Israel and Judah, were in steady spiritual decline, as they often chose to follow the false gods of the nations around them (which was most of the time), instead of the One True God.
The covenant they had made with God at Sinai was like a marriage, which is why the primary metaphor of Israel’s idol-worship in the prophets is adultery: Israel and Judah were like a faithless wife to their husband, God (Hosea).
Because the people did not turn from their wicked deeds, God used the might of the Assyrian Empire—the military superpower of their day—to utterly destroy the northern kingdom, Israel, in 721 B.C.
The southern kingdom, Judah, did not repent either, and so in 586 B.C., after many warnings, God allowed that kingdom to be destroyed by the Babylonians. Furthermore, He allowed the Babylonians to destroy the Temple that Solomon had built, the place where God dwelt among His people. The Babylonians slaughtered a multitude of the Jewish people, and most who survived were deported to Babylon.
But even then, God protected a remnant of the people. Even then, after all their disobedience, God called His people back to repentance. Just as He had warned them through His prophets many, many times that disobedience would result in destruction, when that destruction came, He had His prophets communicate to the people that He still desired their repentance, he still desired to raise them up from their humiliation.
The Prophet as Mediator
Now, when we hear the word “prophet,” often the first connotation that comes to mind is “someone who tells the future.” Perhaps we think of prophets as fortune-tellers, or someone we might try to get the winning lottery ticket numbers from.
However, prophecy in the Old Testament, and Christian prophecy as well, is not primarily future-oriented. Saying what will happen in the future is only one piece of the complex ministry that the prophets held, and it’s doubtful that they would give someone winning lottery numbers on command.
A prophet more fully understood is someone who communicates God’s will. He/she is someone who stands between God and men as a messenger, an intermediary, God’s chosen representative. He is God’s spokesperson, who only speaks that which God gives him to speak.
A prophet is also someone who interprets events in light of God’s will. In the Old Testament we see prophets explaining the significance of both local and international happenings. And this often leads to a call to repentance. The prophet is the moral whistleblower, who reproves kings, challenges idolaters, and fearlessly stands up for the oppressed: the widow, the orphan, and the resident foreigner (Isaiah 1:17); Jeremiah 22:3).
His messages were always relevant for the people he was speaking to, in the circumstances they were living in; however, this does not eliminate the possibility that a prophetic message or action could eventually be interpreted to be also speaking of future events.
When we refer to “the prophets” in our Bible, we usually mean the large section of books at the end of the Old Testament. These books are named after the prophet who wrote them, the longest of which are the four major prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel. Also, there are the twelve so-called “minor” prophets (not minor because they’re unimportant, but because their books are considerably shorter): Hosea, Amos, Micah, Joel, Obadiah, Jonah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. Say all that ten times fast.
There were prophets in the Old Testament who wrote other books, such as Moses and David, or who appear in the histories of Israel, such as Samuel, Nathan, Elijah, and Elisha, to name a few.
One more point on the prophets themselves: just as in the Orthodox Church, you never hear of somebody waking up one morning and deciding, “I want to be a priest,” so was the prophetic ministry a call from God. (At least, I hope you never hear of someone flippantly deciding to enter the priesthood. I doubt that would work out very well for them.)
Just like our Orthodox Christian priesthood, it’s not the priest or prophet that decides, but God who calls, God who chooses. Several of the prophetic books give a record of God calling the prophet to be His messenger to the people. And in the calling of Isaiah and Ezekiel, for instance, their call to the prophetic ministry is accompanied by their purification—they must become pure, holy vessels to bring the people God’s word (Isaiah 6; Ezekiel 2-3).
Aspects of Prophecy
The Old Testament prophets first delivered their messages from God verbally, and often in the presence of the king or a large group of people. As you can imagine, this didn’t make them very popular, as they were usually telling kings how wicked they were being.
Over time, these messages were written down, as well as their actions, and certain biographical details. The messages that they delivered verbally are called oracles, and other sections that tell a story are called narratives.
Oracles are the verbal messages from God, which have been written down. They usually begin with the phrase, “Thus says the LORD,” and then what follows is a message from God in the first person singular: “I”—“I desire that all men be saved,” “I am a merciful God,” etc. (Ezekiel 33:11).
And sometimes the Lord emphases that it’s He Himself who’s doing the speaking, especially when He concludes oracles with such phrases as “I, the LORD, have spoken,” which appears many times in the prophecy of Ezekiel.
Often the Lord speaks in first person through the prophets to communicate to the people that He is displeased with their actions. In His great love for His people, He warned them many, many times that the result of their disobedience would be punishment.
Also, in the prophecies we find narratives—stories about the prophet’s life, something he did, a conversation he had, a vision he had. The book of Jonah, for example, is almost entirely a narrative, being the story of Jonah’s prophetic career. Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones is also a narrative, and perhaps one of the most moving readings on Great and Holy Saturday (Ezekiel 37).
The prophecies that have been interpreted by the Church to refer to Jesus Christ are called “Messianic prophecies,” because they prophesy the Messiah, meaning “the Anointed One.” This is where we get the word Christ, as this is the Greek term for “Anointed One.”
The Prophets announced beforehand that the Messiah would be born of a virgin (Isaiah 7:14), suffer at the hands of lawless men (Isaiah 53, 63) and rise on the third day (Hosea 6:2). The entire mystery of the Incarnation of the Word of God, His birth from Mary the Holy Theotokos, the Cross and the resurrection, was proclaimed by the prophets, so that the people would not lose hope in their time and place, and to prepare them to recognize the Messiah when He came.
But when Our Lord did come, many people didn’t make the connection between His life on earth and the prophecies which spoke of Him. For example, the Jews in the first century did not commonly understand passages in the prophets such as the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 to be Messianic prophecies.
The people who had Jesus crucified knew the Scriptures, but that obviously wasn’t enough. They lacked the spiritual insight to recognize the Christ.
Even Jesus’ own disciples didn’t get it most of the time! And Jesus seems exasperated with them sometimes, because they still don’t understand that His coming crucifixion had been foretold by the prophets.
In Luke 18, Jesus predicts His suffering and crucifixion to His disciples for the third and final time: “Then He took the twelve aside and said to them, ‘Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and all things that are written by the prophets concerning the Son of Man will be accomplished.
“For He will be delivered to the Gentiles and will be mocked and insulted and spit upon. They will scourge Him and kill Him. And the third day He will rise again.’ But they understood none of these things; this saying was hidden from them, and they did not know the things which were spoken” (Luke 18:31-34).
It was not until after Christ rose from the dead, after He had explained how everything in the Old Testament pointed to His work on earth, that the disciples finally understood. In Luke 24, after His resurrection, Jesus says to the disciples,
“‘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.’ And He opened their understanding, that they might comprehend the Scriptures” (Luke 24:44-45).
Using my previous metaphor, it wasn’t until our Lord “opened their understanding” that these spiritual toddlers were sufficiently grown up to learn spiritual “calculus,” that is, “that they might comprehend the Scriptures.”
After Jesus ascended into Heaven, and the apostles carried the message of the Gospel throughout the known world, they used these prophecies from the Old Testament to prove that Jesus is indeed the Christ. They had no New Testament to preach from, because it hadn’t been written yet!
We pray before the Gospel reading at the Divine Liturgy that God illumine our hearts “with the pure light of Thy divine knowledge.” Our ability to see Christ in the Old Testament is dependent on our faith and His grace—not merely on book-knowledge.
Our ability to correctly interpret the prophets as foreshadowing, prophesying Christ is ultimately dependent on our faithfulness to God in every other aspect of our lives: for if we aren’t living according to the Gospel commandments, the Bible isn’t going to make any sense to us.
We pray for His grace, His illumination, that we may come to understand that God has been preparing the world for His Incarnation for thousands of years, ever so slowly revealing Himself to Israel insofar as they were receptive to receiving Him.
And what a blessing that we in the Orthodox Church have seen and experienced Christ, the fulfillment of the prophecies! As St. Paul writes to the Romans, to us has been revealed “the mystery kept secret since the world began but now made manifest, and by the prophetic Scriptures made known to all nations, according to the commandment of the everlasting God, for obedience to the faith” (Romans 16:25-26).
Why Read the Old Testament?
“That’s all well and good, but what’s that got to do with me? Why should I read the Old Testament? If these prophecies were written to prepare Israel for the coming of the Messiah, then why should I even bother slogging through the Old Testament?”
In response to these questions, Archimandrite Zacharias of Essex, England, offers a powerful response: “Indeed the whole of Scripture, which is the history of God’s dealings with man, should be re-enacted in each person” (Remember Thy First Love, p. 30). These are incredible words: all of Scripture should be re-enacted in the life of each person. Yet, what does this mean, and what does this look like?
By faithfulness to God and frequent reading of the Bible, the Lord will help us begin to see ourselves within the narrative of Scripture; He will teach us to see how each of us has repeated Adam and Eve’s Fall in our own lives. But just as God slowly, ever so gradually revealed Himself to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and the prophets, so too does He reveal Himself to us: slowly, as much as we can handle.
Just as the people of Israel often chose to worship idols instead of God, in imitation of the people around them, so do we choose to worship the false gods of this age: status, possessions, money, lust, and power.
Just as God spoke through the prophets to warn the people to repent from their wicked ways, so do the writings of the prophets call us to repentance. The cycle of fall, repentance, and deliverance that we see in the story of Israel is repeated in our own lives.
And, just as God spoke through the prophets to prepare the people of Israel for the coming of the Messiah, so do we anticipate that at any moment our Lord Jesus Christ “shall come again with glory to judge the living and the dead.”
Just as the prophets proclaimed a message of repentance to prepare the people of Israel for the coming of the Savior, so do they proclaim a message of repentance to us, here and now, that we may recognize the Lord’s working in our own lives, repent of our sin, and have a “good defense before the dread Judgment Seat of Christ.”
A few concluding thoughts. In this reflection, we have discussed the way by which the prophets not only prepared the people of Israel for the coming of the Messiah, but also how their prophetic words can prepare us to meet Christ—that is, through repentance.
We have reviewed the trajectory of salvation history, discussed the place of the prophets in salvation history, who they were, and a few aspects of their prophecies. I hope that I have given you a helpful introduction to the Messianic prophecies that we read in our services.
However, reading these prophecies for yourselves will do more for your spiritual benefit than reading this reflection. Ask the Lord to enlighten your understanding, read commentaries on the Scriptures by the Fathers, bring your questions to your priest, do not let a day go by that you don’t read your Bible.
Our Lord calls us to be like the Jews who lived in Berea, who “received the word (of the Gospel) with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily…” (Acts 17:11). Their hearts were receptive to St. Paul’s message and to God’s illumination. Because of their humble receptivity and their ardent reading of the Scriptures, they accepted that the prophecies of the Old Testament were speaking of Jesus Christ and became faithful to Him.
Just as we don’t let a day go by without eating, so should we not deprive ourselves of the spiritual nourishment that is the Bible.
May the Lord open the eyes of your understanding this Great Lent to see Him clearly in the Old Testament.