The prophets of Israel came to the people and rulers with a triple message. They first pointed to Israelis history. God had delivered them from the bondage of Egypt, thereby fulfilling the promises given to Abraham. It was a strictly historical act, in time and on earth. Second, they warned the people of impending judgment if the nation did not change its ways and return to God and God’s law. Finally, there was a promise of full restoration after a period of judgment. We see this message best in the first two chapters of the Book of Isaiah.
Consider what elements were involved in such a message. There was a sense of history present. Apart from an historical reference point, the message of the prophets would have been radically different. They pointed to a personal God who has the power to intervene in the affairs of men. This power had been demonstrated before the Israelites, the Egyptians, and the people of Canaan. There could be no question of the ability of God to bring His will to bear in the affairs of men. Here was a real God acting in historical time to influence recorded events. This God can be trusted to fulfill His words, the prophets announced.
What were His words? God revealed to men the rebellion involved in all lawlessness. This rebellion would not be forever tolerated by the King whose very nature is reflected in the covenantal law structure handed down by Moses. “Thou art good and doest good; teach me thy statutes,” the psalmist declares (Ps. 119:68). The rulers in Isaiah’s day had become perverse; therefore, God declared, “I will ease me of mine adversaries, and avenge me of mine enemies” (Isa. 1:24b). There can be no long-term defiance of God’s statutes apart from judgment. If present sins are dominant, then future judgment can be expected.
Nevertheless, this warning and even promise of inevitable judgment cannot be understood as comprising the whole of God’s message. “And I will turn my hand upon thee, and purely purge away thy dross, and take away all thy tin: And I will restore thy judges as at the first, and thy counsellors as at the beginning; afterward thou shalt be called, The city of righteousness, the faithful city” (Isa. 1:25-26). The message of immediately looming judgment was accompanied by a further promise, that of final restoration. The “gloom and doom” aspect of the prophetic message can hardly be denied or minimized, but it was not the heart of the message. The same God who had allowed the Israelites to go into Egyptian bondage is the One who delivered them and led them to the promised land. Liberation, not bondage, is the essence of the biblical social perspective–liberation in terms of and by means of biblical law and God’s special grace (Eph. 2:8-10).
The Death of Optimism
There can be little doubt that World War I and World War II shattered the nineteenth-century optimism of the leading social theorists. There were pessimists before 1914 and optimists after 1945, but the intellectual impetus had swung toward pessimism. There were still leading intellectuals in 1960 who had hopes for the one-world order promised by the United Nations, and others who believed that American foreign aid and military power could maintain some sort of minimal free world “pax Americana,” but both dreams died in the jungles of Vietnam. The last remaining strands of political optimism were severed by the Great Society and its two major defeats: the war in Vietnam and the war on poverty. By 1968, when President Johnson was virtually drummed out of the Democratic Party, the optimism of traditional political Liberalism was finished. No one believes in the programs of the New Deal any longer, in the sense of having hope that they will be successful in solving our basic social and economic problems. Liberals cling to them for reasons of tradition and because they see no other alternatives to the religion of salvation by secular legislation. They are like elderly musicians who cannot learn new tunes or read music; they play the music they learned when they were younger, even after the patrons have departed. They keep playing only because they are on some subsidized payroll.
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