The Lord did not commission His prophets to act as missionaries, going to those who had never heard God's Word, nor were they to be innovators inaugurating a radically different religion. Their primary duty was to administer spiritual first aid to those who, though nominally acquainted with the terms of the covenant, were not complying with them, either through spiritual complacency or open defiance (Jer. 2:25; Zeph. 1:12). Prophetic ministry sought to soften hardened hearts and reclaim seared consciences by urging a return to the old paths (Jer. 6:16)—behavior which conformed to God's requirements and would restore intimate and lasting rapport with Him.
When in an act of sovereign grace the Lord instituted His covenant with Israel, it was indisputable that He was the senior partner in the relationship. He alone had the right to dictate the terms on which fellowship with Him could be maintained. Consequently, if the people failed to adhere to His laws and commandments, the Lord would not be indifferent to their disloyalty. Such misbehavior would distance them from Him and undermine their fellowship with Him (Isa. 59:2). Covenant blessing could not be enjoyed without covenant obedience.
However, right from the start, even while Moses was still on Mount Sinai receiving the law from the Lord, Israel perversely ignored God's requirements and followed their own sinful inclinations (Ex. 32). Unfortunately, despite repeated warnings that violation of the Lord's revealed norms for their relationship would lead to the imposition of punishment (Lev. 26:14–39; Deut. 28:15–68), the history of Israel is a record of persistent infidelity, which undermined their relationship with God (Jer. 31:32).
Even so, the Lord's unbreakable commitment to the relationship He had instituted meant that He did not immediately penalize the people (Isa. 48:9; 65:2). Instead, He repeatedly sent prophets to alert them to the danger they were in and to urge repentance (2 Kings 17:13; Ezek. 3:17–21). Furthermore, as royal heralds, the prophets were authorized to give notice of the Lord's complaint against His people that would culminate in judgment being imposed (Hos. 12:2; Mic. 6:1–2).
The prophets had a difficult task in communicating with a spiritually hardened nation. The people's attention had to be gained and their consciences stirred. Often the Lord's spokesmen were instructed to use sign-acts to stimulate their audience's curiosity and to induce in them a measure of willingness to listen (Isa. 20; Ezek. 24:15–24).
The prophets sought to alert the nation to the severity of what awaited them if they did not repent. But equally there was a cajoling appeal to conscience through the memory of past times of loyalty and blessing. Instilling a sense of shame aroused by exposure of their ingratitude (Isa. 1:3) and the heinous nature of their misconduct might lead to spiritual reappraisal and repentance.
The supreme prophetic tactic, however, was to point the people to the love and benevolence of the Lord. He had consistently acted for their good (Isa. 5:4). He did not relish punishing those for whom He so tenderly cared (Jer. 31:20). Even though He dealt severely with the nation, His judgment was designed to further His purposes in salvation history. From the catastrophe, a remnant would be revivified and restored to favor (Ezek. 36:27). In this way, the time would come when the Messiah would be revealed to provide for the spiritual security and needs of the flock (34:23). The prophets were enabled to look beyond the reality of impending judgment to the future gracious provision of the covenant: peace, shalom—complete, enduring well-being in every aspect of existence (34:25–31). The prophets' glimpse of future bliss stirred up hope among those who feared the Lord and esteemed His name, and this sustained them through the dark days while they awaited the Messiah (Mal. 3:16–18).