In ancient tribal societies, if a man wanted to adopt a child, the ceremony was simple: “I will be to him a father, and he will become my son.” The marriage ceremony was similar: “She is my wife, and I am her husband.” In front of witnesses, they stated the relationship they had with each other, and those words made it official.
Like a family
When God wanted to state his relationship with ancient Israel, he sometimes used similar words. “I am Israel’s father, and Ephraim is my firstborn son” (Jeremiah 31:9). He is stating the terms of the relationship: like parent and child.
God also uses marriage as a description of the relationship: “Your Maker is your husband …. as if you were a wife” (Isaiah 54:5-6). “I will betroth you to me forever” (Hosea 2:19).
More often, the relationship is phrased in this way: “You are my people, and I am your God.” In ancient Israel, “people” was a relationship word. When Ruth told Naomi, “Your people will be my people” (Ruth 1:16), she was promising a new and permanent relationship. This was where she belonged.
Reassurance in time of doubt
When God says, “You are my people,” he (like Ruth) is stressing relationship more than ownership. “I am bonded to you; you are like family to me.” God says this more often in the prophets than in all the previous writings put together.
Why is it stated so often? Because the relationship was threatened by Israel’s lack of loyalty. Israel had ignored their covenant with God and worshipped other gods. So God had allowed the northern tribes to be conquered by Assyria and the people taken away. Most of the Old Testament prophets lived shortly before or after the nation of Judah was conquered by Babylon and taken away as slaves.
The people wondered, Is it all over? Has God abandoned us?
The prophets respond with repeated assurances: No, God has not abandoned us. We are still his people, and he is still our God. The prophets predicted a national restoration: the people would return to the land and, most importantly, return to God. The future tense is often used: “They will be my people, and I will be their God.” God has not abandoned them—he will restore the relationship. He will bring it about and make it better than before.
Isaiah tells the story
“I reared children and brought them up,” God says through Isaiah. “But they have rebelled against me…. They have forsaken the Lord; they have spurned the Holy One of Israel and turned their backs on him” (Isaiah 1:2, 4). As a result, the people were sent into captivity. “My people will go into exile for lack of understanding” (Isaiah 5:13).
It looked like the relationship had come to an end. “You have abandoned your people,” Isaiah says in 2:6. But it was not permanent. “My people who live in Zion, do not be afraid…. Very soon my anger against you will end” (10:24-25). “I will not forget you” (44:21). “The Lord comforts his people and will have compassion on his afflicted ones” (49:13).
The prophets spoke of a huge regathering: “The Lord will have compassion on Jacob; once again he will choose Israel and will settle them in their own land” (14:1). “I will say to the north, ‘Give them up!’ and to the south, ‘Do not hold them back.’ Bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the ends of the earth” (43:6).
“My people will live in peaceful dwelling places, in secure homes, in undisturbed places of rest” (32:18). “The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces…. In that day they will say, ‘Surely this is our God; we trusted in him, and he saved us’” (25:8-9). And God says to them, “You are my people” (51:16). “Surely they are my people, children who will be true to me” (63:8).
This is good news, not just for Israel, but for everyone: “Foreigners will join them and unite with the descendants of Jacob” (14:1). “Let no foreigner who is bound to the Lord say, ‘The Lord will surely exclude me from his people’” (56:3). “The Lord Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples” (25:6). They will say, “This is our God…let us rejoice and be glad in his salvation” (25:9).
Jeremiah tells the story
Jeremiah combines the family metaphors: “How gladly would I treat you like my children and give you a pleasant land…. I thought you would call me ‘Father’ and not turn away…. But like a woman unfaithful to her husband, so you, Israel, have been unfaithful to me” (Jeremiah 3:19-20). “They broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them” (31:32).
Jeremiah initially prophesies that the relationship is over: “These people do not belong to the Lord. The people of Israel and the people of Judah have been utterly unfaithful to me” (5:10-11). “I gave faithless Israel her certificate of divorce and sent her away because of all her adulteries” (3:8). But this is not a permanent rejection. “Is not Ephraim my dear son, the child in whom I delight?… My heart yearns for him; I have great compassion for him” (31:20). “How long will you wander, unfaithful Daughter Israel?” (31:22).
He promises to restore them: “I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them” (23:3). “I will bring my people Israel and Judah back from captivity” (30:3). “I will bring them from the land of the north and gather them from the ends of the earth” (31:8). “I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more” (31:34). “Israel and Judah have not been forsaken by their God” (51:5).
Most importantly, God will change them so they will be faithful: “Return, faithless people; I will cure you of backsliding” (3:22). “I will give them a heart to know me, that I am the Lord” (24:7). “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts” (31:33). “I will give them singleness of heart and action…. I will inspire them to fear me, so that they will never turn away from me” (32:39-40).
God promises a renewal of their relationship, which is the equivalent to making a new covenant with them: “They will be my people, and I will be their God” (24:7; 30:22; 31:33; 32:38). “I will be the God of all the families of Israel, and they will be my people” (31:1). “I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah” (31:31). “I will make an everlasting covenant with them: I will never stop doing good to them” (32:40).
Jeremiah saw that the Gentiles would be included, too: “As for all my wicked neighbors who seize the inheritance I gave my people Israel, I will uproot them from their lands…. And if they learn well the ways of my people and swear by my name…then they will be established among my people” (12:14-16).
Ezekiel tells a similar story
Ezekiel also describes God’s relationship with Israel as a marriage: “When 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 naked body. I gave you my solemn oath and entered into a covenant with you, declares the Sovereign Lord, and you became mine” (Ezekiel 16:8).
In another analogy, God describes himself as a shepherd: “As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered” (34:12-13). He modifies the relationship formula to suit the analogy: “You are my sheep, the sheep of my pasture, and I am your God” (34:31).
He predicts that the people will return from exile and God will change their hearts: “I will give them an undivided heart and put a new spirit in them; I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh. Then they will follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. They will be my people, and I will be their God” (11:19-20).
The relationship is also described as a covenant: “I will remember the covenant I made with you in the days of your youth, and I will establish an everlasting covenant with you” (16:60). He will also live among them: “My dwelling place will be with them; I will be their God, and they will be my people” (37:27). “This is where I will live among the Israelites forever. The people of Israel will never again defile my holy name” (43:7).
The minor prophets
Hosea also described a break in the relationship: “You are not my people, and I am not your God” (Hosea 1:9). Instead of giving the words of a wedding, he states the words of a divorce: “She is not my wife, and I am not her husband” (2:2). But as with Isaiah and Jeremiah, this was an exaggeration. Hosea quickly adds that the relationship is not over: “‘In that day,’ declares the Lord, ‘you will call me “my husband”… I will betroth you to me forever’” (2:16, 19).
“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’” (2:23). “I will heal their waywardness and love them freely, for my anger has turned away from them” (14:4).
Joel has similar words: “The Lord was jealous for his land and took pity on his people” (Joel 2:18). “Never again will my people be shamed” (2:26).
Amos also says, “I will bring my people Israel back from exile” (Amos 9:14).
“You do not stay angry forever,” says Micah. “You will be faithful to Jacob, and show love to Abraham, as you pledged on oath to our ancestors in days long ago” (Micah 7:20).
Zechariah gives a good summary: “‘Shout and be glad, Daughter Zion. For I am coming, and I will live among you,’ declares the Lord” (Zechariah 2:10). “I will save my people from the countries of the east and the west. I will bring them back to live in Jerusalem; they will be my people, and I will be faithful and righteous to them as their God” (8:7-8).
Finally, Malachi says: “On the day when I act,” God says, “they will be my treasured possession. I will spare them, just as a father has compassion and spares his son who serves him” (Malachi 3:17).
About the Author: Dr. Michael Morrison teaches classes in the New Testament at Grace Communion Seminary. More information about the seminary can be found at: www.gcs.edu
Author: Michael Morrison