I love watching my grandchildren learn and especially seeing them begin to order things, listening to them learn to count or to sort shapes by size, for example. Getting things in the right order is indeed a useful skill in life.

I have been reading the Prophets lately, a difficult, often confusing but deeply rewarding task. The Prophets form a major section of the Old Testament, but they are not easy at times to understand. These people, who spoke the word of God they heard or described the visions they saw, were firmly established in historical contexts (most of which were desperate times of sin which often presented challenging circumstances to God-fearing people), but they were also free spirits in that they saw beyond the present times to the future of God’s eternity. Their words seem to alternate between the ‘now’ they inhabited and the future we may well now call the present. As such, they are often confusing, giving us layered meanings that are not easy to interpret, leaving us puzzling over the precise meaning of their words.

Yet the message of the prophets is startling both in its consistency and clarity. The prophets all expose the sin of people unequivocally, not pulling any punches, using shocking language and startling images, stripping away the veneer of respectability and the layers of excuses which mask our sinful motives. They hold up God’s law and expose how far we fall short of it. They describe the consequences of our rebellion and disobedience vividly and they issue the clarion call of repentance. “Return to Me!” (Zechariah 1:3) is the central message of the prophets, followed by an assurance of comfort and blessings if we do.

The prophets, without fail, operate in this order: Realisation. Repentance. Reward.

Most of us only want to focus on the ‘reward’ part. We like the prophets when they are assuring us of God’s presence, love, faithfulness and support. We are not so keen when they speak of God’s wrather, jealousy, judgment or condemnation. It’s worth remembering this has always been the case. The prophets were never popular people in their own time, even if we revere them now.

Yet just as we teach our children to count in a logical order and to sort according to logical criteria (size, colour, shape), so we must learn to follow God’s inexorably logical order so that we can reach a place of restoration.

Before we can enter into the rewards, we must realise and recognise sin and we must repent and turn back to God. There can be no other order. Just as night follows day and we cannot alter that, there are no shortcuts to God’s blessings, and we can thank the prophets for this reminder, even if we do not fully understand every detail of their prophecies.