Introduction to the Prophetic Books

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Introduction to the Prophetic Books
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Introduction to the Prophetic Books

Arrangement of Books

The books of Isaiah through Malachi (with the exceptions of Lamentations and Daniel) correspond to the section of the Hebrew canon known as "the latter prophets." These prophetic books divide into two smaller groups: "major prophets" (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel), and "minor prophets" (Hosea through Malachi). Within these two broad categories the prophets are arranged in roughly chronological order.

Historical Backgrounds

Most prophetic books have superscriptions designed to give an orientation to the settings within which the prophets ministered. Joel, Obadiah, Jonah, Nahum, Habakkuk, and Malachi have no such information, so their historical setting must be inferred from their contents. To whatever degree we may ascertain the original settings of prophetic ministries and writings, the information contributes significantly to responsible interpretation.

In very general terms we may speak of three sets of historical circumstances that occupied the center stage of the prophets' ministries:

(1) Assyrian Judgment: During the eighth century Assyria became the dominant empire in the ancient Near East and thus a great concern to the prophets. In response to prolonged, flagrant sin, God determined to use the armies of Assyria to bring judgment against his people. This aggression took place in three major stages. First, in c. 734 B.C., the Northern Kingdom of Israel joined forces with Syria to resist Assyrian dominance, but this coalition led to Syria's defeat and Israel's harsh subjugation to Assyria (2 Kings 15:20-29). Second, in 722 B.C. the Assyrians reacted to further rebellion by destroying Samaria, the capital of northern Israel, and exiling many citizens of the nation. Third, in 701 B.C. the Assyrian king Sennacherib waged a successful war against Judah and even laid siege to Jerusalem, but the Lord turned him back at the last moment (2 Kings 17-19). The prophets who ministered in this period spoke frequently about these and related events.

(2) Babylonian Judgment: In 612 B.C. the Babylonians conquered Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, and became the dominant empire in the region. With the northern kingdom of Israel already defeated and exiled by the Assyrians, God used the Babylonians to bring judgment against the Southern Kingdom of Judah through major incursions and deportations in 605 B.C., 597 B.C., and 586 B.C. The first incursion resulted in subjugation and the deportation of some of Judah's elite such as Daniel and his friends (Dan. 1:3-6). The second incursion brought more hardship and the deportation of more Judahites, such as Ezekiel (Ezek. 33:21; 2 Kings 24:14). The third incursion resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem and full-scale exile (2 Kings 25:1-21). Many prophets predicted these events, interpreted them as they happened and reflected on them once they had occurred.

(3) Restoration: In 539-538 B.C. the Persian emperor Cyrus defeated Babylon and released the Jews to return to Jerusalem. A small number of Jews returned to the land under the leadership of Zerubbabel, a descendant of David, and Joshua the high priest. After a delay of some time, the temple was rebuilt in 520-515 B.C. Despite this relatively positive beginning for the restored community, by the time of Ezra and Nehemiah and the decades that followed them (c. 450-400 B.C.), false religion had so taken root among the returnees that all hope for the Kingdom of God to reach its glorious end was cast into the distant future which we now know as the New Testament period. Many prophets concerned themselves with these events as well.

The following charts summarize the major periods, approximate dates, biblical references, and audiences of each writing prophet:

Assyrian Judgment:

Prophet
Date(s)
Reference
Audience
Amos
793-740
2 Kings 14:21-15:7
Israel
Jonah
786-746
2 Kings 14:23-29
Assyria
Hosea 753-722
2 Kings 15-18
Israel
Micah
742-686
2 Kings 14:23-20:21
Israel/Judah
Isaiah
740-686
2 Kings 15:1-20:21
Israel/Judah

Babylonian Judgment:

Prophet
Date(s)
Reference
Audience
Nahum
663-627
2 Kings 21:1-23:35
Assyria
Zephaniah
640-609
2 Kings 22:1-23:35
Judah
Jeremiah 626-586
2 Kings 22-25
Judah
Habakkuk
605
2 Kings 23:36-25:21
Judah
Ezekiel
592-572
2 Kings 24-25
Judah
in exile
Obadiah
585
Jer. 49:7-22
Edom

Restoration:

Prophet
Date(s)
Reference
Audience
Haggai
520
Ezra 5-6
Judaea
Zachariah
520
Ezra 5-6
Judaea
Malachi 458-433
Neh 13
Judaea
Joel
uncertain
-
Judah/Judaea

True prophecy ceased in Israel about the time of Malachi. Three times the author of 1 Maccabees (4:46; 9:27; 14:41), which is on the whole a sober history of events during the Jewish revolt against Antiochus Epiphanes (c. 165 B.C.), said clearly that there was no prophet in Israel, and he implied that this had been true for a considerable length of time.

This intertestamental period of silence ended with the voice of John the Baptist who announced that God was about to establish his Kingdom (Matt. 3:12; Mark 1:3-8; Luke 3:2-17). Malachi ended Old Testament prophecy with a prediction that God would send a messenger, a new "Elijah," to prepare the way for the future coming of God to his people (Mal. 3:1; 4:5). The evangelists and Jesus identified John the Baptist as the Elijah foretold in Malachi (Matt. 17:12-13). Thus John opened a new day of prophecy - the day of the Kingdom of God in Christ.

The Role of Prophets

A prophet was God's "mouth" or spokesperson. The Lord told Moses that Aaron would be "a mouth for you, and you shall be to him as God" (Exod. 4:16) and later summarized this role in this way: "Aaron your brother shall be your prophet" (Exod. 7:1). To be a prophet was to speak authoritatively on behalf of God.

This basic role of prophets comes to clear expression in three accounts of God's call to prophets that closely resemble God's call to Moses in Exodus 3:1-12 (Isa. 6:1-13; Jer. 1:1-10; Ezek. 1:1-3:11). In each case God directly confronted the prophet with an introductory word and commission: at the burning bush (Exod. 3:1-10), in the Temple (Isa. 6:1-10), in an unspecified place (Jer. 1:4, 5), and in the calm of a storm (Ezek. 1:1-2:5). After the prophet objected (Exod.. 3:11; Isa 6:11; Jer. 1:6; implicitly Ezek. 2:6, 8), the Lord reassured him, sometimes with a sign (Exod. 3:12; Isa. 6:11-13; Jer. 1:7-10; Ezek. 2:6-3:11). These divine vocations not only assured the prophets themselves of God's call, but also authorized the prophets in the eyes of others as those who would speak not with their own authority but with the authority of God.

Prior to the rise of human kingship in Israel prophets spoke for God in a number of diverse ways. When human kingship was instituted, prophets became increasingly associated with Israel's royal statecraft. Israel's prophets served as emissaries between God, the great King, and his human king and nation, Israel. On analogy with international political practices in the ancient world, the divine King of Israel sent prophetic emissaries to give direction, to commend loyalty and to prosecute violations of the covenants he had established with his vassal people.

This emissarial role was central to the ministry of all writing prophets in the Old Testament. They threatened curses and offered blessings according to the covenant established between God and Israel (see Lev. 26; Deut. 28-30; cf. Isa. 1:2; Jer. 2:9; Hos. 4:1; Mic. 1:2; 6:2). In compliance with the terms of the covenant, the prophets announced a number of lesser curses, as well as the greatest curse of total destruction and exile from the land. They also proclaimed many lesser blessings, as well as the greatest blessing of restoration after exile. All of these prophetic concerns revealed their role as emissaries of Israel's divine covenant King.

True Prophets and Their Predictions

In light of the fact that prophets spoke as God's covenant emissaries, it was very important for God's people to distinguish between true and false prophets. The test of a true prophet was threefold: he had to be an Israelite (Deut. 18:15); he had to be loyal to the covenant mediated by Moses (Deut. 13:1-5); his predictions had to come to pass (Deut. 18:21-22). In Israel's history, many who claimed to be God's prophets failed these tests, but the writing prophets of the Bible satisfied them all.

The third criterion requiring that all predictions come to pass must be understood carefully. On the one hand, it is beyond question that God's eternal decrees include "whatsoever comes to pass" and that these decrees are immutable; God accomplishes all that he decreed without fail (WCF 3.2; BC 13). Therefore when prophets disclosed eternal decrees in their predictions, their prophecies would come to pass without fail. But we make a serious mistake if we believe that every prophecy reveals God's eternal, immutable decree. More often than not, prophets spoke of future events that were not immutably decreed by God. Their primary task was to be vehicles of God's providence.

Jeremiah 18:1-11 plainly teaches that not everything true prophets said about the future would necessarily take place. On the contrary, prophets often spoke to motivate rather than to prognosticate. They frequently announced future judgments as threats, not as inescapable condemnations, and spoke of future blessings as offers, not sure promises. In fact, the prophets revealed that God had different levels of determination to carry through with prophetic predictions. At times, the conditional nature of a prophecy was explicit (e.g., Jer. 22:4-5). At other times, it was implicit (e.g., Jer. 7:5-7; Isa. 7:9). Sometimes God offered words or signs to confirm his high level of determination to carry out a prophecy (Isa. 38:7; Jer. 44:29). Occasionally, prophets reported that God was so determined to carry through with a prophecy that he swore to do it (Jer. 22:4-5; Isa. 45:23; Jer. 49:13). In this last category, the divine oath demonstrated the inevitability of a prediction's fulfillment; it raised the prophetic word to the level of the immutable because God cannot break his solemn vows (Num. 23:19). Even so, details such as how, when, where, to what degree, and for/against whom the fulfillment would come usually remained unspecified and hidden until the sworn prophecy was fulfilled.

As a result, to one degree or another, all prophetic predictions could be affected by human reactions to a prophecy. The Scriptures are replete with examples where repentance, prayer, recalcitrance and indifference moved God to cancel, postpone, extend, shorten, hasten, mollify or intensify the fulfillments of prophetic predictions (Exod. 32:12; 2 Sam. 12:14-22; Jonah 3:4-9).

For this reason, when we apply the criterion of fulfilled predictions to true prophets, we must always ask how the prophets intended their predictions to be taken. What level of divine determination did the prophet's words indicate? Did the prophet mean for his prediction to be taken as conditional or inevitable? We must not be satisfied with a mechanical understanding of the prophetic word divorced from such prophetic intentions.

Even so, biblical prophecies are so comprehensive and specific that they put pagan prophets to shame (see notes on Isa. 41:21-29). All times and all peoples, especially the in ancient Near East, have known diviners, seers, or sorcerers, who claim to announce the future (Deut. 18:9-13; 1 Kings 18:19, 25, 40). In all of the ancient Near Eastern literature, however, there is nothing to rival the prophecies collected in Scripture. Their remarkable specificity and fulfillment, and their magnificent, comprehensive grasp of history, is unparalleled in any other literature. Often their prophesies of doom were given at the very moment a nation was at the apogee of its power, and their prophecies of victory came when situations looked most hopeless.

The Forms of Prophetic Literature

The prophets employed three main forms of literature in their books: (1) narratives - both biographical (Dan. 1-3), and autobiographical (Jer. 1; Isa. 6), (2) addresses to God - laments (Lam.; Jer. 9:10; Ezek. 2:3-10), petitions (Jer. 42:2; Da 9:17), and praise (Isa 12:1-6), and (3) addresses to people - such as taunt songs (Isa. 14), wisdom sayings (Isa. 28:23-29), and disputations (Isa. 1:18; 43:26), to name a few.

Oracles addressed to people dominate the prophetic books. These addresses may be categorized by their tendency to focus more on covenant curses or covenant blessings. Although the prophets addressed people with many different forms of speech, a number of basic patterns appear so frequently that it is helpful to identify and describe them.

On one side, several forms of speech primarily announced curses, ranging from lesser covenant curses to the greatest threat, namely exile:

  • (1) Lawsuits. As emissaries of the Israel's heavenly King, prophets heard and sometimes participated in the court of heaven. They then reported what they had seen and heard in the formal language of that courtroom. God brought his people to trial for having flagrantly broken covenant and sentenced them to severe curses (Mich. 6:1-2; Isa. 3:13).

  • (2) Oracles of Judgment. Prophets also delivered messages of doom with language that did not so closely reflect the formalities of the heavenly court. These oracles usually consisted of an address followed by one or more accusations and sentences (Ezek. 7:7-10; Zech. 9:1-8).

  • (3) Woe Oracles. When judgment from God was particularly dire, prophets expressed woes. These speeches were usually very similar to judgment oracles (address, accusations, sentences) with the addition of a cry of "woe." They warned of how terrible things would be when the curses finally fell (Isa. 3:9-11; 5:8-22; Ezek. 13:3-18; Hos. 7:13; Nah. 3:1).

On the other side, prophets also announced blessings, ranging from relatively small and personal advantages to the grand blessing of restoration from exile. These prophecies normally took one of two forms:

  • (1) Oracles of Salvation. The prophets comforted Israel with oracles of salvation or deliverance. These oracles took a number of different shapes, but usually included some kind of announcement of blessing followed by elaborations on the wonder of the blessing. The most prominent focus of oracles of salvation was the restoration of God's people from exile. In fact, whole sections of the Major Prophets reflected this concern (Isa. 40-55; Jer. 30-33; Ezek. 34-40). These consoling prophecies were based on God's covenant promises to the patriarchs (Gen. 15:1-21; 17:1-22; 22:15-18), which Moses later confirmed as he described the time after a future exile as one of unprecedented mercy and blessing for God's people (Deut. 30:1-10).

    Restoration promises found a measure of fulfillment in the return from exile in 539-538 B.C. (see 2 Chron. 36:22-23; Zech. 1:8-17), but the New Testament reveals that their complete fulfillment is in Christ. In this sense, restoration prophecies were inspired by the Spirit of Christ for his church (1 Pet. 1:10-12; 2 Pet. 1:19-20). Some prophecies pertain more directly to Christ's earthly ministry. Other predictions pertain more to Christ's ministry and rule from heaven and to the ongoing work of the church. All restoration prophecies will find their ultimate completion in the realities of the new heavens and earth when Christ returns.

  • (2) Oracles against the Nations. Another way prophets brought a message of hope and salvation to the people of God was through pronouncing judgments against other nations who had rebelled against God. Although in a formal sense these prophecies were judgments, they served as positive assurances of salvation for the faithful people of God because they were leveled against the enemies of God's people. Nahum and Obadiah, in their entirety, describe holy war against Gentiles. Within the larger books, major sections consist of oracles against the nations (Isa. 13-24; Jer. 46-51; Ezek. 25-32).

    Oracles against the nations divide into two main types. On the one hand, a number of prophecies announced that God would judge specific nations through the aggressions of other nations (for example, Amos 1:2-2:3; Zeph. 1:18-21). On the other hand, a number of prophets proclaimed that a final worldwide judgment against the nations would take place after God's people were restored from exile (Ezek. 38:17-23; Amos 9:12; Hag. 2:20-23).

Christ in the Prophets

Old Testament prophets pointed to Christ and his work in a variety of ways. In all cases, Christ fulfilled dimensions of these prophetic expectations in his first coming, continues to fulfill them in his ministry to the church today, and will ultimately fulfill them in the consummation of all things at his second coming (see theological article "The Kingdom of God: Is God's Kingdom Now or Later?").

In most cases, the prophets anticipated Christ quite indirectly. This was especially true when they spoke of lesser judgments and blessings whose fulfillments characteristically took place during Old Testament times. These acts of divine justice and mercy had already taken place, but they also foreshadowed the greater judgments and blessings that Christ would bring.

Prophets predicted Christ and his work more directly when they focused on the great judgment of exile and the blessing of restoration from exile (with the associated judgment against the nations at the restoration). The destruction and exile of Israel and Judah were mere preludes to the eternal judgment that will come against the covenant people who rebel against God. Similarly, the restoration of God's faithful people to the promised land and the blessings their received, as well as the judgment against the nations predicted for the days of restoration, anticipated the final reward and judgment that Christ would bring.

The most direct predictions of Christ appear when the prophets spoke of specific royal, priestly and prophetic activities that would take place in association with the restoration after exile ("my signet ring" [Hag. 2:23]; "I will restore David's fallen tent" [Amos 9:11]). It is in this context that specifically royal, Messianic prophecies appear. As the prophets spoke of the days of God's Kingdom after the exile, they made references to the ways in which the great Son of David would bring judgment against God's enemies and grant eternal blessings to his people. These predictions were fulfilled, are being fulfilled and will be fulfilled in none other than Jesus Christ.

Related Resources:

Major Prophets

Overview of the Book of Isaiah
Overview of the Book of Jeremiah
Overview of the Book of Lamentations
Overview of the Book of Ezekiel
Overview of the Book of Daniel

Minor Propehts

Overview of the Book of Hosea
Overview of the Book of Joel
Overview of the Book of Amos
Overview of the Book of Obadiah
Overview of the Book of Jonah
Overview of the Book of Micah
Overview of the Book of Nahum
Overview of the Book of Habakkuk
Overview of the Book of Zephaniah
Overview of the Book of Haggai
Overview of the Book of Zechariah
Overview of the Book of Malachi

Articles on Prophetic Books
Q&A on Prophetic Books
Sermons on Prophetic Books

Article From:

Pratt, Richard. Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible. Zondervan, 2003.

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (IIIM).