As Christians, we tend to focus on one small aspect of prophecy: the predictions that are made of the life of Jesus. However, this is a small function of the prophet. They has so much more to teach us than that.
Prophecy is Dramatic! Prophets cook over poop, lay on their sides for a year, walk around naked, marry prostitutes, etc. The prophets are concerned with God speaking corrective truth to His people, and announcing discipline for them as well as justice for the surrounding nations. God goes to dramatic lengths to show the urgency and importance of His message—He does crazy things to get their attention (When the house is on fire, you don’t knock politely on the door!).
People are stubborn—as the Bible calls it, they have “hard hearts”. They don’t change easily…and when they hold off change long enough, they become incapable of change, like Pharaoh when Moses confronts him. The prophets are sent as God’s last resort and their passionate message either breaks through to the people, or it further hardens their heart—and as a result they often suffer the backlash of hard hearts: torture, imprisonment, and death.
Sin is more dangerous that we think. Certain sins really are dangerous and multiply quickly when they are not dealt with. They are like epidemic diseases, spreading across the landscape of people. Murder, idolatry, witchcraft and sexual sins are MAJOR issues, and as such, they call for intervention to deter others from following the example of wicked people and from causing HUGE amounts of collateral damage. Anyone who’s ever seen a mob knows that people will do things in a crowd that they would never do alone. God says that sin follows for a few generations. It’s true impact and the depth of darkness that enters life is never seen in the first generation to sin. When sin has run rampant enough, God can no longer deal with the issue by morally appealing to or even ending the life of a few individuals. He must send in judgment that affects everyone.
Punishment falls on God’s family first, because they are not immune to sin any more than outside nations. We too, can grow into having a hard heart. Christians are still capable of horrible things when they stop listening and responding to God—in fact, their heart grows harder, because they must harden it to the Holy Spirit’s voice, not just the voice of their conscience. Israel has agreed to a high standard, and God holds them to that…we have too. Sometimes the most loving thing a parent can do is allow us to feel the full consequences of our actions. In a few cases, God chooses to take a life to make an example for others to fear: He does this in the New Testament too, with Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5. However, God’s judgment is almost ALWAYS paired with hope for the future. He’s not being mean, He’s preventing sin from infesting His people.
1 But a man named Ananias, with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property. 2 However, he kept back part of the proceeds with his wife’s knowledge, and brought a portion of it and laid it at the apostles’ feet. 3 Then Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and keep back part of the proceeds from the field? 4 Wasn’t it yours while you possessed it? And after it was sold, wasn’t it at your disposal? Why is it that you planned this thing in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God! ” 5 When he heard these words, Ananias dropped dead, and a great fear came on all who heard. 6 The young men got up, wrapped his body, carried him out, and buried him. 7 There was an interval of about three hours; then his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. 8 “Tell me,” Peter asked her, “did you sell the field for this price? ” “Yes,” she said, “for that price.” 9 Then Peter said to her, “Why did you agree to test the Spirit of the Lord? Look! The feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out! ” 10 Instantly she dropped dead at his feet. When the young men came in, they found her dead, carried her out, and buried her beside her husband. 11 Then great fear came on the whole church and on all who heard these things. (Acts 5:1-11, HCSB)
God is gracious.
If the people will change their minds and actions, as they do in the days of the judges and in the book of Job, God stalls or takes away punishment. The chances of change are not likely, but God is quick to extend mercy anytime people will ask for His forgiveness.
Prophecy is not God telling us the future for us to prepare:
Trying to predict present or future events based on prophecy doesn’t work…people have attempted and failed at this for 2,000 years. In Jesus day, people couldn’t even adequately recognize Him as the Messiah until events simply were too undeniable for Him to be anyone else. The Old Testament reads like a mystery novel where God drops us clues until He drops the big clue that will make all the other pieces fit together and make us say, “why didn’t I see that before!”
The predictions of the prophets are meant to give us confidence when seen looking back, not to give us precise predictions to prepare for future events. The details are vague so that we can have hope or we can change from bad behavior…not so we can boast about knowing the future.
Two more reasons this is true:
(1) The prophets proclaim the future that they hope God’s people will work towards. They express God’s wishes, but can’t see the people’s willingness. The prophets themselves don’t seem to have been able to distinguish details: often what is really a series of events they describe it as a single event. They thought that Jesus coming would bring the kingdom—they could not see that Jesus would come twice, and that only the second time would He establish the kingdom of God on earth. Why didn’t they see the events clearly? Think about it: If the nation had accepted Jesus–which was what the prophet was encouraging them to do–then Jesus would have only had to come once. In part, the prophets were voicing what God wanted to see happen in Jesus’ day–and the second half of the events the prophets described were delayed because the people rejected Jesus.
(2) Only God gets to see the patterns He is establishing and repeating throughout history. Many events are things that God intentionally did twice: once for the people at the time of the prophecy, and often at the time of Jesus’ birth too. When Isaiah speaks of the prophecy of Immanuel’s birth (Isaiah 7:15, 8:8), God is initially giving the wicked king of Israel a time frame for when judgment will come by talking about an unmarried woman in the king’s court who will give birth to the child. Only a thousand years later do we find that God also intended to have a true virgin give birth to Jesus in fulfillment of this prophecy too.
Think about it: Jesus did this too. In Matthew 25-26 He describes events in a way that reflect BOTH the events at the end of the world AND the events that occurred when Jerusalem was destroyed by the Roman army in a.d. 70.
Prophets give us a glimpse into the cosmic worldview: where our actions are impacting a world we cannot see in this life. For example: Isaiah prays so that his servant can see the angelic armies surrounding the city of Jerusalem. These armies were present and acting upon human affairs—but no one could see them. We should not try to influence a world we cannot see or understand…but we need to trust God and follow Him knowing that there’s a TON more going on than we can ever see in this life.
Prophets give us the gift of hope in picture form—they give us clear promises and descriptions of future realities – things we need most in difficult times. We need a glimpse of heaven from time to time to encourage us not to get focused on this life’s pleasures or struggles. We need a sense in which justice is coming to keep us from taking it into our own hands.
How to Read the Prophets:
The prophetic books are divided into two categories- Major and Minor Prophets, based on their size, not on their importance. Every voice in these books is importance. 44% of all Old Testament Books and 26% of the Bible is prophetic literature, so we really need to understand these books.
Context is the difference between understanding the prophet and being VERY confused.Here’s how to understand the context:
Read the prophets alongside the events they are speaking about, or read an overview of the nation when you read the prophecy about them. Download this chart of the kings and prophets to help you when reading through the history of the Old Testament.
Remember that the once nation of Israel has been split into two, divided by a civil war. Just like the United States was split into North and South, so the nation of Israel was split into two distinct and separate countries, each with their own kings. While the Prophets are speaking to the Northern or Southern kingdoms, the writers of Kings and Chronicles are tracing the history of two nations as well. Some prophets speak specifically to the southern kingdom, and others preach to the northern kingdom. And some prophets preach to neither, instead preaching to Israel’s enemies (Jonah, Nahum, and Obadiah specifically). Here is the two nations that have been divided and the synonyms that the writers use:
|The Northern Kingdom (11 Tribes)||The Southern Kingdom (1 Tribe)|
Use Your Bible Study Tools! The information your study Bible provides will help you understand why the prophet is speaking as He is. Don’t be afraid or too rushed when reading the prophets to read a helpful guide alongside the Bible. Often the prophets will condemn a nation and talk about it’s punishment without telling why that nation was being punished. Why? Because everyone in the prophet’s day knew why that nation was evil.
Example: The prophet didn’t need to explain the fact that Edom (a nation related as family to Israel) had chosen to pillage their brother’s people instead of help them in a time of need. Isaiah 34, Jeremiah 49:7-22, Ezekiel 25:12-14 and 35:1-15, and the book of Obadiah. (Read more about this here)
- Use Your Study Bible
- Use Dr. Constables Notes available online here, or in pdf format here.
- Consider purchasing and reading the Handbook on the Prophets
Read the following passages and think through what God is saying to each people group in their specific situation:
- · Isaiah 19 – God takes everything from Egypt so that they will give up trusting other gods and come to worship Him.
- · Read together: 2 Kings 18-19 and Isaiah 36-39
- · If you have additional time: Read through the prophet Amos’ and try to glean something from his book each day. Keep a study Bible close, you may need the insight of a scholar.
Remember: Use Your Study Bible’s notes. Read the introduction. Pay attention to the structure they highlight in the book.
And watch out for poetry and other difficult language…the prophets tend to use a lot of figurative language—often times we don’t understand their analogies because we don’t understand their culture…it’s like someone today quoting Star Wars—if you have never seen it, you won’t understand the significance of a statement like, “may the force be with you.”
“The prophetic literature of the Hebrew Bible presents great interpretive obstacles. Its poetry, though teeming with vivid imagery that engages the imagination and emotions, challenges the readers understanding because of its economy of expression, rapid shifts in mood, and sometimes cryptic allusions. The reader of the prophetic literature quickly realizes that these books were written at a particular point in time to specific groups of people with whom the modern reader seems to share little.” ~ Robert A. Chisholm
Summary Descriptions of the Prophets: from biblegateway.com
Hosea had the dubious honor of having his life used as a living moral object lesson for Israel—instructed by God to marry an unfaithful wife, he spoke movingly and earnestly about God’s sorrow at Israel’s “adulterous affairs” with false gods and His willingness to forgive.
Joel’s recorded prophecies are short but direct. He described God’s coming judgment as an “invasion of locusts”—a clear and terrifying image for Iron Age Israelite society. However, Joel is best known for predicting the “pouring out” of the Holy Spirit which would occur hundreds of years later at Pentecost, as described in Acts 2.
Amos was a simple shepherd called to deliver a message nobody wanted to hear: Israel had grown complacent, spiritually lazy, and hypocritical. Injustice, in the form of slavery, greed, and mistreatment of the poor, was commonplace. Amos’ criticisms still strike home two thousand years later:
Hear this, you who trample the needy
and do away with the poor of the land, saying,
“When will the New Moon be over
that we may sell grain,
and the Sabbath be ended
that we may market wheat?”–
skimping on the measure,
boosting the price
and cheating with dishonest scales,
buying the poor with silver
and the needy for a pair of sandals,
selling even the sweepings with the wheat.
Obadiah consists of just one chapter. Obadiah’s message is quite specific to his time, describing the judgment that awaited the nation of Edom, which had done nothing to help Judah in her hour of need. Edom’s actions would be revisited upon them: their land and wealth would be lost just as Judah’s had been.
The most famous of the Minor Prophets, Jonah was famously swallowed by a whale while attempting to flee God’s call. Jonah’s prophetic message is directed not at Israel, but at the sin-choked foreign city of Ninevah—a reminder that God’s love and forgiveness was not limited to one nation or ethnic group. God’s endless compassion could reach even the Assyrians, whose cruelty and military power had made them the terror of the ancient world.
Micah’s was a familiar message: Israel and Judah had turned away from God to follow false prophets and hypocritical religion, and disaster was coming if they did not repent. Micah tried to remind his audience that what God truly desired from men and women was not religious ritual, but faithful living. What God wanted wasn’t hard to understand:
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the LORD require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.
One of the more obscure prophets, Nahum foretold the ruin of the mighty Assyrian empire, which had hauled Judah into slavery and exile. His words were a warning that no city or nation was so powerful as to be beyond the reach of God’s judgment.
Habakkuk strikes a markedly different tone than many of the other prophets. Instead of preaching judgment, he asked questions—tough questions, like “Why does God allow evil to exist?” and “If God is sovereign, why do wicked people prosper?” He brought these questions to God in prayer and found consolation in God’s strength and power. Habbakuk shows us that ancient believers wrestled with the same difficult questions about sin, evil, and suffering that Christians ask today.
Prophecying during the reign of king Josiah, Zephaniah warned Judah that if they did not turn away from false religion and pagan practices, God’s judgment would fall on them. But God’s day of judgment is portrayed not just as a day of suffering, but as a time of rejoicing, when God would return to rescue the oppressed and restore the broken. The wicked had cause to fear judgment, but the faithful could look ahead to it with hope.
Haggai served as a prophet while a small remnant of Jews, returning from exile, were struggling to rebuild Jerusalem and the temple. His message was one of encouragement and hope—God was still with His people, even though they had fallen far from the glorious days of David and Solomon:
“Who of you is left who saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Does it not seem to you like nothing? But now be strong, Zerubbabel,” declares the LORD. “Be strong, Joshua son of Jozadak, the high priest. Be strong, all you people of the land,” declares the LORD, “and work. For I am with you,” declares the LORD Almighty. “This is what I covenanted with you when you came out of Egypt. And my Spirit remains among you. Do not fear.”
Zechariah was a post-exile prophet like Haggai, and also directed his message to the surviving remnant returned from exile in Babylon. Zechariah stands out as an Old Testament messenger who spoke clearly about the promised Messiah, Jesus Christ:
Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion!
Shout, Daughter Jerusalem!
See, your king comes to you,
righteous and victorious,
lowly and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
I will take away the chariots from Ephraim
and the warhorses from Jerusalem,
and the battle bow will be broken.
He will proclaim peace to the nations.
His rule will extend from sea to sea
and from the River to the ends of the earth.
Christians believe that this unusual prophecy was fulfilled on Palm Sunday.
Also preaching to the returned exiles, Malachi offered a less happy mesage: after all they’d been through, God’s people still fell into disobedience. Israel’s priests and leaders were leading their flock astray, and only a faithful few remained who lived in accordance with God’s law. The book of Malachi concludes the Old Testament with a reminder of humanity’s need for a Saviour—and a promise that “for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its rays.”
And so ends our review of the Old Testament. The prophetic books that conclude the Old Testament set the stage perfectly for the New: although there is hope mingled with the messages of judgment, the overall picture they paint is of a people desperately in need of a divine mediator to save them from their sin. It’s easy to get lost in all the “doom and gloom,” but a careful reading of the prophets shows that God’s desire in every situation was for His people to renounce evil and return to Him. Things look grim for God’s people—but something marvellous is on the horizon.
When our Tour of the Bible resumes with the New Testament, we’ll see the Good News that God has in mind for his lost and wandering children.
Of the Major Prophets, Isaiah has arguably had the greatest influence on Jewish and Christian theology. Like many of the prophets, Isaiah delivered a message that few people wanted to hear: God’s people had allowed their hearts to grow corrupt, centered around empty religious practice. Isaiah called God’s people to return to true worship or face judgment. While calls for repentance and warnings of punishment characterize the first half of Isaiah, the second half emphasizes a messages of hope and forgiveness.
Isaiah is a dense book, full of fascinating detail. Because Isaiah interacted directly with several of Judah’s kings, this book describes some of the significant moments in the reigns of Ahaz (Isaiah 7) and Hezekiah (Isaiah 37), among other rulers. But Isaiah is most famous for his descriptions of God’s Messiah, among which is this passage from Isaiah 53:
Yet He Himself bore our sicknesses,
and He carried our pains;
but we in turn regarded Him stricken,
struck down by God, and afflicted.
But He was pierced because of our transgressions,
crushed because of our iniquities;
punishment for our peace was on Him,
and we are healed by His wounds.
We all went astray like sheep;
we all have turned to our own way;
and the LORD has punished Him
for the iniquity of us all. — Isaiah 53:4-6 (HCSB)
Jeremiah is nearly as famous as Isaiah, although for a different reason. We use the word “jeremiad” to describe gloomy, doom-saying texts because Jeremiah was the archetypal “doom and gloom” prophet. Jeremiah relentlessly confronted Judah about its moral failures and predicted dire consequences if the people did not repent—consequences that unfortunately came true. Jeremiah was not only ignored, but actively persecuted for delivering his unpopular message. He lived to see God’s judgment fall on Jerusalem—a vindication that filled him with sorrow, not joy.
The book of Lamentations is Jeremiah’s song of mourning over Jerusalem’s destruction. But to this sorrow is added a ray of hope. While Judah’s plight seems overwhelming, Lamentations closes with the hope that God remains sovereign and may restore his people:
You, LORD, are enthroned forever;
Your throne endures from generation to generation.
Why have You forgotten us forever,
abandoned us for our entire lives?
LORD, restore us to Yourself, so we may return;
renew our days as in former times,
unless You have completely rejected us
and are intensely angry with us. — Lamentations 5:19-22 (HSCB)
Like Jeremiah, Ezekiel predicted Jerusalem’s destruction as a consequence of her sin, but Ezekiel’s message was delivered in a very different context than that of his counterpart in Judah. Ezekiel preached in Babylon, the ancient superpower that had conquered much of the ancient Near East. Ezekiel’s audience was the band of exiled Israelites who had already been captured and relocated to Babylon.
Ezekiel spoke much of God’s transcendent holiness. He condemned Israel for turning away from their holy God—but like Isaiah, he had harsh words for some of Israel’s pagan neighbors as well. Although God was using Israel’s pagan enemies as an instrument of divine judgment, God was not blind to those nations’ moral outrages and would visit judgment on them in turn.
But judgment and punishment are not the most memorable themes in the book of Ezekiel. Israel had failed, but God had not forgotten them and would one day restore and redeem them. This hope in an eventual restoration is vividly portrayed in the famous story of the “valley of dry bones:”
[God] said to me, “Prophesy concerning these bones and say to them: Dry bones, hear the word of the LORD! This is what the Lord GOD says to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you will live. I will put tendons on you, make flesh grow on you, and cover you with skin. I will put breath in you so that you come to life. Then you will know that I am the LORD.”
So I prophesied as I had been commanded. While I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone…. — Ezekiel 37:1-14 (HCSB)
Daniel is a Sunday school favorite due to some of his incredible experiences, notably being cast into a fiery furnace and thrown into a den of lions. He interpreted the writing on the wall (the origin of the phrase we use today) and interpreted a king’s dreams. Like Ezekiel, he was a captive in Babylon, although God rewarded his faithfulness by elevating him to a position of respect and authority, first with the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar and then with his conqueror Darius.
Although Daniel is best known for the adventures described in the first half of the book, the second half relates a series of visions that emphasize God’s sovereignty and faithfulness.
So ends our whirlwind tour of the Major Prophets. Although the prophets are (not without reason) known for preaching doom and judgment, it’s important to note that this was not the entirety of their message. God didn’t send the prophets just to gloat over Israel’s impending judgment—on the contrary, these prophetic messages are full of last-minute pleas for repentance and promises that even amidst terrible judgment, God’s people could look ahead to the day that God would lift them out of their self-inflicted misery and restore them.