We’ll wrap up our OT overview with this study on the prophetic books, the major and minor prophets. These books are so termed not because of their importance, but because of their length. However, before we examine them more closely, it will be good to examine the historical context of these books and their place in the Old Testament, which we surveyed so far in the past few weeks.
For a start, it’d be helpful to understand that these books are a companion to the history of Israel we have studied so far.
In the Judges and Kings, God designed his people to be a theocracy, but they responded in anarchy. God responds by providing a monarchy.
Israel had 12 tribes, the sons of Israel. King David and King Solomon represented the golden era and the height of Israel’s history, but at that point, the kingdom goes two ways into exile — Israel and Judah. There’s a split in the kingdom. Israel is conquered by the Assyrians in 722BC, and Judah by Babylon in 586BC. Babylon is then conquered by Persia.
It will be important for us to understand this historical context, as the Prophets occupy this historical period. Perhaps a reason why many of us struggle with understanding the prophets, is that we try to read them without an understanding of this context. We find most of the prophets within this era of the kings, leading to exile.
(P.S. This is a long study, because we are trying to get a quick overview of not only the content, but also the historical significance of the prophets. But press on! It will be worth it!)
(A) Prophets to Israel (north) spoke of Assyria’s invasion: are you faithful to God?
Before we examine sections from the prophetic books more closely, Deut 18:15-22 is instructive here. In this passage, Moses defines and lays out the criteria for genuine prophecy. From this passage, here are some insights we can gain, regarding prophecy:
Firstly, that there is a distinction between a true and a false prophet. In Deut 18:20, God assumes that there will be people who speak falsely in His name. Hence, if we hold to the belief that there are prophets today, we must be discerning, and understand that there are false prophets. Are you able to identify false prophets today?
Secondly, we learn that what the prophet says is God’s word. In other words, the prophet speaks forth God’s Word. As Deut 18:22 tells us, to “speak in the name of the LORD” is closely associated with a “word that the LORD has spoken”. Consequently, this also means that the prophet can clearly attribute what is from God, and what is not from God.
Thirdly, we see that in addition to this forth-telling, Deut 18:22 tells us that a certain foretelling involved as well, such that the test for true prophecy is whether it “comes to pass or comes true” in the future.
To bring together these insights from the verses, we learn that a prophet is someone that God Himself raises up, God Himself commissions, God Himself speaks through, either in foretelling or forthtelling.
This is further evident from the prophets themselves. Amos 3:7 tells us tells us that God reveals His “secrets” to the prophets. Here, the mention of “secrets” does not mean that God is hiding something from us. Rather, it means that what is once hidden is now revealed through the prophets. From this, we learn that one element of prophecy is to foretell, or to reveal and show the will of God.
Micah 3:5-8 instructs us further. We see that God holds back His will to the other prophets, such that “it shall be night to you… the sun shall go down on the prophets, and the day shall be black over them..” The distinction here is that God has spoken to Micah, but has not spoken to other prophets. In this, we see that the prophet does not just tell about the future. Here, Micah’s prophesy shows forth God’s judgement and condemnation against the prophets, revealing how the people of Israel have sinned against God.
How then should we view the prophets? They are God’s chosen instruments, with God’s Word in their mouth, either to foretell or to forthtell. As we’ve seen in the examples above, the prophets themselves are conscious of this! A casual examination of the prophetic books will reveal that most, if not all of them, begin with the description: “The Word of the LORD…” We must remember and treasure these words: these are the words of God, these books contain what God says to His people! Today, God is speaking to us too as we read these words.
To examine this further, it’d be instructive to look at the prophet Isaiah. If we were to examine Isaiah 5, we will see that Isaiah lays out 7 “woes” against Israel, and what God will do against them. The following table summarizes these 7 woes, from Isaiah 5:
God will act against Israel for each one of these actions.
God condemns people who maximise the land to their own ends, to those who seek to maximize their own interests (Isa 5:8-10). This may seem very unusual for us today: we see nothing wrong with maximizing what is ours, what we think we have earned. But if we do so that we may have no room for our neighbour, the Bible calls out and condemns such greed.
God condemns the pleasure-seekers (Isa 5:11-12). Music and wine are not in themselves sinful; but in Isa 5:12, God condemns people who “live their best life now”, with no regard to God and the things of God.
Isa 5:18-22 tells us that the people use falsehood or deceit to draw sin. What are they do, with lies and deceit? The people are living double-lives: mocking God, pulling sin closer and closer. They are scoffers, also described in Psalm 1, who live lives that display a cynicism towards God. How do we scoff? Are we those that claim to know God but act nothing like it. Do we go to church but disregard God’s Word? Or do we subscribe to modern intellectual thought and think that God is outdated?
In Isa 5:20, we see an inversion of good and bad. This is not far away in our age today. The things that people call good, justice and inclusion are but deceit. Those who turn reality upside down, to them, God says “woe”.
God speaks to those who are wise in their own eyes (Isa 5:21).
God also speaks to the man of strong influence who pervert justice, depriving the innocent of the right (Isa 5:22). He speaks of the corrupt: those who are to be rulers and justice bearers, but who live their lives for themselves.
The 7th woe is evident in Isaiah 6:5. In Isaiah 6, Isaiah sees God in the magnitude of His glory, in the temple. The glory of God fills the temple, and he says the seventh woe: “Woe is me!” When we look at God for who He truly is, we like Isaiah, see how “I am a man of unclean lips… I dwell among a people of unclean lips.” Isaiah therefore adds to the list of 6, showing a fullness of woe: when we see the holiness of God, all types of people, all of us, are convicted of their sin and are found to be under God’s judgement.
What does this judgement entail? In Isaiah 8, God explains what it is that He will do. In Isaiah 8:4, we learn how the “wealth of Damascus and the spoil of Samaria will be carried away before the king of Assyria.” Damascus and Samaria were the leading cities in the Kingdom at that time, and Isaiah tells us they will be plundered! Because God’s people have sinned against Him, living their lives without reference to Him, God will send to them the King of Assyria.
However, in the book of Hosea, God says what He will not do. Hos 1:2-9 gives us a sample of prophetic drama, where Hosea’s wife and children are used as signs and symbols, helping us see how we are to understand God’s intent and purposes for His people. And the message of this passage is clear: Do not think for a minute that you are blessed! God is so serious about the woes, the sins of His people, that His people will be taken into captivity!
At this point, we may start to wonder: where is the mercy and kindness of God? However, in understanding these biblical passages, we cannot discard or dismiss them. We must see clearly that this is our God, who rightly demands that there must be something in our life which says that we are His. When God comes to us and claims us as His own, we cannot live in every single way that we like, disregarding His authority over us. And this is one message the prophets bring to us: that we cannot live to our own profit. The words of condemnation of the Prophets must speak to us today, and call us to repent.
Rom 2:1-4 tells us similarly that no one can escape the judgement of God. Significantly, there is a consistency in both the message of the prophets and the teachings of the New Testament teaching, where God tells His people that they are not living in reference to God. And as we have just examined Isaiah 5, we should question: are there places in our lives, our thoughts, our dream and fears, that reflect the woes that we have just seen?
And so, the prophets tell us that our God is a true and living God. He is a God who makes a claim over our lives, demanding that the people of Israel take Him seriously.
(B) The Prophets to Judah (south) spoke of Babylonian uprising & coming judgment: is God faithful to us?
Israel falls to Assyria in 722BC. In this context, imagine what it would be like for neighbouring Judah, to hear the words of Micah 1:3-5: “For behold, the LORD is coming out of his place, and will come down and tread upon the high places of the earth. And the mountain shall melt under him, and the valleys split open, like wax before the fire, like waters poured down a step place. All this for the transgression of Jacob, and for the sins of the house of Israel…”
Micah 3:9-12 extends this further. We see in these verses that the rulers of Judah are accused of “building Zion with blood, and Jerusalem with iniquity”. The priests and the rulers are corrupt; they “teach for a price”, they “practice divination for money”. While Judah still remains free at that time, it is not free from the condemnation and wrath of God.
Imagine the inhabitants of Judah, watching the judgement of the other tribes of Israel. How would they respond to this act? How would they respond to this word of Judgement? Perhaps they may have felt frightened, guilty, or maybe even relieved that judgement has not come to them. Or perhaps to think that the tribe of Judah will be spared, because of the covenant promises to David the King. Perhaps that God will spare the temple, and not let it go. In any case, the people of Judah have witnessed Israel’s demise, and they must decide if they must honour and follow after Him.
Yet we see how they still persist in their sin, in spite of this warning of impending judgement. This gives rise to the questions of the prophet Habakkuk. In Hab 1:1-4, the prophet asks of God: “Why do you make me see iniquity, and why do you idly look at wrong? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. So the law is paralyzed, and justice never goes forth.” In these verses, we can hear his frustration: “Why is Judah like this? Have they not seen the state of Israel, who went before them?
God replies in the subsequent verses. In Hab 1:6, He says to Habakkuk that He will use the Babylonians to destroy Judah, as with the way that Israel was destroyed with Assyrians.
Habakkuk is astounded, but he ends with a word of faith. In Hab 3:16-19, he says: “I will quietly wait for the day of trouble to come upon the people who invade us.” While accepting the trouble that is to come, Habakkuk ends in song, as in the last few verses. Even as the prophets saw things coming that cannot be changed, they urge others towards faith. And as we know, Judah falls to the Babylonians in 586BC, when the people fail to repent.
At this point, it would be helpful to pause and to look at the audiences that the prophets were writing to. The prophets we’ve seen above, prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah all wrote to the people of Judah. However, it is interesting that the audience was not necessarily to the people of Israel alone! As we will see, Obadiah writes to Edom; Nahum writes to Assyria. Jonah stands as an interesting case: in this narrative, his rebellion demonstrates his utter distaste for the Assyrians.
Nahum, Obadiah and Jonah play a significant role in our understanding of God’s judgement upon His people. It completes the picture, showing us that God’s warning to the surrounding nations. Through these prophets, God shows that He will deal with Assyria and Edom. And somehow as Jonah demonstrates, God will have mercy on His people.
Nonetheless, we still know that the people of God are facing judgement, and are brought into the exile. In this, we face a problem: what future does God offer His people in exile?
In exile, God’s people feel like God has abandoned them. But God is not done with them! To understand the hope that God offers, we turn to the prophets who wrote from exile. In Jer 31:31-34, God promises His people that “Behold, the days of coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of Egypt.” God holds out the hope that He will make a new covenant with His people, one that is different from the ones their fathers had because this time, it will impact them from the inside!
What else do we know from the prophets about this new covenant? Ezekiel 37 speaks of “a valley of dry bones”. There is death in the valley — no more life, no more faith. Yet God urges Ezekiel to prophesy over dry bones. Ezekiel knew the law and knew to avoid anything to do with death for it is unclean. But God told Him to speak and he spoke not his own words. By the words that God puts in Ezekiel’s mouth, the bones come to life and form an army. In this vision, God shows us that His word given through His prophet is able to bring forth the dead.
This is the new covenant that God will make with His people. It is not merely a contractual agreement but is one that can bring about a miraculous transformation — those who are “dead” will come to life, and will live in a way that trusts and honors God, unlike the past rebelliousness of Israel! In this promise of the New Covenant, we see how God is faithful to His people, amidst exile. He does not leave or forsake them; but promises them a New Covenant, one which changes and transforms their sinful, rebellious nature.
(C) The prophets of the exile spoke of things to come: how will God keep His promises?
Let’s now consider the book of Daniel, which tells us of the life of the prophet under Babylonian rule. The most important part of the book of Daniel is not really the portion about the lion’s den or the writing on the wall. The most significant part could be the prophecy of Daniel 2:36-45 where God through Daniel’s interpretation of the dream, reveals what is to come. Nebuchadnezzar is described as a “head of gold” (Dan 2:38), and the promise of subsequent “inferior” kingdoms (Dan 2:39) as bronze, iron, and finally a “divided” kingdom of “iron mixed with soft clay”. This final kingdom will be shattered, and ultimately replaced with “a kingdom that shall never be destroyed, nor be left to another people.” (Dan 2:45)
What do these images symbolize? Firstly, they tell us of how the people go into exile in Babylon, represented by a head of gold, followed by the rise of a second kingdom Persia, represented by silver. This kingdom is then overthrown by Greece, and finally Rome, the “mixed” kingdom of iron and clay. (Dan 2:41) Here, the Bible is foretelling what will happen among the kingdom of men, over the subsequent centuries! This interpretation (which is standard interpretation of these verses) tells us that the Babylonian empire will be consumed by the Persian empire, followed by Greece, and Rome, which is characterized as a a period of uncertainty, of strength amidst weakness, uncertainty in power relations.
It is in this “mixed” kingdom, the last, imperishable kingdom will arise. God will make a new covenant with His people, and He will bring about a new kingdom. We now know that in the last kingdom, Jesus Christ was born into real space-time history, and His kingdom will never perish.
“The greatest proof that Jesus Christ is God is that His church endures to this day.” This is a quote by an evangelist and is exactly what Daniel said. The presence of the church today confirms what Daniel said about a kingdom that will never be destroyed, bring others to an end, and stand forever. Even today, we read and learn about persecution, where governments and authorities try to stamp out churches. And yet the church, the people of God, endures even in the midst of such hardships!As we read these, do we believe what Daniel said? If you were in exile and read these words as you’re scattered, kind of like what we are today what kind of comfort does He give his people in exile? The answer is Dan 2, but also more.
The words in Dan 2:44-45 are echoed in Hag 1:1-3, where the people are urged to rebuild the temple. In this context, it is significant that God speaks to His people again as the people return, urging them to “Work, for I am with you… according to the covenant that I made with you when you came out of Egypt. My Spirit remains in your midst. Fear not.” (Hag 2:4-5) In this instruction, it is significant that God promises that He will fill this temple with His spirit. He has not deserted, nor abandoned His people.
We see this further in Malachi 1. Malachi is speaking to people who have returned from exile, and even in their return, God demonstrates how “the priests despise his name”. Even after the return from exile, the hearts of the people have gone astray. As Mal 1:6-14 tells us, they are guilty of giving God leftovers and leaving the best of their flock for from themselves.
What does God do with such a rebellious and sinful people? In Mal 3:1-3 we learn of an amazing promise: that God will send His messenger, who will “prepare the way before me”. Mal 4:5-6 furthers this promise, where God tells His people that He will “send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord. And he will turn the heart of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.“ We may find these verses (especially Mal 3:1-3) particularly familiar, for Malachi ends with God telling His people about John the Baptist, and his coming! For 400 years there are no prophets, until we learn in Mark 1:1-2 of this messenger who comes to prepare the way of the Lord.
This is thus the story that the prophets tell, of how God’s people do not keep His covenant, turning away from Him in sinful rebellion. Through the events in history, God’s people must have wondered if He is keeping His covenant. The prophets show us God’s answer that He will keep his covenant. In exile, God sustains His people, keeps them in hope, and points them to the One who come, Jesus Christ!
What does this mean for us today? For us who have trusted in Christ, we must understand that our roots are in the Old Testament. If we only read New Testament, think about how we have compressed the Word of God, deafening our ears to what He wants to say! God’s word is always relevant, and if you believe 2 Tim 3:16, that all Scripture is God-breathed and useful to make the man of God complete, this also extends to the OT. To put it in another way, those who ignore the OT will not be complete and equipped for every good work.
The prophets teach us to hope, lament and repent – all the things necessary for the Christian’s life in this broken, fallen world. Will we ask God to speak to us through His Word? Will we be willing to hear not just words of comfort, but of rebuke? Will we ask Him to speak to us through His Word today?