Lecture 4: Prophetic Books
Course: Essentials of the Old Testament
Lecture: Prophetic Books
1. Major Prophets
There are sixteen prophetical books in the Old Testament. We talk in considerable detail about each of them in the longer version of our course. Here we will give a brief overview of each, try to talk a little bit about the individual contributions that those prophetical books make to our understanding of things. The prophets are people whom God raised up to speak His will to His people between about 760 B.C. and 460 B.C. All sixteen prophetical books can be fitted into that 300-year-period from 760 to 460. We take these in chronological order in the longer version. Here we are going to go in canonical order; that is the order that they appear in our Bibles. ==
A. Isaiah the biggest of the prophetical books by just a little bit, actually Jeremiah is almost as long, it depends on how you end up counting, whether you count words or chapters or what, deciding whether you will think of one longer than the other or not.
1. Isaiah is a book that like many of the prophetical books is bifid in structure. In other words it divides into two great sections.
a. The first section describing events in chapters 1 to 33 is about things that were of interest especially during Isaiah’s own lifetime in the last decades of the 8th Century B.C. from the 730’s onward.
b. The second half of the book, especially from chapter 40 onward, deals with matters that will take place after the great exile that is to come. So Isaiah talks about God’s predictions of judgment; the fact that an exile is coming; that God’s people in His day could not expect, because of their sins, to escape God’s punishment. But then also spends the second half of his book talking about all of his blessings that will nevertheless come once God’s people have been punished by exile, that great deportation that the Babylonians caused, and talks about how they may look forward to a glorious future of blessing.
2. In all cases Isaiah is, as God’s prophet, trying to call God’s people to good behavior, all the prophets are doing that. They want people to live according to God’s covenant. They know the Mosaic covenant cold. They know what is in everything in Genesis through Deuteronomy. They know the history of their nation. They know the things that had been happening. They could see how easily God’s people went astray from Him and how frequently the vast majority of people who called themselves Israelites were engaged in idolatry and were very far from keeping God’s covenant. And through them God kept inviting His people to come back to Him and to obey Him and thus to be able to enjoy His blessings. It is not unlike what any of us would do today trying to get people to see how, if they were willing to commit themselves to God, to accept Christ as Savior and to live for Him with Him being their Lord, their lives would really be on the right track. But most people do not want that. They see that as somehow a sacrifice, a denial, a boring or a negative opportunity to be away from pleasures and delights and fun and self-fulfillment, and so does ancient Israelites. So Isaiah was called to preach to people whom he often described in the same terminology as he described the idols that they reverenced. God would say to Isaiah ironically, “Go ahead and preach to these people because though they have ears to hear they can’t hear a thing, though they have eyes they can’t see, though they have mouths they can’t speak.” It is a way of saying, “They’re just like those dumb idols that they worship and I am assigning you to do what you can with them, but you and I both know they are going to be resistant to what you have to say.”
3. One of the great things that Isaiah was inspired to say among many great things was what we call the servant songs. These start in the early 40’s as the chapters are numbered in Isaiah and go into the 50’s and provide a picture of Christ as he comes with special emphasis upon his being God’s servant and the embodiment of God’s people. It is not unlikely that you could, if Paul had not done it for you, get the whole doctrine of the Body of Christ, Christ the head and we His body, out of Isaiah. You do not have to wait to get it in Paul’s writings and that is because Isaiah is speaking about the way in which the Messiah will be both an individual and a representative of the nation. So sometimes it is “my servant Israel”; sometimes it is just “my servant”; sometimes it is clearly an individual in view; sometimes it is the people of God in view and this is the way Isaiah was inspired to portray that wonderful truth that God’s people function as His body to get things done on earth. That is after all what we pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “Your will be done on earth as it is done in heaven.” It is the meaning of being in the Image of God. It is not something ontological it is a job assignment. To be in the Image of God is to be God’s representative on earth. So those servant songs have a great role to play in the book of Isaiah and they have a lot to do with our notion of the Body of Christ.
B. Jeremiah is a 7th Century prophet. He is toward the very, very end of the history of Judah. Indeed, at the end of the Book of Jeremiah we read of how he went with a number of escaping Jews escaping from Judah heading down into Egypt and continued to try to get them to follow God there though he did not always have much success.
1. Jeremiah is noteworthy for the way in which he shows that the will of God is the opposite of what is politically popular. Again and again and again he had to preach what nobody wanted to hear.
2. God’s will was that the Babylonians should conquer Judah and exile its people as a punishment for the long history of disobedience to God’s covenant over the centuries that had culminated in the time of Jeremiah. But that is not a popular thing to say.
3. Jeremiah had to stand up in public places and say, “God wants us to surrender to the Babylonians. When they come, let’s not fight. Let them take us. Let them make us captives. Let them win. We must not resist.” This was, of course, regarded as treasonous and people in all walks of life resented Jeremiah. The false prophets were saying, “God will help us, He will protect us. Yahweh our God will defend us against the Babylonians. He will never let his holy city Jerusalem be taken. He will never let his house, the temple, be destroyed; we can count on that.” But they were not telling the truth. So Jeremiah had to say to them, “You guys are making it up in your heads. You don’t really say what God’s will is; you’re not portraying His message. I am.” Jeremiah was imprisoned in various ways, he was mocked, ridiculed, mistreated, abused, all sorts of things, but he kept on faithfully decade after decade trying to get people realize that if you sin there is a consequence. You cannot escape the fact that God makes his covenant expectations clear. The truths of Jeremiah are certainly great truths for a Christian today—that you cannot expect to sin gleefully and just think that God will not notice.
C. Traditionally Jeremiah is thought to be the author of the Book of Lamentations; he may have been you just cannot prove.
1. It is a poetic dirge over the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.
2. In a way it kind of works through the grief because Lamentations is structured as a giant acrostic poem, really a set of five acrostic poems, and so it is as if the author were saying “A, it is awful what we’ve experienced; Boy, are we in trouble now that things are so difficult; C, all we can do is complain about the miseries we are enduring and so on. Jerusalem was very important in God’s plan. The New Testament speaks so favorably in Jerusalem in eternal terms. Increasingly throughout the Bible Jerusalem becomes a symbol of heaven; it starts that way and progresses steadily. And ultimately in the book of Revelation one sees the New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven to be the dwelling place of God’s people. So a lament over the fall of the historical Jerusalem certainly fits among the Prophetical books.
D. Ezekiel is another of the so-called Major Prophets, which are just prophets that have more material in them in terms of sheer number of chapters and words.
1. Ezekiel speaks about a great many topics but one of them is the glory of God.
a. In the first half of the book he describes the way that the glory of God leaves the temple in Jerusalem and goes away as a symbol of talking about the way that God, because of His people’s disobedience, their constant idolatry and all that went with it, will in fact be punished. God will punish His people for what they have done in neglecting Him and in turning away from Him to things that He had prohibited.
b. But in the second half of the book Ezekiel describes the glory of God returning to the temple in a grand and wonderful way.
2. Ezekiel is also a bifid book in that the first half of the book is dedicated to one kind of topic and the second half to another.
a. The first 24 chapters are various ways in which Ezekiel tries to help people believe, before the fall of Jerusalem in 586 B.C., that indeed it was going to fall. So he has a ministry somewhat like that of Jeremiah telling people the bad news that was in fact the truth.
b. However, he also after the fall of Jerusalem in 586 B.C., has the honor of telling people the ultimate good news—that there will come a time when the exile will come to an end and God’s people will rebuild and there will be a whole new relationship to God not like the one that they have had before. So he predicts a whole new temple that does not look very much at all like the old temple. He predicts a whole new Judah that, when you read the description in Chapters 40 to 48 of Ezekiel, does not sound anything like the actual historical Judah, and a whole New Jerusalem that looks nothing like the biblical, historical, geographical Jerusalem. It is a way of saying that in God’s new covenant and eternal life there will be things so wonderful, so different and so special that they cannot be described as the simple restoration of that which already exists.
E. Daniel is the fourth of the great Major Prophets.
1. A couple of the contributions f Daniel include the introduction of the most deliberate and elaborate apocalyptic literature that we find anywhere in the Old Testament. What is apocalyptic? It is a characteristic literature that describes by symbols and codes and visions the plan of God for history. It is reassuring. It attempts to say to people who may be downtrodden and discouraged, Don’t worry, let me show you a whole bunch of symbols that indicate how things will eventually come about and how God’s victory will be total and how the blessing for God’s people will be the uniform experience in the future. So it is called apocalyptic because apocalyptic means revelation and apocalyptic deals with the way that God says “You can’t see it; all you can see is that you are living in an oppressed situation, you’ve got some superpower dominating you, you’ve got poverty and hardship of all kinds. You feel defeated. But if you could see it from my point of view, you would see that I am totally in control of everything, that heaven’s purposes will be realized, and that ultimately there will be absolute total victory for Me and, if you’re with Me, for you as you join Me. That is the nature of apocalyptic.
2. Part of it for Daniel is also the opportunity to be a prophet of the resurrection. And so in Daniel Chapter 12 there is a beautiful description of the resurrection that will occur at the last time. Daniel predicts the coming of Christ; he predicts the graves opening and God’s people being resurrected, etc. It is a wonderful precursor to the New Testament hope. You could understand many of the themes that we think of around Easter time just by appreciating what is in the Book of Daniel.
3. And it is also great for its stories about faithfulness in the midst of trial. Daniel and his pals Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego are tremendously able, their abilities are recognized by the government, they get high positions of leadership, but that does not turn their heads from faithfulness to God and obedience to His covenant. No matter how they are threatened, no matter whether they are in good condition or not, and no matter who is in power, they are going to take God’s will first and if that does not coincide with what the political powers want they will simply do God’s will and let the consequences come as they might. A great story of faithfulness of people in situations where to be faithful is not easy.
II. Minor Prophets
A. Hosea is a prophet who has often been called the most passionate of the prophets.
1. He speaks about God’s love, and how much He loves Israel, and yet how much out of necessity He has to end up punishing them.
2. So Hosea is regularly saying to the people of Israel, in effect, “I God wish,” of course he is speaking for God, “I God wish that you people would only keep My covenant, if only you would do what I ask you do. But again and again and again, decade after decade, generation after generation, you haven’t done that. You’ve turned away from Me. You’ve loved idolatry, you’ve loved other religions. You’ve loved everything but My covenant. But oh my people, I wish I could get you back.” That is what is going on in a book like Hosea. It is a plea for God’s people to return to Him. And it does end wonderfully with a prediction that it will happen.
3. Part of the plan of redemption is that God will make it possible for a “remnant of people” to return to Him. God will not force everybody in history to be righteous but He will make sure that those who do respond to His call are definitely and positively put into a condition where they can have a great and glorious and permanent eternal future.
B. Joel is a little book that speaks about a number of issues including
1. the power of God’s Spirit. Joel describes an invasion; it is a little hard to tell whether the invasion is actually that of millions of locusts or whether the locusts are a symbol for the Babylonians who are invading.
2. But either way, reliance upon God, trusting him, repenting of sin, leaning entirely in his direction, those are the things that Joel is inspired by God to call God’s people to.
3. The power of God’s Spirit is a very important factor though because what Joel is looking at is not just deliverance from this locust’s plague or Babylonian invasion, whichever it is, Joel is thinking about the big picture, the great future and saying to God’s people, “Don’t limit your hopes to just some kind of temporal deliverance, be sure you place your faith in God for eternal deliverance so that you can know that you are saved not just politically or economically or historical in some way, you are saved spiritually, saved to eternal life.
C. Amos follows Joel in the canonical order.
1. Amos has a deep concern for social justice. One of the ramifications of abandoning God’s covenant was that people abandoned the ethical system that is built into the covenant.
2. Many, many of the stipulations in the laws of Moses are about the right treatment of fellow human beings; the stipulations that relate to the final six commandments and of course the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself. This was simply not being done in the middle of the 8th Century around 760 B.C. when Amos was preaching in Northern Israel. There was unprecedented level of exploitation of poor people. There was a disinterest in loving neighbor as self. The rich were getting richer and the poor poorer and God used Amos to speak to those issues, but not just in a sort of naive liberal way, come on be good, have a nicer attitude, be kinder, share the wealth; but rather saying get right with God and your sense of what justice needs to be will come with that.
D. Obadiah is a very little book and it is written probably right after the fall of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. speaking about what the Edomites had done to the Israelites. What had they done? The Edomites had watched the Babylonians besiege Jerusalem, and they knew that the entire remaining Israelite army was trapped inside the city of Jerusalem. So the Edomites said, “Hey, here we are in the southern border with Judah, let’s move into their territory, let’s take over their farmlands, let’s occupy some of their cities, let’s lute some and actually live in others. So they did. Obadiah was called upon by God simply to say by way of public declaration, “You people of Edom, what you’ve done, which is absolutely outrageous, God will not forget. He will judge. The day will come when you will suffer the consequences of what you’ve done to God’s people.”
E. Jonah has another take on what was being done to God’s people. Jonah is another prophet dealing with something related to foreign nations and how they have treated God’s people. He lived in the 8th Century, we read about him in 2 Kings 14:25, and in his lifetime the Assyrians were very powerful and had not been nice at all to the people of Israel.
1. Naturally, he would not feel warm toward the Assyrians and God called him to go preach to them. Now what Jonah heard was a call to give those Assyrians a chance. He would not have been called to preach to them if there was not going to be a chance for them to repent and to be forgiven. He did not want it. He did not want those wicked Assyrians to have that kind of opportunity.
2. He tried to flee from God. This probably reflects what many people wrongly felt in bible times that somehow the further you got away from a place where a god was worshipped, the sort of the weaker of the influence of that god. It is a very naive view and it means that Jonah did not have the best of theologies, but then many people God has used have not had the best of theologies. They should but they did not and God can still use them if He chooses to.
3. Eventually Jonah is forced by God to go to Nineveh. He did not have much of a choice after almost drowning and being rescued by the big fish. So he is very grateful and expresses his gratitude in Chapter 2 in a beautiful song of thankfulness to God that He delivered him though he deserved to die. Then when he gets to Nineveh he cannot keep the same attitude. He cannot say, “Well, I disobeyed God and tried to run from Him but He spared me, therefore it is only fair that He should do the same kind of thing for the Ninevites. If they are sorry for what they have done he ought to spare them. But, in fact, Jonah never comes to that point. The book is a reminder to us of the fact that we cannot be so narrow and so self-centered as to actually wish that God would not bring blessing to other people.
4. God is always an evangelist. He is always at work in His world. The people in Nineveh in the story of Jonah do not become Christians or Israelites, but they do express sorry for their sins and God, as a result, shows them mercy for a time. We should, by no means, ever say to ourselves there is someone to far gone or I don’t want anything to do with that kind of person because I would like to see that person get the results of his sin. Yet sadly that is in fact the attitude that Jonah displays toward the end of the book.
F. The Book of Micah
1. is organized into three cycles of woe and weal. Woe is just the description of the judgments to come for the people of Israel because they have broken God’s covenant. But weal, meaning good times, prosperity, blessing; that is a description of what God will eventually do for His people all the way up through and including eternal life. And what Micah does so beautifully is to alternate these. He talks first about the woe that is coming as a result of God’s judgment upon His people for not obeying Him, but then says, however, “Don’t think this is permanent and forever. God will indeed bless his people one again, He is a merciful and great God.” Then he goes back to the woe, then back to the weal, then back to the woe then back to the weal again. So
2. Micah shows in a very special way that is just terribly visible to us the balance between God’s warnings about the consequences of our sin and God’s invitation to us that if we will turn to Him He will indeed forgive us and accept us. It is a great book for, in a way, anticipating the Gospel and it certainly anticipates certain particulars of the Gospel including even the specificity of where Christ will be born.
G. The Book of Nahum talks about especially the city of Nineveh. Really Nahum focuses almost entirely on the Assyrian empire as it was toward the end of the 7th Century B.C., how it was extremely powerful but nevertheless was going to fall. Nineveh whom everyone feared, the capital city of a great empire, Nineveh that could do anything to anybody because they were unstoppably powerful would eventually meet its fate. And you know it did. Within a couple of decades of Nahum’s prophecy, the Babylonians rose suddenly and dramatically and powerfully. They polished off the whole Assyrian empire in a four-year time period. And suddenly Nineveh/Assyria was no more just as Nahum predicted.
H. Habakkuk was a little bit later. Habakkuk is watching the Babylonians who have polished off the Assyrians gain power and sweep into the area of Palestine, Judah, and Jerusalem, and Northern Israel.
1. And he says to God in his “complaints”, “Why is this happening? How can you allow such an evil people as the Babylonians with all that they’ve done to have such success?” God’s answer basically to him is,” Well, I caused the Babylonians to eliminate the Assyrians because of the Assyrian evil, and eventually I’ll cause somebody else to eliminate the Babylonians which God in course did by the empire of the Persians.
2. And God says to him, “Meanwhile what you need to do is this—you need not to say I can’t live, I can’t stand it unless I’m totally free and everything in the world is good and I’m happy with the way political…you need to be able to say if everything is going bad, if all is failing, if it is downhill in every direction, if the whole world is going to hell—I can still be faithful to God and trust in Him and believe in Him and live by faith.” That is a great message.
3. And of course, it is picked up in the New Testament by Paul with such prominence the just will live by faith and was the basis of the whole great reformation started by Martin Luther as those words from Habakkuk, quoted by Paul, rang in his mind with the truth of how important it was to base ones trust in God for salvation not on ones deeds or works but on ones confidence alone in Christ’s provision.
1. Zephaniah is a prophet who especially is interested in purity. He talks about the way that everything in Judah and Jerusalem had become corrupt in his day, and it really had. He is preaching in the early days of King Josiah when the kinds of sins and corruptions described in 2 Kings 22 and 23 were rife.
2. Zephaniah says, “I will change it says God. I’m going to make things different. I’m expecting My people will get rid of this kind of evil and will become a pure people; pure in attitude, pure in speech, pure of heart.” So Zephaniah has a lot to do with helping a king like Josiah bring about the wonderful revival, short lived though it was, that characterized his reign.
J. Haggai and Zechariah worked together. They are described as cooperating in the book of Ezra. They lived at the same time. They both preached in 520 B.C.
1. The exile was over, people were back from exile, but the temple still lay in ruins.
2. And their concern was that the people of Israel, who had allowed that temple to lie there in ruins all those years, who were naturally inclined to work on their own houses and work on their own farms,
3. would be willing to make the sacrifices necessary to put God first. So in both Haggai and Zechariah, in the visions of Zechariah, in the preaching of Haggai over a three-month period, in the prophecies that constitute the second part of the book of Zechariah, always the emphasis is on putting God first. Making sure that you remember that His purposes are paramount, nothing can be more important.
K. The last of the Prophetical books that we talk about in the fuller course is Malachi.
1. Malachi has a bunch of disputations that he gets into rhetorically with the people. He speaks for God and says something, makes an assertion and the people say, “What, really, who us? We did not do that.” And then there is the reassurance and the implication of what God is saying to the people.
2. Malachi calls them to account for not trusting in God that he will deliver them from their enemies, for not keeping his covenant and things like even the way they bring in offerings. They bring in second rate offerings, rushing animals in before they die to try to get them accepted at the temple for a sacrifice or the like.
3. And He is really asking the people, “Which way are you going to go?” All the prophets speak for God, they are not making it up, they are speaking what God puts in their minds, but Malachi is saying, “Which way will you go? My people, what is your decision? Will you in fact fathers and sons,” that is all generations all together, “obey me and keep my covenant and accept my Messiah, or will I have to strike the earth with a curse?” And that rhetorical question rings loud as we wait, as it were, after the conclusion of the time of the Prophets with Malachi in 460 B.C. as we wait for the big answer to all their questions in the person of the Messiah, Jesus, who will come to fulfill all that they had spoken of.