Following the wisdom books in the middle of our Bibles, we come to one of the largest sections – the Prophets. This section begins with Isaiah and ends with Malachi. In all, seventeen books fall into this category. But these books might not be exactly what you would expect given their title.
In modern times the word prophecy has taken on a different meaning than what it had when these books were written. Today we think of prophetic works as predicting the future. That is not at all the objective of this section of our Bible. True, there are times when predictions are made, but that is not the main purpose.
The prophetic books gained this title because they were written by men who were labeled as “prophets.” To understand this designation, we need to take a step back and consider the three major offices which God has ordained.
The First Office: Priest
The purpose of the Priestly office was to make intercession on behalf of the people to God. They were divinely appointed to serve in the Tabernacle (and later the Temple) and had responsibility for all the offerings that were made there.
Out of all of the tribes of Israel, God selected the children of Levi to be His special servants. Their job was to stand in between the Children of Israel and God, to submit special requests and offerings for sin.
Then Moses said to Aaron, “Draw near to the altar and offer your sin offering and your burnt offering and make atonement for yourself and the people, and bring the offering of the people and make atonement for them, as the LORD has commanded.” (Leviticus 9:7)
Apart from a priest in the Tabernacle before the altar, no offerings could be made. 1 Samuel 13 tells the story of King Saul choosing to present the offering himself because Samuel, the designated priest, was slow to arrive and make the offering. When he arrived, Samuel told Saul that he had behaved foolishly and disobediently. As a result of this action, God had withdrawn His favor, and Saul’s dynasty would end before it was even established.
Once per year, the High Priest had the duty to enter the Holy of Holies and present an atoning sacrifice on behalf of the entire congregation of Israel. Only the High Priest was permitted to perform this service, and only on this specific day. Even other priests were forbidden to enter before God in this way. Two of Aaron’s sons tried this and both were struck dead for violating this rule.
The role of the priest was to represent the people of Israel before God. Only he could make offerings to cover (but not pay for) their sins. Only the priest was authorized to operate the Tabernacle and Temple. Only the High Priest could step into the most holy place and offer the sacrifice of atonement. There was no other way to approach God, outside of the office of Priest.
The Second Office: King
The purpose of the King was to rule over and govern the people of God on behalf of God. When God promised Abram, Isaac, and Jacob that He would be their God and they would be His people, He established a relationship of authority over them. Throughout the years that followed, God guided them directly (think of the pillars of cloud and fire during the exodus). When the people needed more direct guidance, God raised up Judges who provided the leadership necessary to resolve a specific problem.
The Judges were never permanent leaders. They came as necessary, and often lead for the remainder of their lives. But the position was not hereditary and often the people rebelled against the children of a Judge (Samuel and Gideon were two good examples).
However, in 1 Samuel 8 we read of the people coming to Samuel and demanding that he give them a King. This would allow them to more closely follow the practices of the kingdoms around them and create a more visible source of authority and leadership than God, who could not be seen or heard directly.
In 1 Samuel 8:7, God identified this desire as a rejection of His authority.
And the LORD said to Samuel, “Obey the voice of the people in all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them.”
Later in that same chapter we read that God instructed Samuel to select a King for them. Even though Samuel did what God instructed, it was God Himself who created the office of King. God granted divine authority to the King to be the ruler of the people God has chosen for Himself. The people were not the king’s – they were God’s. But the king had the responsibility and privilege of governing them on behalf of God.
As we discovered in the session on Long Live the King! most of the kings who ruled failed to rule justly on behalf of God. All of the kings of Israel were wicked and rejected God. All but eight of the kings of Judah were also wicked and perverted the authority they had been granted by God.
The Third Office: Prophet
The final office fell to the people whom God chose to deliver His messages to the people. In the Old Testament, God did not speak personally and privately to individual people. He chose a person to be his spokesperson and that person arrived on the scene and said “Thus sayeth the Lord!”
I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers. And I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him. (Deuteronomy 18:18)
Not all of the Prophets wrote books in the Bible. In the book of Judges, we read of Deborah, who was named as both a Prophet and a Judge (see Chapter 4). In the book of 2 Samuel we learn of Nathan the Prophet who advised David the King (See Chapter 7).
The Prophet’s responsibility was to repeat in the hearing of the people precisely what they heard from God. They were not to add their interpretation or opinions to what God wanted them to say. In Deuteronomy 18, Moses laid down the standards and expectations for a Prophet.
- If a prophet spoke a word from God, but it did not come from God, the person’s life was forfeit.
- If a prophet spoke “a word from God,” but it did not come true, the prophet was false.
One aspect of the Prophet was to speak of things that were to come. But that was not the majority of their communication. Often the Prophets expressed God’s opinion of what was going on in the world and served as the voice of God’s judgment.
A Look at the Prophets
In our Bibles we have seventeen books in the prophetic section. Each of these books was written by a man noted as a Prophet and contained God’s direct messages to the people who heard. These prophets differed from Nathan and Deborah in that their prophetic statements were written down and preserved for us.
Generally the books of the prophets are divided into two sub-sections.
- The Major Prophets – who wrote the longest of the prophetic books (for example, the book of Isaiah contains 66 chapters)
- The Minor Prophets – who wrote shorter prophetic books.
The Major/Minor distinction has no bearing on the impact or import of the messages contained in the books, just their length.
Some of the books are a collection of many different prophetic messages. Isaiah and Jeremiah even indicate that different sections are meant for different audiences. This makes their books more of a compilation of prophetic utterances over a long period.
By contrast, the book of Jonah tells the story of one episode of Jonah’s life where he was commanded to give a single prophetic message to the city of Nineveh (the capital of the Assyrian empire). In it we read a retelling of the events leading up to and following the delivery of that message.
Historically, the Prophets spanned a long period. Many of them lived and ministered during the time of the Kings of Israel and Judah. In this case they were contemporaries of the stories that we read in the books of Kings and Chronicles.
Other Prophets were called exilic prophets. They lived during the time of the Exile in Babylon and their works spoke of God’s sovereignty over the conquering nations and a promise that God would not forget his people. Daniel is the prime example of a Prophet during the Exile.
Finally some prophets lived during the time after the exile when the Jews had returned to their land and begun to rebuild it. Malachi is the last of these prophets and wrote around 400 BC, several generations after the first wave of people returned under the leadership of Zerubbabel.
What the Prophets had to Say…
Throughout the books of prophecy we see common themes emerging. God’s message was consistent, and He spoke the same general words whenever the people fell into a common pattern of disobedience.
The Prophets Declared God’s Standards and the Consequence of Ignoring It
As God’s people forgot about Him, they needed frequent reminders of who He was and what He expected. A common message of the Prophets was to declare God to the people so they would know and change their behavior.
The verses below are designed to be illustrations of the kinds of messages that the Prophets communicated on behalf of God.
Nahum 1:2-8 – The Prophet Nahum spoke to the people of Nineveh (the same ones to which Jonah preached) and painted a picture of God and His anger over the wickedness that He saw in Assyria. In this passage we see a picture of a righteous God, wrapped in His holiness, meeting out judgment against those who do evil.
Amos 2:2-6 – Amos, a fig-picker by trade, spoke the words of God to the people of Judah and Israel, promising them punishment for their offenses against Him. He listed their specific transgressions and declared that Judgment was coming. Israel and Judah were not the only recipients of these prophetic words, the Prophets communicated punishment on many nations – not only the enemies of God’s people.
Hosea 4:1-3 – God reminded the Children of Israel that He was opposed to wicked living. Verse three begins to describe the consequences which God had rolled out upon them as a result of what He saw in their lifestyles and choices. Throughout the prophetic literature, we see this picture of sin and punishment again and again.
Joel 2:12-17 – The prophet Joel passionately called out to God’s people to repent, turn their backs on their wicked ways, and return to a life of obedience to God’s law. While God delivered punishment, His heart was for His people to return to Him and rely upon His protection and power.
Zephaniah 2:1-3 – Zephaniah delivers the message “Repent or suffer judgment.” Similar to the message of repentance in Joel 2, this passage focused on the judgment that would occur if repentance did not happen. This was a hard “hellfire and brimstone” demand to the people from a righteous and angry God who could not overlook the offenses against Him.
The Prophetic books deliver in bold language the message of Romans 6:23: The wages of sin is death. The prophets had to communicate a very stern message to the people around them of God’s displeasure in their choices and their lifestyle.
In return, many of the prophets were oppressed by the people to whom they communicated. Tired of hearing such strong language, the people struck back at the messenger, trying to silence the words they did not want to hear. Being called to the office of Prophet was a great blessing, but it also came with very real consequences and negative effects as well.
The Prophets Declared God’s Faithfulness and Love
Not all of the prophetic messages dealt with sin and punishment. Often God would remind the Children of Israel of His love and dedication to them.
Hosea 3:1-5 – Throughout the book of Hosea, the Prophet himself plays out the relationship between God and the Children of Israel. Commanded to marry an unfaithful woman, Hosea represented God, who loved a people who were not faithful to Him. Yet, again and again, Hosea acted lovingly toward his wife who had turned to prostitution and given herself to many men. In the same way, God continued to love His people. He never cast them aside, even though their behavior toward Him was terrible.
Micah 4:1-8 – Micah declared God’s intent to return to Jerusalem and re-establish Zion as His holy seat. Spoken to a people who were disorganized and scattered and under the power of foreign kings, this would have come across as a great declaration. It would have been encouraging to know that God had not given up on them as a people and that the great promises God had made to them were not forgotten.
Jeremiah 31:27-33 – A promise to change their hearts and institute a new agreement that would bring God into direct relationship with them – not through the three offices. Looking at the difficulty of relating to God through the Law, God promised a future change that would result in a softening of their hearts from stone, to flesh.
God neither forgot nor forsook His people. He loved them even as they rebelled against Him and ran from Him. His one-sided commitment to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob bound Him to them and nothing they could do (although they tried) could break His affection for them.
The Prophets Declared God’s Plan to Send a Savior
Every year at Christmas, the Prophets come into focus. Their bold words promising a Messiah in Bethlehem remind us of God’s plan of salvation.
Isaiah 53:1-12 – Against all odds, Isaiah spoke of a suffering servant. This promise concerns One who would come and receive the judgment of God upon Himself. We see this as a prophetic foretelling of the life of Jesus who came to live righteously but die a sinner’s death.
Zechariah 14:1-9 – We read of the coming of the Day of the Lord. This is the day when God comes again in power and might and treads down all who would oppose Him. This Day of the Lord is the day for which all faithful Children of Israel waited in anticipation. They longed for their King to be the mighty One who would subdue all oppressors and opponents and return them to their place in His favor.
God did not get lost in the wickedness of His people. Throughout this time, He remembered His greater plan to bring a Savior and regain the dominion over the earth He created. At the right times, He shared that message through His prophets and they delivered the news to God’s people.
The Prophets in Summary
As we come to the section of our Bible that is dominated by the Prophets, we see God’s heart on display. Sometimes the messages are obscure or difficult to understand. We aren’t living among the people to whom the messages were first delivered. But the same kinds of rebellion and wickedness occur in our world today. It is not a long stretch to take the messages of the Prophets and make them relevant to our world and lives today.
Above all, we see the gospel message loud and clear through the prophets. God hates sin and calls upon us to repent. He will send a Savior to make the way to Him accessible to us all. Then, as His people, He calls us to live righteous and holy lives that honor Him until the day that He establishes His authority and power over all the Earth.