An Introduction to the Prophets
Let’s be honest; the Old Testament Prophets are very foreign to us and reading them is not always the easiest thing to do. In fact, many times it leaves us scratching our heads and saying, “huh?”
If you were to poll the average person on the street and ask them what a prophet was they might answer, “The money left over in a business after all the expenses were paid.” Then, after clarifying that you are referring to a “prophet” not “profit,” they would most likely say either, 1) a crazy person who stands on the street corner yelling out that God is going to kill everyone, or 2) a person who can predict the future.
In order to make the prophets more understandable there are a few things we must keep in mind.
1. Prophets are real people.
It is easy to look at famous preachers and pastors in our world and elevate them to a sort of demi-god status. It can seem like these people walk on water and can do no wrong. If that is how we view them then it could become possible to doubt whether they really know what “real life” is like. Hopefully that bubble has already been burst in your perspective of pastors as you have come to realize that pastors are fallible humans like everyone else.
Unfortunately, it seems to be more difficult to remove the writers of scripture from this same lofty pedestal. The fact that centuries of time, language, and culture create a gulf between us and the biblical writers makes this dethroning process all the harder.
While that may be true, it is still important to do so. The prophets were regular guys. They were real people, who lived in a real cities, who shared the same hopes and fears that every person has. They lived among the Children of Israel and shared the same stories of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and Moses. They watched in terror as Empires like Assyria and Babylon loomed on the horizon with impending doom.
2. Prophets are primarily preachers.
A prophet is not a sooth-sayer or a fortune teller. A prophet is a person who is so in tune with the Spirit of God that he or she has the ability to speak God’s truth to the world.
The documents that we call “The Prophets” are essentially sermon manuscripts. Some contain some biographical material about the preacher, but most of the text contains the message that the preachers spoke to the people of Israel.
3. Preaching was very different in those days.
One of the main reasons reading the prophets is so difficult is because the popular form of public speaking was so radically different then than what we are used to. For us, if a person isn’t casual and full of clever anecdotes in his message, then we tune him out. Back then it was very different. In the ancient world (everywhere, not just Israel) public speaking was an art form that was done in a highly poetic fashion. The orators were expected to craft their words in poetic stanzas and weave dynamic imagery into their presentation. You could say that the prophets were being “culturally sensitive” by speaking in this form of poetry.
Watch this video from The Bible Project to get a framework on how to interpret the Prophets.
The Minor Prophets
It is important to reemphasize that the terms “major” and “minor” in reference to the prophets are not labels of merit or worth. They simply refer to the length of the books themselves. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel had a lot to say. Hosea and the rest of the Minor Prophets had an equally important message to bring to God’s people; they just said what they had to say in far fewer words.
As we step back and take a birds eye view of the Minor Prophets we can notice a pattern emerge that divides the prophets into four major sections. You will notice on the chart that the four major sections are labeled and connected to the passages in which they intersect the Old Testament history books.
Section 1: The Divided Kingdom — 2 Kings 1-10
One prophet, Obadiah stands alone in this section. During the first 10 chapters of 2 Kings, Israel was busy about her business of digging herself deeper and deeper into a pit of sin; jumping in bed with neighboring countries and fighting with her sister, Judah. At one point Moab attacked Israel and the country of Edom did nothing. Obadiah’s message was one of condemnation against this country for not coming to the aid of Israel in time of need.
Section 2: Israel’s Destruction –- 2 Kings 10 – 17
It is during the years of Assyria’s campaign against Israel that we find the greatest activity among the preachers.
Jonah was sent in preparation for this period of invasion. God was calling Nineveh to repent and be cleansed. In a sense, it was as if God was cleaning the axe head before He used it to cut down the tree.
Amos uses the metaphor of building to tell the nation that God has measured them with the plumbline of His truth and they have been found to be massively skewed. Only complete destruction and rebuilding will rectify the disparity.
It is impossible to date Joel. Some scholars place the book during the invasion of Israel by the Assyrians. However, the biblical references within the book indicate a knowledge of later prophets. It is likely that the book was written during the Persian Exile or the restoration of Jerusalem.
Through graphic imagery and real-life circumstances, Hosea draws upon the analogy of an adulterous wife to illustrate the state of affairs in Israel. God commanded Hosea to marry Gomer, a prostitute. Even after her adultery and prostitution, God told Hosea to “buy her back” and reconcile the marriage. In this message we see God’s eternal faithfulness to an unfaithful people. Eventually God would restore His adulterous wife.
While Israel was being decimated, king Hezekiah woke up to the reality of God’s judgment and repented. While this was a good thing for the city of Jerusalem, Micah preached a message that reminded the city to not become smug in its relative safety. They, too, would have their day in court and God had a solid case to bring against them.
After the destruction was complete and Assyria had won its great victories, it went the way of most conquerors and became arrogant. The once repentant Nineveh had reverted to its wicked ways and, in response to this arrogance, God sent Nahum to pronounce destruction that would come like a flood to that great city.
Section 3: The Prophets of the Single Kingdom – 2 Kings 17 – 25
After the destruction of Israel it was only a matter of time before Judah would go the way of her promiscuous sister. The balance of world power shifted from Assyria to Babylon and the Babylonians pushed southward to assimilate Egypt. As the titans of Babylon and Egypt spilled blood on the soil of Israel, the city of Jerusalem found itself being suffocated in the middle. The prophets Zephaniah and Habakkuk preached in the streets of Jerusalem during the same time as Jeremiah. Their messages were spoken during a precarious time of uncertainty before the city was actually destroyed.
King Josiah reigned for 18 years before he began to clean up the Temple and cleanse the kingdom of Judah from its paganism. It was during this 18 year period that Zephaniah pointed his finger in the king’s face and warned him of coming destruction. Zephaniah is one of the few prophets who was able to actually see fruit from his preaching ministry. Unlike most kings, Josiah actually listened to Zephaniah and repented!! Unfortunately, the reforms of Josiah and the preaching of Zephaniah fell on deaf ears and were rejected by King Manasseh, thus sealing the fate of Jerusalem.
Habakkuk’s message is very different from the other prophets. Where most prophetic books record the messages spoken to the king and the people, calling them to repent, Habakkuk’s writing records an intimate conversation between Habakkuk and the Lord. During Jehoiakim’s reign the balance of power in Jerusalem had shifted from Epypt to Babylon. Habakkuk looked up to Heaven and said, “Lord, how could you use Babylon as your instrument? They are a wicked nation.” The Lord’s response was basically, “who’s calling the shots, Habby? I’m in charge! Don’t worry about Babylon, they’ll get what’s coming to them as well.” Habakkuk closes his message with the realization that, no matter what happens, he needs to be a watchman for the house of Judah.
Section 4: The Prophets of the Restoration – Nehemiah and Ezra
After the 70 years of exile in Babylon, the new empire, Persia, allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple and the city walls. During this post-exilic period three prophets engage in a preaching ministry in the city of Jerusalem.
When Zerubbabel led the people back to Jerusalem, they made a strong start on building the foundation of the new Temple. However, political unrest brought the construction to a screeching halt and cast discouragement over all the people. God sent Haggai to encourage the people to take heart and rebuild the Temple in spite of opposition.
Along with Ezekiel and Daniel, Zechariah is among those prophets who were visited with colorful and bizarre visions. During Ezra and Zerubbabel’s Temple reconstruction, Zechariah painted a beautiful picture of the coming Messiah.
After the Temple had been rebuilt, it did not take long for the people of Jerusalem to slip back into the doldrums of life as usual. The excitement of walking in the glory of the Lord was quickly exchanged for the hollowness of empty religion. Once again the priests were back to their old habits of cheating God and cheating the people. Malachi chastises the leaders of Jerusalem and calls them to give everything – their whole heart – to God. If they would do this, then God would open the floodgates of blessing!