THE MAJOR PROPHETS
The Prophetic books in the Bible are divided into the major prophets and the minor prophets. This distinction is based simply on how long their books are. The major prophets are Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel. Lamentations and Baruch are both attached to the prophet Jeremiah, so they are placed after him in the canon. The twelve minor prophets are smaller books that include a variety of prophecies from the time of the kingdoms of Judah and Israel. Most of them speak of the people’s lack of faithfulness toward God and God calling them back to Him and forgiving them.
Suggested Readings: Isaiah 2:2-5; Isaiah 7:10-16; Isaiah 9:1-6; Isaiah 11:1-9; Isaiah 42:1-4; Isaiah 49:1-7; Isaiah 50:4-11; Isaiah 52:13-53:12; Isaiah 55:1-11; Isaiah 58; Isaiah 61:1-3
Isaiah heard the call to prophecy while praying in the Temple in Jerusalem in 742 BC, the year King Uzziah of Judah died. Uzziah was succeeded by Jotham, a king who, “Pleased the LORD just as his father Uzziah had done, though he did not enter the temple of the LORD; the people, however, continued to act sinfully” (2 Chronicles 27:2). The sins of the people earned the rebuke of the prophet (Isaiah 1-5). Jotham was succeeded by Ahaz, who took Isaiah on as an advisor. Ahaz’s kingdom was threatened by foreign enemies, and Isaiah advised him to have courage and to rely on the Lord for protection. Ahaz, however, looked to Assyria for protection, and Isaiah warned that the Lord would use Assyria as His instrument to punish Judah for its faithlessness. When God finished using Assyria for His purposes, He would punish Assyria for its pride and rescue His people (Isaiah 10:5-13:6).
Hezekiah followed his father, Ahaz, as king and began a reform of Judaism that Isaiah fully supported, including destroying the altars to Baal and reinstating the celebration of Passover. He also rebelled against the Assyrians, refusing to pay the tribute his father had paid. Once again, however, the king became weak in his faith and started to rely on alliances with foreign powers rather than on God. Assyria attacked, capturing the cities of Judah and laying siege to Jerusalem. Isaiah warned Hezekiah of all of this, but promised that God would protect Jerusalem: “I will shield and save this city for my own sake, and for the sake of my servant David” (Isaiah 37:35). In response to Hezekiah prayer, God sent an angel of death to kill 185,000 Assyrians, and Jerusalem was saved.
The Book of Isaiah is divided into three parts. The first part (1-39) includes the prophecies of Isaiah, and is called the Book of Judgment, for all the reasons mentioned above. Second Isaiah (40-55) is the work of a follower of Isaiah who prophesied near the end of the Babylonian Captivity (587-538 BC). Second Isaiah includes the four Suffering Servant songs that tell of One Who would sacrifice himself for the sake of Israel. Christians regard these songs as prophecies of the coming Messiah, finding their fulfillment in the mission of Jesus. Third Isaiah (56-66) is by yet another follower of Isaiah who rejoiced over the return of God’s people from exile. Second and Third Isaiah together are called the Book of Consolation.
Suggested Readings: Jeremiah 1:4-10; Jeremiah 5:1-19; Jeremiah 14:17-22; Jeremiah 15:10-21; Jeremiah 18:1-12; Jeremiah 20:7-18; Jeremiah 23:1-8; Jeremiah 31:31-34
In the Book of Jeremiah, the prophet warns the kings of Judah that their sins would lead to the destruction of Jerusalem. Jeremiah was a priest who was called to prophecy while still very young, during the reign of King Josiah (640-609 BC). Josiah had begun a religious reform of his kingdom, supported by Jeremiah. Josiah died on the battlefield, however, and soon after God’s people turned away from Him to worship false gods. Jeremiah suffered terribly because the new king, Jehoiachin, and the people refused to accept his warnings that their idolatry would lead to their destruction. Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, captured Jerusalem and sent Jehoiachin into exile. Jeremiah then tried to advise Zedekiah, the puppet king set up by Babylon. He, too, refused to heed the prophet’s warnings. Zedekiah revolted against Babylonian rule, only to be defeated. This time Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Jerusalem (587 BC), as Jeremiah had prophesied would happened because of the refusal of the king and the people to turn from sin and put their hope in the Lord. Later, Jeremiah himself would be forced into exile in Egypt by his enemies and murdered there by his own people. While much of the Book of Jeremiah contains the prophet’s warnings and forecasts of doom because of Israel’s infidelity to God, the Book of Consolation (chapters 30-33) are prophecies that proclaim God’s faithfulness to Israel, and the promise of a restored Jerusalem and eternal kingdom under King David’s successor.
The Book of Lamentations is a book of five poems written after the fall of Jerusalem. The poems, as the title suggests, are laments, songs of sadness and mourning at the fate that has fallen on Jerusalem and God’s people. The poems admit that God is justified in His anger toward Israel and that His punishments are just. Still, prayers are offered for God’s mercy, and hope is held out that God will hear these prayers and restore His people to their former glory.
The favors of the LORD are not exhausted,
his mercies are not spent;
They are renewed each morning,
so great is his faithfulness.
My portion is the LORD, says my soul;
therefore will I hope in him.
Suggested Readings: Baruch 2:27-35; Baruch 4:5-5:9
Baruch was the secretary of Jeremiah. The Book of Baruch is a work ascribed to him by a later writer who wanted to remind God’s people of the lesson they had learned from Jeremiah, the destruction of Jerusalem and their exile to a foreign land. The book opens with the people repenting their sins and remembering God’s promises. The Law of Moses is praised and obedience to the Law proclaimed as the hope of Israel:
She is the book of the precepts of God,
the law that endures forever;
All who cling to her will live,
but those will die who forsake her.
Two poems portray the city of Jerusalem, the first grieving over her captivity, the second rejoicing that her captivity is about to end. Finally, the book ends with a letter warning God’s people about the evil of idolatry, the sin that got them into trouble in the first place.
Suggested Readings: Ezekiel 1:4-28; Ezekiel 2:1-3:4; Ezekiel 20:30-44; Ezekiel 33:10-20; Ezekiel 36:16-32; Ezekiel 37:1-14
Like Jeremiah, Ezekiel was a priest. The Book of Ezekiel records his prophecies and his mission of rebuking God’s people for their sins, and then consoling them during the Exile. Ezekiel, along with many of his fellow Jews, was exiled by Nebuchadnezzar to Babylon in the year 597 BC. He received his call to be a prophet while in Babylon. The Lord gave him the difficult and thankless job of preparing the Jews for the destruction of Jerusalem, which many thought God would never allow to be destroyed. Ezekiel rebuked the people for their sins during these years, prophesying an even greater suffering they would have to endure. In 587, Ezekiel’s prophecy came true with the ruin of the Holy City and the exile of so many more of God’s people to Babylon after the failed revolt led by Zedekiah.
At this point, Ezekiel’s mission changed from one of rebuking God’s people to one of comforting them. Ezekiel paints a picture of an ideal country, a New Israel where past sins are no more and where devotion to the Temple and the Law reflect God’s reign over all. The famous vision of the dry bones rising up to new life is a promise that God will restore Israel and raise them up and return them to their rightful land:
“Thus says the Lord GOD: O my people, I will open your graves and have you rise from them, and bring you back to the land of Israel. Then you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves and have you rise from them, O my people! I will put my sprit in you that you may live, and I will settle you upon your land; thus shall you know that I am the LORD. I have promised, and I will do it, says the LORD” (Ezekiel 37:12-14).
Suggested Readings: Daniel 3; Daniel 5:1-7:14; Daniel 13
The Book of Daniel tells the story of a young Jew during the years of exile in Babylon. Daniel gained favor in the eyes of the king because he was able to interpret dreams that confounded the wise men of the court (Daniel 5). As often happens to good men, Daniel made enemies because of the love of the king for him. His enemies conspired against him, convincing the king to sign a decree opposing prayers to anyone other than the king. Being a faithful Jew, Daniel continued to pray to God. He was accused before the king and thrown into a lion’s den to be devoured. Miraculously, God saved Daniel, which proved his righteousness. For their deviousness, Daniel’s enemies were thrown in with the lions and killed even before they reached the bottom of the den (Daniel 6). The moral of the story is that faithfulness to God will reap its rewards, even while a prisoner in a pagan land.
The second half of the book records a number of visions Daniel had, including a vision of “one like a son of man” (Daniel 7:13). “Son of Man” is the title Jesus most often used in referring to Himself. Daniel’s visions speak of God’s promise to rescue the Jews from their captivity in Babylon and rebuild them as a great nation. The book ends with two stories of Daniel’s heroism and faithfulness. In the first, the boy Daniel saves a virtuous woman named Susanna from two elders who plot her death because she refused their advances. The second is a repeat of the story of Daniel in the lion’s den. Daniel refuses to worship a false god and is condemned to be thrown to the lions. God saves Daniel because of his faithfulness, and those who would destroy him are themselves devoured by the lions.
The Book of Daniel belongs to a literary tradition known as apocalyptic, which was very popular from around 200 BC to around AD 100. This was a time of persecution for Jews by foreign powers, and for Christianity after them. Apocalyptic writing uses strange and complicated visions, symbols and images to convey the power of God over nations and peoples, and the promise of His ultimate victory over evil. An example of apocalyptic literature is the New Testament Book of Revelation.
WHAT TRUTHS DO THE MAJOR PROPHETS REVEAL ABOUT GOD?
- To those who are faithful to God, He will give life and peace; those who are unfaithful will suffer God’s righteous punishment.
- God is Lord of history; the nations are His tools to affect His will in the world.
- Even if we are unfaithful, God will not punish us forever, but He will restore us to life with Him.
- God will bring forth a new covenant, where all will know Him intimately and where His peace will reign forever; this new covenant will be established by the One Whom God will send to save His people from their sins.
Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.