We do ourselves no favors by calling the first part of our Bibles the “Old Testament.” Why, the very title suggests something bygone! Of course, we are too far down the road to discard this description, but we need constantly to recall that the Lord Jesus would not have understood it. To Him, what we call the “Old Testament” was simply “the Scriptures” (John 5:39), or “the word of God” (Mark 7:13). So how can it be “bygone”? Rather, it lives and abides forever (Isa. 40:8), and if we do not find the inspired words of the prophets gripping, the fault must surely be ours.
Headline Makers: Men in the News
In their own day no one would have found them outmoded, or even obscure. Their message was all too clear. So much so that Amos had a deportation order filed against him (Amos 7:10–13), because his message was the talk of the country, and (according to the priest) unsuitable for royal ears! Jeremiah suffered a flogging and a night in the stocks (Jer. 20:2) for what he said. So why are the prophets not hot news to us? Why do we find them difficult and (God forgive us) dull? The answer is ignorance and lack of effort. Since the books of the prophets are as much God’s inspired Word as, say, the Epistles, they deserve the same repeated, unhurried, thoughtful reading, which, in all parts of the Bible, allows the Word of God to minister its meaning, with increasing clarity, to our minds and so to our hearts and lives.
The Pre-exilic Prophets: Names and Times
The more zeros a date has the easier it is to remember, and, fortunately, for our purposes, 920 and 750–600 b.c. will do splendidly! Round about the first of these dates Solomon’s incompetent son, Rehoboam (1 Kings 12), succeeded in dividing his kingdom into two hostile parts: the larger “Israel” to the north, the tiny “Judah” to the south. Soon after 600 b.c. (2 Kings 25) Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians and the exile began. “Israel” (2 Kings 17) had long since (722 b.c.) fallen to Assyria, Babylon’s predecessor as the world’s “superpower,” and had been deported to Mesopotamia. Our prophets lived and worked in these intensely troubled times. Throughout the two centuries leading to the destruction of Jerusalem, the two kingdoms of the people of God were beset by mutual rivalry, constantly harassed by the restless ambitions of Egypt to the south and by the imperialist designs of, first Assyria, and then Babylon, and their ever-looming threat of invasion from the north.
Enter the Prophets!
Though Abraham is called a prophet (Gen. 20:7), the effective founder of the prophetic order was Moses (Deut. 34:10). Many notables followed him, such as Samuel, Elijah, and Elisha, as well as unnamed prophets such as those in Judges 6:8 and 1 Kings 13:11. But the group we call the “pre-exilic prophets” are special because they left a written record of their ministry.
Hosea ministered in the northern kingdom during its final “boom time” under Jeroboam II (2 Kings 14:23). Amos came a little later, for he reveals the kingdom in decline. Both prophets include the relevant kings of Judah in their dates, not only because what they were inspired to say applied to the whole people of God, but also because, like Elijah with his twelve-stone altar (1 Kings 18:31), they refused to countenance the division of the kingdom of David and looked forward to its restoration (Hos. 3:5; Amos 9:11–15).
The ministries of Jonah, Nahum, and Habakkuk were spread through the Assyrian period. Jonah belongs in its earliest days, for his recorded prediction of the successes of Jeroboam II must precede 750 b.c. Nahum belongs to the time of Assyria’s rampant wickedness, and he predicted its downfall. Habakkuk wrestled with the problem of why the Lord tolerated such evil, and he foresaw worse to come.
Isaiah and Micah were overlapping prophets in Judah, from around 740 b.c. to beyond the turn of the eighth century. But just as Hosea and Amos, the “northern” prophets concerned themselves also with Judah, so Isaiah (see, for example, 28:1) and Micah (3:1) kept the northern people in mind. All the prophets spoke to all the covenant people (Amos 3:1), and therefore now to us, the children of Abraham in Christ (Gal. 3:29).
Jeremiah and Zephaniah give the same dates of ministry, during the final years of the kingdom of Judah. Obadiah offers no date, but his message refers to what happened (vv. 11–14) when Jerusalem fell in 586 b.c. We find Jeremiah, a very ordinary sort of man from Anathoth, ministering to kings and courtiers (see 34:2; 36:11–15), whereas Zephaniah, who may very well have been a member of the royal family, seems to have had no such ministry. His book, a carefully constructed and polished literary work, reads like an elegant study of the Lord’s holy and triumphant plans for world history.
What varied people! Hosea, whose marital sorrows (Hos. 1–3) were the groundwork of his ministry; Amos the “gentle-giant” farmer; Jeremiah who never wanted to be a prophet (1:6); and Isaiah who seems never to have wanted anything else (6:8); Jonah who ran away (1:3); Nahum, resolute and unflinching in moral stature; and Habakkuk wrestling with the problems of divine providence. Truly, the closer people are brought to the Lord the more plainly individual they become. Inspired to say exactly what the Lord would have said had He come in person instead of sending them—this is what “Thus says the Lord” means—the prophets’ personalities, even their idiosyncrasies, flowered to a glorious maturity.
Yes, but What Did They Say?
They were “prophets,” men of the Word of God. First and foremost they summon us to live in obedience to divinely revealed truth. Amos (1:3–2:3) indicted the nations for crimes against humanity, violations of the dictates of conscience, but (2:4–6), when he turned to the Lord’s people, his charge was that they rejected the law (that is, revealed teaching) of the Lord. Isaiah (1:11–15), Jeremiah (7:1–23), Hosea (6:6), Amos (5:21–24), and Micah join in condemning ritualism (the idea that you can perform the right acts and thus twist God’s arm) and in calling for living by the Word. This is “what the prophets were all about.”
They had a stern message of judgment. In the tradition of Moses (Deut. 28–29) they knew that disobedience provoked retribution. Nahum’s vision started with a world under judgment, in the hands of a sovereign God of wrath and salvation (1:1–2:7). The downfall of Ninevah was therefore inevitable (2:8–3:11). But the same is even more true (Amos 3:1–2) of those who have been privileged with God’s truth (Isa. 30:8–17; Jer. 7:9–15).
They never gave up on the assured hope of coming glory. Amos begins with the whole world under judgment (1:3–2:11), but he ends with the whole world blessed under David (9:11–15). Isaiah luxuriates in hope: against the background of the failed monarchy (for example, 3:12–15), he foresaw the messianic King (9:1–7; 11); when sin (chap. 39) led to exile, he predicted the messianic Savior (42:1–4; 49:1–6; 50:4–11; 52:13–53:12), and, envisaging the continuing plight of the redeemed in a hostile world (56:9–12), he looked for the coming messianic, anointed Conqueror (59:20–21; 61:1–3; 61:10–62:12; 63:1–6). The chosen city that failed (1:21–24) prompted expectation of the city yet to be (1:25–26), gloriously realized in 65:17–25. Hosea knew that the love displayed at the exodus could not ultimately fail (11:1–9). Jeremiah knew that the former covenant would yet become the new covenant (31:31–34). Zephaniah foresaw a day without hope (1:2–2:3), yet found hope within disaster (2:4–3:8), a hope surely to be consummated (3:9–20). The pre-exilics really believed in the God whose name, Yahweh (Ex. 3:15; 6:6–7), is shorthand for the One who both redeems His people and overthrows His foes.
Where to Get Started
Use a Bible that divides the text into manageable paragraphs (for example, the esv or nkjv); read slowly; ask (and write out the answers) what is the prophet saying? And why is he saying it? These two questions will prove more helpful than merely asking when they wrote. The Bible will always become clearer to the persevering reader; the Lord blesses those who ponder His Word.