Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Bible in a Year: Overview of the Prophets

John Singer Sargent, "Frieze of the Prophets"
Amos, Nahum, Ezekiel, Daniel, Elijah, Moses, Joshua, Jeremiah, Jonah, Isaiah, and Habakkuk
This calendar year, I’m reading through the Bible and taking informal notes on the readings. Since we so often read verses and passages of the Bible without appreciating context, I’m especially focusing on the overall narrative and connections among passages.

After the Writings (Job through Song of Songs, or Job through Ecclesiasicus in Catholic and Orthodox Bibles), we have the Old Testament prophetic books: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, Daniel, and “The Twelve”, which are Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi.

These are not the only prophets in Israel’s history: for instance, Moses himself, Miriam, Deborah, Samuel, Nathan, Elijah, Elisha, and several others. Here is a general-knowledge site that lists them:

Here (from another of my blogs) is a summary:

Sargent, "Frieze of the Prophets"
Micah, Haggai, Malachi, and Zechariah.
Isaiah: The first 39 chapters contain words of judgment about the Northern Kingdom, as well as other nations, and also words of promise. Chapters 40 and following seem to be another prophet, or possibly two, writing during 500s BC, as God, acting through the Persian king, restored the people. Here we find wonderful poetry of assurance concerning God’s redemption.

Jeremiah: The prophet preaches judgment upon the Southern Kingdom, and also promises of a renewed covenant in the future. We find tremendous pathos in Jeremiah, as also reflected in the following book.

Lamentations is a short, poetic book, attributed to Jeremiah and written in sorrowful response to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by the Babylonians. (Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions add Baruch and the Epistle of Jeremiah as deuterocanonical/anagignoskomena books.)

Ezekiel: A prophet (also a priest) of the time before and during the exile. Ezekiel has weird visions and prophet actions bordering on, and sometimes crossing over to, the perverse. But the book also has lofty moral theology concerning problems such as human accountability.

Sargent, "Frieze of the Prophets,"
Zephaniah, Joel, Obadiah, and Hosea
Daniel: The book focuses on events in Daniel’s life and also apocalyptic visions of God’s kingdom, the “Son of Man,” and the last days, though many of the visions deal with the time of Antiochus IV, the evil Greek ruler who persecuted Jews. during the 100s BCE. This book is included in the last section of the Jewish canon rather than among the prophets.

Hosea: A Northern Kingdom prophet of the 700s, Hosea used his own family crises to describe the unfaithfulness of Israel and, in
addition to words of judgment, the heartache and tenderness of God. (Hosea and the eleven prophets after this book are called “The Minor Prophets” because the books are short. These are considered one book in the Jewish Bible and, together, have interrelated themes, as I write about at

Joel: Joel has aspects of both prophecy and apocalyptic, because he speaks of the Lord’s judgment against sin (in whatever time period he’s writing) as well as the last days. We get the wonderful prophecy of the coming of the Holy Spirit here (2:28-29).

Amos: A Southern prophet who spoke to the sins of the North; he speaks judgment against the kingdom of Israel: their apostasy, wealth, and oppression of the poor. His classic call for justice and righteousness is well known (5:21-24).

Obadiah:  A short little book, by a prophet about whom we know little. The Edomites were descendants of Esau who were enemies of Judah, and Obadiah’s prophecies are directed at them.

Jonah: Unlike other prophetic books, this one is a story, like a parable. The fish is not the point of the story, but rather God’s patience and forgiveness as well as Jonah’s reluctant prophetic work, which was surprisingly and highly successful.

Micah: A contemporary of Isaiah and Hosea. His two themes are doom and promise, and his statement about Bethlehem (5:2), his lovely depiction of God’s kingdom where swords will become plows (4:1-4), and his requirements of anyone who loves the Lord (6:8) are also well known.

Nahum: A counterpart to Jonah; Nahum pronounces doom upon Nineveh.

Habakkuk: An interesting book in that the prophet “dialogues” with God about the classic question: why do wrongdoers prevail? God may use an evil nation like the Chaldeans to accomplish his purposes, but they, too, will suffer the consequences.  Habakkuk 2:4 is a classic text; Paul quotes it in Romans 1:17 as a beginning of his argument about the primacy of faith.

Zephaniah: The last minor prophet prior to the exile, Zephaniah preaches judgment and wrath, but also hope for the future.

Haggai: His topic is the rebuilding of the Temple following the end of the exile. Not a lofty writer, he straightforwardly urges the Temple’s completion. Interestingly, he praises the great king by name, Zerubbabel, who eventually disappears from the record.

Zechariah: He also discusses the rebuilding of the Temple, but he writes with visions, symbols, and images of the coming messianic age.

Malachi: The last Old Testament prophet, from the 400s, who (with his interesting question-answer format) also posed Habakkuk’s question, why do the wicked prosper and the good suffer?  Malachi’s innovation: his announcement that a messenger will herald the last days. From Malachi's announcement, we segue into the New Testament.

It might be good to see a biblical chronology again, to see where these writings fit into the overall text.

- Patriarchs: about 1800-1500 BCE (Genesis)
- Exodus, Wilderness, and Conquest: about 1500-1200s BCE (Exodus-Joshua). Moses: the greatest of the Old Testament prophets.
- Period of the Judges: 1200s-1000 BCE (Judges)
- The monarchy (Saul, David, Solomon): 1000-922 BCE (1 and 2 Samuel, 1 Kings 1-11, 1 Chronicles, 2 Chronicles 1-9)
- Divided monarchy: 922-722 BCE (1 Kings 12-17, and also Isaiah, Hosea, Amos, and Micah)
- Kingdom of Judah: 722-586 BCE (2 Kings 18-25, 2 Chronicles 10-36, and also Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Joel, Obadiah, Jonah, Nahum, and Habakkuk)
- Exile: 586-539 BCE (Lamentations, Psalm 139, et al.)
_ Judah under Persian rule: 539-332 BCE (Ezra-Nehemiah covers about the years 539-432 BCE, while Esther is set during the reign of Xerxes I, who reigned 486-465 BCE. Also, the prophets Second Isaiah, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi)
- Judah during the Hellenistic rule: 332-165 BCE (3 Maccabees, Daniel)
- The Maccabean/Hasmonean period: 165-63 BCE (1, 2, and 4 Maccabees)
Judea under Roman rule: 63 BCE-135 CE (during which time we have the life of Jesus, the first two generations of the church (30-120 CE), the writings of the New Testament (about 50-100 CE), and the beginnings of Rabbinic Judaism, after the Temple's destruction in 70 CE).


Some wisdom from Walter Brueggemann (1):

In the Jewish Bible, the Former Prophets are Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, and 1 and 2 Kings, while the Latter Prophets are Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and The Twelve (with Ruth, Lamentations and Daniel placed toward the Bible’s end). The Former and Latter Prophets are placed together. Theologically they belong together, too. Walter Brueggemann points out that, in the case of the Former Prophets, the word prophet “refers to the material itself and not to specific prophetic personalities. What is prophetic is the capacity to reconstrue all of lived reality—-including the history of Israel and the power relations of the known world of the ancient Near East—-according to the equally palpable reality (in this reading) of the rule of YHWH” (p. 131).

Thus, Israel’s history is ready through “the singular unrivaled [monotheistic] reality of YHWH” (p. 131). The Christian tendency (that I’ve followed in these notes) to call the Former Prophets “history” misses not only the question of the material’s historical reliability (not always very strong: for instance, in the case of Joshua) but also its prophetic interpretation of Israel’s history (p. 131). Brueggemann continues: “In the Former Prophets, ‘history’ has been transposed into a massive theological commentary on Israel’s past. In the Latter Prophets what began as personal proclamation has been transposed into a theological conviction around YHWH’s promise for the future. both theological commentary… and theological conviction..became a normative, but at the same time quite practical, resource for a commentary living in and through the deep fissure of deportation and displacement… Seen in this way, the prophetic canon that testifies to YHWH’s governance of past, present, and future is an offer of a counterworld, counter to denial and despair, counterrooted in YHWH’s steadfast purpose for a new Jerusalem, new torah, new covenant, new temple—-all things new [and he quotes Isaiah 43:16-21]” (pp. 136-137).

He goes on to note that current scholarship tends to view the Torah and the Former Prophets as a “Primary Narrative” from Promise to Exile, of “land gift” and “land loss,” with the Jordan River functioning as a geographical as well as literary-canonical -theological marker (p. 296). Then, continuing to the Latter Prophets, that material speaks to “land loss” but now, also, to future hope (p. 298).

Furthermore, he continues, we can link prophetic traditions back to the Torah, with Ezekiel linked to the Torah’s priestly traditions, Jeremiah to the Deuteronomistic tradition, the Isaiah to the Yahwist tradition in the sense that the Abrahamic Yahwist material lead to the David-Zion traditions to which Isaiah holds. The Twelve (the minor prophets) in turn, coming from the entire period of the 700s-300s BCE, take us from judgment through exile to future promise (pp. 300-301).


The following are notes that I first posted here. The prophets can be difficult reading, with their seemingly random collections of proclamations, oracles, stories, sermons, and sometimes, enacted prophetic signs. Layers of traditions are often challenging to discern.(2) The prophets use metaphors, allusions, and shifts of narration, which makes good commentaries essential for the modern Bible explorer.  The prophets are also difficult in their tone and themes.  The prophets express God’s anger at the Israelites, who have broken the covenant; in chapter after chapter, we find descriptions of wrongs, promises and descriptions of dreadful punishment, but also tender words and promises for the future.

One of the basic literary units of the prophets is the proclamation: God announces judgment or salvation. These proclamations are addressed to God’s people but sometimes also to neighboring nations. The proclamations in turn made use of different kinds of discourse: indictment and verdict, hymns and songs, collections of sayings, and others. Later prophets also use longer kinds of writing like sermons and narratives. The prophets also record visions, and some include descriptions of their own call.(3)

Because the prophets preached during the time of the historical books (Former Prophets), we find familiar themes in the prophets: the land and the covenant, the threatened loss of the land, the failures of the monarchy, the role of the Temple (and, in Jeremiah and Ezekiel, its loss), and others.  The prophets connect back to God’s promises in Abraham and also the exodus, and also to the promise of David and of Jerusalem as they (the prophets) preached about God’s kingship and covenant.(4)

The relationship of the prophets and the law is complex and is debated by scholars. I cited Brueggemann about some of the connections of traditions. We Christians are liable to read prophetic passages like Jeremiah 7, think of Jesus’ criticisms of the religious leaders of his time, and dismiss the law as “Jewish legalism”, a term I hate.

The prophets, however, do not deny the law but sharply warn that religious ritual must go hand in hand with justice, mercy, righteousness, and the repudiation of idols. Deuteronomy defines the role of prophets (13:1-5, 18:15-22) and upholds Moses himself as the greatest of the prophets (34:10).  Even passages that seem very “anti-law” (like Ez. 20:25, Jer. 7:21-26, and Jer. 8:8) do not abrogate the law and the covenant but call for a deeper faithfulness.(6)Within Judaism, the view has prevailed that “the primary role of the prophet was to serve as a vital link in the transmission of the law from Moses down to the present.”(5)  


One critically important aspect of the Prophets is the concern for social justice. Here is a good site that connects the Prophet's teachings with other biblical narratives. "To speak about God and to think about theology are wonderful pursuits, but the cause of theology is justice for human beings. Loving your neighbor is a sweet sentiment, but doing right by your neighbor will change the world."


In addition to the prophets' messages of warning, grace, and justice, we also find many connections of the prophets and the New Testament.  Prophetic scriptures became crucial for understanding who Jesus is and how his coming fits within and fulfills God’s plans of salvation. A Bible explorer can spend months and years tracing and delving into the prophetic roots of the New Testament.  Here are just a few.(7)

John the Baptist (Isa. 40:3-5, Mal. 4:5-6, Mark 9:1, Luke 1:17)

Jesus’ birth (Isa. 7:14, 9:6-7, 11:1-5, Mic. 5:2, Matt. 2:6, Luke 1:30-33.

Jesus’ authority and teaching (Isa. 6:9-12, 9:1-2, Matt. 4:14-16, 13:14-15)

Jesus the shepherd (Ez. 34:11-16, John 10:7-11)

Jesus’ ministry (Isa. 32:3-4, 35:5-6, 33:22, 42:1-4, 61:1-2, Matt. 9:32-35, 12:17-21, Luke 4:17-21)

Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem (Zech. 9:9, Matt. 21:4-5)

Jesus’ sufferings, betrayal, and death (Isa. 52:13-53:12, Zech. 11:12-13, 12:10, 13:7, in addition to Ps. 22, 69, and others)

Jesus’ resurrection (Ez. 37:1-14, Jonah 1:17, Matt. 12:40, and among the psalms Ps. 16:10 and Ps. 110:1)

The New Covenant (Jer. 31:31-34, Matt. 26:26-29, Rom. 11:26-36, Heb. 8:8-12)

The Temple in relationship to Jesus (Isa. 56:7, Jer. 7:1, Mark 11:15-18, John 2:13-23, Acts 7:47-51)

“The righteous shall live by faith” (Hab. 2:4, Rom. 1:17)

The Holy Spirit (Joel 2:28-29, Acts 2:16-21)

The redemption of all nations (Isa. 2:1-4, 1 Peter 2:10)

Related to the redemption of the nations: the metaphor of marriage between God and his people (e.g., Hos. 1-3, Rom. 9:25-26, 1 Pet. 2:10, Eph. 5:25, 32, Rev. 19:7, 21:2, 9)(8)

The end times (Daniel 7:1-12:13, much of the book of Zechariah, Ez. 38-39). In fact, in a previous chapter I noted several Old Testament references in Revelation and noted that no other New Testament book quotes or alludes to the Old Testament as often.

The issue of the covenant becomes a key for Paul as he preaches about Jesus and the law. For Jews today, the prophetic criticism of faithlessness remains a call for contemporary faithfulness, as I said above; the prophet’s stress upon justice and suitable worship are as timely a Word of God today as in the ancient world. Paul understands faithless as a more basic flaw in both human nature and the law; we cannot keep the law faithfully, and thus we need Christ (Rom. 3:21-26). A passage such as Jeremiah 7:21-26 points to the need for new beginnings (Jer. 31:31-34).

The prophet’s concerns for the poor and for justice are not as apparently strong in the New Testament but are certainly there. In both the Torah and the prophets, God is a God of justice. (The Greek word dikaiosunê, corresponding to tzedakah, means “righteousness” and “justice.”) God takes the side of the poor, downtrodden, and powerless. Luke’s gospel and Matthew 25:31-46 very much echo God’s care for the needy.  You could also think this way: in the Old Testament, God demands justice for the poor, outcast, and powerless. In the New Testament, God also takes the side of those who are spiritually impoverished, the Gentiles, bringing them into the circle of blessing.

Although Christians are quick to stress that Jesus is “more than a prophet,” he was frequently understood to be a prophet--in fact, the hoped-for prophet referred to by Moses (Matt. 21:11, Mark 6:15, 8:28, Luke 7:16, 24:19, John 4:19, 6:14, et al.). Jesus possessed the Spirit in a way that people considered prophetic (Matt. 12:28, Mark 3:28-29, Luke 4:18-20, et al).



1  Walter Brueggemann, An Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination  (Westminster John Knox Press, 2003). 

2  James L. Mays, general editor, Harper’s Bible Commentary (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1988), 534-539.

3  Childs, Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992),, 178.

4  Childs, Biblical Theology, 177

5  Harper’s Bible Commentary, 540. The Haftarah Commentary (see my next post) has an essay on Micah 5:6-6:8: “In the concluding verse [6:8] Micah defines the essence of religion: God requires not sacrifice but righteous living. Does Micah thereby suggest that sacrifice (and, by implication, all ritual) was unnecessary, and that the real essence of Judaism was expressed by justice toward others, by loving and caring relationships, and by suitable modesty? The answer is ‘no,’ just as it is for the other prophets who inveighed against mere external observance. It istin the nature of oratory and moral harangue to employ extremes of speech in order to make essential points. Micah does not advocate the abolition of the Temple worship; rather, he censures external observance by persons who  lack devotion to social and ethical principles. Judaism has always been an integrated system of form and substance of ritual and spirituality, for neither is viable without the other.” (p. 393).

         The writer continues by citing the famous passage of the Talmud, Makkot 23b-24a, where Rabbi Simla’i taught that the Torah contains 613 mitzvoth, 248 positive and 365 negative. Then, Psalm 15 condenses them to 11, and Isaiah 33:15-17 to 6, Micah to 3, and Habakkuk 2:4 to just 1. Some of the sages insisted that the commandments should be kept, but nevertheless the commandments can be distilled to a few principles. The writer concludes: “Basing ourselves on the verse in Micah, we would say: Observe as much as you can, and do it in the spirit of the threefold objective of justice, mercy, and modesty. It is not one or the other, but rather both: one in the spirit of the other” (p. 393). 

6  Harper’s Bible Commentary, 540.

7  One handy list of biblical messianic prophecies is found at

8. Graeme Goldsworthy, Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 172-173.

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