Introduction to the OT Books of the Major Prophets
Table of Contents
- General Info
- Historical Background
- Themes, Purpose & Theology
- Interpretation Hints and Challenges
There are many prophets of major importance in the Bible, such as Abraham, Moses, Samuel, Nathan, Deborah, Elijah, and Elisha, just to name a few. See our About the OT Hebrew Prophets article for more information. However, when speaking of the books of the “Major Prophets”, we’re referring specifically to the five books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Daniel and Ezekiel that make up the section by that name in the Protestant Canon. They are called “major” (as opposed to the “Minor Prophets” section of the same canon) due to their longer length rather than their greater importance. Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel each took up an entire scroll, while Lamentations shared a single scroll with the Twelve Minor Prophets. Despite its short length, Lamentations was likely included in the “major” section due to the book’s association with Jeremiah.
In the Hebrew Bible Canon, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel (along with the twelve minor prophets) are grouped into a section called the Nevi’im Aharonim, or the “Latter Prophets” (the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings make up the Nevi’im Rishonim section, or “Former Prophets”). While the latter prophets also deal with portions of Israel’s history, including details surrounding their actions, visions, circumstances surrounding their received messages etc, the heavier emphasis is generally on the prophetic aspects. The books of Daniel and Lamentations are located in the section of the Hebrew Canon known as the Ketuvim, or “Writings”.
Each of the books of the Major Prophets are named for its author and main character with one exception. The book of Lamentations was named for its literary type, being made up entirely of laments. Due to its aforementioned association with Jeremiah (the book’s author), the Septuagint and other Greek manuscripts (and even some English versions) entitle the book as the “Lamentations of Jeremiah”.
Isaiah (chapter 8) and Jeremiah (chapters 1 and 36) offer internal statements regarding preservation of each prophet’s writings. In the Apocryphal book Sirach (aka Ecclesiasticus) that was written about 200 BC, chapters 48 and 49 indicate that the writings of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the Twelve Minor Prophets carried authority. In addition, the book of 1st Maccabees (12:60) indicate the same for the prophet Daniel.
The prophets were God’s messengers, bringing authoritative messages of judgment and of future hope and restoration. Yet, the prophets were not merely neutral bystanders, but were personally affected by the pronouncements that they relayed from God. In addition, their lives were often at risk when prophesying of bad news to a wicked king. We finally note that, since God has authority over all, many messages were delivered not only to Israel and Judah, but to surrounding foreign nations as well.
See the introductions to the individual books for Author and Date information.
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The four major prophets ministered during very turbulent times from the mid eighth century to mid sixth century BC. See the Historical Background of the OT History Books and the historical backgrounds of the individual book introductions for additional information.
In brief, we can divide the era of the writing prophets into four periods, the time of the Divided Kingdom ending with God’s judgment and exile of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, God’s later judgment and exile of the Southern Kingdom of Judah, Judah’s time in Babylonian exile, and the restoration of the Jews to Jerusalem. In the first, God used the dominant empire of Assyria to bring his judgment. Israel attempted to resist by joining forces with Syria, but this coalition resulted in the defeat of both nations. Initially, Assyria merely subjected Israel but allowed the Jews to remain in the land. After further Jewish rebellions however, the Assyrians destroyed the Israeli capitol (Samaria), and deported most of the populous. Assyria also conquered significant portions of Judah, but God saved Judah when the Assyrians attached Jerusalem (~701 BC). God’s deliverance only delayed the second event, and after Assyria was conquered by the Babylonians (612 BC), God used the victors to execute judgment on the Southern Kingdom, resulting in their exile to Babylon. In 539 BC, the Persian King Cyrus conquered Babylon and the following year, issued an edict allowing the Jews to return to their homeland. None of the four major prophets returned to Judah, but a few of the minor prophets were active during this final period of OT prophecy.
Isaiah prophesied in the Judah and witnessed the fall of Israel (722 BC) to Assyria. He then oversaw the miraculous delivery of Jerusalem (in Judah) from the Assyrians during the reign of Judean King Hezekiah (728-686 BC). Jeremiah began his ministry about 627 BC and prophesied of Judah’s impending doom due to her consistent rebellion against God and His covenants. After Jerusalem finally fell to Babylon in 586 BC, Jeremiah wrote the book of Lamentations as a mourning over the city’s destruction. Jeremiah was treated well by the Babylonians, but was forced to flee to Egypt by a group of Jewish rebels, where he is thought to have died a few years later. In addition to the books bearing their names, biblical references to historical events during this period would roughly span 2Kings chapters 15-21 and 2Chronicles chapters 26-33 for Isaiah’s ministry, and 2Kings chapters 22-25 and 2Chronicles chapter 36 for that of Jeremiah.
There were two deportations of the Jews to Babylon prior to Jerusalem’s fall that resulted in the third and final deportation (586 BC). The prophet Daniel was deported during the first wave (605 BC), became an important official in the royal court, and prophesized and ministered to his fellow exiles in Babylon, and to several Babylonian kings. The prophet Ezekiel was deported during the second wave (597 BC) and prophesied by a number of visions, those of coming judgment on Jerusalem prior to her fall, and visions of future restoration for the exiles. In addition to the books bearing their names, biblical references to historical events during the beginning of the exile can be found in chapters 24 and 25 of 2Kings.
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The following is a rough timeline spanning the ministries of the Major Prophets. See Chronology of the Monarchy Timeline for additional info, including timelines for the “Minor Prophets”.
|931 BC||Division of the Kingdom into the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah|
|791-740 BC||Uzziah (aka Azariah) King of Judah|
|~740-685 BC||Isaiah Prophet of Judah and Israel|
|~728-686 BC||Hezekiah King of Judah|
|722 BC||Israel Conquered and Exiled by Assyrians|
|640-609 BC||Josiah King of Judah enacts Reforms|
|627-580 BC||Jeremiah Prophet of Judah|
|612 BC||The Babylonians (Chaldeans) Conquer and Destroy Nineveh (Assyrians)|
|605 BC||Babylon Invades Judah, Exiles many of the Jews|
|~605-535 BC||Daniel Prophet to Exiled Judah|
|597 BC||Second Invasion by the Babylonians|
|~593-570 BC||Ezekiel Prophet to Exiled Judah|
|586 BC||Fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians, Exile of much of the Population, Judean King Jehoiachin Imprisoned|
|539 BC||Cyrus II (Cyrus the Great) Captures Babylon and Establishes Persian Empire|
|538 BC||First Return of Exiled Jews to Jerusalem under Zerubbabel|
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Themes, Purpose and Theology
In this chapter, we briefly address some of the common Themes, Purposes and Theology of both the Major and Minor Prophets. See the introductions to the individual books for further treatment of subjects relating to each book.
The overarching theme dominating most of the books is God’s Covenant with Judah and/or Israel, although the books of Daniel, Obadiah, Jonah, and Nahum also involve God’s working in the history of other nations. The relationship between God and Israel is portrayed by several illustrations such as “shepherd and flock”, “husband and wife”, and “potter and clay”, among others. We also see past, present and future aspects of the covenant, such as God’s faithfulness from the beginning, promises of blessings for obedience, warnings of judgment for disobedience, calls for Israel’s repentance, and promises of future restoration in the Messiah's kingdom. God’s blessing and curses as proclaimed by the various prophets are so prevalent that they are often listed as major themes in many commentaries, but should always be understood in the context of the Lord's covenant with His chosen people.
A related theme common to the books is the contrast of the depravity, apostasy and idolatry of the people with the sovereignty, righteousness and justice of God. While the people were stubborn (stiff-necked) in their disobedience, God was steadfast, faithful and even stubborn in His love for His chosen people.
Given the prevailing theme, it is no surprise that overriding purpose running throughout the books is to call the people back into a right covenant relationship with God. Two closely related purposes are to interpret the will and purpose of God to the people, and to offer revelations concerning the future. The most prevalent prophecy regarding the future involved the first-coming of the Messiah, His rejection by the people, and the future establishment of the Messianic Kingdom on earth.
Yet, all of these themes and purposes were not simply for passing along information from God, but shared the common goal of bringing about a change in the spiritual behavior of God’s covenant people.
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Interpretation Hints and Challenges
In this chapter, we discuss some common Interpretation Hints and Challenges for both the Major and Minor Prophets. See the introductions to the individual books for further treatment of subjects relating to each book.
A primary difficulty in understanding the messages of the the prophets is, in an expression we used on our Texas farm, “those folks just didn’t talk plain”. Although the books contain some prose, the prophets wrote predominantly in the literary style known as Hebrew Poetry. The prophets quite likely employed this genre for two reasons. First poetry can be used to convey information, but can also produce powerful emotions that could move the people to action. Poetry, with its allegorical language is often better suited to portray the attributes of God and the description of future events than literal prose.
We must also understand the functions of a prophet. As a mouthpiece or spokesman for God, the prophet’s primary duty was to speak forth God’s message to God’s people in the historical context of God working among His people. In the process of proclaiming God’s message, the prophet would sometimes provide insight into the will of God for the purpose of challenging the people to obey. This was known as forthtelling. On the other hand, the predictive act of foretelling entailed offering foresight into the plan of God, often encouraging the righteous in view of God’s promises or delivering a warning of coming judgment. Much more on the prophet's messages and functions can be found in our About the OT Hebrew Prophets article.
We often get questions regarding the applicability of the Prophet’s messages for Christians today. Obviously, the predictive prophecy, particularly that related to the two advents of Christ are extremely important. As far as the blessings and curses proclaimed to Israel, Christians are no longer under the Old Covenant, but the prophet’s messages were written as examples for us (Rom 15:4, 1Cor 10:6,11). See Are the OT laws still binding on Christians for additional info.
We should also have a working knowledge about Interpreting Prophetical Literature. This linked article also deals with two major challenges to understanding predictive prophecy, the timing of the prediction’s fulfillment and the types of fulfillment (literal vs figurative), along with other rules of interpretation.
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