Introduction to the Prophets

Bible Commentary / Produced by TOW Project

Who Were the Prophets?

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Called by God and filled with God’s Spirit, a prophet spoke God’s word to people who had in one way or another distanced themselves from God. In one sense, a prophet is a preacher. But in marketplace terms, a prophet is often a whistle-blower, particularly when an entire tribe or nation has turned away from God.

The prophets peopled the pages of Israel’s history. Moses was God’s prophet, used to rescue the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt and then to lead them to the land God had promised them. Again and again, these people turned away from God. Moses was God’s first mouthpiece to bring them back into a relationship with God. In the Old Testament history books (Joshua, Judges, 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings, 1 & 2 Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah), prophets such as Deborah, Samuel, Nathan, Elijah, Elisha, Huldah, and others came forward to speak God’s word to a rebellious people.

Israel’s religious worship was organized around the labor of priests, first in the tabernacle and later in the temple. The day-to-day job description of priests lay in slaughtering, butchering, and roasting the sacrificial animals brought by worshipers. But a priest’s tasks went beyond the heavy physical work of dealing with thousands of animal sacrifices. A priest was also responsible to be a spiritual and moral guide to the people. While the priest was often seen primarily as the mediator between the people and God in the temple sacrifices, his larger duty was to teach God’s law to the people (Lev. 10:11; Deut.17:8-10; 33:10; Ezra 7:10).

In Israel’s history, however, the priests themselves often became corrupt and turned away from God, leading the people in the worship of idols. Prophets arose when the priests failed to teach God’s law to the people, and kings and judges failed to govern the country justly. In a sense, God called and spoke through prophets as whistle-blowers when the whole Israelite enterprise was on the brink of self-destruction.

One of the stunning tragedies of the people of God was their persistence in pursuing the worship of the many gods of their pagan neighbors. The common practices of this idolatrous worship included offering their children in the fires of Moloch and ritual prostitution with every imaginable lewd practice “on the high places, on the hills, and under every green tree” (2 Chr. 28:4). But an even greater evil in forsaking Yahweh came in forsaking God’s structure for living in community as a distinct and holy people of God. Concern for the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the stranger in the land was replaced by oppression. Business practices overturned God’s standard so that extortion, taking bribes, and dishonest gain became commonplace. Leaders used power to destroy lives, and religious leaders despised God’s holy things. Far from enriching the nation, these ungodly practices led to the downfall of the nation. The prophets were often the last voices in the land, calling people back to God and to a just and healthy community.

In most cases, the prophets were not “professional” in the sense of earning a living from their prophetic activities. God tapped them for special duty while in the midst of other professions. Some prophets (e.g., Jeremiah and Ezekiel) were priests with the duties described above. Others were shepherds, including Moses and Amos. Deborah was a judge adjudicating issues for the Israelites. Huldah was probably a teacher in the scholarly sector of Jerusalem. The task of a prophet overlaid other jobs.

Situating the Prophets in Israel’s History

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The records of the earliest prophets are woven into the history of Israel in the books of Joshua through 2 Kings, rather than in a separate written record. Afterwards, the words and deeds of the prophets were preserved in separate collections corresponding to the final seventeen books of the Old Testament, Isaiah through Malachi, often called the “latter prophets” or, sometimes the “literary prophets” because their words of each were written down as separate pieces of literature, rather than being spread through books of history as the earlier prophets were.

When the unified kingdom split in two, the ten northern tribes (Israel) plunged immediately into idol worship. Elijah and Elisha, the last among the former prophets, were called by God to challenge these idolatrous Israelites to worship Yahweh alone. The first of the literary prophets, Amos and Hosea, were called to challenge the apostate northern kings of Israel from Jeroboam II through Hoshea. Because kings and people alike refused to return to Yahweh, in 722 BC God allowed the powerful empire of Assyria to overthrow the northern kingdom of Israel. The Assyrians, cruel and merciless, not only destroyed the cities and towns of the land, taking its wealth as booty, but they also took the people captive and dispersed them throughout the empire in an attempt to destroy forever all sense of nationhood (2 Kgs. 17:1-23).

As Israel neared its destruction, the small nation of Judah in the south flip-flopped between the worship of Yahweh and the worship of foreign gods. Good kings pulled the people back from idol worship and bad business practices, but bad kings reversed that. In the southern kingdom (Judah), the first literary prophets were Obadiah and Joel. They were whistle-blowers under kings Jehoram, Ahaziah, Joash, and Queen Athaliah.

Isaiah spoke for God in Judah under four kings—Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah—with Micah also prophesying during that period. Hezekiah was followed on the throne by Manasseh, of whom Scripture records that he did more evil in the sight of the Lord than all his predecessors (2 Kgs. 21:2-16).

Manasseh was followed by good king Josiah who instituted a thorough cleansing of the temple, ridding it of much pagan worship. The people cleaning the temple found an ancient scroll that spelled judgment on the land, which led to the last revival of Yahweh worship in Judah. The prophets in Jerusalem at this time included  Nahum,  Jeremiah  and  Zephaniah (though the high priest turned to a woman prophet, Huldah, to interpret the scroll for the king). Josiah was followed by kings whose disastrous political decisions eventually brought the Babylonian conqueror Nebuchadnezzar II against Jerusalem (2 Kgs. 23:31-24:17). In 605 BC, Nebuchadnezzar took 10,000 Jews into exile in Babylon. The prophet Ezekiel was among those captives, while Habakkuk joined Jeramiah and Zephaniah, continuing their prophetic work in Jerusalem. When King Zedekiah allied himself with neighbor nations to fight off Babylon in 589, Nebuchadnezzar laid siege to Jerusalem that lasted more than two years (2 Kgs. 24:18-25:21; 2 Chr. 36). The city capitulated in 586, mainly because of famine, and was razed to the ground with its temple and palaces totally destroyed. Jeremiah remained in Jerusalem, continuing his prophetic work among the impoverished remnant in Judah, until he was carted off to Egypt. Meanwhile, Ezekiel continued to prophesy in Babylon to the exiled Jews living there.

Among the Jewish captives in the first deportation (605 BC) was the young man Daniel, whom God used in Babylon in the court of all the Babylonian emperors. When Babylon was overthrown by the Persians in 539 BC, the new Medo-Persian king Cyrus allowed the Jews to return to Judah and rebuild their city and its temple, first under Zerubbabel and then under Nehemiah. Daniel’s prophecies span the Babylonian exile (Dan. 1:1) through Cyrus’s decree ending the exile (Dan. 10:1).

Persian kings varied in their attitude toward the Jews. Under Cambyses (530-522) the rebuilding of Jerusalem was stopped (Ezra 4), but under Darius I (522-486) the second temple was completed (see Ezra 5-6). Here the post-exilic prophets Zechariah and Haggai   challenged the Jews: “You live in paneled houses while God’s house lies in ruins. Do something about it!” Darius was followed by Xerxes (486-464), whose reign is recorded in Esther 1-9. Following Xerxes came Artaxerxes (464-423), in whose reign Ezra returned to Jerusalem in 458 BC (Ezra 7-10), and Nehemiah followed in 445 BC (Neh. 1-2). It was in this period that the final post-exilic prophet Malachi wrote.

The book of Jonah does not take place in Israel, and the text gives no indication of its date. God gave Jonah a mission to Nineveh, the Assyrian capital, calling the Assyrian people to repentance. The Assyrians were enemies of Israel, but God’s intent was to bless them nonetheless, consistent with God’s promise that Abraham’s people would be a blessing to all nations (Gen. 22:18).

Timeline of the Prophets

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The table below shows where in time the prophets fit within the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah. 

Period

Northern Kings

Northern Prophets

Southern Kings

Southern Prophets

United kingdom under Saul, David, Solomon, c. 1030 - 931

Divided kingdom

Jeroboam (931-910)

Nadab (910-909)

Baasha (909-886)

Elah (886)

Zimri (885)

Omri (885-874)

Ahab (874-853)

Jehoram (852-841)

Jehu (841-814)

Jehoahaz (814-798)

Jehoash (798-782)

Jeroboam II (793-753)

Zechariah (753-752)

Shallum (752)

Menahem 752-742)

Pekahiah (742-740)

Pekah (752-732)

Hoshea (732-722)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Elijah

 

Elisha

 

 

Amos

Jonah

 

 

 

 

Hosea

Rehoboam (931-913)

Abijah (913)

Asa (911-870)

 

 

 

Jehoshaphat (873-848)

Jehoram (853-841)

Queen Athaliah (841-835)

Joash (835-796)

Amaziah (796-767)

Uzziah (790-740)

Jotham (750-731)

 

 

 

 

Ahaz (735-715)

Hezekiah (715-686)

Manasseh (695-642)

Amon (642-640)

Josiah (640-609)

Jehoahaz (609)

Jehoiakim (609-597)

Jehoiachin (597)

Zedekiah (597-586)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Obadiah

Joel

 

Isaiah

 

 

 

 

Micah

 

 

 

Jeremiah

Zephaniah
Huldah
Nahum

Habakkuk

Babylonian exile

 

 

 

Ezekiel

Daniel

Post-exilic prophets

 

 

Zerubbabel, governor

 

Nehemiah, governor

Haggai

Zechariah

Malachi