Every Christian knows the importance of reading their Bible, but many are overwhelmed with the task of devouring such a monstrous book! Often times, when Christians lose steam in their yearly reading plans, they can become frustrated and feel defeated. It is for this reason that individual book studies can be a lifesaver. The Best Book in the Bible series will provide entry points into faithful study and encourage you to should fall in love with various books of the Bible.
There may not be many people who think of the various biblical Prophets as being among their favorites. Very few people would say that Nahum or Obadiah were tops on their list. In fact, many believers struggle to see the value of reading and studying them. But a faithful examination of the Old Testament Prophets is vitally important, and can be incredibly fulfilling. In this post, we will explore how to best profit from the Prophets.
The Old Testament Scriptures can be broken down into three main sections: the Law, the Writings, and the Prophets (Matt. 5:17-20; 22:40; Luke 24:44; etc.). Generally speaking, this has to do with the content of the books. The Law constitutes the Torah (or Pentateuch), which is the first five books of the Old Testament; it also includes the Jewish historical books, from Joshua to Esther. What are known as the Writings constitutes the wisdom literature (Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon). The last major division is known as the Prophets (Isaiah through Malachi).
In recent tradition, the Prophets have been divided into two groups: the Major Prophets and the Minor Prophets. However, this distinction is unfortunate, as it gives the impression that the “Major” Prophets are more important than the “Minor” ones. This is certainly not the case. The distinction refers to the size of the books; the amount of content. And so, the longer Prophets are called “Major” while the shorter ones are called “Minor”.
The Major Prophets:
Jeremiah (and Lamentations)
The Minor Prophets:
One more thing to note is that, until more recent times, the twelve Minor Prophets were bound together as one book, called “The Book of the Twelve”. They were read together as one body of work. While individual book studies prove valuable, it is also helpful to think of them together as a unit.
Overview of the Books
It’s important not to become too overwhelmed with the sheer volume of prophetic material. One helpful exercise is to examine a basic timeline of when these books appeared. All of the individual prophets prophesied over a span of approximately 450 years, but in that time, there were three main periods where most seemed to occur.
- During the Assyrian Empire (884—612 BC)
- During the Babylonian Empire (612—539 BC)
- During the Medo-Persian Empire (539—330BC)
We tend to believe that Isaiah, Joel, Jonah, Amos, Hosea, and Micah prophesied during the first period. Ezekiel, Daniel, Nahum, Zephaniah, Habakkuk, and Obadiah prophesied during the second period. And Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi prophesied during the third period. However, Jeremiah prophesied toward the end of the first period (Assyrian downfall) and into the second period (Babylonian Empire).
It is also helpful to note that the prophets were ministering in four different contexts: to Israel (Northern Kingdom), to Judah (Southern Kingdom), to Ninevah (Assyria), and to Israel after the Babylonian captivity.
And so, we learn that:
- Hosea and Amos prophesied in Israel before the Assyrian captivity.
- Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Joel, Obadiah, Micah, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah prophesied to Judah before and during the Babylonian captivity.
- Jonah and Nahum prophesied to Ninevah.
- Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi prophesied in Israel after the captivity.
Another helpful exercise is to seek to understand the general message of each book. While these may ultimately prove to be insufficient and lacking, here’s my attempt at summarizing each one:
Isaiah: In the midst of turmoil and impending trouble in Judah, Isaiah pleads with God’s people to trust Him, looking forward not only to their physical deliverance, but their coming spiritual salvation through the Messiah.
Jeremiah: For more than forty years, Jeremiah prophesied to apostate Judah, warning them of God’s judgment, and for all his faithfulness received nothing but persecution, beatings, and imprisonment.
Lamentations: Records the lamentations of Jeremiah over the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by the Babylonians.
Ezekiel: The prophet Ezekiel ministers to the Jewish exiles in Babylon, assuring them that God will still bless Israel despite her egregious sins.
Daniel: The life and prophetic ministry of Daniel given during the Babylonian captivity. A message of enduring faith through adversity.
Hosea: In this midst of Israel’s apostasy, Hosea’s life mirrors the spiritual lesson of God never forsaking His people because He loves them.
Joel: Capitalizing off of a severe drought and locust plague, Joel uses the events to teach about the great and terrible Day of the Lord.
Amos: Despite a period of national prosperity, the prophet attacks the social evils of apostate Israel and calls for their repentance, preaching to them the righteousness of God.
Obadiah: Esau’s descendants—the Edomites—consistently mock and degrade the people of Jerusalem. Obadiah is dispatched to deliver a message of judgment for their hardness of heart.
Jonah: The reluctant prophet is commissioned to travel to the Assyrian capital city of Nineveh to preach their coming destruction in hopes that they will repent.
Micah: Preaching to the common people of Judah, Micah warns of God’s wrath upon Samaria and Jerusalem because of their waywardness.
Nahum: One hundred years after Jonah’s prophecy to Nineveh, Nahum comes to announce the destruction of the city because of their continued wickedness.
Habakkuk: Just before the invasion of the Babylonians, Habakkuk was summoned to announce divine punishment for Judah’s faithlessness.
Zephaniah: Armed with a message of judgment, Zephaniah preached The Day of the Lord to God’s people, yet prophesies future blessing at the coming of the Lord.
Haggai: Following the return from the Babylonian exile, Haggai was the first prophetic voice to encourage Judah to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem.
Zechariah: Having laid the foundation for the Temple in Jerusalem, the prophet Zechariah encourages the people to finish the work their started, citing the future coming of the Lord.
Malachi: A hundred years after the Jews’ return to Palestine, the allure of the return had worn off, and the people were starting to grow spiritually lazy. Malachi rebukes them for neglecting true worship, and calls them to repentance.
What Makes The Prophets So Great:
The Prophets provide incredible insight and eye-witness accounts of the historical periods of the Assyrian, Babylonian, and Medo-Persians empires. More than their historical value, however, is their rich theological value. The Prophets are loaded with Christological content; prophecies pointing forward to the first coming of the Christ, as well as His second coming. Studying these texts can add bright coloring to the whole salvation story; it adds juicy meat to the bones! In fact, to neglect a faithful, exegetical study of the Prophets is to miss out on a massive portion of the gospel story and its theological implications.
First and foremost, it’s helpful to think of the Prophets representing a complete and unified word from God. More specifically, we should think of the Minor Prophets as twelve chapters of one book. This helps synthesize our study and look for common themes and ideas. Also, take the time to write down the specific contexts of each prophetic book, noting the date and period, audience and geography, biblical timeline, and general message. This will help you frame each book in your mind as you study it.
Charles L. Feinberg, The Minor Prophets.Chicago: Moody, 1990.
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