The next chapter in the story of the Bible is the writings of the prophets. The biblical term “prophet” refers to one who speaks for another. The term is used for Aaron who spoke for Moses (Exod. 7:1-2). Most frequently it is used in the Bible for those who speak for God. The prophets in ancient Israel interpreted and expounded God’s instruction, what is called the Mosaic Law. They also predicted God’s judgment on those who broke their covenant agreement with God and proclaimed God’s blessings on those who were faithful to the covenant obligations. As watchmen on the city wall, the prophets looked over the activities of the Israelites, warning them against political alliances, Canaanite worship, and religious formalism.
While the prophets functioned in various ways to communicate God’s message to His people, there was one major role that they occupied in Israel. The prophets served as prosecuting attorneys representing God in bringing His case against a nation guilty of violating the covenant.
In order to understand and fully appreciate the role of the prophet in Israel, we have to go back to Mount Sinai where God met with His people and entered into a covenant relationship with them. This covenant was mediated by Moses, who went up Mt. Sinai to meet with God in order to receive the regulations governing the covenant relationship. The regulations of the covenant are recorded for us in Exodus 20-24 and Deuteronomy 5-30. The summary of Israel’s obligations to God under the covenant relationship is found in the Ten Commandments (Exod. 20:1-17; Deut. 5:6-21).
Like a prosecuting attorney bringing charges against the guilty, the prophets reminded the people of the regulations (God’s law), called them to obedience, and confronted them with the consequences of continued disregard of their covenant obligations.
The prophets came onto the scene during Israel’s monarchy to remind the rulers and people of the covenant relationship between God and His people. They reminded the Israelites that obedience to the covenant would result in prosperity and blessing, and that disobedience would result in God’s chastening and judgment. The prophets functioned as official representatives of the God of Israel. Like a prosecuting attorney bringing charges against the guilty, the prophets reminded the people of the regulations (God’s law), called them to obedience, and confronted them with the consequences of continued disregard of their covenant obligations. These consequences were spelled out for Israel in Leviticus 26:14-39 and Deuteronomy 28:15-68.
The prophets didn’t just pronounce God’s judgment on the wayward and disobedient people. The Mount Sinai covenant made provision for the restoration of blessing and prosperity based upon repentance. God had promised Israel that if they would confess their sins and turn back to God, He would remember His people and restore their land and blessing (Lev. 26:40-45; Deut. 30:1-5). And so, the prophets continually preached that repentance is the prerequisite for restoration and blessing. In the words of Isaiah, “If you consent and obey, you will eat the best of the land!” (Isa. 1:19).
The prophetic books have been traditionally divided into two sections–the Major Prophets and the Minor Prophets. The Major Prophets are not necessarily more important, but they are longer. The Minor Prophets are not less important, but they are shorter. Isaiah is the longest major prophet with sixty-six chapters. Obadiah is the shortest minor prophet and is just twenty-one verses in length.
The Major Prophets begin with Isaiah who prophesied around 700 B.C. He condemned the people of Judah and Jerusalem for breaking the covenant, and warned of how God was going to use the Assyrians to chasten His people. But the tone of the prophet shifts in the second half of the book to offer comfort and encouragement to the exiles, who have been taken captive to Babylon. Isaiah assures them that there is a future and a hope for God’s repentant people. The prophet Jeremiah ministered around 600 B.C., about a century after the time of Isaiah. Jeremiah realized that the people had gone so far in violating their covenant with God that judgment was inevitable. He warned the Judeans that God would use the Babylonians to discipline His disobedient people. The destruction of Jerusalem and Babylonian captivity came in fulfillment of Jeremiah’s prophecies. Jeremiah’s Lamentations record the prophet’s grief over the destruction of Jerusalem and demonstrate how completely his predictions were fulfilled.
Ezekiel and Daniel were prophets who ministered during the Babylonian captivity (605-537 B.C.). Daniel was among the first of the Judeans to be taken to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar. He served in Babylon as a court prophet, speaking God’s word to the rulers of Babylon and Persia. His visions and their accompanying messages emphasize the theme of God’s sovereignty over the affairs of Israel and the Gentile nations. Although Ezekiel was trained as a priest, he became a prophet after being exiled to Babylon in 597 B.C. There he ministered to a community of the exiles, revealing the reasons for the captivity and the destruction of Jerusalem. But like the other prophets, Ezekiel gave the exiles a basis for hope as he announced the future restoration of Jerusalem and the temple.