Understanding the Prophetical Books
Welcome to this Bonus lesson in our Overview of the Bible Course.
It has been my experience that of all the parts of Scripture, the section on the prophetical books probably has the highest “fuzzy” factor.
I suspect this is because there are so many prophetical books (17 in all).
In addition, it is often hard to distinguish one prophet’s message from another.
Thus I thought it useful include more material on the prophetical books in our Overview of the Bible Course.
When Did the Prophets Speak
It is perhaps best to start with a visual of the time periods when the prophets were active:
As you can see, all of the prophets fit within three periods of history, Divided Kingdom; Exile and Post-Exile. This fact alone should begin to remove some of the cobwebs from your mind regarding the prophetical books.
The Message of the Prophets
Despite the quantity of prophetical books, the messages of the prophets can be summarized under the following categories:
1—They summon God’s people back to the covenant that they made with God in the wilderness. (Note how this fact traces back to the period of the Exodus and to the book of Deuteronomy, where God’s people renewed their covenant with God prior to entering the promised land.)
2—They warn Israel and/or Judah about their impending judgment if they fail to repent. Often the prophets describe these judgments as the coming of the “Day of the Lord,” when wickedness will be punished and the righteous will be liberated from their bondage.
3—They call out the nation of Israel, its leaders and its people for their idolatrous, corrupt and unjust practices.
4—They judge other nations that have been unfriendly toward Israel. This goes back to the Abrahamic covenant: “I will bless those who bless you and I will curse those who curse you.”
5—They encourage God’s people during times of tragedy or difficulty.
6—They provide hope for the restoration of Israel and promise the coming of a kingly Messiah.
7—They remind Israel of past judgments or their heritage so as to motivate them to action and alertness.
Some of the above messages naturally correlate with particular time periods. (This is not to say they cannot be repeated in other periods.):
- Prior to the exile—A call for repentance and a warning of future judgment are more necessary
- During the exile—We would expect the prophets to provide consolation and hope for restoration
- After the exile—A prophet’s message would exhort and remind the people of past judgments or their heritage in order to motivate people to faithfulness and alertness.
Words of Caution Regarding the Prophets
There are a few more themes, which the prophets cover beyond these seven. I have highlighted these because they are the most important and are repeated in many of the prophetical books.
We should also be careful not to press a particular type of message into a particular time period.
Repentance, judgment, consolation, hope for restoration, promise of a Messiah and exhortation appear in each time period. The purpose of the above division is to highlight that certain messages will at least be more prominent in certain time periods.
For example, the books of Haggai and Zechariah examples of message #6 and #7 above.
Both prophets spoke after the exile. Theirs was a message of encouragement, which was meant to counter the disinterest and discouragement that set in during reconstruction of the temple.
In Zechariah’s case, however, this encouragement was rooted in visions of a day when the Messiah would rule from a restored temple in a restored city. Thus words to uplift the people (#7), were married to hopes of restoration and promises about the Jewish Messiah (#6).