Finally we come to the prophets, which form the last long section of the Christian Old Testament. In the Tanakh, the prophetic books below (except for Lamentations and Daniel) are grouped with the historical books (Joshua through Kings) because the prophets figure strongly during the historical period covered by those books. These are not the only prophets in Israel’s history: for instance, Moses himself, Miriam, Deborah, Samuel, Nathan, Elijah, Elisha, and several others.
A Bible explorer interested in the historical background of the Bible can, with the aid of a Bible chronology and commentaries, see how many of the prophetic oracles and material fits with certain periods in the histories of the Northern and Southern Kingdoms. The story “arcs” of the Bible extend from the books of Samuel and Kings, over to the materials in the various prophets. But a Bible explorer can also trace the “arcs” of prophecy from their 8th through 5th century origins to the 1st century AD, when the New Testament writers found fulfillments of prophecy in Jesus.
Surveying my notes in my old Bible, plus the annotations published there, I can develop a very basic resume of the prophets, which a Bible explorer can supplement.
Isaiah: The first 39 chapters contain words of judgment about the Northern Kingdom, as well as other nations, and also words of promise. Chapters 40 and following seem to be another prophet, or possibly two (“2 Isaiah” and “3 Isaiah”), writing during 500s BC, as the Israelites are restored by God, acting through the Persians. Here we find wonderful poetry of assurance concerning God’s redemption.
Jeremiah: The prophet preaches judgment upon the Southern Kingdom, and also promises of a renewed covenant in the future. We find tremendous pathos in Jeremiah, as also reflected in the following book, Lamentations.
Ezekiel: A prophet (also a priest) of the time before and during the exile. Ezekiel has weird visions and prophet actions bordering on, and sometimes crossing over to, the perverse. But the book also has a loftiness in the prophet’s moral concern for problems such as human accountability.
Daniel: The book focuses on events in Daniel’s life and also apocalyptic visions of God’s kingdom, the “Son of Man,” and the last days, though many of the visions deal with the time of Antiochus IV, the evil Greek ruler who persecuted Jews. This book is included in the last section of the Jewish canon rather than among the prophets.
Hosea: A Northern Kingdom prophet of the 700s, Hosea used his own family crises to describe the unfaithfulness of Israel and, in addition to words of judgment, the heartache and tenderness of God.
Joel: Joel has aspects of both prophecy and apocalyptic, because he speaks of the Lord’s judgment against sin (in whatever time period he’s writing) as well as the last days. We get the wonderful prophecy of the coming of the Holy Spirit here (2:28-29).
Amos: A Southern prophet who spoke to the sins of the North; he speaks judgment against the kingdom of Israel: their apostasy, wealth, and oppression of the poor. His classic call for justice and righteousness is well known (5:21-24).
Obadiah: A short little book, by a prophet completely unknown besides this writing. The Edomites were descendants of Esau who were enemies of Judah, and Obadiah’s prophecies are directed at them.
Jonah: Unlike other prophetic books, this one is a story, almost like a parable. The fish is not the point of the story, but rather Jonah’s reluctant prophecy which was, surprisingly, highly successful, as well as God’s promise of patience.
Micah: A contemporary of Isaiah and Hosea, and a prophet during the reigns of Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah. His two themes are doom and promise, and his statement about Bethlehem (5:2), his lovely depiction of God’s kingdom where swords will become plows (4:1-4), and his requirements of anyone who loves the Lord (6:8) are also well known
Nahum: A counterpart to Jonah, in a way; Nahum pronounces doom upon Nineveh.
Habakkuk: An interesting book in that the prophet “dialogues” with God about the classic question: why do wrongdoers prevail? God may use an evil nation like the Chaldeans to accomplish his purposes, but they, too, will suffer the consequences. Hab. 2:4 is a classic text; Paul quotes it in Romans 1:17 as a beginning of his argument about the primacy of faith.
Zephaniah: The last minor prophet prior to the exile, Zephaniah preaches judgment and wrath, but also hope for the future.
Haggai: His topic is the rebuilding of the Temple following the end of the exile. Not a lofty writer, he straightforwardly urges the Temple’s completion. Interestingly, he praises the promised king by name, Zerubbabel, who eventually disappears from the record.
Zechariah: He also discusses the rebuilding of the Temple, but he writes with visions, symbols, and images of the coming messianic age.
Malachi: The last Old Testament prophet, from the 400s, who (with his interesting question-answer format) also posed Habakkuk’s question, why do the wicked prosper and the good suffer? Malachi’s innovation: his announcement that a messenger will herald the last days.
One of the basic literary units of the prophets is the proclamation: God announces judgment or salvation. These proclamations are addressed to God’s people but sometimes also to neighboring nations. The proclamations in turn made use of different kinds of discourse: indictment and verdict, hymns and songs, collections of sayings, and others. Later prophets also use longer kinds of writing like sermons and narratives. The prophets also record visions and descriptions of their own call.(1)
The prophets can be difficult reading. The prophets express God’s anger at the Israelites, who have broken the covenant; in chapter after chapter, we find descriptions of wrongs, promises and descriptions of dreadful punishment, but also tender words and promises for the future. Our Sunday school class tackled Hosea’s thirteen chapters and were glad to move on to something cheerier (Lenten lectionary scriptures!). The prophets also use metaphors, allusions, and shifts of narration, which makes good commentaries essential for the modern Bible explorer.
Because the prophets preached during the time of the historical books that I discussed above, we find familiar themes in the prophets: the covenant and the land, the threatened loss of the land, the failures of the monarchy, the role of the Temple (and, in Jeremiah and Ezekiel, its loss), and others. The prophets connect back to God’s promises to Abraham and also Moses and the exodus, and also to the promise of David and of Jerusalem as they (the prophets) preached about God’s kingship and covenant.(2)
In these posts I’ve tried to trace interconnections among sections of the Bible. In the previous section I touched upon the contrasts between the law and wisdom literature, and between prophecy and wisdom literature. What about the contrast and connection between law and prophecy?
Themes of covenant, land, faithfulness, and others thematically connect Torah and prophets (see my discussion of both Torah and the OT historical books). We also find connections—notably in 2 Isaiah—between God’s covenant with Israel and God’s identity as Creator (Gen. 1-2, of course). But other aspects of the relationship of the prophets and the law are complex and are debated by scholars. Some prophetic passages seem very “anti-law” (Ez. 20:25, Jer. 7:21-26, and Jer. 8:8). The prophets, however, do not deny the law but sharply warn that religious ritual must go hand in hand with justice, mercy, righteousness, and the repudiation of idols. Even passages that seem “anti-law” do not abrogate the law and the covenant but call for a deeper faithfulness. Within Judaism, the view has prevailed that “the primary role of the prophet was to serve as a vital link in the transmission of the law from Moses down to the present.”(3) For instance, Deuteronomy defines the role of prophets (13:1-5, 18:15-22) and upholds Moses himself as the greatest of the prophets (34:10); many scholars consider the “Deuteronomic Code” (Deut. 12-26) as a product of the 600s BC and deeply influenced by Jeremiah’s preaching.(4) For Jews, the prophetic criticism of faithlessness remains a call for contemporary faithfulness.
For Christians as for Jews, the prophets’ stress upon justice and suitable worship are as timely a Word of God today as in the ancient world. But for Christians, the prophetic scriptures are also crucial for understanding who Jesus is and how his coming fits within and fulfills God’s plans of salvation. The issue of the covenant becomes a key for Paul as he preaches about Jesus and the law; Paul understands faithlessness as a more basic flaw in both human nature and the law, and thus we need Christ (Rom. 3:21-26). A passage such as Jer. 7:21-26 points to the need for new beginnings (Jer. 3:31-34).
We find many, many other connections of the prophets and the New Testament. As Brevard Childs writes, “certain chords were sounded by Jeremiah and Deutero-Isaiah which resonated strongly in the New Testament (new covenant, vicarious suffering, new creation, suffering servant),”(7) and these “chords” permeate the New Testament. We also find many specific connections of prophecy and typology; a Bible explorer can spend months and years tracing and delving into the prophetic roots of Christian faith. Here are just a few.(5)
* John the Baptist (Isa. 40:3-5, Mal. 4:5-6, Mk. 9:1, Lk. 1:17)
* Jesus’ birth (Isa. 7:14, 9:6-7, 11:1-5, Mic. 5:2, Mt. 2:6, Lk. 1:30-33)
* Jesus’ authority and teaching (Is. 6:9-12, 9:1-2, Mt. 4:14-16, 13:14-15)
* Jesus the shepherd (Ez. 34:11-16, John 10:7-11)
* Jesus’ ministry (Isa. 32:3-4, 35:5-6, 33:22, 42:1-4, 61:1-2, Mt. 9:32-35, 12:17-21, Lk. 4:17-21)
* Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem (Zech. 9:9, Mt. 21:4-5)
* Jesus’ sufferings, betrayal, and death (Isa. 52:13-53:12, Zech. 11:12-13, 12:10, 13:7, in addition to Ps. 22, 69, and others)
* Jesus’ resurrection (Ez. 37:1-14, Jonah 1:17, Mt. 12:40, and among the psalms Ps. 16:10 and Ps. 110:1)
* The New Covenant (Jer. 31:31-34, Mt. 26:26-29, Rom. 11:26-36, Heb. 8:8-12)
* The Temple in relationship to Jesus (Isa. 56:7, Jer. 7;1, Mk. 11:15-18, John 2:13-23, Acts 7:47-51)
* “The righteous shall live by faith” (Hab. 2:4, Rom. 1:17)
* The Holy Spirit (Joel 2:28-29, Acts 2:16-21)
* The redemption of all nations (Isa. 2:1-4, 1 Peter 2:10)
* Related to the redemption of the nations: the metaphor of marriage between God and his people (e.g., Hos. 1-3, Rom. 9:25-26, 1 Pet. 2:10, Eph. 5:25, 32, Rev. 19:7, 21:2, 9)(6)
* The end times (Daniel 7:1-12:13, much of the book of Zechariah, Ez. 38-39). In fact, no other New Testament book quotes or alludes to the Old Testament as often as Revelation: nearly 200 references in all, especially Ezekiel, Daniel, Isaiah, but also Exodus, the Psalms, and other books.
* The prophet’s concerns for the poor and for justice continue in the New Testament. The Greek word dikaiosunê, corresponding to tzedakah, means “righteousness” and “justice.” God takes the side of the poor, downtrodden, and powerless. Luke’s gospel, and passages like Matthew 25:31-46, very much echo God’s care for the needy. You could also think this way: As God demands justice for the poor, outcast, and powerless of society, God also takes the side of the spiritually powerless, bringing them into the circle of salvation and righteousness.
* Although I’ve known Christians (including me) who were quick to stress that Jesus is “more than a prophet,” he was frequently understood to be a prophet (Mt. 21:11, Mark 6:15, 8:28, Luke 7:16, 24:19, John 4:19, 6:14, et al.) and possessed the Spirit in a way that people considered prophetic (Mt. 12:28, Mark 3:28-29, Luke 4:18-20, et al).
The End and the Beginning
How does the Bible end? The Tanakh ends with books that, in the Christian Old Testament, are positioned earlier: Ezra-Nehemiah, which provides history of the return from exile and the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the Temple (the 500s and 400s BC); and 1 and 2 Chronicles, which recapitulate Israelite history and emphasizes the Jewish worship and temple. In this way, the Tanakh opens to the future of Jewish life and worship.
The Christian Old Testament ends with Malachi and the prophecy of Elijah’s arrival prior to the Messiah. And so, moving from Old to New (and leaping over 400 years), we proceed to Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus, which connects Jesus to his Hebrew history. Of course, the New Testament ends with visions of the end times and Christ’s final redemption.
As I wrote earlier, although the whole Bible is inspired by God and witnesses truly to our salvation, we should not read the Bible with the idea that each verse and book carry equal weight and value. To quote Brevard Childs again, “certain chords were sounded by Jeremiah and Deutero-Isaiah which resonated strongly in the New Testament (new covenant, vicarious suffering, new creation, suffering servant). Conversely, other notes grew in intensity on which rabbinic Judaism sought to construct its faith (temple, cult, priesthood, law).”(7) We can appreciate the Bible more deeply when we discern these chords and understand the scripture’s overarching themes and purposes.
We should be humbled by the way the Bible witnesses to the imperfection of human efforts, including (perhaps especially) religious efforts. The Israelites, in their centuries of life with God, provide example after example of doubt, complaint, loss of faith, and judgment. Because the New Testament reflects a much shorter time period than the Old Testament (fewer than a hundred years, depending on the conjectural dating of some of the epistles, compared to 1600 years between Abraham and Nehemiah), we don’t see the same kind of lengthy and obvious patterns of sin-judgment-repentance in the New compared to the Old. But we do witness to sin and wavering faith among the first Christians: divergence from sound teachings (2 Tim. 4:1-5), the threat of apostasy (Heb, 6:1-8), factions (1 Cor. 1:10-17), unchastity (1 Cor. 6:12-20, 1 Thess. 4:1-8), incest (1 Cor. 5:1-5), lawsuits (1 Cor. 6:1-7), disrespect of the Eucharist (1 Cor. 11:17-22), and others. All seven of the churches of Revelation received a scold or a warning or both (the notable one being the soon-to-be-spit-out Laodicean church). The sad history of Christian smugness and persecution toward Jews is one of the worst examples of our failure to remember that we are as reliant upon God’s providential care and mercy as God’s people Israel (Rom. 11:21-24).
But the daily news alone verifies for us the sinfulness, pathos, and folly of human beings. The Bible gives us more: contrasted with human sin, we see the faithfulness of God’s love, care and mercy, the victory of God over Satan, sin, and death. The Bible has many dark places, but it is filled with hope and grace; it is a “bright” book, beginning middle and end.
Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light (Gen. 1:3)
If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light around me become night’,
even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day,
for darkness is as light to you
And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign for ever and ever (Rev. 22:5).
When we read the Bible, we’re seeking not only information but promises, and in a way, an interpretation of reality on which we can base our lives. Faith is both intellectual ascent and trust; faith is acceptance and understanding of doctrine, and also it is the way in which you enter a kingdom where you have peace with God (Rom. 5:1) and access to God (Rom. 5:2). The love of God controls you (2 Cor. 5:14); you’re no longer a slave to sin (Rom. 6:12-23), you’ve victory over death (1 Cor. 15:56-57); and your daily interpersonal contacts are characterized by love and kindness (Luke 10:29-37). A Bible explorer can learn the book’s content while also growing in the qualities required in that kingdom: prayer, worship, faith, kindness, eagerness for justice, a righteous (but not perfect) life, and an eagerness to learn and share God’s promises of salvation, justice, and righteousness.
Fortunately, Bible study doesn’t have to be like taking medicine to “get better,” but rather like discovering wonderful things during times of happy, companionable exploration. The conductor Michael Tilson Thomas writes that a certain series of symphonies “reminds me of revisiting a familiar national park. Even though you have an idea of the terrain and the trail, if you come back with different people, you might ask them to pass quickly through the meadow, so we can all linger by the cataract a bit longer.”(8)
So it is with Bible study!
Coda: Unbreakable Scripture and Faithful Love
John 10: 35 contains an aside, “Scripture cannot be broken,” that is intriguing and often cited in biblical studies. But how do you study scripture without “breaking” it? In other words (to put it in a slightly clichéd way) how do you appreciate both the unity and diversity of the biblical material? How do you have honest differences of biblical interpretation while also loving one another (Gal. 5:15, Eph. 4:31-32, and the ironic 1 Cor. 4:10)?
This is an important issue, because one could mention many contemporary issues and topics for which Scripture is marshalled. For several years I’ve been blessed to be on a team of writers of a weekly curriculum that addresses current events through the lens of scripture.(9) Christians interpret the scripture as our normative guide to our convictions and practices, but at the same time, appealing to scripture does not lead to proposals satisfactory to all. When our opinions and convictions are connected to the Bible and our perception of God’s will, we want to defend our convictions—and our sense of personal identity can become tied together with those convictions. Naturally, conflicts will arise when we encounter contrary viewpoints.
We have biblical precedent for conflict among Christians. In Galatians 4:21-5:1, for instance, Paul discusses an Old Testament passage which, apparently, had been also used by his opponents; both “sides” argued the issue of circumcision. We are liable to say: Well, of course Paul was the correct side in that controversy. But at that time, Paul was just one participant in a sharp difference of interpretation. A commentator puts it this way, “Normative proposals about Christian practices must be adjudicated through debating the interpretation of Scripture. As the Letter to the Galatians shows [referring to the 4:21-5:1 section], the appeal to Scripture does not settle issues in a simple, straightforward way. The right reading of Scripture may be bitterly contested, as it was in Galatia. Still, Scripture defines the arena in which the contest must take place.” (10) This is not a subjectivist approach to truth; rather, we seek a deeper understanding of truth, humbly, knowing that truth-with-a-capital-T is Christ, our living Savior.
I found a clue to thinking about Scripture’s “unbreakable” quality in The Seventy Faces of Torah. The author, Stephen M. Wylen, discusses a midrash that “every single verse in the Torah yields seventy different interpretations.” He writes: “Each interpretation teaches something new and different. They may even contradict one another, like the teachings of Hillel and Shammai. Yet each one of the seventy interpretations is the true word of God… The image of the seventy faces may be taken from the imagery of the jeweler’s art. Each side of a cut gem is called a facet, a little face… The beauty and fascination of a fine gem is that the one stone sparkles in so many different ways. We know that there is a single light within the stone, but we see that light differently depending upon which face we gaze upon. One diamond is like seventy different diamonds as we turn it, but of course it is one. In the same way there is only one God, whose light shines forth from every verse in the Torah. We see that light differently depending upon how we interpret the verse. The unity light of God’s Holy Spirit is fully revealed in many sparkles and flashes, as we see God through a multitude of interpretations on every single verse of Scripture.”(11)
Using Wylen’s example, we can understand Bible study not as “breaking” scripture but as a process of examining it as we might the facets of a diamond (which, to continue the analogy, is hard to break). Scripture itself looks different if we turn it around, see it at one angle, then another, or if we change the lighting and look at it in light or darkness. That light or darkness may be particular times in our lives, too, that seem either lovely or hopeless.
While honoring Wylen’s Jewish viewpoint, let me respectfully use his imagery for Christian faith. As Christ is the light of life, his light shines through the Bible. Jesus says, You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf (John 5:39). The scriptures testify on his behalf because the Spirit shines through the words and proves the truth of the Gospel. As surely as light passes through a gem, God will grant his Spirit to those who seek God:
If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him! (Luke 11:13).
Needless to say, a cut gem is very beautiful, and we can think of the Bible—without neglecting its darker and more confusing passages—as reflecting Christ’s beauty, and as beautiful in its own right.
But the beauty of Christ is, in turn, known to the world in the work of the Holy Spirit through the works of love of Christ’s people. As we interpret the Bible and apply it to life, we must be guided by a passage that most of us feel sentimental about, but which should be the indispensable part of any religious discussion:
… if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast [or, my body to be burned], but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end (1 Cor. 13:2-10).
1. Harper’s Bible Commentary, James L. Mays general editor (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1988), pages 534-539.
2. Childs, Biblical Theology, page 177
3. Harper’s Bible Commentary, page 540.
4. Harper’s Bible Commentary, page 540.
5. Among others, one handy list of biblical messianic prophecies is found at http://www.scripturecatholic.com/messianic_prophecies.html
6. Goldsworthy, pages 172-173.
7. Childs, Biblical Theology, page 176.
8. Allan Ulrich, “Michael Tilson Thomas and the Symphony of a Thousand,” Gramophone (North American edition), April 2009, page A3.
10. The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. XI (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000), page 307.
11. The Seventy Faces of Torah: The Jewish Way of Reading the Sacred Scriptures by Stephen M. Wylan, (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2005), page 63.