This week and next, we have a different task with the prophets in that we are not focusing on one person but many. In this we are covering an important and large span of time. Today’s going deeper is an effort to give you an overview of the major prophets and their stories.
1. What and who are the major prophets?
This week you have had a brief sampling of the major prophets of the Bible in your reading. They are not called the major prophets because they were greater men than others, but because their books in the Bible were longer. These prophets span a large amount of time as well as locations. Isaiah and Jeremiah predicted the coming exile. Ezekiel was deported off into Babylonian captivity. Daniel was deported as a young man and lived through the rise and fall of two other empires.
A prophet is someone who declares the Word of God. This can be a foretelling of events or a forth telling which is declaring God’s words or commands. God has given us His Word through many different men, declaring Himself to us, by making promises about the future and telling us what is expected of us in the revelation of the Bible. These prophets spoke words directly from God, usually with a ‘thus says the Lord’. We should be thankful for the testimony of these men.
That is, “The significance of a Bible preacher or prophet is not the man himself but is the message he delivers.” At the end of the day, the biography of a preacher or prophet is much less important than the message from God that he brings.
Isaiah was a great prophet. Israel and Judah are on the verge of judgment. The Assyrian army is growing in strength. Isaiah was sent to call Israel and Judah to repent of their sins and unbelief and to trust God alone for personal and national salvation (deliverance). In chapters 1-35 we see Isaiah speaking to a nation awaiting God’s judgment. This occurred in 722 B.C. for the northern kingdom (Israel), and 586 B.C. (100 years after Isaiah) for the southern kingdom (Judah). Isaiah warns of judgment, but also gives comfort in that God would deliver the faithful ‘remnant’ of His people. Isaiah gives prophecies of judgment that are interspersed with prophecies of the coming kingdom where everything is made right.
In chapters 36-39, King Hezekiah is lifted up as an example of someone who trusted God and saw the kingdom miraculously delivered from Assyria. This was short lived as 21 years later they fell to the Babylonians in judgment by God.
Chapters 40-66 give comfort and hope. God promises a return from exile. Isaiah gives us some of the most revealing passages about the coming messiah. Some of the greatest passages on Christ come from this section such as Isaiah 42 & 53. Isaiah 53 is the clearest gospel presentation of the Old Testament. We see its fulfillment in the death, burial and resurrection of our savior. Take a moment to read it.
We start in Isaiah chapter one with the vision Isaiah is given. God calls the earth and heavens to hear what He is saying. God is sitting in judgment over the wickedness of Israel. In the Old Testament, we see the example that anytime there is a judgment people are to witness or act as witnesses. This should bring to mind that of a court room. God proceeds to then list off the sins of Israel. Israel, specifically Jerusalem and Judah, are on trial here. God’s case is stated all the way down to 1:16, then God proceeds to give comfort making this statement, “If you are willing and obedient you shall eat the good of the land” (1:19). Prior to this in verse 18, God makes a promise to wash their sins.
See the beauty in this: the gospel is rich in this book! There is punishment for wickedness. God will not let it stand, He will punish it because He is holy. This is the vision of Isaiah in chapter 6. Isaiah gets a vision of the holiness of God. The text states this three times – holy, holy, holy, in Hebrew a doubling is an intensifier. This is like a couple exclamation points at the end of a sentence. God’s holiness is so great!!! Isaiah realizes his problem in this vision and he realizes he cannot stand before the God of the universe. God in His mercy and grace purifies Isaiah. This theme of salvation from God and by God is throughout Isaiah. As you read the book you can see the beautiful Messiah, the branch of David, brought forth- a suffering servant who gave himself to redeem a people to himself. You can also see, even though Israel doesn’t deserve it, God comfort even while disciplining; telling them of the future and that His promises will still be fulfilled. Have your sins been washed white as snow? Have you trusted in the Servant broken for the remission of sin?
Jeremiah begins his ministry 60 years after Isaiah. The Northern Kingdom has already fallen 722 B.C. Assyria is at the end of her glory days and a new super power is on the horizon -Babylon. Most of Jeremiah’s ministry was showing Israel that they needed to repent and have faith. Jeremiah longed for a nation that trusted in God.
Jeremiah was the most persecuted of the Old Testament prophets. He was forbidden to pray for his nation (Jer. 7:16-27). God tells Jeremiah that his ministry will be tough, that people, kings and priests will not listen to him but will fight him. Jeremiah gives an eyewitness account of the fall of Jerusalem. Even in the midst of judgment God gives hope. It is in the middle of Jeremiah that we have one of the greatest passages in the Old Testament that looks forward to the hope in the coming Messiah.
Jeremiah 31:31-40 proclaims the New Covenant. Even though Israel is in the middle of judgment, God proclaims that He will make a New Covenant. This is hope that even though Israel has failed miserably, God is going to make a covenant with his people. God not only promises a New Covenant, but it will not be like the last. God says He will put His law on our hearts and all of his chosen people will faithfully walk with and know the Lord. If this is not great enough, the Lord proclaims that this will happen as surely as the sun and the moon run their courses. God gives hope in the midst of trials and judgment for His people. This is a great blessing of being a child of God, part of the elect. God does not leave us without hope and this hope is in the form of promises. What God says He will do, HE WILL DO. He has never broken a promise. In your trials and struggles take comfort in God. That is one of the great lessons of Jeremiah. God’s arm is not short so that He cannot save, but is working His perfect plan. He is helping you to see sin as He sees it: heinous and deserving of punishment. He is working sanctification in you all the while giving you precious promises in His Word.
The prophet Ezekiel was taken down several years before the destruction of Jerusalem. He was the son of a priest. Ezekiel had a unique role as a prophet in that much of what he did was an illustration or word pictures to the people of Israel. For example: in Ezekiel 3:24 Ezekiel is commanded to be tied up in his house. Chapter 4:1-3 Ezekiel is to take a brick and engrave ‘Jerusalem’ on it and set siege works about it. Ezekiel is also told by God that God is going to take his wife and he is not allowed to mourn for her. This was a sign to Israel that the sanctuary will be profaned and that there is going to be death and destruction. Many visual illustrations are used throughout the book to teach Israel about their sin and its consequences. Ezekiel has one of the saddest chapters in the Old Testament, chapter 10. In chapter 10 the glory of the Lord leaves the temple.
The book of Ezekiel can be broken into two sections- chapters 1-24 which contain prophecies about the fall of Jerusalem and 25-48 after the fall of Jerusalem. The purpose of Ezekiel is to help the Jews understand that their captivity and the destruction of their homeland are because of their rebellion against God and disobedience to Him. The second reason for the book is to show us how God is merciful and He intends to restore holiness and that He will take care of His people.
The promises of the New Covenant are throughout the book of Ezekiel. In these promises we are given a new heart- not of stone, but of flesh- and that God will breathe new life in us. In Ezekiel 37, we have one of the greatest displays of God’s grace. This chapter is known as the valley of dry bones. The dry bones are representative of Israel, but is also a shadow of what God does in the gospel bringing new life to us. God is going to bring the exiles back and breathe life into them. This will be better than before because they will know that ‘I am the Lord’.
God has not left. He is doing a work. So many times in our life we become despondent with trials. Ezekiel gives us hope. God does not leave His people. He will carry us through the trial giving us hope and giving us His precious promises that this trial is not the end, but that He is doing something and in His wisdom and power it is something great. Are you looking to the precious promises of God? Are you relying and trusting in Him? Do you see the work He is doing? His Word declares it. One day it will be complete.
Daniel is the last of the major prophets. Daniel is an amazing character. He was taken into captivity at a young age. Daniel 1:8-9 “But Daniel resolved that he would not defile himself with the king's food, or with the wine that he drank. Therefore he asked the chief of the eunuchs to allow him not to defile himself.
9 And God gave Daniel favor and compassion in the sight of the chief of the eunuchs”
Daniel set the pattern early on for obedience. God gave Daniel and the three other men learning and skill in all literature and wisdom. The works of God among a pagan nation by His servants is amazing in the book of Daniel. Many of us remember the friary furnace, the lion’s den, the handwriting on the wall.
There are many lessons we can learn from Daniel. He lived in a pagan culture and was a devout man of God. He was trapped by his religious zeal. He did not get upset or rail against the king or God. He still prayed and was obedient to God, but accepted his punishment for defying the kings decree (Daniel 6). The pattern for Daniel is to respectfully disobey when things went against the commands of God. His strength surrounded by pagans is amazing.
In Daniel 9, we have an amazing prayer. Several things we can glean from this chapter. 1. Daniel was aware of the promises of God. He knew how long they were to be in captivity. 2. Daniel based his prayer on the promises of God in Scripture. This is a great way to pray by lifting up and clinging to the promises of God. 3. Daniel came in great submission to God in prayer: by fasting and prayer in sackcloth showing an outward state of inward debasement. Sometimes it is helpful to put the outward in a posture for the heart to follow (try praying on your knees or lying flat as an outward sign of an inward position). Fasting is the giving up of a physical item as a way to focus on our dependence and satisfaction in God. 4. Daniel was open in laying out sin to bear. If you go through the text and highlight everywhere Daniel acknowledges and repents of the sin of Israel, you will see how Daniel had a right vision of the breaking of the Law of God and how horrible it is. 5. Daniel relies on the character and attributes of God: God’s steadfast love.
Use Daniel’s prayer as an example of how to pray. It is helpful to remember that what Daniel has prayed for has been fulfilled. The people started returning. Gabriel the angel (messenger of God) came and gave Daniel insight and understanding. Gabriel speaks of the spiritual return. James says the prayer of a righteous man has great power as it is working. Confess your sin and lay it before the Lord. Walk in righteousness: trusting in the righteousness of Christ. Do what is right. Prayer is important. It is a way for us to commune with God. How is your prayer life? See the example of Daniel. Read through the prayer. Read a verse or two and pray what comes to mind. Pray out loud. Don’t just keep it in your head.
We have seen some major themes that flow across the major prophets. The heinousness of sin, God will punish sin, and that God gives hope for His children and we must cling to it. Reading the major prophets will help you grow in these things.
May the Word of God move in our hearts and cause us to trust in God and obey his commands. May we not take lightly the cost and lessons of those who have gone before us but grow and learn from them.