It’s been some time since the last installment of our Tour of the Bible series, so we’re picking up the thread again today by looking at the next major section of the Bible: the Major Prophets.
If you haven’t read the previous installments of our Tour of the Bible, here’s what we’ve covered so far:
The Major Prophet books are Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, and Daniel. The “major” prophets are so called not because the “minor” prophets are unimportant, but because the books of the Major Prophets are lengthier and cast a correspondingly longer shadow on Old Testament history and theology.
Let’s take a brief look at each of the Major Prophets and the messages they brought from God to Israel, Judah, and their neighbors.
Of the Major Prophets, Isaiah has arguably had the greatest influence on Jewish and Christian theology. Like many of the prophets, Isaiah delivered a message that few people wanted to hear: God’s people had allowed their hearts to grow corrupt, centered around empty religious practice. Isaiah called God’s people to return to true worship or face judgment. While calls for repentance and warnings of punishment characterize the first half of Isaiah, the second half emphasizes a messages of hope and forgiveness.
Isaiah is a dense book, full of fascinating detail. Because Isaiah interacted directly with several of Judah’s kings, this book describes some of the significant moments in the reigns of Ahaz (Isaiah 7) and Hezekiah (Isaiah 37), among other rulers. But Isaiah is most famous for his descriptions of God’s Messiah, among which is this passage from Isaiah 53:
Yet He Himself bore our sicknesses,
and He carried our pains;
but we in turn regarded Him stricken,
struck down by God, and afflicted.
But He was pierced because of our transgressions,
crushed because of our iniquities;
punishment for our peace was on Him,
and we are healed by His wounds.
We all went astray like sheep;
we all have turned to our own way;
and the LORD has punished Him
for the iniquity of us all. — Isaiah 53:4-6 (HCSB)
JeremiahJeremiah is nearly as famous as Isaiah, although for a different reason. We use the word “jeremiad” to describe gloomy, doom-saying texts because Jeremiah was the archetypal “doom and gloom” prophet. Jeremiah relentlessly confronted Judah about its moral failures and predicted dire consequences if the people did not repent—consequences that unfortunately came true. Jeremiah was not only ignored, but actively persecuted for delivering his unpopular message. He lived to see God’s judgment fall on Jerusalem—a vindication that filled him with sorrow, not joy.
The book of Lamentations is Jeremiah’s song of mourning over Jerusalem’s destruction. But to this sorrow is added a ray of hope. While Judah’s plight seems overwhelming, Lamentations closes with the hope that God remains sovereign and may restore his people:
You, LORD, are enthroned forever;
Your throne endures from generation to generation.
Why have You forgotten us forever,
abandoned us for our entire lives?
LORD, restore us to Yourself, so we may return;
renew our days as in former times,
unless You have completely rejected us
and are intensely angry with us. — Lamentations 5:19-22 (HSCB)
Like Jeremiah, Ezekiel predicted Jerusalem’s destruction as a consequence of her sin, but Ezekiel’s message was delivered in a very different context than that of his counterpart in Judah. Ezekiel preached in Babylon, the ancient superpower that had conquered much of the ancient Near East. Ezekiel’s audience was the band of exiled Israelites who had already been captured and relocated to Babylon.
Ezekiel spoke much of God’s transcendent holiness. He condemned Israel for turning away from their holy God—but like Isaiah, he had harsh words for some of Israel’s pagan neighbors as well. Although God was using Israel’s pagan enemies as an instrument of divine judgment, God was not blind to those nations’ moral outrages and would visit judgment on them in turn.
But judgment and punishment are not the most memorable themes in the book of Ezekiel. Israel had failed, but God had not forgotten them and would one day restore and redeem them. This hope in an eventual restoration is vividly portrayed in the famous story of the “valley of dry bones:”
[God] said to me, “Prophesy concerning these bones and say to them: Dry bones, hear the word of the LORD! This is what the Lord GOD says to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you will live. I will put tendons on you, make flesh grow on you, and cover you with skin. I will put breath in you so that you come to life. Then you will know that I am the LORD.”
So I prophesied as I had been commanded. While I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone…. — Ezekiel 37:1-14 (HCSB)
Daniel is a Sunday school favorite due to some of his incredible experiences, notably being cast into a fiery furnace and thrown into a den of lions. He interpreted the writing on the wall (the origin of the phrase we use today) and interpreted a king’s dreams. Like Ezekiel, he was a captive in Babylon, although God rewarded his faithfulness by elevating him to a position of respect and authority, first with the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar and then with his conqueror Darius.
Although Daniel is best known for the adventures described in the first half of the book, the second half relates a series of visions that emphasize God’s sovereignty and faithfulness.
So ends our whirlwind tour of the Major Prophets. Although the prophets are (not without reason) known for preaching doom and judgment, it’s important to note that this was not the entirety of their message. God didn’t send the prophets just to gloat over Israel’s impending judgment—on the contrary, these prophetic messages are full of last-minute pleas for repentance and promises that even amidst terrible judgment, God’s people could look ahead to the day that God would lift them out of their self-inflicted misery and restore them.