A Survey of the Major Prophets
There is a collection of five Old Testament books that are commonly designated as the “Major Prophets.” This appellation is not intended to suggest a superior character; rather, these documents are major in size, compared to the twelve books of the “Minor Prophets.” The Major Prophets represent the books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, and Daniel.
The book of Isaiah involves the ministry of one of God’s great prophets who lived in the latter half of the eighth century before Christ. He prophesied for a period lasting forty to sixty years during the reigns of four rulers of the southern kingdom of Judah: Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah.
The kingdom of Judah was in a state of spiritual decline. Religious superficiality and rampant immorality saturated the countryside. The nation had ceased to trust in Jehovah and was inclined to form protective alliances with certain pagan powers (e.g., Assyria in the east and Egypt to the south). Isaiah’s task was to proclaim to them the Lord’s word, affirming that security is grounded in the one, true God, not in powers of heathenism. Isaiah’s name means “Jehovah is salvation.”
The book easily divides into two major sections: First, the prophet foretells a coming judgment upon the Hebrew people if they do not return to the Lord (chapters 1-39). That judgment finds its immediate fulfillment in the impending Babylonian captivity. Second, in spite of that temporal judgment, deliverance ultimately can be theirs (40-66). There will be a return from the captivity; and, finally, ultimate salvation will be provided by the coming Messiah. There are numerous prophetic glimpses of Christ in Isaiah, so much so that he is called “the messianic prophet” (cf. 7:14; 8:13; 9:6-7; 11:1-10; 28:16; 40:3-5; 42:1-4; 44:6; 50:6; 53:1-12).
Modern critics have denied the unity of Isaiah, claiming that several authors composed the material. The inspired writers of the New Testament did not sanction this groundless notion. The prophet is quoted or alluded to more than three hundred times in the New Testament, and all of the so-called divisions are attributed to Isaiah (cf. John 12:38-39; Romans 10:20). (Note: for a more detailed study, see Jackston 1991.)
Jeremiah, known as “the weeping prophet,” was the most persecuted character of the Old Testament era. His own Jewish kinsmen cursed him, beat him, threw him in prison, etc. (see 15:10; 20:1ff; 32:2-3; 37:15).
The prophet labored on behalf of God’s people during the administrations of five of Judah’s kings: Josiah, Jehoahaz, Jehoiakim, Jehoiachin, and Zedekiah. His total preaching career could have spanned more than sixty years. Obviously he was a young man when called of God to assume his sober responsibility.
The good king Josiah had attempted to reform the idol-prone Hebrews, but his efforts were a matter of too-little, too-late. The southern kingdom was in a downward spiral. Jeremiah commenced his ministry in the thirteenth year of Josiah’s administration. The thrust of the prophet’s message was two-fold:
- He initially sought to bring his people to a state of genuine repentance (cf. 7:2-7). No less than thirteen times the prophet characterizes the Israelites as a “backsliding” people. If Judah would only turn back, she could avoid the danger that lurked like a dark cloud on her horizon, i.e., the Babylonian invasion.
- It became apparent ultimately that the Jews had no intention of reforming their lives. Jeremiah’s sad chore then was to warn his people of the punishment that mighty Babylon, God’s instrument of wrath, would inflict (cf. 21:1-10). The prophet spoke for God himself in uttering this doom. More than 150 times Jeremiah buttressed his warnings with, “the word of the Lord came . . .” Further, he urged the Hebrews to surrender to God’s avenging force and “take their medicine,” so to speak. This message mightily provoked the people, and their wrath was vented with full force against Jeremiah.
In addition to his warnings relative to the kingdom of Judah, the prophet foretold the doom of some ten neighboring, heathen powers (cf. chapters 46-51). His prophecies concerning the ultimate fall of Babylon are some of the most astounding in the entire Bible (cf. 50-51). Our book, Jeremiah & Lamentations (Jackson 1997), represents a further study of these thrilling Old Testament narratives.
One factor that the Bible student must take into consideration when studying Jeremiah is this: the material is arranged in a logical, topical fashion, rather than according to a strictly chronological framework. Do not expect, therefore, to find a sequential narrative, such as one might find in an ordinary history book.
One of the exciting pursuits relative to this book is a consideration of the many archaeological finds of recent years that have demonstrated the historical accuracy of the document. For example, Jeremiah records that king Jehoiachin was taken into Babylon as a captive (52:31-34). Ration tablets exhumed from the “golden city” provide a list of provisions given to “Yaukin [Jehoiachin], king of Judah” and his five sons (Wiseman 1958, 73).
Perhaps the saddest day in Old Testament history was when Jerusalem was breached by the Babylonian army and the Hebrew temple was burned to the ground (586 B.C.). The prophet Jeremiah had foretold these gruesome days, and in his follow-up document, Lamentations, he further pursued the matter.
Lamentations is a sort of funeral song, commemorating the tragic destruction of Jerusalem. In the Greek version of the Old Testament, the book begins: “And it came to pass, after Israel was taken captive, and Jerusalem made desolate, that Jeremias sat weeping, and lamented with this lamentation over Jerusalem, and said . . .”
The theme of the book is this: Zion (fifteen times), or Jerusalem (seven times), is desolate! (seven times). Interestingly, chapters one, two, and four are arranged in an acrostic format, i.e., each has twenty-two verses, the first word of which corresponds to the consecutive letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Chapter three has sixty-six verses, each third of which is similarly arranged. Some suggest this was to facilitate memorization; or perhaps it was to stress Israel’s sins, from A to Z!
The book of Ezekiel represents the message of the prophet by that name who was taken captive in the second deportation of the Jews to Babylon; this occurred around 598-597 B.C. (2 Kings 24:14-15). Ezekiel began his ministry in the fifth year of his captivity (about seven or eight years before the final destruction of the temple). He continued his work for some twenty-two years (cf. Ezekiel 1:2; 29:17).
Just as there had been false prophets among the Hebrew people in Palestine (cf. Jeremiah 28:3), so also evil deceivers were among the Jews in Babylon. These corrupt prophets were suggesting that the captivity would not last a full seventy years, as Jeremiah had declared (25:12; 29:10); rather, within a couple of years or so (28:3), this Babylonian unpleasantness would be over, and Israel would be restored to its homeland.
It was Ezekiel’s task to:
- renounce this false hope of an early return, and to prophesy the fall of Jerusalem (in 586 B.C.), the early portion of the book (chapters 1-24) being written before that event;
- show that Jehovah would visit judgment upon the pagan nations as well (25-32);
- preview the return of the Hebrews from captivity (33-48);
- reveal the ultimate blessings that would flow to those who follow the leadership of that “Branch of righteousness” (the Messiah), who would come out of David’s lineage (cf. 33:15).
Unfortunately, modern denominationalists have distorted much of the final portion of Ezekiel, alleging that the prophetic fulfillment is to be found in an earthly, millennial reign of Christ from Jerusalem (see Dyer 1985). There is, of course, no such hope found anywhere in the Bible.
The book of Daniel, because of its prophetic precision, has been subject to the attacks of critics for many centuries. Rationalists simply do not believe in the possibility of predictive prophecy, hence they allege that the material of this document was penned by some unknown scribe during the inter-biblical period (ca. 168-65 B.C.). Many strong arguments expose the fallacy of this theory. For those who have respect for Jesus Christ, however, the issue is settled. The Lord himself credits the prophetic material to Daniel (cf. Matthew 24:15). Jerome once noted that the critical attacks are, in fact, strong evidence of the validity of the sacred prophecies; they are so accurate that they read like actual history, rather than data written before the fact!
Daniel had been among the early captives taken into Babylon (ca. 606-605 B.C.), and his divine declarations continued into the administration of the Persian king Cyrus (cf. Daniel 10:1). His ministry thus spanned more than seventy years.
Generally, the book of Daniel can be divided into two sections:
- Chapters one through six mostly deal with historical matters pertaining to Daniel’s ministry. What Bible student has not thrilled to the deliverance of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego from the fiery furnace (chapter 3), and that of Daniel from the lions’ den (6).
- Chapters seven through twelve take on a decidedly prophetic thrust (though there is predictive prophecy in chapter two as well).
It has been well noted that the basic purpose of this great book is to reveal “the overruling sovereignty of the one true God, who condemns and destroys the rebellious world powers and faithfully delivers his covenant people according to their steadfast faith in Him” (Archer 1964, 365).
The main reason the book of Daniel emphasizes Jehovah’s rule over the nations (2:21; 4:17) is in view of the coming Messiah. The purpose and time of Christ’s first advent, together with the consequences of rejecting him, are vividly set forth in Daniel, chapter nine. (See Daniel’s Prophecy of the Seventy Weeks.)
The establishment of the Lord’s kingdom, during the days of the Roman regime, is prophetically portrayed in chapter two. That this prophecy focuses upon the church, and not some alleged “millennial” kingdom, is apparent from the fact that Christ’s kingdom is to stand “forever” (2:44), whereas, according to the millennialists, the earthly reign of Jesus is to last only a thousand years (Young 1949, 78).
In conclusion, we may observe that the Major Prophets eloquently testify in concert. They speak of:
- the need to live a godly life in conformity to the revealed will of God;
- the certainty of judgment for those who ignore this admonition;
- the ultimate deliverance that can be effected only in the mission of the Son of God.
Their voices are as powerful today as they were in the world of Hebrew history.
Scripture references: John 12:38-39; Romans 10:20; 2 Kings 24:14-15; Ezekiel 1:2, 29:17; Jeremiah 28:3; Matthew 24:15; Daniel 10:1
- Archer, Gleason. 1964. A Survey of Old Testament Introduction. Chicago, IL: Moody.
- Dyer, Charles H. 1985. Ezekiel. The Bible Knowledge Commentary. John Walvoord and Roy Zuck, eds. Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.
- Jackson, Wayne. 1991. Isaiah: God’s Prophet of Doom and Deliverance. Abilene, TX: Quality.
- Jackson, Wayne. 1997. Jeremiah & Lamentations. Stockton, CA: Christian Courier Publications.
- Wiseman, D. J. 1958. Illustrations From Biblical Archaeology. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
- Young, Edward J. 1949. The Prophecy of Daniel. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.