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The prophetic books in the Hebrew Bible form one of the three major divisions of the Old Testament. These three parts are:
There is sufficient evidence in the New Testament that by the time of Christ the final configuration of the books of the Hebrew Bible had been set in place.
In Luke 24 Jesus Christ made reference to the three sections, including the Prophets division. Verse 27 states, “And beginning at Moses [referring to the first section, the Law] and all the Prophets, He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself” (emphasis added throughout).
As in verses 32 and 45, the term Scriptures covers the entire collection of Old Testament books.
In verse 44 Christ put His stamp of approval on all three divisions. “Then He said to them, ‘These are the words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms [the Writings] concerning Me.’”
In the Hebrew Bible, the sequence of books is basically the same today.
In Acts 7:42-43 Christ’s disciple Stephen in his sermon quotes from the book of Amos, and refers to the book as “written in the book of the Prophets.” Notice that Stephen uses the plural word “Prophets” when referring to the one book (Amos). This could be because he was making reference to the scroll that contained the 12 Minor Prophets or perhaps he was referring to the whole Prophets section of the Old Testament.
Later the apostle Paul also made mention of the Prophets section in Acts 24:14: “But this I confess to you, that according to the Way which they call a sect, so I worship the God of my fathers, believing all things which are written in the Law and in the Prophets.” See also Acts 13:15.
Paul understood the importance of the Old Testament Scriptures. In Romans 1:1-2 he referred to the gospel of God, “which He promised before through His prophets in the Holy Scriptures.”
The word holy basically means set apart for a special, designated purpose. God set apart the Old Testament books for His special purpose, as an integral part of His instruction manual for humanity.
Again, in 2 Timothy 3:15-16 Paul states that the young evangelist Timothy studied “the Holy Scriptures” when he was yet a child, and furthermore that “all Scripture” he studied was “given by inspiration of God.” Timothy in his youth was a student of the Old Testament books; and armed with this knowledge, he was used by God in a powerful way during the early years of the New Testament Church.
If we check the Hebrew Bible, we will notice that its order of books is different from what we have in English Bibles. This difference in order does not alter the contents or inspirational teachings of each book, but it does provide an interesting perspective.
Following is the order of the books in the Prophets section of the Hebrew Bible:
1. Former (earlier) Prophets: Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, and 1 and 2 Kings.
2. Latter (later) Prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the 12 Minor Prophets.
a. Major Prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel.
Joshua and Judges spoke of the history just after the time of Moses. Samuel and Kings continued with the story of the nation of Israel, often through the perspective of prophets.
Isaiah was written just before and during the Assyrian invasion. Jeremiah and Ezekiel were written during the Babylonian captivity.
The 12 Minor Prophets are generally arranged in chronological order:
a. Hosea through Nahum were written during the Assyrian period.
b. Habakkuk and Zephaniah were written during the Chaldean (Babylonian) period.
c. Haggai through Malachi were written in the postexilic or restoration period.
The Minor Prophets were written by 12 different prophets over a period of about 350 years but are regarded as one book. Approximate dates are from the beginning of the eighth century B.C. to about 430 B.C. (when the last book, Malachi was written).
A helpful key to understanding is that the first few verses of each book generally give the reader a purpose statement for the entire book. These 12 books are called “minor,” not because they are less inspired or of less importance, but only because their prophetic writings are shorter.
Some may wonder why the books of Daniel and Chronicles were not included in the Prophets section. In the Hebrew Bible both Daniel and Chronicles were included in the Writings section and not in the Prophets.
Here are some possible explanations.
Daniel’s mission was different from the other prophets. The others dealt mainly with Israel and Judah and their sins, while Daniel deals mainly with the gentile kingdoms. He deals with Israel only as they come in contact with gentile nations. Still, Daniel himself was regarded as a prophet by Christ in Matthew 24:15.
What about Chronicles? Let’s consider a passage where Jesus described the Old Testament books as a collection of writings that spanned the period from Genesis to Chronicles. In Luke11:51, when referring to the martyrs of the Old Testament, He described the time as being “from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah who perished between the altar and the temple.” Abel’s death was described in Genesis, the first book of the Old Testament, and Zechariah’s death is at the end of 2 Chronicles (24:20-21), the last book in the Hebrew Bible.
Thus it seems that Christ affirmed that Chronicles was the last book of the third major division called the Writings.
Certain themes in the prophetic books should sound alarm bells for our nations today. For instance, Hosea prophesied during a time of wealth and prosperity. This led to spiritual complacency and a pursuit of materialism dominated the society. Dependency on and the influence of foreign alliances led the nation of Israel even further from God.
Is this happening again in our modern age?
The prophets repeatedly warned the ancient nations of Israel and Judah that unless they repented of their sinful ways and returned to their God, their power would decline and their wealth would be removed. Ultimately they would suffer terrible hardships under foreign domination. Time and time again, these warnings were not heeded; and time and again, the punishments came just as the prophets said they would.
Notice a few of these warnings from the prophets.
Jeremiah, who was known as “the weeping prophet,” shed tears because he recognized that the nation of Judah was about to suffer national calamity and captivity under a foreign power.
“‘And like their bow they have bent their tongues for lies. They are not valiant for the truth on the earth. For they proceed from evil to evil, and they do not know Me,’ says the LORD” (Jeremiah 9:3). In verse 16 God says, “I will scatter them also among the Gentiles, whom neither they nor their fathers have known. And I will send a sword after them until I have consumed them.”
In like manner, both the other two Major Prophets were sent by God to warn the nations of Israel and Judah of impending doom. Read Isaiah 30:9-14 and Ezekiel 2:3-6; 3:16-21.
Are we willing to heed these warnings today, or will we make the same mistakes as the ancient nations of Israel and Judah did?
The apostle Paul understood that events that happened in the Old Testament were for our benefit. “Now all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come” (1 Corinthians 10:11).
The major themes and messages of the prophets are not all doom and gloom as many critics claim. Through His prophets, God reveals many aspects of a future world filled with abundant life, joy and peace for all peoples.
References are made of bountiful blessings (Amos 9:13-14), unparalleled peace and prosperity (Micah 4:3-4), deserts turned into productive farmland (Isaiah 35:1-2) and human nature changed for the good (Ezekiel 11:19-20).
Nations will be taught God’s ways: “Many nations shall come and say, ‘Come, and let us go up to the mountain of the LORD. … He will teach us His ways, and we shall walk in His paths” (Micah 4:2).
There are many other marvelous promises that a future world will be filled with blessings beyond our wildest dreams. It is up to each of us to make sure we will choose God’s ways and be part of that new world.