Books of the Prophets Summary

Overview (Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

The author of the Old Testament book of Isaiah flourished between 760 and 701/680 b.c.e., but many modern scholars think that much in the book by his name originated c. 540 and later. The author of the book of Jeremiah lived from c. 645 to after 587. A collection of his sermons appeared about 605, but the book was not completed before 585 at the earliest. Amos’s career lasted two years or less, but the book bearing his name presupposes the collapse of the Davidic dynasty in 587. Micah was a contemporary of Isaiah, but some of the materials in the book of Micah come from the period of the Exile (586-539) or slightly later.

The book of Isaiah may be divided into three basic parts. It develops chronologically, with chapters 1-39 dealing mostly with people and events between 742 and 697 b.c.e. Chapters 40-55 shift both scene and time, addressing the exiles in Babylon near the end of the enforced captivity of Jews in that land (539). Chapters 56-66 shift the focus back to Jerusalem, but many scholars think the time frame is the last quarter of the sixth century. While the name Isaiah appears fifteen times in chapters 1-39, and the prophet appears in several narratives (chapters 6-7, 36-39), neither Isaiah nor any other person or event from the eighth century is mentioned in chapters 40-66.

Within chapters 1-39, the first twelve contain a number of passages reprimanding Judah and Jerusalem for sinful behavior and for making alliances with other countries. A narrative reporting Isaiah’s call to be a prophet (in 742 b.c.e.) appears in chapter 6, followed by the narrative of Isaiah’s confrontation with King Ahaz over whether to support a rebellion against Assyria initiated by small, neighboring countries (734-732). In that confrontation, Isaiah tells Ahaz that a “young woman” (the Hebrew word used is not the same as the word for “virgin”) will bear a son (7:14), and before that son can distinguish right from wrong, the threat posed by neighboring nations will disappear. Christians often see in that verse a prediction of the birth of Jesus, because Matthew 1:22 says that Jesus’ birth took place to “fulfill” what God had said through Isaiah. Saying that Jesus fulfilled the passage is one thing; saying the passage predicted Jesus is quite different. Other passages in chapters 1-12 alternate between denunciations of Israel for sin and—following repentance—depictions of a restoration, including a righteous king (9:2-7, 11:1-9). These last two texts help form the Old Testament expectation for a future messiah (that is, Israel’s king). Christians often read these passages as predictions of Jesus, though he is never mentioned by name.

Chapters 13-23 consist of a collection of prophetic sayings against foreign nations. Because few foreigners would hear (or read) them, they perhaps served to warn the people of Israel not to form political or other alliances with Judah’s neighbors, no matter how powerful they might appear at times. Chapters 24-27 probably arose during the dark days of the Babylonian exile. They envision widespread destruction of the earth and its inhabitants for sin, but they also hold out hope for Israel’s future deliverance from its enemies. Chapters 28-32 return to messages against Judah and Jerusalem. Repentance (turning from sin to God) will result in God’s forgiveness and blessing; rebellion will result in punishment. Chapters 36-39 narrate the siege of Jerusalem by King Sennacherib of Assyria in 701. It ended in the payment of tribute by Judah’s king Hezekiah (2 Kings 18:16, but not mentioned in Isaiah) and the subsequent destruction of the Assyrian army. Isaiah’s roles were to advise Hezekiah and to intercede with God for the king’s health.

Chapters 40-55 form what many scholars call Second Isaiah because they address the conditions of the Jewish exiles in Babylon. First, they explain the causes for the fall of the Judah—namely, the sinfulness and impure worship of its people. Second, they proclaim that the God of Judah is the only god and that the Babylonian gods are not genuine; these verses constitute the earliest, unequivocal statements of monotheism in the Old Testament. Third, they announce hope for the future. God would use Cyrus the Great, emperor of Persia, to defeat the Babylonians. Fourth, God would use the suffering of a righteous “servant” to effect the rescue of his people. The New...

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Books of the Prophets Bibliography (Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Sources for Further Study

Brueggemann, Walter. A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile and Homecoming. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1998. An exploration of the historical and social milieu of Jeremiah’s career that presents a theological interpretation of the book.

Childs, Brevard S. Isaiah. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 2001. A critical study of the book of Isaiah that nevertheless examines its shape as determined by the rabbis who validated the books of the Hebrew Bible about the end of the first century c.e.

Holladay, William L. Jeremiah 1 and Jeremiah 2. 2 vols. Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress, 1986, 1989. A two-volume critical and historical commentary on Jeremiah, based on the Hebrew text with Holladay’s translation.

Jeremias, Jörg. The Book of Amos. Translated by Douglas W. Stott. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster, 1998. Describes how the book came into being with emphasis on its various stages and their meanings and functions.

Mays, James Luther. Micah. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1976. Pays particular attention to the meaning of individual sayings based on the author’s own translation.

Sweeney, Marvin A. The Prophetic Literature. Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon Press, 2005. A study of the entire prophetic corpus with particular attention to the genres and their interrelatedness.