Different kinds of prophets
Over the last few weeks we’ve been doing a series of talks on the prophets at church. While the prophets can be somewhat of a black hole, it helps a lot when you’re aware of the broad brushstrokes of what the different prophets are saying. Because that’ll help you not get lost in the midst of a prophet…
Most people divide up the prophets into the major prophets (by which they mean the big ones), and the minor prophets (by which they mean the rest of them). But that’s an entirely unhelpful division. A much better way is to consider that there are in fact four different kinds of prophets:
- former prophets (like Elijah and Elisha in 1 and 2 Kings)
- eighth century prophets (like Amos and Isaiah)
- exilic prophets (like Jeremiah and Ezekiel)
- post-exilic prophets (like Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi).
And I have been summarising the message of each of those different category of prophets using a series of diagrams…
This first one represents the former prophets, like Elijah and Elisha. They went around and warned the kings of Israel that they were heading the wrong way, and that if they did not repent, God would bring judgment on them.
Their message could be summarised as, "Watch out!" In the diagram you see them projecting a message of judgment (red) into the distant future.
The eighth century prophets spoke to Israel in the period before they were attacked by Assyria in 720 BC (eg. Amos and Hosea), and then to Judah before they were attacked by Babylon in 587 BC (eg. Isaiah, Micah, Nahum, Zephaniah and Habakkuk). Their message was primarily one about judgment (red) – they announced that it was now too late. His people had been unfaithful to the covenant, and had triggered the covenant curses (Leviticus, Deuteronomy). God had already decided to pour out his judgment on his people, and it was coming soon. So their message was: "Too late!"
And yet at the same time they also begin to hold out a tiny ray of hope for the distant future, on the other side of judgment (yellow). They promise that there would one day be a faithful remnant, a new temple, a new king…
The exilic prophets like Jeremiah and Ezekiel wrote just prior to, and during the early stages of Judah being conquered and taken off into exile by the Babylonians. They are right now standing in the midst of judgment (red). And so these exilic prophets interpret their current experience for God’s people. It wasn’t that God was weaker than the Babylonian gods, it wasn’t that there was some horrible mistake – they confirm that this was in fact God’s own doing.
However they also confirm that there will be a restoration on the other side of judgment (yellow). They hold out a future hope of incredible restoration – a glorious and new temple, a new king just like David, hearts of flesh given instead of hearts of stone. And so their message was: "Have faith!"
The Babylonian empire was conquered by the Persians – and the policy of the Persians was to send exiles back to their land. And so after 50 years of exile, God’s people were able to return to the land and rebuild it – but the return wasn’t anywhere as wonderful as they had imagined. Where was the glorious restoration they had expected? Yes, they were physically back from exile (red), but theologically the exile hadn’t yet ended.
And so the post exilic prophets like Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi wrote to these returnees to encourage them to remain faithful to the Lord in the present (pink). This meant getting on with rebuilding the temple, priests doing their job well, people offering unblemished sacrifices. And they pointed God’s people on to the future hope (yellow). God had not given up on his people, so their message was: "Keep having faith!"
Some of the prophets are quite large, and it’s easy to get bogged down in them. And so having a big-picture view of what each of the different kinds of prophets are saying will help you to know where your passage fits in the overall structure of that prophet’s message.
[ PS: you can get the talks and powerpoints for the talks at the ND website here (look for November 2007)… ]