The Story of the Prophets in the Old Testament

The origin, life and demise of prophesy



The role of the prophet in the Old Testament should be seen against the cultural backdrop and the prevalence of special people who were thought to read god’s will.

The ancient practice of Divinization was the act of investing some one or some thing with a ‘divine’ character. The practice sometimes included creating an object of worship.

In the ancient world people who said they could seek out what a god was saying were numerous and their practices were varied. The Old Testament cites several different examples:

  1. Hepatoscopy, the reading of omens from sheep livers was a popular practice in the ancient world to find divine messages. ” The king of Babylon looks at the livers.” Ezekiel 21:21
    In the book of Genesis Joseph hides a cup in Benjamin’s sack of grain. The problem is that this cup is the Pharaoh’s that he uses for reading the future. “He pours oil onto water and watches the patterns.” Genesis 44:5
  2. A diviner’s ecstasy, which literally means to stand outside oneself, involves the possession by God and a message. It could be accomplished by smoking opium pipes.
  3. Necromancy was the attempt to contact and converse with the dead. The activity was to pour oil or wine into a hole and read the movement of the liquid.
  4. The interpretation of dreams was a popular way to find God’s will. Joseph and Daniel are the famous ones from the Old Testament.
  5. Priests in ancient Israel had a form of dice, coin toss, to determine a positive or negative response; this they would read as God’s will. Divinization by casting dice was very common in the ancient world.
  6. Astrology was a popular means by which one could attempt to foresee the future. The ancient person would see the mysterious conjunction of some planets and comets as signals from the gods as to the future. If a king died when a planet was in a certain position in the sky the astrologers would call for a warning.
    The Old Testament prophet emerged in a culture in which there were many ways to read a god’s will.

The Concern Of The Prophet.

Generally in the Bible, unlike the many diviners, the prophet was not interested in future events or in fortune telling. They are generally disturbed with what is happening now: in the king and his dealings, in the economy, in the poor and stranger in the land. The point of separation from the Old Testament prophet and the ‘diviner’ is the Covenant with God.

The work of the prophet was not one of engaging in the divination practices but is telling the king how to rule. His interest is both military and moral.


The Evolution Of The Prophet In Israel: Judges And Travelling Bands Of Prophets

The role of the prophet emerged in the narrative of the Israel from the position of the Judge; the judge was both the prophet reminding the people of the covenant and the king.

The forerunner to the most famous individuals found in classical prophecy is the prophetic group. The “sons of the prophets” travel in bands. (1 Kings 22:12)

These groups were sometimes with shaved heads (2 Kings 2:23-25)

Some times these bands of prophets were playing tambourines, lyres and flutes before prophesying (1 Samuel Ch 10) others just raved in a frenzy.

The Three Phases Of Prophecy

There are three stages of Old Testament prophecy:

            The Early Prophets- Pre-Classical

            The Classical Prophets

            The 12 Minor Prophets

Prophecy in the Books of the Bible

In the Hebrew scriptures there were four famous scrolls that held the major prophetic writings:
            The large scroll of Isaiah – 66 chapters- This scroll has three different texts!

            The large scroll of Jeremiah – 52 chapters

            The large scroll of Ezekiel – 48 chapters

            The large scroll of the Book of the 12 Minor Prophets equals the length of the Major prophetic scroll.


In the Old Testament we see several famous prophets who precede the great prophets:

Some ancient prophets that are part of the system:

            Moses is the most famous ancient prophet.

            Deborah is a judge of Israel and also a prophet(Judges Ch. 4-5).

            Gideon is a strong leader called by God(Judges Ch. 6-8).

Some prophets critique the system:

            Nathan challenges David with his sins ( 2 Samuel Ch 12).

            Samuel is a judge, prophet and priest

These pre-classical prophets are not known for their writings but for their critique of the political situation of the time, they complain about the system. These prophets give the king advice about treaties, policies and international alliances.


The Jewish people had been separated into two distinct political regions after the dividion of the united kingdom of David and Solomon.

The northern kingdom encountered a threat from the Assyrians in the 700’s B.C.E.

Several prophets emerged in this time.

1 The Northern Kingdom – Prior to the threat.

The pre-classical prophets- Elijah, Amos and Hosea


Elijah, the best example of the pre-classical prophet, is written up as a new Moses:

Like Moses on Mt Sinai, he sees god on Mt Horeb. He parts the water (in the Jordan) (2 Kings 2:7) and erects an altar with twelve stones. Elijah performs a sacrifice on the altar which is consumed by fire (1 Kings 18:30-38).

He has no tomb and is carried to heaven by a fiery chariot(2 Kings 2:11).

Elijah is powerful, he is able to raise the dead.

Elijah’s major task is to prevent the people falling into the pagan worship of Baal.

In his most famous scene Elijah fights the prophets of Baal on Mt Carmel. These opponents, worshipping the god of nature, cut themselves to produce a trance like ecstasy. Elijah has to prove their god to be false god and so he taunts the Baal-worshippers and finally YHWH sends fire down from heaven and consumes the sacrifice.

Elijah is important for two reasons: he models the resistance that is demanded by the prophet and heralds that the covenant community must listen to the prophet’s message.

2 The Assyrian Threat


Predicting the fall during the reign of Jeroboam II.


Amos is from the from Judah, the southern kingdom, goes north to proclaim God’s message in the cultic shrines of Israel. This during the reign of Jeroboam II (787-747).

It was a time of great prosperity in the northern kingdom for those with money, know-how and social standing.

The affluence was due to the relative peace with neighbouring nations, a strong trading economy and successful harvests.

But Amos noted the corruption and the oppression of the poorer classes.

Amos blasts the upper class. “Hear this you cows of Bashan who oppress the poor.

Amos’ language is very vivid and lasts through the centuries.

The elite were doing well because the poor were doing everything.

Amos, the seasonal worker recognizes the injustices and is compelled to protest it.

A key concern is that Amos does not want to be associated with the band of prophets or with the priests of the time: he is a sole agent. As a dresser of sycamore trees, the figs of which feed the poor people, he is part of the marginalized class.

He proclaimed his message from Judah during the reign of Jereboam II (787-747)

He identifies himself as a dresser of sycamore trees.(7:14) and not as one of the prophetic guilds.


The Assyrian war machine is taking over the region, systematically attacking each country and expanding its empire.

In Amos’ critique of the people he appeals to a golden age, to their escape from Egypt.

Whereas the regular challenge of the prophet was exhorting the people to live the covenant or be faithful to the Torah Amos cites the story of the People of Israel for his prophetic message.

Hear the word the Lord has spoken. I brought you out of Egypt (Ch 34:1)

Amos commences with a series of strong statements against Israel’s neighbours: Judah, Edom, Moab and Ammon.

Israel is criticized for rejecting God’s blessing (Amos 2:10-11)

Amos asserts that a national disaster that is coming.

He has amazing language that is arresting and powerful.

Amos is concerned to revive authentic worship and is angered by people who go to prayer and yet oppress the needy.

“Come to Bethel and transgress…I hate I despise your feasts

Let justice roll down like the waters and righteousness

There is no happy ending in Amos. It is not clear if the people will heed his warnings.

Amos is not calling for a repentance from the people.

A particular concern was the people compliancy toward God, they observe the rituals but ignore the poor.

The North Is Destroyed In 722.

Amos prophecies about the Day of the Lord being darkness seem to have come true.

In his own day he was a poor, uneducated and socially disadvantaged; God seems to like choosing the poor and humbled people to proclaim his message.   The message was really quite simple: everyone should be fair and just to everyone. 

Amos preached to the people of Northern Israel.

3 The Assyrian Attack

The Downfall Of Israel, The Northern Kingdom


The Assyrian leader Sargon II attacked Samaria the capital of Judah and it fell in 722.

The members of the upper class were sent into exile in 725-724.

HOSEA – watching the fall at the end of Jeroboam II’s reign

The Prophetic Message

Whereas Amos predicted fall of the northern kingdom Hosea watched it occur.

Hosea, therefore, was more concerned with the external danger his activity occurs at the end of Jeroboam II reign (747 B.C.E.).

Hosea is not happy with the alliance that Israel has been struck with Syria trying to hold off the Assyrians.

“ Hosea, go take yourself a wife of harlotry,

That is Hosea’s idea of Israel’s alliances with other countries.

His concerns are political and he wants Israel to be isolated.

His warning is urgent:

“I will carry off and none shall return,” (5:14)

For Hosea the golden age of the past was to be found in the wilderness wandering of Moses.

“I desire mercy not sacrifice” (

After the capture of Israel, the northern kingdom, Hosea offers some hope.

“My relationship with Israel, now committing adultery with other nations will eventually be reconciled.

“I will allure her and bring her back into the wilderness

4 The Deportation of Exiles

The north falls and the 10 tribes of the north are scattered.

This conquest by the Assyrians was complete and Sargon took 27,000 survivors, split the groups up and placed them in different towns. This strategy guaranteed that these conquered people could never rise up again. Shipping the leaders of the country to another place effectively neutralized the opposition.

The final conquering occurs in 722.

5 The Fate of the Exiles- The Legacy

The people of the northern kingdom of Israel lacked a strong leader.

Their history of worship was patchy and they enjoyed no strong clergy to bond the community. The northern government was based on military coups with no national leader.


1 The Southern Kingdom – Prior to the threat.

The classical prophets – Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel

The Story

The origin of the southern kingdom is the story or David and Solomon.

Solomon’s great success is that he becomes the ideal typical Near Eastern King. On the positive side he strengthens the political basis of David, builds the Jerusalem Temple, is internationally well connected and raised a massive treasury. His court is a centre of learning and literature: the south has a rich heritage of leadership and worship.

The failings of King Solomon are the economic problems, the heavily taxed labourers and the excess of wives and concubines.

Under his heir, Rehoboam, the northern tribes leave the kingdom and the new political set up emerges: The Northern section is called Israel.

The Southern Kingdom is called Judah.

After the fall of the northern kingdom all that remains of the People of Israel is the southern kingdom.

The southern kingdom had a strong concern for their royal history, for the covenant with David.

The Classical Prophets- the three major ones in the Bible

The classical prophets are known for their written oracles. These famous ones might have had a following that preserved their messages and transmitted them to subsequent eras. Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel are some  famous ones.


Biblical scholars have deduced that Isaiah is at least three different books, with different styles of writing are combined into one. The book of Isaiah, therefore, is the compilation of three different authors writing at different phases of the Babylonian threat, defeat and exile. First Isaiah (Ch. 1-39) second Isaiah (Ch 40-54) and Third Isaiah(Ch 55-66)

2 The Babylonian Threat

FIRST ISAIAH- warnings

FIRST ISAIAH Ch1-23, 28-39 (Chapters 24-27 a later addition)

First Isaiah prospered in the years 750-700. His Isaiah’s call is in the year 742 when King Uzziah died after forty years as leader. He does not call for the people to repent

Isaiah’s call says that says that God is looking for someone to come and help.

“Who will go?” Send Me

Isaiah’s lips are purified and the story is like a parable.

First Isaiah has two children called “a remnant will return” and “the spoil speeds, the prey hastens”.

Isaiah saw the future was bleak. His children are symbols of the dark future but the eventual salvation.

First Isaiah seeks to save Jerusalem from being destroyed.  He appeals to a golden age in the time of David in Jerusalem.

He hopes for an ideal king who will come and lead the people. (ch 9-11) His imagery develops a messianic theme.

Rather than prophesying total destruction he cites a remnant idea that an element of the past will re-surface to be powerful again.  (10:20-23)

Isaiah is not only concerned with morality and repentance but he also is interested in political concerns. He advises neutrality in the negotiations. Isaiah advises against an alliance with Assyria.

Politically Isaiah was a very influential prophet in the reign of Hezekiah and prompted several reforms.

Despite his predictions Isaiah, did not expect the southern kingdom to survive, even though they had a royal heritage. Whereas most prophets are called to proclaim repentance from the people, First Isaiah comes to seal their doom. But his dire predictions have a positive remnant element:

“A shoot will spring from the stump of Jesse”,

King David’s father will have more progeny that will lead Israel.

The hopes created by Isaiah are dashed, no remnant remains.

The southern kingdom returns to apostasy.

3 The Babylonian Attack

The Story

In the year 605 the Babylonians take control of Judah.

After an initial struggle the Babylonians in 597 led by Nebuchadnezzar conquer Judah and deport between 3,000 and 10,000 people. There is a second resistance and this time the Babylonians destroy Jerusalem and take the valuables from the Temple to Babylon.

Jerusalem is destroyed and a large number are deported to Babylon. This exile is only for 50 years and the group is kept together. Identity is maintained by a Leadership motif, a priestly caste reinforced and the covenant revitalized.

One of the reasons given by the prophets for the failure of God to save the people from exile was their sin.

JEREMIAH watching the fall

The Story

Gedeliah is the governor of Judah and a friend of Jeremiah. After his murder Jeremiah and his scribe Baruch, are taken to Egypt as refugees. He was condemned by the king and the priests; it seemed that no one in Judah like them.

With the immanent Babylonian attack a group of people head for Egypt, which is a safe place at that time. The book of Jeremiah emerges from this region written by Baruch.

Jeremiah’s father was a priest so he knew well the Temple teachings and practices. He knew the importance of the covenant and is fearful that the belief of the people  will be shaken with these struggles.

The conquering of Judah is a disaster for Jeremiah who writes, not of a golden age, but of the intense spiritual struggle that the exile presents.

Jeremiah explores some personal lamentations describing his heartbreak at the exile of so many from Jerusalem.

Jeremiah’ oracles cite his personal struggle as a national lament. He sees his life in certain danger and sees as a solution to the situation as a “new covenant.”(31:31)

Jeremiah knew that the reforms did not work for the people: different teachings and public presentations. He sought a new approach: the covenant was to be written on from the heart.

“No longer shall each person teach a neighbour

4 The Deportation of Exiles

The Story

The Babylonians established exiled groups in self-governing neighbourhoods.

In exile the people of the south were able to bring temple officials and keep their clerical support. The ‘P’ code originated there.

EZEKIEL- among the exiles

Ezekiel is amongst the group of exiles who are deported in 597.

He proclaims some hope for the Jewish people in exile but also a certain anger at their actions. He asserts that the people’s falling away from God is the cause of their exile. For him redemption will follow repentance. (36:24)

In Babylon he established a community that was confident that a rescue was on the way and that the Temple would be restored.

Ezekiel links his message to the golden age and heritage of Abraham (33:24)

His prophetic message insists that the people are not yet deserving of redemption.

Ezekiel dose not follow the idea of a corporate sin but rather a personal one. Deuteronomy speaks of the plural sin: “if you sin you will be punished.

Ezekiel stresses sin as not so much a national problem as a personal one. He stressed the individual responsibility of the person.

“the righteousness of the righteous will be on himself (18:20)

Ezekiel prophesies that we will not suffer from our parent’s faults (Ch 18) but from our own. He says: “The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father’

Every individual creates his or her own fate.

Ezekiel’s prophecy is that there is no inherited guilt: if something goes wrong for one of us it is because we deserved it.

For Ezekiel God is still in control. Nothing has gone wrong. The people deserved their fate and it is their lack of faith that forced God to send them to exile.

“I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries.” Ch 38

SECOND ISAIAH- In Exile –Chapters 40-55

5 The Fate of the Exiles- Return, hope and disappointment

The Story

Cyrus, the king of Persia defeats Babylon and the king flees. Cyrus allows the exiles, after their 50 year deportation, to return home in 528. This is predicted by Isaiah (44:24-45:13).

There was great excitement when King Cyrus of Persia promulgated his edict to permit the Jews in exile in Babylon to return home. There was also great hope that the return would put all back on the right track and the covenant would be a strong force in the people.

Jerusalem, however was still in ruins when the exiles returned. The great city had become a wilderness, a desolation (Is 64:10-12).

The people who remained in Jerusalem were not that welcoming to the returning exiles that wanted to repair the city and return to former ways.

Twenty years after their return the Temple is in ruins. After some protests the work of rebuilding it begins in 515 buy there is no age of prosperity and many are struggling.

The restoration government has failed completely.

The priests became very important at this time, with the absence of a king in the line of David. The rebuilding of the Temple needed caring officials to oversee it but the priesthood is in disarray.

But, despite these initial failures, it is the priests who end up saving the covenant community. It is their influence strong influence on the culture that revives a covenant focus for the community.

Priesthood will come to dominate Judean civilization till the second century. With the rise of the priesthood the position of the prophet begins to recede.


20 years after the return from Babylon and the Temple restoration has not started. This has Haggai writing and complaining.

Haggai deplores the poor worship conditions of the Temple.

“Who is left amongst you who saw this house in its former glory? (2:3)

Haggai is angered because the Persian government had promised to help with the rebuilding of the Temple but the returning exiles did not take advantage of that help.

Haggai exhorts the priests and governor (Zerubbabel) to be ambitious and work for the people. The disappearance of Zerubabbel from the scene leaves the place leaderless and the line of David is lost here. It is a mess.

The Aaronic priests finally gain power after a tussle and a royal priesthood is set up.

The investiture of a priest now is a coronation ceremony.

Haggai works hard to get the leaders going.

“Take courage, Joshua….Take courage all you people..”

It is a difficult time, there is no prosperity (1:6)


Zechariah also criticizes the situation.

The return from Babylon is not an economic boom for the land. (6:8-9)

The people are starving, freezing, poor and despondent (Ch 1-8)

Ch 3 “Take off your filthy clothes…..”

His vision of peace has not come about.

 “Old men and old women shall again..”

Prophecy is finally dying out with God’s people.

 “I will remove from the land the prophets…” Ch 13


Malachi says that God has loved them, but asks how?
They are poor! He gets very despondent.

For Malachi the task of religious and moral instruction that the prophets used to do is passed to the priests. Malachi is angry that the priests are just going through the motions:

“Oh, that someone among you would just…”

The people are lacking in hope and have little religious response.