“God … at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets” (Hebrews 1:1).
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The Hebrew Old Testament was formerly arranged by the Jewish people into 22 books. Those 22 books contained the same information as our current Old Testament that is arranged in 39 books. The major reason for the disparity in the number of books is that what we refer to as the 12 Minor Prophets, were gathered together as one book, “The Twelve.” If we did the same today, then our Old Testament would be reduced to 28 books.
In addition, three sets of double books (first and second Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles) are reduced in the Jewish scriptures to one book each. Also, Ruth is joined to Judges, Lamentations to Jeremiah, and Nehemiah to Ezra.(1)
The division into 22 original books is meaningful. (2) Some linked that number of sacred books to the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet, and to the 22 patriarchs from Adam through Jacob, the father of Israel. Psalms 119 is a tribute to the word of God. It is an acrostic psalm with 22 sections of eight verses each. Each verse of a given section begins with the same Hebrew letter, and those letters run consecutively through the Hebrew alphabet from aleph to tav. Also, the candlestick in the holy contained 22 decorations, three each on six branches, and four on the center stem, matching the number of books ornamenting the Old Testament canon (Exodus 25:31-35).
(1) This particular compression seems likely, though there is some uncertainty about it. Today the Hebrew
canon is divided into 24 books, by separating Ruth from Judges and Lamentations from Jeremiah.
(2) “We have not … an innumerable multitude of books among us, disagreeing from and contradicting
one another … but only twenty-two books, which contain the records of all the past times; which are justly
believed to be divine” (Josephus, Against Apion 1:8).
These 22 books were divided into three main sections, the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings. These are designated by the Hebrew terms Torah, Neviim, and Khetuvim. The acronym TNK is the source for the word “Tanakh,” by which Jewish people know the book we term the Old Testament.
The Torah contains the five books of Moses. The Neviim, or the Prophets, includes Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the book of the 12 Minor Prophets. Notably the Book of Daniel is missing from this list, since it appears in the Khetuvim, the Writings. This location for Daniel is counter-intuitive for us, because we count that book as one of the most remarkable of the prophetic writings.
However, the placement of Daniel among the Writings may explain why the 12 Minor Prophets are grouped together as they are. For the longest of them, Zechariah, has 14 chapters, which is substantially shorter than the 66 chapters of Isaiah, the 52 of Jeremiah, or the 48 of Ezekiel. Thus the “Minor” Prophets are minor relative to the length of the three Major Prophets, and Daniel is in a different section.
Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel
Isaiah 1:1 says that the prophecies of Isaiah were given in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah. This probably means that Isaiah began to prophecy in the latter years of Uzziah, when he reigned independent of his father Amaziah but before his leprosy caused his son Jotham to judge the people on Uzziah’s behalf (2 Kings 15:5).
It is commonly understood that Isaiah lived into the reign of Manasseh, and was killed by Manasseh. Hebrews 11:37 likely refers to this when it says that some were “sawn asunder.” Isaiah, then, may have ministered for parts of seven decades.
Perhaps half a century or so passed until Jeremiah was called to prophesy in the 13th year of Josiah (Jeremiah 1:1-5). His ministry lasted for 40 years until the 11th year of Zedekiah, and continued thereafter even when he lived in
Egypt after Zedekiah lost his throne. Those 40 years may find a parallel in the service of Pastor Russell from 1874 to 1914, with marked events in each ministry standing in parallel with each other.(3)
Ezekiel was a younger Ezekiel and was a younger contemporary of Jeremiah. He was carried to Babylon in the captivity of Jehoiachin, 10 years before the fall of Zedekiah, evidently one of the 3023 Jews that went captive at that time Jeremiah 52:28). In the latter years of Jeremiah’s service in Jerusalem, Ezekiel began prophesying among the Jewish captivites in Babylon, and served as prophet for at least 22 years (Ezekiel 1:1, 2, 29:17).
Both Jeremiah and Ezekiel were priests, and thus, Levites (Jeremiah 1:1, Ezekiel 1:3). Isaiah was the son of Amoz (Isaiah 1:1). “There is a Talmudic tradition that when the name of a prophet’s father is given, his father was also a prophet” (Wikipedia, “Amoz”). There is a rabbinic tradition that Amoz was a brother of King Amaziah, the father of King Uzziah. In this case Isaiah would have been of the tribe of Judah, as was the prophet Daniel (Daniel 1:6).
(3) There is more to this connection than a casual observation. Jeremiah had a message for the faithful, for the transgressors, for Israel, and for the nations. Br. Russell had a message for the elect, for nominal Christendom, for Israel, and for the nations. If one maps out 7000 years of human history, allotting 1000 for Adam and 1000 for the Millennium on either end, that leaves two periods of 2500 years intervening. The location of Jeremiah’s 40 years in the first period, is precisely parallel to the 40 years from 1874 to 1914, 2500 years later. Also, the dates of the three captivities in Jeremiah’s day connect to the dates of meaningful events in the harvest.
Twelve Minor Prophets
As previously mentioned, the 12 “minor” prophets are probably so termed for the relative brevity of their written prophecies, as compared to Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. The first six lived during the time of the Assyrian Empire — Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, and Micah. The next three — Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah —
prophesied about, or during the time of, the Babylonian Empire. The last three — Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi — lived during the Persian Empire and were prophets of Israel’s restoration.(4)
Hosea prophesied during the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah, making him a contemporary of Isaiah. Hosea 1:1 also says that he prophesied in the days of Jeroboam, son of Joash, king of Israel. Perhaps this link to Israel was added because Hosea’s prophecies are primarily about the northern 10 tribe kingdom of Israel. But both kingdoms are included in his prophecies.
Joel speaks of the repeated assaults by the Assyrian Empire upon Israel as four waves of plagues represented by the palmerworm, locust, cankerworm, and caterpillar (Joel 1:4). In chapter two he warns of an impending invasion from the north, perhaps fulfilled in ancient king Sennacherib. The appeal of the people to Jehovah would be heard, Israel would be delivered, and subsequently the holy Spirit would be poured out generously. This was fulfilled in the Gospel Age, beginning at Pentecost, and more fully in the Millennial Age, following Israel’s deliverance from an aggressive northern enemy.
(4) These 12 books can be challenging for brethren to remember in sequence. One memory hook is that Micah and Nahum, starting with letters M and N, are the middle pair of the 12, just as the letters M and N are the middle pair of letters in our alphabet.
Amos was a herdsman during the time of Uzziah and Jeroboam, so his ministry overlapped that of Isaiah, perhaps being an older contemporary of Isaiah. Amos speaks of judgment to the countries surrounding Israel (chapters one and two), and thereafter levels his forecasts against Israel directly. Notably, he predicts a dark day in which “I will cause the sun to go down at noon, and I will darken the earth in the clear day” (Amos 8:9). This was a token of the coming judgment. This evidently was fulfilled in the solar eclipse of 763 BC with the judgment against the 10 tribe kingdom of Israel falling 40 years later in 723 BC. This parallels the 40 years from 33 ad, when, starting at noon, darkness enveloped Jerusalem a precursor of the judgment on Israel that climaxed with the fall of Masada 40 years later, in 73 BC.
Obadiah is a book of one chapter, containing a prophecy against Edom, representing Christendom at the end of the Gospel Age.
Jonah’s book is the best known of all, because of the engaging background to his prophecy. Jonah was engulfed by a large fish but preserved for his mission. For parts of three days he was in the depths, just as Jesus was in the grave for parts of three days. (5) Subsequently Jonah saved the Assyrian capital Nineveh, as Jesus will save the world. Jonah’s name means “dove,” and his experiences represent the work of the holy Spirit in three ages — the Jewish Age, Gospel Age, and Millennial Age.(6)
Micah was contemporary with Isaiah. His famous prediction about the Kingdom of God in Micah 4:1-4, may have been taken from his senior contemporary, for it appears also in Isaiah 2:2-4. Micah 5:5 predicts the saving of Judah from the Assyrian invasion. Evidently, this was Sennacherib’s invasion that Isaiah also lived through (Isaiah chapters 36-38). That invasion was a picture of Israel’s deliverance from Gog of the north that is impending in our day. When Israel prays for deliverance to Jehovah, God will raise seven shepherds (an idiom for kings), and eight princes — the church developed in seven stages, and the Ancient Worthies. Then Israel will have a remarkable victory (Micah 5:6-15).
The Fall of Nineveh and the Ascent of Babylon
Nahum predicted the downfall of Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian Empire (Nahum 1:1). Habakkuk predicted that unrighteous Babylon would be an agent for punishing Israel, and laments this. God assured him that Babylon would be later judged even more severely. Zephaniah prophesied during the reign of Josiah, just before Babylon would sweep through the land. These judgments also have long range applications to the fall of present world powers, as a precursor to the establishment of God’s Kingdom.
(5) The phrase “three days and three nights” (Jonah 1:17) expresses a Hebrew idiom that means three days continuously, night and day. The idiom does not intend that Jonah remained in the fish for three complete days and three complete nights. A similar phrase was used by Jesus to describe that he would be in the heart of the earth for “three days and three nights,” although he was raised “on the third day” (Matthew 12:40, 16:21). Jesus used that phrase, “three days and three nights,” on only one occasion in the Gospels, namelywhen he compared his approaching death to Jonah’s experience.
(6) Jonah’s initial rebellion pertains to the Jewish Age. His three days in the belly of the whale pertains to the Gospel Age when the Church is being developed unrecognized by the world. His deliverance of Nineveh represents the Millennial Age when the world will repent and be saved.
Restoration Prophets During the Persian Empire
Haggai, and the younger Zechariah (Zechariah 2:4), were contemporaries during the restoration of Israel in the days of Cyrus, Cambyses, and Darius Hystaspes, kings of the Persian Empire.
The long range meaning of their prophecies takes us to the development and completion of the Church, the current restoration of Israel, and on to the establishment of the Kingdom. Malachi may have come on the scene two generations later, during the days of Ezra and Nehemiah. His prophecy was the last prophetic testimony closing the Old Testament. (7)
Jesus said in Matthew 5:12, “So persecuted they the prophets which were before you.” And in Matthew 23:31, “Ye are the children of them which killed the prophets.” In Matthew 23:37 he added, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee.” The life of a faithful prophet was often a life of persecution and opposition for the prophets were often commissioned to express God’s judgments to a wayward nation.
James urges that we use these devoted men of the past as examples in affliction and patience. “Take, my brethren, the prophets, who have spoken in the name of the Lord, for an example of suffering affliction, and of patience” (James 5:10). In modern times we do not often suffer the severe opposition that the prophets suffered.
However, resisting the influences of the world, the flesh, and the adversary, will often test us enough. As the prophets remained loyal to God, let us remain loyal in the opportunities that daily come to hand.
Life is mostly composed of small experiences. If we patiently exercise ourselves in good ways through these, we build the kind of character necessary for more difficult circumstances —and life is punctuated with these also.
Recently one asked, Does God expect hard effort, or peaceful surrendering, quiet calm, and consistent work? Perhaps the answer is both. Much of life may be in peaceful surrender, quiet calm, and consistent application to the noble parts of life. This will include participation in our meetings, some regular aspect of service, the training of children in godliness, and meeting family duties. However, the difficult experiences call for hard effort, sometimes for extended periods.
It may have been so with the prophets also. They endured dynamic experiences, sometimes hard confrontations, prison, and even death. But there were also weeks, months, and years of quieter times. Character was being built then also. By this means they were prepared for stiffer times.
The Ancient Worthies are described by Paul as a “cloud of witnesses.” The word witness here does not mean an observer, but rather a testifier. The Ancient Worthies are a “cloud of testifiers” who spoke by their conduct, “even unto death.”
In the Kingdom, when this cloud of testifiers In the Kingdom, when this cloud of testifiers returns to lead the world, they will be honored for their faith. The world will then recognize the remarkable character of men and women who were so strengthened by faith that they did not quail before the mighty of their day. They were ready to die for their faith. The world will be so blessed by knowing that their leadership is of that caliber. They will look up to them, respect them, and know that their leadership and conduct is from pure motives and godly faith.
(7) The last historical note in the Old Testament is Nehemiah 12:22, which reaches into the days of the Grecian Empire. If Ezra compiled the canon of the Old Testament, then this record in Nehemiah would have to have been appended later.
The prophets who perished then, will perhaps be amazed, and certainly appreciative, when they realize that the testimony of their lives and work, humbly rendered as obedient servants, endured for centuries to motivate their successors in faith. Then, during the Millennium, their legacy will have even a wider influence among billions of people, to “turn many to righteousness” (Daniel 12:3).