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SIMPLIFIED JOURNEY (17): The Early Prophets


There were prophets all through the Old Testament. God called Abraham a prophet (Genesis 20:7), and we can presume that Noah, a preacher of righteousness (see 2 Peter 2:5), was also a prophet to the antediluvian world.

They played a vital role as God revealed Himself to His people. The word prophet does not mean foreteller, but a spokesman. In Exodus, Aaron was the spokesman for Moses to Israel (Exodus 4:16) and to Pharaoh (Exodus 7:1-2). In one place he is Moses’ mouth; in the other he is Moses’ prophet.

Now in speaking for God, sometimes the prophet does foretell, but his chief role is as an inspired speaker for God.

Moses as the lawgiver was perhaps the greatest of all the Old Testament prophets. In fact, God said He spoke with Moses “face to face” and not in visions as He would with other prophets who would be in Israel (Numbers 12:6-8). One of the great prophecies of the coming Messiah was that he would be a prophet like Moses (Deuteronomy 18:15).

The Oral Prophets

The earliest kings of Israel were all prophets. Saul was among the prophets as one who prophesied (1 Samuel 10:6) after Samuel anointed him. When Samuel later anointed David after God rejected Saul as king, the Spirit left Saul and came to David (1 Samuel 16:13; 18:12). God spoke with Solomon in a vision at Gibbeon and granted him whatever he would ask. Solomon asked for wisdom. God gave it to him, and Solomon wrote three of the books of the Old Testament. There were no other kings who were either spoken of as prophets, or who spoke directly from God.

Usually, though, we think of the oral prophets as those prophets who were spokesmen for God, not only to the kings, but also to the people. While David was on the throne, in one of the most memorable encounters of the Old Testament, the prophet Nathan rebuked him for his sin with Bathsheba (2 Samuel 12). His declaration to David that “You are the man!” brought David to his knees in repentance.

Not all of Israel’s royal personages were willing to listen to the prophets. Jezebel killed many prophets during the reign of her husband, Ahab (1 Kings 18:1-4). She tried to kill Elijah, one of the great men of God in this era, as well after Elijah’s victory over the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel (1 Kings 18:1-2).

Throughout the period of the divided kingdoms, prophets were there to try to point prince and people alike back to the ways of the Lord.

The Writing Prophets

The final seventeen books of the Old Testament, comprising almost 30% of its volume, were written by prophets. They wrote these books from about 850 BC to about 400 BC. This period covered about half of the period of the divided kingdoms, the time between the exile of Israel to Assyria and of Judah to Babylon, the time of the Babylonian exile, and also of the return of the Jews to Jerusalem and Judah.

Most of these prophets date themselves by the reigns of the kings reigning during their prophetic ministries. Some of the name specific years of various kings’ reigns to identify just when they lived and wrote. There are a few undated prophets – and we have to determine when they wrote by looking at the historic record and comparing it to the message of the prophets. The dates for these are not nearly as certain as the dates for those that identify the living kings.

Joel was either one of the earliest or one of the latest of the literary prophets. There is nothing in the book to establish the date beyond question. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia has a defense of the early date. Most conservative scholars date it as early as the 9th century BC (c. 825 – 800 BC). Others date it as late as the mid-4th century (c. 350 BC).

No one knows the exact date for sure. Joel prophesied perhaps a little before the reigns of Uzziah and Jeroboam II, perhaps during the reign of Joash in 825-800 B.C. As John Calvin says in his commentary, the date is of little importance, as compared to knowing the date of the prophesy of Amos or Hosea, for the message can be explained without pinning a date on it. Copyright © 2000 David E. Graves, Electronic Christian Media

This book describes a national calamity, either a natural disaster of drought and locust – or these are used allegorically to refer to an invasion. It is probably the former.

Joel describes this disaster as “the day of the LORD” as a day of destruction from Jehovah (1:15). He calls on the people to declare a “holy fast” (1:14) in sackcloth and ashes – but he is very much concerned with true repentance, not mere ritual gestures. One of the beautiful passages is where he says:

“Even now,” declares the LORD, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.” Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity. – Joel 2:12-13

As in many of the prophets, in a time of national disaster Joel prophesied of a coming time of glory. With Joel, the glory is twofold: there is a return of prosperity and there will be a new relationship with the LORD, as He says:

And afterward, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions…. And everyone who calls on the name of the LORD will be saved…. – Joel 2:28, 32

Jonah is a prophet of the northern kingdom of Israel in the time of Jeroboam II (see 2 Kings 14:25). This book is in the form of a narrative of God’s commission to him to preach to Nineveh. Jonah went in the opposite direction because he feared the LORD would relent from the destruction he promised Nineveh is that capital city of the vicious Assyrians – if they repented (4:1-3). The book is more about the heart of Jonah than it is about the city of Nineveh.

In the 1st chapter, Jonah ran away from the LORD and the commission to preach to Nineveh. A great storm came on the ship and was about to sink it when Jonah confessed to the crew that he was responsible. At his insistence, they threw him overboard – but God prepared a great fish to swallow him.

The 2nd chapter is Jonah inside the fish, praying – thanking God for delivering him from drowning. In this chapter, he closed his prayer by saying, “Salvation comes from the LORD.”

The 3rd chapter has Jonah going to Nineveh and preaching that in 40 days the city would be overthrown. The city repented in sackcloth and ashes – and God relented.

In the 4th chapter, Jonah sulked. Here there is the moral dilemma of Jonah. As a super-patriot, he wanted to see this enemy of his people destroyed. God, however, had other plans for the city. In an exchange between God and Jonah, Jonah ends up being upset with God, not only because of His sparing Nineveh, but also because He took away a vine that sheltered Jonah in his vigil. God, on the other hand was concerned with more than 120,000 people in the city.

Jonah can help us to examine our own hearts to see how self-centered we are – especially when compared to God’s love for the entire world. Like Jonah, we do not care if the world goes to hell in a hand basket as long as we have our comforts and are safe in our homes.

NEXT (18): The Social Prophets

PREVIOUS (16): The Early Prophets

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