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Introduction to Old Testament Prophetic Books

Introduction to Old Testament Prophetic Books

by C. Hassell Bullock


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Introduction to Old Testament Prophetic Books

The Old Testament prophets spoke to Israel in times of historical and moral crisis. They saw themselves as being part of a story that God was weaving throughout history—a story of repentance, encouragement, and a coming Messiah. In this updated introductory book, each major and minor prophet and his writing is clustered with the major historical events of his time.

  • The Neo-Assyrian prophets and the fall of the Northern Kingdom (Israel).
    Prophets include: Jonah, Amos, Hosea, Micah, and Isaiah
  • The Neo-Babylonian prophets and of the fall on the Southern Kingdom (Judah).
    Prophets include: Zephaniah, Habakkuk, Jeremiah, Nahum, Ezekiel, Obadiah,
    and Lamentations
  • The Persian prophets and the Jewish return to Israel.
    Prophets include: Daniel, Haggai, Zechariah, Joel, and Malachi

Our generational distance from the age of the prophets might seem to be a measureless chasm. Yet we dare not make the mistake of assuming that passing years have rendered irrelevant not only the Old Testament prophets, but also the God who comprehends, spans, and transcends all time. In these pages, C. Hassell Bullock presents a clear picture of some of history’s most profound spokesmen—the Old Testament prophets—and the God who shaped them.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780802441546
Publisher: Moody Publishers
Publication date: 05/01/2007
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 473
Sales rank: 1,005,063
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.13(d)

About the Author

C. HASSELL BULLOCK (B.A., Samford University; B.D., Columbia Theological Seminary; University Ph.D., Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion) is professor of Old Testament studies at Wheaton College. Since the completion of his formal education, Dr. Bullock has served as both a professor and as a pastor in 10 different churches.

He is the author of An Introduction to the Old Testament Prophetic Books, Encountering the Book of Psalms, An Introduction to the Old Testament Prophetic Books, and An Introduction to the Old Testament Poetic Books.

Dr. Bullock resides in Wheaton, Illinois.

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Moody Publishers

Copyright © 2007 C. Hassell Bullock
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ISBN: 978-0-8024-4154-6

Chapter One



Prefacing a study of the prophets with the book of Jonah may at first seem inappropriate. A book around which so much controversy has revolved in modern biblical scholarship could cast a veil over the entire study at the start. However, my aim is to introduce the study of the prophets, a task whose proportions are staggering to scholar and student alike. The choice of Jonah, rather than the more standard introduction that begins with Amos, is dictated by three considerations: the early date assigned to Jonah by the writer of Kings (2 Kings 14:23), the book's emphasis upon the prophetic career, and the transitional nature of Jonah's prophecy from the preclassical to the classical model.


The Reference in the Book of Kings

First, laying aside for the moment the question of the date of composition of Jonah, the reference by the author of Kings to his prophecy in the reign of Jeroboam (793/92-753 B.C.) fixes his activity in the first half of the eighth century and prior to this king's expansionist success. Even in view of the exilic date for the book of Kings, few scholars today would question the identity of the subject of this book with the "Jonah, the sonof Amittai, the prophet, who was of Gath-hepher" in Kings. Even the summary of his message, that Jeroboam would restore the border of Israel "from the entrance of Hamath as far as the Sea of the Arabah," is no surprise, for we might have guessed from the tone of the book of Jonah that he had strong nationalist leanings. We may recognize that fact without simultaneously accepting the view that the purpose of the book was to countermand those convictions.

It may not be possible to determine conclusively whether Amos preceded Jeroboam's territorial expansion, but the luxury and leisure of Israelite society as Amos described it points, it would seem, more toward the post-expansionist period than the years prior to it (Amos 4:1; 6:1, 4-7). The sense of security that characterized the era in which Amos spoke (6:1, "Woe ... to those who feel secure in the mountain of Samaria") further suggests the post-expansionist period. Moreover, it is obvious from Amos 5:18-20 that something had occurred that inflated Israel's false anticipation of the "Day of the Lord" as a time of victory and success. Perhaps it had been the prophecy of Jonah regarding Jeroboam, or maybe even the military triumphs themselves, that had evoked Amos's rebuke. In any event, there was undeniably a bloated sense of security in Jeroboam's Israel when Amos delivered his threatening prophecies in the king's sanctuary. That is in no way to put Amos in opposition to Jonah, for Jonah may not have been responsible for any negative implications that developed in the Northern Kingdom as a result of his prophecy. In fact, the editorial comment in 2 Kings 14:26 seems to be the explanation for Yahweh's favorable treatment of Jeroboam, even though the author had already written that "he did evil in the sight of the Lord" (v. 24). Divine mercy, which looms so large in the book of Jonah, is seen to have been the result of God's grace in Israel as it was also in Nineveh. When the writer of Kings continued his editorial statement, that "the Lord had not said that He would blot out the name of Israel from under heaven, so he saved them by the hand of Jeroboam the son of Joash" (v. 27, RSV), he made that remark in reference to the Exile that he later reported, the Exile that Amos among the prophets first predicted, if we are correct to read the verb (with RSV) in v. 27 as a pluperfect ("had not said"-at that time), then the writer may well have had in mind Amos's prophecy in which the prediction was clearly made. That is, after He showed mercy through the military advances of Jeroboam, then He announced (by Amos) that He would destroy Israel, thus putting Amos after the prophecy of Jonah.

The Career of a Prophet Exemplified in Jonah

The second consideration that prompts me to use Jonah as a foreword to the prophets is that the book concentrates on the career of a prophet. Whereas a number of secondary themes can be identified, the major theme of the book is really the story of Jonah the prophet, not the repentance of Nineveh or the narrow nationalism of Israel. Yahweh called Jonah, detailed his mission, and sent him to fulfill it. Any intermediate detour on the prophet's part was just that-intermediate-because the sovereign Lord of the world would have obedience and nothing less. Every prophet whom Yahweh called subsequently had Jonah's model before him, and the compelling power of God could not be resisted. The inner tension was undeniable. Amos, for example, felt that the Lord "took" him from following the sheep (Amos 7:15). In this sense Jonah is a microcosm of the prophetic career. None could he more traumatic, more demanding, more frustrating.

Third, Jonah makes a helpful prologue to the classical prophets because he was a transition prophet, representing the shift from the preclassical model that we have in Elijah and Elisha to that of Amos, Hosea, Micah, and Isaiah. The preclassical prophets addressed their message to the king and his court, whereas the classical prophets addressed all levels of the society. J. Holladay has proposed that this shift took place as a result of the Assyrian crisis. The Assyrians, whose blossoming new empire began at the end of Jeroboam's reign with the rise of Tiglathpileser III, instituted a policy of torture and wholesale deportation of conquered peoples. Such action swung the attention from king to commoner. So Holladay theorizes that the result of this shift in political policy was paralleled by a change in the function of the prophet, who had formerly addressed the king and his officials. Now the prophet had to speak to everyone. Yet Holladay's explanation for that change of prophetic focus from king to people is only a partial reason, belonging to a web of causes, not the least of which was God's determination to call His people back to Him.

Further, the preclassical prophets, when announcing judgment, do not appear to have preached a message of repentance. Yehezkel Kaufmann has made the observation that the earliest biblical stories, the Flood, the tower of Babel, and the overthrow of Sodom, give no place to repentance. God may repent (Gen. 6:6), but punishment is not staved off by human repentance. Even David's repentance of adultery did not avert punishment (2 Sam. 12), and Ahab's repentance only delayed it (1 Kings 21:27-29). The book of Jonah brings forward the concept that repentance may avert divine punishment. And in Jonah the repentance of Nineveh triggered divine repentance (3:10). The classical prophets, with few exceptions, capitalized on that principle. John Walton has insightfully applied that observation to Jonah and has proposed that the book focuses on the changes that took place between preclassical and classical prophecy: "It is the mechanism by which the age of classical prophecy is introduced."

In summary, the book of Jonah represents prophetic activity that precedes even Amos, providing a model of Yahweh's sovereign control over the prophet and his message, and lays a plank for moving from the preclassical to the classical era of prophecy. The date of composition of the book is another question to be dealt with below, but the historical setting and the nature of the prophetic ministry captured in its intriguing story provide a fitting preface to our study of the classical prophets. Obviously the editor of the prophetic corpus was working with other criteria for his arrangement of the prophets. However, we have chosen to follow a chronological sequence to the degree that it is determinable, and by beginning with Jonah we have chosen both chronology and theology as justification.


Little personal information is known about Jonah. Both Jonah 1:1 and 2 Kings 14:25 identify him as the son of Amittai, and Kings gives the further information that he was from Gath-hepher, a town in lower Galilee about three miles northeast of Nazareth in the ancient tribal claim of Zebulon. The character lines in the book are well drawn, and we feel that we know Jonah quite well when the story concludes. He had a mind of his own. Even when he knew he had lost the war, he still waged his personal battle (4:1-11). The book is short on oracular material (only 3:4b), and the psalm of chapter 2, although not an oracle, reveals one side of the prophet's disposition, balanced precariously against another side drawn out in chapter 4. We need not view that as editorial shaping of the literature. It was a very human reaction that Jonah should be thankful for his own deliverance but resentful about Nineveh's.


Theories of Interpretation

Three major schools of thought exist regarding the literary type of the book of Jonah, with variations within each of the schools. The types are allegory, parable, and history.

Allegory. The OT has several examples of allegory? All of them are rather brief and contain clear evidence that they are allegories. Those who propound this interpretation of Jonah make the point that his name means "dove," a word that later (much later!) became the symbol for Israel. So Jonah becomes the figure to represent Israel, and the fish becomes the world power (Babylon) that swallowed up Israel. Nineveh would be the symbol of the conversion of the Gentiles, and Jonah's subsequent complaint the theological objection to their inclusion in the covenant. However, if that be the case, no OT allegory is written so straightforwardly as historical narrative as is Jonah. T. T. Perowne comments that the setting of the book "is too exact, too detailed, too closely in accordance with facts, to be in keeping with the allegory itself."

Parable. In current scholarship this is the prevailing opinion. G. Ch. Aalders gives two characteristics of the OT parable: (1) simplicity, treating one central subject, and (2) an accompanying interpretation. Yet Jonah is a compound story and has no interpretation. The exponents of this position stress the didactic nature of the book. It exposes the narrowness of nationalism, or teaches the universalism of God or some other worthy idea. Objections to this interpretive method are the length of the story in contrast to the shorter form of the parable and the inclusion of miracle elements, which do not occur in other ancient Near Eastern parallels.

History. Until modern times the book was generally viewed as a historical account of the prophet Jonah. Christians appealed to the use Jesus made of the story in Matt. 12:39-41 and Luke 11:29-30. C. F. Keil has pointed out that as narrative the book of Jonah is similar in content and form to the history of Elijah and Elisha (1 Kings 17-19; 2 Kings 2:4-6). G. A. Smith remarked that "the peculiarity of the Book of Jonah is not the presence of narrative, but the apparent absence of all prophetic discourse." We have already observed that the only semblance of prophetic oracles is 3:4b, "Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown." The double call (1:2; 3:2) as well as the dialogue between Jonah and God (4:2-11) also fall within natural categories of prophetic material, even though they are not oracles per se. Nevertheless, Smith's observation does raise the question of why Jonah is included among the prophets. Yet the ancient arrangement of the Jewish canon into Former and Latter Prophets (Joshua-Kings and Isaiah-the Twelve Prophets) was dependent, especially in the Former Prophets, upon the prophetic character of persons involved rather than prophetic oracles. On that score there should be no problem with Jonah's qualifications.

We can unhesitatingly agree that the book is different from the other books among the Latter Prophets. Yet when placed alongside the Elijah/Elisha materials in Kings we recognize that Jonah was written with the same kind of motive in mind. That is, it was written as a refined theological treatise on the life and activity of an ancient prophet. The writer has skillfully analyzed and utilized the activities of Jonah to elevate the theological motifs that his prophetic ministry illustrated, so that theology and history are artistically interwoven. The motifs of the book illustrate the author's theological interests: the sovereignty of God over individuals, nations, and nature, the inclusion of Gentiles to divine grace, and the grief of the Almighty over His erring creatures. It is an illustration of a prophet's career that has been written in contemplative retrospect. The literary character of the book takes us a step beyond the literary nature of Hosea 1 and 3. As in Hosea's marriage, the prophetic actions have been maximized, illuminating them and interpreting their theological significance by means of Hosea's oracles, especially those in chapters 2 and 4-14. Perhaps Jonah's prophetic oracles had not survived except in summary form (3:4b and 2 Kings 14:25), so the story line itself, as so often in the Kings material, became the means of interpretation.

Regarding Jesus' use of the book (Matt. 12:39-41; Luke 11:29-30), His reference to the repentance of the Ninevites and, even more compellingly, to the queen of the South, whose existence and embassy are verified in 1 Kings 10:1-10, certainly indicates His belief that Jonah was historical. If the reference to the Ninevites is taken to be merely illustrative and not historical, then we have a confusing mixture of nonhistorical and historical material in the same analogy. Further, the condemnation of Jesus' generation is far less effective if the repentance of the Ninevites is nonhistorical. There is little question that Jesus believed His references to be historically valid.

Problems of Historicity

Some of the problems that have been cited as obstructions to historicity fall into two areas: those relating to Nineveh, and the miracles in the story.

Nineveh. The book calls Nineveh "the great city" (1:2; 3:2; 4:11; and a variant form in 3:3), a phrase that may have a theological implication, that is, great in God's estimation. Actually the only possible reference to the size of the city occurs in 3:3, "a three days' walk." In 3:4 Jonah is said to have begun to go through the city "one day's walk," implying that the term "walk" (mahalach) referred to distance. Yet A. H. Layard's excavations of the site of Nineveh in 1843 revealed a much smaller area. Subsequently attention was turned to the circumference of the city walls that were enlarged by Sennacherib from 9,300 cubits to 12,515, giving a distance of about seven and a half miles. Yet a three-days' journey could easily be forty-five to sixty miles. So a strict reference to the size of the city is not likely. It has been proposed that "a three days' walk" may refer to the size of the administrative district, composed of Asshur, Calah (Nimrud), and Dur-Sharruken (Khorsabad). All three of those were occupied within the period between 850 and 614, and all were within one to three days' walk of each other. That solution makes good sense.

Another proposal is that the phrase refers to the size of the project. Jonah's task, which included preaching to the citizens (3:5) and perhaps also an official visit to the king, thus required three days to complete. It is conceivable that he could have delivered the bad news to all of Nineveh's citizens in a period of three days, stopping at the main gates (Nineveh had over a dozen), the temple courts, and perhaps the king's palace.

Related also to the questions surrounding the city of Nineveh is the population, said to be "more than 120,000 persons who do not know the difference between their right and left hand" (4:11). D. J. Wiseman cites a text discovered at Calah (Nimrud) that King Asshurnasir-apli II, at the opening of his new city in 865, entertained 69,574 guests in a period of ten days. Those probably came from Calah as well as neighboring cities, but if we are dealing with the administrative district rather than Nineveh by itself, then 120,000 people is a plausible figure.


Excerpted from AN INTRODUCTION TO THE OLD TESTAMENT PROPHETIC BOOKS by C. HASSELL BULLOCK Copyright © 2007 by C. Hassell Bullock. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Preface  / 9
Abbreviations  / 11
1. Introduction  / 13

Part One: The Prophets of the Neo-Assyrian Period
2. Jonah: Preface to the Prophets  / 47
3. Amos: Call for Moral Obedience  / 64
4. Hosea: A Prophet's Dilemma  / 99
5. Micah: Judgment , Hope, and Promise / 122
6. Isaiah: Prophet Par Excellence  / 151

Part Two: The Prophets of the Neo-Babylonian Period
7. Zephaniah: Profile of a People  / 197
8. Habakkuk: Prophet of Transition  / 209
9. Jeremiah: Prophet to the Nations  / 223
10. Nahum: The Reality of Judgment  / 261
11. Ezekiel: The Merging of Two Spheres  / 274
12. Obadiah: Edom's Day of the Lord  / 308
13. Lamentations: Reflections of the Soul  / 319

Part Three: The Prophets of the Persian Period
14. Daniel: Witness in Babylonia  / 335
15. Haggai: The Temple and the Future  / 362
16. Zechariah: Prophet of the New Kingdom  / 373
17. Joel: The Day of Decision  / 390
18. Malachi: Prophet of Covenant Love  / 403

Bibliography  / 414

Index of Subjects and Persons  / 460
Index of Authors  / 466
Index of Scripture  / 471

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