The Messages of the Prophets

This table summarises the messages of the sixteen prophets in chronological order. Some guesswork is involved here, as not all of the books of the prophets specify when they were written, or originally preached. I've correlated several different timelines and worked out what makes sense to me.

Joel's date is unknown, with estimates ranging as much as three hundred years apart, but one reasonable guess places his ministry towards the early part of Joash's reign, which makes him the earliest of the prophets whose writings are preserved in the bible, at around 830 BC.

Forty or fifty years after this comes Jonah's warning to Nineveh. Almost immediately afterwards comes a batch of four important prophets, spread out over a period of about sixty years: Amos and Hosea to the Northern kingdom of Israel, and their contemporaries Isaiah and Micah to the Southern kingdom of Judah.

More than fifty years after the end of these ministries, starting around 640 BC, comes another batch. These five prophets minister leading up to the fall of Jerusalem: Nahum prophecies to Nineveh (the capital of Assyria, who had conquered Israel); Zephaniah, Jeremiah and Habakkuk to the remaining Southern kingdom; and Obadiah to neighbouring Edom.

Almost as soon as the first group of exiles are sent to Babylon (before the final fall of Jerusalem), Ezekiel and Daniel, among them, begin to prophesy to their contemporaries there. Their ministries last through most of the the exile.

Finally, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi (ninety years after the other two) prophesy to the remnant of Judah that returned to the land to rebuild Jerusalem and the temple.

Prophet To Key Verse and Summary of Message
Joel Judah "Even now", declares the Lord, "return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning." - Joel 2:12

Joel uses a recent plague of locusts as an analogy for the coming Day of the Lord, warning that devastation is in store, and that repentance is required. The Day is seen as one of division: to those who love God, it brings blessing; to those who hate or ignore him, destruction. Part of his prophecy was fulfilled at Pentecost.

Jonah Nineveh When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened - Jonah 3:10

Jonah's own message was simply one of warning to Nineveh. The message of the book, however, is that God is unlimited by geography, can use circumstances to achieve his own ends, and loves everyone: not just the Hebrews.

Amos Israel "Woe to you who are complacent in Zion, and to you who feel secure on Mount Samaria" - Amos 6:1a

The earliest prophet to Israel, Amos's book states the themes that recur throughout the prophets: condemnation of immorality, warning of coming judgement, and an appeal to turn back to God, and obtain mercy. God is both holy and loving. Amos was not a priest or a "professional" prophet, so brings a layman's objectivity and straightforwardness to his message.

Hosea Israel "How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel? [...] My heart is changed within me; all my compassion is aroused" - Hosea 11:8

Hosea's message is of the unshakability of God's love and compassion in the face of constant unfaithfulness on the part of his loved people. More than any other prophet, he conveys not just God's anger at the failures of his people, but also his sadness, and even weariness. Hosea's life was a parable for his message: he married a prostitute who was unfaithful to him, but took her back.

Isaiah Judah "To whom will you compare me, or who is my equal?" says the Holy One - Isaiah 40:25

Covers pretty much every topic in the bible: God's holiness, warning of coming judgement, call to repentance, vision of future blessing, messianic predictions, the servant songs, and extraordinary poetry (eg. chapter 40)

Micah Judah "He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God" - Micah 6:8

Predicts judgement on Judah not just because the people have turned away from God, but also because of moral consequences of that apostasy. Emphasises the need for ethical behaviour in secular life as well as religious purity.

Nahum Nineveh The Lord has given a command concerning you, Nineveh. "You will have no descendants to bear your name." - Nahum 1:14

A condemnation of Nineveh, together with both prediction of, and rejoicing in, its destruction. Unlike Jonah's message, which was a warning intended to bring about repentance, Nahum's message is final, a statement of what will surely occur rather than a warning of a fate that can still be avoided.

Zephaniah Judah "The great day of the Lord is near - near and coming quickly" - Zephaniah 1:14

The first prophet in Judah after a gap of more than fifty years, he warns of the coming Day of the Lord, emphasising that Judah will not be exempt from the judgement due to the surrounding nations merely because of its history: God's people must seek him for themselves, not rely on their ancestors' relationship with him. Predicts the survival of a faithful remnant when God's judgement falls on Jerusalem.

Jeremiah Judah "O house of Israel, can I not do with you as the potter does?" declares the Lord. "Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel." - Jeremiah 18:6

Covers the transition from last days of the kingdom into exile. Warnings to repent are unheeded, and Jerusalem falls. Jeremiah then predicts future restoration after seventy years of exile, and warns the remaining Judaeans not to go down to Egypt. Jeremiah is distinguished by his understanding of God's will, his acceptance of it, and his willingness to persist with the very unappreciated ministry to which God had called him.

Habakkuk Judah "Though it linger, wait for it. It will certainly come, and will not delay" - Habakkuk 2:3b

The book takes the form of a dialogue: Habakkuk asks God why he allows injustice to continue in Judah. When God replies that he will end it by means of the Babylonians, he asks God how he can use those even more unrighteous as agents of judgement. God replies that all wickedness will surely be judged at the proper time. Habakkuk concludes that he can rejoice in God whatever the circumstances.

Obadiah Edom "Though you soar like the eagle and make your nest among the stars, from there I will bring you down", declares the Lord - Obadiah 4

A message of woe to Edom, a neighbouring country which took advantage of Judah's disarray after the Babylonian triumph to raid weakened villages. Edom was descended from Esau, the brother of Jacob (Israel), and had always been a thorn in the Hebrews' sides. Obadiah denounces their pride and security in their mountain strongholds, predicting a total annihilation of the Edomite nation.

Ezekiel Exiles "I saw the glory of the God of Israel coming from the east. His voice was like the roar of rushing waters, and the land was radiant with his glory" - Ezekiel 43:2

Part of Ezekiel was written before the final destruction of Jerusalem: the theme of this part is that judgement will follow sin. The rest was written after this point, and the theme is that restoration will follow. The book is punctuated by complicated, confusing and occasionally terrifying visions, and by symbolic actions on the part of the author. The overriding theme is the glory of God.

Daniel Exiles "[...] the rock that struck the statue became a huge mountain and filled the whole earth - Daniel 2:35b"

The book of Daniel begins with several chapters of history and stories about Daniel and his contemporaries' exemplary faith in extremely hostile circumstances. The remainder of the book is a series of highly figurative prophecies concerning the rise and fall of subsequent empires, and the eventual end to all things. Throughout, the emphasis is on the sovereignty of God.

Haggai Remnant "Is it a time for you yourselves to be living in your panelled houses, while [God's] house remains in ruins?" - Haggai 1:4

One of the most focussed of the prophets, this book is a combination of history and prophecy, recounting how Haggai drove the returned Judaeans to rebuild the temple.

Zechariah Remnant "Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit", says the Lord Almighty - Zechariah 4:6b

Zechariah's message is a rich brew of visionary and apocalyptic imagery, some of it extremely difficult to interpret. The early part of the book is concerned with rebuilding the temple; the later part is a glimpse into the New Covenant future. A contemporary of Haggai, the substance of at least parts of his message is similar; but the style totally different.

Malachi Remnant "Return to me and I will return to you", says the Lord - Malachi 3:7b

Whereas most of the prophets rebuke outright sin, Malachi has to deal with apathy: the temple worship is being observed, but half-heartedly. Malachi emphasises that God wants the best we have to offer, not just the least we can get away with.