1902 Encyclopedia > Bible > Prophetical Books of the Old Testament

(Part 6)


Prophetical Books of the Old Testament

Literary Activity of Prophets

We have already seen that the earliest prophecies of certain date are of the 8th century, though there is a probability that Joel flourished in the 9th century, in the reign of Joash of Judah, and that the opening verses of Amos are cited from his book. On the other hand, the old school of prophecy, whose members from Samuel to Elisha were men of action rather than of letters, was not likely to leave behind it any written oracles. The prophets generally spoke under the immediate influence of the Spirit or "hand of Jehovah." What they wrote was secondary, and was, no doubt, greatly abridges. The most instructive account of the literary activity of a prophet is given in Jer. xxxvi. Jeremiah did not begin to write till he had been more than twenty years a prophet. Some prophetic books, like that of Amos, seem to have been composed at one time and with unity of plan. Other prophets, like Isaiah, published several books summing up portions of their ministry. In one or two cases, especially in that of Ezekiel, the prophet writes oracles which were apparently never spoken. Before the Exile there was circulation of individual prophetic books, and earlier prophets quote from their predecessors. But the task of collecting and editing the remains of the prophets was hardly undertaken till the commencement of the second canon; and by this time, no doubt, many writings had been lost, others were more or less fragmentary, and the tradition of authorship was not always complete.

Prophesies are Often Anonymous

It was, indeed, more important to have an oracle authenticated by the name of its author than to know the writer of a history or a Psalm, and many prophets seem to have prefixed their names to their works. But other prophecies are quite anonymous, and prophets who quote earlier oracles never give the author’s name. (A famous case occurs, Isa. xv., xvi., where in xvi. 13, for since that time read long ago.) Now all the remains of prophecy, whether provided with titles or not, were ultimately arranged in four books, the fourth of which names, in separate titles, twelve authors; while the first three books are named after Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and actually mention no other names in the titles of the several prophecies of which they are made up. But is it safe to assume that every anonymous prophecy in these books must be the author of the next preceding prophecy which has a title? Certainly any such assumption can only be provisional, and may be overthrown by internal evidence.

Internal Evidence of Date

But internal evidence of date, it is said, cannot apply to prophetic books in which the author looks in a supernatural way into the future. The value of this argument must be tested by looking more closely at the actual contents of the prophetic books. The prophecies contain—1st, reproof of present sin; 2nd, exhortation to present duty; 3rd, encouragement to the godly and threatening to the wicked, based on the certainty of God’s righteous purpose. In this last connection prophecy is predictive. It lays hold of the ideal elements of the theocratic conception, and depicts the way in which, by God’s grace, they shall be actually realized in a Messianic age, and in a nation purified by judgment and mercy. But in all this the prophet starts from present sin, present needs, present historical situations. There is no reason to think that a prophet ever received a revelation which was not spoken directly and pointedly to his own time. If we find, then, that after the prophecy of Zechariah i.—viii., which is complete in itself, there begins at ch. ix. a new oracle, quite distinct in subject and style, which speaks of an alliance between Judah and Israel as a thing subsisting in the prophet’s own time, which knows no oppressor later than Assyria and Egypt, and rebukes forms of idolatry that do not appear after the Exile;—if, in short, the whole prophecy becomes luminous when it is placed a little after the time of Hosea, and remains absolutely dark if it is ascribed to Zechariah, we are surely entitled to let it speak for itself. When the principle is admitted other applications follow, mainly in the book of Isaiah, where the anonymous chapters, xl.—lxvi., cannot be understood in a natural and living way except by looking at them from the historical stand-point of the Exile.


Then arises a further question, whether all titles are certainly authentic and conclusive; and here, too, it is difficult to answer by an absolute affirmative. For example, in Isa. xxx. 6, the title, "The burden of the beasts of the south," interrupts the connection in a most violent way. This is not a solitary instance, but on the whole the titles are far more trustworthy in the prophecies than in the Psalms, and partly on this account, but mainly from the direct historical bearing of prophetic teaching, we can frame a completer history of written prophecy than of any other part of Old Testament literature.

Northern Prophets

We have, on the one hand, a series of prophets—Amos, Hosea, and the anonymous author of Zech. ix.—xi.—who preached in the northern kingdom, but are not descendents of the school of Elisha, which had so decayed under court favour from the dynasty of Jehu, that Amos had to be sent from the wilderness of Judah to take up again the forgotten word of the Lord.

Assyrian Prophets

In Judah proper we have the great Assyrian prophets, Isaiah with his younger contemporary Micah, the powerful supporters of the reformation of Hezekiah, labouring one in the capital, the other in the country district of the Philistine border. To the Assyrian period belongs also Nahum, who wrote, perhaps, in captivity, and foretold the fall of Nineveh.

Chaldean Period

Then comes Zephaniah about the time of the Scythian ravages, followed by the prophets of the Chaldean period; first Habakkuk and then Jeremiah and Ezekiel, men of a heavier spirit and less glowing poetic fire than Isaiah, no longer upholding the courage of Judah in the struggle with the empire of the East, but predicting the utter dissolution of existing things, and finding hope only in a new covenant—a new theocracy. In the period of Exile more than one anonymous prophet raised his voice; for not only the "Great Unnamed" of Isa. xi.—lxvi., but the authors of other Babylonian prophecies, are probably to be assigned to this time. In the new hope of deliverance the poetic genius, as well as the spiritual insight of prophecy, awakes to fresh life, and sets forth the mission of the new Israel to carry the knowledge of the Lord to all nations.

The Latest Prophets

But the spirit of the new Jerusalem had little in common with these aspirations, and in Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi, prophecy retains not much of its old power except an uncompromising moral earnestness. The noble poetry of the old prophets, which even in the time of Ezekiel had begun to gave way to plain prose, finds no counterpart in these latest oracles; and imaginative power is shown, where it still exists, in the artificial structure of symbolic visions. No important new ideas are set forth, and even the tone of moral exhortation sometimes reminds us more of the rabbinical maxims of the fathers in the Mishna, than of the prophetic teaching of the 8th century. And as if the spirit of prophetical teaching of the 8th century. And as if the spirit of prophecy foresaw its own dissolution, Malachi looks not to the continued succession of prophets, but to the return of Elijah as the necessary preparation for the day of the Lord.


In this sketch of the prophetic writings we find no place for the book of Daniel, which, whether composed in the early years of the Persian empire, or, as modern critics hold, at the time of the Maccabee wars, presents so many points of diversity from ordinary prophecy as to require entirely separate treatment. It is in point of form the precursor of the apocalyptic books of post-canonical Judaism, though in its intrinsic qualities far superior to these, and akin to the prophets proper.

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