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The Oxford Study Bible Study Bible supplemented with commentary from scholars of various religions.

The Canonical Prophets

In the eighth century B.C.E., a dramatic shift occurred in the course of prophecy in Israel. The performance of prophets and prophecy continued much as before, but now a sequence of prophets appeared whose sayings were carefully collected and preserved. The early prophets were remembered as actors in Israel's story. By contrast, these so-called “latter” prophets are remembered in terms of what they said. In their careers, the Word rises to such preeminence that they are presented in their books primarily through a collection of their sayings.

With these prophets, the message had a new audience, subject, and purpose. They continued to address the leaders of Israel and Judah, such as kings, officials, priests, and other prophets, but their primary audience was the nation itself. That is because their subject was the destiny of the people itself. The early prophets had dealt with the conduct of leaders, principally the kings, as it affected the people. These prophets are also concerned with the conduct of the whole people as it affected their destiny under God. The early prophets concentrated on the internal problems of the nation and on its conflicts with neighboring nations. For these prophets the arena of God's way with the elect people became international history. Their purpose was to bring to light the way in which God was working out the election of Israel to be the people of the Lord in the context of world history.

The background of the careers of the canonical prophets was a change in the historical conditions with which Judah and Israel had to cope. A series of empires with aggressive military policies dominated their region. Successively, Assyria, Babylon, and Persia, with Egypt always as a foil to the south, set the conditions under which the smaller nations in the Near East lived. The canonical prophets appeared and were active in the crises and changes provoked by the intrusion of these world powers. (See “Historical Contexts of the Biblical Communities,” p. * 33.)

THE ASSYRIAN CRISIS. In the second half of the eighth century B.C.E., Assyrian armies and policy progressively weakened the northern state of Israel. The Assyrians finally overcame Israel and deported its population, and harassed Judah and brought it to the edge of defeat and ruin.

Years before the Assyrian threat was immediate, a Judean named Amos was called away from his flocks and herds to proclaim the word of God's judgment to Israel. He pointed to the failure of righteousness and justice in the courts, temples, and marketplaces, a failure that produced luxury for the powerful and oppression for the poor. Because of such violations of the divine will, the state of Israel with all its principal institutions would be brought to an end.

Amos was followed in the northern kingdom by Hosea, whose prophetic activity stretched across the tumultuous decades that led to the state's collapse. His rebukes were particularly aimed at Israel's involvement with the Canaanite god Baal, who was worshiped alongside of and confused with Israel's God. Because of unfaithfulness to their covenant with the Lord, Israel would be severely punished and restored to a new covenant relationship only after the most grievous suffering.

In the southern kingdom of Judah, Isaiah repeated and expanded Amos' charges against the primary institutions of the nation. He was concerned with the loyalty of Jerusalem and its resident kings to the Lord as the sole sovereign and savior, and opposed every policy and alliance that betrayed that preempting obligation. He portrayed the Assyrians as the rod of the Lord's anger to punish and purge the kingdom and restore it to its true righteousness and dependence on the Lord. For a brief period when the Assyrian threat to Judah was at its height, he was seconded and supported by Micah.

THE BABYLONIAN CRISIS. During the Assyrian crisis, Judah was invaded and despoiled, but Jerusalem did not fall, and its Davidic house was not displaced. The little kingdom, however, lived during much of the seventh century as a vassal state in the shadow of Assyrian power. When Assyria's dominance began to wane, a movement of independence and reform developed that brought changes in the institutional life of the nation. A prophet named Zephaniah had announced a day of the Lord's wrath against the religious pluralism and social unrighteousness prevalent in the population, a witness to the problems that called for reform. But the reform did not reshape the religious and social life in a radical way. When its principal sponsor, King Josiah, was killed in a battle to protect the new independence from a resurgent Egypt, the reform lost impetus.

About that time a Levite named Jeremiah was called by the Lord to disclose the true situation of the nation and reveal its future. Jeremiah adopted Hosea's theme of covenant unfaithfulness and expanded it in eloquent and passionate ways as the principal diagnosis of Israel's sinfulness. He charged that the unfaithfulness reached back to the beginning of his people's life in their land and had affected their very character. Only a total and radical repentance could renew their relation with the Lord. Failing that, the very character of the people would have to be transformed in a disastrous punishment that would create the conditions for a restoration that broke with the continuities of the past. The instrument of the Lord for judgment would be a foe from the north, a role filled by the new Babylonian Empire. Jeremiah persisted in his message in the face of royal opposition, persecution, imprisonment, while the terrible threat of his prophecy was being realized in the fall of the city, the exile of one king and the blinding of another, and a series of deportations of much of the population to a life of exile in Babylon.

During the climactic times of Babylon's invasion of Judah, another prophet named Habakkuk wrestled with the question of God's righteousness in using a wicked pagan nation as instrument of the divine purpose.

In the first group of Judeans exiled to Babylon there was a priest named Ezekiel who received in Babylon a visionary revelation of the Lord with a commission to be a prophet there. During the years that Babylon permitted Judah to exist as a vassal state, Ezekiel continually proclaimed that the Lord's punishment was not complete. When Judah rebelled and Jerusalem was subjected to a long and torturous siege, Ezekiel predicted its defeat and destruction. When news reached the exiles that Jerusalem had fallen, he began to foretell a restoration of the people of God to a new life around a rebuilt Jerusalem and temple.

THE PERSIAN PERIOD. In the middle of the sixth century B.C.E., the armies of the expanding Persian Empire swept to the west and south, over-whelming the nations in these regions and bringing a new policy of benevolence toward subject peoples. Concurrently, an unnamed prophet among the exiles in Babylon, whose sayings are preserved in chs. 40–55 of Isaiah, announced the end of the era of punishment and the beginning of the time of salvation. He proclaimed that the sovereignty of Israel's God would be revealed in a recapitulation of the exodus and wilderness journey that would conclude in a return of the exiles to Zion. His oracles portrayed the life of the restored community as a glorious existence of righteousness and blessing.

When Babylon was subdued by the Persian King Cyrus, he encouraged the displaced populations to return to their native lands and build religious and political communities under the Persian administration. Groups of Judeans began to return, but the conditions they found and the life they lived were in sorry contrast to the future portrayed by Ezekiel and the author of Isaiah 40–55 . The oracles in Isaiah 56–66 are the sayings of a prophet who in those days looked for yet another judgment of God to bring about the righteous restoration that the residents of Jerusalem had failed to realize.

In the reconstructed community, the rebuilding of the ruined temple was a particularly important project. The prophets Haggai and Zechariah (chs. 1–8 ) linked the completion of the temple to the well-being of the community and announced encouraging visions of the future of the Judean people in the Lord's rule over human affairs.

The prophecies found in the books of Malachi, Joel, and Zechariah 9–14 probably belong to later times in the Persian era in the fifth century. In the sayings in these books, prophets continue to judge the life of the community by the standards of the Lord's will and to point to a divine intervention to set things right in Judah and the world. The prophecies in these books seem to represent the inconclusive conclusion of canonical prophecy. The canonical prophets had raised expectations of righteousness in their community and of fulfillment of the Lord's way in history that could not be realized in proximate and penultimate conditions and times. The way was open to another form of revelation, that of apocalyptic.

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