Open main menu
This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.

circumstances of the national life, the truths which in a more germinal form they had inherited from their ancestors. The nature and attributes of God; His gracious purposes towards man; the relation of man to God, with the practical consequences that follow from it; the true nature of religious service; the call to repentance as the condition of God’s favour; the ideal of character and action which each man should set before himself; human duty under its various aspects; the responsibilities of office and position; the claims of mercy and philanthropy, justice and integrity; indignation against the oppression of the weak and the unprotected; ideals of a blissful future, when the troubles of the present will be over, and men will bask in the enjoyment of righteousness and felicity,—these, and such as these, are the themes which are ever in the prophets’ mouths, and on which they enlarge with unwearying eloquence and power.

For the more special characteristics of the individual prophets, reference must be made to the separate articles devoted to each; it is impossible to do more here than summarize briefly the literary structure of their various books.

Isaiah.—The book of Isaiah falls into two clearly distinguished parts, viz. chs. i.-xxxix., and xl.-lxvi. Chs. xl.-lxvi., however, are not by Isaiah, but are the work of a prophet who wrote about 540 B.C., shortly before the conquest of Babylon by Cyrus, and whose aim was to encourage the Israelites in exile, and assure them of the certainty of their approaching restoration to Canaan. (According to many recent critics, this prophet wrote only chs. xl.-lv., chs. lvi.-lxvi. being added subsequently, some time after the return.) The genuine prophecies of Isaiah are contained in chs. i.-xii., xiv. 24-xxiii., xxviii.-xxxiii., xxxvii. 22-32,—all written between 740 and 700 B.C. (or a little later), and all (except ch. vi.) having reference to the condition of Judah and Israel, and the movements of the Assyrians during the reigns of Ahaz and Hezekiah. The opinion has, however, latterly gained ground that parts even of these chapters are of later origin than Isaiah’s own time. Of the rest of chs. i.-xxxix. this is generally admitted. Thus chs. xiii. 1-xiv. 23, xxi. 1-10, xxxiv.-xxxv. belong to the same age as chs. xl.-lxvi., xiii. 1-xiv. 23, and xxi. 1-10, looking forward similarly to the approaching fall of Babylon; chs. xxiv.-xxvii. have a character of their own, and form an apocalypse written not earlier than the 5th century B.C.; chs. xxxvi.-xxxix., describing incidents in which Isaiah took a part, consist of narratives excerpted from 2 Kings xviii. 13-xx. with the addition of Hezekiah’s song (xxxviii. 9-20). It is evident from these facts that the book of Isaiah did not assume its present form till considerably after the return of the Jews from exile in 537, when a compiler, or series of compilers, arranged the genuine prophecies of Isaiah which had come to his hands, together with others which at the time were attributed to Isaiah, and gave the book its present form.

Jeremiah.—Jeremiah’s first public appearance as a prophet was in the 13th year of Josiah (Jer. i. 2, xxv. 3), i.e. 626 B.C., and his latest prophecy (ch. xliv.) was delivered by him in Egypt, whither he was carried, against his will, by some of the Jews who had been left in Judah, shortly after the fall of Jerusalem in 586. Jeremiah was keenly conscious of his people’s sin; and the aim of most of his earlier prophecies is to bring his countrymen, if possible, to a better mind, in the hope that thereby the doom which he sees impending may be averted—an end which eventually he saw clearly to be unattainable. Jeremiah’s was a sensitive, tender nature; and he laments, with great pathos and emotion, his people’s sins, the ruin to which he saw his country hastening, and the trials and persecutions which his predictions of disaster frequently brought upon him. A large part of his book is biographical, describing various incidents of his ministry. Prophecies of restoration are contained in chs. xxx.-xxxiii. The prophecies of the first twenty-three years of his ministry, as we are expressly told in ch. xxxvi., were first written down in 604 B.C. by his friend and amanuensis Baruch, and the roll thus formed must have formed the nucleus of the present book. Some of the reports of Jeremiah’s prophecies, and especially the biographical narratives, also probably have Baruch for their author. But the chronological disorder of the book, and other indications, show that Baruch could not have been the compiler of the book, but that the prophecies and narratives contained in it were collected together gradually, and that it reached its present form by a succession of stages, which were not finally completed till long after Israel’s return from Babylon. The long prophecy (l. 1-li. 58), announcing the approaching fall of Babylon, is not by Jeremiah, and cannot have been written till shortly before 538 B.C.

Ezekiel.—Ezekiel was one of the captives who were carried with Jehoiachin in 597 B.C. to Babylonia, and was settled with many other exiles at a place called Tel-abib (iii. 15). His prophecies (which are regularly dated) are assigned to various years from 592 to 570 B.C. The theme of the first twenty-four chapters of his book is the impending fall of Jerusalem, which took place actually in 586, and which Ezekiel foretells in a series of prophecies, distinguished by great variety of symbolism and imagery. Chs. xxv.-xxxii. are on various foreign nations, Edom, Tyre, Egypt, &c. Prophecies of Israel’s future restoration follow in chs. xxxiii.-xlviii., chs. xl.-xlviii. being remarkable for the minuteness with which Ezekiel describes the organization of the restored community, as he would fain see it realized, including even such details as the measurements and other arrangements of the Temple, the sacrifices to be offered in it, the duties and revenues of the priests, and the redistribution of the country among the twelve tribes. The book of Ezekiel bears throughout the stamp of a single mind; the prophecies contained in it are arranged methodically; and to all appearance—in striking contrast to the books of Isaiah and Jeremiah—it received the form in which we still have it from the prophet himself.

The Twelve Minor Prophets.—These, as was stated above, were reckoned by the Jews as forming a single “book.” The two earliest of the Minor Prophets, Amos and Hosea, prophesied in the northern kingdom, at about 760 and 740 B.C. respectively; both foresaw the approaching ruin of northern Israel at the hands of the Assyrians, which took place in fact when Sargon took Samaria in 722 B.C.; and both did their best to stir their people to better things. The dates of the other Minor Prophets (in some cases approximate) are: Micah, c. 725-c. 680 B.C. (some passages perhaps later); Zephaniah, c. 625; Nahum, shortly before the destruction of Nineveh by the Manda in 607; Habakkuk (on the rise and destiny of the Chaldaean empire) 605-600; Obadiah, after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Chaldaeans in 586; Haggai, 520; Zechariah, i.-viii. (as in Haggai, promises and encouragements connected with the rebuilding of the Temple) 520 and 518; Malachi, c. 460-450; Joel, 5th century B.C.; Jonah, 4th century B.C. The latest prophecies in the book are, probably, those contained in Zech. ix.-xiv. which reflect entirely different historical conditions from Zech. i.-viii. (520 and 518 B.C.), and may be plausibly assigned to the period beginning with the conquests of Alexander the Great, between 332 and c. 300 B.C. Why these prophecies were attached to Zech. i.-viii. must remain matter of conjecture; but there are reasons for supposing that, together with the prophecy of Malachi, they came to the compiler of the “book” of the Twelve Prophets anonymously, and he simply attached them at the point which his collection had reached (i.e. at the end of Zech. viii.).

The Psalms.—The Psalter is that part of the Old Testament in which the devotional aspect of the religious character finds its completest expression; and in lyrics of exquisite tenderness and beauty the most varied emotions are poured forth by the psalmists to their God—despondency and distress, penitence and resignation, hope and confidence, jubilation and thankfulness, adoration and praise. The Psalter, it is clear from many indications, is not the work of a single compiler, but was formed gradually. A single compiler is not likely to have introduced double recensions of one and the same psalm (as Ps. liii. = Ps. xiv., Ps. lxx. = Ps. xi. 13-17, Ps. cviii. = Ps. lvii. 7-11 + lx. 5-12); in the Hebrew canon the Psalter is composed of five