The major prophets in the Old Testament of the Bible refer to the books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel (in chronological order). They are major because of the scope and size of these books. Prophets were like the best man or maid of honour at a wedding. Prophets were witnesses to the original vows in the covenant between God and Israel, and they called Israel to turn away from covenant disloyalty in idolatry and injustice in human relations.

The early prophets did not write down their messages. Later, a breaking point was reached in the covenant relationship between God and Israel. God would be faithful to his threats spelled out in the covenant and send the people away into exile. Fortunately, judgement was not the final word. God planned to restore his people after exile. There would be a new covenant between God and his people and this time, humans would be enabled to be faithful to the covenant relationship (Jer 31). This plan had to be written down so that future generations of Israel would understand the circumstances of exile and the process of restoration.

Predictive Prophecy

Books like Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel contain predictions of the future for specific reasons. First, prediction of the future distinguished Yah­weh from the idols worshiped by the nations surrounding Israel and by faithless Israelites. We can boil down and summarize the cove­nant relationship between Israel and Yahweh in two requirements: (1) love God, and (2) love your neighbour as yourself. Israel’s covenant violation was proven from idola­try (worship of other gods) and social injustice (a culture in society people take advantage of others). Isaiah seeks to discredit the idols worshipped by Israel by proving that they are not gods. This is the focus of Isaiah 40–48. There is only one test that proves deity and that is the ability to predict and to determine the future. This test remains true today. No advances in our society in science and technology have enabled us to predict the future. This is why The Weather Channel is the most watched television channel in America. Only God can predict and control the future.

Prophetic predictions are given according to a method that is sound, or even scientific, so to speak. How does this work? Normally a prophet makes predictions of events to happen in the near future. When these predictions come true, then the prophet is given validation in his community that he is speaking for Yahweh and is a true prophet. Therefore, when this same prophet speaks about events to happen in the distant future, or at some unknown or unspecified point in the future, his hearers will believe that he is indeed speaking for Yahweh, and Yahweh will be attested as the one and only true God against all rivals.

In earlier parts of Isaiah, the prophet gives predictions of things that would happen shortly. He predicts the coming of the Assyrians to bring destruction upon Judah as a form of divine judgement. Isaiah describes the attack like a big river in flood (Isa 8:7–8). He says the flood will come only to the neck. This means that God will preserve Jerusalem. In chapters 36–37, a messenger of Yahweh destroys 185,000 Assyrian soldiers and Sennacherib goes home without complete victory. This validates Isaiah as a true prophet in the eyes of his contemporaries. So, when we later read that not only will Israel be exiled from their homeland as the agreed upon punishment for covenant violation but that someone named Cyrus would later release the people of Judah from captivity, Isaiah’s hearers should believe both predictions, although one concerns the more distant future.

Just as God foretold to Abraham the enslavement in Egypt and subsequent Exodus from Egypt four hundred years later (Gen 15:13–16), so now he is announcing a bigger and better event: his people will be exiled in Babylon and later released with Jerusalem and the Temple being rebuilt. This prediction is astounding! The superpowers of Isaiah’s world were Assyria-Babylonia in the east and Egypt in the west. Cyrus was from Persia, a land of no significance at that time. Today the superpowers are China and the USA. Isaiah’s prophecy would be like pre­dicting a deliverer will come from Liechtenstein, a country of no international signifi­cance. This prediction was announced by Isaiah and written down by him so that later, people could see that Yahweh both knows and determines the future—He alone is God as Isaiah 46:9 concludes.

Second, prediction of the future was necessary to explain the exile. Without the messages of the prophets the people might have concluded that the gods of the nations were more powerful than Yahweh, resulting in his people being captured and exiled by nations who served these more powerful gods.

Third, the prediction of the future shows that the plan of deliverance requires time. Isaiah shows that the return of the people to a right relationship to Yahweh would happen in two stages. First the people would be released from physical exile in Babylon. Second, the people would be released from spiritual exile and slavery to sin. The first return, physical release from Babylon, would take seventy years according to Jeremiah. For 490 years the people had neglected to give the land its sabbaticals, and so they would be exiled, and the land would have its rest. Then it would take another seventy sabbaticals (490 years) to deal with their rebellion and sin and incorrigible covenant disloyalty (Dan 9). Finally, with the coming of the Messiah, Yahweh would circumcise their hearts and make a new covenant in which not only would he be faithful, but his people would be faithful too. They would receive the forgiveness of sins. The temple would be rebuilt, and God would once more return to live amidst his people as King. If the messages of the prophets were written down, these predictions would be their comfort and encouragement during the long weary years while God worked out his purposes and plan of salvation.

Fourthly, pre­diction of the future demon­strates the sovereignty of Yahweh over the nations. Not only do the people of Judah need to see it demonstrated and proven that Yahweh knows and predicts the future, but the nations need to see this. The Assyrians, for example, must conclude it was not their military might and strategy that brought the downfall of Israel. Rather, Israel’s destruction was due solely to Israel’s sin and covenant violation. Assyria was just an instrument in the hands of a God who is sovereign over all the nations. The nations must believe that Yahweh is the only true God, that the gods worshipped by the various nations are really just no-names and nothings. This explains the long passages in the prophets dealing with foreign nations surrounding Israel.

Fifthly, prediction of the future proves the trustworthiness of the word of Yah­weh. Hence his people should be­lieve his promises and his threats in the cove­nant. The entire section of Isaiah from chapters 28–37 is all about whether the people will believe and trust the word of Yahweh. The covenant is like a marriage relationship. How can two peo­ple continue in an intimate relationship of love when one person does not believe or trust what the other person says? This is the complete breakdown of such a relation­ship. Only when the people come to believe and rely upon the word of Yahweh, no matter how unlikely it may seem (a deliverer will come from Liechtenstein!), can God and Israel have a covenant relationship of love, faithfulness and loyalty, obedience and trust. The prophets wrote down their messages as proof of the reliability of the word of Yahweh for later generations who would eventually be part of the renewal of the covenant relationship.

Literary Overview


The pattern of Hebrew literature is to consider topics in a recursive manner, which means that a topic is progressively repeated. Isaiah goes around his topic seven times as follows:

I. The Judgement and Transformation of Zion: Part 1 (1:2–2:4)

A. Lawsuit Against Yahweh’s Unfaithful Covenant Partner (1:2–31)

B. A Vision of the Future, Restored and Transformed Zion (2:1–4)

II. The Judgement and Transformation of Zion: Part 2 (2:5–4:6)

III. The Judgement of the Vineyard and the Coming King (5:1–12:6)

IV. The City of Man versus the City of God (13:1–27:13)

V. Trusting the Nations versus Trusting the Word of Yahweh (28:1–37:38)

VI. Comfort and Redemption for Zion and the World (38:1–55:13)

VII. The Servants of Yahweh and the New Creation (56:1–66:24)

The first section introduces the charge of covenant disloyalty, and after Isaiah des­cribes how the disloyalty will be dealt with by divine justice, he ends with a glorious vision of a future, renewed Zion in chapter 2:1–4, where all the nations come to Zion to receive instruction from Yahweh on how to live.

From 2:5 through 4:6, Isaiah details a second time the lack of social justice and the process of judgement and restoration planned by Yahweh. Again, this section ends with a glorious vision of the future Zion.

The third section runs from Isaiah 5 through 12 and begins to expand on the themes a third time in the context of a complicated crisis in which tiny Judah is caught between the pincers of a threat of attack by Assyria, on the one hand, and the threat of an anti-Assyrian coalition, on the other. The crux of this crisis is the bad leadership provided by the incum­bent Davidic kings Ahaz and Hezekiah. This section also ends with a description of a rebuilt Zion, focusing on a future king and a second exodus (i.e., deliverance from exile), giving us a glorious vision of the future.

In this section, chapters 5–12, a central component in the plot structure is intro­duced. We have a tale of two kings: Ahaz and Hezekiah. Contrary to what many scholars think, this king theme carries all the way through to the end of the book. Later, the sixth section is introduced by chapters 38 and 39, which deal with Hezekiah as an introduction to chapters 40–55, with its focus on the servant king; and the conquering/saving king also is predominant in chapters 55–66 at the centre of the final section in 61:1–63:6.

While the focus in the third section is on Judah and Jerusalem, the fourth section deals with the topic of the nations and their relationship to Zion. According to the Abra­hamic covenant, only by seeking refuge in Zion and its king can the people hope to escape divine judgement as well.

The fifth section ties together the previous two sections by focusing on whether people, either those in Judah or those in the nations outside, are trusting in themselves, their own military technology and political strategies, or whether they are simply trusting in Yahweh, the true king of Zion. Again, like the fourth section, which ends with a big banquet on a mountain where death is banished forever, the fifth section ends with the desert, brought about by trusting in humans, becoming a beautiful new Eden as those redeemed by Yahweh travel to it.

The sixth section, chapters 38–55, describes in detail the means and method by which God will bring deliverance to the tiny group remaining who believe and rely solely on his Word. God will use Cyrus as his servant to bring his people out of exile in Babylon, and a future king—a mysterious “servant” of Yahweh—will bring Yahweh’s people out of exile in terms of their relationship to him.

The last section, chapters 56–66, returns to the corruption of the present Zion and details the true servants of the Lord as they move toward a brand-new heaven and earth in chapter 65. With the analysis of details, it is important not to lose sight of the larger story.


About 80 years later, Jeremiah continues the ministry of Isaiah. Jeremiah warns that the Babylonians are coming and judgement is inevitable.

Superscription (1:1–3)

I. Call of Jeremiah and Early Visions (1:4–19)

II. Judgement on Judah and Jerusalem (2–25)

A. Israel’s Guilt and Punishment (2–6)

B. Jeremiah’s Temple Sermon (7–10)

C. Warnings and Judgement (11–15:9)

D. Confessions, Symbolic Acts, and Preaching (15:10–25:38)

III. Jeremiah’s Controversy with False Prophets (26–29)

IV. Book of Consolation (30–33)

V. Days of Jehoiakim and Zedekiah (34–39)

VI. Jeremiah’s Experiences After Fall of Jerusalem (40–45)

VII. Oracles Concerning the Nations (46–51)

Appendix: Fall of Jerusalem (52)

In Jeremiah 7–10 we have his famous Temple Sermon: Do not trust in deceptive words and say, “This is the tem­ple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord!” (NIV). The threefold repetition is the strongest form of emphasis possible. Jeremiah is saying, “You can’t live as you please and then treat the temple like a good luck charm or rabbit’s foot.” The people thought they would always be protected as long as God was dwelling among them. Jeremiah’s message was that covenant violation meant that God would be true to his threats and bring upon his people the curse of exile (Deut 28). Most important­ly, he could no longer live among them as their behaviour and lifestyle contra­dicted his own character as expressed in the Torah.


Ezekiel carries the “Temple Sermon” of Jeremiah one step further. The opening vision shows the bright cloud, the glory of the Lord, in motion and the divine throne on wheels. Why? Because God is getting ready to move out! God is surrounded by social injustice and idolatry, and he can no longer live there. This message must have come as an awful shock to the people of Judah. In Ezekiel 8–11 the opening vision is developed further, and the glory cloud begins to move from the temple to the Eastern Gate. Finally, the glory of the Lord departs from the City of God. The City of God can no longer be the City of God when God is no longer there. A brief con­sideration of the structure and shape of Ezekiel’s book shows the development and resolution of this problem.

I. Opening Vision and Call of Ezekiel (1:1–3:15)

II. Ezekiel’s Role and Message (3:16–7:27)

III. The Glory of the Lord Leaves the Temple (8–11)

IV. The Exile Symbolised (12–24)

V. Oracles Against the Foreign Nations (25–32)

VI. Divine Leadership and Restoration (33–36)

VII. The Valley of Dry Bones (37–39)

VIII. Worshipping God in the New Creation (40–48)

The opening vision portrays the glory of the Lord in motion because God is getting ready to move out. The second section (3:16–7:27) presents Ezekiel’s message and role. Like all the prophets, he employs every means and method of communication to get through to the people: because of idolatry in rela­tion to God and social injustice in relation to others they have broken the covenant and the curse of exile is upon them. This is communicated through preaching, but also through symbolic dramas. In 4:1–3 Ezekiel is commanded to draw a diagram of the coming siege of Jerusalem on a brick and act out the attack of the Babylonians. He holds an iron pan between himself and the city to show that the prayers of the people will not get through to God. Again, in 4:4–8 he is commanded to lie on one side for 390 days for the sin of Israel and on the other side for 40 days for the sin of Judah. The sum is 430 days which represents the period of bondage in Egypt. Just as Isaiah and Jeremiah had foretold a future salvation describing it as a new Exodus, so Ezekiel indi­cates another “Egyptian bondage” before the new Exodus occurs. This is similar to Daniel’s vision of Seventy Weeks (Dan 9:24). The exile may be over in seventy years according to the prophecy of Jeremiah (25:1–11) but it will take a lot longer to deal effectively with sin and restore the broken covenant relationship with God. Unfortunately, the people did not heed Ezekiel’s message. According to Ezekiel 33:32, the prophet was viewed only as an entertainer singing songs with a beautiful voice.

Chapters 8–11 constitute a second vision in which the glory of the Lord de­parts from the Temple. This is followed by further messages to Judah in chapters 12–23, largely via symbolic dramas, to communicate the coming judgement and exile. So much of prophetic literature communicates by means of colourful metaphors and symbols.

Chapters 25–32 constitute oracles against foreign nations. Such oracles are in­cluded in all the major prophets because of the programme laid out in Deuteronomy 32. The covenant violation of Israel will bring the curse of exile. At first God plans to completely erase his people (Deut 32:26). But he fears the taunt of the foreign nations (Deut 32:27). The foreign nations will conclude that they have defeated Israel by their own gods and prowess instead of realizing that God allowed them to conquer Israel only because of her sins. So, the nations must be punished for their arrogance and idola­trous worldview and for their harsh treatment of the people of God.

Then in Ezekiel chapters 33–36, Israel will be given new leadership in the form of a new David—the Messiah. There will be a new covenant to renew the relationship with God and his people that will deal effectively with hearts stubbornly bent on sin (36:24–32). This is followed by an announcement of return from exile described in terms of resurrec­tion from the dead. The vision of the Valley of Dry Bones uses resurrection as a metaphor to portray return from exile.

The book concludes in chapters 40–48 with a vision of a renewed temple and God dwelling amidst his people once more in a healed land. The conclusion of the book is extremely powerful: the Lord is there. The glory of the Lord has re­turned to the Temple. God is once more dwelling amidst his people as King. Thus, restora­tion involves the rebuilding of the Davidic house in both its meanings in 2 Samuel 7—the dynasty of David and the temple.

Further Reading

Peter J. Gentry, How to Read and Understand the Biblical Prophets (Wheaton: Crossway, 2017). See an Author Interview here.

Jason S. DeRouchie, ed. What the Old Testament Authors Really Cared About: A Survey of Jesus’ Bible (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2013).