To understand and rightly interpret the prophetic writings of the Old Testament it is necessary to cast aside a false impression as to the character of the prophets which is widely prevalent. They were not foretellers, but forth-tellers. Instead of being vague dreamers, in imagination living far in the distant future, they were most emphatically men of their own times, enlightened and devoted patriots, social and ethical reformers, and spiritual teachers. Their characteristic note of conviction and authority was due to the fact that, on the one hand, they knew personally and distinctly the evils and needs of their nation, and that, on the other hand, their minds and hearts, ever open to receive the truth, were in vital touch with the Infinite. Thus, just as Aaron became Moses' prophet to the people, publicly proclaiming what the great leader imparted to him in private (Ex. vii.1, 2), so the Hebrew prophets became Jehovah's heralds and ambassadors, announcing by word and life and act the divine will.
[Sidenote: Influences that led the prophets to write down their sermons]
While the historians were perfecting their histories certain prophets also were beginning to commit their sermons to writing. The oldest recorded address in the Old Testament is probably that of Amos at Bethel. His banishment from the northern kingdom under strict injunction not to prophesy there (Am. vii.10-17) may well explain why he resorted to writing to give currency to his prophetic message, though, like Paul in later days, he undoubtedly regarded writing as an inferior substitute for the spoken word. Jeremiah appears to have preached twenty years before he dictated a line to his scribe Baruch, and then it was because he could not personally speak in the temple (xxxvi.1-5). Sometimes complete sermons of the prophets are preserved, but more often we seem to have only extracts and epitomes. In some of the prophetic books, like that of Jeremiah, there are also popular reports of a prophetic address, and narrative sections, telling of the prophet's experience.
[Sidenote: The editing of the earlier prophecies]
Evidences of editing are very apparent in the earlier prophecies. Sudden interruptions, and verses or clauses, in which appear ideas and literary style very different from that of the immediate context, indicate that many of the prophecies have been supplemented by later notes, some explanatory and some hortatory. Other longer passages are intended to adjust the earlier teaching to later conditions and beliefs and so to adapt them to universal human needs that they are not limited to the hour and occasion of their first delivery. Some of these passages come from the hands of disciples of the prophets and often contain valuable additional data; others are from later prophetic editors and scribes. A detailed comparison, for example, of the Hebrew and Greek versions of Jeremiah quickly discloses wide variations of words, verses, and even long passages, added in one or the other text by later hands. All these additions testify to the deep interest felt by later generations in the earlier writings, even before they were assigned a final place in the canon. It is one of the important tasks of biblical scholars to distinguish the original from the additions and thus determine what were the teachings of each prophet and what are the contributions of later generations.
[Sidenote: The background of Isaiah xl.-lv.]
Many of the later additions possess a value and authority entirely independent of that possessed by the prophet with whose writings they have been joined by their original authors or later editors. Thus the sublime chapters appended to the original sermons of Isaiah contain some of the noblest teachings in the Old Testament. The different themes and literary style; the frequent references to the Babylonians, not as distant allies, as in the days of Isaiah the son of Amoz, but as the hated oppressors of the Jews; the evidence that the prophet's readers are not exiles far from Judah; the many allusions to the conquests of Cyrus, -- all these leave little doubt that chapters xl.-lv. were written in the latter part of the Babylonian or the first of the Persian period. Interpreted in the light of this background, their thought and teachings become clear and luminous. Similarly, the varied evidence within the chapters themselves seems to indicate that Isaiah lvi.-lxvi. contain sermons directed to the struggling Jewish community in Palestine during the days following the rebuilding of the temple in 520 B.C.
[Sidenote: The order and date of the prophetic books]
The prophetic sermons, epistles, and apocalypses fall naturally into five great groups. The books prophets of the Assyrian period were Amos and Hosea, who between 750 and 734 B.C. preached to Northern Israel; also Isaiah and Micah, whose work lies between 740 and 680 B.C. Nahum's little prophecy, although much later, echoes the death-knell of the great Assyrian kingdom, which for two or three centuries dominated southwestern Asia. The prophets of Judah's decline were Zephaniah (about 628 B.C.), Jeremiah (628-690), and Habakkuk (609-605). To the same period belong Ezekiel's earlier sermons, delivered between 592 and 586, just before the final destruction of Jerusalem. The prophets of the Babylonian exile were Obadiah, whose original oracle belongs to its opening years; Ezekiel (xxv.-xlviii.), who continued to preach until 572 B.C., and the great prophet whose deathless messages ring through Isaiah xl.-lv. The prophets of the Persian period were Haggai and Zechariah, whose inspiring sermons kept alive the flagging zeal of those who rebuilt the second temple; the authors of Isaiah lvi.-lxvi.; the author of the little book of Malachi; and Joel. To this list we may perhaps add the prophet who has given us that noble protest, found in the much misunderstood book of Jonah, against the narrow and intolerant attitude of later Judaism toward foreigners.
[Sidenote: Growth of anonymous and apocalyptic literature]
With the exception of Ezekiel, Haggai, Zechariah, and Joel, all the prophecies which come from the centuries following the fall of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. are anonymous. The worship of the authority of the past had begun, and there is evidence that the belief was gaining currency that the days of the prophets were past. Hence the natural tendency to resort to anonymous authorship or else to append a later message to an earlier prophecy. Chapters ix.-xiv. of the book of Zechariah illustrate this custom, -- chapters which apparently come from the last Old Testament period, the Greek or Maccabean. The habit of presenting prophetic truth in the highly figurative, symbolic form, of the apocalypse also became prominent in later Judaism. This has already been noted in the study of the growth of the New Testament, and is illustrated by the book of Revelation. It was especially adapted to periods of religious persecution, for it enabled the prophet to convey his message of encouragement and consolation in language impressive and clear to his people, yet unintelligible to their foreign masters.
[Sidenote: The historical background of the book of Daniel]
To the mind of one who has carefully studied the book of Daniel in the light of the great crisis that came to the Jews as a result of the relentless persecutions of Antiochus Epiphanes, between the years 169 and 165 B.C., there remains little doubt that it is in this period the wonderful apocalypse finds its true setting and interpretation. The familiar examples of the heroic fidelity of Daniel and his friends to the demands of their religion and ritual were supremely well adapted to arouse a similar resistance toward the demands of a tyrant who was attempting to stamp out the Jewish, religion and transform the chosen people into a race of apostates. The visions found in the book trace rapidly, in succession, the history of the Babylonian, Median, Persian, and, last of all, the Greek kingdoms. The culmination is a minute description of the character and reign, of the tyrant Antiochus Epiphanes (xi.21-45). He is clearly the little horn of chapter viii. But suddenly, in the midst of the account of the persecutions, the descriptions become vague and general. Nor is there any reference to the success of the Maccabean uprising; instead, the prediction is made that Jehovah himself will soon come to establish his Messiah's kingdom.
[Sidenote: Date of the book]
The inference is, therefore, that the prophecy was written a short time before the rededication of the temple in 165 B.C. This conclusion is confirmed by many other indications. For example the language, in part Aramaic, is that of the Greek period. The mistakes regarding the final overthrow of the Babylonian empire, which was by Cyrus, not Darius, and brought about not by strategy, but as a result of the voluntary submission of the Babylonians, are identical with the errors current in Greek tradition of the same late period. Here, as in the early narratives of Genesis, a true prophet has utilized earlier stories as effective illustrations. He has also given in the common apocalyptic form an interpretation of the preceding four centuries of human history, and showed how through it all God's purpose was being realized, The book concludes with the firm assurance that those who now prove faithful are to be richly rewarded and to have a part in Ms coming Messianic kingdom.
[Sidenote: The common motive actuating the prophets and the authors of the New Testament]
Thus, from the minds of the prophets come the earliest writings of the Old Testament. They consist of exhortations, warnings, messages of encouragement, or else stories intended to illustrate a religious principle or to present, in concrete form, a prophetic ideal. The fundamental motive which produced them all was identical with that which led the disciples and apostles to write the Gospels and Epistles of the New. In the case of the historico-prophetic writings, like Samuel and Kings, the desire to inspire and mould the minds and wills of their readers was combined with the desire to preserve in permanent form a record of the events which, in their national history, revealed most clearly Jehovah's character and purpose. In this respect they correspond perfectly to the Gospels and Acts of the New Testament. It is easy to see, therefore, that kindred aims and ideals actuated these unknown prophetic writers and their later successors, Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Their literary products differ only because their subject-matter is different. The one group records Jehovah's revelation of himself through the life of the Messianic nation, the other through the life of the perfect Messiah.
[Sidenote: The New Testament the sequel of the prophetic writings]
It is interesting to note, in conclusion, that from the point of view of the Old, all the literature of the New may be designated as prophetic. The three distinct groups of writings found in the New, namely, the Gospels and Acts, the Epistles, and the Apocalypse, correspond exactly to the three types of prophetic literature found in the Old: the historico-prophetical writings, direct written prophecies, and apocalypses. If the final canon of the Old Testament had been completed before the days of Josiah, there is every reason to believe that it also would have contained little beside prophetic writings. In divine providence it was not closed until seven centuries later, so that, as it has come to us, it is a comprehensive library, representing every stage and every side of Israel's development. It is, however, in perfect keeping with the spirit of the Master that the New Testament should contain significant facts and broad principles rather than detailed laws or even the songs of worship. He whose ideals, teachings, and methods were in closest harmony with those of the Hebrew prophets, naturally begat, through his immediate followers, a group of distinctively prophetic writings.