At a time when the Bible was not yet complete, the Old Testament prophets communicated God’s messages to His people. Whenever a prophet appeared, it usually signified a moral failure on the part of Israel and their king. The Old Testament prophet’s role was to warn the people of the judgment that would follow their disobedience and teach them how to live during times of crisis and calm.
Some prophets, like Elijah, were oral, meaning we do not have any writings attributed to them. Other prophets, like Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Daniel, recorded their messages, and the Bible contains their texts. In today’s study, we will examine the books written by Old Testament prophets, noting their historical background, prophetic themes, and key verse.
The Prophet Isaiah
The Prophet Jeremiah
The Prophet Ezekiel
The Prophet Daniel
The Minor Prophets
The Prophet Hosea
The Prophet Jonah
What Can We Learn From the Old Testament Prophets?
The Prophet Isaiah
Prophetic Theme: Keep Your Chin Up! God Is in Control
The everlasting God, the Lord, the Creator of the ends of the earth, neither faints nor is weary. His understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the weak, and to those who have no might He increases strength.
Isaiah marks the beginning of the Old Testament prophetic books. After beginning his ministry around 740 B.C., the prophet witnessed the final years of the Northern Kingdom of Israel and warned Judah of a similar judgment. The last part of Isaiah speaks to the future exiles and contains some of the most comforting passages in the Bible. Isaiah portrays God as both our Majestic Lord and our Suffering Servant—the Source of our strength.
It’s a natural law that we can only give away what we possess. And because God is strong, He can give strength to the weak. The key verse contains a veritable list of the attributes of God. He is eternal, sovereign, omnipotent, immutable, omniscient, merciful, and gracious. He is more than sufficient to impart power and strength to us. His strength empowers us to soar—to rise above the busyness and noise of life on earth and live with peace and contentment. But to draw on His power, we must wait upon Him.
Having predicted the Babylonian captivity in chapter 39, Isaiah wrote chapters 40–66 to the future exiles. In the face of an uncertain future, they would need to have faith in God’s sovereignty and His plan of redemption. It would require their confession and spiritual renewal, but Isaiah predicted that God would deliver His people from Babylon and, more importantly, the tyranny of sin.
When we most need God, we find great motivation by learning to wait upon Him for strength. The problem is that most of us have been immersed in our culture for so long we don’t realize how weak we are. But as soon as we wait upon Him, we discover renewed perspective, protection, provision, and power.
The Prophet Jeremiah
Prophetic Theme: Life Is Hard, but Keep Going
I hurt with the hurt of my people. I mourn and am overcome with grief.
Jeremiah 8:21, NLT
The Old Testament prophet Jeremiah ministered during the last forty years of Judah’s history, from the thirteenth year of King Josiah to the destruction of the nation. In my estimation, he is the loneliest man to walk through the pages of the Old Testament. His loneliness and depression stemmed from the spiritual decline of his country.
It became increasingly apparent to Jeremiah that his preaching was going unheeded. It got to the point that he felt like keeping his mouth shut and not continuing to minister. But he couldn’t do it, for the Word of God was “in his bones.” He just had to let it out. God’s message demanded to be heard. As Paul put it in the New Testament, “Woe is me if I do not preach the gospel!” (1 Corinthians 9:16)
Jeremiah wanted out of his job, but he couldn’t leave it. There was something greater than himself driving him forward. He knew that God had called him to preach repentance to Israel. God had implanted His Word within Jeremiah and installed him as a prophet. No matter how much he wanted to get away from the ministry, he had to continue because God gave him the task.
Have you ever read about Jeremiah’s call? God told him, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you; before you were born I sanctified you; I ordained you a prophet to the nations…. For you shall go to all to whom I send you, and whatever I command you, you shall speak” (Jeremiah 1:5, 7). Notice the prominence of the perpendicular pronoun “I”: I formed you… I knew you… I sanctified you… I ordained you… I command you.” Jeremiah knew he wasn’t in Israel by his design; he was there because God had placed him there.
No one is exempt from experiencing circumstances that lead to discouragement. It can be tempting to insulate or isolate ourselves, but we can keep discouragement from turning to despair with preparation. Conviction, confidence, and commitment encourage steadfastness in life.
The Book of Lamentations
Likely Author: Jeremiah
Prophetic Theme: No Matter What, God Is Faithful
Through the Lord’s mercies we are not consumed, because His compassions fail not. They are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness.
Jerusalem had been under siege for eighteen months. Cut off from any outside provisions, the people were dying of starvation and thirst. It got so bad that people killed and ate their children to stay alive (Lamentations 4:10). Amid this devastation, Jeremiah wrote the book of Lamentations.
It must have been horrible for a godly prophet to watch God’s judgment fall on Jerusalem. Yet, Lamentations holds one of the key verses on God’s faithfulness in the Bible. Jeremiah remembered God’s faithfulness, and it gave him hope!
As he penned the words, “Morning by morning new mercies I see,” all Jeremiah could see with his eyes was devastation. But with the eyes of faith, he could see God’s faithfulness. Often in life, we will see with our physical eyes only that which appears to confound our perception of who God is. Like Jeremiah, we need eyes of faith to see beyond our circumstances.
Life is filled with challenges seen and unseen. The only way we will be able to get through them is if we depend on the faithfulness of God. His constancy becomes a source of courage to all who trust in Him. We need to do what Jeremiah did: remember God’s faithfulness and how He has delivered His people, including us, in the past.
God’s faithfulness is at the core of His revelation in Scripture. In the Old Testament, “faithful” comes from the Hebrew root aman, from which we get our word amen. The root meant “to confirm, support,” and amen means “so be it.” Every one of God’s promises is “amen,” confirmed and sure.
In a world where people often break promises as quickly as they make them, there is still One whose word is His bond. He is trustworthy and faithful in all things, and He does not change by time or circumstance. Part of God’s character is His faithfulness, and we worship Him for it.
The Prophet Ezekiel
Prophetic Theme: When God Closes a Door, He Opens Another
I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.
We often need fresh starts after enduring disappointments. As a young man, Ezekiel dedicated himself to becoming a priest when he turned thirty. But when he was about 25, Ezekiel was seized and taken to Babylon, and he never saw the temple again. When his thirtieth birthday came, he must have struggled with questions of “why” and “if only.”
That’s when God appeared to him as he was among the exiles by the Kebar River. Ezekiel looked up and saw remarkable visions of God—the throne of God surrounded by angelic beings. Amid the strange and apocalyptic vision described in Ezekiel 1, God called the thirty-year-old exile to be a mighty Old Testament prophet. Ezekiel’s later years were far from what he envisioned as a young man, but God gave him a vision that stretched to the end of the earth’s days.
O. S. Hawkins wrote, “While God used Jeremiah to warn the people of Jerusalem of their coming destruction, He used Ezekiel to be His prophetic voice during their days of exile in Babylonian captivity. Along with Daniel and Revelation, the book of Ezekiel contains visions, dreams, symbolism, allegories, prophecies, and parables. God spoke through the various visions of Ezekiel to remind His people that even though they were far from their Holy City, they were still subject to God’s laws and statutes. Ezekiel thundered forth message after message of warnings to God’s people, but he wrapped each of them in a ribbon of hope.”1
To this day, the book of Ezekiel adds tremendously to our understanding of the present and the future. It tells us that God has a vision for our future even when we feel like exiles in a land of failure. Circumstances cannot and should not keep us from speaking God’s words to our generation. If one door closes, it’s because God intends to open another.
The Prophet Daniel
Prophetic Theme: The Most High Rules Over the Affairs of Men
He [God] changes the times and the seasons; He removes kings and raises up kings; He gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to those who have understanding.
More than 2,500 years ago, Daniel stood in front of King Nebuchadnezzar, the most powerful ruler in the world, and delivered a panoramic overview of world history—from his own time until the Second Coming of Israel’s Messiah, Jesus Christ.
Daniel’s prophetic presentations centered on two dreams. One was a dream of Nebuchadnezzar that Daniel interpreted (Daniel 2), and the other was Daniel’s own dream (Daniel 7). While we will focus our study on the king’s dream, both visions had the same purpose: to communicate God’s plan for elevating His Kingdom over all the kingdoms of the earth.
In his dream, Nebuchadnezzar envisioned an enormous statue with five sections, each representing an empire that would rule the world before Christ’s millennial reign. The statue’s golden head signified Babylon. The silver breast and arms depicted Medo-Persia, and the belly and thighs of bronze represented Greece. Its iron legs symbolized Rome.
History confirms each of these kingdoms succeeded each other just as Nebuchadnezzar’s dream predicted. Still, the final empire—the feet of iron and clay—remains in the future as a revived version of the Roman Empire. Iron indicates strength, while clay suggests the subjective will of the people involved. Many people groups will unite under ten leaders or powers, with one individual holding ultimate authority.
We refer to this ruler as the Antichrist. He will rise as the leader of the revived Roman Empire and oppose the God of heaven and His people. While we may not be able to imagine why hundreds of millions of people would submit themselves to a “devil” of a man, the Scriptures say it will happen. The coming Tribulation will be like nothing the world has ever seen, so we have to imagine the reality of people doing things to save themselves that they might otherwise never have done. That includes submitting to a ruler who promises to deliver them from God’s judgment.
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The Minor Prophets
Prophetic Theme: Rebellion and Redemption
Return to Me, and I will return to you.
Often overlooked, the minor prophets contain critical insights into God’s relationship with His people. They illustrate God’s enduring love and commitment to redeem those who call on His name.
Like us, the people of that day struggled to place God first in their lives. Even within the faith community, the rich marginalized the poor. Worship was hollow. They postponed rebuilding the temple, God’s dwelling place, to improve their homes. Time and again, the Lord’s work languished as the people pursued selfish desires.
Through all this, the Old Testament prophets portray God beckoning His people back. He met each act of rebellion with an invitation to redemption and restoration. When we understand how imperfectly the Old Testament believers followed God, we discover the depths of God’s grace for our failures. He does not hold our falls against us forever. There is a future after falling.
Grace provides something we don’t deserve—forgiveness, a fresh start, and renewed hope. This forgiveness also involves mercy—not giving us the judgment and wrath we deserve. The past is over when it comes to the forgiveness of our sins.
God’s grace and mercy are indeed greater than all our sins. No matter who you are or what you’ve done, God’s grace buries your past and opens the door to a future of hope and blessing if you receive His grace in your life today.
The Prophet Hosea
Prophetic Theme: God Will Never Divorce His People
I will betroth you to Me forever; yes, I will betroth you to Me in righteousness and justice, in lovingkindness and mercy; I will betroth you to Me in faithfulness, and you shall know the Lord.
Hosea prophesied to the ten northern tribes of Israel just before they were carried into captivity by Assyria in 722 B.C. It was a time of great prosperity but also of materialism and idolatry. The theme of his prophecy was spiritual infidelity; Israel had forsaken God for pagan idols.
Covenant is at the heart of marriage and our relationship with God. Meanwhile, loyalty is the fundamental characteristic of any covenant. But after 600 years of “marriage,” Israel had forsaken God, and He sent Hosea to reveal the nation’s adultery. Despite this, Hosea’s message affirmed God’s loyal love for His covenant people. Israel’s spiritual adultery would not negate His love.
To illustrate this message, God instructed Hosea to marry a woman who would become unfaithful but to whom Hosea would remain loyal. So, Hosea married Gomer, who was as disloyal to him as Israel was to God. But the prophecy didn’t end there—Hosea anticipated a day when God would heal His relationship with Israel and restore the “marriage” (Hosea 2:16, 18-19).
If God stopped loving us, He would cease to be God because He is love (1 John 4:8, 16). God didn’t stop loving Adam and Even when they sinned, Noah when he got drunk, Abraham when he lied and doubted God, Moses when he disobeyed God, David when he committed adultery and was complicit in murder, Jonah when he ran away from God’s assignment to preach in Nineveh, Peter when he denied knowing Christ. The list goes on. God doesn’t stop loving you when you sin, either. I don’t mean to suggest our sins are unimportant—they matter. And God may discipline us because of our sin, but that discipline flows from love, not anger or unforgiveness. The message of the Bible is clear from beginning to end: God loves you. He always has—He always will. And nowhere in Scripture is that truth more clearly illustrated than in the book of Hosea.
The Prophet Jonah
Prophetic Theme: A Message for the World
Should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which are more than one hundred and twenty thousand persons who cannot discern between their right hand and their left—and much livestock?
During Jeroboam II’s reign in the Northern Kingdom, Jonah’s prophecies helped Israel expand its territory and influence (2 Kings 14:25). The prophet was well known among his people and had direct access to the king. Naturally, he was reluctant to leave, especially when God’s assignment involved a heavily fortified foreign city known for its barbaric cruelty.
Not only was Jonah afraid to visit the Ninevites, but he also hated them. He would have preferred to see God’s judgment fall than help them to escape it. His mindset illustrates three errors in thinking that can interfere with our ability to reach the lost.
Jonah’s attitude was stereotypical. Jonah put every Assyrian into the same category: evil and unworthy of God’s grace. Rather than seeing a composite of individuals, he saw their collective reputation. If we want to avoid similar attitudes, we need to walk among the people in our mission field to discover their uniqueness and identify those who are tender toward the truth of God’s Word.
Jonah’s attitude was historical. Jonah could not see past the Assyrians’ cruelty. Their reputation was well earned, but he refused to imagine what they could become by the power of God’s grace. Similarly, we need to ask God to help us envision how the Gospel would transform people if His Word penetrated their hearts.
Jonah’s attitude was hateful. There was no denying the Assyrians’ reputation and history of cruelty. They were sinful people. But because these factors shaped Jonah’s perspective, he refused to have compassion for them. He compounded their wickedness with his own hatefulness. We might despise an ideology or an evil act, but we are responsible for separating the behavior from the perpetrator. We will never escape God’s presence or plan. His gifts and call on our life are irrevocable (Romans 11:29). Even if we cannot see His purpose, we can trust His direction in taking the Gospel to the nations.
What Can We Learn From the Old Testament Prophets?
The minor prophet Amos wrote, “Surely the Lord God does nothing, unless He reveals His secret to His servants the prophets” (Amos 3:7). If we want to know what God has planned for the future of our world, we need to study biblical prophecy. The Old Testament prophets, in particular, help us interpret historical events through the lens of Scripture and see God’s hand at work in our world. Jesus fulfilled more than three hundred Old Testament prophecies, and Daniel’s seventy-week prophecy provides a blueprint for world events that stretches from ancient Babylon to the end of days. Understanding prophetic themes gives us peace during troubled times and motivates us to take the Gospel to every corner of the world while there is still time.
1O. S. Hawkins, The Bible Code (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Books, 2020), 85.