11 Latter Prophets

Description: Eliyahu Ha-Navi / Elijah the Prophet To read the entire book, clickhere. Creator: Halperin, Yehiel Creator: Gur-Arie, Me'ir, 1891-1951
Eliyahu Ha-Navi / Elijah the Prophet
Halperin, Yehiel, Gur-Arie, Me’ir, 1891-1951

Israel’s Prophets: moving from the court to the nation

In the Former Prophets there are several prophets –Nathan, Elijah, Elisha–who appear and play a very important role in the building of the nation of Israel. Those prophets from the tenth and ninth centuries BCE were mostly connected with religious shrines or with a royal court.

On occasion some “professional prophets”,  or “prophets for hire” show up in the Biblical narratives, people who are completely at odds with people that the Biblical writers will view as true prophets. The true prophets are proclaiming the word of God and not just endorsing royal policy of the king at that time. And they proclaim this truth whether the king wants to hear it or not, and whether the people want to hear it or not.

But starting in about the eighth century BCE, prophets starting speaking whose words were set down in the books that now bear their names. These prophets are called the literary or classical prophets, in contrast to the prophets who are characters in the stories found through 2 Kings.


So in the Hebrew literature there are these two different sets of prophets.  One set is pretty firmly attached to a king and a court in some way.  The others are prophets who speak to the entire nation. This second set of prophets are collected together in the section called the Latter Prophets–and they have books named after them.



The Prophets, The Ateni Sioni Church is an early 7th-century Georgian Orthodox church some 10 km (6 miles) south of the city of Gori, Georgia.
The Prophets,  Ateni Sioni Church, which is an early 7th-century Georgian Orthodox church some 10 km (6 miles) south of the city of Gori, Georgia.

What does a prophet do?  And who are they?

The literary prophets, just like writers from the Deuteronomistic School, struggle to make sense of Israel’s suffering and defeat, and to come up with an explanation for why this pain happened.  They also come to deliver a message of consolation to the people.

Prophecy was widespread in the Ancient Near East, taking different forms in different societies. The primary focus of prophecy in most places was on delivering favorable oracles for kings. It was always wise to give a favorable oracle to your king!


The Hebrew word for prophet is a navi, which means one who is called, or one who announces. It indicates that a prophet is called to proclaim a message to the people, or to announce something important for God. This style of prophecy is called “apostolic prophecy.” The word “apostle” means a messenger for God.   Sometimes these types of prophets were even selected against their will.  This style of speaking and preaching is very different from other types of Ancient Near Eastern prophecy.

These apostolic prophets are represented in the Bible as an instrument of the divine will. Moses is really the first in a long line of apostolic prophets in the Bible.  In some ways, his call and reluctant agreement to speak for God serve as the model for these later prophets. In each of the books of these literary or classical prophets, there will generally be some account of their call, some kind of description of a sudden, dramatic encounter with God.


Usually the call of a prophet consists of certain basic stages or steps.

  • First comes an unexpected encounter with God. It may be a vision of some kind, or a voice that issues a summons or a calling to the potential prophet.
  • Then comes the reluctance of the individual. That was also clearly what happened with Moses–he did not want to speak for God, and suggested God talk to Aaron instead!
  • Ultimately the individual being called is overwhelmed by this divine connection and surrenders to God’s persuasiveness.

This set of steps happens in many of the prophetic books–it is the clear pattern of a prophet’s call.


An apostolic prophet does not use divination. Divination is an attempt to uncover the divine will in ritualistic ways, such as by inspecting the entrails of a sacrificed animal or shaking sticks and rods. Divination of this type, as well as sorcery, spell casting, and consulting with ghosts and spirits, are all condemned long before, according to the Deuteronomistic historian. They continue to be condemned in the Latter Prophets.

The apostolic prophet was not a fortuneteller, either. The navi, the prophet, was addressing a very specific historical situation and was addressing it in very concrete terms. He was revealing God’s immediate intentions for the people as a response to some present circumstance. The purpose of doing this was to inspire the people to change, to come back to faithful observance of the covenant. Any predictions that any prophet might make referred to their immediate future in response to the present situation. So in reality the prophet’s message was a message about the present–asking “what is wrong now, what has to be done to avert the impending doom or to avert a future calamity?”


In the south-western entrance of the Skara domkyrka these four prophets are depicted. They are: Daniel, Hezekiel, Jeremiah and Isaiah
In the south-western entrance of the Skara domkyrka these four prophets are depicted. They are: Daniel, Ezekiel, Jeremiah and Isaiah

The Roles of Prophets

In the Former Prophets, the court prophets not only anoint kings, but they also announce the kings’ fall from power. They are kingmakers and king-breakers! Another idea running through the Biblical narrative is the motif of prophetic opposition to kings. Every king had his prophetic thorn in his side.  Samuel stood against Saul.  Nathan chastised King David.  Elijah and Elisha railed against the House of Ahab.

So prophetic opposition to the monarch, being God’s watchdog over the king, is one important theme throughout the stories of the Former Prophets. And it sets the stage for us to understand the writings of the named prophetic books that will come later.

A second main role that we see prophets playing in the historical narrative shows the prophets as God’s zealots. And here again there’s a contrast between true prophets and false prophets. This is seen in those zealous Yahwists, Elijah and Elisha.  There are dramatic stories about their conflicts with the followers of the Canaanite god Baal, and the ways the Israelites might slide into Baal’s cult worship instead of staying faithful to Yahweh.


Prophet Elijah icon Date 18th century
Prophet Elijah icon 18th century, Basilian Aleppian Order

This passage is found in 1 Kings 19:9-12:

“Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 10 He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” 11 He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; 12 and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.” (NRSV)

Elijah seems to be renewed by this.  But whereas the earlier theophonies at Mount Sinai had involved earthquake, wind, and fire, the narrative here seems to be making a point of saying that God is not in the earthquake, wind, or fire. God is in the lull, in the silence after the storm.  And Elijah has to communicate this to the people–to be vigorous in representing Yahweh to the people in ways that speak the truth.  Is he zealous in the process of doing this? Yes–he battles the priests and worshippers of other gods in order to uphold Yahweh and the way of Yahweh’s law. 


Israel’s God acts in history, so God is made known to humans by those very specific acts in history.  Yahweh’s prophets have to play a part in God’s plans for the nation.  And so it is the national welfare that becomes the concern of the classical prophets that follow.



The Prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah-Trier about 1240-Bode Museum
The Prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah-Trier about 1240 CE-Bode Museum

Classical Period Prophets

The period of classical or literary prophets occupies a 320-year period from about 750 BCE until about 430 BCE.  These prophets were responding to urgent crises in the life of the Israelites and Judeans.



Think of the classical era prophets as being active during four critical periods in the history of Israel:

  • First are prophets of the Assyrian crisis, centered around the fall of Israel in 722 BCE–Amos, Hosea, Isaiah and Micah
  • Then come prophets during the time of the Babylonian conquest and destruction of Jerusalem, before and around 586 BCE–primarily Jeremiah, but also also Ezekiel
  • There are prophets working during the years that the Judeans spent in Exile in Babylon–primarily Ezekiel, but also Daniel
  • And finally come the prophets of the post-exilic or restoration community, when the Israelites are allowed to come back to Jerusalem to rebuild their community–the voices of Second Isaiah, Zechariah, Nehemiah and other minor prophets


The defeat of Israel in the north, then Judah in the south, and finally the Exile of the nation to Babylon were historical events not to be taken as evidence that God was a faithless God, who would abandon the covenant and the people of Israel. The defeat of the nations and the exile to Babylon were interpreted to affirm precisely the opposite. God, as the universal God, could use other nations as a tool to execute judgment and did this in an act of faithfulness, ultimately, to the conditions of the covenants.


Lower part of col. 18 (according to E. Tov) of the Greek Minor Prophets Scroll from Nahal Hever (8HevXII gr). The arrow points at the divine name in paleo-Hebrew script. Dated to between 50 BCE and 50 CE
Lower part of col. 18 of the Greek Minor Prophets Scroll from Nahal Hever. The arrow points at the divine name in paleo-Hebrew script. Dated to between 50 BCE and 50 CE

But the classical prophets are going to differ from the earlier prophets in two significant ways:

  • First, they are going to differ in their identification of the sins of Israel. For the classical prophets, it is not just idolatry for which Israel is punished, although that is important, it is a lack of morality.
  • And second of all, they are going to differ in their emphasis that there will be a future restoration and glory, which is not offered in the messages of the earlier prophets.


The individual books of the classical prophets are really arranged in the Bible according to two interacting principles: size and chronology. The first three books are the very large, prophetic books: Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, and they are in chronological order of the three crises of Assyria, Babylon and the Exile. This text is only going to look at four of the classical prophets:  Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, tying them to the crisis in which they prophesied.  The voices of 2nd and 3rd Isaiah will be discussed at the end of the chapter,  to describe some of what was happening with the post exilic prophecies and people.

It is no surprise that the prophetic books are a compilation of a variety of materials. The prophets’ oracles, which were delivered in various situations over a period of time, were saved and compiled, perhaps by the prophet himself, and perhaps added to by his disciples.

Many of the prophetic oracles will be introduced by the phrase “the word of Yahweh came unto prophet X.” The word of Yahweh came — it is an image of God speaking directly to these prophets in human language, which is then repeated or passed on to the listener.  But in addition to hearing the word from God, many of the prophets also see visions. So the word of the Lord comes, but in other moments the prophetic oracle will be introduced by words connected with visions. Hence the word “seer” as a designation for a prophet as well.

There are many and varied literary patterns and forms used in the prophetic works and oracles. Some of the literary forms include hymns, songs, laments,  and proverbs. An additional important literary form is called the riv, which basically means a covenant lawsuit. Many of the prophetic books feature passages in which God basically brings a lawsuit against the people, charging them with breach of covenant, breach of contract, if you will.   So the prophetic writings draw on the entire range of literary forms that were available in  literary traditions of the time, and this very often gives them a rich and varied texture.


Common themes all through the classical prophets feature the denouncing of these things:

  • Moral decay
  • Social injustice
  • Insincere piety
  • Lack of concern for the poor or needy
  • Violence against each other


These condemnations indicate that morality is far more important than the cultic practices of Israel from the past. According to the earlier prophets, Idolatry was what provoked God to drive the nation into exile. The view of the classical prophets is a little different than this. Israel’s history is determined by moral factors, they say, not just religious ritual done right.  The emphasis on the moral actions of common people is striking in these latter prophets. So it may not be so startling to hear that God would doom a generation or a nation for the grave moral sins of its individuals and groups, sins like murder and violence.


There is one other key difference between the Deuteronomistic and the Classical prophetic interpretation of Israel’s history, and that is that the Classical prophets coupled their message of tragedy and doom with a message of hope and consolation.


Here is how some of the major prophets proclaimed messages of doom– and of hope– to the people of Israel.


Prophet Amos, old Russian Orthodox icon Datefirst quarter of XVIII century Source Iconostasis of Kizhi Monastery, Russia Author 18 cen. icon painter
Prophet Amos, old Russian Orthodox icon, first quarter of 18th century. Iconostasis of Kizhi Monastery, Russia


Amos preached during a stable period in the northern kingdom, starting his work around 750 BCE under the reign of Jeroboam II. This is a time before the Assyrian threat was fully apparent. There are passages that suggest that Amos was originally a shepherd. He came from a small town about 10 miles south of Jerusalem, so clearly he was called out of the southern kingdom to go prophesy in the northern kingdom. Despite the suggestion that he was an ordinary shepherd, it seems more likely that he was an owner of land and flocks, as it was clear that he was educated and literate.  The northerners are surprised by his eloquence, but did not like his message.  Ultimately Amos was forced to go back to the southern kingdom.


Amos’ main ideas

Amos’ primary message was that sin would be punished by God, and it would be punished on a national level. When the northern kingdom then fell, it was understood to be a fulfillment of Amos’ words.  Because the outcome for the north was what Amos had said would happen, his words were preserved in southern Judah after the fact, with the epilogue of the book (added later) specifically referring to the house of David–which is more a southern ideal.  Some hope for the people of Israel was offered at the end of Amos, but it was mostly found in this editorial addition to the prophet Amos’ words of doom.

At the beginning of Amos is an introduction:

“The words of Amos, a sheep breeder from Tekoa, who prophesied concerning Israel in the reigns of kings Uzziah of Judah and Jeroboam, the son of Joash of Israel, two years before the earthquake.”

Almost all of the prophetic books are going to contain an introduction of this type starting with a third person voice and then moving into the first person with words that are supposedly the direct words of the prophet talking about his own experience. The third-person passages were probably written by disciples or others who were responsible for collecting or editing the prophet’s oracles.

One of the most famous of the oracles in Amos, one that denounces empty ritual and upholds the idea that morality is key to being faithful and obedient to God’s covenant is found in Amos 5:21-24:

“I hate, I despise your festivals,
    and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
22 Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
    I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
    I will not look upon.
23 Take away from me the noise of your songs;
    I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
24 But let justice roll down like waters,
    and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (NRSV)

This is an attack on empty piety, on the performance of rituals without any meaning, and is accompanied by Amos stating the reality of  social injustice happening at the time. This is a theme that is sounded repeatedly throughout classical prophetic literature. For Amos injustice is sacrilege. Justice is demanded.


Learning a bit more: Dr. Marcus Borg on Social Justice[1]

This is a long lecture, but focuses on Amos, the historical setting at the time of the prophet, and the historical setting at the time of Jesus.  Dr. Borg talks about how Amos impacted that era of Jesus in addition to how Amos impacted the original time period of those his prophecies.



The ideals of the covenant are also of utmost importance to Amos, harking back to those covenant obligations. Without the ideals of the covenant, the fulfillment of cultic and ritual obligations is a farce. (In other words–Follow the commandments, don’t just sacrifice sheep) The essence of God is a moral one, which is the big idea found in these prophetic writings– the idea that one strives to be god-like by acting morally, which is the idea of  imitatio dei

The prophet is claiming that the nation is doomed because of actions some might consider bad, but unfortunately rather commonplace wrongs, including bribe-taking, using false scales and false weights in the marketplace, even visiting a prostitute. Ethical living can make or break a nation!  Amos also says that these injustices are similar to ignoring the poor and ill, and that all of this is considered profane.  These are in fact the crimes for which destruction of the nation and exile will take place.

Amos 2:6- 8:

“Thus says the Lord:
For three transgressions of Israel,
    and for four, I will not revoke the punishment;
because they sell the righteous for silver,
    and the needy for a pair of sandals—
they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth,
    and push the afflicted out of the way;
father and son go in to the same girl,
    so that my holy name is profaned;
they lay themselves down beside every altar
    on garments taken in pledge;
and in the house of their God they drink
    wine bought with fines they imposed.”(NRSV)


One other characteristic in the Classical prophets is some new content and vocabulary added to older Israelite ideas about the end of days, or what is called  eschatology. The doom talked about in Amos comes from some of that vocabulary of eschatology.

God is a God of history, of all history, concerned with all nations, not only Israel, says Amos. If Israel deserves punishment, then God will raise up another nation against Israel. The final chapter in Amos begins by proclaiming this idea of the destruction of Israel. “I will slay them all”, God says, and “not one of them shall survive.”


But isn’t the covenant between the people of Israel and Yahweh a guarantee of privilege or safety?  No.


Again, for Amos, the covenant’s primary function is to bind the nation in a code of conduct, and violations of that code are going to be severely punished.

Later prophets who were speaking in a more desperate historical setting would often speak words that were focused on comfort and hope. But Amos doesn’t do this. Amos indicates that his purpose is the immediate reformation of the nation. He wants to awaken Israel to the fact that change is needed, and needed now, not later.

Amos 5:14- 15

“Seek good and not evil,
    that you may live;
and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you,
    just as you have said.
15 Hate evil and love good,
    and establish justice in the gate;
it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts,
    will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph”. (NRSV)

The overriding theme of Amos’ message is that punishment is inevitable. And this is one of the reasons that most scholars believe that the final verses of the book, verses halfway through chapter, at 9: 8-15, are a later addition by an editor. It is an epilogue, and it was likely added in order to relieve the gloom, pessimism, and fatalism of the prophet’s message, because in these verses, the “voice” of Amos does an almost complete about-face.

As the book finishes the first half of verse 8 in Chapter 9 there is this oracle of complete and devastating judgment. But then this epilogue that has been added, and it seems that an editor has desired to qualify this last oracle of doom. And so it continues, in part, to the end of the book:

“In that day,
I will set up again the fallen booth of David;
I will mend its breaches and set up its ruins anew.
I will build it firm as in the days of old,
A time is coming — declares the Lord —
When the mountains shall drip wine
And all the hills shall wave [with grain].
I will restore my people Israel.
They shall rebuild ruined cities and inhabit them;
They shall till gardens and eat their fruits.
And I will plant them upon their soil,
Nevermore to be uprooted
From the soil I have given them — said the Lord your God.”

In other words, according to this epilogue, God’s punishment of Israel isn’t the end of the story. A righteous remnant will survive and that remnant will be restored.



The Prophet Isaiah, Rafaello, fresco at Basilica of Saint Augustine, Campo Marzio 1511
The Prophet Isaiah, Rafaello, fresco at Basilica of Saint Augustine, Campo Marzio 1511


Isaiah of Jerusalem was a contemporary of Amos, living in the second half of the eighth century BCE. He was active for a slightly longer period than Amos– into about the 690s BCE.  He prophesied in the southern kingdom of Judah during the time when the Assyrian empire threatened and destroyed the northern kingdom and then started threatening Judah. In that time Isaiah counseled four kings, including seeing two of Judah’s kings through two different sieges. This includes living through one siege in 734 BCE with King Ahaz, and another in 701 BCE, with King Hezekiah.

There is solid evidence for these events in Assyrian sources and archaeological finds. These both show destruction by the Assyrians in places indicated by the Bible, turning Judah into a vassal state.

The book of Isaiah was completed, as a whole  (all 66 books) no later than the second century BCE, as a complete scroll of Isaiah was found in the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran.  There are divisions within the book indicating various times of composition for some materials, but this is not a random collection of materials placed under the name of Isaiah, but a purposeful collection consolidated under this name. Newer materials later in the book tie themes from the older work (1-39) together with the new (40-66).

The diverse mix of oracles and other materials compiled by the prophet or by his disciples is really visible in the book of Isaiah.  The first 11 chapters contain memoirs with various oracles against Israel. Some of this material refers to the attacks on Jerusalem, especially the siege of 701 BCE. There is a concluding hymn in chapter 12.


The well-preserved wall at the middle level here is late Iron-age (8th century BCE?) and may be the 'broad wall' built by Hezekiah to strengthen Jerusalem's defenses as Sennacherib's Assyrian army approached.
The well-preserved wall at the middle level here is late Iron-age -about 8th century BCE and may be the ‘broad wall’ built by Hezekiah to strengthen Jerusalem’s defenses as Sennacherib’s Assyrian army approached.

After this there are 11 chapters of oracles against foreign nations–  chapters 13 to 23.  Chapters 24 to 27 are a little apocalypse, a mythological vision of the end of days,  probably written much later, likely during the sixth century BCE.  In chapters 28 to 33  the materials turn from oracles against foreign nations to oracles against Judah and Israel and their relationships with the two big powers — Egypt and Assyria. Chapters 34 and 35  are also post-exilic insertions. In chapters 36 to 39 there is a third-person historical narrative and it is, in fact, 2 Kings chapters 18 to 20. That material was simply inserted into Isaiah. It’s the story of the invasion of Sennacherib and the interactions of Isaiah and Hezekiah during the siege in 701 BCE.

Most scholars agree that the remaining material, after chapter 39, is not the work of Isaiah of Jerusalem. It dates to a period long after Isaiah’s lifetime. But the remaining material is divided into two main sections.  These are generally called Second Isaiah and Third Isaiah. Chapters 40 to 55, which we refer to as Second Isaiah, assume a historical setting in which Babylon is dominant, not Assyria.  Chapters 56 to 66 is referred to as Third Isaiah. This material contains oracles that are spread throughout the eighth to the fifth centuries BCE.


Prophets King Solomon and Isaiah. From the iconostasis of the Church of the Archangel Gabriel of the Kirillo-Belozersky Monastery. About 1534. Museum of the Kirillo-Belozersky Monastery.
Solomon and Isaiah. From the iconostasis of the Church of the Archangel Gabriel of the Kirillo-Belozersky Monastery. About 1534. Museum of the Kirillo-Belozersky Monastery.

Isaiah is consistent with Amos in denouncing the social injustice and moral decay in society, which is the cause of God’s just and inevitable punishment.  Like Amos, Isaiah asserts that morality is a decisive factor in the painful fate of the nation.

The two big themes in Isaiah of Jerusalem’s writings are:

  • God is behind the historical events unfolding in the region
  • Jerusalem is critical to the Hebrew people, both as a location of the rightful king and the place of correct worship for the people



Read this!  An article about a fairly recent archaeological find– by Dr. Candida Moss  [2]

You might enjoy reading a bit about archaeology and Isaiah–what is known and being discovered!  The Prophet Isaiah: sorting out fact from fantasy


What is Isaiah called to say?

One might think that the call of Isaiah to prophetic action would be found at the beginning of the book.  It is not so in the book of Isaiah. It is not written down until the 6th chapter. The call has a dramatic scene set in a throne room with seraphs flying about, and a hot coal presented with which to purify the mouth of Isaiah. In addition to all that glory and awe and the symbol of purity found in the coal, God has an extraordinary message for Isaiah.

It is found in chapter 6:

“Go and say to this people:

‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend;
keep looking, but do not understand.’
10 Make the mind of this people dull,
    and stop their ears,
    and shut their eyes,
so that they may not look with their eyes,
    and listen with their ears,
and comprehend with their minds,
    and turn and be healed.” (NRSV)


It’s a very odd message! God tells Isaiah to prevent the people from understanding, in case it happens that they turn back to God and save themselves. This shows the tension between God’s justice and God’s mercy. Being a God of justice, the sins of Israel must be punished with destruction. But as a God of mercy, the people must be brought back to safety.  A prophet must be sent to warn them of the impending doom and then urge them to repent. How can God both punish Israel and so fulfill the demands of justice, and yet save Israel and so fulfill the demands of mercy and love?

Verses 11-13 in chapter 6 (still a part of the call narrative) answer this question with an idea seen just a little in Amos. When Isaiah asks how long the people will fail to hear, fail to understand, fail to turn back to God and save themselves, God replies,

11 Then I said, “How long, O Lord?” And he said:
“Until cities lie waste
    without inhabitant,
and houses without people,
    and the land is utterly desolate;
12 until the Lord sends everyone far away,
    and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land.
13 Even if a tenth part remain in it,
    it will be burned again,
like a terebinth or an oak
    whose stump remains standing
    when it is felled.
The holy seed is its stump.” (NRSV)

So God cannot not punish Israel. The demands of justice will be met, and God will have upheld the terms of the conditional Mosaic Covenant by punishing the people. But God will offer the salvation of the people in the future. God will send a prophet to the people with a call to return and in due time a remnant of the people — a tenth of the population, Isaiah says — will understand and heed that call. They will return to Judah, receive God’s mercy, and the covenant will be reestablished. And in this way the demands of love and mercy will be met as well as those requiring punishment, and God will have been faithful to covenantal promises to the patriarchs and the royal House of David. The people’s delayed comprehension of the prophet’s message guarantees the operation of God’s just punishment now and God’s merciful salvation later.

While the notion of a remnant that will carry on leads to the idea of a future hope for the people, it wasn’t a very consoling message at the time. For the moment, the prophet was essentially saying that the current generation would all but cease to exist!


Mosaic detail from San Vitale in Ravenna.
Mosaic detail from San Vitale in Ravenna.

Isaiah’s Emphasis on the Davidic Covenant

It is important to identify the common ground between Isaiah and the prophet Amos. Isaiah is consistent with Amos in denouncing social injustice and moral decay, which is the cause of God’s just and inevitable punishment.

Isaiah joins Amos in the assertion that cultic practice without just behavior is anathema to God.  (Remember? Follow the commandments, don’t just sacrifice sheep)

Isaiah 1:10-17,

“Hear the word of the Lord,
 you rulers of Sodom!
Listen to the teaching of our God,
    you people of Gomorrah!
11 What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?
    says the Lord;
I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams
    and the fat of fed beasts;
I do not delight in the blood of bulls,
    or of lambs, or of goats.

12 When you come to appear before me,
who asked this from your hand?
Trample my courts no more;
13 bringing offerings is futile;
incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation—
I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.
14 Your new moons and your appointed festivals
my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me,
I am weary of bearing them.
15 When you stretch out your hands,
I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
I will not listen;
your hands are full of blood.
16 Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings
from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
17 learn to do good;
seek justice,
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead for the widow.”  (NRSV)

These are harsh and shocking words. Like Amos, Isaiah asserts that morality is a decisive factor in the fate of the nation.

But Isaiah differs from Amos in this–he places far greater emphasis on the Davidic Covenant than on the Mosaic Covenant. This is a key feature of Isaiah.


The covenant at Sinai is important to Amos, and shows up in various texts in his prophecies.  Instead of focusing on the Sinaitic covenant, Isaiah has an overriding interest in Davidic covenant, the royal ideology that centers on Zion/Jerusalem.


Yahweh has a special relationship with the Davidic royal line and the capitol, Jerusalem, and God will not let either perish. That belief informs Isaiah’s consistent advice to the kings of Judah. Times of great danger are opportunities to demonstrate absolute trust in Yahweh’s covenant with the House of David. The king must rely exclusively on Yahweh and Yahweh’s promises to David and Jerusalem, and not depend on military might or diplomatic strategies


Isaiah’s beautiful and well-known allegory of judgment seen in the imagery of the vineyard in 5:1-7 is the beginning of a warning at the time of the war that culminates in a siege against Jerusalem in 734 BCE:

“Let me sing for my beloved
my love-song concerning his vineyard:
My beloved had a vineyard
 on a very fertile hill.

He dug it and cleared it of stones,
    and planted it with choice vines;
he built a watchtower in the midst of it,
    and hewed out a wine vat in it;
he expected it to yield grapes,
    but it yielded wild grapes.

And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem
    and people of Judah,
judge between me
    and my vineyard.
What more was there to do for my vineyard
    that I have not done in it?
When I expected it to yield grapes,
    why did it yield wild grapes?

And now I will tell you
    what I will do to my vineyard.
I will remove its hedge,
    and it shall be devoured;
I will break down its wall,
    and it shall be trampled down.
I will make it a waste;
    it shall not be pruned or hoed,
    and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns;
I will also command the clouds
    that they rain no rain upon it.

For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts
    is the house of Israel,
and the people of Judah
    are his pleasant planting;
he expected justice,
    but saw bloodshed;
    but heard a cry!” (NRSV)

Again Isaiah prophecies against the injustice and bad behavior of the people, and predicts dire consequences.  Looking at Isaiah’s dealings with King Ahaz in general, however, (during that first siege in 734 BCE) Isaiah gave this advice to the king– judgment is coming, but so is peace–do not fear. The crisis will pass. Davidic theology says that God is in the midst of the city. The Lord of Hosts is with the people.  Trust and do not fear. A righteous king is coming.

Isaiah then offers Ahaz a sign of the truth of this more hopeful prophecy of peace that will arrive in chapter 7:14.. And that is, namely, that a young woman who has already conceived and is pregnant will bear a son and will call him Immanuel. This is the Hebrew Immanu el, “God is with us.” Immanu = “is with us”, El=”God”.


Inside "Hezekiah's tunnel," the 8th century water channel cut through bedrock right under the City of David. The channel brought water from the Gihon spring (on the north-eastern slope of the hill) to the Siloam pool at the southern tip of the city. King Hezekiah ordered construction of this water system to secure a water source inside the city walls in the face of the approaching Assyrian army. When the channel was finished, the entrance to the spring was covered over with rubble to prevent the Assyrians from using (or tampering with) the water. Jerusalem
“Hezekiah’s tunnel,” the 8th century BCE water channel right Jerusalem.  King Hezekiah ordered construction of this system to secure a water source inside the city in the face of the approaching Assyrians. The entrance to the spring was then covered over with rubble to prevent the Assyrians from using (or tampering with) the water.

The identity of the woman that Isaiah is speaking about is a matter of some dispute. Many scholars take the verse as a reference to the king’s wife, who will bear his son Hezekiah. Hezekiah was a much celebrated king. He kept Judah intact against the Assyrian threat and Jerusalem from falling in the siege of 701 BCE.  2 Kings chapter 18:7, says of Hezekiah, “The Lord was with him.” It can be connected to the name Immanuel — God is with us.  The words for these two phrases are very similar in the Hebrew. So in keeping with this interpretation  scholars see the famous verses in Isaiah 9 as praise of King Hezekiah.

Isaiah 9:6-7

For a child has been born for us,
    a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
    and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His authority shall grow continually,
    and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.




Example: Handel’s Messiah, lyrics from Isaiah



The prophet’s message of destruction and punishment and doom is very often accompanied by, or alternates with, a message of consolation and a promise of restoration of a purged or purified remnant in the land of Israel.  This is where these prophets differ from the Deuteronomistic historian, who is more concerned with the justification of God’s actions against Israel than with painting a vivid portrait of the time of a future restoration. So in Isaiah, for example, the return will be a genuine and permanent return to God. It will be the end of sin and idolatry. All the nations of the earth will recognize the Lord of history.

And Isaiah is the first to envisage this kind of transformation, the end of the dominion of idolatrous nations.  God comes to Jerusalem to save the remnant of Israel and gather in the exiles, and it will be a self-revelation of God to all nations.

Isaiah 2:2-4

“In days to come
    the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
    and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.
    Many peoples shall come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
    to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
    and that we may walk in his paths.”
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
    and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations,
    and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
    and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
    neither shall they learn war any more.” (NRSV)


Note the direction that Israelite thought about God is taking so far in the Biblical narrative.

  • The J source in Genesis assumed that all humans had knowledge of Yahweh from the time of creation. J assumes, however, that humans turned away from Yahweh.
  • So Yahweh selected one nation to covenant with and be known to favor. Deuteronomy accepts that Yahweh is Israel’s God. Other nations have been assigned to the worship of other gods.
  • But in classical prophecy, universal claims are made on behalf of Yahweh. According to the prophets, God will be made known to all the nations, as God once was made known just to Israel, and the universal worship or recognition of Yahweh will be established at the end of days. This is new.
  • And so as a consequence of this idea, the very notion of Israel’s election is transformed by the prophets. In the Torah books, the election of Israel means simply God’s choice of Israel, wholly undeserved by the people. But in the prophetic literature, Israel’s election is an election to a mission. Israel was chosen so as to be the instrument of universal redemption, universal recognition of Yahweh.


When God comes finally to rescue the Israelites, God will simultaneously be revealed to all of humankind. They’ll abandon their idols and follow Yahweh like at the time of Creation. A messianic period of peace will follow. And eventually comes the idea that the mission for which Israel was elected was to become a “light unto the nations.” This is a phrase that shows up in other parts of Isaiah later.

Jesse Tree, The Illustrated Bartsch 202Hollstein German
Jesse Tree, The Illustrated Bartsch Hollstein German

The royal ideology of Judah plays an important role in Isaiah because this new peaceful and righteous kingdom is going to be restored by a Davidic king, by a king from the Branch of Jesse. (David’s father name was Jesse).  Isaiah 11 refers to the restoration of the Davidic line, which implies that it had been only temporarily interrupted.

Isaiah 11:1-9:

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
    and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
    the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
    the spirit of counsel and might,
    the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.

He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
    or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
    and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
    and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
    and faithfulness the belt around his loins.

The wolf shall live with the lamb,
    the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
    and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
    their young shall lie down together;
    and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
    and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
They will not hurt or destroy
    on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
    as the waters cover the sea.” (NRSV)

This is a return to paradise.

This new Davidic king will rule by wisdom and insight, and the spirit of the Lord will “alight on him.” That phrase–“alight on him”– is used to describe what happened to the judges and later Saul and David. It doesn’t refer to military might and strength here. It refers a spirit of devotion to God. And this new Davidic king’s reign will begin both the return of the exiles of the nation and a transformed world order.

Isaiah is typical of the prophetic reinterpretation of the ancient covenant promises, giving Israel a hope for a better future. And like the other prophets, he declared that the nation was in distress not because the promises weren’t true but because they hadn’t been believed. The nation’s punishment was a just chastisement. The prophets pushed the fulfillment of the promises beyond the existing nation, however. Only after suffering the punishment for the present failure would a future redemption be possible. The national hope of Israel was maintained but pushed off to a future day.


Jeremiah, Sistine Chapel, 1508-1512, Michelangelo
Jeremiah, Sistine Chapel, 1508-1512 CE, Michelangelo


The prophet who lived at the time of the final destruction of Judah and who saw the fall of Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians in 587-586 BCE was the prophet Jeremiah.

Jeremiah was born of a priestly family in a village near Jerusalem and began prophesying while he was still a boy.

The book of Jeremiah is a collection of materials. There’s no clear organization, no chronological order, and it is not the kind of thing one can sit down and read from beginning to end and have it make sense. There are prophecies, oracles, diatribes against foreign nations, stories, biographical narratives,  poetry, and at the end a brief historical appendix which resembles 2 Kings: 24 and 25.

In addition, the literary history of the book itself is also complex because there’s variation in the ancient forms of the book. The Septuagint, which is the third century BCE Greek translation of the Bible, has a book of Jeremiah which is much shorter than the Hebrew version of Jeremiah, and it is arranged differently internally. There are also significant differences between the current Hebrew text of Jeremiah and some fragments of Jeremiah that have been found among the Dead Sea scrolls. This shows the evolving nature of written compositions in antiquity, and within the book of Jeremiah in particular.

One generally finds three main types of material in Jeremiah:

  • The poetic oracles that generally are attributed to Jeremiah
  • Biographical narrative about the prophet,  attributed to Baruch ben Neriah, a scribe who assists Jeremiah. It is thought that the biographical narrative sections were his work.
  • Editorial notes about Jeremiah that are in the style of the Deuteronomistic historian. The narrative in Jeremiah seems to have very close connections with the language and the ideology of Deuteronomy.

In looking at the overall structure of the book,  Jeremiah 1 through 25 contain an introduction and an account of Jeremiah’s call, and then poetic oracles with some biographical snippets thrown in there as well. In chapters 26 to 29 we have stories of his encounters with other prophets and authority figures. Chapters 30 to 33 are oracles of hope and consolation, and 34 to 45 are more prose stories centered around and after the time of the final destruction of Jerusalem. Then come several chapters, 46 to 51, that contain oracles against foreign nations. Some of these, scholars think, might be from other writers.  The book concludes with an historical appendix about the fall of Jerusalem that is extracted from 2 Kings.


Statue of Jeremiah by Enrico Glicenstein on display in Special Collections at Cleveland Public Library
Statue of Jeremiah by Enrico Glicenstein on display in Special Collections at Cleveland Public Library

What is Jeremiah told to say to the people?

Jeremiah preached the inevitable doom and destruction of the nation because of its violation of the covenant, and his descriptions of this were vivid and quite terrifying. He denounced Israel’s leaders, especially the professional prophets with whom he has many unpleasant encounters. The professional prophets are liars, he says, because they prophesy peace.  As long as injustice and oppression were practiced in Judah, the presence of the temple was no guarantee of anything. Judah will suffer the fate it deserves for its failure to fulfill its covenantal obligations.



God tells Jeremiah to go stand at the gate of the temple and speak these words, a passage that is often referred to as the “Temple Sermon” from chapter 7:

“The word that came to Jeremiah from the LordStand in the gate of the Lord’s house, and proclaim there this word, and say, Hear the word of the Lord, all you people of Judah, you that enter these gates to worship the LordThus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your doings, and let me dwell with you in this place. Do not trust in these deceptive words: “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.”

For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another,6 if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors forever and ever. Here you are, trusting in deceptive words to no avail. Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, 10 and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, “We are safe!”—only to go on doing all these abominations? 11 Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight? You know, I too am watching, says the Lord.” (NRSV)


Jeremiah attacked the doctrine of the inviolability of Zion. The presence of the Ark of the Covenant is no guarantee of anything, certainly not safety, and the belief that God would not allow the temple, city, or the anointed ruler to be destroyed is simply an illusion.

Jeremiah’s  political message very much resembles the message of his predecessors. He says that Judah’s weak attempts to resist the great powers and to enter into alliances with the one against the other — these were all completely futile.

To ensure the preservation of his words, Jeremiah had his scribe Baruch write down everything that God spoke to him. Chapter 36 says that God actually told Jeremiah how to do this writing. “Get a scroll,” God says, “and write upon it all the words that I have spoken to you — concerning Israel and Judah and all the nations — from the time I first spoke to you in the days of Josiah to this time” (36:2).



Destruction of Jerusalem under the Babylonian rule. Illustration from the Nuremberg Chronicle Date1493
Destruction of Jerusalem under Babylonian rule. Illustration from the Nuremberg Chronicle 1493 CE


Jeremiah was in hiding at times because he was politically very unpopular. Because of this he instructed Baruch to take the scroll to the temple, and to stand there and read it to the people on Jeremiah’s behalf. The king’s officials reported to the king about the subversive message which had been delivered by Baruch. So Baruch had to hide and the scroll was torn into strips and burned. God had Jeremiah get another scroll and repeat the process, and chapter 36:32 says,

32 Then Jeremiah took another scroll and gave it to the secretary Baruch son of Neriah, who wrote on it at Jeremiah’s dictation all the words of the scroll that King Jehoiakim of Judah had burned in the fire, and many similar words were added to them.

They two men came back with even more content than the previous scroll had contained. So it is possible that what was written would have been the contents of chapters 1 to 25.


This story gives some insight into the process of prophecy which was not off the cuff pontificating. Instead, compositions of the prophets were literary compositions that were committed to memory or even written down.


Jeremiah was rejected, despised, even persecuted by fellow Judeans. He was flogged, he was imprisoned. Often in his life he was in hiding, as he lived in very difficult times.

Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem, Rembrandt 1630
Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem, Rembrandt 1630 CE

But there is also more insight into his emotional state than for any of the other prophets. Jeremiah suffered immensely.  He weeps over Jerusalem in chapter 8 and 9. He struggles against the message he feels compelled to deliver.  He curses the day that he was born; he accuses God of deceiving him, of enticing him to act as God’s messenger only to be met with humiliation and shame, but he still can’t hold it in. God’s words rage inside him and he must prophesy. It would be better had he not been born at all than to suffer this ceaseless pain, says Jeremiah.

Chapter 20:7-12 shows some of this anguish:

Lord, you have enticed me,
    and I was enticed;
you have overpowered me,
    and you have prevailed.
I have become a laughingstock all day long;
    everyone mocks me.
For whenever I speak, I must cry out,
    I must shout, “Violence and destruction!”
For the word of the Lord has become for me
    a reproach and derision all day long.
If I say, “I will not mention him,
    or speak any more in his name,”
then within me there is something like a burning fire
    shut up in my bones;
I am weary with holding it in,
    and I cannot.
10 For I hear many whispering:
    “Terror is all around!
Denounce him! Let us denounce him!”
    All my close friends
    are watching for me to stumble.
“Perhaps he can be enticed,
    and we can prevail against him,
    and take our revenge on him.”
11 But the Lord is with me like a dread warrior;
    therefore my persecutors will stumble,
    and they will not prevail.
They will be greatly shamed,
    for they will not succeed.
Their eternal dishonor
    will never be forgotten.
12 Lord of hosts, you test the righteous,
    you see the heart and the mind;
let me see your retribution upon them,
    for to you I have committed my cause.” (NRSV)

Jeremiah’s Message of Consolation 

Jeremiah also balanced his message of doom with a message of consolation, with some very interesting features. These passages are found particularly in chapters 30 to 33. He envisages a restoration when the exile will come to an end.

Jeremiah writes a letter to the first group of deportees in chapter 29, and its advice to the exiles is to settle down in their adopted home and wait out the time away from the land of Israel. There is an appointed end to the exile, but it is not soon. He warns the people not to listen to prophets who say that the exile will be over soon, and the people can return home shortly, as this message is a lie. The Israelites will have to serve the king of Babylon for years, and by doing so they will live, and live well.

So in Jeremiah 29:4-7 he writes to the exiles:

Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” (NRSV)

In other words, they are there for the long haul.


Example: Babylon as a power

Babylon was a long lasting, powerful empire, and has been the subject of years of research, archaeology and discovery.  A few pictures of this UNESCO world heritage site might help set the context for where the Israelite people lived:  Babylon the empire

It can also be interesting to understand what was happening in Babylon at the time of the Exile:



At the end, Jeremiah says, there will be a great war of all the nations and the people of Judah and Israel will be returned to their homeland. Zion, he declares, will be acknowledged as the Holy City and a new Davidic king will reign. A new covenant will be made with Israel as well. And this time, Jeremiah says, it is a covenant that will be etched on the heart, encoded as it were into human nature.

Jeremiah 31:31-34:

31 The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 32 It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband,[a] says the Lord33 But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.” (NRSV)


The fall of Jerusalem shattered the national basis of Israel’s culture and religion. The Babylonians burned the temple to the ground, they carried away most of the people to live in exile in Babylon, leaving behind mostly members of the lower classes to eke out a living as best they could.  It was the end of the Davidic monarchy, although the son of Jehoiakim was said to be alive and living in Babylon, holding out hope that the line hadn’t been completely wiped out.

But the institution seemed to have come to an end for now. It was the end of the temple, the end of the priesthood, the end of Israel as an autonomous nation, and so the Israelites were confronted with a great test.

How could their faith survive outside the framework of Israelite national culture, away from the temple and the land, uprooted and scattered? Could Israelite religion survive without these national foundations and institutions and on foreign soil, or would it go the way of other national religions?

One hears the pain and the despair that would have been experienced at this time in the

Psalm By the rivers of Babylon from Chludov Psalter, cropped version of File:Chludov rivers.jpg DateMiddle of the 9th century
Psalm By the rivers of Babylon from the Chludov Psalter, Mid- 9th century CE

words of the Psalmist.  Psalm 137: 1-6 was written about what had happened at this time:

By the rivers of Babylon—
    there we sat down and there we wept
    when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
    we hung up our harps.
For there our captors
    asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
    “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

How could we sing the Lord’s song
    in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
    let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
    if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
    above my highest joy.” (NRSV)


It was the message of the prophets that helped some Israelites make sense of their situation in a manner that kept them distinct and invulnerable to assimilation. And this was probably the reason for the preservation of the prophetic writings, even though they had often been despised or unheeded in their own lifetimes.

Yahweh hadn’t been defeated, they claimed. The nation’s calamities were not disproof of God’s power and covenant, they were proof of it. The prophets had spoken truly when they had said that destruction would follow if the people didn’t turn from their moral and religious violations of God’s law. So that rather than undermining faith in God, the defeat and the exile had the potential to convince the Israelites of the need to show absolute devotion to God and the commandments. This allowed their moment of great national despair to be transformed into the renewal of their religious faith.

The great contribution of the prophets was their emphasis on God’s desire for morality as expressed in the ancient covenant.

The great contribution of Jeremiah was his insistence on God’s everlasting covenant with his people, even outside the land of Israel and despite the loss of national religious symbols — the temple, the Holy City, the Davidic king. And this insistence that the faithful person’s relationship with God wasn’t broken, even in an idolatrous land, when added to Jeremiah’s notion of a new covenant, provided the exiles with the ideas that would transform the nation of Israel into the religion of Judaism.



Ezekiel on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican between 1508 to 1512, Michelangelo
Ezekiel on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican between 1508 to 1512 CE, Michelangelo


Ezekiel was a priest as well as prophet, and was deported in the first group of people forced out of Jerusalem in 597 BCE during an initial siege by Babylon.  There was a final siege 10 years later, which ended with the total destruction of Jerusalem, and the final deportation of exiles in 587-6 BCE.

Ezekiel was thus in Babylon during the final destruction of Jerusalem. His priestly training was reflected in his prophecies. He focused on the Israelites their failing to observe ritual laws. His promises for the restoration centered around Jerusalem rebuilt, with a new temple complex.

The prophecies in Ezekiel, unlike many of the other prophetic books, actually follow a chronological order. The first section of the book consists of prophecies that were before the final destruction of Judah, between 597 and 587 BCE, and then beginning in chapter 33, the prophecies take place after the destruction of Jerusalem. When Ezekiel got the report of the destruction of Jerusalem, his tone and message to the people changed.

Structure and timeline for Ezekiel

In the first 24 chapters, which are delivered from Babylon but before the destruction of Jerusalem, three chapters are devoted to Ezekiel’s call and commission as a prophet. Ezekiel’s call happened in about 593 BCE in a Jewish community that is on the River Chebar, a large irrigation canal off of the Euphrates River in Babylon. This is the first time a call of an Israelite prophet happens outside the land of Israel.  It is dramatic, full of symbols, and places an emphasis on Ezekiel as being truly human– a ben adam, or a Son of Man–which as a phrase just means being fully human.


Vision of Ezekiel. Armenian manuscript of Minas gospel, Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia. Date1455
Vision of Ezekiel. Armenian manuscript of Minas gospel, Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia. 1455

In his call to prophecy, Ezekiel is told to speak to a nation who will not listen. His commission is symbolized by a scroll that is handed to him. Inscribed on this scroll are lamentations dirges, and woes.  He is commanded to eat this scroll and then go to speak to the House of Israel. So Ezekiel swallows this scroll and all of its dreadful contents. He is to warn the people of danger, and the people will either heed him or not, but each person is responsible for their own fate.

Chapters 4 – 24 are the oracles that condemn Judah. Ezekiel’s denunciations of Jerusalem are among the most lurid and violent in the Bible. As with other prophets,  Ezekiel warns that Jerusalem will fall deservedly. He says that rebellion against Babylon would be treason against God’s intent.

Purity language is used all throughout Ezekiel. Jerusalem has been utterly defiled by the behavior of the people, he says, and there are all sorts of images that inspire revulsion to be found in these chapters. Destruction is the only possible remedy for this horrible behavior, and Babylon is the tool God will use in order to make that destruction happen.

Chapters 25 to 32 contain oracles against foreign nations, just as are found in Jeremiah and Isaiah. Throughout, Ezekiel refers to these nations as the uncircumcised–an intentional and nasty insult from an Israelite point of view.

After 587 BCE, new kinds of prophecies are contained in chapters 33 to 48. In chapter 33 the fall of Jerusalem is described, and then come oracles of promise and hope for the future.  Before the fall of the city, Ezekiel’s task had been to shake the people out of their complacency, but now that the people are reduced to despair and remorse,  his task is to offer reassurance and hope. God is going to initiate a new beginning, says Ezekiel.


the journey of the Judean exiles to Babylon - 6th century bc.
the journey of the Judean exiles to Babylon – 6th century BCE

There have been some people left behind in Judah at the exile, but in the book of Ezekiel,  God chooses to move east with the exiles.  Significant here is the idea that God is not linked to a particular place but to a particular people. So the implication is that God is with the people, even when they are in exile. 

Though Israel’s punishment was deserved, it was not a sign of the end of the relationship between Yahweh and the people.  A new Israel would rise from the remnants of the people of Judah and Israel.


Ezekiel chapter 36: 24-28 uses metaphors of purity and cleansing. Israel will be cleansed from the impurities of the past and given a new heart:

24 “I will take you from the nations, and gather you from all the countries, and bring you into your own land. 25 I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. 26 A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. 27 I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances. 28 Then you shall live in the land that I gave to your ancestors; and you shall be my people, and I will be your God.” (NRSV)

Another metaphor that’s used for the restoration of a new Israel out of the remnant of the old, is the metaphor of revival from death and this is found in chapter 37:1-14 — a very famous passage: Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones:

Gustave Doré engraving "The Vision of The Valley of The Dry Bones" - 1866
Gustave Doré engraving “The Vision of The Valley of The Dry Bones” – 1866

“The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the LordThus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath[a] to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath[b] in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.”

So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” 10 I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.

11 Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ 12 Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13 And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. 14 I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, says the Lord.” (NRSV)

In the interpretation that follows the vision it states that the bones symbolize Israel now, in this state, in exile. In their despair they cry out, “our bones are dried up, we’re dead, now our hope is lost.” God promises to raise Israel from the grave, which is a metaphor for their exile, and restore the people of Israel to their own land as one people, north and south, with one prince to rule.


Example: Gospel song Dry Bones

You might enjoy learning a bit about the old gospel song taken from this passage in Ezekiel called “Dry Bones”.  This site has both some explanation and an old recording of the music!  The Story Behind the Dry Bones Song


The last chapters–40 to 48– are visions of the restoration of a rebuilt Temple and a rebuilt Jerusalem.   It is described in great detail in the last nine chapters of the book.

While Ezekiel said that God would restore a purified Israel to its land under a Davidic monarchy, he also maintained that a relationship with God was possible, in the meantime — a relationship outside the land. This diaspora was a new thing, and functioned as a religious-national body of people that had not been seen before.

Because the people no longer had access to their temple, to Jerusalem, or any of the trappings of the religion, slowly, a new worship was fashioned– one without temple sacrifices, one that consisted of prayer, confession, fasts, and other kinds of ritual observances. Three times a day Israelites prayed in the direction of Jerusalem. Synagogues came into being, and the importance of the Sabbath grew as a memorial of the covenant and the symbol of their faith. And for the first time, non-Israelites  joined themselves to Yahweh, adopting this religion of Israel out of religious conviction, not simply because they were residing in a specific land and had to follow God’s laws. This all took place outside the land.  As the history of the nation of Israel came to an end, the history of Judaism, the “religion” Judaism, begins.  And it begins in Babylon.

The key point in Ezekiel is the idea that a relationship with God remains possible, even during disaster or punishment. The people are God’s own people, even in exile.


Portion of a photographic reproduction of the Great Isaiah Scroll, the best preserved of the biblical scrolls found at Qumran. It contains the entire Book of Isaiah in Hebrew, apart from some small damaged parts. This manuscript was probably written by a scribe of the Jewish sect of the Essenes around the second century BC. It is therefore over a 1000 years older than the oldest Masoretic manuscripts.
Portion of the Great Isaiah Scroll, the best preserved of the biblical scrolls found at Qumran. It contains the entire Book of Isaiah in Hebrew.

Chronology and the later parts of Isaiah

A second response to the destruction and exile can be found in the anonymous writings that are appended to the Book of Isaiah in two discrete units of material that are appended to Isaiah. Chapters 40 to 55 are referred to as Second Isaiah, and chapters 56 to 66 are referred to as Third Isaiah.




These added chapters  of Second and Third Isaiah differ from the work of Isaiah of Jerusalem, the eighth-century prophet, in several ways.

  • These parts of Isaiah were written after the Exile . All of Second Isaiah and parts of Third Isaiah were written after the Exile.
  • Jerusalem is referred to, in these sections, as having been destroyed. The audience that is being addressed by this writing is living in exile.
  • Babylon is the oppressor and conqueror here, not Assyria. Assyria was the oppressor in the time of Isaiah of Jerusalem.
  • The appended materials even seem to know about the overthrow of the Babylonians. That is going to happen in about 539 BCE when Cyrus of Persia will conquer the Babylonians. There are passages that express euphoria over this, because Cyrus, of course, authorized the Jews to return from Babylon to Jerusalem to rebuild their temple.

Among the scrolls that were found in the caves at Qumran near the Dead Sea, there was found a very large and very famous Isaiah scroll, which is now in a museum in Jerusalem. On the scroll there is a gap after Isaiah 39, and a new column starts with Isaiah 40. This seems to indicate a recognition that there’s a difference between these two sections.

Major Themes in Second Isaiah 

The opening oracle that occurs in chapter 40 is an oracle of consolation and comfort, and the prophet sees a straight and level highway prepared in the wilderness for a dramatic procession of Yahweh the shepherd who will lead the people back to Jerusalem.

It is a very famous passage — made famous by Handel’s Messiah. So the new message of hope is found in chapter 40:1-11

“Comfort, O comfort my people,
    says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
    and cry to her
that she has served her term,
    that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
    double for all her sins.

A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
    make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
    and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
    and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
    and all people shall see it together,
    for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

A voice says, “Cry out!”
    And I said, “What shall I cry?”
All people are grass,
    their constancy is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
    when the breath of the Lord blows upon it;
    surely the people are grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades;
    but the word of our God will stand forever.
Get you up to a high mountain,
    O Zion, herald of good tidings;
lift up your voice with strength,
    O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,
    lift it up, do not fear;
say to the cities of Judah,
    “Here is your God!”
10 See, the Lord God comes with might,
    and his arm rules for him;
his reward is with him,
    and his recompense before him.
11 He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
    he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
    and gently lead the mother sheep.” (NRSV)


This highway will appear leading the exiles straight back to Jerusalem. This is an idea of  a new exodus, returning the people to the promised land.

A second key theme that’s sounded at the beginning and end of Second Isaiah in chapter 40 and chapter 55 is this idea that the word of God is always fulfilled. Or in some translations, the word of our God “stands forever.” This idea is the essence of the Israelites’ hope during the period of captivity and exile.

Second Isaiah also expresses clear monotheism. It states that there is no power other than Yahweh–one God over all the earth.  Second Isaiah satirizes those nations who make and worship idols, and ridicules the folly and stupidity of ascribing divinity to that which one has created with one’s own hands.

Only Yahweh is the true God of all of these other nations. So who raised Cyrus of Persia from the north to sweep through the Ancient Near East and conquer the Babylonians? No one but Yahweh.

The author of Second Isaiah is drawing a conclusion, towards which Israelite religion has headed from its beginnings. Yahweh, once a Canaanite deity, then the God of Israel’s patriarchs, then the national God of Israel, is here the Lord of universal history. The only real God, Second Isaiah is claiming, is the God of Israel.


Parry studies the Great Isaiah Scroll (1QIsa-a) in the Dead Sea Scrolls vault (scrollery), Israeli Museum, Jerusalem, Israel.
Parry studies the Great Isaiah Scroll (1QIsa-a) in the Dead Sea Scrolls vault (scrollery), Israeli Museum, Jerusalem, Israel.

Second Isaiah’s Servant Songs

Second Isaiah is also quite well known for the Servant Songs that it contains. These occur in chapter 42, 49, 50, and then most extensively 52:13 to 53:12. The identity of this servant has been a puzzle to Biblical interpreters for centuries. Part of the problem here is that sometimes the Servant is referred to as a collective figure, sometimes the Servant is referred to as an individual figure.

In chapter 49 the servant is described as a prophet with a universal message rather than a message for the Israelites alone. The servant is first identified as Israel. So in chapter 49:1-3 it says:

“Listen to me, O coastlands,
    pay attention, you peoples from far away!
The Lord called me before I was born,
    while I was in my mother’s womb he named me.
He made my mouth like a sharp sword,
    in the shadow of his hand he hid me;
he made me a polished arrow,
    in his quiver he hid me away.
And he said to me, “You are my servant,
    Israel, in whom I will be glorified.”  (NRSV)

Yet, in verse 5 it would seem that this prophet/servant has a mission to bring Israel back to Yahweh, and that would imply that the servant or prophet is not Israel.

Verse 5:

“And now the Lord says,
    who formed me in the womb to be his servant,
to bring Jacob back to him,
    and that Israel might be gathered to him,

Then the mission is expanded a little bit in verse 6:

“He says,
“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
    to raise up the tribes of Jacob
    and to restore the survivors of Israel;
I will give you as a light to the nations,
    that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

Chapter 50 quite famously refers to the servant as rebellious and as persecuted. Verse 6:

“I gave my back to those who struck me,
    and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;
I did not hide my face
    from insult and spitting.”

But it’s the famous and difficult passage in Isaiah 53 that most movingly describes the suffering and sorrow of God’s servant. 53:3-11:

“He was despised and rejected by others;
    a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity;
and as one from whom others hide their faces
    he was despised, and we held him of no account.

Surely he has borne our infirmities
    and carried our diseases;
yet we accounted him stricken,
    struck down by God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions,
    crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
    and by his bruises we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
    we have all turned to our own way,
and the Lord has laid on him
    the iniquity of us all.

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
    yet he did not open his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
    and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
    so he did not open his mouth.
By a perversion of justice he was taken away.
    Who could have imagined his future?
For he was cut off from the land of the living,
    stricken for the transgression of my people.
They made his grave with the wicked
    and his tomb with the rich,
although he had done no violence,
    and there was no deceit in his mouth.

10 Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain.
When you make his life an offering for sin,
    he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days;
through him the will of the Lord shall prosper.
11     Out of his anguish he shall see light;
he shall find satisfaction through his knowledge.
    The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous,
    and he shall bear their iniquities.” (NRSV)

There have been many attempts to equate this man of sorrows with many different people. Early on, Jesus’ followers saw Jesus as the suffering servant of God in Second Isaiah.

Despite these later interpretations of Second Isaiah, it appears likely that the suffering servant is in fact Israel, described metaphorically as an individual whose present suffering and humiliation is due to the sins of other nations, but whose future restoration and exultation will cause astonishment among those nations who will then begin to follow Yahweh.

But this problem has never been solved satisfactorily. The main problem with interpreting Israel as the servant is the verse that describes the servant as having a mission to Israel. It seems a little odd to say that Israel bears a mission to Israel.

Leaving aside this difficulty, the more prominent motif in the servant song of Second Isaiah is that the servant has a mission to the world.  The phrase, “Israel, my servant,” appears in Second Isaiah eight times. So the idea of Israel as God’s servant to the nations is clearly a part of Second Isaiah’s conceptual world, and since it is poetry it isn’t surprising that sometimes the servant is spoken of as a group, and at other times as an individual. The same holds true of Israel in general,  throughout much of the literature. Sometimes Israel is spoken of in plural terms and sometimes as a single individual.

If the servant is Israel, then we can see how Second Isaiah is another response to the events of 587 BCE.  Israel will be healed by her wounds. In addition, suffering leads to a new role for Israel among the nations. Second Isaiah expresses a new self-awareness on the part of the people of Israel–the Jews– that is taking hold in the exile. Israel saw itself as the faithful servant of Yahweh, a servant whose loyalty to God in this dark time would serve to broadcast the knowledge of God throughout the nations.

So Israel was chosen from the womb to serve God’s universal purpose. Where once God covenanted with David to lead Israel, now Israel will lead the nations of the world in God’s way.  The new idealized king, the messiah, comes out of the unified compilation of all three sections of Isaiah. It’s an expansion of God’s purpose, and this is an idea that appears in Isaiah 55:3-5:

“Incline your ear, and come to me;
    listen, so that you may live.
I will make with you an everlasting covenant,
    my steadfast, sure love for David.
See, I made him a witness to the peoples,
    a leader and commander for the peoples.
See, you shall call nations that you do not know,
    and nations that do not know you shall run to you,
because of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel,
    for he has glorified you.”  (NRSV)

The function of the institutions of the old order are transferred to the nation as a whole. What kings, priests, and prophets did for Israel, Israel will now do for the whole world. As the mediator between the only God and the nations of the world Israel is a light, and from Israel comes the Torah, instruction in the divine will and salvation. This is the idea of universal mission that comes out of Second Isaiah.



Map of the ancient Near East in 540 BC
Map of the ancient Near East in 540 BCE


Cyrus the Great with a Hemhem crown, or four-winged Cherub tutelary divinity, from a relief in the residence of Cyrus in Pasagardae[1]
Cyrus the Great with a Hemhem crown, or four-winged Cherub tutelary divinity, from a relief in the residence of Cyrus in Pasagardae

Third or Trito-Isaiah

Isaiah 56–66 is seen as the collective work of a group of anonymous prophets, known as Third or Trito-Isaiah, from the early Persian period of Judean restoration (c. 520–400 BCE).

Although Cyrus of Persia, who conquered Babylon and in 539 BCE sent home the Israelite Exiles to Jerusalem to rebuild and restore the worship of Yahweh in a new temple, is possibly the one that people at the time considered the foretold messianic figure, there is some issues with this idea.  A new king in Israel would not be thought to come from Persia, and would theoretically instead come from the line of David.  There was a great deal of gratitude towards Cyrus at the time, however, for rescuing the exiles from their captivity.

The writings of this Third Isaiah seem to focus on the ways the Persian conquerors interacted with the people of Israel, and the inevitable reality that when the exiles returned to their land, there was seen to be disunity among various people in the land.  The worship of Yahweh had changed, both among those who stayed behind in Judah and among those who had been exiled and then returned to Judah 50 years later.  There had also been some back-sliding towards the worship of multiple gods among those who stayed in Judah, and the divisions (between the returned exiles and the remnant who remained) in the supposedly new and restored Israel were deeply unsettling.  So some of this prophecy in Third Isaiah focused, instead of on the immediate present, on a New Israel out in the future, with judgment and salvation restoring the people in miraculous ways.

As has seemed to be an ongoing issue in Israel’s history, there is once again ritual without serious reformation, religious activity without moral purity, even New Temple sacrifice and prayer that is not accompanied by human righteousness–this is the problem that Third Isaiah is most concerned with.  Isaiah 58: 3-8 expresses this vividly:

“Why do we fast, but you do not see?
    Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day,
    and oppress all your workers.
Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
    and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
    will not make your voice heard on high.
Is such the fast that I choose,
    a day to humble oneself?
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
    and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Will you call this a fast,
    a day acceptable to the Lord?

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.” (NRSV)


In contrast to the concerns about problems in the style of worship and ethics of the people, the writings later in Third Isaiah focus on the glory of the coming new kingdom of Israel, the destiny of Zion in leading all the people of the earth–and this is seen most clearly in chapters 60-62, when the new Jerusalem, the new Israel, is described in really breathtakingly beautiful poetry.

Isaiah 60:1-3 is frequently held up as a favorite prophecy:

“Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
For darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you,
and his glory will appear over you.
Nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn.”  (NRSV)

An almost apocalyptic feel to some of the writing in Third Isaiah follows, as the new Jerusalem, the new Zion, the new Israel are described in glowing terms, with perpetual light, joy, and peace characterizing this era.  God is the one divine being, God will restore and bless Israel, Israel will shine so that all nations and all people will come to believe and the world will find redemption and blessing.

After a number of well known passages comes the summary of Third Isaiah in 66:22-23

“For as the new heavens and the new earth,
which I will make,
shall remain before me, says the Lord;
so shall your descendants and your name remain.
23 From new moon to new moon,
and from sabbath to sabbath,
all flesh shall come to worship before me,
says the Lord.”  (NRSV)

The renewed earth will find its center in Jerusalem, worshipping this one God, and all will be well.


Learning about Jerusalem: Bible Archaeology Society

You might enjoy learning about Jerusalem and its progress over the centuries.  If you scroll down through this article, towards the bottom of it are several maps of various eras of the city’s life.  Ancient Jerusalem: The Village, the Town, the City


May, Herbert G., et al. The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha: Revised Standard Version, Containing the Second Edition of the New Testament and an Expanded Edition of the Apocrypha. Edited by Michael D Coogan, Oxford University Press, 2007.

Gabel, John B. The Bible as Literature: An Introduction. Oxford University Press, 2006.

Shanks, Herschel. “Ancient Jerusalem: The Village, the Town, the City.” Biblical Archaeology Society, 30 Apr. 2021, https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/biblical-sites-places/jerusalem/ancient-jerusalem/.


British Library Sacred Texts: Judaism, Sept. 2019, https://www.bl.uk/sacred-texts/videos/judaism.
Christine Hayes, Introduction to the Old Testament, Yale University: Open Yale Courses, http://oyc.yale.edu (April 2022). License: Creative Commons BY-NC-SA
Some materials here used from Yale University, copyright 2007 Some rights reserved. Unless otherwise indicated on this document or on the Open Yale Courses web site, all content is licensed under a Creative Commons License (Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0).


  1. Marcus Joel Borg[3] (1942–2015) was an American New Testament scholar and theologian.[4] He was among the most widely known and influential voices in Liberal Christianity. As a fellow of the Jesus Seminar, Borg was a major figure in historical Jesus scholarship.[5] He retired as Hundere Distinguished Professor of Religion and Culture at Oregon State University in 2007.
  2. I read theology as an undergraduate at Oxford, before moving to the United States to pursue post-graduate work in Biblical Studies at, first Yale Divinity School and, later, Yale Graduate School. In 2008, I moved to the University of Notre Dame to teach classes in the departments of Theology, Classics, and History before coming to Birmingham in 2017. While my academic work is primarily historical, I work in the public sphere as s Papal news commentator for CBS news, a cultural commentator and columnist for The Daily Beast, and a religion news commentator and writer for CNN, BBC, National Geographic, Smithsonian, Discovery Channel, History Channel, and others. A great deal of my recent work has focussed on the intersection of religion and politics and the influence of certain religious ideas on international relations, policy making, and education.


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Reading the Bible as Literature: a Journey Copyright © 2022 by Jody L Ondich is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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