The Bible in a Nutshell — A Pocket Guide
So you’ve decided it’s time to start reading the Bible. Good for you! Maybe you’ve started attending church or Sunday School or a weekly class meeting, and you want to be able to respond when someone says,”Turn with us to Isaiah chapter 55.” Uh-oh, you think. Where is Isaiah? Old Testament or New Testament? For that matter, what is the Old Testament? And why do we call something “new” that’s been around for almost 2,000 years? Why is our Bible divided into two parts, and why are there so many “books” in this one book?
This pocket guide will give you a little information about the Bible and its origins, and a brief summary of each of the books. It will help you get started, until you are familiar enough to be able to look things up on your own. It won’t answer all your Bible questions, but it might help whet your appetite for getting some of those questions answered!
For convenience in finding passages, all the books of the Bible are divided into numbered chapters and verses. These numberings were added hundreds of years after the Bible itself was written, as a help to those who study.
All our modern English translations of the Bible are based on ancient Hebrew and Greek manuscripts, which have been faithfully copied over many centuries by Jewish scribes and Christian monks. Some Bibles contain footnotes indicating variant readings among these manuscripts. However, the reliability of these ancient texts is well established.
The Old Testament: the Hebrew Bible
What Christians call the Old Testament is actually a collection of books of a people, written by and for them over the course of centuries. It is the history of the Hebrew people, of how a family became a nation and of how that nation saw itself as uniquely chosen to be God’s special people on earth. It includes many literary forms: books of history, prophecy, poetry, and wisdom. Some parts of it are straightforward narrative, and some are highly symbolic. Generally speaking, in our Bibles these writings are arranged in an order roughly corresponding to chronology: Genesis, the book of beginnings, is at the beginning, and the last book, that of the prophet Malachi, was written a mere four hundred years or so before the birth of Jesus ushered in the events covered in the New Testament.
All of the Old Testament writings were written in Hebrew, the ancient Semitic language of the people who carry the same name, except for a few of the later writings, which are in Aramaic, a closely related language. A complete translation in Greek was made in the 2nd century BC. There are 39 separate writings, or books, in this collection. Some Bibles include the Apocrypha, an additional collection of writings that are preserved in Greek translation only, and are not available to us in the original Hebrew.
The New Testament: Jesus and his friends
Originally written entirely in Greek, the 27 books comprising the New Testament were written by some of the earliest followers of Jesus Christ. Unlike the Old Testament, whose books were written over a span of perhaps as much as a thousand years, the New Testament was written and collected within just a few decades following the life and death of Jesus. Most of these are letters written by leaders of churches to encourage and instruct church members. At least one, the book of Hebrews, is probably the transcript of a sermon, and another, Revelation, uses highly symbolic language similar to that of some Old Testament books. A unique literary form, however, is found in the four Gospels — Matthew, Mark, Luke and John— each of which tells a series of stories from the life and ministry of Jesus and records some of his teachings. Each also gives an account of his final night with his disciples, his arrest, trial, crucifixion, and resurrection from the dead. The book of Acts, a companion to the Gospel of Luke, continues the historical narrative where the gospels leave off — recounting how the earliest churches were established and thus providing us a way of understanding the setting in which some of the letters were written.
The New Testament differs from the Old in that the order in which these books are arranged does not follow a particular time-line.
Oh, one more thing — why is it called the New Testament? Basically because of the Christian belief that with the coming of Jesus, God was revealing a new way of dealing with humankind: a way that allows all people, whatever their background, nationality, politics, or past behavior, to enjoy full fellowship with God: a way opened up by the sacrificial death of Jesus, and proclaimed by his followers as salvation by grace through faith, by means of repentance and the forgiveness of sins.
What’s where in the Bible? A Book by Book Look
The Pentateuch : The Torah : The Law of Moses
The first five books of the Old Testament are often referred to collectively by one of these names. Torah is a Hebrew word which means instruction. This word is often translated as “Law” but has a much richer meaning, and includes a great deal of historical narrative and many other literary forms.
Genesis (50 chapters)
Said to have been written by Moses, Genesis is the book of beginnings. It tells the story of how God created the natural world in six days, and rested on the seventh day. It recounts the tale of Adam and his wife Eve, the first man and woman, of their sin in the garden of Eden and the consequent curse of death that came upon humankind. A result of this curse was more sin: their oldest son Cain killed his brother Abel. Through the third son, Seth, a line of distinguished patriarchs is named, including Enoch who did not see death, and Methuselah his son, who lived to be 969 years. It tells of Methuselah’s grandson Noah, and of how in an age of great violence among men he obeyed God by building an ark for his family and all kinds of animals. By this means Noah was preserved through the flood that destroyed whatever breathed on the earth. After the flood God made a covenant (a binding promise) with Noah, that never again would a flood destroy all flesh, and set the rainbow as a sign of that covenant.
Also in Genesis is the story of the tower of Babel, which tells why there are so many languages on earth. And then the story turns to Abram and his family.
God led Abram and his wife Sarai from the Babylonian city of Ur and brought him to the land of Canaan. There they prospered, and grew wealthy; saw Sodom and Gomorrah overthrown by fire; and received from God the promise of a son, through whom he would become Abraham, the father of many nations. With him God also entered into a covenant. Abraham, his son Isaac and Isaac’s son Jacob lived as nomads in a land they did not own. Jacob, also called Israel, had twelve sons, often called the Patriarchs. The Twelve Tribes of Israel were named after them. Of these his favorite, Joseph, was sold by his brothers as a slave and went to Egypt, where first as a household slave and later as a prisoner he proved faithful to God even while himself being treated unjustly. He rightly interpreted a dream for Pharaoh king of Egypt, and was made administrator over food supplies during an extended drought. Hunger brought his brothers to Egypt, and after a time of testing they were reconciled; then all his father’s family, 70 persons with their flocks and herds, came to live in Egypt, in the land of Goshen along the Nile delta. Thus God preserved them all alive, and greatly comforted Jacob in his old age. Joseph’s two sons, born in Egypt, were counted among the patriarchs, and their names (Ephraim and Manasseh) are listed thereafter among the tribes of Israel. Joseph and all his brothers died in Egypt.
Important persons: Adam, Eve, Cain, Abel, Seth, Enoch, Methusaleh, Noah, Shem, Ham, Japheth; Abram (Abraham), Sarai (Sarah), Lot; Ishmael, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob (Israel), Esau, Rachel, Laban, Judah, Simeon, Reuben; Joseph, Benjamin.
Time: Creation to ± 1800 BC
Exodus (40 chapters)
The name Exodus means departure. Exodus begins by telling how the Israelites grew in numbers and were then enslaved by the Egyptians. It tells of the birth of Moses, and how he was adopted by an Egyptian princess and raised as a prince of Egypt, but with his own mother hired as a nurse he knew also of his Hebrew heritage. At the age of forty, trying to correct an injustice against his own people, he killed an Egyptian who had been beating a Hebrew slave, and became a refugee. He went to the land of Midian, married and became a shepherd. Forty years later God appeared to him on a mountain, spoke to him from a burning bush, and told him to return to Egypt and lead the people out from slavery.
By many miraculous signs (the ten plagues) Moses, now 80 years old, and his brother Aaron demonstrated God’s power to Pharaoh king of Egypt, and then led the people out. The presence of God went with them, visible as a pillar of fire by night and of cloud by day. They crossed the Red Sea on dry ground and Pharaoh’s pursuing army was drowned in the sea. They proceeded to Mount Sinai where God made a covenant with the nation, gave Moses the Ten Commandments written on tablets of stone, and gave him many other instructions to guide the life of the people. These included instructions for the building of a movable sanctuary and its furnishings, where the commandments were to be kept and where sacrifices and offerings were to be made. Moses’ brother Aaron was consecrated as high priest. The book of Exodus ends with the consecration of this sanctuary, called the Tabernacle or the Tent of Meeting.
Important persons: Moses, Aaron, Miriam; Jethro; Joshua.
Time: 1446 BC or 1290 BC (scholarly opinions differ; hereafter we will follow the earlier dating)
Leviticus (27 chapters)
Leviticus is named for the tribe of Levi, the patriarch to whose family, or tribe, Moses and Aaron belonged. This family was charged with the maintenance of the Tabernacle and its furnishings, and with supervising the worship practices of the rest of the nation. The book details many of these priestly duties, including how and when sacrifices were to be made, and contains the holiness code which governed ritual purity, identification of infectious diseases, what foods were permitted and what were not, and ethical instructions. Penalties for various violations are set forth, and the religious calendar with its feasts, fasts, and holy days is described in detail. Sabbath regulations are set forth, including the law of Jubilee, the release of all debts every fifty years.
Important Persons: Moses, Aaron, Phineas, Eleazar
Time: ~1440 BC
Numbers (36 chapters)
The book of Numbers is so named because it includes the account of census-taking as the Israelites were led by Moses through the wilderness. However, much of this book is narrative, and it contains additional instructions from God to the people through Moses. It begins the story about where Exodus leaves off. It tells why the people were made to wander for forty years, though they began on the edge of the promised land of Canaan. It provides details of those forty years of wandering, and includes additional instructions about feasts and observances, laws of inheritance, and priestly duties. Narrative portions tell of military conflicts and of God’s miraculous provision for the people in the desert. Here also is the story of Balaam and the donkey.
Important Persons: Moses, Aaron, Miriam; Balaam
Time: 1446 BC to 1406 BC
Deuteronomy (34 chapters)
Deuteronomy means “second law.” In it Moses gives a farewell speech to the nation, reminding them of all that God has done and of the instructions he has given. It re-tells many of the stories already given in Exodus and Numbers, retracing the history beginning from the time the Israelites left the mountain where God gave them the Torah, up to the time of Moses’ speech, just across the Jordan from Canaan. The Ten Commandments are given in slightly different form. Additional laws are given, and many of the ethical and social instructions of Leviticus appear again as well. There are promises of blessings for obedience, and warnings against disobedience. Joshua is appointed as Moses’ successor, and Moses dies without entering the Promised Land.
Important Persons: Moses, Joshua
Time: ~1406 BC
Historical Books: Joshua through Kings
The books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings are called the Former (i.e., earlier) Prophets by scholars in the Hebrew tradition; among Protestant Christians, following the order they appear in our Bibles they are called Historical, along with several others taken from the Writings: Ruth, Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther. The books of Samuel, Kings and Chronicles are each two-volume sets, due to the very practical consideration that the size of an ancient scroll limited how much material could go into one book.
Joshua (24 chapters)
Joshua leads the Israelites across the river Jordan on dry ground, just as Moses had led an earlier generation across the red sea. This book details the military conquest of Canaan during the lifetime of Joshua.(including the march around the walls of Jericho), and the division of lands among the twelve tribes of Israel. It recounts a speech given by Joshua in his old age, urging his countrymen to remain faithful to God. The book concludes with the death of Joshua and of Eleazar the priest, the son of Aaron.
Important Persons: Joshua, Rahab
Time: ~1406 BC to ~1390 BC
Judges (21 chapters)
The book of Judges covers the period between the death of Joshua and the appointment of Israel’s first king — a period of more than 400 years. It recounts the stories of leaders like Gideon, Deborah, Samson, Jephthah, and others. It tells of conquests of individual tribes, and of conflicts between the tribes of Israel, and of shocking acts of disobedience to God as well as miracles that showed God’s faithfulness.
Important Persons: Caleb, Othniel, Ehud, Deborah, Barak, Gideon, Abimelech, Tola, Jair, Jephthah, Samson, Delilah, Micah
Time: ~1390 BC to ~1045 BC
Ruth (4 chapters)
This lovely tale brings the biblical story to focus on one family among the tribes of Israel. During the time of the Judges, an Israelite family, the victim of drought and plague, goes to the land of Moab and is reduced to a widow and her two widowed Moabite daughters-in-law. One of these returns to her own family, but the other, Ruth, goes home with Naomi, her mother-in-law, to the town of Bethlehem. There a landowner, Boaz, shows her kindness in keeping with the instructions given by Moses, and soon becomes her husband. Ruth and Boaz are the great grandparents of David, king of Israel.
Important persons: Naomi, Ruth, Boaz
Time: ~1150 BC to _1120 BC
First Samuel (31 chapters)
During the time of the judges, Hannah prayed that God would give her a child, and promised to dedicate that child to the Lord. In answer to her prayer Samuel was born. He was raised by Eli the high priest, at Shiloh where the house of God (still a tent in those days) was. While still a boy he received God’s call to be a prophet. He becomes Israel’s judge.
When the people ask for a king, God instructs Samuel to anoint Saul as king. Later, however, when Saul is disobedient, Samuel is sent to Bethlehem to anoint one of the sons of Jesse. There we meet David, Jesse’s youngest son.
This book contains all of the stories of David’s early life: his battle with Goliath the Philistine giant, his friendship with Jonathan son of Saul, his life as an outlaw and a refugee, and his faithfulness to God throughout. The book ends with the deaths of Saul and Jonathan in a battle with the Philistines.
Important persons: Eli, Samuel, Saul, David, Jonathan, Michal, Abigail
Time: ~1105 BC to _1011 BC
Second Samuel (24 chapters)
Second Samuel tells us of David king of Israel: his political, military and personal successes, failures, wars, victories, defeats, sins, prayers and acts of service to God over a forty year period. During this time David brought the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem, and made plans for the building of a temple.
Important persons: David, Joab, Mephibosheth, Bathsheba, Nathan, Absalom
Time: ~1010 BC to 970 BC
First Kings (22 chapters)
This book details the history of Israel over a period of about 126 years. An aged King David settles disputes among his sons by naming his son Solomon (Bathsheba’s child) his heir as king. After David’s death Solomon prays to God for wisdom and becomes renowned for his wealth and wisdom. He builds a magnificent Temple and a royal palace. Later in life, however, he turns from God and practices idolatry. After his death the nation is divided, with ten northern tribes following Jeroboam I son of Nebat, and only two of the twelve tribes remaining loyal to the family of David and Solomon. The northern confederation of tribes retains the name Israel, and the southern division is named after Judah, the tribe that David belonged to. God’s dealings, through various prophets, with the divided kingdom and the (mostly) disobedient kings becomes the subject of the remainder of the book. whose final chapters focus on the work of Elijah the prophet during the reign of Ahab king of Israel
Kings over all Israel: David, Solomon.
Kings over Judah and Benjamin: Rehoboam, Abijah, Asa, Jehoshophat Jeroboam, Ahijah,
Kings over Israel (the ten tribes): Jeroboam, Nadab, Baasha, Elah, Zimri, Omri, Ahab, Ahaziah
Prophets: the “man of God from Judah”; Ahijah, Elijah, Obadiah, Elisha, Micaiah
Others: Queen of Sheba, Jezebel, Naboth
Time: 970 BC to 852 BC
Second Kings (25 chapters)
Covers the period from Ahab’s death through the capture of Jerusalem by the Babylonians and the beginning of the Babylonian Exile, about 292 years. The final deeds of Elijah are recounted, as are all the deeds and miracles of his successor Elisha. What follows is an chronological recounting of the political and military exploits of kings and prophets in the two kingdoms, Israel and Judah, over many generations, evaluating each according to their level of obedience to the Lord, until the northern kingdom of Israel, with its capital in the city of Samaria, is overthrown by the Assyrians and the people taken into exile in Assyria. Through the faith of King Hezekiah and the support of the prophet Isaiah, Jerusalem (capital of Judah) escapes the same fate. 125 years later, although there was a brief period of religious reform under Hezekiah’s great-grandson Josiah, his successors faced an invasion from the Babylonians, and suffered the same fate — exile — as had come to their northern kinsmen. 2 Kings ends with the account of the fall of Jerusalem and the exile to Babylon.
Prophets: Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah
Kings over Israel: Ahaziah, Joram, Jehu, Jehoahaz, Jehoash, Jereboam II, Zecharaiah, Shalum, Menahem, Pekahiah, Pekah, Hoshea
Kings over Judah: Jehoram, Ahaziah, Joash, Amaziah, Azariah, Jotham, Ahaz, Hezekiah, Manasseh, Amon, Josiah, Jehoahaz, Jehoiakim, Jehoiachin, Zedekiah
Time: 852 BC to 560 BC
First Chronicles (29 chapters)
The two books of Chronicles are official histories of the kingdom of Judah, compiled after the Babylonian Exile, probably for the purpose of helping those resettling in the land upon return from Babylon to know their roots. First Chronicles gives detailed genealogical records (family tree) of the royal line of David, beginning with Adam, and provides a large amount of such information for all the tribes of Israel. It also retells much of the story of the life of David, beginning with how he became king after the death of Saul. It details how he brought the ark of God, in which were kept the Ten Commandments, to Jerusalem, and of the plans and provisions he made for building a temple there, and of God’s promise to him through the prophet Nathan of the blessing that would be on his family, ultimately to be fulfilled in the coming of the Messiah. Here is explained that the house of God was not to be built by David but by his son Solomon, who would be a man of peace. Also recounted is his sin in taking a census of his fighting men and how God rebuked him through the prophet Gad.
Prophets: Nathan, Gad
Kings: Saul, David, Solomon
Time: creation to 971 BC
Second Chronicles (36 chapters)
Begins with a detailed account of the reign of Solomon, his prayer for wisdom and his great projects of building the temple, and of its dedication. Solomon’s wealth and fame is described in spectacular detail. Here again is recounted the division of the kingdom after Solomon’s death, with the ten northern tribes joining the rebellion of Jereboam I against Solomon’s son Rehoboam. The succession of kings of Judah is given much as it is recounted in 2 Kings, but only mentioning the northern kingdom Israel in relation to the concerns of Judah. Extra space is given to the faithful acts of Hezekiah, who purified the temple and celebrated the Passover in Jerusalem, and of Josiah, who also instituted reforms and during whose reign the book of the Law (probably Deuteronomy) was found in the temple. With the exception of these two and also in part of Jehoshaphat, the history is one of a succession of kings departing from the ways of God. This book also concludes with the account of the fall of Jerusalem, and the exile to Babylon explicitly portraying it as God’s just punishment of a nation whose leaders and people refused to listen to the repeated warnings of the prophets.
Prophets: Micaiah, Isaiah
Kings of Judah: Solomon, Rehoboam, Abijah, Asa, Jehoshophat, Jehoram, Ahaziah, Athaliah (queen mother), Joash, Amaziah, Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, Hezekiah, Manasseh, Amon, Josiah, Jehoahaz, Jehoiakim, Jehoiachin, Zedekiah
Other kings: Shishak of Egypt, Sennacherib of Assyria, Nebuchudnezzar of Babylon
Time: 971 BC to 538 BC
Ezra (10 chapters)
Ezra the scribe was one of the leaders who helped re-establish the presence of the people of Judah (who came to be called Jews) in Jerusalem, seventy years after the destruction of the city and the temple. It was his task to oversee the rebuilding of the Temple. This book details some of the political background of those events, under three successive Persian kings, including correspondence and royal decrees in response to opposition that arose, laws that were established to help in the resettlement. It recounts Ezraâ€™s role as a spiritual leader and teacher of the law, including his opposition to the practice of intermarriage with people of other nations.
Kings of Persia: Cyrus, Xerxes, Artaxerxes, Darius
Leaders in Israel: Zerubbabel, Ezra
Prophets: Haggai, Zechariah
Time: 539 BC to 516 BC (Zerubbabel) and 458 BC (Ezra)
Nehemiah (13 chapters)
At his own request, Nehemiah was appointed by Araxerxes of Persia to oversee the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem and to serve as governor there. This book recounts his prayers and struggles in accomplishing that task, in the face of considerable opposition from others and a tendency to discouragement on the part of the workers. The first six chapters detail this work; the seventh provides a list of families who returned from exile; the eighth recounts how Ezra read the Book of the law and led the people in worship. This chapter gives the first description of a pulpit, “a high wooden platform made for the occasion.” In the ninth chapter the people confess their sins and acknowledge God. What follows recounts details of civil and temple administration, and further reforms instituted by Nehemiah during his term as governor, in conjunction with the work of Ezra the scribe.
Important People: Nehemiah, Ezra
Time: 445 BC to ~425 BC
Esther (10 chapters)
The book of Esther is unique among the books in the Bible because it makes no direct reference to God. Yet it tells a moving and deeply spiritual story of how a young women acted in faith on behalf of her people. The setting is during the period of the Exile, at the royal court of the Persian king Xerxes. Esther, an orphaned Jewish girl who has been raised by her cousin Mordecai, becomes part of the king’s harem and is chosen as his favorite. When Haman, a high official, becomes enraged with Mordecai for not bowing down to him, he engineers a royal decree calling for destruction of the Jews throughout the Persian Empire. Queen Esther now faces a decision: does she say nothing in hopes of saving her own skin, or risk royal wrath (the death penalty) by going to the king unannounced? At the risk of her life she intercedes for her people, with the result that the tables are turned, and a new decree is issued permitting the Jews to defend themselves. Thus is told the story of the origins of the feast of Purim, which became a national holiday.
Time: 483 BC to 473 BC
The Wisdom Literature
The books of Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, and Lamentations are a special category of writing in the Old Testament. They are neither history, law nor prophecy, but nevertheless have been used across the centuries for instruction and devotion.
Job (42 chapters)
The book of Job is, in essence, an ancient play, written to explore the question of why the righteous suffer. The scene opens in heaven, with a debate between God and Satan over why Job is faithful to God. While God commends Job’s faithfulness and integrity, Satan claims it is all because of the rewards God gives him — good health, good family, the respect of his peers, and good health. Take these away, Satan tells God, and Job will”curse you to your face”
In quick succession a series of disasters causes Job loses his home, his flocks and herds, and his children. He tears his robe in a sign of mourning, yet he still blesses the name of the Lord. Again we are presented with a heavenly scene, in which Satan argues that “all that a man has he will give for his life” and challenges God to strike his flesh and bones. God tells Satan, “he is in your hands; only spare his life.” Now Job is afflicted with painful sores. His own wife urges him to curse God and die, yet “in all this Job did not sin with his lips”
His three friends come to “comfort” him in his suffering. Yet when Job questions what is happening, all of them tell him that his suffering must be the result of his having done wrong or rebelled against God in some way, for they cannot imagine a just and righteous God bringing such punishment on one who does not deserve it. They use Job’s claims of innocence as proof that he must be hiding some secret guilt. Yet Job stands his ground, wishing for an audience with the Almighty. After Job’s final speech, we hear from Elihu, a young who finds fault with Job’s friends being unable to back up their accusations against Job, and with Job for questioning God. Finally God himself speaks to Job, who responds in awe and humility. After this Job prays for his three friends, and God restores his fortunes to twice what they were before.
Important people: God, Satan, Job, Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar, Elihu; also Job’s three daughters who were granted an inheritance along with their brothers, thus setting a righteous example of equality between the sexes.
Time: setting is the patriarchal period (~2000 BC) writing may have been much later (4th century BC)
Psalms (150 chapters)
The book of Psalms is the hymnbook of the Old Testament. It contains prayers, poems and songs that were used in private and public worship of God, and is quoted by New Testament writers more than any other Old Testament book. The authors of a third of the Psalms are unknown, while many others include headings which name the author. Nearly half the Psalms (73) are attributed to David, some to Asaph who was the earliest named choir director, several to the sons of Korah, part of the priestly tribe of Levi, and others to various individuals including two psalms of Solomon and at least one of Moses.
These prayers and poems give expression to the full range of human emotions, from deep despair to overflowing joy, from anguish and anger to peace and praise. Thus they show how for thousands of years human beings have presented themselves to God with nothing held back. Daily readings in the Psalms have formed part of the worship practice for ordinary people across the centuries, and is still highly recommended.
Time: Various; ~1410 BC to 430 BC
Proverbs (31 chapters)
Proverbs are short sayings of the wise, often expressed in poetic form. King Solomon, the son of David, is said to have uttered three thousand proverbs; only some of them are preserved for us. This book gives us a compilation of sayings of Solomon— some of them copied, we are told, by the men of Hezekiah king of Judah (25:1), hundreds of years after Solomon’s death— as well as other “sayings of the wise” and more sayings attributed to Agur Son of Jakeh, and Lemuel, about whom we otherwise know nothing.
The main theme of the book of Proverbs is stated eloquently in 1:7: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction.”
Time: ~950 BC to ~700 BC
Ecclesiastes (12 chapters)
This short book differs from many biblical books in that it presents a rather hopeless philosophical viewpoint— showing that the highest human wisdom, unless it is rooted in God, leads only to despair.
Time: ~970 BC to ~930 BC
Song of Songs (8 chapters)
This lovely little book portrays the joys of marital love. Because of the subject matter, it is said that it is not read by orthodox Jews until they have attained the age of forty. Among Christians it has often been read as an allegory, representing the marriage between Christ and the Church.
Time: ~965 BC
The major prophets
Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel are called major prophets primarily because of the amount of material in each of their books, and also because of their place within the canon. The Hebrew tradition calls them the Latter Prophets, in contrast to the Former Prophets, which we tend to think of as History.
Isaiah (66 chapters)
The prophet Isaiah lived in the southern kingdom of Judah during the time of four kings: Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, a period of a half century or more. He lived to see empires fall and other empires rise. His prophecies show that he saw all nations as subject to the God of Israel, and ultimately his message was one of hope for all nations. Isaiah portrays the clearest Old Testament vision of God’s plan of salvation for all the nations of the earth. Contained in these pages are some of the clearest and most striking prophecies of Messiah, finding their fulfillment in Jesus
Time: ~740 BC to 681 BC
Jeremiah (52 chapters)
Jeremiah prophesied over a forty-year period during the last years of the existence of Judah as an independent kingdom. At a time of mighty empires, Josiah was the last king of Judah to have any real power; his son Jehoahaz reigned only three months, was deposed by the Egyptian Pharaoh who appointed his brother Jehoiakim. Jeremiah was present during the siege of Jerusalem by Nebuchudnezzar of Babylon and the beginning of the Babylonian exile, when first King Jehoiakim, was taken into exile, soon followed by his son King Jeoiachin (whom the king of Babylon had appointed as a puppet), and eleven years later by King Zedekiah, another member of the royal family who was also appointed king by Nebuchudnezzar of Babylon. Each of these in their turn were carried with other leaders into captivity. Jeremiah’s task was to warn these kings and the Israelites of the disaster to come, to instruct them that it was God’s will for them that they cooperate with the Babylonians instead of fighting them, and to issue a call to repentance. Because he saw so clearly that God’s people were bringing ruin on themselves by their disobedience to God, he is sometimes called “the weeping prophet.”
Jeremiah was not well loved by the kings or people of Judah during his ministry, and was actually placed under house arrest because his preaching was viewed as advocating treason. On at least one occasion his writings were destroyed, and had to be written over again. As a result this book as we now have it a collection of various writings of the prophet, and not a single continuous work.
Because of his faithfulness to God in proclaiming unpopular truths, Jeremiah was allowed to see beyond the immediate future to a time of restoration. He predicted the end of the Babylonian Exile after 70 years, and saw further to the promise of a new covenant. In fact the term”new covenant” — our New Testament — comes to us directly from the prophecies of this great man of God. This promised new covenant would be better than the old, because it would be written, not on tablets of stone, but on the hearts of people, and would be based on the forgiveness of sins (Jeremiah 31:31-34).
Time: ~626 BC to 585 BC
Lamentations (5 chapters)
The Lamentations of Jeremiah are a short collection of laments and prayers of the man who is called the Weeping Prophet. Called to prophesy against his own people, their kings and priests and prophets, he takes no delight in the task but intercedes for his people with God. Here he mourns bitterly for Jerusalem, the city he loves.
Time: 586 BC to 580 BC
Ezekiel (48 chapters)
The prophet Ezekiel served during the time of the Babyonian Exile. Like Jeremiah, he was called to bring messages to his people that they did not want to hear: a message of repentance from sin and a call for faithfulness to the living God.
Like his older contemporary Jeremiah, Ezekiel accurately predicted the fall of Jerusalem to a military siege and the destruction of the Temple of God. Though he was not present in Jerusalem itself, he was granted visions, based on which he preached to the people. Ezekiel’s visions contained much symbolism, as did his manner of presenting the messages he was given. On several occasions he acted out the vision God had given him, presenting himself as a living parable or object lesson concerning God’s message to Israel.
Ezekiel also presents a message of hope that goes beyond the immediate warnings of destruction, including a time of restoration for the people of God and the manifestation of God’s sovereignty over all the nations. Emphasizing personal responsibility for the present (“the soul that sins shall die”), he also reveals a glorious plan for the future, one which includes a time when the Spirit will be poured out on God’s people, when they will be cleansed from their sins and God himself will care for his sheep, and will make a covenant of peace with his people: “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.” (Ezek. 36:26-27)
Time: 592 BC to 570 BC
Daniel (12 chapters)
The stories of Daniel belong to the period of the Babylonian Exile, beginning with the reign of Nebuchudnezzar and extending to that of Cyrus king of Persia.
About half the book tells of the experiences of Daniel and others who show their faith in the living God, including an account of how Nebuchudnezzar himself becomes convinced that the Most High reigns over all the earth; the latter half recounts the visions Daniel received. Some highlights are as follows:
Daniel interprets Nebuchudnezzar’s dream; Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-Nego show their faith in God by refusing to bow down to an idol, and are miraculously saved from death by fire; Daniel is thrown into a den of lions and is not harmed; Daniel interprets the “handwriting on the wall.”
Included in Daniel’s interpretation of the king’s dream, and of the visions he himself later receives, are prophecies of Messiah, and of God’s final victory over all the nations.
Time: 605 BC to 536 BC. Some scholars ascribe a later date.
The Minor Prophets
The last twelve books of the Old Testament are called the Minor Prophets because each of the writings is relatively short. Ancient scribes preserved all of these together on a single scroll, which was called The Book of the Twelve.
Hosea (14 chapters)
Hosea was a prophet who flourished in the same time period as Isaiah: during the last years of the northern kingdom of Israel.
Hosea’s prophecies use the experiences of his family life as acted-out parables, or signs, of God’s relationship with Israel. His wife, Gomer, is unfaithful to him, just as Israel is unfaithful to God; yet Hosea loves her even in the face of her adultery, just as God continues to love his people who turn from him. While making very plain the tragic consequences of unfaithfulness, his perspective brings into focus the very personal nature of relationships, including the relationship of people with God, that transcends legal obligations, as summed up in his most famous saying, one which is later quoted by Jesus: “For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings” (Hosea 6:6). He concludes with an invitation to God’s people to repent, in light of God’s promises and willingness to freely forgive.
Time: ~753 BC to ~715 BC
Joel (3 chapters)
The vision of the prophet Joel gives us a view of a series of disasters: locusts, famine, and a marauding army, seen through the eyes of a nation about to be overridden. Thus it portrays a stark image of horror and destruction, followed by drought and hunger; the strength of the wicked understood as God’s vehicle for judgment of a disobedient people. Yet in the midst of such images Joel offers hope: for those who repent the restoration of abundance, and the ultimate victory of a God who, though great judgment is in his hand, intends to bestow even greater blessing. Thus it falls to Joel to predict the outpouring of the Spirit upon all flesh, a time when “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Joel 2:32). This prophecy will later be cited by the apostle Peter in the first sermon preached after the resurrection of Jesus
Time: 4th century BC
Amos (9 chapters)
Amos was a shepherd from Judah who was sent by God to prophesy in the northern kingdom of Israel. In today’s way of talking we would call him a layman, one who was not specially trained and did not belong to any of the prophetic schools. His only credentials were the words God gave him to speak.
Amos begins by pronouncing scathing judgments on several nations — neighbors and often enemies of Israel, including his own homeland of Judah. But the greatest part of his word of judgment is against Israel, for oppressing the poor and allowing injustice in the courts. He declares that God prefers justice and righteousness over sacrifice and worship. .
Amos predicts the exile of Israel for their sins, and issues a call to repentance. Yet after declaring one more time that “all the sinners among my people will fall by the sword,” his final word is one of promise and restoration for his people.
Time: mid-8th century BC
Obadiah (1 chapter)
Obadiah, perhaps the most obscure of the prophets, presents a brief but powerful prophecy of judgment against Edom, Israel’s neighbor. He speaks against pride and arrogance, and gives voice to a continuing theme of justice in the Old Testament:”Your deeds will return upon your own head.” And in the end, “the kingdom will be the Lord’s.”
Time: ~840 BC
Jonah (4 chapters)
The prophet Jonah is perhaps the most well-known of the so-called minor prophets, because of the event recorded in 1:17, where he is swallowed by a “great fish.” (Contrary to popular re-tellings of this tale, the Bible says nothing about a whale.) But quite apart from that detail, Jonah reveals much about the character of God as the God of all nations, not just the Hebrews. Ninevah was the capital of Assyria, the mighty military power that overran the northern kingdom of Israel in the 8th century B.C., and Jonah’s reluctance to preach there had to do with his unwillingness to see Israel’s bitterest enemy receive God’s blessing. Although Jonah knew that God was “the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land” (1:9), yet he still thought of God primarily in nationalistic terms. The real story of Jonah is not his attempt to flee from God, or the miraculous fish that saved him from drowning, but the extraordinary lengths to which God went to give the Assyrians, enemies of His chosen people, an opportunity to repent.
Time: ~ 786-750 BC, after the exile of Israel, while Assyria was still the world’s greatest power. (some scholars place him later)
Micah (7 chapters)
Micah lived about the same time as the prophet Isaiah, and though is book is much shorter, the message is very similar. Like Isaiah and many of the prophets, Micah begins with announcements of disaster on the people of Jerusalem and Samaria, because they have turned away from God. Micah’s prophecy focuses not just on those who turn from God to idols, but also those who maintain a semblance of worshiping the Lord, yet practice injustice:
Her leaders judge for a bribe, her priests teach for a price, and her prophets tell fortunes for money. Yet they lean upon the Lord and say, “is not the Lord among us? No disaster will come upon us.” —Micah 3:11
Micah also contains the prophecy cited in Matthew 2:6, concerning the birthplace of Christ. It also provides what some consider to be the greatest summary in all the prophetic literature of the spiritual life:
He has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord requre of you but to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God? — Micah 6:8
Time: ~715-700 BC
Nahum (3 chapters)
Nahum’s prophecy is directed single-mindedly against Assyria, the ruthless nation of warriors who conquered much of the known world in the 8th century BC, including the northern kingdom of Israel. Nahum, who is from Judah, writes about a century after that, of the sure judgment of God upon a wicked nation.
Time: ~650-612 BC
Habakkuk (3 chapters)
The prophet Habakkuk lived in Judah, probably Jerusalem, at a time when the Babylonians were rising in power, overcoming kingdoms from Assyria to Egypt. It seemed only a matter of time before its terrible armies would overcome even the remnant of God;s chosen nation in Judah, as the Assyrian army had already done to the northern kingdom of Israel. Thus the great burden of Habakkuk’s work is a question he asks of God: why do the wicked prosper? The book consists of something like a dialogue, a question-and-answer between the prophet and God.
Within this dialogue, as part of God’s answer to the prophet’s searching questions, is the declaration: “the righteous shall live by his faith;” a theme greatly expanded in the New Testament. And Habakkuk ends with a confident declaration of trust in God, whatever the appearance of circumstance may show.
Time: ~ 625-600 BC
Zephaniah (3 chapters)
Zephaniah flourished during the reign of the reforming king Josiah of Judah; the last “good” king of David’s line. He prophesies with equal vehemence against Judah and several of its neighbors: Philistia, Moab, Ammon, Cush, Assyria. All are warned of great destruction to come, and urged to put their trust in God who is still able to redeem. The promise of restoration and salvation for a “remnant,”all who cease trusting in human wisdom and earthly wealth, and turn to God, bring this brief and powerful prophecy to a focus on joy and peace which contrasts dramatically the warnings of judgment.
Time: ~640-609 BC
Haggai (2 chapters)
Haggai wrote during the time of the restoration of the city of Jerusalem and the Temple (“House of the Lord”), after the period of the Babylonian Exile. His focus is on the work of rebuilding the House of the Lord, urging the people to do so as a sign of their renewed faithfulness to God. He calls the people to give generously to the work, promising blessing in return. He also supports Zerubbabel, a descendant of David who served for a time as the appointed (by the Persian emperor) governor of Judah.
Time: ~520 BC
Zechariah (14 chapters)
Zechariah, a contemporary of Haggai, also preached the importance of repentance and return to God. His message is punctuated by a series of visions, with explanations of their meaning given to the prophet by an angel. Some of these visions are clearly messianic (that is, they point to Christ).
Zechariah expands on the theme of restoration and return with prophecies of the Lord coming to rule as a righteous King. Many of his words are echoed in the New Testament and applied to Jesus.
Time: ~ 520 BC
Malachi (4 chapters)
The last book of the Hebrew Bible was also written very late, perhaps two or three generations after the return of the exiles to Jerusalem from Babylon. The danger faced in his time is that people will become “weary in well doing” and neglect the worship of God. He calls for the tithes to be brought into the house of God, and warns against the idea that God is not paying attention to what is going on in the world..
Malachi’s promise of a “messenger” to prepare the way for God, and his concluding promise of the return of Elijah, are both taken by New Testament writers to be references to John the Baptist.
Time: !458-432 BC (?)