This is part eleven of sixteen in a series, “The Bible Is…“
The last part of the Hebrew Old Testament consists of nearly twenty books collecting the works of various Prophets from the ancient kingdom of Israel. Due to their respective lengths, the last twelve used to be recorded on one scroll and the longer ones before them would each be on their own scroll. This arrangement gave way to the terms used to this day, Major (or Greater) Prophets and Minor (or Lesser) Prophets. These labels refer to their length, not their importance or significance. The Greater Prophets, in the Christian reckoning, are Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel. Isaiah we have dealt with in a previous section; Daniel shall be saved for a later section. The two Major Prophets to be considered here are Jeremiah and Ezekiel, which actually amount to three books, as Jeremiah also authored the Book of Lamentations.
The Book of the Prophet Jeremiah is a long and difficult book for the modern reader. Its content is (at best) loosely organized by topic, not by chronology, making its periodic references to historical circumstance all the more difficult to keep up with. The first half of the book is a collection of Jeremiah’s oracles, or prophetic utterances, concerning the unfaithfulness of the people of the Kingdom of Judah and their dire need to repent. This part of the book generally moves from spoken prophecies written down, to more personal laments, to more specific actions of Jeremiah to proclaim God’s message. A significant chunk of the middle of the book gives us biographical information, relating Jeremiah’s interaction with the leadership of Jerusalem. While many prophets’ books give us some historical material about their author or subject, the book of Jeremiah gives us considerably more than any other. The final section of the book is largely a series of oracles against other neighboring nations who mistreated God’s people in Jeremiah’s day, and the final chapter is an historical note about the fall of Jerusalem largely repeating material in 2 Kings 24.
This rather depressing ending sets up for a sort of appendix, which has come to be regarded as a separate book of the Bible: the Lamentations of Jeremiah. This is a series of five Hebrew poems, alphabetic acrostics of varying length and elaborateness, each bewailing the destruction of Jerusalem from a different point of view, be it the third-person perspective of an observer, personifying the city itself, and others. Despite the mournful subject of all five laments, some very famous glimmers of hope shine through: “The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is thy faithfulness” (3:22-23).
The book of the prophet Ezekiel covers a similar period of time, dealing with the fall of Judah and Jerusalem, but more balanced with the “before and after” compared to Jeremiah’s almost exclusive focus on the “before.” Ezekiel’s book is more clearly a two-part document: the first 24 chapters foretell Judah’s doom and is entirely unrestrained in its graphic language illustrating just how sinful God’s people had become, and the last 24 chapters deal with a future hope for God’s people. Generally, the emotional contour of the whole book is like a “V”, getting worse and worse in its descriptions of Judah’s sin, and then slowly building up a sense of hope first by proclaiming judgment on Judah’s neighbors and enemies, then describing a new covenant, new shepherds, and new hope for God’s people, culminating in a lengthy description of a rebuilt Jerusalem and Temple.
Like the book of Isaiah, described earlier, the major prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel provide extensive prophetic material that points to Christ, his Cross, his New Covenant, and the Church as the future of his ancient people. The book of Lamentations, in particular, have traditionally found a home in Holy Week, during which Christians reflect on the death of Christ akin to the Jews mourning the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. The inexorable descent of the Kingdom of Judah into sin and idolatry and injustice, despite the warnings of the prophets, is also instructive to the everyday experience of the Christian today – it is all too easy to spurn the Word of God and pursue our own self-destruction. The Major Prophets show us, at length, the seriousness of sin and the long-suffering mercy of God, both of which find their ultimate depiction and revealing on the Cross.