Take a look at our Top Ten Prophets and be inspired by their lives of faith, courage and determination. See how they faced tricky kings, enemies, powerful leaders and nations.
The Prophets of the Old Testament have always been essential reading for Christians.
There are four major groups:
The prophets of the 8th Century BCE – Amos, Hosea, Micah and First Isaiah.
Those who prophesied just before the Exile (late 7th early 6th Century) – Nahum, Zephaniah, Habakkuk, and Jeremiah.
The prophets of the exile – Ezekiel and second Isaiah.
The post-exilic prophets – Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi, then Obadiah, Joel and Jonah.
Unlike priests or kings who came from specific tribes or families, prophets were chosen by God and came from very different classes and backgrounds. We know of at least five women prophets in the Hebrew scriptures – Miriam who led the Israelites out of Egypt with Moses and Aaron; Deborah a prophetess and judge; the wife of Isaiah whose name is not recorded; and Huldah who authenticated the book of the Law found in the Temple at the time of Josiah. There are references to other groups of women prophets elsewhere, but we do not know of their ministry.
Prophets were both Seers and deliverers of “the Word of the Lord”, sometimes literally in messages they had received by divine inspiration while at other times in symbolic acts. It is the Prophets who above all bear witness to the coming of the Messiah. They give us fascinating foreshadowings of Christ which the Gospels pick up and realise in the life of Jesus. The account of Mary singing the Magnificat is the account of a prophet summarising the prophetic tradition of her people, addressing the cruel social realities of her time, bringing God’s judgement to them and offering a word of prophetic hope. To get a clearer picture of the events that led to and foretold the Messiah, be sure to read the Prophets.
Miriam is mentioned in the Bible as one of the few nominated prophetesses. Saving her brother Moses’ life is primarily what Miriam is remembered for. She leads the people in joyful dance and song in celebration of God liberating them from slavery and calling them into a new land to be a new people. Throughout her story, God’s free engagement with human events is a common theme; we see how trusting in Him produces tremendous benefit, as well as how doubting Him leads to disastrous consequences. Miriam’s tale shows how we should never lose faith in God’s presence among us and with us, and how we should always express our gratitude to Him.
Deborah is one of the most significant women in the Bible. She was wise and courageous, a prophet and judge. Deborah heard God’s words and conveyed them to the people. Deborah is the only woman in the Old Testament for whom her faith and actions are known, not because of her connection to her husband or another man. She led Israel’s tribal militia into battle against the professional Canaanite army of oppression when her own military leader Barak was unwilling to face them. The people’s triumph is celebrated in “the Song of Deborah” in Judges 5:1-31. Deborah remains a source of inspiration for women who want to follow God’s path.
Elijah is traditionally regarded as the greatest Old Testament prophet. He maintained the pure revelation of the God of Israel in the face of the competition of the cults of various Canaanite and Phoenician gods. He stood for the finest traditions of moral teaching and consistently called those in power to acknowledge the needs of the poor and vulnerable. He promoted a radical sense of social justice faithful to the spirit of the covenant.
We hear how Kings quaked when he spoke, rains ceased when he commanded them, a jug of oil never ran out, a boy was raised to life, fire fell from the sky, revival swept across the land, and hundreds of idolatrous prophets of Baal were slain.
Queen Jezebel’s murderous threats prompted Elijah to panic and flee. After running for several days, Elijah collapsed—exhausted, frightened, lonely, and thoroughly defeated. He foolishly requested the Lord to take his life in his desperation. Instead, the Lord gave Elijah a double portion of nourishment, water, rest and then sent him back out with a powerful demonstration of his strength, a quiet message to his heart, a new mission, and the certainty that others were also on his side. Whether victorious or defeated, we should rely on the Lord to provide and fulfil our needs.
At the end of his life, Elijah is taken up into heaven and so his return was seen as the necessary prelude to the restoration of all things and the coming of the Messiah. In Orthodox Jewish households there is always a place laid for him at the Passover feast in hope of his return.
The prophet Isaiah is one of the most quoted in the Bible, with his words being re-quoted by Jesus, St Paul, St Peter, and St John. The book of Isaiah has been seen from the time of the early Christian communities as a beautiful prophetic picture of Jesus Christ. It anticipates major themes from his entire life story, from the announcement of his coming to his virgin birth, to his proclamation of the Good News, and finally to his sacrificial death. Isaiah’s words address the political situation of the kingdom of Judah in periods of war, exile and restoration. They are a wonderful reminder of God’s faithful and creative loving kindness towards us and his refusal to abandon his people despite their foolishness.
One of the most poignant passages from Isaiah which we hear in Mass every Good Friday is the Song of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53 which Christians interpret as pointing to the crucified Christ as the One who suffers for his people.
The prophecies of Jeremiah provide us with a glimpse into the mind and heart of one of God’s most loyal servants. The book is filled with personal statements of emotional engagement, painting Jeremiah not just as a prophet tasked with delivering God’s message, but as a sensitive human being with deep feelings.
Jeremiah came from the elite of his people and loved their traditions and the worship of the Temple but saw this as having become perverted and so has to bring God’s judgement upon that which he loves. But in facing this, he develops a spirituality of the heart where the core of a person becomes their Temple and anticipates the words of Jesus to the Samaritan Woman at the Well prophesying a renewed religion of Spirit and truth.
Jeremiah in a terrible time of despair is given an ultimate vision of hope in which God renews the covenant and invites the Gentiles to share the blessings of his people. His words brought comfort and inspiration to those who returned from exile but also anticipate so much of the teachings of Jesus and Paul. Through his words, we can understand better what it means to be truly faithful to God, no matter the circumstances.
The book of Daniel provides an account of the experiences of Daniel and other faithful Jews who were taken captive in Babylon. It also contains the interpretation of an important dream that King Nebuchadnezzar had about the kingdom of God in the last days. Famously, after ignoring the decree of King Darius forbidding prayer to any god or man other than himself, Daniel is cast into the lion’s den, from which God miraculously delivers him.
Daniel and his companions survive captivity under several powerful foreign kings including Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, and Darius and Cyrus of Persia because they remain faithful to the religious practices and traditions of the covenant. In doing so they became heroes and exemplars for a later generation that would have to face similar temptations under the corrupting influence of Greek and Roman pagan practices e.g. the Maccabees under Antiochus Epiphanes.
Daniel’s story bears witness to the strength that life-giving traditions can provide in difficult times.
In the book of the prophet Hosea his marriage to his unfaithful wife Gomer (see Hosea 1:2-3; 3:1-3) becomes an extended metaphor of the Northern Kingdom of Israel’s unfaithfulness to God and its tendency to adultery with other gods. Like Isaiah, a generation later, he prophesises the fall of the royal dynasty and a rupture with the covenant with God. But Hosea continues to love Gomer, and God, despite Israel’s multiple apostasies, does not abandon the covenant. Hosea’s core message is that of the reconciling mercy of God .
Jonah appears as something of an anti-prophet. Called to prophesy God’s judgement on the Assyrian atrocities in their capital of Nineveh, he is disgusted when they all repent and he goes off in a huff. The story is told with great humour and irony, but it has a very powerful message. It implies that sometimes religious traditions can get in the way of God’s work. Here the wicked Assyrians gain forgiveness through repentance and so are welcomed into God’s circle of friends along with his own much oppressed people. A “good Assyrian” at this time was as likely as “a good Samaritan” at the time of Jesus who used a similarly strong example in his own teaching.
The message of God’s mercy is sometimes harder to receive than God’s judgement! The message of the reconciling of the Ninevites was as hard for Jonah as Paul’s preaching of the inclusion of Gentiles would be for early Jewish Christians.
While the book of Micah contains the first prophecy of the destruction of Jerusalem, it is better known for bringing a message of hope and change that would spur a revival in the land of Judah. Among the prophets of the Old Testament, he is the most vocal in his demands for justice for the poor and oppressed. He lashes out at greedy judges, who make money from unjust judgements.
Micah delivers a powerful message of repentance, restoration, and hope for the coming of Christ. His words (6:8) sum up in memorable form the nature of true religion as justice, mercy and humble communion with God.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.
Zechariah served as a voice of hope and inspiration for the exiled Israelites. Zechariah and Haggai worked together to inspire the people and urge them to rebuild the Temple. Zechariah’s primary message was that Israel would survive the Exile because they were the people of the covenant with God. God assured His people that He would never abandon them, no matter what.
The striking visions he receives are interpreted by a divine messenger, an Angel. This is the first time we hear of an interpreting Angel in the Bible. The messages are rather different from the early pre-exilic prophets, so often critical of king and court, Temple and Priesthood. Here there is a need in a restored nation for a true and faithful priesthood and a holy servant king. There is a need for reformed institutions that will help the people of God to fulfil their vocation to the nations. But like Hosea he knows that the following of law is not enough. They must “Judge with true justice and show kindness and compassion to each other (7:9).