The Former Prophets—How History Becomes Prophecy
How often have we heard that history repeats itself? It does—time and time again.
The Hebrew Bible is divided into three main sections: the law, the prophets and the psalms, or writings. The prophets include what are classified as the major and minor prophets. There also are the “former prophets,” comprised of the biblical books of Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, and 1 and 2 Kings. These were originally just two books: Joshua-Judges and the Book of Kings. They are all tied together; we need to understand them individually and as one prophetic unit.
The former prophets record a broad sweep of history of the nation of Israel—from the time the Israelites entered the Promised Land under the leadership of Joshua until the two parts of the divided kingdom, Israel and Judah, were conquered and taken into captivity. There is a special message in all the former prophets. They are mostly about history, but they are called former prophets for good reason. The word former simply means they are the earlier prophets. These books were written by prophets and they are filled with end-time prophecy.
The Jews today, and all people, can learn a lot by studying the former prophets!
Consider the basic message in Joshua and Judges, which is powerful and unique. When the nation followed Joshua’s way—which was really the way of Moses, which was really the way of God and His law—things went well for Israel. The period of the judges, when the nation rejected God and His laws and “every man did that which was right in his own eyes,” shows what happens when a nation abandons God.
The books of Joshua and Judges contain lessons about success and failure.
The books of Samuel and Kings contain similar relevant lessons. These books record the history of David and Solomon, the two kings responsible for uniting Israel and making it a regional superpower. These two books reveal how a nation surrounded by enemies can remain independent and safe. They reveal how national unity is crucial to national security. They contain powerful lessons on leadership and how leaders determine the destiny of a nation.
Israel today has many enemies. Its politics are divisive and unstable; the nation is divided, not just politically, but ideologically and religiously. Israel’s government is wracked with disputes; the nation’s leaders spend more time competing than cooperating. In many ways, the nation is making the same mistakes it made anciently.
This is why the people of Israel, especially the nation’s leaders, need to study and understand the former prophets!
Many people believe the former prophets contain only history. This would mean that these books have limited value for us today. But this simply isn’t true. In fact, this belief is destructive, because it discourages people from looking to the Bible for guidance and it damages people’s faith. There is far more to the former prophets than just history.
Many authorities call history our most effective teacher. There is a lot of truth to that statement. Napoleon Bonaparte said if you want to be a great general, you must study the great generals of the past. That is good advice for us spiritually as well. Bible history is the greatest history of all because it is God’s history. We must learn about these spiritual warriors of the past. We need to learn about Joshua and Samuel. We should understand why Saul failed even though he had such a great opportunity. We must learn about David, who has the greatest, longest biography in the Bible. We need to know about Elijah and Elisha.
What were these powerful leaders all about? All this incredible history is recorded in the former prophets. It is ready for us to study and learn from. Of all people on Earth, the Jewish people ought to be intensely interested in these biblical books!
The former prophets contain many direct prophecies—pivotal prophecies that are especially for this end time. Throughout these books we read about the promised Messiah, for example. But the former prophets also give us indirect prophecies. Of course they record history, but it is history that in most cases also becomes prophecy. Consider for example how the state of religion in ancient Israel revealed the state of the nation. If we have the same or similar religious problems today, this is an indirect prophecy of what is happening to the modern descendants of Israel and Judah—the end-time nations of Israel and Judah, which are primarily America, Britain and the Jewish state. (If you have not proved this important truth, study our free book The United States and Britain in Prophecy.)
These books show that if we live the same lifestyles our forefathers did, we will attain virtually the same results—good or bad. If we live like the people did during the time of Joshua, we will experience the same beautiful results. If we live like people lived during the period of the judges, we will experience the same horrific results! History becomes prophecy. Not all prophecy is history, but a lot of history becomes prophecy. History prophesies the fate of nations—whether they will thrive or collapse!
Some commentaries say that the former prophets descended partly from “oral tradition.” This is provably false, and it is Bible criticism aimed at discrediting these inspired scriptures and weakening people’s faith!
In this case “oral tradition” could be almost anything. Only God’s Word, documented by the prophets of God, can be fully relied upon.
God ensured that the material in the former prophets was recorded and preserved mainly so we could understand it during the time that leads directly into the coming of the Messiah.
It took much intensive study by these biblical writers to collect this invaluable instruction for our education! This history isn’t simply oral tradition. In discussing the book of Kings, the Cambridge Bible explains: “The compiler specifies three sources from which his narrative is drawn: 1) The Book of the Acts of Solomon (1 Kings 11:41) as the authority for Solomon’s reign. 2) The Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Judah, which is mentioned 15 times …. 3) The Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Israel, quoted 17 times” in Kings. The writers and compilers of the former prophets had many written sources—not just oral tradition. They had to deeply study the prophetic books and the history of the prophets in order to put it all together in the manner God wanted.
We can learn more about these three sources by comparing the history in the former prophets with what is recorded in the book of Chronicles. For example, the Cambridge Bible notes, “The chronicler [the compiler of Chronicles] adheres so closely to the language of Kings throughout the history of Solomon that a comparison at once convinces us that he drew his narrative from the same documents as the earlier compiler,” referring to The Book of the Acts of Solomon. But he actually lists his sources in 2 Chronicles 9:29: “Now the rest of the acts of Solomon, first and last, are they not written in the words of Nathan the prophet, and in the prophecy of Ahijah the Shilonite, and in the visions of Jedo [or Iddo] the seer concerning Jeroboam the son of Nebat?” In other words, this book about Solomon consisted of the writings of these three prophets: Nathan, Ahijah and Iddo.
“‘The Book of the Acts of Solomon’ comprised three works written by prophets contemporary with Solomon and which embracing the whole period of his reign were naturally soon gathered into one treatise and called by one collective name” (ibid; emphasis mine). Note that carefully: The sources used by the compiler of the former prophets included The Book of the Acts of Solomon, which relied on source material written by prophets who were right there with Solomon! God-inspired men gathered all this material together to make a bigger book. That was then consulted in composing the former prophets.
This process was much more thorough and meticulous than just “oral tradition.” This history was recorded in much the same way our historians write history today. But there was one vital difference: Their work was also inspired by God!
The second of these three sources, The Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Judah, has a similar story. The material it covers included the reign of Rehoboam (1 Kings 14:29). Yet the source material for that history cited in 2 Chronicles 12:15 includes “the histories of Shemaiah the prophet and of Iddo the seer.” So Iddo contributed to that volume as well. Do you know anything about Iddo? We should—he was one of the sources of the former prophets! (The word seer was replaced by the word prophet.)
Later, God-inspired men combined those two books about the history of the kings of Judah with others, including some about the history of Israel’s kings (e.g. 1 Kings 14:19). “Now the rest of the acts of Jehoshaphat, first and last, behold, they are written in the words of Jehu the son of Hanani, who is inserted in the book of the kings of Israel” (2 Chronicles 20:34). Here the book is listed as “the kings of Israel,” but later it was changed to the kings of Israel and Judah. Still more details of the history were drawn from the writings of Isaiah and other prophets of God.
These men labored over these writings, building on previous records and manuscripts, because of how important this history is! Clearly it was extremely critical and meaningful to the righteous scholars of ancient Israel! If only modern Israel valued it so highly!
History Recorded by Prophets
King David created offices to ensure this invaluable history was recorded and preserved. “Now the acts of David the king, first and last, behold, they are written in the words of Samuel the seer, and in the words of Nathan the prophet, and in the words of Gad the seer” (1 Chronicles 29:29). The men who wrote the former prophets and Chronicles were highly educated. They knew their Bibles, and they knew God’s history and prophecy. These prophets all recorded the history of David. They kept the flame of David’s throne shining brightly for any followers of God!
Education was of great importance in these former prophets. Samuel, Elijah and Elisha were educated! They all founded schools to educate others and to disseminate that invaluable knowledge. Their schools were small because most of the nation wasn’t following the godly education. Still, that history—and even these men’s regard for godly education—was recorded for us today.
I believe the Prophet Jeremiah was the editor whom God inspired to integrate the former prophets all together. But we are not looking for Jeremiah in these books—we are looking for God all the way through. God put this history together! Yet faithless scholars label it with names like “Hebrew history.” Yes, it contains history of the Hebrews—but that is hardly all it is. Such a title waters down the truth of God. It isn’t merely history of the Hebrews—it’s the history of God and of what He is doing on Earth! This history was arranged and inspired by God Himself!
If you and I aren’t studying this history, we are missing out on an incredible, even life-saving opportunity!
I encourage you to take time to really study the history recorded in the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings. Some of the history is wonderful and positive. It is deeply inspiring to read about the joy and prosperity Israel experienced during the time of Joshua, Samuel’s devotion to true education, King David’s astonishing accomplishments and beautiful example of humility and repentance, Elijah’s faith-filled service to God, Elisha’s miracle-filled prophetic work, and many others. The history of these awesome biblical figures teaches us how to be happy and successful today!
The former prophets also flow with much tragic history. These books recount a lot of suffering, conflict and depression. The book of Judges describes some of the most heinous, gruesome behavior in the Bible. The life of Saul is a sobering warning against vanity and self-reliance. The example of Jeroboam and the civil war he incited shows what happens when we depart from the true religion established in Jerusalem by King David.
Knowing this history will help us avoid repeating the same mistakes!
The history in these books could actually save your life. Spiritually, it will lead you into a deeper, more fulfilling relationship with God. It will reveal how you can be protected by God when trials strike and how you can achieve your incredible human potential. Learning the lessons of these books will even help you physically. These lessons will help you grow as a leader and as a mother or father, husband or wife. They will reveal the path to material prosperity. This history will show how you can be content and at peace—with yourself, your family and all those with whom you come into contact.
This history occurred thousands of years ago, these writings are ancient and venerable, but their lessons are even more relevant and important today than they were three millennia ago! They will change your life!
It’s far more than history.
The former prophets contain vital guidance that you need in your life today and prophecy that will illuminate your worldview. They were written for our time now. Request Gerald Flurry’s free book The Former Prophets to learn about these crucial books in your Bible.