The Biblical prophets had a great deal to say about the future, but they also had a lot to say about the present in which they lived. This is important. The prophets were not speculators or star-gazers, they were divinely inspired commentators and interpreters of the events that were unfolding around them. They talked about real issues affecting God's people in very particular historical circumstances, as well as talking about God's plans for the future. You can find a wider introduction to all this as well as some examples in the Nuts & Bolts page Bible Prophecy.
Because the prophets' work and ministry was tied in to the events in their own day, it's often very important to find out when they lived and what was going on in the lives of their audience at the time. Most of the Old Testament prophets who have books named after them lived in the period 750-500 B.C. Often their message involved telling the Jews in the land of Israel that they needed to reform their ways, or risk their kingdom being brought to nothing by God. Knowing something about the historical background of this period is invaluable for studying the prophets, and you can find an outline in the Nuts and Bolts pages.
Unfortunately the message of reform often went unheeded, as the prophets predicted it would. In the end God terminated the northern kingdom of Israel in 721 B.C, and the southern kingdom of Judah in 586. No other king has since reigned on David's throne in Jerusalem.
But the prophets also foretold a wonderful time of restoration, as well as the initial message of judgment. They spoke of a time when God would send a saviour to deliver His people and the world at large, and the New Testament argues that this Messiah figure is none other than the Lord Jesus Christ. The prophets also predicted a wonderful future time when God would again set up a kingdom upon the earth, with His son as its king. In the meantime, the prophets gave other assurances that their words were true, which brings us to...
The test of a prophet
Much earlier in Biblical history Moses had given the Jews a test by which they could evaluate whether or not a so-called 'prophet' was indeed sent from God and was speaking on His behalf. The prophet would make predictions about the near-term future that were specific and falsifiable. If these near-term predictions came true, then there was empirical evidence on which to base confidence in the prophet's longer-range pronouncements.
This means that there is often in the prophets a sense of 'now' (things regarding the prophet's own day) and 'then' (things in the more remote future). The fulfilment of the one gives confidence in the fact that God will fulfil His promises for the future. This is very important. Some prophecies seem to even have multiple fulfilments or applications to several different phases of God's purpose (we can see this, not just from our own interpretations, but also from the way in which the New Testament writers, Jesus and the apostles, understood and interpreted the Old Testament).
It's always worth having an eye on the relevance of what we read in the prophets both to the initial circumstances in Israel centuries ago, and also on God's wider plans - in particular those relating to the Lord Jesus Christ and God's plans for His future kingdom. Fulfilled prophecy like the return of the Jews to the land of Israel, the destruction of ancient kingdoms like Tyre and Babylon, and the circumstances surrounding the life and work of Jesus give considerable evidence for faith in the work of God's prophets.
The Biblical material
While there are examples of prophecy in many of the books of the Bible, there is a clear section of books in the Bible which are entirely devoted to it. The Old Testament contains three huge works of prophecy by Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel. These, coupled with the prophet Daniel, are typically known as the Major Prophets. The smaller books, from Hosea to Malachi could all fit on single scroll of parchment, and are known as the Minor Prophets. It doesn't mean that they are less important; just that they are shorter and fit neatly as a group.
Finally, the New Testament closes with the most famous work of prophecy ever written, the book of Revelation, or the Apocalypse. This work makes heavy use of symbol, and draws many of its images and allusions from Old Testament stories. The book ends with a prayer from the apostle John that God's plan as the prophets have unfolded it will soon be brought to its great conclusion. The Bible's closing words are: 'Even so, Come, Lord Jesus.'
Q: Questions coming soon!
A: And answers too...!