Introduction to Old Testament Prophecy
A. Opening Statements
1. The believing community does not agree on how to interpret prophecy. Other truths have been established as to an orthodox position throughout the centuries, but not this one.
2. There are several well defined stages of OT prophecy
(1) individuals called prophets
(a) Abraham – Gen. 20:7
(b) Moses – Num. 12:6-8; Deut. 18:15; 34:10
(c) Aaron – Exod. 7:1 (spokesman for Moses)
(d) Miriam – Exod. 15:20
(e) Medad and Eldad – Num. 11:24-30
(f) Deborah – Jdgs. 4:4
(g) unnamed – Jdgs. 6:7-10
(h) Samuel – 1 Sam. 3:20
(2) references to prophets as a group – Deut. 13:1-5; 18:20-22
(3) prophetic group or guild – 1 Sam. 10:5-13; 19:20; 1 Kgs. 20:35,41; 22:6,10-13; 2 Kgs. 2:3,7; 4:1,38; 5:22; 6:1, etc.
(4) Messiah called prophet – Deut. 18:15-18
b. non-writing monarchial (they address the king):
(1) Gad – 1 Sam. 22:5; 2 Sam. 24:11; I Chr. 29:29
(2) Nathan – 2 Sam. 7:2; 12:25; 1 Kgs. 1:22
(3) Ahijah – 1 Kgs. 11:29
(4) Jehu – 1 Kgs. 16:1,7,12
(5) unnamed – 1 Kgs. 18:4,13; 20:13,22
(6) Elijah – 1 Kings 18 - 2 Kings 2
(7) Micaiah – 1 Kings 22
(8) Elisha – 2 Kgs. 2:9,12-13
c. classical writing prophets (they address the nation as well as the king): Isaiah – Malachi (except Daniel)
B. Biblical Terms
1. Ro'eh = "seer" (BDB 906), 1 Sam. 9:9. This reference itself shows the transition to the term nabi. Ro'eh is from the general term "to see." This person understood God's ways and plans and was consulted to ascertain God's will in a matter.
2. Hozeh = "seer" (BDB 302), 2 Sam. 24:11. It is basically a synonym of Ro'eh. It is from a rarer term "to see." The participled form is used most often to refer to prophets (i.e., "to behold").
3. Nabi' = "prophet" (BDB 611), cognate of Akkadian verb Nabu = "to call" and Arabic Naba'a = "to announce." This is the most common term in the Old Testament to designate a prophet. It is used over 300 times. The exact etymology is uncertain but "to call" at present seems the best option. Possibly the best understanding comes from YHWH's description of Moses' relationship to Pharaoh through Aaron (cf. Exod. 4:10-16; 7:1; Deut. 5:5). A prophet is someone who speaks for God to His people (Amos 3:8; Jer. 1:7,17; Ezek. 3:4.)
4. All three terms are used of the prophet's office in 1 Chr. 29:29; Samuel – Ro'eh; Nathan – Nabi' and Gad – Hozeh.
5. The phrase, 'ish ha – 'elohim, "Man of God," is also a broader designation for a speaker for God. It is used some 76 times in the OT in the sense of "prophet."
6. The term "prophet" is Greek in origin. It comes from: (1) pro = "before" or "for" and (2) phemi = "to speak."
II. DEFINITION OF PROPHECY
A. The term "prophecy" had a wider semantic field in Hebrew than in English. The history books of Joshua through Kings (except Ruth) are labeled by the Jews as "the former prophets." Both Abraham (Gen. 20:7; Ps. 105:15) and Moses (Deut. 18:18) are designated as prophets (also Miriam, Exod. 15:20). Therefore, beware of an assumed English definition!
B. "Propheticism may legitimately be defined as that understanding of history which accepts meaning only in terms of divine concern, divine purpose, divine participation," Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, vol. 3, p. 896.
C. "The prophet is neither a philosopher nor a systematic theologian, but a covenant mediator who delivers the word of God to His people in order to shape their future by reforming their present," Prophets and Prophecy, Encyclopedia Judaica vol. 13 p. 1152.
III. PURPOSE OF PROPHECY
A. Prophecy is a way for God to speak to His people, providing guidance in their current setting and hope in His control of their lives and world events. Their message was basically corporate. It is meant to rebuke, encourage, engender faith and repentance, and inform God's people about Himself and His plans. They hold God's people to fidelity to God's covenants. To this must be added that often it is used to clearly reveal God's choice of a spokesman (Deut. 13:1-3; 18:20-22). This, taken ultimately, would refer to the Messiah.
B. Often, the prophet took a historical or theological crisis of his day and projected this into an eschatological setting. This end-time view of history is unique in Israel and its sense of divine election and covenant promises.
C. The office of prophet seems to balance (Jer. 18:18) and usurp the office of High Priest as a way to know God's will. The Urim and Thummim transcend into a verbal message from God's spokesman. The office of prophet seems to also have passed away in Israel after Malachi. It does not reappear until 400 years later with John the Baptist. It is uncertain how the New Testament gift of "prophecy" relates to the Old Testament. New Testament prophets (Acts 11:27-28; 13:1; 15:32; 1 Cor. 12:10,28-29; 14:29,32,37; Eph. 4:11) are not revealers of new revelation or Scripture, but forth-tellers and foretellers of God's will in covenant situations.
D. Prophecy is not exclusively or primarily predictive in nature. Prediction is one way to confirm his office and his message, but it must be noted "less than 2% of OT prophecy is Messianic. Less than 5% specifically describes the New Covenant Age. Less than 1% concerns events yet to come." (Fee and Stuart, How to Read the Bible For All Its Worth, p. 166)
E. Prophets represent God to the people, while Priests represent the people to God. This is a general statement. There are exceptions like Habakkuk, who addresses questions to God.
F. One reason it is difficult to understand the prophets is because we do not know how their books were structured. They are not chronological. They seem to be thematic but not always the way one would expect. Often there is no obvious historical setting, time frame, or clear division between oracles. These books are difficult
1. to read through in one sitting
2. to outline by topic
3. to ascertain the central truth or authorial intent in each oracle
IV. CHARACTERISTICS OF PROPHECY
A. In the Old Testament there seems to be a development of the concept of "prophet" and "prophecy." In early Israel there developed a fellowship of prophets, led by a strong charismatic leader such as Elijah or Elisha. Sometimes the phrase, "the sons of the prophets," was used to designate this group (2 Kings 2). The prophets were characterized by forms of ecstasy (1 Sam. 10:10-13; 19:18-24).
B. However, this period passed rapidly into individual prophets. There were those prophets (both true and false) who identified with the King, and lived at the palace (Gad, Nathan). Also, there were those who were independent, sometimes totally unconnected with the status quo of Israeli society (Amos). They are both male and female (2 Kgs. 22:14.)
C. The prophet was often a revealer of the future, conditioned on man's immediate response. Often the prophet's task was an unfolding of God's universal plan for His creation which is not affected by human response. This universal eschatological plan is unique among the prophets of the Ancient Near East. Prediction and Covenant fidelity are twin foci of the prophetic messages (cf. Fee and Stuart, p. 150). This implies that the prophets are primarily corporate in focus. They usually, but not exclusively, address the nation.
D. Most prophetic material was orally presented. It was later combined by means of theme, chronology, or other patterns of Near Eastern Literature which are lost to us. Because it was oral it is not as structured as written prose. This makes the books difficult to read straight through and difficult to understand without a specific historical setting.
E. The prophets use several patterns to convey their messages.
1. Court Scene – God takes His people to court, often it is a divorce case where YHWH rejects his wife (Israel) for her unfaithfulness (Hosea 4; Micah 6).
2. Funeral dirge – the special meter of this type of message and its characteristic "woe" sets it apart as a special form (Isaiah 5; Habakkuk 2).
3. Covenant Blessing Pronouncement – the conditional nature of the Covenant is emphasized and the consequences, both positively and negatively, are spelled out for the future (Deuteronomy 27-28).
V. HELPFUL GUIDELINES FOR INTERPRETING PROPHECY
A. Find the intent of the original prophet (editor) by noting the historical setting and the literary context of each oracle. Usually it will involve Israel breaking the Mosaic Covenant in some way.
B. Read and interpret the whole oracle, not just a part; outline it as to content. See how it relates to surrounding oracles. Try to outline the whole book.
C. Assume a literal interpretation of the passage until something in the text itself points you to figurative usage; then put the figurative language into prose.
D. Analyze symbolic action in light of historical setting and parallel passages. Be sure to remember this Ancient Near Eastern literature is not western or modern literature.
E. Treat prediction with care.
1. Are they exclusively for the author's day?
2. Were they subsequently fulfilled in Israel's history?
3. Are they yet future events?
4. Do they have a contemporary fulfillment and yet a future fulfillment?
5. Allow the authors of the Bible, not modern authors, to guide your answers.
F. Special concerns
1. Is the prediction qualified by conditional response?
2. Is it certain to whom the prophecy is addressed (and why)?
3. Is there a possibility, both biblically and/or historically, for multiple fulfilment?
4. The NT authors under inspiration were able to see the Messiah in many places in the OT that are not obvious to us. They seem to use typology or word play. Since we are not inspired we best leave this approach to them.
VI. HELPFUL BOOKS
A. A Guide to Biblical Prophecy by Carl E. Amending and W. Ward Basque
B. How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart
C. My Servants the Prophets by Edward J. Young
D. Plowshares and Pruning Hooks: Rethinking the Language of Biblical Prophecy and Apocalyptic by D. Brent Sandy
E. New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis, vol. 4, pp. 1067-1078
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