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Understanding the Writing Prophets

Introduction

As you know, we are in the midst of what may be called an Old Testament Survey, a series entitled “From Creation to the Cross.” The purpose of this series is to provide us with a better working knowledge of the Old Testament Scriptures, a better understanding of God’s progressive revelation, and a fresh look at the unfolding drama of redemption which culminates in Jesus Christ.

The previous two lessons discussed the ministry of the prophets Elijah and Elisha, which has given us some insight into the deteriorating situation in Israel, Judah, and the divided kingdom. Following on the heels of Elijah and Elisha, God raised up new prophets to speak for him. These new prophets continued in the prophetic tradition of Moses. They continued in the spirit of Elijah. I call these new prophets the writing prophets to distinguish them from their predecessors, for they are unique in that their prophecies are written down for us. I am referring of course to the Major Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel) and the Twelve Minor Prophets (the final twelve books of our Old Testament). In fact, it may be helpful to turn to the Table of Contents in your Bible to see them all listed.

It should be pointed out that the minor prophets are so-called only because these books are relatively short in length; the major prophets are relatively long books. The terms imply nothing about their relative importance.251 It would perhaps be more appropriate to refer to them as the longer and shorter prophets.

These two combined lessons will give an introduction to these Writing Prophets. It is appropriate to devote some time to an “introduction” for a couple of reasons. First, there is much in common among them as a type of Old Testament literature which can help us understand them.252 They have similarities not only in literary style, but in context and content which are worth noting. Second, an overview will hopefully prepare us and encourage us to study them on our own, as we look forward to dealing with most, if not all of them, individually as our series continues.

Chronological Overview

Let us first take a look at the chart in Figure 1 on page 2, which will help us see how the writing prophets fit chronologically in the history of Israel and Judah.253 The bar represents the nation of Israel becoming a divided kingdom after the rule of Solomon. You will remember God told Solomon that upon his death, the Kingdom would become divided (1 Kings 11:9-13), and it did.

As you see, the writing prophets come on the scene immediately after Elijah and Elisha and continue where their ministries left off. We see here an approximate chronological relationship of the writing prophets, which span the period from Elisha to the end of the Old Testament Scriptures.254

The writing prophets may be divided into four groups:

Prophets of Israel – Jonah, Amos, and Hosea

Prophets of Judah – Obadiah, Joel, Isaiah, Micah, Nahum, Zephaniah, and Habakkuk

Exilic Prophets – Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel

Post-exilic Prophets – Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi

The dating of the prophets Jonah, Joel, and Obadiah are more questionable than the other prophets. All three of these have are the subject of fair arguments for much later dates.255 I have shown them here at their earliest suggested dates for convenience.

Studying the Figure above can give us a feel for how the various prophets relate to each other chronologically, which we notice is not how they are presented in the canonical order. Understanding the chronological order along with the corresponding events in Israel’s history is vital to understanding why the prophets say what they say (which will hopefully become evident later). But let’s begin by considering the writings of the prophets in general, as we find them presented to us in the Old Testament.

Why We Have Difficulty Understanding the Prophets

I think most of us would agree at the outset that these prophetic books are among the most difficult parts of the Bible to interpret or to read with understanding. We shouldn’t be embarrassed to admit we have difficulty reading the prophets, for actually we are in good company if we do. In referring to the prophets, Martin Luther once said the following:

“They have a queer way of talking, like people who, instead of proceeding in an orderly manner, ramble off from one thing to the next so that you cannot make heads or tails of them or see what they are getting at.”256

Now that is a comment to which I can relate.

Let’s look at a few reasons for some of the difficulty we have:

The Meaning of Prophecy – The primary difficulty for most modern readers of the prophets stems from an inaccurate understanding of the words “prophet” and “prophecy.” The word prophet refers to one who tells forth (or proclaims), as well as one who foretells.257 But we often limit the meaning of prophecy to foretelling the future, so many Christians refer to the prophets only for predictions about Christ’s first coming, or his second coming, and the end times as though prediction of events far distant to their own day was their main concern.

It should be pointed out that less than 2% of Old Testament prophecy is messianic. Less than 5% specifically concerns the New Covenant age. And less than 1% concern events still future to us.258 The prophets did indeed announce the future. But it was usually the immediate future of Israel, Judah, and the surrounding nations they announced – not our future. One of the keys to understanding the Prophets, therefore, is to recognize that for us to see their prophecies fulfilled, we must often look back on times that were still future to them, but for us are past.259

To see the prophets as primarily predictors of future events is to miss their primary function, which was, in fact, to speak for God to their contemporaries.

Historical Distance Another matter that complicates our understanding the prophets is the problem of historical distance. By the very nature of things, we will have a harder time understanding the words of the prophets than the Israelites who heard those same words in person. We are far removed from the religious, historical, and cultural life of ancient Israel, and we simply have trouble putting the words of the prophets in their proper context. It is often hard for us to see what they are referring to and why. Things clear to them tend to be opaque to us.

The Spoken Nature of the Prophets Finally, the spoken nature of their prophecies causes many of our difficulties in understanding.

For example, of the hundreds of prophets in ancient Israel in Old Testament times, only 16 were chosen to speak oracles that would be collected and written down into books. We know that other prophets, such as Elijah and Elisha, played a very influential role in delivering God’s Word to His people and to other nations as well. But we know more about these prophets than we do of their actual words. What they did is described in far greater length than what they said -- and when we are told what they said, it is placed very specifically and clearly in the context of the narratives in which they appear. Generally, in the narrative books of the Old Testament, we hear about prophets and very little from prophets. In the prophetic books, however, we hear from the prophets and very little about the prophets themselves. That single difference accounts for most of the problem people have making sense of the prophetic books.

Furthermore the prophetic books, especially the longer ones, are collections of spoken oracles, not always presented in their original chronological sequence, often without hints as to where one oracle ends and another begins, and often without hints as to their historical setting. On top of that, most of the oracles were spoken in poetry. We’ll talk more about oracles later, but I think you get the point.

Now, if these are the reasons we have difficulty with the prophets, then in order to really understand the prophets, we have to get a better handle on: (1) the function of a prophet; (2) the historical context of their writings; and (3) the form of their writings.

Function of the Prophets

Covenant Enforcement Mediators To understand what God would say to us through these inspired books, we must first have a clear understanding as to the role and function of the prophet in Israel. The prophets spoke for God to His people. They functioned to call Israel back to God,260 which meant a call back to faithfulness to their Covenant relationship with God; i.e., back to the Law of Moses. In accomplishing this primary purpose, they confronted Israel’s sin and demanded repentance. Simply stated, the prophets were “covenant enforcement mediators.”261 There was a covenant relationship between God and His people. This covenant contained not only the rules which they were to keep, but it describes the sorts of punishments that God will necessarily apply to His people if they do not keep the Law, as well as the benefits He will impart to them if they are faithful. What is important is that God does not merely give His Law, but He enforces it. Positive enforcement is blessing; negative enforcement is curse. This is where the prophets come in. God announced the enforcement of His Law (both positive and negative) through the prophets.

Moses as a Model Moses was the mediator of God’s Law when he first announced it, and thus is a paradigm (or model) for the prophets. They are God’s mediators, or spokesmen, for the covenant. Through them, God reminds people in the generations after Moses that if the covenant is kept, blessing will result, but if not, judgment will come.

Blessing and Cursing The kinds of blessings that come for faithfulness are found in Leviticus 26:1-13, Deuteronomy 4:32-40, and Deuteronomy 28:1-14. Generally, these may be categorized as life, health, prosperity, agricultural abundance, respect, and safety. But these blessings are announced with a warning of curses (punishments) if Israel is not obedient and faithful to the covenant. The curses are found in Leviticus 26:14-39, Deuteronomy 4:15-28, and Deuteronomy 28:15-32:42. Generally, these may be categorized under ten “D’s”: death, disease, drought, dearth, danger, destruction, defeat, deportation, destitution, and disgrace.

These same categories apply in what God communicates through the prophets. One must always bear in mind that the prophets did not invent the blessings and curses they announced. They reproduced God’s Word, not their own. Through them, God announced His intention to enforce the covenant and always in accordance with the categories of blessing and curse already contained in the Law. If we will take the trouble to learn those chapters from the Pentateuch, we will be rewarded with a much better understanding of why the prophets say the things they do.

When God wants to announce blessing for the nation through the prophet Amos, He does so in terms of metaphors of agricultural abundance, life, health, prosperity, respect, and safety (see Amos 9:11-15). When He announces doom for the disobedient nation of Hosea’s day, He does so according to one or more of the ten “D’s.” For example: destruction in Hosea 8:14 or deportation in Hosea 9:3. These curses are often metaphorical, though they can certainly be literal as well. They are always corporate, referring to the nation as a whole. Blessings or curses do not guarantee prosperity or dearth to any specific individual.

Statistically speaking, a majority of the prophets announce curse because in the time of their prophecies (generally 800 - 587 BC), the Israelites (north and south) were heading for punishment. After the destruction of both kingdoms, i.e., after 586 BC, the prophets were moved more often to speak of blessings rather than curses because once the punishment of the nation is complete, God resumes His basic plan, which is to show mercy. Deuteronomy 4:25-31 gives a nutshell description of this sequence:

25 “When you become the father of children and children’s children and have remained long in the land, and act corruptly, and make an idol in the form of anything, and do that which is evil in the sight of the Lord your God so as to provoke Him to anger, 26 I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that you shall surely perish quickly from the land where you are going over the Jordan to possess it. You shall not live long on it, but shall be utterly destroyed. 27 “And the Lord will scatter you among the peoples, and you shall be left few in number among the nations, where the Lord shall drive you. 28 “And there you will serve gods, the work of man’s hands, wood and stone, which neither see nor hear nor eat nor smell. 29 “But from there you will seek the Lord your God, and you will find Him if you search for Him with all your heart and all your soul. 30 “When you are in distress and all these things have come upon you, in the latter days, you will return to the Lord your God and listen to His voice. 31 “For the Lord your God is a compassionate God; He will not fail you nor destroy you nor forget the covenant with your fathers which He swore to them.

As you read the prophets, look for these simple patterns: either (1) an identification of Israel’s sin followed by a prediction of cursing, or (2) an announcement of God’s faithfulness and love for her followed by a prediction of blessing, depending on the circumstance. Most of the time, that is what the prophets are conveying.

The Context of Their Writings

The prophetic books require time and study. People often approach these books casually, as if a surface reading through the Prophets will yield a high level of understanding. This isn’t done with textbooks in our ordinary schooling, and it doesn’t really work with the Prophets either. Specifically for understanding and interpreting the Prophets, one must be willing to consult outside resources, such as Bible dictionaries and commentaries, which can shed light on the background information so we will be able to catch the point of what a Prophet conveys. God’s Word came through the prophets to people in particular situations. Its value depends partly on our ability to appreciate those situations so we can in turn apply them to our own.

Historical Context – It is interesting to note that the 16 prophetic books of the Old Testament come from a rather narrow band in the whole panorama of Israelite history. Why is there such a concentrated writing down of prophetic word during the time between Amos and Malachi? It is probably because this period in Israel’s history called especially for covenant enforcement mediation, which was the task of the prophets. That is along with the evident desire of God to record for all subsequent history the warnings and blessings that those prophets announced on His behalf during those pivotal years.

Those years were characterized by three things: (1) unprecedented political, military, economic, and social upheaval; (2) an enormous level of religious unfaithfulness and disregard for the original Mosaic covenant; and (3) dramatic shifts in populations and national boundaries. In these circumstances, God’s Word was needed anew. God raised up prophets and announced His Word accordingly.

The Books of 1 and 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles provide the biblical context of the writing prophets leading up to the Babylonian exile. There we see that by the time the writing prophets come on the scene, Israel was a nation permanently divided by a long ongoing civil war. The northern kingdom’s disobedience to the covenant had far outstripped anything yet known in Judah, and Israel was slated for destruction by God because of its sin. Amos, beginning around 760, and Hosea, beginning around 755, announced the impending destruction. God raised up the Assyrians as the new superpower at that time and the instrument of judgment on Israel. In 722 BC, Assyria sacked the capital city of Samaria and thus conquered Israel.262

The people of Judah witnessed the destruction of the northern kingdom, as did Isaiah and Micah, who warned that they were not immune to God’s wrath and were, in fact, on the same road to destruction. Thereafter, the mounting sinfulness of Judah and the rise of another superpower, Babylon, became the subject of the prophets Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah, as well as Jeremiah and Ezekiel. Judah, too, was destroyed for its disobedience and carried off into exile. Perhaps this is where an example of the importance of historical context can be best illustrated.

The Babylonians rose up and defeated the Assyrians (612 BC), and then defeated the Egyptians at the battle of Carchemish in 605 BC to become the number one power in the civilized world. Following the defeat of the Egyptians, Nebuchadnezzar headed south into Judah and entered Jerusalem as conqueror. Then begins the exile. When we think of the exile, however, we need to know that there were actually three deportations. The first occurred in 605 BC when Daniel was taken to Babylon. The second deportation occurred in 597 BC when Nebuchadnezzar returned to quell a resistance movement; this is when Ezekiel was taken to Babylon (during all this, Jeremiah remained in Jerusalem). The final deportation occurred in 586 BC when Jerusalem was finally destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar.

Now take, for example, the writings of Jeremiah and Ezekiel: Both prophesied before and after the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC. The Book of Jeremiah was written before the destruction. Jeremiah, an eyewitness to the destruction, wrote Lamentations afterward. Ezekiel’s prophecies in chapters 1-32 were given in Babylon before the fall of Jerusalem. Chapters 33-48 were prophecies given after. The focus of the prophet’s ministry changes with respect to that event. Before the destruction of Jerusalem, they spoke mainly of judgment. After the destruction, they begin to talk more of restoration. If you know the historical context, it is easier to understand why they said what they did.

After the exile, when the people were allowed to return to Jerusalem, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi announced God’s will for the rebuilding of the temple, the rebuilding of the nation, and the reinstitution of orthodoxy.

Unless we know these events and others within this era too numerous to mention here, we probably will not be able to follow very well what the prophets are saying. Each prophetic oracle was delivered in a specific historical setting. God spoke through His prophets to people in a given time and place, and under given circumstances. A knowledge of the date, audience, and situation, therefore, when they are known, contributes a great deal to a reader’s ability to comprehend an oracle.

Literary Form

A. They Spoke in Oracles – When we come to the actual study of the prophetic books, the first thing we must learn to do is to think oracles (just as we must learn to think paragraphs in the epistles or narrative sections of the Bible).263 This is not always an easy task, but to know the difficulty and the need to do this is the beginning of some exciting discovery. For the most part, the longer prophetic books are collections of spoken oracles, not always presented in their original chronological sequence, often without any indication as to where one oracle ends and another begins, and often without hints as to their historical setting. To top it off, most of the oracles were recorded in poetic form.

Most of the time, what the prophets said is presented in their books in run-on fashion. That is, the words they spoke at various times and places over the years of their ministry have been collected and written down together, without divisions to indicate where one oracle ends and another begins. Moreover, even when one can assume by a major change of subject that a new oracle has probably begun, the lack of explanation still leaves one asking, “Was this said on the same day to the same audience, or was it said years later -- or earlier -- to a different group under different circumstances?” The answer can make a big difference as to one’s understanding.

Some parts of prophetic books provide exceptions. In Haggai and the early chapters of Zechariah, for example, each prophecy is dated. With the help of a Bible dictionary, handbook, or commentary, we can follow the progression of those prophecies in their historical context rather easily. And some of the prophecies in other books, notably Jeremiah and Ezekiel, are likewise dated and placed in a setting by the inspired author. But it simply does not work that way most of the time. A good commentary or Bible dictionary is often helpful in explaining such things to us as we read.

Literary Form of the Oracles – Since the isolation of individual oracles is one key to understanding the prophetic books, it is important to know something about the different forms the prophets used to compose their oracles. Just as the Bible as a whole is composed of many different kinds of literature and literary forms, so also the prophets employed a variety of literary forms in their divinely inspired messages. The commentaries can identify and explain these forms. Perhaps the three most common forms are the lawsuit oracle, the woe oracle, and the promise oracle.264 They each have different literary features. Understanding the features of these prophetic literary devices helps one to comprehend the message of God more accurately. I’d like to take the time to look at some examples to show you what I mean.

The Lawsuit Oracle – Let’s turn to Isaiah 3:13-26, which constitutes an allegorical literary form called a “covenant lawsuit.” In this and scores of other lawsuit allegories in the Prophets (e.g., Hosea 3:3-17, 4:1-19, etc.), God is portrayed imaginatively as the plaintiff, prosecuting attorney, and judge in a court case against the defendant, Israel. The full lawsuit form contains a summons, a charge, evidence, and a verdict, though these elements may sometimes be implied rather than being explicit. In Isaiah 3, the elements are incorporated as follows: The court convenes, and the lawsuit is brought against Israel (verses 13-14a). The indictment or accusation is spoken (verses 14b-16). Since the evidence shows that Israel is clearly guilty, the judgment sentence is announced (verses 17-26). Because the covenant has been violated, the sorts of punishments listed in the covenant will come upon the people of Israel: disease, destitution, deprivation, and death. The figurative style of this allegory is a dramatic and effective way of communication to Israel that it is going to be punished because of its disobedience, and that the punishment will be severe. The special literary form helps get the special message across.

The Woe Oracle – Through the prophets, God makes predictions of imminent doom using the device of the “woe,” and no Israelite could miss the significance of the use of that word. Woe oracles contain, either explicitly or implicitly, three elements that uniquely characterize this form: an announcement of distress (the word “Woe,” for example), the reason for the distress, and a prediction of doom. Read Habakkuk 2:6-8 as an example of a woe oracle spoken against Babylon. The oracle announces “woe” in verse 6. The reason is also given in verse 6, where Babylon is personified as a thief and extortionist. Disaster is predicted in verses 7-8, when all those Babylon has oppressed will one day rise up against it. This form is allegorical, though not all woes are; cf. Micah 2:1-5; Zeph. 2:5-7.

The Promise (or Salvation) Oracle – Another common prophetic literary form is the promise or “salvation” oracle. You will recognize this form whenever you see these elements: reference to the future, mention of radical change, and mention of blessing. Amos 9:11-15, a typical promise oracle, contains these elements. The future is mentioned as “In that day” (verse 11). The radical change is described as the restoration and repair of “David's fallen tent” (verse 11), the exaltation of Israel over Edom (verse 12), and the return from the exile (verses 14, 15). Blessing comes via the covenantal categories already mentioned (e.g., life, health, prosperity, agricultural abundance, respect, and safety). All these items are included in Amos 9:11-15, though health is implicit rather than explicit. The central emphasis here is upon agricultural abundance. Crops, for example, will be so enormous that the harvesters will not be finished by the time the sowers are to start planting again (verse 13). For other examples of promise oracles, see Hosea 2:16-20 and 2:21-23, Isaiah 45:1-7, and also Jeremiah 31:1-9.

B. They Were Poets – God spoke through His prophets largely in poetic form. People were used to poetry, and they could remember it much better than prose. The prophets often used what may be called “poetic prose,” a special, formal style employing the same characteristics as poetry, though less consistently. Because it is so much more regular and stylized than colloquial prose, it too was better remembered.

All the prophetic books contain a substantial amount of poetry, and several are exclusively poetic. As a matter of fact, poetry is the second most common literary feature and comprises almost one-third of the Bible.265 Therefore, we must have some understanding of biblical poetry in order to better understand Scripture. The language of poetry is imagery. It is designed to stir the emotions and create vivid mental pictures, not feed the intellect. Consequently, poetry uses devices such as simile, metaphor, personification, and hyperbole to create images that evoke a sensory experience in our imagination. It is therefore important that we be able to identify and interpret the devices of poetic language. Poetry must be read, understood, and interpreted as poetry.

Finally, the structure of poetry is parallelism. Parallelism is the verse form in which virtually all biblical poetry is written.266 Hopefully, you have some knowledge of poetic parallelism in the Bible, but I’ll touch on it just a bit anyway since it is so prevalent in the prophets. When we speak of parallelism, we are referring to the Hebrew technique of presenting a thought using parallel literary members. It is the phenomenon whereby two or more successive poetic lines strengthen, reinforce, and develop each other’s thought. The most common types of parallelism are Synonymous, Antithetical, and Synthetic parallelism as illustrated below:

Synonymous parallelism is where the second or subsequent line repeats or reinforces the sense of the first line, as in Isaiah 44:22:267

“I have swept your offenses like a cloud,

your sins like the morning mist.” Or,

“Then I shall turn your festivals into mourning

And all your songs into lamentation” (Amos 8:10a).

Antithetical parallelism, on the other hand, is where the second or subsequent line contrasts the thought of the first, as in Hosea 7:14:

“They do not cry out to me from their hearts,

but wail upon their beds.”

Synthetic parallelism, perhaps a little harder to discern, is where the second or subsequent line adds to the first line in any manner which provides further information, as in Obadiah 21:

“Deliverers will go up from Mount Zion

to govern the mountains of Esau.

And the kingdom will be the Lord’s.”

It should be noted that the literature discusses other more extensive and sophisticated forms of parallelism found in biblical poetry. It would certainly be worthwhile to become more familiar with this poetic structure.268 As with oracle forms, a general familiarity with Hebrew parallelism can be quite rewarding as we read the prophets. The presentation of ideas in poetic forms such as this need not be confusing, as long as we read carefully and are aware of the unique features. Poetry is just as comprehensible as prose if we know the rules.

Pedagogy in Biography

There is another feature in the prophetic books which I find fascinating. This feature is primarily seen in the narrative portions where we are told something about the prophets themselves. Many of the Old Testament prophets became what may be called a “pedagogy in biography.”269 This means that what they did became a teaching experience for the onlookers.

Very often the prophets of God had to endure unusual hardship so that their lives and experiences could be an instrument of teaching to those around them. It is interesting to look for these “pedagogy’s in biography” in the narrative sections of the prophetic books. You will find the prophets have some hard days to live through and some hard experiences to endure as they provided themselves as visual aids for the prophecies which God would deliver to the people.

Examples of “Pedagogy in Biography” in the life of Ezekiel – A striking example is found in Ezekiel 4:1-13. He was instructed to take a brick, lay it on the ground, and inscribe the word Jerusalem on it. Making believe the brick was “Jerusalem,” he was to build a siege wall, pitch toy camps around it, and place battering rams against it on all sides. The reason for this is given in verse 3. It was to be a sign to the house of Judah. This was prior to the final invasion of Nebuchadnezzar in 588, which lasted until 586 when the city was breached. Ezekiel’s prophecy took place between 592 and 589 BC.

In addition, Ezekiel was commanded to lie on his left side for 390 days (apparently beside his little model of the city under siege) to bear the iniquity of the house of Israel, and when that was completed, he was to lie on his right side and bear the iniquity of the house of Judah for 40 days. For nourishment, he was to eat only peasant’s food cooked over cow dung. All this was to symbolize the pollution with which Israel and Judah had defiled themselves.

A second good example is seen in chapter 12:3-7. God commanded Ezekiel to dig a hole in a wall, to gather the baggage of an exile by day, throw it over his shoulder, and to go out through the wall in the evenings like an exile leaving his city. He was apparently to do this over and over so the people would ask him what he was doing. He was to say,

“I am a sign to you. As I have done, so it will be done to them (in Jerusalem). They will go into exile, into captivity.”

Other Examples of “Pedagogy in Biography”:

Hosea is another example of pedagogy in biography (Hosea 1:2-9). God had Hosea experience the heartbreak of an unfaithful wife as both a picture of Israel’s unfaithfulness to Him and a preparation of Hosea for his prophetic ministry.

Isaiah went about barefoot and naked as a sign for the Lord. “Even as My servant Isaiah has gone naked and barefoot three years as a sign against Egypt and Cush, so the king of Assyria will lead away the captives of Egypt and the exiles of Cush” (Isaiah 20:2-4).

Jeremiah became a participant in the technique of “Pedagogy in Biography” when God commanded him to make a yoke for his neck and then to walk around wearing it (Jeremiah 27:2-3). This was to illustrate God’s prophecy that Judah was to soon come under the yoke of Babylon. And since this was God’s judgment, Jeremiah told them to submit to Babylon rather than resist. The people hated Jeremiah, not only for this message of coming judgment, but for his call to submit and surrender. He was branded a traitor.270

Summary

We have touched on a number of characteristics and features of the writing prophets, which hopefully will encourage us to spend more time reading them. In summary, let’s remember that in order to understand the prophets, we must understand the function of the prophet (which is not merely to tell the future), the historical context (not only in general, but specifically with regard to each prophet and, ideally, each oracle). We must also understand the literary devices used in the prophetic writing (the poetic and oracle forms). And we must be willing to devote a little time and prayer to the endeavor. We must remember that the prophets were primarily covenant enforcement mediators. They spoke for God to His people. They confronted Israel’s sin and called them back to the Law. They called them back to a covenant relationship with God.

There is much more that could be said about the writing prophets. I have only scratched the surface and talked of some of the features they have in common. They each have their own unique features, their own unique structure, and their own unique contribution to the Old Testament, which are well worth our study.

What Does It Mean to Us?

The task of interpretation is to set the Prophets within their own historical contexts and to hear what God was saying to Israel through them. Once we hear what God said to them, even if our circumstances differ considerably, we will often hear it again in our own settings in a rather direct way, which brings us to the area of application. In thinking about application of the prophets to us today, we can make some observations:

(1) The ungodly society in Israel and Judah in the days of the prophets is certainly similar to the ungodly society of our day; i.e., we see the similar self-indulgence, materialism, sexual promiscuity and perversion, pluralism, humanism, rampant ungodliness, etc. Does that in itself not suggest that there is a message in the prophets for us today?

(2) Can it not be argued that the sins of Israel are sins in the New Testament too? After all, they violate the two great commandments that both the Old Covenant and New Covenant share (Matthew 22:36-40).

(3) We see through the prophets that God is serious about His covenant with Israel. Does this not suggest He is just as serious about His New Covenant through Jesus Christ? Does this not imply that there is a message in the prophets for the church today?

There are, no doubt, many varied applications for today which may be derived from the individual prophetic writings, but I want to step back and look at the context for application from the prophets viewed as a whole. There is an overarching theme in the prophets which should serve as the primary thrust of application.

To understand what I am driving at, let me ask a couple of questions: “What was the goal of the prophetic ministry?” Or, perhaps more appropriately, “What was it the prophets were seeking in their ministry?” You might say restoration, i.e., a restored covenant relationship with God. Yes, that may properly be understood as the ultimate goal. But what was it the prophets actually sought? The prophets sought repentance. Restoration was the goal, but repentance is what they hoped to see from the people. In fact, this message of the prophets was so prevalent that Zechariah (one of the last prophets) was able to sum up in one sentence all the prophets that preceded him: “the earlier prophets proclaimed: Thus says the Lord of Hosts, turn from your evil ways and doings,” (Zechariah 1:4). The message of the prophets was a call for repentance.

Is there a place for a call to repentance today? Is there a need for a message of repentance today? Israel, the people of God in the Old Testament, turned away from God and needed a message of repentance. Do we Christians, who are looking so much like the pagan society around us that we are virtually indistinguishable, need the same message?

Walt Kaiser, one of my favorite authors in Old Testament studies, commented on application from the prophets in the following,

“Preaching from the prophets can have a great contemporary application if we recognize repentance as the condition for experiencing God’s favor.” 271

How much are we like Israel, who claimed God’s eternal favor based on His promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and then worshipped the things of this world? We claim the eternal favor of God based on the blood of Jesus, we say “once saved always saved,” and we worship the things of this world. How different is that? I say the prophets of the Old Covenant do indeed have a message for us today. As one of our elders related to me last week, “When you read the book of Micah, it’s almost as if he was writing to the church today.”

God preserved a faithful remnant in Israel. But being an Israelite did not guarantee you were part of that remnant: “not all Israel is Israel,” (Romans 9:6). God is preserving a faithful remnant in the church today, but being “in the church” does not guarantee that you are a part of that remnant.

The prophets serve as constant reminders to us of God’s serious regard for His covenant. For those who obey the stipulations of the New Covenant (loving God and loving one's neighbor through Jesus Christ), the final, eternal, result will be blessing, even though the results in this world are not guaranteed to be so encouraging. Dare I suggest that for those who disobey, the result can only be curse, regardless of how well one fares during life on earth?


250 This is the edited manuscript of messages delivered by Jim Ellis at Community Bible Chapel, on June 10 and June 17, 2001.

251 Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth (Zondervan, 1993), p. 165.

252 The Old Testament is made up of a number of types of literature (or literary genre). One of those genre is “prophetic” literature which has its own unique features. See William W. Klein, et. al., Introduction to Biblical Interpretation (Word Publishing, 1993), pp. 259-322.

253 Thomas R. Rodgers, The Panorama of the Old Testament (Trinity Press, 1997): chronology of the early prophets, p. 310, and chronology of the later prophets, p. 321.

254 The prophets are shown at single points-in-time along the bar to keep the graphic from getting too complicated; however, this does not do justice to the fact that some had long ministries. For example, Isaiah’s ministry covered a period of 40 years. Hence, Isaiah, Micah, and Hosea were contemporaries with overlapping ministries.

255 For a chronology showing later dates for Jonah, Obadiah, and Joel, see Willem A. VanGemeren, Interpreting the Prophetic Word (Zondervan, 1990), p. 103.

256 Cited by Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, Trans. D.M.G. Stalker, 2 Vols. (New York: Harper & Row, 1962, 1965) 2:33, n. 1.

257 The most common term for the person and office is “prophet,” from the Greek prophetes, which basically means “one who speaks for God.” It can mean “to speak for, proclaim” as well as “speak beforehand.” A prophet then is a forthteller as well as a foreteller; both meanings are implicit and both usages are found in the Bible. The corresponding Hebrew word nabi emphasizes “one who is called.” See William S. LaSor, et. al., Old Testament Survey (Eerdmans, 2nd ed, 1996), p. 222.

258 William W. Klein, Craig L. Blomberg, & Robert L. Hubbard, Introduction to Biblical Interpretation (Word Publishing, 1993), p. 303.

259 Klein, et. al., pp. 307-310.

260 For specific examples of the prophets calling Israel back to God, see Amos 5:6, Hosea 14:1, Joel 2:12-13, Isaiah 55:3, and Zephaniah 2:1-3.

261 Fee and Stewart, p. 167.

262 As an aside, the Assyrians not only plundered the cities of the northern kingdom, but they removed the wealthy and influential people of Israel to other conquered areas and took people from other nations and moved them into the land (2 Kings 17:24). This was an effective way to prevent organized resistance in conquered lands. It also effectively resulted in a new mixed race of people who became known as Samaritans.

263 Fee and Stuart, p. 176.

264 Ibid., pp. 175-178.

265 J. B. Gabel and C. B. Wheeler, The Bible as Literature, 2nd. ed. (New York/Oxford University Press, 1990), p. 37 and p. 293.

266 Leland Ryken, How to Read the Bible as Literature (Academie Books, Zondervan, 1984), p. 103.

267 Jesus used parallelism on numerous occasions. For example, he uses synonymous parallelism in John 6:35.

268 See William S. LaSor, David A. Hubbard & Frederic W. Bush, Old Testament Survey (Eerdmans, 2nd edition, 1996), pp. 231-242. Also see Klein, pp. 225-236.

269 Rodgers, p. 351.

270 For more examples of “Pedagogy in Biography,” see Jeremiah 19:1-11; 43:9; 51:63-64; Ezekiel 5:1-4; 21:6,7; and 24:1-24.

271 Walter C. Kaiser, Toward an Exegetical Theology (Baker Books, 1981), p. 195.

Related Topics: Bibliology (The Written Word)