The prophets in the Old Testament are a rich body of teachings in which God’s people are called to be restored to a close relationship with God. But what are we to make of the dire warnings, and the promises? Why does God’s word have so much about the conditions and the events centuries before Christ? What does it all mean for our lives today?
It’s okay to be honest if you’re having difficulty understanding sections of the Bible. Remember, our difficulty understanding Scripture is not a problem. It is what you’d expect of a body of scriptures that speak into the complexities of human experience, and contain the high truth of a transcendent God. When we come to the Prophets, typically the questions that get asked are: What are they talking about? Is this about them or us? Is prophecy about the past or the future?
Remember that when you’re interpreting the Bible, the simplest and most natural explanation is always best. When Jeremiah speaks about Babylon, he means Babylon. Amos was really warning about the armies of the Assyrians descending on Israel. Haggai’s words about the rebuilding of the temple were about events during that period when the Jews were allowed to return to Jerusalem. Most of the events the Old Testament prophets spoke about were fulfilled in the era in which they were spoken. What we get to do all these centuries later is pull out and apply these truths and principles, and apply them in fresh ways in our lives.
In the Old Testament, the prophet was a person who was called to bring the word of God to the people. The prophet was not a fortune-teller or soothsayer. He was not reporting the headlines of the news, mysteriously, before they were written. The prophet was a proclaimer. He brought words of assurance and promise, as well as confrontation and warning. Many people are called prophets: Abraham, Moses, Elijah, Elisha, etc., whose prophetic activity (i.e., being God’s representative to the people) is embedded in the historical narratives.
There are 16 Old Testament books we call “the Prophets.” Four “Major Prophets”: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel; and the so-called “Minor Prophets”: Amos through Malachi. (“Major” and “Minor” only mean their length, not their importance.) All of these books were written within a narrow 300-year span, from 760 to 460 B.C. This helps us understand their purpose. All the prophetic books of the Old Testament were God’s word to his covenant people, warning them and bolstering them during periods of pronounced spiritual and national danger.
The honest truth of the Bible is that men and women—even those blessed to be the covenant people of God—kept falling into sin. It is sobering to read through the Old Testament and encounter never-ending cycles of obedience and disobedience. So God spoke through the prophets. They confronted, warned, and assured. They did offer predictions, most typically showing the cause and effect of disobedience and unfaithfulness. Every oracle of every prophet means something specific. The challenge is that most of us do not have an encyclopedic knowledge of Tyre and Sidon, of Persia, of Darius, of the Nazirites, of Ekron, and of Meshek and Tubal.
Some passages in the Prophets clearly point to events to be fulfilled centuries later, for instance predictions of the coming Messiah. Isaiah 53 is widely understood to be pointing to Jesus. “He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain” (v. 3).
[Check out How to Understand the Bible, the book, here.]
Then there are some passages that appear to be fulfilled in the era of the prophet, but also extend out to the Messianic Age or the end of time. It is possible for a prophecy to have multiple fulfillments, though we have to make sure this is clearly called for in the passage.
So here are some recommendations on reading the Prophets:
1. Read these books naturally and in ample segments, not verse by verse. Listen for the spiritual movement within prophetic oracles, rather than getting bogged down in details. Catch the big-picture spiritual dynamics and message of the oracles. For instance, the disposition of God (e.g., disappointed, indignant, sorrowful, tender, caring), the condition of the people addressed (e.g., frightened, disobedient, humbled, arrogant), the predictions of what might or will happen (e.g., captivity, deliverance, famine, restoration). The best thing we gain from the prophetic books is not about events on timelines, but the great spiritual realities of life, including insights into disobedience and sin, and the judgment and mercy of God.
2. Use Bible helps. In reading the Prophets, we will benefit greatly from good Bible dictionaries and commentaries. Look for commentaries where the original setting and meaning of the Prophets are respected and explained. Unfortunately, there are many commentators, preachers, and teachers who assume prophecy is mostly about events yet to unfold in our day, when the biblical text indicates otherwise. This is crystal ball interpretation. It is arbitrary, misleading, and does not respect the call of the Prophets. It overlooks the plain meaning of the biblical text, which must be our first priority.
3. Go ahead and apply the spiritual lessons of the Prophets to life today. These 16 Old Testament books are the word of God to us, as long as we allow for the different terms of the old covenant and what we stand on today, the new covenant.
4. Be enriched by the word of the Prophets. Don’t be discouraged by their complexity or sometimes-dire message. It is only because God loves humanity that he spoke through the prophets—hard truth included.
Care to offer feedback this week?
Next time: “How Should We Interpret What the Prophets Had to Say?”
Not yet signed up to receive “How to Understand the Bible” via email? You can follow along here at the blog, but we recommend signing up for email updates here. “How to Understand the Bible” is available as a print book at WordWay.org.
Mel Lawrenz is Director of The Brook Network and creator of The Influence Project. He’s the author of thirteen books, most recently Spiritual Influence: the Hidden Power Behind Leadership.