How to Interpret The Prophets
By: Reality SF
As we continue in the Year of Biblical Literacy, we will be providing a few hermeneutic (the art of interpreting the Bible) tools to help you engage with Scripture in your personal reading and also communal settings. This piece written on The Prophets walks through five important and fundamental aspects to The Prophets, which are outlined below.
(Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, Daniel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi)
- Key 1: Understanding the prophets
- Key 2: Understanding prophetic ministry
- Key 3: Understanding the books of the prophets
- Key 4: Understanding who is speaking
- Key 5: Understanding the poetry and metaphor
The books of the prophets, or the prophetic writings, are a diverse collection of carefully crafted poetic texts that creatively chronicle the messages of various Jewish prophets. Each book’s meaning is historically, culturally, and Biblically charged. This means that they use words, phrases, and imagery that would have been familiar to ancient Israelites fluent in the Hebrew Scriptures living at the time of the prophet’s ministry. That was their original audience. Because they were not originally written to us, their highly poetic and context-specific nature makes the prophets some of the most difficult Bible books to read well. Whereas Leviticus can be difficult to read because it bores us, and Judges and Joshua can be difficult because they offend us, the prophets are often difficult because they completely confuse us. And at times, we aren’t even sure what we’re reading.
There are a few initial keys to get us started which we’ll unpack below:
- First, the prophets (people) and the books of the prophet (texts) aren’t one in the same thing and we must distinguish between them.
- Second, it can be hard to know who is speaking at times because the prophets played a very special role as ambassadors between God and Israel and are thereby able to represent multiple sides of the same conversation, essentially speaking both sides of a dialogue.
- Third, the prophetic books are not dry historical records but are beautiful works of Hebrew poetry which makes them stylistically disorienting to us today. But, this style of writing actually adds much to their depth and meaning.
Who are the prophets?
We often mistake the prophets for either 1) diviners or fortune-tellers whose primary objective was to provide a kind of magical insight into the future or 2) some kind of Jesus-heralds who sought to give encrypted clues to Christ that we could point to as proof thousands of years later. Hebrew prophets, however, were neither of these things. They didn’t try to sell their so-called predictive services or woo people with their powers, and the prophetic books were definitely not written merely to record a bunch of predictions. Rather, the prophets were passionately concerned, as a matter of life and death significance, with the current events of their time, rather than foretelling the future.
Abraham Heschel’s seminal work The Prophets asks the question, “what matter of man is the prophet?” To try to summarize, the prophets were special ambassadors whom God called to hear His voice, feel His heart, and then communicate this message to the people of their day. The prophets were messengers who stood in the gap as a go-between, connecting God and His people.
To be a prophet was to be in a unique relationship with God for a specific purpose, knowing and listening to Him in order to communicate on His behalf. Tim Mackie calls the prophets “covenant watchdogs” because they were specifically asked to call Israel back to be faithful to their covenant relationship with Yahweh. The prophets only existed because the covenant existed.
In other words, because God chose Israel to be for Him a special people, He also chose and sent special individuals to speak to them, calling them to rightly live into their special covenant relationship. This is why prophets were most prominent in Israel during the 400 years or so preceding and following the exile – that is when they needed to hear God’s corrective voice the most.
It is important though to remember that while God “sent” the prophets, they were themselves Jewish and fully identified with the nation. Therefore, they were completely empathetic with both sides of the conversation, weeping with Israel at her injustice and suffering and lamenting with God at their stubbornness and betrayal. They didn’t only watch over the covenant, they were also members of it who would rise and fall with the rest of their people.
What did the prophets do?
This prophetic task was essentially one of holistic ambassadorship and impassioned communication. They were to be close enough to God to intimately understand what He thought, felt, and wanted of Israel and then were to speak aptly on God’s behalf in order to enact a response from people. They did this most often by giving verbal public speeches.
Basically, the prophets were subversive thought-challengers who antagonistically pointed fingers at the nation as a whole, especially denouncing those in power, and claimed the authority and backing of God. They appeared highly emotional because they refused to look apathetically upon the evil and injustice that had become normal. Rather, they called out what they saw and reminded Israel that God was imminently and intimately involvement in their history.
God was not far off but near at hand, aware of all that was going on and not at all indifferent. In fact, the prophets’ main task was often not simply to state facts but to expressively communicate God’s pathos (emotions and thoughts) in response to Israel. Therefore, they sometimes acted as public commentators proclaiming truth from the the street corners. However, at other times they lived in ways that symbolically enacted the truth of what was going on and what would happen if it continued. Literally, they spoke in actions and in words. The counter-cultural nature of speaking truth to those in power meant that prophetic ministry was often met by fierce persecution, as Jesus knew and exposed.
So most of the prophetic task was communication. But what exactly did they say? Everything we see recorded in the prophetic books can can be simplified into one of three categories: Accusation, warning, and hope. Typically, when those running society wanted to believe that all was well (saying “peace, peace”) the prophets accused them of evil, idolatry, and injustice. When these accusations were ignored or denied, the prophets warned of what would happen if they continued in their hard-hearted stubbornness. And later, after God’s forewarned judgment fell and the people suffered miserably and doubted their future, the prophets once again shared what the people needed to hear, but now in the form of something to hope for. Often the prophetic books move freely back and forth between accusation, warning and comfort. As you read each passage, try to identify what category it belongs to; ask yourself, “Is this an accusation, a warning, or a hope?”. Recognizing these three aims of prophetic communication allow us now to further consider the role of predicting the future.
As we mentioned earlier, the prophets were not diviners. They were passionate about enacting change in current affairs, not just predicting the future for predictions’ sake. As Heschel says, “The prominent theme is exhortation, not mere prediction. While it is true that foretelling is an important ingredient and may serve as a sign of the prophet’s authority (Deut 18:22, Isa 41:22, 43:9), his essential task is to declare the word of God to the here and now; to disclose the future in order to illumine what is involved in the present.” In other words, the primary importance of their divine insight into the future was to persuade change in the present. The threat of future disaster was used as a warning to enact repentance and the hope of future restoration was used to comfort those who were distraught instill faith in those who were doubting. We talk about the future in these same ways today. In this sense, they were more like public thought-leaders in their predictions than diviners or fortune-tellers, sharing insight into the way things were headed because they cared so deeply about how things in fact were.
This then is the original context and function of the grand hopes that we see developed in the prophets about a future messiah/king who would one day redeem the nation as well as some sort of servant figure who would conquer evil through his suffering. When Jesus arrived on the scene, He proclaimed that it was good news because He was fulfilling these long-awaited promises of a future hope that the prophets had spoken comfortingly of hundreds of years prior. And much of what the apostle Paul declared in his epistles was that Jesus ultimately proved that God was indeed faithful to His promises – the promises made through the prophets – even if it seemed to many to have been quite slow to come about or to have happened in a quite unexpected manner. When Jesus, after his resurrection, encountered a couple confused people on the road to Emmaus who were struggling to make sense of all that had happened, He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken!” (Luke24:25). In other words, the prophets didn’t just record predictions about Jesus for us to check off as proof. Rather they made real circumstantial proclamations about what God would one day do in response to Israel’s actions and circumstances and these promises created very real fears, hopes and desperate anticipation in the people. In Jesus they were confronted with God’s faithful fulfillment of all of those promises.
What are the prophetic books?
As we mentioned above, the prophetic books aren’t synonymous with the prophets themselves. In other words, the job of the prophets was not to write a book of the Bible. Some of them didn’t write at all. Rather, the prophets’ ministries of oral communication inspired the later creation of written works based on what those prophets had done and said. Then even later authors were inspired to revise and craft those works into the poetic masterpieces of the prophetic books, making them suitable to live on for generations in the Hebrew canon (i.e. the Biblical literature of the Old Testament). The prophets themselves were public figures concerned more with current events than literature. The texts, in contrast, encapsulate the spirit and pathos of the prophets to live on for people like us today. In other words, we can approach the prophets because of the prophetic books, but we shouldn’t confuse them as being the same thing. Perhaps a reasonable enough analogy would be that of getting to know what Abraham Lincoln said and did and believed through the act of reading his biography.
The other thing we should note while considering the nature and function of the prophetic books is the way they form a cohesive literary whole. Whoever the various authors and curators were, their work comes together into one beautiful tapestry of prophetic thought and theology. In other words, the different prophetic books don’t contrast each other. Neither do they ignore one another. Rather, they each make their own separate brush strokes – some big and dramatic, some small and subtle – that together paint a grand picture of meaning. It was this big picture that Jesus was able to see and embody in his own lived interpretation of the prophets and, as the road to Emmaus encounter illustrates, that He expected his fellow Jewish Bible-readers to see and understand as well.
What this means for us is that as we read, we should slow down to reflect on why each book might have included what it did and why the collective canon of prophetic literature might have included what it did. If you imagine someone cataloguing your life’s work, you might hope it to be a pretty lengthy work. But what if there were only a few pages to spare? What snippets of your life would best capture who you were and what you thought? Similarly, there is a great deal of information about each prophet’s life and ministry that we are not given in the Scriptures. Some of the books are indeed just a couple pages long. Therefore, what is included – the material that made the short list – tells us a lot about what was most significant to the authors; it can show us what themes and ideas they most want us to get from the prophets. Though it may take some practice, we can let the texts themselves help us listen well to the prophets. It is this kind of careful thematic reading that allowed Jesus to connect the prophetic dots in a way most His contemporaries could not.
As you read, try to notice the big picture themes that seem to be consistent throughout. What ideas, for example, are present in Ezekiel that were also prominent in Isaiah and Jeremiah? And use Jesus as a hermeneutic lens and filter: Use what He was and did to help you see the true nature of the promises (which He fulfilled) made in the prophets and use what He taught and demonstrated to help you distill the various ideas into predominant themes.
Who is speaking?
One of the most disorienting aspects of the prophetic books is the seemingly random change in speakers. It can seem that in one breath it is the prophet talking and in the next it’s God, or Israel, or some king. Interestingly, this stylistic confusion actually stems from the holy vocation that makes the prophets so special. What seems like a flaw in these texts is actually an attribute of the prophets’ brilliance. It just takes some getting used to.
As we said before, the prophets were bridges between God and mankind who could simultaneously identify with both parties. Because they were full members of Jewish society, they could identify entirely with the hopes and fears of Israel as well as humanity in general. And yet because they had such a uniquely intimate relationship with God, they could also empathize with His emotions and desires. This ability to identify and sympathize with all sides of the conversation is central to the vocation of prophet.
In addition, ancient Jews held a strong corporate view of social identity, meaning that any one individual, such as the prophet, could speak on behalf of the people as a whole. It isn’t accidental then that in the prophetic books, the speaker feels free to bounce back and forth as representative of multiple voices. In fact, this strange inconsistency in pronouns where “I” and “me” can interchangeably represent both God and people is a byproduct of what makes the prophets holy and profound in the first place.
Read carefully, knowing that the speaker can change from one passage to the next. And read with appreciation for how an entire relationship and dialogue can be expressed through these special men.
How do we make sense of all the strange words and phrases?
As we noted above, the prophetic books weren’t merely dry historical accounts of the prophets’ life. Rather, they are masterful works of prophetic theology written mostly in the form of poetry that were created in order to preserve the prophetic ethos throughout history. They were written from the ancient Israelite context to the ancient Israelite context for the benefit of people like us who come from an entirely different context. In other words, the very poetic craftsmanship which has made them worth preserving now also makes them difficult to interpret.
Remember that the primary task of the prophets was to communicate. They were professional public speakers. And like any professional communicator, they got creative with their techniques. Just as Jesus’ own language was rich with poetic metaphor and analogy and storytelling, so to the prophets employed a variety of communication styles in order to effectively get their point across. Bold, exaggerated, and imaginative language often served this purpose, helping to make their message sharp, provocative, and unforgettable. However, the same metaphorical style that was effective then strikes us as completely foreign today. We are largely unfamiliar with the poetry, rhythm, form, and imagery used to relay meaning. We therefore will probably need to read the prophets slower than any other books of the Bible if we actually want to know what they mean and not just highlight a few nice or Jesusy verses.
Also consider that ancient Israelite society was based almost entirely on oral communication. This reality is nearly unimaginable to us today with such a literary culture where written words are everywhere. Writing then was difficult and expensive and only the rare few could do it. Therefore, when someone set out to create a literary document intended to survive antiquity they went about it with meticulous craftsmanship. The prophetic texts are more like poetic masterpieces than memos. They weren’t simply trying to record a bullet-pointed list of what was said and done. The authors, like the prophets, sought to put the meaning of the prophets who were themselves poetic into beautiful and provocative poetic literature. For both of these reasons, the prophetic books use language like “more swift-footed than a gazelle” rather than “quick”. It’s okay if you don’t understand all of the poetic language but resist the temptation to just blow by such phrases without pausing long enough to consider their meaning and admire their beauty. The beauty of these texts is in fact part of their meaning so slow down and savor it. And as you read, ask yourself, what do the images intend to illustrate? Such picture-language was intended to stir our imaginations in order to better understand the main point. Therefore, read such passages by working out the appropriate picture and asking how it fits into the greater message. For example, what are veils for? What would a post-exile Jew picture when he hears of a valley of dry bones? And where else do you read of someone’s arm performing some action?
Though the prophets can be quite difficult to understand, the elements that make them difficult – style, context, language – are also what make them entirely worth reading and reading well. These books just require us to do a bit more homework than other parts of the Bible but the payoff is worth it. For many of us, once we develop the capacity to read the prophets for what they’re worth they become favorite texts that we go back to repeatedly to savor their richness and beauty.