The Nature of the Prophecy:More individual books of the Bible come under the heading of prophecy than any other heading. Four major prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel) and twelve minor prophets (the final twelve books of the Old Testament), written between about 760 and 460 BC. The first mistake that most of us make when studying prophecy is our understanding of what the word means. Most Christians think that the prophets only spoke to the coming of Christ as well as hinting to the New Covenant. In fact, less than 2 percent of Old Testament prophecy is directly Messianic (this does not mean that all prophecy is not ultimately fulfilled in Christ). Less than 5 percent specifically describes the New Covenant age. Less than 1 percent concerns events yet to come.

The prophets did announce the future, but it was usually the immediate future of Israel, Judah, and other nations that surrounded them, rather than our own future. The purpose of the prophets was to speak to their own contemporaries, not just us.

In the prophetical books we hear from God via the prophets and very little about the prophets themselves. This is the aspect of the prophetic books that causes the most trouble in interpreting. Other areas of trouble are how the oracles were written. In the longer books or the major prophetic books there seems to be multiple oracles. They are not always presented in their original order and often given without hints to historical setting or where on oracle begins and the other ends. Also most oracles were spoken in poetry.

Another matter that complicates our understanding of the Prophets is the problem of historical distance. As people move farther and farther away from the religious, historical, and cultural life of ancient Israel, we have a hard time putting the words spoken by the Prophets in their proper context. It is hard for us to see what they are referring to and why.

The Function of Prophecy: The following guidelines should help in the process of studying the prophetic books of the Bible.

The Prophets were covenant enforcement mediators. God does not merely give his law, but enforces it. God announced the enforcement of his laws through the prophets, so that the event of his blessing or of his curse would be fully understood by his people. They functioned as God’s mediators, or spokespersons, for the covenant. The blessings for covenant faithfulness fall into one of the following six categories: life, health, prosperity, agricultural abundance, respect and safety. The curses can mostly fit into one of ten categories starting with ”d”: death, disease, drought, dearth, danger, destruction, defeat, deportation, destitution, and disgrace. As you read the Prophets, look for this simple pattern: (1) an identification of Israel’s sin or of God’s love for her; (2) a prediction of curse or blessing depending on the circumstance.

The prophet’s message was not their own, but God’s. The prophets responded to a divine call. What we read in the prophetical books then, is not merely God’s Word as the prophet saw it, but God’s word as God wished the prophet to present it. The prophet does not act or speak independently.

The prophet’s message is unoriginal. The message that the prophets delivered was more or less the same as the one that Moses gave. God raised up the prophets to gain the attention of the people to whom they were sent. The prophets are not inspired to make any points or announce any doctrines that are not already contained in the Pentateuchal covenant.

The Exegetical Task: When studying the prophetical books three tools can be very useful to aid in exegesis. The (1) first, a Bible dictionary, this will help to give a good introduction to the historical setting as well as other background information. You should make it a practice to always read a dictionary article on the prophetical book before you start to study. The (2) second is to use a commentary. This will give more in depth analysis of background information but will also provide explanations of the meaning of the individual verses. The (3) third would be to use a Bible handbook. This is a combination of both. This a great resource when reading through multiple chapters and you only need a general amount of extra information and analysis.

It is also important to think oracles. You want to be able to separate the individual area of the prophecy. This will help to understand the audience better. If you know where the oracles begin and stop then you will know the sections where you need to find the specific context relevant to that oracle.

Specific Contexts: Each prophetic oracle was delivered in a specific historical setting. A knowledge of the date, audience, and situation, therefore, when they are know, contributes substantially to a reader’s ability to comprehend an oracle.

The Forms of Prophetic Utterance: It is important to realize that oracles can take on different forms. Bible commentaries are wonderful resources to identify and explain the different forms. Below are the three most common forms you will find in prophetic writing.

1. The lawsuit: The full lawsuit form contains a summons, a charge, evidence, and a verdict, though these elements may sometimes be implied rather than explicit. The figurative style of this prophetic utterance is an effective way of communicating.

2. The Woe: “Woe” was the word ancient Israelites cried out when facing disaster or death, or when they mourned at a funeral. Woe oracles contain, either explicitly or implicitly, three elements that characterize this form: an announcement of distress, the reason for distress, and a prediction of doom.

3. The promise: Another term for this kind of oracle is the salvation oracle. It can be identified by the following three elements; reference to the future, mention of radical change, and mention of the blessing.

The Prophets as Poets: Many of the things during ancient times that were important enough to remember were considered appropriate for composition in poetry. This was in part due to the ease of remembering the words or lyrics of the poem because most individuals could not read or owned any books. All of the prophetic books contain a large amount of poetry and some are entirely comprised of poetry. The following features demonstrate three repetitive styles of Old Testament poetry.

1. Synonymous parallelism: The second or subsequent line repeats or reinforces the sense of the first line as in Isaiah 44.22

“I have swept your offenses like a cloud, your sins like the morning mist.”

2. Antithetical parallelism: 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.”

3. Synthetic parallelism: 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.”

Some Hermeneutical Suggestions Beyond sharing most of the same principles with the Epistles, we offer three further matters that should help in applying the information located in the prophetic books to your lives.

1.    A Caution: The Prophet as Foreteller of the Future. Yes, the prophets predicted events for the future but as discussed most of their predictions had to do with ancient Israel and Judah. They spoke of coming judgment or salvation in the relatively immediate future of ancient Israel. Be careful to not assume that all of the prophecies were focused on the New Testament. When reading the Prophets take note of the context, intent, style and wording.

2.    A Concern: Prophecy and Second Meanings. At a number of places in the New Testament, reference is made to Old Testament passages that do not appear to refer to what the New Testament says they do. These passages seem to have a clear meaning in their original Old Testament setting and yet are used in connection with a different meaning by a New Testament writer. This second meaning is commonly called sensus plenior or fuller meaning. This is apparent when we see New Testament writers expand on references made in the Old Testament that do not, within scripture, allow for this further meaning.

The problem for us with this second meaning is that we can not and should not make these connections. Only the authors of the New Testament are authorized to proclaim their writings as inspired by the Holy Spirit. The difficult thing about these sorts of writings is that it takes no concern with the context, intent, style or wording of an Old Testament passage. They draw allegorical connections because the Holy Spirit inspired them to do so not because they were concerned with what the original Old Testament scripture intended. For us this second meaning when discovered through close examination of Scripture can provide further insight into the meanings of a particular passage of Old and New Testament writings.

3.    A Final Benefit: The Dual Emphasis on Orthodoxy and Orthopraxy. Orthodoxy is correct belief. Orthopraxy is correct action. Through the prophets God calls the ancient Israelite’s and Judah to a balance of right belief and right action. This is the same thing the New Testament calls us to. Because God basically wants the same thing from us as he did of Israel and Judah we can use the Prophets as a constant reminder of God’s determination to enforce his covenant.

(This post is a summary and partial abridgement of Fee And Stuart’s book “How To Read The Bible For All It’s Worth.” It is based solely on Fee And Stuart’s work and any help that this content gives should be credited to God’s grace through their effort. In other words, give God glory, thank Fee and Stuart and buy the book.)