So, you decided to read the Bible straight through from the beginning. (This isn’t the only way to read it, or necessarily the best. But for some reason we all seem drawn to read Scripture this way from time to time.) You slogged through all the genealogies and laws. You read carefully the historical stories and poetic writings. And then you arrive at the prophets. A verse here and there may sound familiar, but most of it makes you wonder: What in the world is this all about?
If there’s any part of the Bible that’s difficult to simply pick up, read and understand, it’s the prophetic books. While there are brief snatches of history in some of the prophetic books, they are few and far between. This leaves most of what you’re reading without any immediate context. Those of you who’ve been reading our Taking Root studies for awhile will remember that we have a handy tool for just such times. A good study Bible will explain who the author was, to whom they were writing and why, and what the historical setting was. Without this background information, we’re not going to be able to understand what these books are all about. Even with this background information, there are a few additional tips that can be helpful when reading the prophets:
This week we’re discussing the Old Testament prophetic books. (We’ll explore the New Testament book of Revelation next week.) So these books are focused primarily on God’s interaction with the people of Israel. When Solomon died and his son Rehoboam assumed the throne, the nation of Israel was divided into two separate kingdoms: the northern nation of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah. Very quickly, Israel fell into idolatrous worship of false gods. God eventually allowed them to be completely destroyed by the Assyrians.
Judah continued to be ruled by the line of David, and enjoyed the presence of the Temple in Jerusalem. As with Israel, the history of Judah also includes decline and idolatry, but interspersed with periods of repentance and reform. Their downward spiral took longer than their brothers to the north but they also were eventually conquered. Their beautiful capitol city and Temple were destroyed, and most of the surviving people were taken captive to Babylon. 70 years later, they were allowed to return to their home, rebuild the Temple and eventually restore the city of Jerusalem.
Confronting his people
Three weeks ago, we learned about the psalms in the Bible. We saw how the psalms are prayers to God, not always God’s words to us. But the prophetic books are very different. The prophets were people whom God specifically called to be his official messengers to his people. When they spoke their prophecies, they were speaking the words of God himself; they were quoting him verbatim. This is why we repeatedly see in the prophetic books some variation of the phrase: “These are the words of the LORD . . .”
Much of what God had to say to his people was direct confrontation:
The LORD gave another message to Jeremiah. He said, “Go to the entrance of the LORD’S Temple, and give this message to the people: ‘O Judah, listen to this message from the LORD! Listen to it, all of you who worship here! This is what the LORD of Heaven’s Armies, the God of Israel, says:
“‘Even now, if you quit your evil ways, I will let you stay in your own land. But don’t be fooled by those who promise you safety simply because the LORD’S Temple is here. They chant, “The LORD’S Temple is here! The LORD’S Temple is here!” But I will be merciful only if you stop your evil thoughts and deeds and start treating each other with justice; only if you stop exploiting foreigners, orphans, and widows; only if you stop your murdering; and only if you stop harming yourselves by worshiping idols. Then I will let you stay in this land that I gave to your ancestors to keep forever.
“‘Don’t be fooled into thinking that you will never suffer because the Temple is here. It’s a lie! Do you really think you can steal, murder, commit adultery, lie, and burn incense to Baal and all those other new gods of yours, and then come here and stand before me in my Temple and chant, “We are safe!”—only to go right back to all those evils again? Don’t you yourselves admit that this Temple, which bears my name, has become a den of thieves? Surely I see all the evil going on there. I, the LORD, have spoken!
“‘Go now to the place of Shiloh where I once put the Tabernacle that bore my name. See what I did there because of the wickedness of my people, the Israelites. While you were doing these wicked things, says the LORD, I spoke to you about it repeatedly, but you would not listen. I called out to you, but you refused to answer. So just as I destroyed Shiloh, I will now destroy this Temple that bears my name, the Temple that you trust in for help, this place that I gave you and your ancestors. And I will send you out of my sight into exile, just as I did your relatives, the people of Israel.'”
As you read through the prophetic books, you’ll also notice that sometimes God gave the people the opportunity to repent and avoid the judgment awaiting them. But other times, he let them know judgment was coming and that he would not relent. And it’s not just his own people whom he confronts; he has quite a bit to say to the surrounding nations as well.
Revealing the future
This is where it gets a little tricky. We’re used to assuming that every prophecy telling about the future is revealing our future. But that’s usually not the case in the Old Testament prophetic books. Much of the material from the prophets is simply God confronting his people and letting them know what awaits them if they don’t return to him. We also find prophecies concerning the first coming of Christ sprinkled throughout the prophetic books. For us, these prophecies are all concerning the past—although they still teach us about how God interacts with his people, and they serve to validate the earthly ministry of Jesus.
Yet there are also important passages that point to the very end of history and the culmination of all things in Christ. One of the interesting things about the prophetic books is that they often include prophecies regarding both what is past (for us) and what is still present—but the prophecies are in the same immediate context and not always easy to tell apart! Have you ever seen a mountain range in the distance while you’re traveling? It can seem as if two mountains are right next to each other, but when you get closer, you realize that a huge distance separates them. This is the kind of challenge we have when interpreting the prophetic books.
To see a great example of this, compare the prophecy in Isaiah 61:1-2 with Jesus’ reading of this prophecy in Luke 4:16-21. Do you notice how Jesus reads all of the prophecy except the last line: “. . . and with it, the day of God’s anger against his enemies”? Why is that? Because the last line is referring to when Christ comes in judgment, and this wasn’t yet occurring during his first coming.
Another thing to remember about Scripture is that it actually has two authors—the human author and the divine Author. This means that the Author (Holy Spirit) could include meaning that the author (human) wouldn’t have understood. We can reach back to the psalms for a perfect example of this. When Jesus was on the cross, he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The Jews would have immediately recognized this as a quote from Psalm 22. What’s amazing is that David wrote this psalm hundreds of years before crucifixion existed as a form of execution. Yet when you read the psalm he wrote, the similarities to the crucifixion of Jesus are astounding:
Everyone who sees me mocks me.
They sneer and shake their heads, saying,
“Is this the one who relies on the LORD?
Then let the LORD save him!
If the LORD loves him so much,
let the LORD rescue him!” . . .
My life is poured out like water,
and all my bones are out of joint.
My heart is like wax,
melting within me.
My strength has dried up like sunbaked clay.
My tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth.
You have laid me in the dust and left me for dead.
My enemies surround me like a pack of dogs;
an evil gang closes in on me.
They have pierced my hands and my feet.
I can count all my bones.
My enemies stare at me and gloat.
They divide my garments among themselves
and throw dice for my clothing.
There is nothing in this psalm that indicates David was speaking of someone other than himself. Obviously, he was writing figuratively about what his enemies were doing to him. But the language he uses is overly strong for what he was experiencing; it points beyond the immediate circumstance to something greater. And we see the fulfillment in the death of Christ. The Holy Spirit inspired David to write something that—though it had real meaning to him at the time—included a deeper meaning that David couldn’t have grasped then. (In another place, when Daniel asks for an explanation of the vision he’s seen, he’s essentially told, ‘Never mind, this isn’t for you’ [Daniel 12:5-13].)
Most of the prophecies we read in Scripture have some kind of fulfillment in relatively close proximity to the time of the prophecy. But as you read these prophecies, watch for elements that don’t fit, that were not completely fulfilled. Isaiah 13 is a prophecy about the destruction of Babylon, but as you read it you’ll see language that actually describes a final judgment at the very end. Many prophecies have an immediate, partial fulfillment but await(ed) an ultimate fulfillment either at Christ’s first coming or his return.
The prophecies we read reveal a pervasive corruption and stubborn rebellion against God by his people. Through the prophet Isaiah (65:1-2), God said to them:
I was ready to respond, but no one asked for help.
I was ready to be found, but no one was looking for me.
I said, “Here I am , here I am!”
to a nation that did not call on my name.
All day long I have opened my arms to a rebellious people.
But they follow their own evil paths
and their own crooked schemes.
Through prophecy after prophecy, God warned them what was coming. But the people stubbornly wouldn’t listen. So God disciplined his people by allowing them to be conquered and humiliated. Jerusalem was laid waste, and the Temple was destroyed. But the good news is that he didn’t utterly reject them. Even while he was telling them of their impending judgment, he encouraged the people that he would one day restore them:
But this is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: I will certainly bring my people back again from all the countries where I will scatter them in my fury. I will bring them back to this very city and let them live in peace and safety. They will be my people, and I will be their God. . . .
In the empty streets of Jerusalem and Judah’s other towns, there will be heard once more the sounds of joy and laughter. The joyful voices of bridegrooms and brides will be heard again, along with the joyous songs of people bringing thanksgiving offerings to the LORD.
Jeremiah 32:37-38, 33:10-11
But the prophecies of restoration and healing go beyond what God did for the people of Israel:
People from many nations will come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,
to the house of Jacob’s God.
There he will teach us his ways,
and we will walk in his paths.”
For the LORD’S teaching will go out from Zion;
his word will go out from Jerusalem.
The LORD will mediate between nations
and will settle international disputes.
They will hammer their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will no longer fight against nation,
nor train for war anymore.
In that day the wolf and the lamb will live together;
the leopard will lie down with the baby goat.
The calf and the yearling will be safe with the lion,
and a little child will lead them all.
The cow will graze near the bear.
The cub and the calf will lie down together.
The lion will eat hay like a cow.
The baby will play safely near the hole of a cobra.
Yes, a little child will put its hand
in a nest of deadly snakes without harm.
Nothing will hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain,
for as the waters fill the sea,
so the earth will be filled
with people who know the LORD.
Isaiah 2:3-4, 11:6-9
This isn’t just good news for the ancient people of Israel; it’s the wonderful hope for all of God’s people. This is the future we can all anticipate. Just as God disciplines and judges, so he will heal and restore.
How to study the Bible series:
The prophets: God’s messengers, calling his people back [see above]