Getting the Most from Old Testament Prophets (Part 1)

Just as a Rubik’s Cube has six sides, six principles will help you understand these often-overlooked books. (This is another in a series of articles titled “Reading the Bible for All It’s Worth” that Matt Proctor is writing this year.)

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By Matt Proctor

The 17 Old Testament books we call the Prophets—Isaiah through Malachi—contain some of the most powerful passages in all of Scripture, and yet these books remain some of the least read portions of the Bible.

A nationally respected business leader, John Dasburg, saved Northwest Airlines from bankruptcy in the early 1990s when he served as CEO. Later, as CEO of Burger King, he led the turnaround of that company. Through creative thinking and hard work, Dasburg was used to achieving his desired outcome. But when his 6-year-old daughter Meredith was killed in a car accident, circumstances were suddenly beyond Dasburg’s control. He could do nothing to bring her back. His grief was overwhelming. This high-capacity leader, so used to solving others’ problems, was now the one who needed help. What could possibly carry him through this dark night of the soul?

The answer: the book of Isaiah.

Though the first half of the book is a scorching message of judgment, Isaiah fills the last half with poetic visions of a coming brighter day—of breathtaking new heavens and new earth where death would no longer claim 6-year-old girls. Haddon Robinson once said that “hope is hearing the music of the future, and faith is having the courage to dance to it.” As John Dasburg meditated on what he calls the “lyrical metaphysics” of Isaiah, he heard the music of the future and found the faith to go on.

The Untouched Pages of Your Bible

The 17 Old Testament books we call the Prophets—Isaiah through Malachi—contain some of the most powerful passages in all of Scripture, and yet these books remain some of the least read portions of the Bible.

If you examine the Bibles of even the most diligent students you may find a telltale band of white on the paper edges just over halfway through, a mark of cleanness indicating how seldom fingers touch the Old Testament prophets. Although these books fill about a fifth of the Bible’s bulk, they tend to go unread.1


Why do we often avoid the prophets? For starters, the 12 minor prophets may suffer from a branding problem. They’re called minor simply because their books are shorter than the major prophets, but the word hasn’t helped their image. Minor brings to mind a Double-A baseball league, as if these guys didn’t quite have the stuff to make it to the majors. Maybe they’re not all that important, we might think. Plus their names are hard to pronounce. As two authors humorously put it, “Go to the maternity ward in any hospital. You’re bound to find a few Daniels and even a Jeremiah or two. But the odds are astronomical against finding even one Habakkuk.”2

Beyond that, however, the prophets can just seem weird or confusing. They are full of wild visions, unearthly creatures, and strange language. Martin Luther complained about the prophets, “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 head or tail of them.”3 If you’ve ever tried actually to read the prophets, maybe you’ve had the same experience.

But hard to read as their books may be, the prophets are worth trying to untangle. They are part of “All Scripture,” which Paul tells, “is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). Writer Philip Yancey tells of changing his mind about these messengers of God:

 

My Bible too showed a broad band of white after the poetry books, signifying unread portions, until one day my work on The Student Bible called for a close reading of them. My job now required me to study the prophets. A surprising thing happened over time: I experienced an abrupt turnabout, so abrupt that I may now claim the prophets as my favorite section of the entire Bible.4


If God Kept a Journal

Why would someone call the Old Testament prophets his “favorite section of the entire Bible”? What exactly do the prophets offer us as Bible readers?

Before digging into the details, let me suggest two big reasons to read these books. First, the prophets deal with some of humanity’s biggest questions. They wrestle with tensions like: Why does God seem silent? Why is there evil in the world and why doesn’t God do something about it? What about war? Natural disasters? Is history simply a string of random circumstances or is there a sovereign hand behind it? Why is there such economic injustice and what should be done? Is this messed-up world all there is or could there be something better awaiting us someday?

Second, the prophets offer us some of God’s most personal answers. When the prophets raise their questions to God, he answers with such powerful passion that we are taken aback. Those who picture God as a dispassionate, detached Creator—impervious to emotion—have never read the prophets. In Isaiah, God cracks the door on his life and lets us see his innermost feelings when Israel has betrayed him: “For a long time I have kept silent, I have been quiet and held myself back. But now, like a woman in childbirth, I cry out, I gasp and pant” (Isaiah 42:14). Once, in Hosea, God is in the very act of pronouncing a series of threats when, as one author puts it, he “seems to break down and a cry of love escapes”: “How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel? . . . My heart is changed within me; all my compassion is aroused” (Hosea 11:8; see Yancey, p. 179). In Zephaniah, God is positively beaming with joy over his people, “The Lord your God is with you. . . . He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing” (Zephaniah 3:17).

We get such a transparent glimpse of God’s heart in the prophets that it feels as if we are reading his journal, where he keeps his most private and intense thoughts. God thunders and rages, he weeps and he grieves, he warns and he counsels, he promises and he comforts, he smiles and he sings. Philip Yancey asserts that “the prophets are the Bible’s most forceful revelation of God’s personality,” and it’s clear God’s personality is inextricably intertwined with the personalities of His people.5 If there is one thing the prophets declare, it is that God is intimately, personally involved with individual human beings. Humanity is not a faceless crowd to God. Isaiah 43:1 tells us he knows us by name, and our individual actions can cause him great sorrow or—amazingly—bring him great joy.

“Before the prophets, you must look closely in the Old Testament to find a few scant references to God’s delight or pleasure in people. The prophets proclaim loud and clear how God feels: he loves us. Of the ancient gods, Israel’s God alone stooped to admit love for the flawed, two-legged creatures who roam this planet.”6

In the prophets, even God’s announcements of judgment are a reminder that he has given his heart to us. The people we love the most are the ones who can hurt us the most, and the fact that our unfaithfulness hurts God deeply means he loves us deeply. Somehow we matter to him.

So we read the prophets to explore some of life’s toughest questions and to experience some of God’s most tender moments. But how exactly can we read the Old Testament prophetic books with understanding? These books can be notoriously hard to unravel. At times, they seem like an interpretive puzzle, a hermeneutical Rubik’s Cube. But as a Rubik’s Cube has six sides, may I look at these books from six angles? Let’s look at six sides to the Old Testament prophetic books, and with each side of this puzzle cube, I’ll suggest a principle for wise reading.

Understand the Setting of the Prophets

The historical context is the first side we’ll look at. What is the setting of the Old Testament prophets? Interesting fact: the 17 prophetic books “come from a rather narrow band in the whole panorama of Israelite history.”7 The books fall between 760–460 BC, 300 years of great upheaval. Under King David and King Solomon, Israel had enjoyed a time of great security and prosperity. The nation was at its military and economic peak.

But after Solomon’s death in 931 BC, civil war erupted, and there was no Abraham Lincoln to reunite the North and the South. The nation split in two. The 10 northern tribes were known as Israel and made their capital in Samaria. The two southern tribes—Judah and Benjamin—were known as Judah and made their capital in Jerusalem.

The northern kingdom was ruled by a succession of wicked kings, was marked by widespread disobedience, and therefore was slated for destruction by God for its sin. Amos and Hosea both announced the impending doom, and in 722 BC, Assyria invaded Israel and scattered the Israelite people across its vast empire.

The kings of the southern kingdom weren’t exactly choirboys either, but there were a few notable exceptions, including the virtuous 8-year-old monarch Josiah. (Good kings come in small packages!) So the nation of Judah enjoyed a longer time in the promised land. But eventually Judah’s own wickedness and idolatry marked it for God’s judgment at the hand of another Middle Eastern superpower—Babylon—which became the subject of such prophets as Isaiah, Jeremiah, Joel, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah.

The Babylonian army destroyed Jerusalem in 587 BC and the captives were exiled in Babylon. But prophets like Ezekiel, Daniel, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi announced that God would return his people to the promised land (which began in 538 BC) and gave instructions for rebuilding the nation on a foundation of righteousness.

Reading principle 1: Reconstruct the setting of the prophet—with the help of a good study Bible, a Bible dictionary, and a careful reading of 1 & 2 Kings and 1 & 2 Chronicles.

Understand the Task of the Prophets

If the prophetic books are like a Rubik’s Cube, then the second side of the puzzle we must examine is the task of the prophet. What exactly was a prophet’s job description?

When many people hear the word prophet, they picture a futurologist—a Nostradamus who predicts events hundreds of years in advance. However, while the Old Testament prophets certainly did point to future events, they were usually events in the very near future, within the lifetime of the readers. In fact, Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart give the following statistics: “Less than 2 percent of Old Testament prophecy is messianic. Less than 5 percent specifically describes the new covenant age. Less than 1 percent concerns [end times] events.”8

You’ve heard the distinction before: more than foretellers, the prophets were mostly forthtellers. More than prognosticators, they were preachers . . . but not just any preachers. Because the kings of the divided kingdom largely ignored the Deuteronomic Law, the prophets were specifically tasked with calling the king—and the nation—back to obedience. One textbook calls them “God’s prosecuting attorneys,” who charged God’s people when they violated the covenant.9 I like Mark Scott’s phrase; he calls the prophets “watchdogs of the Law who ‘dogged’ the kings in particular to obey Deuteronomy.”

Primarily the prophets did two things. First they envisioned life as it was supposed to be within God’s covenant community. Second they named the discrepancies between that vision and the present reality. The prophets were not content to maintain the status quo. (Ronald Reagan once said that status quo is Latin for “the mess we’re in.”) They would not tolerate Israel’s apathetic acceptance of sinful practices, so they engaged in a “ceaseless shattering of indifference.”10 They were called by God to confront those disinterested in living life the way God envisioned.

So while the priests served in the sanctuary, prophets often served in the streets. They were not chaplains, but sheriffs—the “Clint Eastwoods of the pulpit.”11 With searchlight and bullhorn in hand, they patrolled the nation’s highways and byways, and when they spotted neglect of or outright rebellion against God’s law, they boldly called for repentance. Their task was to be the conscience of the nation, “sledgehammers of truth beating on the iron hearts of sin.”12 But as we shall see, on occasion the prophets also came with the Lord’s medicine in hand—salving wounded, broken hearts with words of comfort and hope.

Reading principle 2: Read the Old Testament prophets with the Old Testament Law—which the prophets were called to enforce—in mind.

Understand the Person of the Prophets

A third side of the prophetic puzzle is the person of the prophet himself. Throughout Scripture, the biblical writers often attempt to stay in the background. For example: Moses, Samuel, and Matthew write about themselves in the third person. While they each lived through the events they record, their books read more like history texts than autobiographies.

The lives of Old Testament prophets, however, are often front and center. They write in the first person, and their lives are inextricably intertwined with their messages. As Calvin Miller puts it, “Prophets don’t prepare messages. Prophets are messages.”13 The prophets are much more autobiographical, because God uses their lives as enacted parables:

• Hosea doesn’t just preach about Israel’s unfaithfulness. He lives out God’s pain before them by taking a promiscuous wife himself (Hosea 1).

• Ezekiel doesn’t just preach about the captivity of Jerusalem. He builds a model of the city and then lays on his side, bound with ropes, for 430 days to represent the siege . . . and cooks his food over cow dung to signify Israel’s famine and lack of resources during the siege (Ezekiel 4). Shockingly, God will later take Ezekiel’s wife to demonstrate the overwhelming sadness the nation will feel when Jerusalem and the temple are destroyed (Ezekiel 24).

• Isaiah didn’t just preach about the judgment that would befall Egypt and Ethiopia. He walked naked and barefoot through the streets for three years to show that Egypt and Ethiopia would be led away in shame as captives—naked and barefoot (Isaiah 20).

• Jeremiah doesn’t just preach about submitting to God’s punishment of the Babylonian exile. He wanders around Jerusalem wearing a yoke to call the people to voluntarily put themselves under the yoke of the king of Babylon (Jeremiah 27).

Reading principle 3: Pay close attention to the prophets’ lives, because they are often the visual aids of their own message.

Understand the Themes of the Prophets

Another side to this puzzle cube called the Old Testament prophets would be the particular themes they preached. In their role as “watchdogs of the Law,” what exactly did they bark about? To categorize it simply, I would say the prophets primarily delivered three messages: “You’re guilty. Judgment’s coming. There’s still hope.” Let’s see if the prophetic themes are still needed today.

You’re guilty—The prophets most often convicted God’s people of three crimes. The first was idolatry. With well over 100 references, no other covenant violation is mentioned as frequently. In their quest for what they thought was a better life, the Israelites chased after other gods. They were accused of swearing by Molech (Zephaniah 1:5), calling on the name of Baal (Hosea 2:17), baking cake offerings for Ishtar, “the queen of heaven” (Jeremiah 44:19), mourning for Tammuz (Ezekiel 8:14), sacrificing children to Molech (Jeremiah 32:35), building shrines to Sakkuth and Kaiwan (Amos 5:26), bowing to the sun and moon (Jeremiah 8:2; Ezekiel 8:16), and worshipping the stars (Zephaniah 1:5).

Is this relevant today? While we moderns may not carve graven images, John Calvin was certainly right when he said, “The human heart is a factory of idols.” When we make something other than God an absolute priority—even something good—we have made an idol.

The Old Testament prophets declared God’s people guilty of a second crime: social injustice. Eight times in Deuteronomy, God commands his people to provide justice and food for three marginalized people groups: the widow, the orphan, and the foreigner.14 In the prophetic books, God confronts his people for ignoring and even oppressing these same three people groups—for whom he cares deeply:

• “Stop doing wrong, learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow” (Isaiah 1:16, 17).

• “If you really change your ways and . . . deal with each other justly, if you do not oppress the alien, the fatherless or the widow . . . then will I let you live in this place, in the land I gave your forefathers” (Jeremiah 7:5-7).

• “Declare to my people their rebellion. . . . Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice . . . to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? . . . to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?” (Isaiah 58:1-7).15

This call for social concern still rings relevant. It was no accident Martin Luther King and other civil rights leaders so often quoted from the prophets. Social injustice is still alive and well. Especially as American Christians, we can too often see the work of the church as administrating in-house programs—worship services, youth programs, small group ministries—and forget about God’s call to see the forgotten outside our walls. He wants to see us help those who can’t help themselves. While we often see offerings, baptisms, and attendance as vital signs of a congregation’s health, God might measure us by widows, orphans, and foreigners served.

Still under the heading of “you’re guilty,” the prophets named at least one more crime: religious hypocrisy. In the divided kingdom, Israel put its trust in religious ritual. The Israelites believed that putting on religious appearances—sacrifices, festivals, Sabbath observance, fasting—would keep them right with God. In fact, they thought proper ritual would cover over their covenant violations of idolatry and social injustice. In Isaiah 29:13, the Lord calls them out for their hypocrisy: “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.”16

My favorite cereal is Lucky Charms. I personally believe that Lucky Charms are evidence of a good God. My wife, however, is not so charmed with my cereal choice . . . because of the price. My wife is frugal, and—praise the Lord—she stretches every dollar in our budget. I’m not making this up: she used to subscribe to a magazine called Cheapskate Monthly. There is actually another magazine called the Tightwad Gazette, but we didn’t subscribe to it. (Too much money.)

So when we first went grocery shopping together after we got married, Katie was aghast to discover how expensive Lucky Charms were. “Look at the unit price, Matt! Surely this generic brand over here would be just as good.” I explained to her that nothing could compete with the marshmallowy goodness of Lucky Charms, and I put the big red box in our shopping cart.

A few weeks later, I stumbled bleary-eyed into the kitchen one Saturday morning, grabbed my big red box of Lucky Charms, and poured them in my bowl with some milk. But after the first bite, I knew something was terribly wrong. Do you know what my wife had done? She had bought a box of generic “Magic Stars” and put them in my Lucky Charms box! She thought I would never know the difference.

They were not magically delicious.

The outside packaging looked genuine, but the contents were a cheap imitation. The same was true of Israel. The Old Testament prophets announced that something was terribly wrong with Israel’s relationship with God. Though they put on religious appearances, their hearts were far from God.

I must confess: I’ve been there myself. The outside packaging can look real, but the contents can be a cheap imitation. I can worship, give, read my Bible, and even preach, but my heart can be filled with sin. Am I just preaching to myself here, or has anyone else ever struggled with hypocrisy? My hunch is that when we read the prophets—whether our struggle is idolatry or social injustice or hypocrisy—we might all hear the difficult message, “You’re guilty.”

Judgment’s coming—After announcing Israel’s guilt, the prophets warned that such covenant breaking had consequences. God’s judgment would come, and it would be terrifying to behold. “Therefore the Lord says: ‘I am planning disaster against this people, from which you cannot save yourselves’” (Micah 2:3). “I will pursue them with the sword, famine and plague and will make them abhorrent to all the kingdoms of the earth and an object of cursing and horror” (Jeremiah 29:18). Invading armies, droughts, homes destroyed, cities leveled, people scattered—God’s wrath will be awful indeed.

“We sometimes say, in seasons of havoc, that all Hell is breaking loose. But that’s nothing. What’s truly terrible is when all Heaven breaks loose. In those days . . . men will cry out for the rocks to fall on them.”17 So the prophets pleaded with God’s people to repent. Sometimes the judgment they described was in the distant future, while other times the dust clouds of God’s marching judgment could be seen on the horizon. Regardless, neither Israel nor Judah repented.

Interestingly, the book of Jonah is tucked in the middle of the prophetic books as an ironic contrast. As he enters Nineveh, Jonah (drip-dried, but still smelling like fish) decrees God’s coming wrath. Throughout the prophetic books, God’s chosen people never repent, but paradoxically, the wicked pagans of Nineveh do! Despite pages and pages of the prophets’ passionate appeals, God’s people never humble themselves, but after Jonah’s short eight-word sermon (in Jonah 3:4), the Ninevites “believed God. They declared a fast, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth” (Jonah 3:5).

Wow! Against the backdrop of Nineveh’s repentance, Israel’s obstinance stands out all the more clearly. So Nineveh escapes God’s wrath, but God’s people don’t.

There’s still hope—But judgment is not the last word in the prophets. Even after the temple is leveled, Jerusalem is destroyed, and his people are exiled, God affirms his genuine love for Israel. Through the prophets, he assures them he has not abandoned or forgotten them. A time is coming when he will restore them to the promised land. “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future’” (Jeremiah 29:11).

And that future will not simply be a return to former times. God has in mind something better than they’ve known before. “There will be a new exodus (Isaiah), a new covenant (Jeremiah), and a new presence of the Lord’s indwelling spirit (Ezekiel and Joel).”18 In the future God has planned, forgiveness will come, wickedness will be atoned for, sin will be put to an end, peace will reign, and everlasting righteousness will be ushered in (Daniel 9:24). Some of the richest and most heart-captivating descriptions of a “new heavens and a new earth” are found in the Old Testament prophets. (For example, see Isaiah 65:17). The prophets certainly proclaimed, “You’re guilty. Judgment’s coming.” But—praise God—they also declared, “There’s still hope.”

Reading principle 4: While you may not understand all of a text’s symbolic details, you can seek to understand its main theme—which you may find surprisingly relevant.

 

Next week: In the conclusion of this article on the prophets, Matt Proctor shows us the final two reading principles for understanding them: Understand their perspective, and understand their language.

GO TO PART 2

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1 Philip Yancey, The Bible Jesus Read (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999), 171.

2 Bruce Bickel and Stan Jantz, What Ticks God Off (Nashville: W Publishing Group, 2001), ix.

3 Quoted by William Klein, Craig Blomberg, and Robert Hubbard in Introduction to Biblical Interpretation (Dallas: Word, 1993), 302.

4 Yancey, 173, 174.

5 Ibid., 180.

6 Ibid., 178, 179.

7 Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982), 156.

8 Ibid., 150.

9 Terry Carter, Scott Duvall, and Daniel Hays, Preaching God’s Word (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 252.

10 Abraham Heschel, The Prophets (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), xxv.

11 Lee Eclov, “The Clint Eastwoods of the Pulpit?” www.preachingtoday.com, accessed 5 February 2011.

12 James Weldon Johnson, God’s Trombones (New York: Penguin Books, 1990), 14.

13 Calvin Miller, Spirit, Word and Story (Dallas: Word, 1989), 59.

14 See Deuteronomy 10:18; 24:17, 19-21; 26:12, 13; and 27:19.

15 See also places like Amos 5:7-24; Zechariah 7:5-10; and Malachi 3:5.

16 See also places like Isaiah 1:11-17; Hosea 6:6; and Micah 6:6-8.

17 Mark Buchanan, The Holy Wild (Sisters: Multnomah, 2003), 98.

18 Carter, Duvall, and Hayes, 255.

 

Matt Proctor is president of Ozark Christian College, Joplin, Missouri, and a Christian Standard contributing editor.

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