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.)
By Matt Proctor
In Part One of this essay, I pointed out the first four of six principles that can help you grasp the marvelous meanings in the Bible’s prophetic texts. I pointed out that the 17 Old Testament books we call the Prophets—Isaiah through Malachi—contain some of the most powerful passages in all of Scripture. Yet these books remain some of the least read portions of the Bible.
But every Bible reader can discover the messages in these texts for himself. The last two principles I’ll discuss in Part Two will show you how.
Understand the Perspective of the Prophets
Another side to the prophetic Rubik’s Cube would be the chronological perspective of the prophets. It might be helpful to categorize the prophets’ messages by four time horizons:
• Now. Most of what the prophets proclaimed had to do with the present time in which the prophets were preaching, as they called for Israel’s immediate repentance and covenant obedience.
• Later. Some of what the prophets predicted had to do with the future . . . but not the distant future. They forecast events that would happen within the next hundred years or so—judgment, exile, return from captivity.
• Much later. A portion of the prophets’ predictions had to do with the distant future—centuries ahead—primarily the ministry of Jesus and the beginnings of the church.
• Much, much later. A small portion of the prophets’ predictions seems to be about the much distant future—millennia ahead of the prophet’s lifetime—specifically the events of the end times, including the new heavens and new earth.
The prophet’s chronological perspective carries a couple of challenges. First, you can’t always tell which category the prophet is speaking about. The prophets don’t always bother to say if the predicted event—a coming invasion, a coming leader, a coming new earth—will occur in the next 3 years, 300 years, or 3,000 years. In fact, sometimes the prophet seems to mix later predictions with much later and much, much later predictions all in the same text, blurring them together.
For example, in Joel 2 and 3, the prophet predicts the invasion of an army of locusts in the very near future (later), then predicts the outpouring of the Spirit mentioned in Acts 2 at Pentecost (much later), then predicts with Revelation-like language a time when God will gather all the nations for judgment (much, much later?), and then shifts back to a judgment in the near future against Tyre and Sidon (later).
One scholar calls this a telescopic view of the future. From Denver, Colorado, the Rocky Mountains appear as a series of distant peaks that are near one another. In reality, the peaks are many miles apart. Similarly, the prophets saw future events as a succession of distant peaks (i.e., events) without an awareness of the large time gaps between them.1 Interestingly, this prophetic perspective may give us a glimpse of how God views history. As the prophets blur together events from all four of our time categories, in some sense they help us see the world from the vantage point of timelessness.
Another challenge about the prophetic perspective: sometimes a prophecy may be fulfilled in multiple time categories. For example, most scholars believe this is true of Isaiah’s prophecy that “the virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14). As the next two verses make clear, that prophecy had a fulfillment in Isaiah’s lifetime (later), but as Matthew 1:22, 23 make clear, it was also ultimately fulfilled in the birth of Jesus (much later).
In fact, such “double fulfillment” can even happen in the same time category. The prophecy in Isaiah 49:6 about “a light for the Gentiles” is applied in Luke 2:32 to Jesus (much later) and also in Acts 13:47 to the apostle Paul (much later). In other words, sometimes a prophecy can be so pregnant that it gives birth to twins—two or more fulfillments.
Reading principle 5: Because it’s difficult to determine a prophecy’s time frame, we must interpret with a strong dose of humility and avoid rigidly limiting a prophetic text to only one time category.
Understand the Language of the Prophets
The final side of the prophetic puzzle is the poetic language of the prophets. The Old Testament prophets mostly do not write in the plain prose of the historical books or the precise theological language of the epistles. Rather they speak in Hebrew poetry. (Your Bible probably even typesets these books to reflect the poetic genre.) Laurence Perrine mentions two characteristics of Hebrew poetry: “Poetry is a kind of language that says more and says it more intensely than does ordinary language.”2
First, what does it mean that poetry communicates more intensely than prose? Quite simply, poetry is strongly emotive language. The pages of the prophets throb with pathos. Second, what does it mean that poetry communicates more than prose? It means poetry is highly metaphoric, and a metaphor can be a single image that communicates at many levels. Because metaphors are multilayered, they pack more meaning per square inch than any other kind of language.
Warren Wiersbe reminds us, “The human mind is not a debating hall but a picture gallery.”3 We don’t tend to think in syllogisms and logical arguments. We tend to think in metaphor and pictures, and so the Old Testament prophets are master painters. They give us strongly emotive images that burn themselves indelibly into our psyche:
• Sinful Israel is like rancid, rotting underwear (Jeremiah 13:7-11). In fact, compared to God’s holiness, even “all our righteous acts are like filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6)
• Yet somehow, God cares for us: “He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young” (Isaiah 40:11).
• So he makes an incredible promise: “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow” (Isaiah 1:18). Though we are as dead in sin as a valley of dry bones, the breath of God will bring our dead bones back to vibrant, dancing life (Ezekiel 37).
• Now we can look forward to a day when the nations will “beat their swords into plowshares” (Isaiah 2:4). “The earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Isaiah 11:9). “On that day there will be . . . no cold or frost . . . living water will flow out from Jerusalem . . . the Lord will be king over the whole earth” (Zechariah 14:6-9).
Indeed the language of the prophets might be the richest in all of Scripture, as they use the full “rainbow of rhetorical colors.”4 Listen to Tom Long’s description and see if you don’t want to read these books:
Old Testament prophecy is a multifaceted jewel. The prophets spoke not in a single fashion but in many voices. They wept and sang, spun yarns, and cracked jokes. They thundered, and they whispered. They poked with a sharp stick, and they soothed with a tender hand. They conjured up courtrooms in the imagination and called forth witnesses to testify. They provoked with parables and puzzled with riddles. They used their own lives—their marriages, their children, their occupations—as allegories. . . . They felt messages burning like fire in their bones, and they felt their own fear like acid on their tongues.5
The language of the prophets is lively, imaginative, memorable, and so powerful that you can hear the electricity humming in the lines. One caution, however, is in order: Don’t overpress the metaphors of the prophets’ poetic language. By choosing this form of speech, they were seeking to create a memorable impression more than convey an exact description.
For example, when Isaiah 65:20 says that in the new heavens and new earth there will “never again . . . be in it an infant who lives but a few days,” the prophet is not trying to give us specific facts on the ages of eternity’s residents: “Yes, there will be babies in heaven.” Rather, he is simply trying to paint a picture of a place where there is no more death, tragedy, heartbreak, or grief. So while poetic language can teach us truth, it is better to read it with your imaginative right brain than with your informational left brain.
Reading principle 6: Take the prophets’ poetic metaphors and symbols seriously, but not always literally.
A Closing Challenge
The reason we humans often reach for poetry is because we are trying to describe something that is almost beyond description. When we try to capture some transcendent reality, ordinary language will not do. So we push language beyond its normal boundaries, putting words together in fresh and startling ways, to express something beyond our normal experience.
But sometimes even poetry can fall short of what we seek to describe. All of which means: at times the Old Testament prophecies are necessarily limited by the language available to the prophets, and the fulfillment of prophecies will be more than we ever could have conceived. The poetic prophecy is simply meant to whet the appetite of our imagination.
So I’ll close with an example that I hope will challenge you to read the prophets with imagination. In Isaiah 11, the prophet pictures the new heavens and new earth in which all creation will coexist in perfect harmony:
The wolf shall be a guest of the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; the calf and the young lion shall browse together, with a little child to guide them. The cow and the bear shall be neighbors, together their young shall rest; the lion shall eat hay like the ox. The baby shall play by the cobra’s den, and the child lay his hand on the adder’s lair. There shall be no harm or ruin . . . for the earth shall be filled with knowledge of the Lord, as water covers the sea (Isaiah 11:6-9, New American Bible).
John Ortberg meditates on this beautiful picture of relational paradise and imagines what the new heavens and new earth will be like:
The Hebrew prophets had a word for this kind of connectedness of all things: shalom—“the webbing together of God, humans, and all creation in justice, fulfillment and delight.” Try to imagine, the old prophets told people then, and tell us still, what such a state of affairs would look like.
In a world where shalom prevailed, all marriages would be healthy and all children would be safe. Those who have too much would give to those who have too little. Israeli and Palestinian children would play together on the West Bank; their parents would build homes for one another. In offices and corporate boardrooms, executives would secretly scheme to help their colleagues succeed; they would compliment them behind their backs. Tabloids would be filled with accounts of courage and moral beauty. Talk shows would feature mothers and daughters who love each other deeply, wives who give birth to their husbands’ children, and men who secretly enjoy dressing as men.
Disagreements would be settled with grace and civility. There would still be lawyers, perhaps, but they would have really useful jobs like delivering pizza, which would be non-fat and low in cholesterol. Doors would have no locks; cars would have no alarms. Schools would no longer need police presence or even hall monitors; students and teachers and janitors would honor and value one another’s work. At recess, every kid would get picked for a team . . .
People would be neither bored nor hurried. No father would ever say, “I’m too busy,” to a disappointed child . . . Divorce courts and battered-women shelters would be turned into community recreation centers. Every time one human being touched another, it would be to express encouragement, affection and delight.
No one would be lonely or afraid. People of different races would join hands; they would honor and be enriched by their differences and be united in their common humanity. And in the center of the entire community would be its magnificent architect and most glorious resident: God Himself.6
Amen and amen. I need the message of the prophets, and so do you. So put your fingers on that neglected white band of pages in the middle of your Bible, open them up . . . and read.
1William Klein, Craig Blomberg, and Robert Hubbard, Introduction to Biblical Interpretation (Dallas: Word, 1993), 304.
2Quoted by Tom Long in Preaching and the Literary Forms of the Bible (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1988), 46.
3“Growing Edge,” www.christianitytoday.com/le/1995/winter/5l1064.html, accessed 9 May 2011.
4Tom Long in Michael Duduit, Handbook of Contemporary Preaching (Nashville: Broadman, 1992), 309.
6John Ortberg, Everybody’s Normal Till You Get to Know Them (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 19, 20.
Matt Proctor is president of Ozark Christian College, Joplin, Missouri, and a CHRISTIAN STANDARD contributing editor.