The Prophetic Books Difficulties in Understanding the Prophets

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The Prophetic Books

Difficulties in Understanding the Prophets

In referring to the prophets, Martin Luther once said the following, “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 heads or tails of them or see what they are getting at.”

The Meaning of Prophecy

Historical Distance

The Spoken Nature of the Prophets

-actions vs. words (recordings) or prophets

-oracle and poetic form

Designation of the Prophetic Books

Writing vs Oral Prophets

Major vs Minor Prophets

Pre-exilic, Exilic, Post-exilic Prophets

Pre-exilic Prophets:

Prophets of Israel – Jonah, Amos, and Hosea

Prophets of Judah – Obadiah, Joel, Isaiah, Micah, Nahum, Zephaniah, Habakkuk and Jeremiah

Exilic Prophets – Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel

Post-exilic Prophets – Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi



Meaning of the word “prophet”:

Comes from Hebrew (nabi)

Essential idea is an “authorized spokesman”.

Three different aspects of this concept:

1. One person speaks for another (Exodus 6:28-7:2).

2. One who speaks for God to man (Numbers 12:1-8).

3. Office of prophet established (Deut 18:9-22).

The Context of Their Writings

Historical Context:

1. Unprecedented political, military, economic, and social upheaval

2. An enormous level of religious unfaithfulness and disregard for the original Mosaic covenant

3. Dramatic shifts in populations and national boundaries.

The Books of 1 and 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles provide the biblical context of the writing prophets leading up to the Babylonian exile. The northern kingdom’s disobedience to the covenant had far outstripped anything yet known in Judah, and Israel was slated for destruction by God because of its sin. Amos, beginning around 760, and Hosea, beginning around 755, announced the impending destruction. God raised up the Assyrians as the new superpower at that time and the instrument of judgment on Israel. In 722 BC, Assyria sacked the capital city of Samaria and thus conquered Israel.

The people of Judah witnessed the destruction of the northern kingdom, as did Isaiah and Micah, who warned that they were not immune to God’s wrath and were, in fact, on the same road to destruction. Thereafter, the mounting sinfulness of Judah and the rise of another superpower, Babylon, became the subject of the prophets Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah, as well as Jeremiah and Ezekiel. Judah, too, was destroyed for its disobedience and carried off into exile.

After the exile, when the people were allowed to return to Jerusalem, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi announced God’s will for the rebuilding of the temple, the rebuilding of the nation, and the reinstitution of orthodoxy.

Directive and Message

As a mouthpiece or spokesman for God, the prophet’s primary duty was to speak forth God’s message to God’s people in the historical context of what was happening among God’s people.

Forthtelling vs. Foretelling:

Forthtelling involved insight into the will of God; it was exhortative, challenging men to obey.

Foretelling entailed foresight into the plan of God; it was predictive, either encouraging the righteous in view of God’s promises or warning in view of coming judgment.

Function of Prophets:

1. Preachers (Jonah 3:4).

2. Predictors (I Samuel 3:19).

3. Watchmen (Ezekiel 3:17).

The Message:

1. They wrote to remind the Israelites of the covenants and their responsibilities. They also reminded the people of the results of disobedience. Dueteronomy 28:1-6 and 15-18, 48-50 and 30:15-20.

2. They constantly exhorted the people to an internal righteousness rather than an external adherence to the law. Perhaps one of the most famous passages is Micah 6:8 which says, “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?”

Look for either (1) an identification of Israel’s sin followed by a prediction of cursing, or (2) an announcement of God’s faithfulness and love for her followed by a prediction of blessing, depending on the circumstance. Most of the time, that is what the prophets are conveying.

3. The prophets sought to shatter “religion” and to replace it with “revelation” and “relationship”.

Religion Revelation

Social Transcendent

Humanistic Transformative

Control God & People People Freed By God

Personal kingdom Universal Kingdom

Literary Features

Themes in Prophetic Books:

1. Warning of impending judgment because of the nations’ sinfulness

2. A description of the sin

3. A description of the coming judgment

4. A call for repentance

5. A promise of future deliverance

Literary Structure:

Each unit in prophetic book uses an introductory or concluding formula like “This is what the Lord says…” They then begin and end a section with the same word or phrase.

1. The Accusation

2. The Judgment:

A Woe oracle—like a judgment speech, except that it starts with “Woe...”

Exhortation/call to repentance—consists of appeal with motivation (in the form of a promise and or threat). (Amos 5:4-6; Joel 2:12-14)

Salvation announcement—often alludes to a lamentable situation and focuses on the Lord’s saving intervention (Amos 9:11-12)

Salvation oracle—introduced by the exhortation “fear not” (Isa 41:8-16)

Salvation portrayal—a description, often idealized and in hyperbolic terms, of God’s future blessings on his people (Amos 9:13).

Literary Form:

A. They Spoke in Oracles – Oracles are basically 'prophetic opinions'.


Longer prophetic books are generally collection of spoken oracles

Not always chronological

Often can't tell begin and end

Usually no hints to their historical setting

Most were recorded in poetic form

Most are run-on

Can't always tell the audience and time

Three Forms of Oracles:

1. The Lawsuit Oracle – Isaiah 3:13-26. God is portrayed imaginatively as the plaintiff, prosecuting attorney, and judge in a court case against the defendant, Israel. The full lawsuit form contains five implied or explicit elements:

a. Summons

b. Charge

c. Evidence

d. Verdict

e. Punishment

2. The Woe Oracle – Habakkuk 2:6-8. Through the prophets, God makes predictions of imminent doom using the device of the “woe”. Largely allegorical. Woe oracles contain, either explicitly or implicitly, three elements that uniquely characterize this form:

a. An announcement of distress (the word “Woe” for example)

b. The reason for the distress

c. A prediction of doom.

3. The Promise (or Salvation) Oracle – Amos 9:11-15. Three elements:

a. Reference to the future

b. Mention of radical change

c. Mention of blessing.

B. They Used Poetry


The language of poetry is imagery.

Designed to stir the emotions and create vivid mental pictures, not feed the intellect.

Consequently, poetry uses devices such as simile, metaphor, personification, and hyperbole to create images that evoke a sensory experience in our imagination.

Structure of poetry is parallelism. It is the phenomenon whereby two or more successive poetic lines strengthen, reinforce, and develop each other’s thought.

Three Kinds of Parallelism:

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.” Or, “Then I shall turn your festivals into mourning. And all your songs into lamentation” (Amos 8:10a).

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.”

Teaching Example

Very often the prophets of God had to endure unusual hardship so that their lives and experiences could be an instrument of teaching to those around them.

Examples in the life of Ezekiel – Ezekiel 4:1-13.

Fulfillment of Prophecies

The Prophetic Telescope:

View of future: “Now” and “Then”

Similar details of different events

Prophecies can have multiple fulfillment

Near vs. Far, Partial vs. Full, Regular vs. Greater

Liberal Assumption


Who is a prophet? A prophet is a man of God who: has power from on high, promotes a counter-culture, serves God, witnesses to God’s plan of salvation, is inspired by the Spirit, is God’s authoritative spokesperson, is a good shepherd, has his message always vindicated by God, is always on the fringes of society, and suffers abuse, ridicule, and rejection.

What Does It Mean to Us?

1. The ungodly society in Israel and Judah in the days of the prophets is certainly similar to the ungodly society of our day.

2. Can it not be argued that the sins of Israel are sins in the NT too?

3. We see through the prophets that God is serious about His covenant with Israel.

Overarching Theme:

What was the goal of the prophetic ministry? What was it the prophets were seeking in their ministry?

The prophets sought repentance. Restoration was the goal, but repentance is what they hoped to see from the people. Zechariah 1:4, “the earlier prophets proclaimed: Thus says the Lord of Hosts, turn from your evil ways and doings.”

The prophets serve as constant reminders to us of God’s serious regard for His covenant. For those who obey the stipulations of the New Covenant (loving God and loving one's neighbor through Jesus Christ), the final, eternal, result will be blessing, even though the results in this world are not guaranteed to be so encouraging. Dare I suggest that for those who disobey, the result can only be curse, regardless of how well one fares during life on earth?

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