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Oct 19, 2022

This seems to me to be a good time to talk with you about how to understand the prophetic books of the Bible. At day number 292 in our reading calendar, we are well into reading the Babylonian exile prophet Ezekiel, and our poetry readings to the end of the year will be from the prophet Isaiah, who lived 200 years before Ezekiel. Near the end of the year we’ll read the minor prophets in quick succession. All the books in the prophetic genre are hands-down the most difficult books to understand in the Bible. So I hope I can give basic pointers in this episode that will be helpful to you from now on to the end of the year.

I will start with quoting a paragraph from How to Read the Bible for all it’s worth (by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart) that gives one reason people have difficulty with the 16 prophetic books of the OT: We come to these books with false expectations. Speaking about the word ‘prophecy’ they state:

For most people this word means what appears as the first definition in most dictionaries: “foretelling or prediction of what is to come.” It often happens, therefore, that many Christians refer to the prophetic books only for predictions about the coming of Jesus and/or certain features of the new-covenant age—as though prediction of events far distant from their own day was the main concern of the prophets. In fact, using the prophets in this way is highly selective. Consider in this connection the following statistics: Less than 2 percent of Old Testament prophecy is messianic. Less than 5 percent specifically describes the new-covenant age [we are currently living in]. Less than 1 percent concerns events yet to come in our time. (p. 166)

The prophets did indeed announce the future. But it was usually the immediate future of Israel, Judah, and other nations surrounding them that they announced rather than our future.

Rather than thinking of prophets as prediction makers, Fee and Stuart give this very accurate job description of them:

  • The prophets were covenant enforcement mediators.

This definition explains a lot!

There were hundreds of prophets in the Old Testament, starting with Moses. Many were unnamed. Only 16 were selected to write books for us. Several named prophets wrote historical books that we wish we had. In all cases, the prophets were speaking to the people of their age. So understanding what was happening at the time of the writer is key to understanding the prophetic books. You won’t understand the historical setting without help. This is why I will make several book recommendations at the end of this episode.

I was in a village in Papua adjacent to the Orya area and where many Orya people come to shop for things they need. This was at the very beginning of the Covid Pandemic. I stayed overnight with a hospitable pastor there who said, “I’ve heard that this epidemic has something to do with bats. I found this verse. Is God saying this to us?

Isaiah 2:20 (NET)  At that time men will throw their silver and gold idols, which they made for themselves to worship, into the caves where rodents and bats live,

I replied, “Probably that isn’t for us. We should first figure out what was happening in Isaiah’s time, and then see if that message is appropriate for our time also.” The pastor kind of rolled his eyes and held up the palms of his hands, as if to say, “How in the world can I do that?!”

I must admit, he would have few resources to call on to find answers. But you have many ways to gain the needed background information:

  • His translation doesn’t have good section headings. Yours probably does. Good section headings really help the reader, and the listeners. That’s why I read the section headings in prophetic books in my podcasts.

  • He wasn’t using a meaning-based translation for reading the prophets. I hope you will! The GNT and NLT convey the meaning as we would say it in normal modern language. Trying to force English to say things like the Hebrew does results in verses that leave the readers scratching their heads. 

  • Use some of the extra resources I will recommend at the end to help you to understand the historical context. This will help the prophetic books to come alive for you.

I was rather surprised when one of the elders in our church here in Arkansas complained bitterly about the major prophetic books. He said something like, “I’ve been working to penetrate Jeremiah the last couple of months. I hate reading these chapters that say, ‘Woe to you, king of somewhere…’ What am I supposed to find in these books?” I was shocked that an elder— who is an intelligent and well-educated professional— would speak so negatively about any part of God’s Word.

I was unprepared to answer him. Let me tell you what I wish I had said to him:

  • First, he was doing none of the three things I just mentioned. He was clearly not coming with the right expectations for what God has for us in the prophetic books.

  • “The prophets were covenant enforcement mediators.” (Fee and Stuart) This means that they often rebuke God’s people for breaking the covenant, or call Israel to come back to obeying the covenant. We can summarize the covenant as being embodied in the Ten Commandments. This is why the prophets continually come back to the same points: Don’t worship idols; don’t commit adultery; don’t lie, cheat, or steal, etc. Therefore, from now on in the Digging Deeper Daily reading plan, please be on the lookout for places where the different prophets say the same thing. After all, the ultimate Author is the same, as Peter says, 

2 Peter 1:20-21 (NET)  Above all, you do well if you recognize this: No prophecy of scripture ever comes about by the prophet’s own imagination,

for no prophecy was ever borne of human impulse; rather, men carried along by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.

  •  Consider this oracle of woe to the king of Egypt from Ezekiel 32:1-2 (NLT):

    • On March 3, during the twelfth year of King Jehoiachin’s captivity, this message came to me from the Lord: “Son of man, mourn for Pharaoh, king of Egypt, and give him this message: “You think of yourself as a strong young lion among the nations, but you are really just a sea monster, heaving around in your own rivers, stirring up mud with your feet.

First, I think it highly unlikely that Ezekiel would be able to give Pharaoh this message! Ezekiel was a refugee living in Babylon. Rather, I think that the message is actually to encourage the exiles living with Ezekiel, and he may have sent this message to his people still living in Jerusalem. So this can be understood as the figure of speech called ‘apostrophe’, which is basically lambasting an enemy who is not in your audience to encourage your actual readers.

Second, be aware that the kings of Egypt, Tyre,  or Babylon may actually symbolize Satan, who is the ruler behind the evil world system that opposes God.

My favorite places in prophecy are those times when God so wonderfully repeats promises to his people which we count as fulfilled in this age. An example will come soon in day 305, where Ezekiel says, 

Ezekiel 36:25‭-‬28 GNT
I will sprinkle clean water on you and make you clean from all your idols and everything else that has defiled you. I will give you a new heart and a new mind. I will take away your stubborn heart of stone and give you an obedient heart. I will put my spirit in you and will see to it that you follow my laws and keep all the commands I have given you.

Then you will live in the land I gave your ancestors. You will be my people, and I will be your God.

That is strikingly similar to the favorite verses found in Jeremiah 31 which are quoted in Hebrews 8, especially verse 10:

Hebrews 8:10 GNT
Now, this is the covenant that I will make with the people of Israel in the days to come, says the Lord: I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.

Again in Hebrews 10, some of that same Jeremiah 31 passage is referred to, and the writer goes on to explain:

Hebrews 10:21-22 (NET)  since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a sincere heart in the assurance that faith brings, because we have had our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed in pure water.

Wait a minute. That’s what we just read in Ezekiel! This gives me goosebumps. These wonderful spiritual realities are true of us today, for all of us who are understanding our unity with Christ, our great high priest. We can appreciate how people in Jeremiah and Ezekiel’s day would have longed for the things that now have been given to us.

Beginning with the writings of the prophet Moses, God keeps repeating, “You will be my people, and I will be your God.” I just love it when so many correspondences line up. To me this proves that God has so wonderfully constructed his Word, and He will keep on fulfilling his plans and promises.

It’s worth it to read God’s prophets in order to more fully appreciate the treasures we have been given.

I am not able to include a discussion of Revelation in this discussion of prophecy. In the Digging Deeper Daily reading plan, we start that book on December 8. Revelation is in a different genre than most OT prophetic books, called the apocalyptic genre. Zechariah, and parts of Ezekiel and Daniel are early examples of apocalyptic writings. Such writings include symbolic numbers, surreal and highly symbolic visions, and cyclical organization. This is NOT what we expect: chronological organization. High examples of the apocalyptic genre are found in Jewish literature.

10. non-canonical (taken from D. S. Russell, The Method and Message of Jewish Apocalyptic, pp. 37-38) (Taken from Utley

  • a. I Enoch, II Enoch (the Secrets of Enoch)

  • b. The Book of Jubilees

  • c. The Sibylline Oracles III, IV, V

  • d. The Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs

  • e. The Psalms of Solomon

  • f. The Assumption of Moses

  • g. The Martyrdom of Isaiah

  • h. The Apocalypse of Moses (Life of Adam and Eve)

  • i. The Apocalypse of Abraham

  • j. The Testament of Abraham

  • k. II Esdras (IV Esdras)

  • l. II & III Baruch


But the book of Revelation surpasses such books, because it truly is inspired. 

An Indonesian Bible reader asked me about Revelation 6:5-6:

Revelation 6:5-6 (NET)  Then when the Lamb opened the third seal I heard the third living creature saying, “Come!” So I looked, and here came a black horse! The one who rode it had a balance scale in his hand.
Then I heard something like a voice from among the four living creatures saying, “A quart of wheat will cost a day’s pay and three quarts of barley will cost a day’s pay. But do not damage the olive oil and the wine!”

He asked something like, “Has this horse and rider appeared yet, and what effect has it had on our economy?”

No book of the Bible has spawned more wrong interpretations than Revelation. Don’t try to look for highly specific interpretations like my Indonesian friend. Try to understand the major symbolic elements. The two main points of the book are very easy to grasp:

  1. In the end, in spite of how things will appear in the world, Jesus will triumph.

  2. Your perseverance in suffering and persecution will be rewarded.

So I hope one major take-away point from what I have shared is That I urge you to supplement your Bible reading of all the prophetic books of the Bible with other books. Here are a few recommendations.


Recommended resources:

How to Read the Bible for all it’s worth, Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart

How to Read the Bible Book by Book, Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart

What the Bible is All About, Dr. Henrietta C. Mears (Get the revised NIV edition.)

Free Bible Commentary, Dr. Bob Utley

Any study Bible will have helpful notes about how the prophetic writers fit into Israel’s history.