Studying biblical prophecy is an often overwhelming task. Much of it is written in Hebrew poetry. The names and places are foreign, and the metaphors don’t always resonate with our modern ears. Yet we can usually understand the main point.
If studying an Old Testament prophet overwhelms you, here are some tips to get you started.
- Study the historical setting. While many Old Testament prophets announced the future, it was usually the immediate future of Israel, Judah and/or the nations surrounding them — which is our past. Less than 2% of Old Testament prophecy is messianic. Less than 5% specifically describes the New Covenant. Less than %1 concerns events still in our future today.
- Learn the art of Hebrew poetry. Poetry is the main vehicle for all prophecy. When prophets want to speak of future spiritual realities which will occur after the coming of the Messiah, those future realities are often described either in past historical symbols (like the Exodus) or present historical realities that the audience would be familiar with.
- Think in oracles. Just as we think in paragraphs for epistles and scenes for narratives, the basic building block of prophecy is an “oracle” which you can think of as a particular sermon or address.
- Look for the historical setting of each oracle. The longer prophetic books are collections of spoken oracles which are not necessarily in chronological order.
- Look for blessings/curses and the reasons for them. The prophet’s role was enforcing the covenant. They function as the Lord’s mediators by announcing blessings (positive enforcement) or curses (negative enforcement).
- Since the prophet’s words were not his own, oracles usually begin with a phrase like: “Thus says the Lord.” Use these introductory phrases to separate oracles.
- Look for theology you already understand from the New Testament. As mediators of the Covenant and spokesmen for the Lord, the prophets’ words are not original nor did they invent “new theology.” They may reveal more detail but the ideas are already contained in other Scripture.
- Consult bible dictionaries, commentaries and online resources. Because the historical context and background information is so crucial to understanding prophecy, feel free to consult Bible dictionaries and/or commentaries in your study. Do not handicap yourself by trying to do without them.
- Expect symbolic language. Flannery O’Connor said: “To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind, you draw large and startling figures.” The prophets are shouting warnings. In Numbers 12:6-8, the Lord himself tells us that other than Moses, He speaks to the prophets in riddles.
- Look for recurrent themes and covenant terminology (e.g. Day of the Lord, the remnant, judgment, restoration, etc.).
- Expect a “now and later.” Some of the words of the prophets have a fulfillment in their own day, some point to their future and some point to our future. The problem is they don’t tell us which is which.
- Learn how the New Testament authors handle the Old Testament. The New Testament is our divinely inspired commentary on the Old Testament. Develop a sensitivity for when they are quoting the Old Testament, when they are alluding to it and how they are using it.
The 3 most common types of oracles are: lawsuit; woe; promise or salvation
The Lawsuit Oracle
- Examples: Isa 3:13-26; Isa 41:21-29
- usually contains: a summons, a charge, evidence and a verdict.
- usually contains: a judge, defendants, evidence, prosecutors
The Woe Oracle
- Examples: Micah 2:1-5; Hab 2:6-8
- usually contains: an announcement of distress (which includes the word woe);
- the reason for the distress (disobedience) and
- a prediction of doom (in covenant categories).
Promise or Salvation Oracle
- Example: Amos 9:11-15
- usually contains: a mention of the future (“in that day”);
- a radical change (improvement) and
- a blessing (in covenant categories).
- Example: Isa 20; Jer 19; Eze 4:1-3
- a dramatic, acting out of the message
- the symbol embodies God’s message
True vs False prophecy
- Dt 18:22 – If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the Lord does not take place or come true, that is a message the Lord as not spoken. But the corrollary (if it takes place, must be a true prophet) not necessarily true.
- Dt 13:1-5 – a theological test; a false prophet calls people to follow other gods and teaches rebellion against the God of the Exodus
- Jer 23:9-23 – immoral conduct rules you out as a prophet of the Lord.
For more explanation, read Chapter 10 of How to Read the Bible for All its Worth: A Guide to Understanding the Bible, by Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart.