I’ve been skiing exactly one time in my life, during an eighth-grade field trip. On the way to the Wisconsin ski resort, I remember thinking, How hard could it be to slide down a snowy hill?
Brimming with the unbridled optimism of a 13-year-old, I clomped in my rental skis from the lodge to the bunny hill, the beginner’s slope that was about as steep as the driveway at my parents’ suburban home. I spent most of that long, cold afternoon proving the power of gravity as I fell again and again. I was bruised and weary by the end of the day and on the bus home decided to retire from my skiing career.
When I watch the Winter Olympics, I recall my miserable experience as I witness world-class skiers slicing down impossibly steep inclines. Those slopes, tagged with double black diamond signs, warn all but experts away from dangerous runs.
I suspect there are some Christians who approach their Bibles by ranking different sections of Scripture in the same way ski resorts mark their trails: beginner, intermediate, expert, and “Seriously! This is for the pros!” The analogy breaks down a bit because even the most familiar passages of Scripture aren’t necessarily simple when it comes to how we understand, obey, and live them. But the narrative of Genesis, the music of the psalms, or the frank directives of Paul’s letters seem more accessible to most Bible readers than the prophetic books of the Old Testament. Are these books exclusively the domain of Bible experts like pastors, theology professors, and historians?
There are no loopholes in the call to handle the Word of God correctly. (See 2 Tim. 2:15.) The prophetic books cover nearly a third of the pages in our Bibles, and they reference people, places, and things that may not be familiar to contemporary readers. The good news is that with a bit of orientation, these rich books allow us to see afresh the way in which our just, loving God responds to both the faithful and the rebellious. They also let us hear more plainly His unchanging call to return wholeheartedly to Him.
Written for whom?
There are a few common ways in which beginning readers of the prophetic books can veer off course and miss the message of these writings. The first is to dip into biblical prophetic literature to pull verses for modern, personal application. This usually flows from the best of intentions, such as a desire to encourage someone with a word straight from Scripture. (I’ve done it myself.) However, when we cherry-pick from passages that seem to echo our own sentiments, we can develop a habit of thinking the prophetic books are all about us.
Are the prophetic books exclusively the domain of Bible experts like pastors, theology professors, and historians?
Imagine the prophet Jeremiah entering a Christian bookstore and seeing a few words from his message to Israel emblazoned on a graduation card. When he proclaimed, “‘For I know the plans that I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope’” (Jer. 29:11), he was speaking to the chosen people living in captivity in Babylon. They had no hope of ever being able to return home. But Jeremiah brought word that as they accepted God’s discipline for their unfaithfulness to Him, they would learn of His unchanging faithfulness.
A second way we veer off course is by indulging in “ripped from today’s headlines!” speculation. Certain streams in the church are fixated on analyzing prophetic passages that point toward the end times, with the purpose of having the inside track on how things will all come down. I suspect most of these self-proclaimed prophecy experts mean well. They want to prepare modern audiences to be ready for the Lord’s return.
A generation ago, a former NASA engineer turned Bible prophecy teacher named Edgar Whisenant had thousands of believers convinced that Jesus would return during the Jewish feast of trumpets (Rosh Hashanah) in 1988. His elaborate dating system was a mash-up of Bible passages, modern calendars, and current events tied to the founding date of the modern State of Israel. Throughout history, there have been end-times date-setting movements within the church, as well as cults that may have started in the church but eventually moved outside the bounds of theological orthodoxy. The temptation to decode blood moons and modern geopolitical movements through ancient prophecy is often rooted in our fear of the future, especially when the present seems to be growing ever darker.
The penchant for some prophecy buffs to attempt to decode passages like the 70 “weeks” of Daniel 9:24-27, or to relentlessly seek proof the end is near from this or that current event, misses the larger story the prophets have been proclaiming for over 2,500 years. As Bible scholars Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart noted, less than one percent of the passages in the prophets point to events yet to happen at that point in history: “The prophets did 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. One of the keys to understanding … therefore, is that for us to see their prophecies fulfilled, we must look back upon times which for them were still future but for us are past.”
Beyond the Bunny Slope
The Old Testament has different types of God-breathed literature, collected over the span of more than a thousand years. The first five books of the Old Testament, known as the Pentateuch (“five scrolls” in Greek), contain God’s revelation of Himself through the Law. The historical books, which span Joshua through Esther in our Bibles, detail the way in which God’s covenant people, Israel, responded to the Law and the Lawgiver. The wisdom and poetic writings, including Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Solomon, offer us the full human scope of devotional response to God. The final grouping of books contains the prophetic writings, and these describe the way in which God the Lawgiver deals with both His covenant people and the surrounding nations—when they obeyed, and when they violated, His good call to love and obey Him.
It can be helpful to keep these categories in mind when we consider how to approach the prophetic books. Even as we affirm that all Scripture is divinely inspired, we must recognize that different genres of biblical literature require us to read them in light of their style as well as their purpose.
The 16 books attributed to the prophets underscore for readers the way in which obedience to God carries with it blessing, and disobedience to Him carries grave consequences. These books also highlight that God is in the reclamation business, offering a way of return to Him throughout. Sometimes, the books are subdivided into the categories of major and minor prophets. Isaiah, Jeremiah (and the book of Lamentations, ascribed to Jeremiah), Daniel, and Ezekiel are called major prophets, only by virtue of the length of their collected messages. Additional prophetic literature in the Old Testament consists of 12 small-in-size books that have been dubbed “minor prophets.” Their oracles may have been shorter in length, but they carried the same divine DNA as the longer books.
These books highlight that God is in the reclamation business, offering a way of return to Him throughout.
For some of us, the word prophecy conjures images of future forecasting. In the Bible, however, the primary role of the prophet was simply to speak for God. There have always been men and women who have been used by God to speak His word to their community. These include Samuel, Nathan, Miriam, and Deborah. (See 1 Samuel 3:1-21; 2 Sam. 12:1-31; Ex. 15:20; and Judg. 4:4.)
The men who would become known to us as the writing prophets came onto the scene in the years after King Solomon died (around BC 931). A power struggle between Jeroboam and Solomon’s son Rehoboam split the nation of Israel in two. (See 1 Kings 12:1-33; 2 Chronicles 10:1-19.) Rehoboam became king over the southern territory containing Jerusalem—land that had been allotted to the tribes of Judah and Benjamin. This new nation became known as Judah. Jeroboam ruled over the region allotted to the other 10 tribes, and this nation continued to be known as Israel. This massive family feud and the subsequent moral decay in both kingdoms led to the rise of the writing prophets’ ministry, from approximately BC 890 to BC 440. Authors Craig G. Bartholomew and Michael W. Goheen note, “The prophetic office thus appears in Israel as a counterbalance to the powerful office of kingship … we often find a prophet in bitter confrontation with the king of his day.”
Understanding when, where, and to whom a prophet was speaking can offer a helpful framework for understanding the nature of that confrontation. Academics have varying opinions about the dating of some of these books, so I present the dates below to give you a general sense of the flow of events surrounding each man’s ministry.
After the nation divided in the years following Solomon’s death, the northern and southern kingdoms followed similar trajectories, but at different speeds.
Israel: In the two and a half centuries or so after the split, Israel was ruled by a series of 19 kings who mixed and matched parts of God’s Law with the religion of pagan neighboring nations, a flagrant violation of the first commandment (Ex. 20:3-4). Hard-hearted Israel refused to listen to the prophets’ call to turn back to God. In BC 722, the Assyrians conquered Israel. The invading army carried the best of them into slavery and dispersed the rest of the people among Assyria’s landholdings. Because of spiritual compromise, the Israelites were predisposed to assimilation and lost their unique identity as chosen people within a couple of generations.
Judah: After the division of the land, Judah fared only marginally better than her sibling to the north. Perhaps because of the presence of the temple in Jerusalem, Judah’s spiritual decline through compromise and idolatry was a bit slower. God sent Judah a series of prophets calling for a return to God, but their words fell on deaf ears, and by BC 586 the Babylonians had conquered the southern kingdom. In the Law, one of God’s promised consequences for disobedience was that the chosen people would be uprooted from the Promised Land (Deut. 28:15-68).
In what must have seemed at the time an impossible promise, the prophet Jeremiah spoke these words to his heartsick people as they were being uprooted from their homes in Judah and marched hundreds of miles into Babylon: “For thus says the Lord, ‘When seventy years have been completed for Babylon, I will visit you and fulfill My good promise to you, to bring you back to this place’” (Jer. 29:10).
For some of us, the word prophecy conjures images of future forecasting. In the Bible, however, the primary role of the prophet was simply to speak for God.
In BC 538 Cyrus, the Persian who’d become ruler of Babylon, miraculously gave his permission for captives to return home. A good number of the Jewish people stayed on in Babylon (what is now modern-day Iraq) for the next 2,500 years, until shortly after World War II, when the community was uprooted by persecution.
The historical books of Ezra and Nehemiah describe the subsequent return to Judah and rebuilding of Jerusalem. A quick skim of those books is a stark reminder that despite the joy of being restored to their homeland, the people’s propensity to wander from God was only one spiritual compromise away.
Not for Experts Only
Parts of Scripture may seem to become double black diamond slopes when the reality that we need additional tools and expert guidance crashes into our expectations. If the Bible is God’s love letter to us, its meaning should be clear and simple, right? Fee and Stuart challenge those assumptions: “In accordance with the fact that God’s thoughts are profound compared with human thoughts (Psalm 92:5; Isa. 55:8), it should not be surprising that some parts of the Bible will require time and patient study to understand.”
The books penned by the prophets are definitely in that category. Modern readers will find a Bible dictionary or Bible handbook of value in order to get a sense of the historical setting, the prophet’s background (if known), and a general outline of the book. In addition, a good commentary or two will offer insight as to the prophet’s message, shades of meaning in the original language, and cultural information.
For instance, Amos, prophet to the northern kingdom, addresses the sins of Israel’s neighbors as well as those of Judah and Israel. He uses the phrase “for three transgressions of [place] and for four” a total of eight times in the first two chapters of his oracle, as he names the sins of each people group. The number four was used in literature of the period to represent all aspects of a thing, such as the four seasons or the four phases of the moon. In his commentary on Amos, Bob Utley explains that in the Old Testament, the number four represented compass directions, wind directions, or corners of the earth. “From these came its implied meaning of completeness or fullness. Also the numbers three and four equals seven, which is another OT way to show completeness; the sins of these nations were full/complete!” Such information adds richness to the meaning of Amos’ rhythmic numerical pronouncements.
Doing a bit of homework not only gives us insight into the prophets’ messages; it will also illumine our reading of the New Testament, which contains at least 99 direct quotations from the prophets. Jesus honored the prophets as ones who faithfully expressed the heart and goodness of the Law. When a first-century religious expert questioned Jesus about what He thought was the greatest commandment in the Law, Jesus replied, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 22:37-40). The prophetic books were a part of the Bible Jesus read, and they were integral to His ministry.
I affirm Fee and Stuart’s encouragement to avail yourself of study tools to orient yourself to the prophetic books. But I believe that even without such resources, you can glean much from these books if you approach your reading with a seeker’s heart—one that comes to Old Testament prophecy with questions such as:
• To whom were these words originally addressed?
• What behaviors and beliefs did God commend?
• What did He condemn?
• What warnings of discipline or consequences did God give to the people He was addressing?
• What promises did He make to the people?
• What do I discover about the character of God?
• Are there areas of my life that need to change as a result of the words I’ve read?
Historical context is a great help, but it is essential to remember that God hasn’t changed. The words of the prophets regarding God’s character and the kind of relationship He wants with us are just as timely today as they were at the moment they were given. The call to repent and return to God in order to live a life of single-minded devotion to Him has no expiration date.
He promised the Holy Spirit would lead us into truth (John 16:13-14). Doing our homework is important when it comes to the study of the prophets, but it is essential that we seek to listen to the Spirit’s voice in our journey through these books. He is our faithful Guide and Teacher, and for that very reason, the prophetic books of the Bible are not something reserved for experts only; they are meant for each of us.
Illustrations by MUTI