Jesus’ first words

That’s a cheeky title by which I mean the first words the writers  of the New Testament gospels put in the mouth of the Lord Jesus. Some extra-canonical gospels purport to give His first words as an infant, but they’re unreliable having been written a long time later and not getting a whole host of details right.

That said, this post may very well be a bad idea, seeing as ancient Greek had no spaces between words, no capital letters, no full stops to indicate the end of a sentence, no quotation marks, etc., so we can’t be 100% certain of where Jesus’ direct speech begins and ends. However, researching this was an exciting experiment for me, seeing how Jesus’ first words in each gospel tie in to themes that recur later. Or maybe I was reading too much into the text. You decide:

Matthew

Matthew 3:15 Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.”

One of the themes of Matthew’s gospel is that of the fulfilment of prophecy and promises made to the Jewish people. The first words attributed to the Lord point to the continuity of His ministry with the Judaism that has gone before.

Mark

Mark 1:15 “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!”

The four key words in this sentence are important all through the New Testament: kingdom, repent, believe and good news (gospel). Jesus’ first words here describe not only His ministry, but also that of the apostles after Him and all believers, right up to our day.

Luke

Luke 2:49 “Why were you searching for me?” he asked. “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?”

This is the first time in Luke-Acts that the Greek word dei (“it is necessary”) appears (Luke 2:49; 4:43; 9:22; 13:33; 17:25; 19:5; 21:9; 22:37; 24:7, 26, 44; Acts 1:16, 21; 3:21; 4:12; 5:29; 9:6, 16; 14:22; 15:5; 16:30; 17:3, 19:21; 20:35; 23:11; 24:19; 25:10; 27:24). Jesus understood His mission was to be about the Father’s will, which He carried out to the point of death on the cross.

John

John 1:37-39 When the two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus. Turning around, Jesus saw them following and asked, “What do you want?” They said, “Rabbi” (which means Teacher), “where are you staying?” “Come,” he replied, “and you will see.” So they went and saw where he was staying, and spent that day with him. It was about the tenth hour.

I’ll admit that this one was hard for me to figure out. The best (and perhaps only) explanation I’ve heard for this encounter is from Alistair Begg’s sermon on John 1:35-42, The Impact of a Day (length 30:11).

What now?

Over to you. Have I hit on something here, or should I find some other use of my time?

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Heaven: harps, haloes and clouds?

What picture comes to mind when you think of God’s eternal kingdom? Sitting on a puffy cloud in a diaphanous nightgown playing a harp?

Alistair Begg, in his sermon titled sermon, The Prophesied Kingdom, Part  Two reads an excerpt (transcribed below) from John Dickson’s book, If I Were God, I’d End All the Pain:

For many of us, even for some long-term believers, our picture of God’s kingdom to come derives from an unlikely combination of ancient Greek philosophy and modern Hollywood movies. The ancient Greek philosopher Plato taught that the physical world is a kind of grubby reflection of the ultimate non-physical reality to which everything is headed. Buddhism and Hinduism with their goal of nirvana, share a similar outlook. Somehow Hollywood got hold of this idea and now almost always portrays the afterlife as an airy-fairy, fourth-dimensional existence with clouds, haloes, bright lights and the ever-present harp music.

In the years after I came to believe in Christ, it always troubled me that I was now meant to enjoy the thought of escaping the physical world and entering a spiritual one called heaven. I love the taste, smell, sight, sound and touch of this world. And here I was, being told to look forward to losing these five senses and having them replaced by a spiritual sixth sense. I wasn’t terribly excited about it. Then someone challenged me to point to biblical texts that describe the afterlife as a disembodied nirvana-like bliss. I couldn’t. Every passage I turned to challenged the Hollywood version of heaven.

It turns out that the biblical coming kingdom is not an ethereal place of clouds and ghosts, but a tangible place of real existence. It is a new creation. Whether or not we gain a sixth sense, I’ve no idea, but I think we can count on keeping the other five senses. This is a future I can get excited about! It is life in the fullest sense of the word, a reality in which the moral and physical tensions of our current world will be resolved through an extraordinary act of divine re-creation. And when I find myself doubting that that such a fantastic hope could ever become a reality, I need only go down to the beach near where I live or look up at the glorious night sky and remind myself that God has already done it once. The proof is right there before my eyes, why should I question His ability to do it a second time?

The Revelation: Images of judgement and hope

These are my notes on Chapter 13 (of 13) of “How to Read the Bible For All Its Worth” (2nd edition) by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart. This is a book on common-sense guidelines on interpreting and applying the Bible.

Most of the hermeneutical problems in Revelation stem from the symbolism and the fact that the book deals with future events, but at the same time is set in a recognisable 1st century context.

Humility is necessary when approaching Revelation. Additionally, one should avoid dogmatism for there are many variations on interpretations.

The nature of the Revelation

Revelation is a blend of 3 distinct literary types: apocalypse, prophecy and letter. Moreover, apocalyptic is a genre without a contemporary equivalent.

The Revelation as apocalypse

Apocalypse as a genre was popular from about 200 B.C. to 200 A.D. Apocalypses had the following common characteristics:

  1. Apocalyptic was born either in persecution or great oppression. It therefore looked forward to the time when God would bring an end to history, an end that would mean the triumph of right and the final judgment of evil.
  2. Unlike most of the prophetic books which compiled previously spoken oracles, apocalypses are written works from the beginning.
  3. The content of apocalyptic is presented in the form of visions and dreams, in cryptic and symbolic language. To give the book a sense of age pseudonyms were often used, attributing the writing to ancient worthies (e.g. Enoch, Baruch, etc.)
  4. The images of apocalyptic are often forms of fantasy rather than of reality. The fantasy may not appear in the items themselves (beasts, heads, horns, etc.) but in their unearthly combination.
  5. Most of the apocalypses were formally stylised, with time and events divided into neat packages. The symbolic use of numbers was very common. The result was that visions were carefully arranged in sets, often numbered. The numbering didn’t necessarily indicate the sequence of occurrence.

Revelation presents all these characteristics, except that it isn’t pseudonymous.

The Revelation as prophecy

John calls his book “this prophecy” (1:3; 22:18-19) and intended it to be a word from God to the church in their present situation. (Remember that ‘to prophesy’ means to speak forth God’s word in the present.)

The Revelation as epistle

The characteristics of a letter form are present in Revelation (see 1:4-7; 22:21). This means that there is an occasional aspect to Revelation, i.e. its writing was prompted at least in part by the needs of the churches to which it is addressed.

The necessity of exegesis

This is a repetition of principles encountered in How To Read The Bible For All Its Worth thus far:

  1. Seek the human author’s and the Holy Spirit’s original intent. The primary meaning of Revelation is what John intended it to mean, which in turn must also have been something his readers could have understood it to mean.
  2. Since Revelation intends to be prophetic, one must be open to the possibility of a secondary meaning, inspired by the Holy Spirit, but not fully seen by the author or his readers.
  3. Any keys to interpreting the Revelation must be intrinsic to the text of Revelation itself or otherwise available to the original recipients from their own historical context.
  4. Here are some suggestions regarding the imagery:
    1. John derived images from the OT and ancient mythology, and transformed them under inspiration.
    2. Some of the imagery is constant, some is fluid (e.g. the lion turns out to be a lamb, 5:5-6). Some images refer to specific things (the seven lampstands are the seven churches, 1:12-20), others are general.
    3. When John himself interprets his images, these interpreted images must serve as a starting point for understanding others (cf. 1:17-18, 20; 12:9; 17:9, 18)
    4. One must see the visions as wholes and not allegorically press all the details. The whole vision is trying to say something; the details are either (1) for dramatic effect or (2) to add to the picture of the whole so that the readers will not mistake the points of reference.
  5. Apocalypses in general and the Revelation in particular seldom intend to give a detailed, chronological account of the future. John’s concern is that, despite present appearances, God is in control of history and of the church.

The historical context

First, try to read it all the way through in one sitting to get the big picture. On a subsequent reading, pick up all the references that indicate that John’s readers are “companions in his sufferings” (1:9). These are the crucial historical indicators.

For example, in the seven letters note 2:3, 8-9, 13; 3:10, plus the repeated “to the one who overcomes.” The fifth seal (6:9-11) reveals Christian martyrs who have been slain because of the word and the testimony (exactly why John is in exile in 1:9). In 7:14 the great multitude who will never again suffer (7:6) has “come out of the great tribulation.” Suffering and death are again linked to bearing “the testimony of Jesus” in 12:11 and 17.

The main theme of the book is that for the church, things would get worse before they got better (6:9-11). But God is in control of all things (1:17-20) and judgement will be poured out on those who have afflicted God’s people.

The literary context

To understand any one of the specific visions in the Revelation it is especially important not only to wrestle with the background and meaning of the images (the content questions) but also to ask how this particular vision functions in the book as a whole. The book is structured as a whole, and each vision is an integral part of the whole:

  • Chapters 1-3 introduce us to most of the “characters”: John (1:1-11), Christ (1:12-20) and the church (2:1-3:22).
  • In chapter 4 the church is told that God reigns in sovereign majesty, while chapter 5 reminds them that God’s Lion is a Lamb who Himself redeemed humankind through suffering.
  • Chapters 6-7 begin unfolding the drama with the first set of seven visions.
  • Chapters 8-11 reveal the content of God’s judgement.
  • In chapter 12 we’re told of Satan’s attempts to destroy Christ and of his own defeat instead.
  • Chapters 13-14 show John’s original readers that the vengeance took the form of the Roman Empire. But the empire and emperors are doomed (chapters 15-16). The book concludes as a “tale of two cities” (chapters 17-22)—one condemned and another where God’s people dwell eternally.

 The hermeneutical questions

Like the prophets, Revelation speaks of things that are yet to be. From our point in history most of those events are in the past. The hermeneutical problems aren’t too great in this regard. Our difficulties lie in the fact that in prophecy, the temporal world is often so closely tied to the final eschatological realities. For example the fall of Rome in Revelation 18 seems to imply the final end as part of the picture. What do we do in such cases?

  1. We need to learn that pictures of the future are just that—pictures. They express a reality but aren’t to be confused with the reality, nor are the details of every picture to be fulfilled in some specific way.
  2. Some of the pictures that were intended to express the certainty of God’s judgement must not be interpreted to mean “soon-ness”.
  3. The pictures where the temporal is closely tied to the eschatological must not be viewed as simultaneous.
  4. Although there are probably many instances where there is a future dimension to the picture, we have not been given the keys to extract them. Case in point: the antichrist.
  5. The pictures that are intended to be totally eschatological are still to be taken as such (11:15-19; 19:1-22:21). The fulfilment of these pictures will be in God’s own time and in His own way.

Bonus link

Here’s a pastors’ workshop on preaching apocalyptic, complete with instruction and model sermons.

Wisdom: Then and now

These are my notes on Chapter 12 (of 13) of “How to Read the Bible For All Its Worth” (2nd edition) by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart. This is a book on common-sense guidelines on interpreting and applying the Bible.

Ecclesiastes, Proverbs and Job make up the wisdom books, to which Song of Songs can be added.

The nature of wisdom

Biblical wisdom can be defined as the ability to make godly choices in life.

Abuse of wisdom literature

This normally happens in one of 3 ways:

  1. Reading the books only in part, failing to see the inspired author’s overall message.
  2. Misunderstanding wisdom terms and categories as well as wisdom styles and literary modes. For example, ‘fool’ in Proverbs refers not to one who is intellectually deficient, but to an unbeliever who acknowledges no higher authority than him/herself.
  3. Failing to follow the line of argument in a wisdom discourse. For example, trying to live by Job 15:20 without taking into account that it was spoken by Eliphaz, who was later rebuked by God.

Who is wise?

Wisdom in the Bible isn’t theoretical or abstract. The wisdom literature of other ancient cultures has as its aim the making of the best choices in order to achieve the best life. Biblical wisdom added to this the central idea that the only good choices are godly choices. Thus, “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”

Wisdom, as the Bible defines it, is a matter of orientation to God out of which comes the ability to please Him.

Wisdom expressed through poetry

Poetry helps the student learn and memorise. Among the techniques used are: synonymous parallelism (e.g. Proverbs 7:4), antithetical parallelism (e.g. Proverbs 10:1), acrostics (Proverbs 31:10-31), alliteration (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8), numerical sequences (Proverbs 30:15-31), similes and metaphors (Job 32:19, Song 4:1-6).

The limits of wisdom

Solomon’s great wisdom helped him gain wealth and power, but it couldn’t keep him from turning away from the Lord in later years. Only when wisdom is subordinated to obedience to God does it achieve its proper ends in the sense the OT intends.

Ecclesiastes: Cynical wisdom

This is a baffling wisdom monologue which doesn’t seem to contain much that is positive and encouraging towards a life of faithfulness to God. Its consistent message is that the reality and finality of death means that life has no ultimate value.

Why is it in the Bible at all? The answer is that it is there as a foil (a contrast) to what the rest of the Bible teaches. The view of life it presents ought to leave you unsatisfied. When God becomes irrelevant to our daily lives, Ecclesiastes is the result.

Wisdom in Job

Job also contains incorrect advice as a foil for God’s truth. Job’s comforters, unlike the Teacher in Ecclesiastes, believe that God is involved in daily affairs to the point of meting out judgement through events in this life. They also say that what happens to you in life is a direct result of whether or not you have pleased God. Jesus’ disciples applied this logic (John 9:1-3) as do many Christians today.

The reader of Job learns what is the world’s wisdom, seemingly logical but actually wrong, and what constitutes God’s wisdom and grows in confidence in God’s sovereignty and righteousness.

Wisdom in Proverbs

Proverbs contains a collection of pithy sayings that focus on practical attitudes. Specifically religious language is present in Proverbs (cf. 1:7; 3:5-12; 15:3, 8-9, 11; 16:1-9; 22:9, 23; 24:18, 21, etc.) but it doesn’t predominate.

Uses and abuses of Proverbs

A proverb is a brief, particular expression of truth. The briefer a statement is, the less likely it is to be totally precise and universally applicable. Proverbs don’t state everything about a truth, but they point towards it. Taken literally, they’re often technically inexact. For example, some people commit adultery and get away with it, contrary to Proverbs 6:27-29, and so on.

Some hermeneutical guidelines

Proverbs aren’t legal guarantees from God

The blessings, rewards and opportunities mentioned in Proverbs are likely to follow if one chooses the wise courses of action outlined in the poetical, figurative language of the book. The proverb isn’t a categorical, always applicable, ironclad promise.

Proverbs must be read as a collection

The more in isolation one reads a proverb, the less clear its interpretation may be. Each proverb must be understood in comparison with others and with the rest of scripture.

Proverbs are worded to be memorable, not to be theologically accurate

No proverb is a complete statement of truth.  The more briefly and parabolically a principle is stated, the more common sense and good judgement are needed to interpret it correctly. Case in point: the acrostic poem about the virtuous woman in Proverbs 31:10-31.

Some proverbs need to be “translated” to be appreciated

E.g. Proverbs 25:24. You need to see the transcultural issue expressed in the culturally-specific language. In this case, the proverb is intended to advise that people be careful in their selection of a mate.

For convenience, here are some summary rules that will help you make proper use of proverbs:

  1. Proverbs are often parabolic, i.e. figurative, pointing beyond themselves.
  2. Proverbs are intensely practical, not theoretically theological.
  3. Proverbs are worded to be memorable, not technically precise.
  4. Proverbs are not designed to support selfish behaviour—just the opposite!
  5. Proverbs strongly reflecting ancient culture may need sensible “translation” so as not to lose their meaning.
  6. Proverbs are not guarantees from God, but poetic guidelines for good behaviour.
  7. Proverbs may use highly specific language, exaggeration, or any variety of literary techniques to make their point.
  8. Proverbs give good advice for wise approaches to certain aspects of life, but are not exhaustive in their coverage.
  9. Wrongly used, proverbs might justify a crass, materialistic lifestyle. Rightly used, proverbs will provide practical advice for daily living.

Wisdom in the Song of Songs

The Song of Songs is a lengthy love song. But how does a love song fit within the category of wisdom? The ability to make godly decisions in the matters of whom to love and how to love is important to every believer.

Human skills and desires can be used for both good and evil, and so it is with love and sex. If the right choices are made, sex and romance can be employed for God’s glory in accordance with His original design. That’s what Song of Songs is about.

Interpretation of Song of Songs has suffered from totality transfer and allegorisation. Totality transfer is the tendency to think that all the possible meanings of a word come with it whenever it is used. In the case of Song of Songs, the totality transfer was made from other biblical love songs. Isaiah 5:1-7 and Hosea 2:2-15 are examples of poetic love songs that tell the story of God’s love for His people Israel. Early interpreters concluded that Song of Songs must be the same sort of thing: an allegory of God’s love for Israel or Christ’s love for the church.

However, Song of Songs is about human love. It doesn’t contain clues pointing to Israel’s history, neither is it laden with national symbolism as the prophetical allegories are. It doesn’t read like anything in the prophets.

Here are some considerations that will help you use the Song more profitably:

First, for the ancient readers of Song of Songs, monogamous, heterosexual marriage was the proper context for sexual activity according to God’s revelation. The Song’s attitude is the very antithesis of unfaithfulness, either before or after marriage.

Second, the closest parallels to the Song of Songs are found in the love poetry of the Ancient Near East. These were probably sung at weddings and had a strong moral overtone and focused on harnessing love in the right context.

Third, read the Song as suggesting godly choices rather than describing them in a technical manner.

Fourth, be aware that the Song focuses on very different values from those of our modern culture. Today, the focus is on techniques and not about virtuous romance that leads to lifelong marriage. Our culture encourages people to fulfil themselves, whereas the Song is concerned with how one person can respond faithfully to the attractiveness of and fulfil the needs of another.

Bonus links

First, two posts on Proverbs 22:6: Is Proverbs 22:6 a Guarantee? and The Problem With Misinterpreting Wisdom Literature.

I benefitted greatly from this scholarly article on how Song of Songs (1) is a song (2) about human love (3) found in the Bible (4) written to give us wisdom. For balance, here’s a counterpoint.

Finally, Why Would God Permit Solomon to Fall So?

Reflections on Esther

A couple of years ago, I had a series in which I blogged about books of the Bible as I read through them. Some books, like Esther, got shortchanged. So here we go 🙂

It’s hard to top the story of Esther : gorgeous girl marries the king and heroically saves her people from extermination.

That summary, however, omits some ambiguous issues. For example:

  • the book of Esther tells the story of those Jews who hadn’t yet returned home, even though it had been over 50 years since Cyrus the Great’s decree (Ezra 1:1-4, or see my timeline)
  • the fact that Esther concealed her ethnic identity and almost certainly compromised her ritual purity (I won’t even mention what happened in Esther 2:16-17)
  • the subjugation and sexual exploitation of women in the society Esther lived in—from Vashti to the virgins

That aside, how does this book which doesn’t mention God make us wise for salvation (2 Timothy 3:15)?

Some historical background may be helpful. Haman, the book’s archvillain, was a descendant of Agag (3:1). Agag was an Amalekite king (1 Samuel 15:8). The Amalekites had been in conflict with Israel since the days of Moses (Exodus 17:8-14). After that first encounter, Yahweh promised He’d wipe the memory of Amalek from the face of the earth.

King Saul, a Benjamite, fought against the Amalekites, but disobeyed in that he took plunder and failed to kill Agag. Mordecai too was a Benjamite (Esther 2:5). What Saul failed to do, Mordecai did. Additionally, Esther 9 states thrice that the Jews laid no hands on the plunder of their enemies.

Moving to the top level of the narrative, that of God’s plan of eternal redemption, we see that the covenant promise to Abraham in Genesis 12:2-3 sets the scene for Esther—all who bless Abraham and his seed would be blessed, all who curse him and his seed would be cursed. Haman’s wife and his advisers spoke better than they knew when they warned Haman of his impending ruin (6:13).

Yahweh’s word to Abraham also included the promise that all families on earth would be blessed through him. Later divine revelation indicated that this blessing would come through a single descendant of Abraham, who as of yet had not yet been born. Had Haman succeeded in annihilating the Jews, the promise of Messiah would have been voided. So the Holy One of Israel chose to use a compromised young woman to accomplish His purposes of saving His covenant people.

What a picture of the God of the Bible—He stands by His word even when His people haven’t. And His covenant community today (as well as those who desire to be a part of it) can depend on the same steadfast love!

More on Esther:

I’ve found these helpful, and some I’ve even copied from to produce this blog post 😮

The Psalms: Israel’s prayers and ours

These are my notes on Chapter 11 (of 13) of “How to Read the Bible For All Its Worth” (2nd edition) by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart. This is a book on common-sense guidelines on interpreting and applying the Bible.

The psalms contain words spoken to God and about God. So how do these words to God function as a word from God for us? They help us express ourselves to God and to consider His ways.

Some preliminary exegetical observations

Special care needs to be taken in understanding the Psalms’ nature: their various types, their forms and function.

The psalms as poetry

Things to remember:

  1. The language of Hebrew poetry is intentionally emotive, therefore one needs to be careful not to over-exegete what is said.
  2. The psalms are musical poems. They are intended to evoke feelings rather than teach doctrine (though they do contain and reflect doctrine).
  3. The vocabulary of poetry is purposefully metaphorical. It is therefore important to look for the intent of the metaphor, and not to take the metaphor too literally.

The psalms as literature

Literary features of the psalms:

  1. There are different types of psalms—laments, thanksgiving, etc.
  2. Each psalm has a form/structure that follows the characteristics of its type.
  3. Each type of psalm had a specific function, for example you wouldn’t recite a royal psalm at a wedding.
  4. One must learn to recognise various patterns within the psalms—repetition of words and sounds, use of acrostics, etc.
  5. Psalms must be read as literary units, not atomised into single verses. Each psalm has a pattern in which ideas are presented, developed and brought to some kind of conclusion

The use of psalms in ancient Israel

They were functional songs used in temple worship, though their use eventually spread beyond the temple. From the NT we know that Jesus and His disciples sang them. Similarly, Paul encourages the early believers in their use (Ephesians 5:19, Colossians 3:16).

The types of psalms

It is possible to group them into 7 categories which may overlap somewhat.

Laments

These form the largest group in the psalter. They express struggle and suffering or disappointment to the Lord. They may be individual (Psalms 3, 22, 31, 39, 42, 57, 71, 12, 139, 142, etc.) or corporate (Psalms 12, 44, 80, 94, 137, etc.).

Thanksgiving psalms

These express joy to the Lord. They may also be individual (Psalms 18, 30, 32, 34, 40, 66, 92, 116, 118, 138) or corporate (Psalms 65, 67, 75, 107, 124, 136).

Hymns of praise

These centre on praise to God without particular reference to previous miseries. God is praised as Creator in Psalms 8, 19, 104 and 148. He is praised as protector and benefactor of Israel in Psalms 66, 100, 111, 114 and 149. He is praised as Lord of history in Psalms 33, 103, 117, 145-147.

Salvation history psalms

They review a history of God’s saving works among the people of Israel (Psalms 78, 105, 106, 135, 136, etc.)

Psalms of celebration and affirmation

These include:

  • Covenant renewal liturgies such as Psalms 50 and 81;
  • Royal psalms, which deal specifically with the kingship (Psalms 2, 18, 20, 21, 45, 72, 101, 110 and 144). Psalm 18 is a royal thanksgiving psalm while Psalm 144 is a royal lament.
  • Enthronement psalms – Psalms 24, 29, 47, 93, 95-99.
  • Songs of Zion/songs of the City of Jerusalem (Psalms 46, 48, 76, 84, 87 and 122)

Wisdom psalms

We can place Psalms 36, 37, 49, 73, 112, 127, 128 and 133 in this category

Songs of trust

These centre their attention on the trustworthiness of God, even in times of despair (Psalms 11, 16, 23, 27, 62, 63, 91, 121, 125 and 131).

A special note on the “imprecatory psalms”

Elements of imprecation may be found in parts of Psalms 3, 12, 35, 58, 59, 69, 70, 83, 109, 137 and 140.

They use hyperbolic language to honestly express anger.

Some concluding hermeneutical observations

3 basic benefits of the psalms

  • First, as a guide to worship.
  • Second, as a demonstration of how we can relate honestly to God.
  • Third, they invite us to reflect and meditate upon things that God has done for us.

A caution

The Psalms don’t guarantee a pleasant life. David, author of many psalms, lived a life that was anything but trouble-free. Yet he praises (and laments) enthusiastically.

The Prophets: Enforcing the covenant in Israel

These are my notes on Chapter 10 (of 13) of “How to Read the Bible For All Its Worth” (2nd edition) by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart. This is a book on common-sense guidelines on interpreting and applying the Bible.

The writing prophets ministered between about 760 and 460 B.C.

The nature of prophecy

The prophets are difficult to interpret mainly due to misunderstandings about their function and form.

The meaning of prophecy

For most people, prophecy means ‘foretelling or prediction of what is to come’. Using the prophets in this way is highly selective, for less than 2% of OT prophecy is messianic; less than 5% describes the new covenant age and less than 1% concerns events yet to come.

The prophets usually announced the immediate future of Judah, Israel and the surrounding nations, rather than our future. Those events were future for them but past for us.

The prophets as spokespersons

Their primary function was to speak for God to their own contemporaries. Of the hundreds of prophets in Israel, we have the writings of only 16. We know a lot about what Elijah and Elisha did, but comparatively little of what they said.

The problem of history

The problem of historical distance also complicates our understanding of the prophets.

The function of prophecy

3 things must be emphasised:

The prophets were covenant enforcement mediators. God gave His law and enforces it: positive enforcement takes the form of blessing, negative enforcement that of curse. God announced the enforcement through the prophets so that the ensuing positive or negative events would be understood by the people.

The prophets didn’t invent the blessings or curses they announced. They may have worded them in novel ways, but always on the basis of and in accordance with Leviticus 26, Deuteronomy 4 and Deuteronomy 28-32.

The blessings and curses were always corporate, referring to the nation as a whole rather than to individuals. The majority of prophetic announcements in the 8th, 7th and early 6th centuries B.C. is curse, as God sought to get His people to repent. After the destruction of the two kingdoms (722 B.C. and 587 B.C.) the prophets spoke more blessings because the punishment was complete.

The prophets’ message wasn’t their own but God’s. God raised up the prophets, they didn’t take it upon themselves. They regularly preface, conclude or punctuate their oracles with, “Thus says the Lord.”

The prophets’ message is unoriginal. In essence, their message was the same as delivered by God through Moses. They didn’t announce any doctrines not already contained in the Pentateuch.

What of the messianic prophecies? Are those new? Not at all. The concept of Messiah originated in the Law. What was new was the detail about the life and role of Messiah.

The exegetical task

The need for outside help

Some parts of the Bible—the prophets included—require time and patient study to understand. You may find help in Bible dictionaries, commentaries and Bible handbooks.

The historical context

You need to understand both the prophets’ era and the context of a single oracle.

The larger context: Why is there such a concentrated writing down of prophetic words during the centuries between Amos (ca. 760 B.C.) and Malachi (ca. 460 B.C.)? The answer is that this period in Israel’s history called especially for covenant enforcement mediation. A second answer is God’s desire to record those oracles for posterity.

Those years were characterised by:

  • Political, military, economic and social upheaval;
  • Enormous religious unfaithfulness;
  • Shifts in populations and national boundaries.

The prophets spoke in large measure directly to these events.

Specific contexts: A knowledge of the date, audience and situation (where known) contributes substantially to understanding an oracle.

The isolation of individual oracles

The words spoken by the prophets at various times and places are written down without any indication as to where one oracle ends and another begins. There are exceptions: Haggai, Zechariah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel have dated prophecies.

Changes of subject and chapter divisions aren’t reliable indicators to the separation of oracles.

The forms of prophetic utterance

The prophets employed a variety of literary forms. 3 of the most common are:

The lawsuit, for example Isaiah 3:13-26, Hosea 3:3-17. God is portrayed as the plaintiff, prosecuting attorney and judge against the defendant, Israel. The lawsuit form contains a summons, a charge, evidence and a verdict, though some of these features may not be explicit.

The woe, e.g. Habakkuk 2:6-8, Micah 2:1-5, Zephaniah 2:5-7. Woe oracles implicitly or explicitly contain an announcement of distress, the reason for distress and a prediction of doom.

The promise, e.g. Amos 9:11-15, Hosea 2:16-20, Isaiah 45:1-7, Jeremiah 31:1-9. This contains a reference to the future, a mention of radical change and blessing.

The prophets as poets

The use of poetry aided recall in an age when the private ownership of books was virtually unknown. The main feature of Hebrew poetry is parallelism, which can be of various types (synonymous, antithetical and synthetic).

Some hermeneutical suggestions

What is God’s word to us through these inspired oracles, spoken in another time to God’s people? Once we understand what God said to them then, we’ll hear it again in our own settings.

A caution: The prophet as foreteller of the future

The prophets’ messages were concentrated on the near rather than the distant future. For example, the oracles of Ezekiel 25-39 were largely fulfilled within decades of their delivery. An exception would be Ezekiel 37:15-28, describing the new covenant age.

Note that some of the prophecies of the near future were set against the background of the great eschatological future, and sometimes they seem to blend.

A concern: Prophecy and second meanings

Sometimes the NT makes reference to OT passages that don’t appear to refer to what the NT says they do, e.g. Matthew 2:15 and Hosea 11:1. Matthew had authoritative inspiration from the same Spirit who inspired Hosea. We don’t.

A final benefit: The dual emphasis on orthodoxy and orthopraxy

Orthodoxy is correct belief; orthopraxy is correct action. Through the prophets, God calls His people to a balance of right belief and action. The same goes for new covenant believers (James 1:27, 2:18; Ephesians 2:8-10). For those who obey the result will be blessing, and a curse for those who disobey.