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.