Reading the Prophets

Old Testament prophets. The final frontier.

So it seems.

For many Christians the prophets are uncharted territory filled with odd visions, sharp words, and lengthy poetry. Few venture here nowadays. For some, the title of “Prophet” conjures up an image of a future-telling wizard with no present time relevance. This caricature is aided by our lack of interaction with the biblical prophets beyond the grab-bag examples of messianic prophecies we use for a Christmas service or a study on Jesus’ legitimacy as messiah.

However, the prophet serves a far more immediate and present service to his peers and even to us today. Because I believe this, I will be going through the prophets (starting with Isaiah) here in my blog and providing helpful ways to interact with the text. If you are bored of reading Ephesians or Romans for the 147th time and want to explore a new (and yet old) portion of the Bible, I invite you to this process! For the next few months, I will pull from a chapter (and occasionally more than one at a time) snippets of information and commentary to help better understand the prophets. There is abundance of fruit to be gained from studying them well. Before starting the series, I want to give a more healthy picture of what a prophet was and give a brief lesson on Hebrew poetry (there is a lot of it in the prophets!).

The Job of the Prophet

First thing you should know is that the prophets were not just about predictions. It may surprise us to learn that less than 2% of Old Testament prophecy concerns messianic predictions (specifics about Jesus) and less than 5% concerns the Age to Come (when God brings his Kingdom here and restores the world). This leaves over 90% of the prophetic words dealing with concern for their immediate situation.

The prophets may best be understood as “covenant watchdogs” (Dr. Tim Mackie’s phrase, not mine). They were called by God to keep Israel’s obedience to the covenant in check. The majority of the prophet’s work focuses on critique of God’s people and the leaders. Through powerful language and often dramatic acts, the prophets called God’s people back to devotion. Within their critique, they have words of judgment and hope, both expected in their time and in the future. We may liken the biblical prophet to social commentators, artists, preachers, and maybe even comedians. The prophet uses creative outlets (like poetry or symbolic acts) to show the ugliness of their community while also hoping for change. The prophet invites us into a reflective experience as we wrestle with their difficult words, intense warnings, and bright images of hope.

Prophetic Poetry

In English poetry, we expect a poem to have meter, rhyme and rhythm. Biblical, Hebrew poetry is marked by a different style. The main characteristic of Hebrew poetry is “parallelism”. Parallelism happens when two or more lines of poetry correspond and or build up to develop a thought. We may think of it as repetitive but when we pause and reflect on the poetry, this style drives home a point powerfully. The prophets dealt with daft people, ideas had to be repeated! There are different types of parallelism and recognizing them can help us see what the prophet is doing.

Types of Parallelism:

Synonymous parallelism is the most common and easy to catch. A synonymous parallel says a similar thing in two different ways in order to convey its teaching.

They trusted in chariots, for they were many,
and in cavalry, for they were very numerous.
Isaiah 31:1

Antithetic parallelism uses a contrast between two or more lines to teach us truth. Usually metaphor is found in this type of parallelism.

The ox knows its master,
   the donkey its owner’s manger,
but Israel does not know,
   my people do not understand.”
Isaiah 1:3

Synthetic parallelism builds up on successive lines to intensify the point. Like a verbal pile, synthetic parallelism builds itself up before arriving at the destination.

Woe to the sinful nation,
   a people whose guilt is great,
a brood of evildoers,
   children given to corruption!
They have forsaken the Lord;
   they have spurned the Holy One of Israel
   and turned their backs on him.
Isaiah 1:4

Another element in Hebrew poetry is word play. Occasionally the prophet gets creative and uses similar sounding words to drive home a point. It is not vital for our reading (since we read in English and would therefore miss it!) but it does show us the creativity of these authors and of our God. Here is one great example of wordplay in Isaiah:

He expected a crop of justice (mishpat),
   but instead he found oppression (mispach).
He expected to find righteousness (zedakah),
   but instead he heard cries of violence (z’acha).
Isaiah 5:7

Jump In

I hope you feel invited into the prophetic world. It is one of wonder and brilliant imagination. Through this series, we can explore their words and then see our world through their eyes.

2 Kings 17 tells us that God sent a multitude of prophets to his people to point out sin, call them back to obedience, and bring them hope. Unfortunately, Gods people did not listen back then. The hope is that we would listen now and see the words of the prophets come alive in our space in time.

In the next post, we will start with a brief intro into Isaiah and a breakdown of Isaiah 1. If you are following with this series, start first by reading Isaiah 1.

Below are a few more resources for understanding the prophet.

This is a podcast I did a while back with my friend David Ruybalid on the process of reading the prophets

Here is a video done by the Bible Project which gives an excellent overview on the prophets

I would also recommend this book, Plowshares and Pruning Hooks by Brent Sandy. Its a short read covering the fundamentals to reading this type of literature.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s