Reading the Prophets

October Reading Tips
Oct. 1, 2020
Tim Senn

Reading the Prophets

In our Reading Together Bible project, we are nearing the finish line!  We have now completed 75% of the Bible!  Just three months to go, and you will have completed the entire Scripture!  Press on, endure, and finish strong!  Of course, our goal is to accomplish much more than reading through the entire Bible in a year.  Rather, our goal and purpose is to know God better, to deepen our relationship with Him, and to better live for His honor and glory!  In order to help us live better lives for God, enter these mysterious and often difficult to understand prophets of the OT!  During the course of the next couple of months, we will read many of the prophetic writings.  Here is a “crash course” in prophetic literature that will assist you in your reading.

There are 16 prophetic books in the OT, including the four “major prophets” (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel), as well as twelve “minor prophets” (Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi).  The labels “major” and “minor” do not speak to the importance of these prophets, but rather to the relative length of the books.  The “major” prophetical books are much longer than the “minor” ones.  It is helpful to understand that these prophets ministered in a concentrated period of time, primarily the three centuries beginning with Amos in 760 B.C. and ending with Malachi in 460 B.C.  Thus, in God’s grand story, they ministered during the time period of God’s judgment upon the unfaithful divided kingdoms of Israel and Judah leading up to and extending through the invasion by the Assyrian and Babylonian Empires.

When we hear the word “prophets,” we typically think of predictive prophecy or what has been called “foretelling.”  That is, predictions of future and end time events.  However, we need to keep in mind that only a small percentage of Old Testament prophecy focuses on events still future to us, and that most of the predictions referred to specific events that happened in the life of the nation of Israel before the coming of Jesus Christ.  According to Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart, “Less than 2 percent of Old Testament prophecy is messianic.  Less than 5 percent specifically describes the new-covenant age.  Less than 1 percent concerns events yet to come in our time.”  Therefore, the vast majority of OT prophecy had to do with “forth-telling” or “exhortation” rather than with prediction.  The focus of the prophets was to rebuke the nation of Israel for their unfaithfulness and rebellion against God’s covenant, and to warn of the impending judgment that God would impose if they failed to repent and return to fidelity to God.

In light of this, the prophets are best viewed as “God’s prosecuting attorneys.”  They speak on behalf of God, exposing where the people are guilty of covenant violation due to idolatry, empty religious ritual, and social injustice, and call the people back to obedience and faithfulness to God.  Early in Israel’s history, God had entered into a relationship with the nation, promising that He would be their God, and that they would be His people.  This relationship is often illustrated by the relationship between a husband and his wife.  Thus, when Israel sins and rebels against God, she is likened to an unfaithful and adulterous wife.  For God, this violation of His covenant is not strictly legal, but relational.  God is genuinely grieved and emotionally hurt by the unfaithfulness of His people.  Thus, the basic message of all of the prophets was:

  • Your sin has violated and broken the covenant between you and God, and therefore you had better repent.  In fact, the prophets plead and beg Israel to turn back to the Lord!
  • If you refuse to repent, then judgment will certainly come upon you!  For Israel, this typically meant invasion by foreign armies and removal from the land into exile.
  • Yet, beyond the judgment, there is hope for a future, glorious restoration.  This is the subject of most predictive prophecy, because it is Jesus Christ and His future kingdom which is the fulfillment of all prophecy!

So, as we read the prophetic books together, we will be challenged and perhaps at times bewildered by the strange names, strange places, and strange visions and figures of speech employed.  However, we can still greatly benefit from the main point.  In our relationship with God as New Covenant believers, God still desires for us to love Him with all that is within us, to love our neighbor as ourselves by practicing mercy and social justice, and to seek to deepen and enhance our relationship with Him through worship rather than replace Him with religious rituals.  Our disobedience will not result in physical judgment or exile, but it certainly still grieves the heart of our God and will negatively impact our relationship with Him.  Therefore, we need to be men and women of repentance, holding fast to Christ and looking forward to the day in which He brings to fulfillment our future, glorious restoration!

Happy Reading!
Pastor Tim
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