For much of this, see Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart’s book, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth.
The genre of “prophecy” is the largest of any in the Old Testament, as there are four “major” prophets, long enough to get their own scrolls back in the day, and 12 “minor” prophets, which all fit on to one scroll. So, it is worth our time considering.
The Nature of Prophecy
Harry Potter tapped into this cultural understanding of prophecy: it is about the future and perhaps at sometimes vague. The Left Behind series also tapped into a cultural understanding of biblical prophecies: they were about the future to come, made long ago. Harry Potter got closer to the truth. Old Testament prophets were not concerned with the millennia to come when they made their prophecies: their prophecies concern the more immediate future of the societies that they were in.
In the their prophesying, prophets are spokespersons of God. They speak (and it was oral) as God directs them to speak. These oracles were gathered up into the 16 books belonging to the prophets. As spokespersons, very little is known about the prophets themselves, and they appear to come from the fringes of society, because who they are is not important. Whom they speak for is crucial.
To interpret and understand the prophets has been made harder for us: because we live so much later than them. There is the issue of historical distance, but not being in their context or understanding the cultural in which they were prophesying. It takes a lot of effort to try to overcome this problem, and it cannot be fully done, so we should always approach interpreting the prophets cautiously but generously: they would have been sensible to the cultural around them, even if they were not fully understood or listened to!
The Function of Prophecy
Knowing that they would have been sensible brings us to the function of prophecy. What was it for? Why did God send prophets? They were spokespersons, and they conveyed their messages, which were often about returning to the covenant God had made with the people of Israel. Essentially, they were reminding the people that if they failed to follow God, there would be disaster. And if they returned to God, there would be blessing. The prophets were delivering this message not from themselves, but from God. They were not the message but carriers of it. As such, they can be seen as God’s direct representatives: not performing a function within the society, i.e., that of priest or king or something along those lines. Prophets were people who stood slightly apart with their message of: Change! Their messages were, fortunately, unoriginal. It was the same thing God had been saying since the beginning, “Where are you?” The prophets’ message was always one of return, of finding God again, and of living with God.
The Hermeneutical Task
Since God speaks through the prophets in particular situations, there is a need to understand those situations — historically and culturally — in order to get at the meaning of the prophecies. This means that we need to go beyond the Bible. Outside help is needed to understand the Old Testament prophets, because their cultural and social situation is not entirely evident from the Scriptures themselves. There are clues, of course, but scholars have worked for generations to get a sense of what those situations might have been like. This historical context (and the larger context of the covenantal people of God being called to return) brings these prophecies to life. One of the most basic aids in understanding, though, to not to read a book or a chapter, but to look at the individual oracles as single units. These hold the chapters and books together, and are coherent in themselves even if they stretch over a couple of chapters.
Forms of Prophecy
Not all prophets prophesied in the same way, so it is good to look at the different forms of prophecy.
- Lawsuit. Example: Isaiah 3:13-26. In this form of prophecy, God and the people of God are convened in a kind of court, and God charges Israel with breaking the covenant. Evidence is given, the verdict is one of guilt, and punishment is foretold.
- Woe. Example: Micah 2:1-5. A prophecy of “woe” is one that predicts or foretells disaster against a specific city, nation, or people. Sometimes, this is the enemies of Israel, and sometimes it is the people of God themselves.
- Promise. Example: Amos 9:11-15. These are the prophecies we like. They are about “the future.” And they promise blessing after some sort of radical change.
- Enactment. Example: Isaiah 20. These are the prophetic actions that are taken. They have meaning given the cultural and societal context. They are often quite dramatic and rememberable.
- Messenger Speech. Example Jeremiah 35:17-19. This form is about the prophet as spokesperson. Often there is something along the lines of, “Hear the word of the Lord…” or “The Lord says,…”. Prophets here are delivering a message, so the people of God better pay attention.
- Prophets as Poets. Example: A LOT. Prophets used poetry and poetic devices to convey the messages they were given. In understanding the literary form and the devices used helps us in understanding what is being said. Perhaps, the prophets spoken in poetry, because the words of the Lord are beyond language and cannot be captured propositionally. Just a thought.
Given all that has been said, it should not come as a surprised that one of the hermeneutical suggestions in interpreting Old Testament prophecies is to be wary of fortune-telling! The prophets of the Old Testament were not going about prophesying about nuclear holocaust. They were understood in their context. That being said, someone Old Testament prophecies seem to have (even according to St. Paul) a secondary meaning. They were understood at the time, but Paul (and other New Testament writers) use them to refer to Christ. These secondary meanings, though, rely on the Holy Spirit’s inspiration in the New Testament to be understood. Finding a reference in Obadiah to the International Space Station is not a secondary meaning. It is a bad interpretation.
Above all else, as you read the Old Testament prophets, remember that they are seeking to return people to God and to the covenantal relationship. They are calling people back to correct relationship with God, to correct actions in that light. In this, there is a natural and good emphasis on orthopraxy: correct acting. The emphasis on justice that you find in the prophets is a major part of this. And that definitely still rings true today, and the calls and warnings of the prophets remind us to live justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God today.