Guide to the old testament Prophets
by Carole McDonnell
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Tackling The Prophets
The Prophets are a tough lot. They often make the reader feel confused, guilty and angry. They always seem to be in blaming mode. Sometimes they seem like ranting judgmental maniac. Moreover, the places, people and long past situations they talk about seem to have immediate spiritual value to modern readers. Reading the prophets is like being plunged into an ancient history class.
How are we going to get past all this? Let me help. The first thing to remember is this: these prophets are very human. Some are even quite spiritually attractive. You might grow to feel connected to some of them. Even better: these guys are a lot like some modern prophets we know. True, our modern prophets don't have the power (or boldness) to make miraculous prophecies about our future. But they do bear a certain similarity to some of our modern day prophets.
Many of these prophets didn't want to be "sent" by God. Just as Moses, a stutterer, complained that he had to speak to the great Pharoah of Egypt, quite a few of these prophets complained about the spiritual task they had been given and they felt trapped by God. And, like Job, many were sorely tempted and tormented by religious people. Consider Amos: He reminds me of an anti-war activist. Joel is like an employee of the Red Cross, scanning a devastated countryside. Jeremiah is the lone stand-out speaking a message no one wants to hear. Ezekiel's wife is killed by God and Ezekiel is told not to grieve about it. Daniel is almost super-human in his spiritual perfection. Jonah runs away from God because God wants him to preach to a nation he justifiably hated. Obadiah is angry that his country's enemies are seemingly getting away with murder. And Hosea is told by God to marry a prostitute who will cheat on him. They sound accessible, don't they?
What exactly is a prophet?
The Bible defines a prophet who has been sent with a message from God. The message usually has some conditions. The Prophet tells the king or the people that a particular action or set of actions must be done or undone. Or else. Sometimes the message is about God's future plans, something that will happen no matter what humanity does. Their messages usually concern the actions of God's people or the actions of those who oppress God's people.
Prophets are not fortune-tellers or casters of spells. They do not go around talking about jobs or love matches unless those love matches figure in the greater scheme of things. Some prophecies are messages of doom and trouble ahead. Some messages are messages of comfort. How does God speak to prophets?
The Prophets of God heard God in many ways. Some heard him audibly. Some heard him by "the strong hand" of circumstances and coincidences. Some prophets had dreams. Some had messages that came by symbols or by providential coincidence and synchronicity. Often the prophet gets plunged into a deeper relationship with God whether he wants to or not. Some saw visions. If the vision is a vision of God, the vision is sometimes called a theophany. Many theophanies occur in Scripture. Two of the more memorable are the visions in Isaiah and Ezekiel. These theophanies often come unasked for. Sometimes these visions are examples of God's love, sometimes they show His anger.
Some things to keep in mind when you're reading prophecy.
First: try to read the history books first, especially the books of Samuel, Kings and Chronicles.
Secondly, try to "listen" to the prophets as you read and not merely "read" them. Think conversationally. Each prophet is like a speaker with his own style. Listen to them as you would listen to a speech, a poetic oratory, a politician's state of the union address, a proclamation, a spoken memoir or a sermon.
Thirdly, use your concordance as you read in order to get your bearings.
Last of all, know to whom the prophet is speaking. One prophet might use the word Israel to only mean the kingdom of Israel. Another might say Israel and mean both the kingdom of Judah and Israel.
Some major themes
As you read the Prophets, you will come upon many verses that seem to be speaking of the same Events. No one prophet tells everything about all these events. Messages and comments are scattered everywhere and must be strung together like pearls upon a necklace.
This stringing together phase is where differences in interpretations take place. Readers have to decide which verse is or is not applicable, which verse is symbolic or to be taken literally, which verses are referring to what event or what person or what group. And the reader has to find all of the verses that refer to a particular event. Many Bible prophecies might leave you with the following questions: "Is this prophecy for my time, the prophet's time, some other time in the past or the future?" "Is this prophecy over and done with or is there another aspect of it yet to come?" "Is there another prophecy that this can be aligned with?" One reader of prophecies, an Ethiopian eunuch mentioned in the New Testament was reading from the book of Isaiah and asked someone to help him interpret the verse. His question was "Is the prophet talking about himself or some other person?" The message is often for the prophet's listeners and their near future and it is often also for a future years or centuries away.
For example, many of the prophets wrote about a powerful, glorious Savior who would help Israel against her enemies. This glorious Messiah would make Israel and its religion the center of the world. But other prophecies --sometimes made by the same prophets-- also speak of a suffering Messiah. This leads the reader to ask: Are these two different Messiahs? Or are the triumphant and the suffering Messiah one and the same person? Is the Messiah being seen from two different perspectives? Does the Messiah come twice or once? Is the prophet talking about someone who would come in the prophet's own lifetime? If not, when will this Deliverer come? Christians interpret these verses in one way and Jews another. A non-religious historian might interpret in yet another way. Christians believe that the suffering and triumphant Messiah are one and the same: Jesus Christ. Jews do not. A Christian might back up her interpretation by saying, "In Biblical prophecy, there is often a time gap between one phase of a prophecy and another? Remember Moses' prophesy of the Seed of the woman who crushed the Serpent's head with his bruised heel?" Or "Remember Joseph's dream of his future glory. Joseph received no hint of the slavery and imprisonment that would precede his rise to glory and power." The most important thing to remember about prophecy is that is meant for contemporary listeners living at the time of the prophet, for believers throughout the ages, and for those believers at the end of time.
You are free to interpret any verse in your own way. But remember the pitfalls, especially when you are dealing with a part of the Bible that seems to be speaking about Final things.
The Final Events
The prophets often speak of events that will take place at the end of time. One verse interpreted in a literal way can create doomsday cults. This same verse, interpreted in a symbolic way can put an entirely different spin on an event, creating a more mystical non-historical view of events. Matters get even worse when people bring cultural issues into the mix. An anti-communist for instance can assume a verse is speaking about Russia, while an anti-Catholic will say the verse depicts the Catholic Church and yet another interpreter will think that the verse is speaking against New Agers. It is not up to me to tell you what to think. However, I will guide you through these precipitous shoals just a bit in order that you will not be left ship-wrecked or adrift.
The same concepts occur many times throughout the Bible. This repetition, alone, should make the reader consider the concept important. One can hardly reject certain concepts as inapplicable, if they keep popping up all over Scripture.
The first great concept is this: the earth belongs to God and a day will come when God will take it back. The future destruction of the world is linked closely with The Day of the Lord. Depending on your interpretation, you might see it as a long literal day, a symbolic length of time, an occurrence inside or outside of time. Certain events connected with the Day of the Lord are the purification of humanity, the earth, and heaven. There will also be cataclysmic events in the earth and universe. Interpretations vary as to which disaster or destruction is the effects of sin, events created by God, or events created by humanity.
Another great concept is the culmination and end of evil. One phrase that is often used is "the fullness of time." One metaphor often used is the "reaping" metaphor. Most of us are not farmers and so we aren't quite sure what "reaping" means. "Reaping" is what a farmer does when his food crop is ripe. When grapes are ready to be picked from the vines, they are reaped from the vine. This means they are collected. In the last days, goodness will be ripe, but evil will also be ripe. But will be ready to be reaped. Sometimes the Prophet mentions a great battle on earth and in the heavens. One of these battles, which will take place in the Field of Megiddo in the Middle East, is called Armageddon. The nation of Israel will play a great part in these events.
Closely aligned with the idea of full-blown evil is the "The Man of Sin." This being is mentioned in Daniel, the Books of Thessalonians, and the Book of Revelations to name a few. While we aren't sure who this person is, we can glean some knowledge about him. We know he will "seek to be worshiped as God" and that he will deceive the world with a great lie.
This Great Lie seems to be a delusion that will spread across the whole world. We don't know what this great lie is. Throughout human history, we have had instances of great lies being told to many cultures. The German people believed Hitler's great lie that the Jews were less than human. The Germans also believed the great eugenics lie that their people were "superior" to other people. Other countries have indoctrinated their people. In the early twentieth century, everyone in China studied Mao Tse Tung's little red book. The Bible speaks of "rumors of war." Rumors of war is a phrase that means "propaganda." During the last days, propaganda will be rampant. However, we don't know what this great lie will be. The Bible tells us that this lie will lead to a false unity and a "Great Falling away from God." This is not to say that people will stop believing in God. It means that people will have a false idea of God. Scripture writers who discuss this great lie hint that discernment is needed. Remember the story of the Tower of Babel? It was a depiction of a false brotherhood of man. The prophets imply that a time will come when mankind will unite together against God as He truly is.
Other prophets also tell their readers what to look for. They give us "signs" of the end-time. A sign is a symbol or a series of events that make us know that something is coming. Have you ever stood in front of your window and looked at the sky? Sometimes, you can tell that a rainstorm is coming simply by looking at the clouds. You can read the signs of the times, so to speak. The prophets give us a few signs to look for: they tell us that the knowledge of the Lord will be spread throughout the world. They tell us that people will become increasingly selfish, cruel, violent, and proud. They tell us that many new diseases will pop up and that there will be famine, earthquake, wars, media manipulation and propaganda. These signs are to help us read our times. Sometimes people go wild reading "signs." They go too far and often assume they know when the world is supposed to end. Sometimes they even name dates. Looking through the prophets, you will realize that this is not a good way to go. Prophecy is hard to pin down. Signs give us a "feeling" that something is coming. But that is all. The time of the end is unknown to everyone. The Bible tells us that only God knows.
The prophets also speak about the life hereafter, Heaven, hell, and in-between. Much difference in opinion occurs in these interpretations also. There are differing opinions on the last judgement --when (before, after or during), where (in heaven or on earth or after death), how many (some interpreters have counted as much as five judgments), who are involved (God's people, God's enemies, sinners, non-believers, angels).
These Bible passages also comment on how people will fare at the end of time. When you read, you will have to decide if a verse is applicable to all of Israel, law-abiding Jewish people, God's people (non-Jewish people of whatever religion), Christians, Sinful people or the world at large, You will also have to decide if the event described takes place at a certain limited allotted time in the future or if the event will be everlasting. Some believe that only God's people will be alive at the end of the world. Others (like the writer, Dante, believe that the universe will have a wide of joy and grace...with people who are God's true children at the top and others --who are non-perfected but nevertheless his loved creations all participating to some extent in God's joy. The notion of hell or Gehenna --a kind of garbage hole where people found useless to the universe are placed-- really takes form in the New Testament. The Old Testament refers to the land of the dead and often deal primarily with Israel's future. Some believe hell will be destroyed once and for all. Others believe that both hell and heaven will continue forever.
Those are some pointers to help you on your way. You might wonder why God sprinkles information among His prophets. After all, wouldn't it be easier if He simply told us everything we need to know about a certain situation? Why does He make us play a puzzle game? Jesus explained why God is typically so mysterious about His information. In the New Testament, you will read where Jesu's disciples ask Him, "Why do you speak to them in parables?" Jesus replies that He speaks in parables in order that some people will not understand certain truths. One wonders why a loving God would speak in parables to the blind.
Jesus often talks about the children's bread. By this he means that certain Truths are spiritual treasures that can be used by God's people and God's enemies alike. The tool of faith is one of these treasures, for instance. Anyone may use the principle of "When you pray desiring something, believe that you have it." or "We walk by faith, not by sight." Many modern writers who are not religious have discovered the "power of positive thinking" and "creating their own reality."
Others reason why pieces of information are scattered like a jigsaw puzzle across the pages of Scripture are these: Firstly, prophets receive information on many level. A prophet who is given a comforting message might only have pieces of the puzzle that are applicable to the need to comfort the people of his time. Another prophet, whose concern is the sinfulness of Israel or humanity, will speak of God's wrath.
Another reason for the puzzling nature of prophecies is that they are like "found treasure." The Bible writers encourage us to read the Bible and to mine Scripture. Those who love God, the idea of His coming and the thought of pleasing Him read Scripture daily. The more they read, the more they know God. If all the truth they needed were in one easy accessible place, the need to study the word would not be present.
Now that you have some idea of what the endtimes are about, read your Bible and search your concordance. You now know what you are looking for.
The Major and Minor Prophets
The prophets are divided into the major prophets and the minor prophets. We know all the prophets very well by the time we've finished reading their books. But when we read the four major prophets --Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel, we not only read their prophecies but we read about their lives for an extended period of time. We really get to know them.
The major prophets in the old testament are ISAIAH, JEREMIAH, (who also wrote Lamentations), EZEKIEL and DANIEL. The major prophets are major because their books are bigger. The minor prophets are "minor" because their works are shorter, not because their messages are any less important than the "major" prophets. On the whole, these prophets spent a great deal of time telling God's people what God's people didn't want to hear. After you have read them, you might agree with St Theresa of Avila's comment to God, "No wonder you have so few friends, the way you treat them!" Ready for the prophets?
Some Passages to study:
Psalms 2, 24, 47; Isaiah, chapters 53, 66; Lamentations 3; Ezekiel chapters 13, 14, 36-43; Daniel 7, 1-28; Micah 4:1 -5:15; Zephaniah 2:4 - 3:20, Zechariah 11: 4-14, 14:1-21; Joel 3:1-2; Hosea 1+2; Matthew, chapter 24; I Thessalonians 4:13, 5; II Thessalonians 2; I Timothy 4; Jude, The Book of Revelations.
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Thanks for all your work here Carole. I am saving this for when I do a study of the prophets.
What a GREAT WORD. I would like to read this to my home decipleship class next thursday. I also would like to put this up on my website www.DavidVaughn.injesus.com if it would be ok with you.