During our time of learning how to study the Bible, we’ve focused on five foundational keys and a three-step process.
The foundational keys and the process are essential. We must use them in every passage and genre. We never outgrow them. As we gain more knowledge about Scripture and how to study it, we will never grow out of it. Without these, we cannot study Scripture.
The five keys are:
- Jesus and the Story of the Bible
- Reality and Commands
- Read According to the Literature
- Whole, Parts, Whole
The three-step process for studying the Bible is observation, interpretation, and application. John mentioned last week that when we focus on the first step, observation, everything else follows. As we turn our attention tonight to prophecy the same holds. We need to aggressively look at the text to see what is there and know what it means and apply the truth to our lives.
As we begin learning how to study prophecy we need to pause and remind ourselves that as we study, we are not alone. We are needy and must depend on the Holy Spirit for help. We need to pray often, pray as you begin, as you study, and when you end.
To begin to understand how to study the genre of prophecy we will answer three questions.
- How do we typically view prophecy?
- How did prophecy function in Israel?
- How does the Bible view prophecy?
The answers to these questions help us understand the big picture of the prophets and next week we will zoom in on the details and observe as we read the prophecy.
Our goal for this lesson to understand the prophets from key number five, whole, parts, whole. This is foundational if we are going to understand the prophets. To understand the parts of the passage we need to understand the whole. Once we have the whole, we can better understand the details. With the big picture in mind, we are better equipped to read the prophets.
How do we Typically View Prophecy?
For many of us when we hear the word prophecy we automatically think of the predictive aspect of prophecy. The common view of prophecy is that its main function is to predict the future. There are a few difficulties with this view, which we will look at in our next point, but the main issue with it is we never stop to think who these prophetic books were for.
Often, we read these prophetic books as if they tell the future for us and we overlook the original hearers and readers. If prophecy’s main function is to tell the future, then it is the future for those who originally heard it and not for us today, in most cases.
Because of this view of prophecy, we treat it as a puzzle we put together. We struggle to find the glue that holds the prophets together, so we tend to read them through the lens of current headlines and see how they are coming true today. This is a big reason the prophets confuse us. We think we need a decoder ring to understand them. This view easily leads to frustration with or avoidance of the prophets.
How did Prophecy Function in Israel?
The second question we need to answer is how did prophecy function in Israel? Prophecy’s role in Israel was enforcement God’s covenant with Israel. The prophets focused on Israel’s actions whether they were faithful or unfaithful.
What is a covenant? It is a “chosen relationship in which two parties make binding promises to each other.” (Schreiner, Covenant)
Their message was not their own, but God’s. 2 Peter 1:21 is important here. Peter writes, “For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” The word the prophets proclaimed came from the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. We see from Isaiah 6 that Isaiah was sent by God. Amos includes this biographical comment when he was accused of troubling the nation, “Then Amos answered and said to Amaziah, “I was no prophet, nor a prophet’s son, but I was a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore figs. But the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’”
Their words then were “not merely God’s word as the prophet saw it but the word as God wished the prophet to present it.” (Fee and Stuart)
The prophets were ambassadors. Their message then was not original. God’s word came or was entrusted to them to enforce God’s covenant. What they said was not new in concept but wording. It was a fresh explanation of God’s word. One author says that the prophets were “inspired by God to present to their generation the essential content of the original Mosaic covenant’s warnings and promises.”
This is comparable to preaching today. The preacher does not have a new word from God but one that has been revealed and he seeks to explain and apply it. The role of the prophet was to say, “Here is who God is, who He is for you, and what He requires of you.”
Prophecy’s primary role was to call the people to covenant faithfulness. They take what was already revealed and use it to reveal the condition of Israel’s heart. In Hosea 4:1-2 he gives the condition of the people’s hearts, there is no faithfulness or steadfast love in the land and no knowledge of God in the land. This is a shocking statement. How could it be that there is no knowledge of God in the land where He led His people? How could this be among a people that God chose for Himself?
Hosea makes his case in verse two with five accusations.
- This is to misuse God’s name, taking God’s name in vain. The people are known for breaking the third commandment.
- Not only are the people misusing God’s name, but they are lying. They are breaking the ninth commandment.
- The list gets worse. Instead of steadfast love for God and neighbor and faithfulness to God, there is murder. They are violating the fifth commandment.
- They are breaking the seventh commandment.
- Committing Adultery. And finally, their unfaithfulness to God is shown in their unfaithfulness in their marriages. They are also breaking the sixth commandment.
Scripture teaches that if we break one of God’s commandments, we have broken all of them. This mention of only five would have reminded Israel of all of them. Since the prophets use God’s covenant as their standard to evaluate the people whenever they pronounce a blessing or judgment on the people it is also based on what God already said.
One blessing that came from covenant faithfulness was an abundant crop and the ability to stay in the land. Amos 9:11-15 helps us see this in the prophets. But this is not a new concept to Amos. Moses revealed this Leviticus when he outlined God’s word on what the blessings would be for faithfulness (See Lev. 26:5).
The same holds for the curses of the covenant. Hosea 8:14 says the land will be destroyed because of the people’s covenant unfaithfulness. In Hosea 9:3 he tells the people they will be exiled from the land for failing to keep their end of the covenant. (For destruction see Lev. 26:31-32 and Lev. 26:33 for exile).
The function of the prophet and prophecy in Israel was to enforce the covenant God made with Israel. The word the Lord entrusted to the prophets was based upon what he already said through another prophet, Moses. The blessings and curses the prophets pronounce on the people because of either their faithfulness or unfaithfulness sync up with earlier revelation from God through Moses.
What was the Role of a Prophet?
The prophet was an ambassador for God. He went to the people on behalf of God and spoke the word God gave to him. “The prophet of God transmits the word of God to the people and interceded with God on their behalf.” (Reformation Study Bible) No matter the era of Israel’s history this was the role of the prophet. Moses is a great example. He was a prophet who delivered God’s word of promise to the people of Israel for how they should live in the land and he interceded for them (See Ex. 32-33 for an example).
The prophet was to “speak for God to their own contemporaries.” (Fee and Stuart) The word that God entrusted to them was to be spoken to, delivered to the people around whom they lived. In other words, it was for the nation of Israel at that time. They spoke a word from God into history about history.
The foundation for the word the prophet spoke was God’s covenant with Abraham and the Mosaic covenant. Therefore, “the promises and warnings they bring cannot be understood except in the context of this [MOSAIC] covenant and of the earlier covenant God made with Abraham.” (Reformation Study Bible)
They interpreted the events of their day from the perspective of Scripture, from God’s covenant. This is like what we learned in wisdom literature where the wisdom observations were made through the lens of the covenant. Ferguson is helpful here when he writes that the prophets were “applying the word of God he had already spoken to contemporary or coming circumstances and times.”
The prophet’s role then was not mainly predictive but proclaiming. They proclaimed to the people the word of God’s covenant with them and what they could expect considering their current circumstances. In many ways, they are models for us for how to apply God’s previous word to our present circumstances. They interpreted all events from the perspective of God’s covenant and made applications for the people of their day.
What is Prophecy?
Now that we understand the prophet’s role, we can define prophecy. I cannot do better than Sinclair Ferguson so we will use him as our guide. Biblical prophecy is “the declaration, exposition, and application of God’s covenant word.”
The declaration, exposition, and application of God’s covenant word applied both to current and future circumstances. The primary role of prophecy was declaring God’s word, not predicting the future, but when the prophet did predict the future, he did so from God’s previously spoken word.
As we transition to our lesson next week, we need to keep these three characteristics of prophecy in mind.
- Prophecies were spoken or written to a special context in the past.
- Prophecies are often conditional (Jonah 3:3-5)
- The prophets used forms and ideas of their own time (Amos 9:11-12)