Hermeneutics - Prophets

Prophets were active throughout the Old Testament, serving as God’s mouthpiece, both “forth-telling”—describing the current state of affairs—and “fore-telling”—describing events, judgments and blessings that were to come, cited and applied in the New Testament, with application even today.

Overview of the Prophets Genre

Prophets received their prophesy from directly from God (Ezek. 28:1—“the word of the Lord came to me...”), through dreams and interpretations (Daniel 2, 4, 5, 7, 8, & 10), or through visions and interpretations (Amos 8:1-3; Zech. 5:1-11).

Prophets were held to a strict standard of complete accuracy, thus distinguishing them and their prophesies from the false prophets of their time, and authenticating their words and their position as a prophet. See Isaiah 41:22-23, 26; 42:9: 43:9-10; 44:7- 8; 45:21; 46:10-11; and 48:5.

In Biblical history, most prophets are associated with the time of the divided monarchy through the resettlement, approximately 800 BC to 400 BC.

Characteristics of prophets as preachers to their contemporary culture:

  • Sensitive to evil: The society in which they spoke often had become accommodating of and callous to evil. Prophets sensitized people to their true spiritual state.
  • Confrontational of covenant violations, calling for social reform in areas such as:
    • Superficial and apostate religion. See Hosea 6:6; Isaiah 29:13; Jer. 2:8; 7:9-10
    • Materialism, a love of power, and the wisdom of the world. See Jer. 9:23-24
    • Social injustice. See Isaiah 10:2
  • Often heavily burdened by their calling, suffering in their role:
  • Threatened and rejected by people, as a sign of their response to God. See Jer. 26:7-15
  • Martyred. See Heb. 11:37
  • Despairing. See Jer. 20:14-18
  • Not selective in whom they guided or denounced, serving an important role in guiding kings. See 2 Kings 19
  • Were often personally affected by their visions, experiencing horror from bleak predictions of judgments and intense joy from visions of God’s glory and salvation. They were not detached receivers and communicators of God’s word to people.
  • See Micah 2:8; Isaiah 20
  • In the book of Hosea, Hosea’s marriage to the unfaithful Gomer served as a picture of Israel’s unfaithfulness to God, including the following elements:
    • Reason for marriage (1:2)
    • Names of the children (1:3-9)
    • Unfaithful and unknowing Gomer (2:1-13)
    • Hosea pursues and redeems his wife (2:14-3:5)
    • The children are redeemed (1:10-11; 2:1, 23)
  • Represented the humiliation of the people.

For more on this topic see Abraham Heschel's "What Manner of Man is the Prophet?" in The Prophets, Volume I.

Book Overview

Summarize the historical setting including biographical information about the prophet

What was the historic environment of the prophet? As you read through the book, jot down your observations about Israel, Judah, and the other nations. Who are the prophecies directed toward? Is Israel at a time of peace or war? Who are Israel's neighbors that relate to the prophet's message?

From the text and from reference books, glean as much as you can about:

  • The social position and tribe of the prophet and his family
  • The king of Israel or Judah ruling at that time. From this, look for the evaluation of this king in the narratives of Kings and Chronicles. Were they kings who did evil or who followed God?  This will provide a good sense of the spiritual, moral, and political climate of the time, and to which the prophet speaks.

For helpful information on the historical setting of a given prophet or king, see John Walton’s Chronology and Background Charts of the Old Testament.

Outline book by oracle, identifying significant and recurring themes and structure.

An oracle is a specific message from God. Prophetic books of the Bible are made up of carefully organized oracles of a prophet.

Oracles can be identified and delineated within a given book by looking for the following:

  • A change in the narrative context or subject:  the “who,” “where,” and “when.”
  • A change in the subject of the prophecy: e.g., from blessing to judgement, from Israel to other nations, etc.
  • A repeated introduction. A section of Scripture with repeated introduction should probably be considered part of the same oracle. E.g., “Thus says the Lord...”; “Then the Lord said to me...”; “The word of the Lord came to me...”; “Hear the word of the Lord...”; “The Lord showed me...”
  • Words designed to get a listener’s attention such as “Hear” or “Woe.”

Jim Leffel of Xenos Christian Fellowship steps through an examination of the oracles found in the book of Amos. (17 min. audio)

Example Outline

1:1 Introduction to the prophet (see 2 Kings 15:32-20:21; Jer. 26:18) “Who is like Yahweh?”
1:2-7 Judgment coming because of Samaria and Jerusalem’s idolatry.
1:8-16 Micah’s personal lament & shame for the people (contrast with 7:7-20)
2:1-5 Denunciation of the people’s corruption—the “day” is coming!
2:6-11 Denunciation of the people continued for their corruption.
3:1-4 Denunciation of the rulers of Judah & Israel.
3:5-7 Denunciation of the prophets who mislead the people.
3:8-12 Micah truly speaks for God: Judgment assured for all: rulers, priests, prophets, people for their superficial loyalty to God and evil.
4:1-5      Promise oracle “in the last days.”
4:6-8 Promise oracle “in that day.”
4:9-13 A call for Israel to act as God’s instrument of judgment against its enemies.
5:1-9 Promise oracle concerning God’s messiah from David’s home town.
5:10-15 Judgment is coming (“I will cut off...”) for ongoing idolatries.
6:1-5 Denunciation, God’s “case” against his people.
6:6-8  Micah’s plea to the people to repent for the charges for which they are guilty.
6:9-16 Judgment is coming—probably the siege of Jerusalem.
7:1-6 A woeful lament, denouncing common people, princes, judges, even within households are a man’s enemies—“your punishment will come.”
7:7-20 Micah’s personal response (remember where he started: with personal lament and shame). “But as for me, I will watch expectantly for the Lord” (7) by “bearing indignation” (9), “trusting in the Shepherd” (14), and considering the magnificence of God, with echoes of Exodus (18-20). 

Oracle Study - Step 1

Examine each oracle you've identified in the overview.

  1. Context
    1. What are the preceding & subsequent oracles?
      Look at the content of the oracles that come before and after the one you are studying. Briefly note the events and themes described, and think about how they might relate to the scene you are studying.
    2. Historical setting, introduction, explanatory statement or narrative context - Examine the setting for the oracle as much as possible, including:
      • Historical situation for Israel/Judah at the time. If they were under a king at the time, what do we know about that king? (look at the books of 1 & 2 Kings and 1 & 2 Chronicles) Were Israel/Judah under attack at the time--by whom and why? What relationship did the people have with God at the time?
      • Information on the prophet himself. What place did the prophet hold in society? What do we know about their life and personality?
      • What does the oracle say about the other nations or peoples?
  2. Identify
    1. Who: Characters - Describe each person in the oracle, noting characteristics that the narrator identifies. Where are they from? Are they friend or foe? Are they portrayed as a positive example or a cautionary example? The more you understand about the characters, the more vivid your understanding of the scene will be.
      Note: God can be a character in the oracle, so note how He is characterized as well.
    2. Where: Location - Where is the action happening and is there any significance to that? Why are the characters where they are?
    3. When: Time - When does the oracle take place? What in general could be said about these times that helps our understanding about why this particular oracle matters? What rulers are in place at the time, and are they seen as honorable or evil in the eyes of God?
    4. What kind of oracle?
      1. Denunciation - Denunciations are God’s way of reminding Israel that it lives under the terms of a bilateral covenant (“If...then”). God’s blessing is secured as Israel fulfills its obligation to obey the Law (Lev. 26:3). Failure to keep the covenant results in a “guilty” verdict (Lev. 26:14-16a). Nations opposing God’s covenant people and who act treacherously against them are also confronted by God.
        Sometimes denunciations are depicted as a criminal case God is presenting, prosecuting Israel and using its history of disobedience as His evidence (see Micah 1:2). Terms such as “woe,” “lament,” and “taunt” are commonly used.
        Examples: Hosea 1:1-9;  Amos 1:3a, 6, 9, 11, 13, 2:1, 4, 6-8;  Micah 1:2-5; 2:1,2;  Zephaniah 3:1-6
      2. Judgment - Judgment oracles describe God's plan to withdraw His protection from Israel them, allowing nations to rise up against them because Israel has violated the covenant.  Lev. 26:16b-39 stipulates the penalties: deportation, destruction, disease, death, disgrace.  Judgment oracles are conditional, leaving the door open to individual or national repentance (see Jer. 18:5-12).
        Judgment oracles often come after denunciations, and may be introduced with connective words such as "therefore" or "so" (Jer 25:8ff; Amos 1)
        Examples: Amos verses listed for denunciation. Also, Zephaniah 1:2-18;  Micah 5:10-15; 6:13-16.
      3. Blessing - Blessing oracles describe how God will remain faithful to His covenants. After a time of judgment, God will restore Israel to the land and continue the progress of salvation history (Lev. 26:40-46). The prophets envisioned a time of restoration of God’s people in the land and under His blessing.
        Blessing oracles often come after judgment oracles, and sometimes after a call to repent (Joel 2:12-17, 18-27).
        Examples: Amos 9:11-15; Jer. 16:14-15; 24:1-7
      4. Promise - Promise oracles depict God's plan--His promise of salvation--as being universal to all of mankind, even cosmic, and eternal. They describe how at the end of salvation history, God will rule personally through his Davidic king from Jerusalem. This will be a time of salvation, peace, and abundance for those who yield to God, and of judgment for those who resist His rule.
        Promise oracles are often combined with words of blessing. Look for breaks in the text introduced by words like "then," "and then," and "after this." (Joel 2:28)
        Example: Joel 2:28-32; Jer. 31:31-37; 23:3-8; Isaiah 9:6, 7
        For more on promise oracles and how they help our understanding of God's plan of salvation over history see Promise Oracles and the Plan of Salvation.
  3. Outline the Oracle
    1. What is the main point? - To draw out the main point, look for:
      • The repetition of key words that relate to the promises and stipulations of the Mosaic Covenant (the basis of Israel’s blessing and judgment) or the Abrahamic Covenant (promise oracles, describing how God will bless all nations). Often an oracle's main point will related to these concepts. See Amos 1 & 2.
      • Declarations of God's verdict on a situation or his plan for dealing with a situation. Often the oracle's details provide the basis for God's verdict or plan. See Amos 1:3, 6, 9, 11, 13; 2:1, 4, 6.
      • Connective language, which often directs you to the main point such as: "Therefore," "thus," "so," "as a result," "consequently," "because," "for," "but," "since," "indeed." See Amos 4:12
      • The author interjecting his own thoughts, offering a concluding comment or summary statement. See Micah 4:5
      • Imperatives. The command to act is often the main point, with the rest of the oracle offering support for this imperative. See Amos 3:1; 4:1; 5:1
    2. How is the main point supported, illustrated, explained, or applied? - It is important to make sure each element of the oracle is indeed connected to whatever you conclude is the main point.  The more diligence taken with this step, the more sound your interpretation will be. What is the evidence supporting your conclusion about the main point? How is the main point illustrated?

Oracle outline step example

Micah 4:1-5: Promise Oracle

4:1 In the last days…

  • The mountain of God’s Temple will be established as the chief of the mountains.
  • the nations will stream to it

4:2 Nations will come and say,

  • “Let’s go to the mountain of the Lord to be taught his ways and walk in his paths.
  • From Zion will go forth the law, the word of the Lord in Jerusalem

4:3-5 God will judge between many peoples

  • Swords will be hammered into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks
  • Nation will not lift up sword against nation
  • Never again will they train for war
  • Each will sit under his vine and fig tree
  • No one will make them fear
  • For the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken.

Main point: Though all the nations walk in the name of their god, we will walk in the name of the Lord forever and ever.

Micah 4:6-8: Promise Oracle

4:6 “In that day,” declares the Lord

  • I will bring together the lame, the outcasts, and afflicted

4:7-8

  • I will make the lame a remnant and the outcast a strong nation
  • The Lord will reign over them in Mount Zion now and forever
  • The former dominion of Jerusalem will come to you
  • The former dominion will come - The kingdom of the daughter of Jerusalem

Micah 6:1-5: Denunciation Oracle

6:1 Announcement: “Hear now what the Lord is saying”

  • Plead your case before the mountains

6:2 Charge: “Listen to the indictment of the Lord”

The Lord has a case/dispute against his people

6:3-5 God speaks: What have I done to make you weary?

  • Exhibit A: I ransomed you from Egypt, house of slavery
  • Exhibit B: I led you through Moses and Aaron
  • Exhibit C: I provided guidance for you in Balak and Balaam - So that you might know the righteous acts of the Lord

Micah 6:6-8: Call to Repent

6:6a Micah’s Response: “With what shall I come to the Lord?

6:6b-8 Shall I come with burned offerings?

  • Does God really delight in these sacrifices?
  • Should I sacrifice my own first-born for my sin?

God has told man what is good and what he requires:

  • Do justice
  • Love kindness
  • Walk humbly with your God

Micah 6:9-16: Judgment Oracle

6:9 Announcement: “The voice of the Lord calling to the city:”

  • Hear, O tribe. Who has appointed its time?

6:10-16 The coming judgment of God:

  • Unjust measures and weights
  • Lies and deceit of the rich

So I will strike you down, making you sick

  • you will be hungry
  • you will live along side your own waste
  • you will save nothing
  • your agriculture will fail

You walk in the idolatry of Omri

  • Therefore, I will give you up for destruction

Micah 7:1-6: Denunciation Oracle—a lament

7:1 Micah again responds: “Woe is me!”

7:1-6 For…

  • Nothing is left to glean
  • The godly have perished, only evil ones remain
  • princes and judges ask for bribes
  • The best of them are like a briar or thorn
  • Do not trust your neighbor or friend
  • Your sons treat fathers with contempt
  • Daughters rise up against mothers…
  • A man’s enemies are in his own house

Micah 7:7-13; 14-20 Prophet as preacher: How do we respond?

7:7 Micah’s response: “But as for me…” (a contrast to the “woe is me” in 7:1—6)

I will watch for the Lord, wait for my salvation. My God will hear me.

7:8-13 Do not rejoice over me, my enemy

  • Though I am in darkness, the Lord is my light
  • I will bear God’s indignation, because I sinned
  • Until he pleads my case and executes my justice
    • He will bring me to the light and I will see his righteousness
    • Then my enemy will see and will be ashamed of taunting, “Where is the Lord your God?”
    • The walls will be built and boundary extended
    • The nations will come to us

7:14-17 Shepherd your people with your scepter

7:14, 15 Your flock you possess,

  • as in the long-past days, when you came out of Egypt
  • I will show you miracles

7:16, 17 Nations will see and be ashamed of their deeds

  • nations will be humbled

7:18-20 Who is Like God?

  • Pardoning iniquity
  • Passing over the rebellion of his possession
  • Whose anger does not last forever because he delights in unchanging love
  • He will again have compassion on us, casting away our sins to the depths of the sea
  • Who gives truth to Jacob, unchanging love to Abraham, which you sword to our forefathers from the days of old.

Oracle Study - Step 2

Step 2: Examine the historical and theological content within the oracle.

  1. Historical/Cultural: Explain ancient practices, people, objects, etc. that may bear on the text’s meaning - Using Biblical reference material such as dictionaries, encyclopedias, and other historic reference tools, note and explain cultural practices and the historic context of information found in the text.
    For example in Amos 1 and 2, who are the nations Amos addresses?
    Some helpful reference books include:
    • J.D. Douglas, ed., New Bible Dictionary
    • John H. Walton, IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament
    • D.J. Wiseman, ed., Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries
    • Leon Wood, A Survey of Israel’s History
      There are also free online references as well.
  2. Language
    1. Define key and repeated theological terms - What do these words mean? How commonly does this prophet use this word? How commonly do prophets in general use this word?
      For example in Amos 1 and 2 "transgression" appears eight times. What does this mean?
      Key theological terms often relate to God's unfolding plan of salvation. For instead, Isaiah 41-53 describes God's "servant." Who is the person? Is it Israel?
    2. How does the use of figurative language or imagery relate to the meaning of the oracle? Are they interpreted in the text or elsewhere? - Usually the text itself provides the meaning. For example, Daniel interprets his own dreams (Dan. 2:31-45). In other cases the meaning is clear from the way the imagery mirrors the historical situation to which the prophet speaks (Jer. 18:1-12; Amos 7:1-8:14)
  3. Theological - Look for what the oracle teachers about three key areas: salvation, God, and humanity. See questions below for specific issues to look for within the narrative.
    1. Salvation: What does the oracle teach about the progression of God’s plan for mankind? - How does this oracle relate to God’s plan of salvation?  How does it describe salvation? How does the oracle advance our understanding of God’s plan to rescue mankind?
    2. God: What does the oracle teach about God’s nature? - Who is God?  What is the name of God in the oracle?  How is God described or contrasted?  How is the description of God rooted in Old Testament narrative?
      As an example, see how Isaiah's description of God's greatness described in chapters 40-66 draws on terms and descriptions found in the Old Testament narrative:
      • “I am Yahweh your God”: (41:4,10,13; 42:6,8; 43:3,10; 45:5, 6, 18; 46:9; 48:12).
      • Yahweh is the creator:  (40:15,17,23-34; 42:5; 43:1-7; 66:22-24)
      • Yahweh is go’el, redeemer ("to redeem” used 26 times).
        • From bondage: (43:5-7; 45:13; 48:20; 60:15-22)
        • Spiritual redemption: (43:25; 44:22); Gentiles (45:20-23)
        • Land/Jerusalem:  (40:9, 10; 43:20; 44:26; 45:13)
      • Yahweh is Lord of history:
        • Called “King”: (41:21; 43:15; 44:6)
        • Sovereign over nations: (40:15, 17; 41:1-4; 43:3-14; 44:24-45:8; 47:5)
      • Discloses the future: 41:22-23,26; 42:9; 43:9,10; 44:7-8; 45:21; 46:10, 11; 48:5)
    3. Humanity: What does the oracle teach about human nature and the human situation? - How does the passage describe the human condition, in terms of failures, suffering, value and virtue?
      For instance, the prophets often denounce as "harlotry" (Hosea 1:2) Israel's idolatry. What does this mean?—rejecting God's covenant (Amos 4) and ignoring the needs of vulnerable people
  4. Unity: The Prophecy's Place in Scripture - In this step you examine how this prophecy fits in with the rest of Scripture, particularly the unfolding of God’s covenants and the overall plan of salvation.
    1. What kind of prophetic fulfillment is being used? - Is the prophecy to be fulfilled in terms of a time in history or in terms of a characteristic of the future? See further descriptions below.
      1. Prediction/fulfillment - This type of prophetic fulfillment happens at a point in history.  Its fulfillment can take 2 forms:
        • Direct prediction:  The prophecy is fulfilled by a specific person or event:
          • Isaiah 9:6-7: anticipated Davidic King Messiah
          • Isaiah 52:13ff: enigmatic "anonymous servant"
          • Daniel 2, 7, & 8: emergence of specific kingdoms
          • Micah 5:2:  birthplace of the eternal ruler
        • Multiple Reference Prediction: The prophecy is fulfilled at 2 different times, with a "gap" in between. It may be fulfilled in the short term, serving as a picture for a future fulfillment, or it may be a dramatic picture of the end of history, which provides a picture of a nearer term fulfillment that is to come. Here are some suggestions for picking up on these type of prophetic fulfillments:
          • Semantic clues: descriptions of a "then and then" fulfillment. See Joel 2:28.
          • Temporal clues: things that could not be true of the historical description at hand. Look at the verb tenses for clues. See Daniel 9:26.
          • Content clues: descriptions that relate to the universal and eternal rather than just covenant blessings on Israel. See Isaiah 19:1-15 & 16-25
      2. Motif or type fulfillment - Key events and institutions in the Old Testament have an underlying significance that look to the future. The clearest example of this is the sacrificial system in the Law, substituting an innocent on behalf of the guilty.
        This type of prophetic fulfillment is revealed not at a point in time, but as a quality or characteristic that develops in the future. An example is the concept of redemption, which is predicted in many prophetic oracles. We see Jesus' death and resurrection providing the opportunity for individuals to have their lives redeemed from slavery to sin and futility. The fulfillment of this comes at their point of conversion, but also through their lives, over time, as they allow God to redeem their life, in a practical sense, to freedom from sin's grip and to eternal usefulness.
    2. The oracle place in the Bible's inter-textual commentary - This term refers to the "commentary" provided within the Bible about its meaning. Biblical events and prophesies are often referred to in other portions of Scripture, and these references give us clues about the meaning and relevance of those events and prophecies. In this portion of study, consider how the prophecy you are studying contributes to the unity of the Bible as a whole.
      How does it inform theology? - How is the oracle rooted in the past, drawing upon what has already been revealed by God in history, up to that point?  See Jeremiah 23:1-8 and notice all the themes and historic events drawn upon in this passage.
      How does the prophecy relate to past revelation? How does the prophecy relate to future revelation? Note, for instance, as Jeremiah looks to the time of a future blessing, that it is connected with the Ark of the Covenant and with Jerusalem, the "throne of the Lord" (Jeremiah 3:15-17) . How do these references bring together the Bible's picture of salvation?

Oracle Study - Step 3

Step 3: Apply the content within the oracle.

Identify the following:

  1. What was the prophet calling God’s people to?
    1. Repent - Often after the prophet has announced a time of judgement for Israel's rebellion, the offer to return to the Lord is given. See Joel 12:12-17.
    2. Hope - See Micah's confidence in God's faithfulness in Micah 7:7-9.
    3. Call to action - Trusting God means taking a stand on what God says through the prophet, regardless of current circumstances. See for instance, Isaiah 43:5--"Do not fear!"
  2. How does the oracle continue to instruct God’s people?

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