The section of the Bible which is referred to as The Prophets is a compilation of books that reflect the lives of fifteen people who were specifically called by God to speak to Israel on His behalf during the Old Testament period.
What do we need to know about The Prophets that will help us read and understand the books that bear their names?
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What is a Prophet? Tim points out that the way we might immediately think of them is something like a fortune teller. Someone who predicts the future. However, this image reflects more about our own culture than that of the Israelites.
Some images that I think do a better job of capturing the concept of a Biblical prophet are that of a divinely inspired messenger or a divinely appointed advocate. I like these images because the major task of the prophets was to deliver God’s word to his people and to remind them of the covenant relationship they participate in with God.
There are some other things we should consider when we read The Prophets as well. For instance, the prophets are each called to speak to specific times and circumstances in the life of Israel. It’s important for us to recognize this contextual component when we read their words.
On the other hand, each prophetic word from God is still useful to us as we seek to understand his nature and character. Therefore, the Prophets are also helpful in discerning God’s will for the people that live in relationship with him in any period.
Scholars also believe prophecies bear multiple fulfillments throughout history as well. This seems to be accomplished in part by the common use of hyperbole in prophetic texts.
The Day of the Lord is a great example of this. Often, a prophecy about The Day of the Lord will include a warning of judgement against present circumstances and a future hope expressed with poetic imagery on a cosmic scale.
Because The Day of the Lord is characterized by God’s judgement of present circumstances we can usually point to specific times when Israel was indeed judged as the fulfillments of this prophecy. The periods of exile are great examples of this.
Likewise, we can read about the prophetic words of future hope and restoration surrounding The Day of the Lord and point to specific fulfillments when Israel was restored to Jerusalem and to the promised land.
We also know that there is a final judgement and an eternal hope on a cosmic scale which these prophetic words point us toward. Thus, the prophecy about The Day of the Lord bears multiple fulfillments and the imagery used to describe it is flexible enough to encompass all of them.
The use of hyperbole then is a good indicator that a prophecy is meant for more than just the original audience. We should neither dismiss its use as exaggeration or necessarily take it as a literal representation of events past or present. Instead, we should hold these two extremes in tension as we wait on Him.