There are many specialized questions in interpreting the prophets. Understanding the predictive component of their biblical message requires some special hermeneutical procedures. The literature on this is vast but two of the best introductions to the understanding of predictive prophecy are A. Mickelson, Interpreting the Bible, 1983, chapter 13 and W. Kaiser, Back Toward the Future, 1989.
There are a host of questions concerning the literary characteristics of the prophetic literature. These arise because the prophets are speakers as well as writers. “Through a complex process we can no longer trace, the spoken prophecies eventually became the literature we find in our Bibles today” (Greidanus, p. 238).
It is sometimes difficult to see whether the order of a book is chronological or topical. Some books give evidence of a precise chronological approach (Haggai 1:1, 15; 2:1, 10, 20), and others, such as Jeremiah, are best understood as an anthology of his messages.
The juxtaposition in many prophetic books between oracles of judgment and oracles of hope is intentional. It is a constant reminder that the prophets announce the end of the old order as a prelude to the introduction of the new. Judgment then becomes the prelude to grace. “The spoken prophecies of judgment must now be read in the literary context of promised salvation” (Greidanus, p. 240). Grace is God’s last work as both the Law (Deut. 30:1-10) and the Prophets indicate (Hos. 14:4).
Recent study of the prophets has concentrated on two lines of approach to their messages. First is the study of the prophetic forms of speech. The purpose of such study is to move from the form of the prophet’s message to an analysis of the content of the message. The style and structure of their writings bear on the understanding of what they were saying. In recent times, C. Westermann’s book, Basic Forms of Prophetic Speech, 1967, has pioneered the way and others have subjected his ideas to scrutiny and further refinement.
In addition to this approach, which examines the prophetic style and structure, one finds another emphasis in the prophetic literature. Here, special attention is given to the theological foundation for understanding the messages of the prophets, or what John Bright calls “theological exegesis”:
By theological exegesis is meant an exegesis of the text in theological depth, an exegesis that is not content merely to bring out the precise verbal meaning of the text but that goes on to lay bare the theology that informs the text … All biblical texts are expressive of theology in that all are animated, if at times indirectly, by some theological concern. It is incumbent upon the interpreter to seek to discover what that theological concern is. To do so is no violation of sound exegetical principles. Rather, it is the completion of the exegetical task (J. Bright, The Authority of the Old Testament, 1967, p. 170).
Pay Attention to Prophetic Forms of Speech
“Viewing the prophetic books as a whole, virtually all of their genres of literature and discourse fall into one of three general categories: reports, speeches, or prayers” (G. Tucker, “Prophetic Speech,” in Interpreting the Prophets, J. Mays and P. Achtemeier, editors, p. 29). Reports may include the narratives documenting prophetic conflict (Amos 7:10-17; Jer. 27, 28), the accounts of the calls of the prophets (Jer. 1; Is. 6; Ez. 1-3), or the symbolic activities that are a part of their ministry (Jer. 13:1-11; Is. 20). Their prayers take the form of personal statements of praise (Amos 4:13; 5:8; Is. 25:1-8), intercession (see Jer. 14:7, 9, 21-24; Amos 7:2, 4: Hab. 3:2) or lament (Jer. 11:18-23; 12:1-6; 17:14-18, 20:7-18).
In the broadest sense the speeches that make up the preponderance of material consist of oracles of judgment and oracles of salvation. Of these the oracles of judgment predominate. In preaching their messages of judgment the prophets often employ what may be called covenent “lawsuit” terms. God is portrayed as a judge and prosecuting attorney in a court of law in which His people are arraigned and called to offer a defense if they can.
In the popular theology of the day Yahweh was to decide in favor of His people and against the nations. With startling newness the prophets see Yahweh as summoning, accusing, threatening and deciding not in favor of His chosen ones but against them. The employment of this form of argument is common among the prophets (cf. Hos. 2:4ff; 4:1, 12:3-15; Is. 3:13-17; 5:1-7; Micah 1:2-9; Jer. 2-4:4).
The prophets employ another common literary form that may be called the woe oracle. It is believed that the life context behind the prophetic woe oracle was a lament uttered by mourners at a funeral. A woe oracle takes the following form: first, an announcement of doom; next, a reason for the pronouncement of doom. When the prophets employ this literary form they are giving advance notice of the death of Israel. They adopt the form and employ it in the case of the soon-to-be-deceased Israel (cf. Amos 5:1, 2: Is. 5:8-30; 10:1-3; 28:1-4; Hab. 2:6-8; Micah 2:1-5; Zeph. 2:5-7).
In Isaiah 5:8-30 there is a six-fold repetition of the woe oracle. In employing a woe oracle the prophet indicts the hearers for their reprehensible behavior. Paying attention to the literary structure provides clues as to how best to preach from a passage.1
Another example of how the recognition of a prophetic form of discourse will enable the reader to teach and preach the prophet’s message is in the use of the disputation oracle. The disputants are the prophet and his opponents. In a most recent study of this genre the author argues that “the name ‘disputation speech’ can worthily be given to those texts where an opinion of the speaker is explicitly reported by the prophet and refuted by him” (Adrian Graffy, A Prophet Confronts His People; The Disputation Speech in the Prophets, 1984, p. 23). The book of Malachi consists of six such dialogues. God, by means of His prophet, remonstrates with His people for their failure to live and worship as His people. The prophetic charges are denied by the people’s statements, “How is what you say true?” (cf. Mal. 1:2, 6b; 2:17b; 3:7b, 8b, 13). The charges are then reiterated with further amplification and clarification. Rather than following the chapter divisions, which disguise these dialogues, it is much preferable to teach the book by means of these six disputation dialogues. Review and Expositor, Vol. 34, No. 3, entirely devoted to Malachi, contains many excellent suggestions on preaching from the book based on an understanding of its structure:
Sermons based on the oracles of Malachi might adopt a structure similar to that of the oracles themselves, consisting of three basic moves: (1) a statement of the basic affirmation of the oracle translated into contemporary idiom, (2) a consideration of common objections to the affirmation as those might be forming in the minds of your listeners, and (3) a response to these objections emphasizing the content and message of the biblical text. The dialectic form of the text would lend itself well to the use of the dialogue sermon involving other persons or even the whole congregation in the interaction reflected in the text (W. H. Gloer, “Preaching from Malachi,” Review and Expositor, 34, 1987, p. 458).
Our understanding of the prophet Habakkuk will sharpen if we see the stylistic similarities between this book and the lament psalms. The lament psalms have the structure of a complaint followed by divine response (cf. Ps. 10, 12). This pattern is seen in the book of Habakkuk where the prophet’s complaint (1:2-4) is followed by God’s response (1:5). A second complaint (1:12-17) is followed by the divine response (2:2-5) which culminates in a series of woes pronounced against evildoers both within and without the nation (2:6-20):
The book of Habakkuk partakes of much that is common to the lament psalms. It begins with lament over corruption in the land, the response to which leads to another questioning lament. The full response to this lament on how a holy and righteous God can allow the evil and ruthless Chaldeans to serve His purpose is confirmed with the psalm in chapter 3 … The prophet uses the lament tradition, originally cultic, to express his prophecy which has the function of proclaiming that salvation and protection are coming for the people of God (W. H. Bellinger Jr., Psalmody and Prophecy, 1984, pp. 84, 85).
There is merit in paying attention to the whole structure of a literary text as well as the parts. The book of Amos provides another interesting example of how analyzing structure and form provides help in interpreting the message. The macrostructure of the book would seem to be:
I. 1:1 Introduction
II. 1:2-2:16 Judgment oracles against the foreign nations followed by two judgment oracles against Judah and Israel
1:3-5 Judgment oracle against Damascus
1:6-8 Judgment oracle against Gaza
1:9-10 Judgment oracle against Tyre
1:11-12 Judgment oracle against Edom
1:13-15 Judgment oracle against Ammon
2:1-3 Judgment oracle against Moab
2:4-5 Judgment oracle against Judah
2:6-16 Judgment oracle against Israel
In each instance the oracle is introduced by a wisdom formula. “For three sins … even for four.” It is followed by the specific accusation and indictment and concludes with a pronouncement of punishment. The whole purpose of the oracles against foreign nations has recently come under investigation. They may well be connected with the holy war and God-as-warrior tradition within Israel. Amos uses this tradition in a unique way when he portrays God as judging not only Israel’s enemies but His own people.
III. 3:1-15 The section is introduced with the form “Hear this word.” The substance of the oracle is directed against the people of Israel.
IV. 4:1-13 Again the section begins, “Hear this word.” This time the accused are the cows of Bashan, the wealthy women in Israel (4:3).
The remainder of this chapter consists of an oracle against the religious sins being perpetuated at Gilgal and Bethel (4:4-5).
A first-person-singular divine pronouncement of the covenant curses goes from 4:6-12 and is concluded with a piece of doxology in 4:13.
V. 5:1-6:14 “Hear this Word, O house of Israel.” This section begins with a funeral dirge in 5:1, 2 followed by three introductory phrases; “This is what the Sovereign Lord says” (5:3), or “This is what the Lord says to the house of Israel (5:4), or “Therefore this is what the Lord, the Lord God Almighty, says.” (5:16).
In 5:18-27 we have a prophetic woe passage concerning the day of the Lord.
Amos 6:1-7 contains a prophetic woe directed against the notable men (rulers) of the nation. The final oracle begins with the Sovereign Lord swearing by Himself and declaring that He abhors the pride of Jacob. It goes from 6:8-14.
VI. 7:1-9:10 Five Visions of Judgment interrupted by a prophetic call narrative in 7:10-17.
7:1-3 Vision of Swarm of Locusts
7:4-6 Vision of Fire
7:7-9 Vision of the Plumb Line
8:1-3 Vision of the Ripened Fruit
The vision of the ripened fruit is followed by several messages introduced by varying formulas.
8:4-6 Hear this
8:7-8 The Lord has sworn
8:9-10 In that day
8:11-12 The days are coming
8:13-14 In that day
9:1-10 Vision of the Smiting of the Altar
VII. 9:11-15 Final Eschatological Message
This message is divided into two sections:
9:11-12 Introduced by the statement “in that day” referring to the indefinite messianic future.
9:13-15 Introduced by a similar indefinite messianic future statement, “the days are coming.”
When it becomes clear how the individual oracles are constructed into a whole, it provides us with a way of approaching the material in preaching. It is not that one must of necessity handle every smaller unit, though “when one comes to the actual study or exegetically informed reading of the prophetical books, the first thing one must learn to do is THINK ORACLES (Stuart and Fee, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, p. 158). What a recognition of the structure of the book can do is provide us with additional options for preaching. One might choose to preach from the book consecutively, choosing the larger sections, and thus the book could be preached in six or seven sermons. Since the preponderance of the book contains oracles of judgment, it might be thought that the consecutive approach leads to an imbalance of judgment over grace. In that case, one could preach three or four messages.
Message one: Prophet, Preacher, and Prayer — Amos 7
Message two: History and Moral Accountability — Amos 1 and 2
Message three: The Prophet’s Words of Judgment and Repentance — Amos 3-6
Message four: The Triumph of Grace — Amos 9:11-15
If we want to preach only one message from the whole of the book we need to be aware of the smaller units as a handle for coming at the whole. There is much to be said for this “one message from a book” approach. Sometimes in examining the trees the forest becomes obscured. But the whole is best seen by knowing what the parts are. The church today would be better served by hearing expositions of all the prophets, rather than becoming more expert on a single prophetic book. If we deem it wise to go into more detailed messages we must pay attention to the seams that make up the whole garment.
Pay Attention to Theological Exegesis
It is easier to say what we are not talking about, in using the expression “theological interpretation,” than what we are referring to. Theological interpretation is not forcing a text to say what your theology knows it must be saying, even though it doesn’t appear from the text to be saying that!
There may be no such thing as pure exegesis but it is the biblical text that needs to inform our theology and not the other way around. To pass all texts through our theological grids is to start with the wrong assumptions.
According to Kaiser, theological exegesis involves
the comparison of the teachings and sentiments found in one book with (1) those that preceded it in time (the analogy of antecedent Scripture) and (2) those that followed it in the progress of revelation (the analogy of faith) (Kaiser, Malachi, p. 148).
For Greidanus the importance of the theological interpretation is that it
reminds us that the primary concern of Scripture is to acquaint us with God, His word, His will, His acts … Theological interpretation serves a useful function if it reminds preachers of the central concern of the prophets — the concern to reveal God at work in history for the purpose of reestablishing His kingdom on earth (Greidanus, The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text, p. 256).
J. Bright was one of the earliest to call attention to the significance of theological exegesis. He argues:
The preacher needs to understand not only what the text says, but also the concerns that caused it to be said, and said as it was. His exegetical labors are, therefore, not complete until he has grasped the text’s theological intention (Bright, The Authority of the Old Testament, pp. 171, 172).
Some examples of the value and importance of theological interpretation may help. In Isaiah 1:2 God speaks: “I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me.” The full significance of this statement is best understood by knowing the background law of the rebellious son as found in Deuteronomy 21:18-21. Isaiah’s statement on the remnant (in 1:9) must be understood in light of an antecedent theology of the remnant found in texts such as 1 Kings 19:18.
The prophets accuse Israel of legal violations of the covenant and sometimes specify those charges in the Ten Commandments. Both Hosea (4:1-3) and Jeremiah (7-9) cite transgressions of these laws as evidence that Israel does not really know God. Yet it is this covenant law they say they will obey when they respond to the reading of the book of the covenant. “We will do everything the Lord has said; we will obey” (Ex. 24:7b).
The covenant curses of Deuteronomy 28 and Leviticus 26 are the background for the five first-person-singular divine pronouncements of judgment in Amos 4:6-12. Jeremiah’s attack against those hiding behind the false security of the temple presupposes some understanding of the statement of Exodus 19:5 (cf. the if-then statement in Jer. 7:5, 7 with Ex. 19:5). It would be possible to trace the employment of the Davidic covenant concept (2 Sam. 7) right through from the eighth century to the post-exilic period to show the extensive usage of this key theological idea. An understanding of this important covenant will certainly aid us when it comes to interpreting these prophetic messages concerning the future messianic kingdom (cf. Hos. 3:5; Amos 9:11, 12; Is. 9:6, 7; Jer. 23:5, 6; Ez. 34:23).
Kaiser’s definition of theological exegesis has two components. The theological ideas of one book are compared with those ideas that preceded it and those that followed it. Kaiser lists four ways to help identify an antecedent theology for a text:
1. The use of certain terms which have already acquired a special meaning in the history of salvation and have begun to take on a technical status (eg., “seed,” “servant,” “rest,” “inheritance”).
2. A direct reference or an indirect allusion to a previous event in the progress of revelation (e.g., the exodus, the epiphany on Sinai) with a view to making a related theological statement.
3. Direct or indirect citation of quotations so as to appropriate them for a similar theological point in the new situation (e.g., “Be fruitful and multiply …”; “I am the God of your fathers”).
4. Reference to the covenant(s), its contents of accumulating promises, or its formulae (e.g., “I am the Lord your God, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt [Ur of the Chaldees]”; “I will be your God; you shall be my people, and I will dwell in the midst of you.” (Toward an Exegetical Theology, 1981, p. 137).
It is important, then, to be familiar with the historical periods in which scriptural revelation is given if the principle is to be followed of determining the meaning of a text by paying attention to its antecedent theology.
But the other consideration in the theological interpretation of the prophets is to give attention to those parts of scriptural revelation that follow the text being interpreted. It’s important in summarizing the content of prophetic revelation to see how later revelation has developed an earlier concept and to trace that process of development. This needs to be done both within the Old Testament and between Old and New Testament. As an example of the former we believe that before we can adequately understand the New Testament imagery of the church as God’s temple (Eph. 2:21, 22; 1 Cor. 6:19), it would be a most useful exercise to trace the development of the temple terminology throughout the Old Testament. Such a study has been done by E. Clowney, which opens up the riches of this Old Testament idea, allowing us to see more clearly what is involved in the New Testament usage of the term (cf. “The Final Temple,” Westminster Theological Journal, 35, (1972), pp. 156-189). F. F. Bruce’s book, The New Testament Development of Old Testament Themes, contains an illuminating discussion on the progress of teaching between the testaments.
A list of Old Testament themes to be studied in their Old Testament context and then integrated into their New Testament fullness would include the election of Israel, the covenants with Abraham, Moses and David, the law, the land, the people of God, the kingship of God, the word of God, the presence of God, and the various representations of the messianic figure; i.e., the divine King, the Righteous Branch, the servant of the Lord, the Son of Man.
Since the message of the prophets concerns itself to a considerable extent with the “new thing” God is going to be doing, it becomes an indispensable part of teaching and preaching from these books to relate them to new covenant realities. In concluding this section we would call attention to H. W. Wolff’s three rules for preaching from the Old Testament:
First, to enquire as carefully as possible into the historical meaning of the text, so that the situation of the witness and his listeners and, above all, the intention of his message may be exactly and distinctly grasped; second, to compare the Old Testament text with corresponding New Testament passages and the center of their kerygma, so as to show how far the Old Testament message elucidates the message of the New, and how far the one has been superseded by the other; third, to seek out, with the message of the text, those people to whom that text speaks, among the listeners to the sermon, so that the original kerygmatic intention of the text — and thus the will of the living God today — is not buried, either under history or under philosophy (Old Testament & Christian Preaching, 1986, p. 105).2
Pay Attention to Application
Perhaps the most challenging thing about preaching from the prophets is not the difficulty in understanding the historical and cultural background of the prophet or even the theological antecedents that undergird his message. Rather, the most vexing issue is that of application. To understand the “then” of the prophet’s word is one thing. To move from the past to the present is quite another.
Yet without proper application the prophets’ message will have merely an academic and an antiquarian interest. “Exegesis without application is academic, exposition that is not grounded in exegesis is either superficial or misleading and even both” (B. Ramm, Baker’s Dictionary of Practical Theology, E. Harrison, editor, 1960, p. 101).
Exegesis that does not eventuate in application is inadequate. Stuart gives three reasons why exegesis can’t be the end of the task involved in preaching, but must lead to application:
First, it ignores the ultimate reason why the vast majority of people engage in exegesis or are interested in the results of exegesis: they desire to hear and obey God’s word as it is found in the passage. Exegesis, in other words, is an empty intellectual entertainment when divorced from application. Second, it addresses only one aspect of meaning — the historical — as if God’s words were intended only for individual generations and not also for us and, indeed, for those who will follow us in time. The Scriptures are our Scriptures, not just the Scriptures of the ancients. Finally, it leaves the actual personal or corporate existential interpretation and use of the passage to subjectivity. The exegete, who has come to know the passage best, refuses to help the reader or hearer of the passage at the very point where the reader’s or hearer’s interest is keenest. The exegete leaves the key function — response — completely to the subjective sensibilities of the reader or hearer, who knows the passage least (Old Testament Exegesis, p. 40).
To illustrate that application must be based on principlizing, consider the call narratives of the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel. In each case the prophets are told by God that their messages would receive an overwhelmingly negative and hostile reaction. From the point of view of listeners or converts, the prophets would be failures (Is. 6:9-13; Jer. 1:8-10, 17-19; Ez. 2:3-8; 3:7-9). When it comes to the application of those call narratives are we forced to say that ordination sermons today ought to contain similar warnings that very few people will believe? Must today’s servant of God be told that his/her words will meet with the same hostile reaction as the words of the prophets? If we say this, we are not doing justice to the specific historical redemptive moment in which these prophets were operating. We cannot and must not transfer these dire and painful words, which reveal that hardly any one will believe their words, into our contemporary situation.
The principle that can be deduced from the Lord’s constant warnings not to be afraid (Jer. 1:7; Ez. 2:6, 7; 3:9), and the persistent reminders that their audiences were stubborn and rebellious and therefore wouldn’t listen (Ez. 2:4), is that God requires faithfulness to Himself rather than spectacular results. The same principle is central to Paul’s philosophy of ministry:
On the contrary, we speak as men approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel. We are not trying to please men but God, who tests our hearts … We were not looking for praise from men (1 Thess. 2:4-6).
The prophets were not abrasive individualists looking for a fight. Yet in Jeremiah’s case, he experiences conflict with the leaders shaping and directing the affairs of state (cf. Jer. 36), with his fellow prophets (Jer. 23:9-22; 27; 28), with his family (Jer. 11:21) and with the general population. The application of the above circumstances must take into account the uniqueness and particularity of the redemptive historical moment. The extent, degree and intensity of the conflict need not be duplicated with extreme literalness.
What does seem clear is that preaching the truth will inevitably lead to some conflict and that the minister of the gospel today must choose for the fear of God over the fear of man (Prov. 29:25). The application of the call narratives, which stress the inevitability of conflict in the ministry of the prophets, would then concentrate on (a) faithfulness to the Lord whatever the cost and (b) a passionate contending for the truth. The prophetic call brings one into collision with alternative world views which cannot be avoided (1 Kings 18:21; Jer. 9:3). Jesus speaks similarly:
If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you (John 15:18, 19).
Another principle from the call narratives would be that ministry will involve suffering. Ministry involves identification with God and with those to whom we minister. God suffers and so must His servants. Jeremiah’s suffering involves his feeling of extreme aloneness (Jer. 15:17):
Jeremiah embodies what it means to be Israel … What happens to Jeremiah is what happens to the true Israel of God, and if we wish to be associated with the Israel of God, then this is what we must accept (Goldingay, God’s Prophet, God’s Servant, p. 37).
Another thing to keep in mind in applying the prophetic message is to determine what aspects of the original message are similar to our contemporary circumstances. This means we have to search for the “dynamic equivalent” between then and now (see W. Brueggemann, “As the Text Makes Sense,” Christian Ministry, [Nov. 1983], pp. 7-10). Amos directed some stringent words against the religiosity of his day. In one such oracle he said:
Go to Bethel and sin;
go to Gilgal and sin yet more.
Bring your sacrifices every morning,
your tithes every three years. (Amos 4:4)
The principle is rather obvious. Bethel and Gilgal were centers of worship with a venerable history. What Amos is attacking is a religion that has lost its punch. He rejects a religion of orthodoxy at the expense of orthopraxis. Belief must be verified by practice. He is making the point that it is possible to sin in the very act of offering to the Lord what would be understood by the worshiper as sincere worship.
Amos says to the people, “You not only sin during the week in your commercial and business transactions and in your marketing techniques when you defraud the gullible by skimping the measure, boosting the price and cheating with dishonest scales” (Amos 8:5). He tells the people that their very acts of worship are sin because they are a means of hiding from God rather than approaching Him. Jesus announced the same principle in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt. 5:23, 24).
1. See R. Chisholm, “Structure, Style and the Prophetic Message: An Analysis of Isaiah 5:8-20” Bibliotheca Sacra 143 (1986), pp. 46-60.
2. For a more detailed approach to theological exegesis, see D. Stuart, Old Testament Exegesis, 1984, pp. 37, 38, 82. Kaiser, Toward an Exegetical Theology, pp. 131-147; Greidanus, The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text, 1988, pp. 102-121, 228-262; E. Achtemeier, Preaching from the Old Testament, 1989.
From Loving God and Disturbing Men, by Donald Leggett. Copyright (c) 1991 by Baker Book House. Used by permission.

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