Preparing to preach from the prophets involves many of the same issues dealt with in other types of preaching. These are usually grouped around headings such as hermeneutical, exegetical, theological, and homiletical. Along with those issues, the task of preaching from the prophets has its own unique problems. The underlying question of my discussion is whether or not the message of the Old Testament prophets in its present form as Scripture is as “preachable” as the New Testament gospel and, if so, how one should identify this message as such within the prophetic writings.
Who are the Prophets?
Though there are many ways such a subject might be approached, the fact that the prophetic writings come to us as inspired Scripture (2 Tim. 3:16) obliges us to take seriously their final written form and to strive all the more to understand them as a function of the meaning of a “book.”
It is our contention that when viewed from the perspective of the prophets as authors, it is possible to see in their books a line of thought already moving in the same theological direction as the New Testament books themselves. That is to say that in the composition of the prophetic books, one can already detect a development of the gospel and the “new covenant” identical in most respects to the gospel Jesus preached (Luke 22:20; Rom. 16:25-26). This was long before the coming of Christ.
From such a vantage point there is considerable agreement between what it means to preach from the prophets and to preach from the New Testament. Both involve understanding texts and both are basically exegetical in nature. Most importantly, both turn on the same theological foci that form the basis of a Christian theology: covenant blessing, faith, and law, to mention only three. This suggests that by the time of the completion of the Old Testament Canon (Tanakh), many or all of the central New Testament themes had already played themselves out in full measure within the books of the Old Testament themselves.
Thus the notion of a “prophetic book,” which first rose to prominence in the “making” of the canonical “book of Moses” (Dan. 9:10), carries with it unavoidable implications for preaching from the prophets. For example, with the rise of the prophetic “book,” long-standing religious ideals and yearnings in Israel – such as knowing God’s will and experiencing his presence – came increasingly to be mediated through Scripture rather than more traditional religious structures such as the temple and the priesthood. In spite of their deep roots in the religious heritage of ancient Israel, internal evidence of the theological nature of the structure of the Hebrew Bible as a whole (Tanakh) suggests that such institutions were rapidly being replaced by a new emphasis on the individual as a reader who meditates on Scripture “as a book.”2
Reading the Bible had itself become an act of worship (Neh. 8). As we have suggested elsewhere,3 the “making” of the Bible into a book was not a gradual and nebulous literary-historical process but was rather a real historical act that occurred in a moment of time not unlike the historical events recounted in the Bible itself. History, as such, had become a way of experiencing divine reality and spiritual truth on an individual level, particularly as that history was recounted by the Bible as experienced by individuals.
Hence, in “making the Bible a book,” the biblical authors, having gathered the necessary source materials, set out to render their thoughts through words alone and to put them down to be read in meaningful portions. Being competent in such matters, the biblical authors followed time-honored, though ancient, methods of “composition,” rendering their writings still today accessible to historical analysis as written texts (philology).
In turning to the ancient art of “making” books, the biblical prophets managed to forge a powerful new weapon by which to hurl their words against the walls of irreligion and hypocrisy – that is, the weapon of the written word. If left without their books and their written words, the biblical prophets had only their voices and their sometimes inexplicable actions (Isa. 20). At an early stage they had discovered that books gave them considerably more intellectual leverage than their actions, which always had to be explained and interpreted.
The ability to render one’s thoughts in a book also gave the prophets a new, and thus far untried, means of theological reflection. This was more than a mere extension of the power of the pen. It also meant that the prophets’ words could be placed alongside the words of other biblical writers and even alongside the words of God as a way of giving his divine utterances depth and context. Making books meant that anyone – whether within earshot of a prophet or not – could “hear” the prophets’ words and read them diligently, again and again, so that they might be reflectively passed on to others. The making of prophetic books meant that God’s words, once received, could be given a context and setting that transcended particular moments in time.
Once the task of “making” a book had become, for the prophet, the central focus of his act of preaching, his message – though it never really changed – also never again remained exactly the same. Some point to a “democratization” of the prophetic Word. God’s Word, the sole possession of the prophet, was put into the hand of anyone desiring and able to read a book.4 The scope assumed by the prophetic “books” was broad enough to include the king and the priests. According to Deuteronomy 17, the king was required to write out a copy of “the Torah” in “a book” and to use it in the administration of his kingdom. Its purpose was to enable him to “read it all the days of his life” (Deut. 17:18-20).
As a “book of Moses” (Torah), Scripture had become a kind of Magna Carta to whose authority even the king and priest were to submit, thereby defining the spiritual responsibility of both offices in terms of its own prophetic vision. Even the words of the prophets, which had yet to take their place in a book, had to be judged authentic by conforming to what was written in “the Torah and the Testimony.”5 In Isaiah 2:2-4, a world is envisioned “in the last days” in which the nations will come to the temple, not to receive its benefits as a temple (namely, the priesthood and sacrifices), but to study and be taught the prophetic Word (Torah).
The obvious implication of this crucial passage is that the temple was to become a house of learning – that is, a place to study the Scriptures. By means of the Torah that was to come out of Zion, the Lord will judge the nations. The result is that the nations will “hammer their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not lift up sword against nation, and never again will they learn war”(Isa. 2:4, NASB).
Moreover, in those biblical texts that serve as canonical links between the major sections of the Hebrew Bible (Josh. 1:8; Ps. 1:2), the goal of becoming wise and being successful in life is viewed in terms of meditation on the Torah as a “book.” Readers of Scripture are to meditate on the Bible by reading it as a “book.” There they will find godly wisdom (Josh. 1:8) and success (Ps. 1:2). The importance of these texts lies in the fact that they are a central pan of the canonical glue that binds together the Old Testament Canon (Tanakh). These and other programmatic texts (see Deut. 4:6) identify biblical wisdom as the written prophetic Word of Scripture. In this they are very much like the editorial comment in the subscript of the book of Hosea (14:9 NASB). They identify the prophetic writings not as the proclamation of divine judgment but as lessons in “biblical wisdom”:
Whoever is wise, let him understand these things;
Whoever is discerning, let him know them.
For the ways of the Lord are right,
And the righteous will walk in them,
But transgressors will stumble in them.
Given such an emphasis on the written Scriptures in the prophetic tradition, understanding the prophets as authors of books – rather than merely proclaimers of divine judgment and salvation in particular social settings – should be the central focus of the question of preaching from the prophets. Such a focus may require some adjustment to our thinking, particularly if we have in mind the question of preaching the prophetic books to New Testament believers. Above all it will require a greater sensitivity to the notion of the prophetic word as something contained in an inspired book 6 and not merely something proclaimed to an ancient audience.
Along with that, as far as the prophets are now concerned, it will require our paying attention to the notion that the prophets now speak to us both as the authors of their books and as narrative characters within the framework of those books (see Jeremiah 36). This means that understanding the prophets entails, among other things, being a good reader. That is a way of saying we must be aware of such bookish kinds of things as plot, characterization, thematic structure, and compositional strategy.
Above all it will mean being aware of one’s complete dependence on the author of the books we are reading. Such things are the stuff of the prophetic message that has come down to us. It is through understanding such features that one comes to an understanding of what and how to preach from the prophets. Preaching the prophets is more than repeating the prophets’ words in new and different settings. Understanding and preaching the prophets requires that we be competent readers who know how to understand a book and the meaning of its author. In many cases it also means being able to preach someone else’s sermon.
As Heschel has argued, understanding the prophets is often a matter of an exegesis of an exegesis. The prophets’ books are not mere anthologies of previously recorded versions of their sermons. The prophets’ books are their sermons, delivered in book form. Our task is to preach their books.
Reading the prophets as a book also means not confusing the intended reader of the prophetic books with the audiences of the ancient prophets. The prophets did not distribute their words to Israel in bound copies. Their words were heard, remembered, and explained, primarily as they became part of a book.
While a prophet’s primary task was to confront the ungodly with words of warning, the primary task of the prophetic books was to give comfort to those who read them. That comfort came in the reassurance of God’s faithfulness to His “new covenant” promises. That is what the prophetic authors intended to give to their readers as a basis for their continued hope. Preaching from the prophets ultimately means extending the range of their biblical sermons about the “new covenant” to include the church audience.
Such an understanding of the prophets opens many doors to preaching the prophets in, and to, the church. While the substance of much of the prophets’ warnings is the Sinai covenant, the actual message of the prophetic books centers on the “new covenant.”7 In other words, the prophetic books, as books, have the same theological purpose as the books of the New Testament. They speak of God’s continuous commitment to his covenant pledge to bless Israel and the nations by means of a “new” covenant (Gen. 12:1-3). The mediator of that pledge is the “seed of Abraham” (Gen. 22:18; Gal. 3:16).
God’s means of accomplishing his pledge is to inscribe the divine law upon the hearts of all believers. The prophets did not write their books to teach their readers the Sinai covenant. Their intent, like Moses’, was to call their readers to a life of faith under the new covenant (Isa. 7:9b).
There is considerable evidence suggesting the authors of the prophetic books were familiar with the earliest books of the Bible, including the Mosaic Pentateuch. Anyone who has read the prophetic books knows that they have drawn heavily from the Pentateuch. In doing so they have clarified and given depth to its message.
It is also evident from reading the writings of other prophetic authors that they too drew heavily from prophetic books other than the Pentateuch. As those who had diligently studied the Mosaic Scriptures, the authors of the later prophetic books saw themselves primarily as exegetes of the words of the earlier prophets, including the Pentateuch. Just as Moses drew heavily from his exegesis of the ancient sources available to him in “making” the Pentateuch, the prophetic authors depended largely on their exegesis of the Pentateuch and earlier prophetic Scriptures 8 for their understanding of the Word. These prophets, functioning as expository preachers, aimed at providing a biblical context for the rest of Scripture by tying it to their exegesis of the Pentateuch. They were in effect doing what we would today call biblical exposition.
The meaning of prophetic books in general came thus to be grounded in the pages of earlier, more ancient, Scriptures, which were themselves founded on the book of Moses. Each passage echoed the word of another. Hosea, for example, sketched his messianic vision from a close reading of Numbers 23 and 24. He saw from his own exegesis of the Pentateuch, which today can still be retraced, that it had envisioned the Messiah as a new Moses and a future king from the house of Judah.9 It was such prophets who kept the interest in the “book of Moses” alive (Dan. 9:10) – often in spite of centuries of neglect.
It is ultimately to these prophets that we owe the composition of the Old Testament in the first place. In their dependence on the Pentateuch and the connections they drew to it, the words of the prophetic books were every bit the picture of what Hengstenberg once called a prophetic “echo.” As Ernst Wilhelm Hengstenberg described it, a prophetic echo is a way of picturing the prophet’s efforts to keep the Word of God alive and relevant by recasting it in new and more profound ways. As the prophets listened to the words of Moses in the Pentateuch, they responded with words of their own.10 Their words were explanatory and as such were intended to probe the text with questions. This meant their personal understanding of their faith often took on the character of a “biblical” theology.
For these prophetic authors, biblical “books” were more than relics of the past. These ancient books that eventually found their way into the Old Testament canon were, instead, the very means by which their faith was nourished. When Moses, by means of a strategic use of biblical poetry, identified the promised seed of Abraham (Gen. 22:18) as an individual king from the house of Judah (Gen. 49:8-12), he was laying down a compositional foundation later identified and picked up by Jeremiah (4:2) and the Psalms (72:17) as a way of identifying the coming messianic king.
How far back did this prophetic biblicism extend? The preceding example suggests it reached as far back as Moses. Not only was he the author of the first biblical book, the Pentateuch, but, given the prophetic echoes within the Pentateuch, Moses might also be seen as the prototypical prophetic author. Such prophetic authors continued to link Moses to their future hope in such a way that it led ultimately to the “new covenant” message being passed on to the New Testament.
Returning to our initial question: Who were the prophets whose message we are to preach? Our answer is that they are the prophetic authors of the biblical prophetic books whose message is grounded in the book of Moses and whose vision looks forward to the “new covenant” gospel of faith. If that is a proper aim, there would seem to be little that stands in the way of the Christian’s preaching from the Old Testament prophets.
Must We also Preach the Sermons the Prophets Preached in Their Own Times?
The relevance of the prophets’ sermons in the church is an open question, yet few today would dare preach a message like Amos 2:4-5 (my translation):
Because of three rebellions of Judah, and because of four, I will not return him. Because they rejected the Torah (Law) of the Lotto and did not keep his statutes; their lies (idols), after which their fathers walked, led them astray; and I will send fire against Judah and it will consume the citadel of Jerusalem.
The practice of preaching a “prophetic” sermon of judgment and divine retribution like Amos’s has been a trademark of many “biblical” preachers. Famous preachers, such as Billy Sunday, have been known to model their sermons on those of the biblical prophets, focusing not only on the gospel, but also on warnings of divine judgment.
In addition to such sermons, there is also a further sense in which preaching the prophets has come to mean taking one’s stand against social evils and political corruption. Such prophetic models have earned an honorable place in the contemporary preacher’s repertoire. But what such sermons underscore is not the basic similarity between the biblical prophets and today’s preachers but their vast differences.
Does not the prophetic model of preaching God’s Word to our world call for a fundamental change in the prophetic message? Are we justified in preaching the sermons of the prophets in the church if it means the misapplication of their message to a different context? Although many evangelicals would grant a place for such prophetic preaching, most would do so only after adding numerous cautionary words.
In the last analysis, one must remember that there is a genuine difference between the ancient prophets’ message in its context and our preaching that message today. It is as much a societal and political difference as it is a theological one. The problem, of course, is where one locates that difference. Every preacher must decide individually where to draw the line. On this issue though we might do well to heed the example of Walter Kaiser’s work on the prophets. While Kaiser has steadfastly refused to silence the prophets, he also repeatedly warns against giving them the last word. While he might prefer to let the prophets speak for themselves, he has learned also never to let them hold the microphone.
Kaiser’s answer to the question of whether the prophets’ message can be reproduced as a statement of the gospel to the church lies in the nature of his understanding of the prophetic word. As his starting point, Kaiser rejects the notion that the biblical prophets addressed their sermons to social structures and institutions, arguing instead that the prophets addressed the nation as a whole only on the basis of an individual appeal. Their message was always that of personal salvation.
It would be a mistake, Kaiser argues, to see the prophets as precursors of twenty-first century revolutionaries rallying the masses and calling for social change on a grand scale. On the contrary, he insists, throughout their public ministries, the prophets always directed their messages to individuals, offering them not so much a change in their collective physical and political environment as, personally and individually, a change in their heart. In doing so, the possibility of a change in societal structures as a result of a change of heart was an item left open to a future work of God. Thus Kaiser concludes:
That the prophets addressed themselves primarily to individuals in their attempt to effect massive changes in society (whether those individuals were judges, other government officials, merchants, or clergy) gives us a clue as to how we might proclaim their message anew in our day. But simply to redirect their message to contemporary men and women is not sufficient in and of itself. It will not help the interpreter/proclaimer merely to state that there is some type of connection between the ancient and modern audience.11
The Sermon of the “Prophetic Author”
Recent studies in the prophetic literature tend to confirm Kaiser’s observations on the individual presentation of the prophet and his sermon. Such studies focus both on the point of view of the ancient prophet and his call to confront the evils of his countrymen, as well as the legacy of such prophets as preserved through the process of their “making” a prophetic book.12 Though one may dispute whether Israel’s prophets were called to confront their countrymen individually, a close reading of their books shows that this is exactly what those authors did. The prophetic authors took great care to cast their message in individual terms.
It is important to note that this feature of the prophetic message can be argued exegetically, not from “shreds” of reconstructed “pre-history” that critical scholars claim to have “discovered” behind every prophetic utterance, but, more importantly, on the basis of two larger observations that hold true in many individual examples from the prophetic writings.
The first is the theological direction indicated in these prophetic books by the compositional strategy of their authors. These are authors both in the traditional sense and in terms of the canonical task of putting together the whole of the Old Testament Tanakh and glossing it with admonitions to “meditate on these texts day and night” in order to gain, not a new revolutionary society, but personal “wisdom” and “understanding” in living one’s life before God (Joshua 1; Psalm 1).
Such notices are not scattered randomly throughout the Tanakh, nor do they appear to be targeted specifically at social institutions and power structures as such. They are rather presented in terms of a broad distributional pattern that follows the contours of the compositional structure of the books themselves, suggesting anyone and everyone may “read and take heed” of them. In a word, by targeting individual readers, the Canon as such (Tanakh) suggests that its understanding of the prophetic word has the same focus as Kaiser argues for the prophet and his individual message.
The second observation centers on those texts that represent the prophets as ministers of a “new covenant” distinct from Sinai (Deut. 28:69 [29:1]; Jer. 31:31). These texts betray the presence of biblical authors whose ideas are close to those behind the final shape of the Old Testament. Such “new covenant” signatures include the individualization of the pledge to receive a “new heart” (Ezekiel 36), internalization of the Torah by having it written on one’s heart (Jeremiah 31), and the role of the Spirit in rendering the new heart obedient to God’s will as expressed in the prophetic books (Neh. 9:20). It is not merely possible but quite likely that one could sketch out a comprehensive program of preaching the Old Testament prophets by following these “new covenant” strategies throughout the prophetic literature. Such lines of thought point one to similar compositional strategies that lead directly into the New Testament (cf. Hebrews 8).13
The prophetic “faith theme” (Glaubens Thematik), which Han-Christoph Schmitt traced throughout the Pentateuch and Old Testament, is also marked by its association with the compositional strategies of individual prophetic books (Isaiah, for example). Those same strategies reappear in New Testament books such as the Gospel of John (John 20:30) and the book of Hebrews (chap. 11) and often include a focus on a coming “messianic” king.14 These texts show that the “prophetic books,” as the inscripturated messages of the prophets, confront the individual in such a way that they present themselves as mediators of a “new covenant.”
What these initial observations suggest is that by means of the process of “book making,” the message of the ancient prophets has been refitted to serve a new life setting, one that focuses the reader’s attention on an individual reading and meditation on Scripture as the means of finding divine blessing and wisdom. In such a “new covenant” environment, the “new heart” is presented as something to be nourished by God’s Word and given life and growth by the “Spirit.” Such thoughts are unmistakably like the pattern for the church in Ephesians 4.
Abraham Heschel 15 once suggested that there are always at least two sermons in a prophetic text. There is the sermon that the prophet preached in his own times and to his own contemporaries, and there is the sermon the author of a prophetic book preaches by means of his book. There is the “sermon of the prophet,” and there is the “sermon about the prophet.” The prophet’s sermon was a divine word to his own generation. It is not the message of the prophetic book to our day. On the other hand, the prophetic author’s sermon, which comes to us not in, but as, the prophetic book, is directed to anyone who reads the book. That is what the Canon is about.
The sermon of the prophet is about the divine response to Israel’s straying from God. The sermon about the prophet is the result of the biblical author’s reflections and interpretation of the prophet’s words. It comes to us as a prophetic book whose presentation is about the prophet and his words. The prophet’s sermon comes from his divine call to go out to the people and proclaim the words God has given him. The biblical author’s sermon is a function of his collecting the prophet’s words and putting them into a book. The biblical prophet “makes” his sermon from the word given him by God. The biblical author “makes” his sermon by “making” a book out of the biblical prophet’s words.
The sermon of the prophet Jonah consisted of only five Hebrew words, “In yet forty days Nineveh will be destroyed” (Jon. 3:4).16 The sermon of the book of Jonah consists of the meaning of the rest of the book’s 705 words. The task of preaching the book of Jonah lies not in repeating Jonah’s five-word sermon to members of the church. The sermon of the prophetic author of the book of Jonah consists of his “making” the rest of the book that proclaims a “new covenant” in the events of the book. The “new covenant” meaning of the book can be seen in its focus, not on God’s judgment of Jonah (Jonah 1) and Nineveh (Jonah 4), but on God’s grace to the Gentile sailors and Ninevites in chapters 1 and 3 along with Jonah’s selfish ingratitude toward God’s gracious treatment of the Gentiles (Jon. 4:11). Jonah’s words to Nineveh are threats of divine judgment. The book’s word to its readers is a call to faith. The book reminds us that the Gentile Ninevites “believed God” (Jon. 3:5) just as Abraham did in the Genesis narratives (Gen. 15:6).
Both Jonah the prophet and the prophetic author of the book of Jonah have their words to speak in this book. Jonah’s five words to Nineveh are a small and almost incidental part of the rest of the words of the prophet’s book. In that book, the prophetic author has written a gospel of faith stressing the new covenant hope of the salvation of the Gentiles. The prophet Jonah’s message of judgment to Nineveh (Jon. 3:4b) provides the context for that word of faith. It is the message of the book of Jonah as a whole that presents the word of faith and divine grace.
To be sure, we should take the five words of Jonah as the words of God, but we should remember that it is also the additional 705 inspired words of the book’s prophetic author that make the book of Jonah part of our Holy Scriptures and the subject of our preaching from the prophets. On the pages of the book of Jonah, both Jonah and his book stand before us, but only his book now speaks to us. We needn’t today try to preach Jonah’s sermon that “forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.” That prophetic word has no more place in our preaching than those of Amos to his generation noted above. As the apostle Paul sometimes puts it, “Scripture says . . .” (Rom. 9:17) – that is, Jonah’s book as an exhortative narrative of the importance of Gentile faith still speaks to us today, just as Jonah once spoke to Nineveh.
In the book of Jonah, the Scriptures curiously take on the role of the prophet himself, who speaks God’s Word through the book. Reading a prophetic book like Jonah means treating each passage of Scripture as if it were the prophet himself speaking God’s Word to us. That is what Christopher Seitz has called “letting a text ‘act like a man . . .’”17 As Scripture, the book itself comes to us as the prophet with a message to its reader and to our congregations. We know that message by reading the book.
What we are saying here about the book of Jonah applies equally to all biblical prophetic books. They, like the poems and narratives in the Pentateuch, render a message of divine truth and grace. They show us how to live “before God,” and how to respond to his wondrous gift of grace and the Spirit. They also put before us the exegetical responsibility of understanding narratives and their compositional strategies.
Compositional Strategy of the Prophetic Book
If we are to treat a prophetic book “like a man,” how do we get him to talk? More precisely, how do we get him to talk in a way we can understand? Are not the prophets we meet in these books often hard to understand? The brevity of their words, their minimal literary context, and the obscure imagery they use leave us sometimes with little more than a “sound bite” describing an event or an idea about which we know very little. Adding to the obscurity that often accompanies the prophets’ words are their frequent use of ancient and rare vocabulary and the almost complete lack of historical context in their writings. How, for example, are we to understand the saying of Isaiah 28:10:
command for-command, command for-command, line for-line, line for-line, little there, little there.18
A further aspect of the difficulty of the prophets no doubt lies in the poetic nature of their original words. Biblical poetry is inherently obscure, though that is not to say it is not also capable of great powers of description. But even non-poetic passages, such as the “flying scroll” narrative in Zechariah 5:1-3, leave one little to go on for explanation.
The answer to these questions of meaning lies in gaining an appreciation of the purpose of the compositional strategy of the prophetic books. As we have suggested above, one can understand a compositional strategy as a plan or structure that ties the various parts of a book together into a whole. It is a way of making sense of a book’s pieces by showing how the author has fit them into a larger whole.19
The notion of such a strategy can also provide clues that enable one to retrace the work of the author to show the book’s interconnections, or internal links, to other parts of the book and other parts of the Old Testament Canon (Tanakh). An awareness of such connections can give us a sense of the meaning of the whole of both a prophetic book and the Old Testament Canon. Granting that the biblical authors had an intent and desired to make that intention known through their books, the central task of the interpreter of the prophetic books becomes that of making sense of the parts of a book in terms of the meaning of the whole.
Making sense of a prophetic book is not that different from putting a sermon together. One starts with a “big idea” and shapes the whole of the book around that idea or theme. The notion of a strategy or intelligent design lying behind a book helps us see where the author is going in the book and what the book is about. One can say that the author’s book, as an expression of his own identity and religious faith, begins to take on the personality of the author and can almost be said to “think” or “act like the author.” We the readers of the book can interact with the author of the book the same way we would interact with a person who wants to tell us something about himself and his faith in God.
These kinds of interconnections help us see the development of the prophetic author’s meaning in his book, and they can be described both internally and externally. The internal connections of a book (innertextuality) are the primary way that the larger themes of a book are developed. The external links of a prophetic book (intertextuality) enable us to see how the author of the book understands its relationship to other books in the Old Testament Canon.
The author of the book of Isaiah, for example, spends a good deal of his time pointing to connections between his ideas and the ideas developed by Moses, the author of the Pentateuch. The author of the book of Isaiah wants his book to “act like” the prophet Isaiah, who in turn behaves like a second Moses. As one senses such interconnections, a way is opened to the larger context of understanding in the book of Isaiah, particularly against the background of the book of Moses. As Schmitt 20 has demonstrated, both the Pentateuch and the book of Isaiah are already written with a view to what was to become the New Testament notion of justification by faith. That theme continued to make itself known even at the heart of the formation of the New Testament (cf. John 20:31 21 and Heb. 11).
A further difficulty of the prophets and their writings is the fact that in drawing out the interconnections of their books with other biblical books, they frequently draw on sometimes remote texts of Scripture and thus presuppose a kind of “biblical literacy” that is beyond the average Bible reader. At the conclusion of the prophecies of Hosea (14:9), the author warns his readers of the need for wisdom and understanding to comprehend Hosea’s message (my translation):
Whoever is wise, let him understand these things.
And whoever is discerning let him know them – because the ways of the LORD are upright.
The righteous walk in them, but the rebellious stumble in them.
This is not an encouraging word for modern readers who know they do not know as much as the prophet supposes. It raises the bar of understanding a prophetic book like Hosea far beyond the range of the modern reader. Who would want to say one has the requisite “wisdom” of which this passage speaks? Even if one had such “wisdom,” how should it be used to understand the book? Would one’s wisdom reveal a meaning that is not in the book, or would it make clearer and more applicable one that is already there?
Fortunately we can understand the prophets and their books in general terms merely by paying close attention to the Pentateuch and the other prophetic books that make up the larger parts of the Old Testament Canon, even if we do not “get” all of the interconnections and allusions noted by the author. Knowing they are there, however, can open one to the experience of making a connection and thus sharing a kindred thought with the ancient author. Sharing such a thought in a sermon from the prophets makes for a long remembered moment of truth. In biblical terms, such a moment of truth is called an insight (sekel, Neh. 8:8, 13).
The Role of Historical Background in Understanding the Prophetic Text
Despite such well-known difficulties in understanding the prophets, there are some positive signs that preaching from biblical prophetic texts has a bright future. For many who study the Old Testament as ancient literature, the future of the prophetic literature lies in its past. As they see it, an understanding of ancient history and cultures opens new avenues into the meaning, or at least function, of the prophetic sermon. Biblical prophets are compared with their counterparts in the ancient world and, as is often the case, the differences – in both the content and the function of their message – are highlighted as an all-important key to the meaning of biblical prophecy. In such an approach, which is often historical and sociological rather than specifically exegetical, explanations have come to rival the importance of a close scrutiny of the text in determining the meaning of the prophetic word. As one evangelical Old Testament scholar has put it:
Scholarship has sought to place the prophetic person and role within a wider social context. This involves locating prophets by noting the role they played in society in relation to other institutions, such as the monarchy and the priesthood . . . This newer, sociological approach highlights the importance of the recipients of the message in recognizing the messenger as a prophet, grounding his or her identity upon that recognition.22
In a way quite different from the traditional grammatical historical quest for the context of Israelite prophecy,23 many scholars remain hopeful that an understanding of the historical circumstances of the prophets and their message will continue to provide essential clues to the meaning of these texts.
As we have attempted to demonstrate in this chapter, many have also begun to call for a closer examination of the biblical texts themselves as the most promising approach to preaching from the prophets. In recent years, biblical scholarship has turned to both the historical background of the prophets and the compositional nature of their writings as valuable guides to understanding both the prophets and their books. Such methodological interests, whether it be on the individual prophet or his book, can be focused on one of three areas: the “pre-history” of the prophet’s message, the “historical context” of his message, and the “after-history” (Nachgeschichte) of the prophet’s message.24
American evangelicals have generally steered clear of the “pre-history” of the prophetic word, rightfully concerned that it often points away from the inspired text toward a reconstructed, hypothetical version of the prophet’s message. I have in mind situations such as the distinction between the message of the prophet Isaiah and the critical reconstruction of a second prophet called Isaiah (Deutero-Isaiah) whose work was supposedly attached to the words of the eighth-century prophet by that same name.
The preferred approach of contemporary evangelical scholarship focuses its attention on preaching the prophet’s message as it is understood within the context of the prophet’s own historical setting. Sometimes that setting is given to the reader in the heading of the book, as in Hosea 1:1, for example. At other times the historical context must be restored to the text from hints and clues in the words of the prophet. The mention of the “Chaldeans” in Habakkuk 1:6, for example, can guide one’s reading of the events of the book and Habakkuk’s own words in terms of the historical context of the Babylonian invasion of Jerusalem in the late sixth century. In speaking of this approach as it appeared in the nineteenth century, Milton Terry wrote:
The interpreter should, therefore, endeavor to take himself from the present, and to transport himself into the historical position of his author, look through his eyes, note his surroundings, feel with his heart, and catch his emotion. Herein we note the import of the term grammatico-historical interpretation. We are not only to grasp the grammatical import of words and sentences, but also to feel the force and bearing of the historical circum- stances which may in any way have affected the writer. . . . The individuality of the writer, his local surroundings, his wants and desires, his relation to those for whom he wrote, his nationality and theirs, the character of the times when he wrote – all these matters are of the first importance to a thorough interpretation of the several books of Scripture.25
Such a reconstruction of the “real” prophet from the historical setting of his book is the opposite of what Seitz means by “letting the text ‘act like a man.’” The drawback is that it isolates the prophet’s message in the past with few connections to the present and the role of the prophet’s words in preaching. While such an approach may tell us much about what the prophet’s message once meant to his hearers, it does little to help us understand how we might preach and apply that message to our day. It does not consider the question of the meaning of the text as such. As far as the evangelical is concerned, such an approach may also run the risk of elevating uninspired reconstructed historical events above the inspired biblical text (2 Tim. 3:16).
A Textual Approach to the Interpretation of Biblical Prophecy (After-History)
In recent years, considerable attention has been directed to the prophet’s message as it comes to us in the form of a book.26 That means a renewed interest in the “after-history”27 of the prophetic word. The question of what happened to the prophet’s message after he delivered it, both during his own lifetime and after, is of considerable interest in light of the fact that his words eventually made their way into a book about the prophet which we take to be inspired Scripture?28 How does the “after-history” (Nachgeschichte) of the prophet’s words help us understand and preach his message today? What effect on meaning does the process of becoming a book have on the prophet’s words?
I have suggested in this essay that asking such questions of meaning in this way has led to the realization that many of the interpretive problems one faces in preaching the prophet’s message, such as the need for a proper context, have been addressed by the prophet in the process of “making” his words into a book and putting that book within a particular location in the Old Testament Canon. A book, such as those woven from the prophet’s own words, can provide a valuable context for understanding and preaching those words.
What was said earlier about the Babylonian context given within the book of Habakkuk is a case in point. When reading the prophetic books one can expect that help is on the way from the author for a wide range of essential interpretive questions. The prophetic author is never far from the text itself and ready to supply a needed clue to the meaning of the prophet’s sometimes obscure words.
In a book such as we have from the prophets, help comes in the form of the intentional and meaningful compositional strategies employed by biblical prophetic authors. It may also come from an explanatory comment inserted by the author, within the text itself. As an authorial clue, and not merely a scribal gloss, such help comes to the reader with the highest authority. It is inspired Scripture. An example is the author’s identification of the stump of the felled tree as “the holy seed” in Isaiah 6:13.
By way of conclusion, I offer a brief summary of the points argued in this article.
1. Evangelical approaches to preaching from the prophets have largely focused on two central objectives. The first is an understanding of the ancient prophet and his message within his immediate social and historical context. The second is a focus on the message of the biblical authors who have given us the words of the ancient prophets in their inspired writings. Though these two views have rarely been held together, evangelical biblical scholarship cannot afford to lose its focus on either side. Limiting the prophet’s message to what we might reconstruct of ancient Israelite faith and thought unduly restricts the meaning of the biblical prophets to past events and settings. Ultimately the question of preaching from the prophets turns on the message of the prophetic books. That leads to our second conclusion.
2. In the last analysis, the prophetic word that must be preached is that word which is presented to us in the prophetic writings. As important as historical reconstructions of a prophet’s message are, the point at which the prophets must converge with the theology of the New Testament is at the level of the final compositional shape of the Hebrew Bible.
3. Preaching from the prophetic books means following the line of thought traversed by the author in the prophetic book and the “after-history” of that book. Knowing the prophetic message means recognizing it as it passes through, not only the remainder of the Old Testament, but also into the New Testament.
4. Without appearing to be too simplistic, we can say that the message of the Old Testament prophets, as embodied in their books, appears to be the same message as the New Testament writers. Though we must allow for some historical distance between the prophets themselves and our understanding of them today, it is clear that as a part of the prophetic literature, a biblical prophet’s message, as embodied in his prophetic book, was the basis of the theology that we see in the New Testament. It is within the context of that theology we are to preach the prophets today.
From Preaching the Old Testament, edited by Scott Gibson. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2006.) Used by permission. For more information visit www.bakerbooks.com
John H. Sailhamer is Senior Professor of Old Testament and Hebrew at Southeastern Baptist Seminary in Wake Forest, NC.
1. Few evangelical biblical scholars have devoted more attention to this subject than Walter C. Kaiser Jr. I am honored to offer these comments on preparing to preach from the prophets in appreciation for his friendship and as an acknowledgment of his many contributions to the subject.
2. Contra the excellent book by William M. Schniedewind, How the Bible Became a Book (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004). Schniedewind argues, along with the majority of biblical scholars, that making the Bible a book was the work of the priesthood and its scribal guild.
3. John H. Sailhamer, “Biblical Theology and the Composition of the Hebrew Bible,” Biblical Theology, Retrospect and Prospect, ed. Scott J. Hafemann (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2002), 26-37.
4. Our discussion of “books” at this early period should not be read anachronistically in terms of the modern sense of a “book,” but as a general designation of the form given to ancient written documents of many types.
5. Isaiah 8:20 (NASB): “To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, it is because they have no dawn”
6. “If in reply it is asked whether Christianity is really a book-religion, the answer is that strangely enough Christianity has always been and only been a living religion when it is not ashamed to be actually and seriously a book-religion.” Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, Vol. 1, pt. 2 (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1978), 494-95.
7. This is the same covenant that Christ made with the church (Luke 22:20). Sec John H. Sailhamer, The Pentateuch as Narrative: A Biblical-Theological Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992).
8. By the expression “earlier” I have tried to avoid the confusion of these prophetic books with the “Early Prophets” of the Hebrew Canon.
9. John H. Sailhamer, “Hosea 11:1 and Matthew 2:15,” Westminster Theological Journal 63 (2001): 87-96.
10. Hengstenberg noted that “in history the Messianic hopes of the nation always assume the appearance of an echo only” and that “they seem to have been introduced from above into the spirit of the nation, and that each particular element was to be found in a prophetic communication, before it took possession of the mind of the nation.” Hengstenberg’s concept of an “echo” of divine revelation was one of the foundational insights of his monumental three-volume study of biblical theology which he entitled Christologv of the Old Testament (1836-1839). Hengstenberg believed that in the composition of the books of the Old Testament there was considerable interdependence among the authors of the individual books. The message of the prophets rested heavily on the central themes of the Pentateuch as well as on each other.
11. Kaiser, Toward an Exegetical Theology, 186.
12. A recent study on the importance of the Bible as a “book” is Schniedewind, How the Bible Became a Book (see note 2 above).
13. See a similar focus on the prophets and the Pentateuch in Hans-Christoph Schmitt, “Redaktion des Pentateuch im Geiste der Prophetic,” Vetus Testamentum 32 (1982): 170-89.
14. See Sailhamer, “Biblical Theology and the Composition of the Hebrew Bible” (sec note 3 above).
15. Abraham J. Heschel, The Prophets (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1962).
16. Jonah 3:4: ‘od ‘arha’im yom wninwe nehpakhet.
17. Christopher R. Seitz, “On Letting a Text ‘Act Like a Man,’ The Book of the Twelve: New Horizons for Canonical Reading, with Hermeneutical Reflections.” This article will appear in a forthcoming book entitled Prophecy and Hermeneutics: The Twelve and Isaiah in Canonical Introduction, in the new series, Studies in Theological Interpretation, edited by Craig Bartholomew, Joel Green, and Christopher R. Seitz and published by Baker.
18. Author’s own translation.
19. See Sailhamer, Redaktion des Pentateuch inn Geiste der Prophetic, 1-79.
20. Schmitt, “Redaktion des Pentateuch im Geiste der Prophetic,” 170-89
21. John 20:31 says, But these have been written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name” (NASB).
22. David W Baker, “Israelite Prophets and Prophecy,” The Face of Old Testament Studies: A Survey of Contemporary Approaches, ed. David W. Baker and Bill T. Arnold (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999), 268-69.
23. John H. Sailhamer, “What Is the Role of History in Biblical Interpretation?” The Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 44, no. 2 (June 2001): 193-206.
24. The expressions denoting these various categories appear similar to those discussed by David W. Baker in the article listed in note 22 (see p. 267), though the content and sense of the categories are very different.
25. Milton S. Terry, Biblical Hermeneutics (1883; repr., Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1979), 231.
26. William M. Schniedewind, The Word of God in Transition: From Prophet to Exegete in the Second Temple Period, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament: Supplement Series 197 (Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Academic Press, 1995); David W. Baker, “Scribes as Transmitters of Tradition,” Faith, Tradition, and History: Old Testament Historiography in Its Near Eastern Context, ed. A. R. Millard, J. K. Hoffineier, and D. W Baker (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1994).
27. “Die Nachgcschichte alttestamentlicher Texts innerhalb des Alten Testaments,” Beiheft 66 zur Zeitschrift far die alttestantentliche Wissenschaft, 1936, 110-21. Reprinted in Beitrage zur Traditionsgeschichte rind Theologie des Alten Testaments (Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1962), 69-80.
28. Two recent and helpful studies in this regard are Schniedewind, How the Bible Became a Book (see note 2 above) and Christopher R. Seitz, “On Letting a Text ‘Act Like a Man,’ The Book of the Twelve: New Horizons for Canonical Reading, with Hermeneutical Reflections” (see note 17 above).