In an article for SermonCentral.com, Hal Seed writes, “The prophets lived in different times and cultures, with different figures of speech. Imagine someone 2,000 years from now trying to figure out what we mean when we say, “What’s Up?” or, “Text me.” We all know what 9/11 was. We know the Lakers, Chargers and Padres; but 2,000 years from now, people will need a commentary to decipher what we were talking about.
Yet the prophets spoke to people who had the same struggles with their families and enemies and finances, sin and relationship to God that you have today. They spoke for the same God about the same world, offering timeless warnings and solutions that change your life, if you will take the time to understand them.
Seven Steps to Understanding the Prophets
It takes seven steps to tie your shoe. At some point you had to learn these steps. Once you did, it was worth it for the rest of your life. Let me teach you to read prophecy in seven simple steps as well.
1. Get some background
The first step to reading any prophetic book is to get some background. Who wrote the book? Why? When? To whom? What were the problems they were facing? How is the book structured? What can I expect to learn from it?
To answer those questions, you can turn to one of four sources. If you’ve got a Study Bible, turn to the first page of whatever book you’re about to read and you’ll find great information there.
A Bible handbook will also give you this information. My favorite is Bruce Wilkinson’s Talk Thru the Bible. Gordon Fee’s How to Read the Bible Book by Book is also excellent. A Bible dictionary can also give you background, as can a Bible Encyclopedia…
Getting background is like looking through a book’s table of contents. It helps you understand what you’re about to read.
2. Pray for understanding
Whenever I open the Bible, I ask the Holy Spirit to speak to me. When God was trying to communicate with Samuel, Samuel prayed, “Speak Lord, your servant is listening” (1 Sam. 3:10). I usually say, “Lord, I’d like to hear from you just now. Please direct my thoughts.”
3. Read the passage
Tackle the first unit of thought. Every time your Bible has a sub-heading, that’s where a unit of thought begins and ends. If you’re reading Malachi, you immediately find out that the book is an “oracle” (Mal. 1:1). In paragraph 2 you’ll encounter your first question: Why would God love Jacob and hate Esau? (In fact, is it really possible for God to hate anyone?)
4. Consult a commentary
A commentary is a book written by an expert. There are three types of commentaries: exegetical, expositional, and devotional. Exegetical commentaries focus on the grammar and language of the text. They’re usually academic, so they may be over the head of first-time prophecy readers. Expositional commentaries are usually written by pastors who have preached through the book. They have easy-to-follow outlines and illustrations. Devotional commentaries focus more on reflection and application of the text. You’ll figure out which you have in your hand almost immediately. BUT, your initial questions are pretty straight-forward. (“What’s an oracle?” and “Why would God hate Esau?”) All three types should give you an answer to this…
5. Make some observations
With the help of your commentary, you’re now ready to make some observations. Answer the six question words (who, what, when, where, how, and why) and write down what you see.
6. Develop some interpretations
An interpretation is a timeless principle. What is this prophet saying or teaching or warning against that is as true today as it was in his day? Write these down.
7. Apply the principles
Now that you’ve seen what God is saying to you, what are you going to do about it? Life transformation is the reason you read the Bible, so what will you do with what you’ve learned? The final step in tying your shoe is go out and play. Application is the go out and play step.