Decoding The Prophets

One of the things I enjoy most about my job is teaching the Bible. The truth is that much of the Bible is clear and the average reader doesn’t need help to understand what is going on. There are, however, parts of Scripture that can be confusing without certain tools at our disposal. A few months ago, I tried to apply some of these tools to Revelation. Today, I’d like to do something similar with the prophets.

When I say the prophets, I’m talking about the books of the Bible from Isaiah to Malachi. These aren’t usually the first books someone sits down to read. The average Christian would read the New Testament multiple times before wading into Nahum. Why is that? Because most Christians think what they are reading is confusing at best and irrelevant at worst.

How The Prophets Heard From God

Much of the ancient world would strive to hear God through manipulating objects or people (divination, mediums, necromancers and even human sacrifice). The Israelites, though, heard from God by revelation. This revelation was given through men like Abraham and Moses and usually backed with miraculous signs and wonders to confirm its authenticity.

What The Prophets Did For God

There is one big difference between Abraham and Moses (and others) and the prophets though. While Abraham and Moses established the covenant between God and Israel, the prophets apply it. They communicate to the people, priests and even to the king if Israel is in line with the covenant or in breach of the covenant. The stipulations of this covenant were laid out in Exodus, Deuteronomy and Leviticus and the prophets were sent by God to apply the terms of the covenant.

The key that unlocked the prophets for me (thanks Dr. Belcher) was understanding their role as covenant prosecutors. If you remember nothing else about this article, remember those words. The prophets were sent to prosecute the Israelites for the way they carried out their covenant with God. Sometimes they came to proclaim blessings (based on Deut. 28:1-14 and Lev. 26:1-13) and Israel (or Judah) would receive favor from God usually either in the realm of nature or war. Often, though, the prophets came to proclaim curses (based on Deut. 4:25-28; 28:15-68; 29:16-29; 32:15-43; and Lev. 26:14-39) and Israel (or Judah) would receive discipline in the realm of nature or war.

The Aim of Prophesy 

Many Christians think the main role of the prophets was one of prediction, but it wasn’t. The role of the prophets wasn’t prediction, but proclamation. They were moved by God to proclaim the status of the covenant between God and His people. Sometimes it was an imminent blessing or curse, but sometimes it was conditional based on the response of the Jews. The goal of this proclamation wasn’t to punish, but 1) to vindicate God, the author of the covenant, and 2) to correct the course of His people.

Jesus, The Greater Prophet

Even though (for the most part) the human authors likely didn’t have more than their immediate context in mind, God, the Divine Author did. Prophets, like Isaiah, would tell us details about the coming Messiah, Jesus, who is the ultimate Covenant Prosecutor. Jesus came to announce to the world that our sin merits eternal punishment, yet, He would take that punishment on Himself on the cross. In doing so, He simultaneously pronounced covenant curses and blessings and ushered in the New Covenant.

Applying The Prophets

So, how does this affect the way we read the prophets? Here is an admittedly oversimplified, but faithful option. First, we look for the way Israel or Judah is transgressing the covenant. Second, we hear the judgment for that transgression on the original audience. Third, we pray that God would help us to see how we are guilty of the same transgression and deserving of God’s wrath. Fourth, we look to Jesus and, in deep awe and gratitude for His New Covenant, we celebrate the removal of the wrath we deserve and the gift of grace we don’t. Finally, we make any changes required in our life to honor our status in His New Covenant.

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