Reading through the prophets in the Bible is a wonderfully rewarding experience. The richness and depth of the material, the call to return to God and live in holiness, the reminders of God’s great love and faithfulness, the glorious hope held out for the future all make this part of the Bible a profitable place to plunge. But it can be confusing. The images are strange, the terminology unusual and sometimes it seems so far away from Christian experience. How can we make the most of this part of Scripture?
One important step is to put the prophet in context. This needs to be done in two different ways. One is the historical context. Often the book will open by doing exactly that. Various kings or rulers will be mentioned at the very start of the book. Take, for example, the book of Amos:
The words of Amos, one of the shepherds of Tekoa– what he saw concerning Israel two years before the earthquake, when Uzziah was king of Judah and Jeroboam son of Jehoash was king of Israel. (Amos 1:1)
Straight away we notice two rulers: Uzziah, king of Judah and Jeroboam, king of Israel. Armed with this information we can go to 2 Kings 14:23-15:7 (Uzziah’s other name was Azariah). Often a good cross-reference Bible will tip you off to where to look to find out background information in the historical books.
Not only should we put the prophets in their historical context, but also in their place in the big unfolding story of the Bible. Most of the prophets fit between the reign of Solomon and the end of the Old Testament. But there is a significant landmark to pay attention to in order to understand the significance of their place in the Bible’s big story. That landmark is the exile. In the exile Judah lost almost everything it meant to be Judah. They lost their homeland, their city, their temple, their king. All they had left in the exile was God’s word, and so the prophets became even more important to them, and we see in the prophets an elevation of their words, ideas and promises beyond anything that had been given to date. The return from exile did not deliver the fulfillment to these promises, nor did it see the moral transformation of Judah, and so we see the prophets writing after the return, calling Judah continually back to obedience as well as painting promises still forward into the future. Pay attention to where the prophet sits in reference to the exile.
This diagram (from Graeme Goldsworthy’s excellent book Gospel and Kingdom) gives you an indication of where some of the prophets fit in the Bible’s story line. You may find it useful to plot the prophet that you’re reading on the diagram. When did they speak? Who was their audience? Where do they fit on the timeline? Where do they fit in relation to the exile?
Finally, read the prophet through the lens of Jesus. The New Testament teaches us how to read the Old Testament. Peter tells us that all the prophets were looking forward to Jesus:
Indeed, all the prophets from Samuel on, as many as have spoken, have foretold these days. (Acts 3:24)
Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow. It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. Even angels long to look into these things. (1 Peter 1:10-12)
Reading the prophets can be harder work than some other parts of the Bible, but the effort will reward you with great profit.