studies by the
Church of God (Seventh Day)
The Prophets Speak
VOICES FROM THE PAST: UNDERSTANDING THE PROPHETS
Curiosity Killed the Cat. Little four-year-old Mary was driving
her mother crazy with questions. All morning long it was, "Why
Mommy . . . but why Mommy . . . ?' By midday the exasperated
mother had reached her limit. Kindly, she looked down at Mary and
said, "Little girls shouldn't ask so many questions. After all,
it was curiosity that killed the cat. So, run along and play
now." Five minutes later, the mother felt a tug on her skirt. It
was Mary: "But, Mommy, what did the cat want to know?"
We humans are just naturally curious, and especially so when it
comes to the future. "What will tomorrow bring? Will I get that
promotion? What about college? Who will I marry? Is a recession
around the corner? Should I take an umbrella to work?" Perhaps
our need to know is driven by some basic instinct for survival or
to gain a sense of control or to ease our fears of the unknown.
Whatever the reasons, we are fascinated with the future, and for
Christians the ultimate future holds even greater allure. So,
naturally, we want to know the "when" and "how" of the end, and
in what ways our lives will be affected by last-day events. These
are legitimate questions, but they are our questions, and they
predispose us to approach the Bible with certain expectations.
FIRST, we expect that the questions we want answered are the very
same questions that the biblical writers have addressed.
SECOND, we expect that the purpose of the Old Testament prophets
was to predict the future.
THIRD, we expect that most Bible prophecy is still future and
that it's about us.
We're not the first generation to make these assumptions. Many
before us have done the same with unfortunate results, leaving a
sad trail of misinterpretations and failed predictions about
prophetic scenarios, timelines, and the date of Christ's return.
Even within the Church of God movement, we've seen our share of
misinterpretations, starting with the Great Disappointment of
1844. Therefore, if we're going to talk about understanding the
Old Testament prophets, we must start by clearing the air
concerning the purpose and nature of the prophetic writings.
Prophecy's primary purpose:
Today the common idea of a prophet is someone who foretells or
predicts the future. Therefore, it's generally assumed that the
main purpose of the biblical prophets was to predict events far
distant from their own day. But just how accurate is that
The biblical word prophet literally means "one who speaks forth."
In the Old Testament, the role of the prophet was to "speak
forth" to his contemporaries on behalf of Israel's God of the
covenant, Yahweh. And that's literally what they did: They spoke!
They delivered their messages to the people of their day in
person and orally. We call these oral messages oracles.
(True in the main, but not always so. Ezekiel was to speak to the
House of Israel but he never got out of the prison camp he was
in, and Jeremiah was to write things down because it was all to
happen again - Jer.30. Daniel was told things that were seal and
shut till the time of the end - Dan.12 - Keith Hunt).
Over the years, ancient Israel had hundreds of prophets. We read
about some of them in the narrative books of the Old Testament -
prophets like Samuel, Elijah, Elisha, Gad, Nathan, and Huldah.
The record tells us about them but does not preserve their
oracles to any great extent. However, in the 17 prophetic books
of the Old Testament, the situation is reversed. The oracles of
those prophets have been preserved, but not as much is said about
the prophets themselves.
It is precisely the spoken nature of these prophecies that causes
most of our difficulties in understanding them. The prophetic
books, especially the longer ones like Isaiah and Jeremiah, are
essentially a collection of the spoken oracles of a given
But here's the catch: ***The oracles are not always in
CHRONOLOGICAL order; their historical settings are not always
given; and it's not always clear where one oracle ends and
another begins. And, on top of that, they are presented in poetry
- in the form of Hebrew songs. It's like having an ancient
recording of the greatest hits of the prophets on a CD with a
randomly selected play list.***
In addition to the spoken nature of the prophetic message, we
must also understand its content. Yahweh had entered into a
covenant with the people of Israel through their first great
prophet, Moses. In Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28-32 the
children of Israel were promised blessings if they remained
faithful to the covenant but cursings if they did not. The
"blessings and the cursings" were the means by which Yahweh
enforced the covenant and held Israel accountable. This is where
the prophets come in. The "blessings and cursings" chapters are
the foundation of their message. They were Yahweh's covenant
enforcers, reminding Israel of the covenant law and the
consequences for obedience or disobedience. That's why so many of
the prophets were sent to the northern tribes of Israel. The
northern leaders and tribes had abandoned the worship of Yahweh
in favor of other gods. They were in clear violation of the
covenant, and the prophets called on them to repent and return or
else face punishment at the hand of Yahweh.
Thus, the core of the prophetic message was to point back to the
covenant, back to Sinai, rather than to point forward to the
distant future. Contrary to the common misconception, the
prophets were forth-tellers more than foretellers. The emphasis
was on speaking forth, with a "thus says the Lord" to instruct
Israel, much more than on foretelling or predicting the future.
To put this in perspective, over two-thirds of the prophetic
material is forthtelling. It is aimed at correcting a moral or
religious problem in ancient Israel, calling on the people to
repent and return to the covenant. Less than one-third involves
prediction, and most of that is aimed at ancient Israel and her
surrounding neighbors, not at the distant future. In fact, about
92 percent of all Old Testament prophecy (forth-telling and
foretelling combined) is aimed at the immediate historical
situation of ancient Israel. About seven percent points to the
Messiah and the new covenant age, and only one percent concerns
events still to come.
(This is where the Church of God (Seventh Day), and I part
company. I would STRONGLY DISAGREE with them in their above
paragraph. The prophecies were written INDEED TO TELL WHAT WILL
HAPPEN IN THE TIME OF THE END, ESPECIALLY IN THE LAST THREE AND
ONE HALF YEARS, DURING THE "DAY OF THE LORD" (probably about a
year in length) and events AT the COMING of the Messiah in power
and glory and events INTO the MILLENNIUM, or KINGDOM AGE - Keith
However, lest we be misunderstood, prediction does play an
important role. But here's how: The predictions were tied to the
forth-telling. The prophets warned that if the people did not
heed the forth-telling, then they could expect punishment, which
in Israel's case usually meant invasion and exile at the hands of
a foreign power, such as Assyria or Babylonia. In most cases,
however, the punishment was conditional upon Israel's response.
Sometimes the prophets extended their predictions concerning
Israel's punishment and exile. After the punishment had run its
course, Yahweh, still faithful to His part of the covenant, would
restore the nation. Also, the foreign powers that had invaded
Israel would themselves be destroyed. And to make the restoration
complete, a new king would be anointed to sit on the throne of
King David, thus reviving the golden age of Israel's past glory
and ushering in a kingdom of prosperity and peace.
(And that is PRECISELY what all the prophets are foretelling for
the future end times - the punishment of nations, starting with
God's people Israel AND Judah, which make up most of the Western
world, with the Middle Eastern nation called "Israel" in
Palestine, and then many other nations of the Eastern world. They
foretell RESTORATION, and the King of Kings sitting on the throne
of David in Jerusalem, to reign over the world for 1,000 years -
These predictions of punishment and restoration served several
specific purposes: 1) The predictions of punishment drove home
the prophet's call for repentance and illustrated the
consequences of Israel's unfaithfulness. 2) The predictions of
restoration encouraged and comforted the people during the course
of their punishment by giving them hope of a better day ahead. 3)
The predictions of destruction for the invading powers
demonstrated that Yahweh was a universal God, sovereign over all
nations, not just over Israel. 4) Overall, the predictions served
to strengthen the faith of the believing community as events
unfolded. But never were any predictions made for the purpose of
satisfying human curiosity about the future.
(Of course that is all true, but the word "curiosity" is not the
word, or not the point. The prophecies were given to tell people,
nations, things that will happen, before they happen, to give
warning and witness to those nations of their punishment IF they
DO NOT REPENT!! God has also promised that he will do nothing
unless He first reveals what He will do to His prophets - Amos
3:7 - Keith Hunt).
Genres of the prophetic writings:
The bulk of the prophetic genre is found in the 17 books of the
Old Testament, from Isaiah to Malachi. This material is home for
a variety of unique forms, some of which are listed below.
a spoken message by a prophet. This is a major category under
which fall the different varieties of speeches. Oracles are
everywhere. Example: Hosea 5.
an oracle in which the prophet presents Yahweh's case against an
individual or group for violating the terms of the covenant. As
the name suggests, it follows the pattern of a courtroom lawsuit.
There's a summons, a charge, the evidence, and a verdict.
Example: Isaiah 3:13-26.
an oracle that pronounces Yahweh's judgment on and individual or
group for a specific transgression. The structural pattern is as
follows: the prophet's commission to go and present the judgment;
the messenger formula ("Thus says the Lord," which indicates that
the prophet is not delivering his own words but representing
Yahweh); the accusation or transgression, and the judgment.
Example: 1 Kings 21:17-19.
a prediction of doom on an individual or group. The word woe was
cried out by ancient Israelites in the face of some distress,
like disaster or death. The structural pattern is an announcement
of distress, or "woe," the reason for the woe, and a prediction
of doom. Example: Micah 2:1-5.
Promise or salvation oracle:
an announcement of restoration for an individual or group. The
pattern is a reference to the future, a statement of radical
change, a statement of blessing. Example: Amos 9:11-15.
an oracle expressing sorrow or mourning; a funeral dirge. Example
the book of Lamentations, the prophet Jeremiah's acrostic funeral
dirge for the fallen city of Jerusalem.
Prophetic call or commissioning:
a narrative account of the call or commission that a prophet
received from God. The pattern is a confrontation with God, a
commissioning, an objection by the prophet, a reassurance to the
objection, and a sign. (This pattern is consistent throughout
Scripture, from the time of Moses to Gideon to Isaiah, even down
to Paul in the New Testament). The call usually comes at the
beginning of the prophet's career or writings. Pay careful
attention to the call because it reveals the prophet's mission
(to who and for what purpose), thus helping put what follows in
perspective and aid in its interpretation. Example: Jeremiah
a narrative account of an action performed by a
prophet to illustrate a point. Typically, the pattern is God's
command to perform action, a report of the action, and its
interpretation. Symbolic actions are special feature in Ezekiel.
Examples: Ezekiel 4, 5 and Jeremiah 19.
(For more information on the prophetic genres, consult the
recommend reading list in the back of this booklet.)
Ten do's and don'ts for interpreting prophecy:
1. Do understand prophecy's primary purpose. Think forth-telling
(No, I would say think BOTH, for that is why prophecy is
there...as Jesus said, for the time of the end, when all that was
written would be fulfilled, see Luke 21:20-24 - Keith Hunt).
2. Do recognize the elements of Hebrew poetry. All of the
prophetic books, except Haggai and Malachi, contain poetry, and
some are written almost entirely in poetry (e.g., Isaiah,
Jeremiah, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Micah, Habakkuk, and
Zephaniah). Therefore, the prophetic books are rich in
parallelism and figurative language. All the points about Hebrew
poetry (from Lesson 9) and figures of speech (from Lesson 7)
apply to the prophets.
(Maybe true but the main message, to whom it is given, for why
it is given, and for when it is given, comes through loud and
clear in the whole context, some times the context of the whole
book must be taken into account. As the saying goes, "History
repeats itself" - Keith Hunt).
3. Do recognize the historical and cultural context. Start by
paying attention to any historical information the prophets
themselves may give. It is also helpful to read the prophetic
books against the background provided by the historical books of
the Bible: Kings, Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah. These books
span the period of the prophets and describe the social,
political, and religious conditions that God called the prophets
(Yes, SOME parts of the prophetic massage may be ONLY for what
happened during the time, or shortly after the time, of the
original prophet, a ONE TIME only fulfilment. But the context may
also make it clear that there will be a fulfilment at the time of
the end, just before Jesus cames again. This I have covered in a
separate study called "Key to Understanding Prophecy" on this
Website - Keith Hunt).
4. Do recognize the literary context. Pay attention to the
progression of thought from verse to verse and passage to
passage. How does the prophet develop his point? And how does the
point relate to what goes before and after it? Also, because
prophetic oracles are presented in almost run-on fashion, it is
extremely important to pay attention to the five W's and to watch
out for sudden scene-shifts and unexpected changes in speakers.
From time to time it may be necessary to compare verses from one
prophet with another. But first, each verse must be understood
within its own context before it can be properly matched with a
similar verse from a like context. In other words, apples must be
matched only with apples and oranges with oranges. Don't force a
match that isn't there. Even if the words are similar, their
connotations and contexts may be different.
5. Do distinguish between unconditional and conditional
prophecies. Unconditional prophecies are those that God has taken
solely upon Himself to fulfil. No human involvement is required.
For that reason, the list of unconditional prophecies is
relatively short. Included in the list are God's covenant with
Abraham (Genesis 12:1-3); God's covenant with David (2 Samuel
7:12-16); God's promise of the new covenant (Jeremiah 31:31-34);
and God's promise of the new heavens and the new earth (Isaiah
In contrast, the vast majority of Bible prophecies are
conditional. Their fulfillment is contingent upon human response.
The "blessings and cursings" chapters in Leviticus 26 and
Deuteronomy 28 provide the foundation for conditional prophecy.
In these chapters, God promises blessings upon Israel if the
people obey the covenant commands, but punishment if they do not.
Jeremiah 18:5-10 and Ezekiel 33:12-16 also state the principle of
conditional prophecy. The easiest way to recognize conditional
prophecy is to look for the words if or unless in the wording.
Many times, however, these words will not be explicitly stated
but nonetheless implied. This has led many to mistake conditional
prophecies for unconditional ones. In such cases, if the response
to the prophecy can be an act of human choice (obedience,
repentance, or even defiance), then it is clearly conditional.
(But do not fall for the teaching that just about ALL prophecy
was "conditional upon Israel's obedience" hence as they did not
obey the prophecies have no bearing on anything, they are "done
away with" to put it succinctly. This is what the SDA church
teaches....that the books of prophecy in the Old Testament are
REDUNDANT today, as far as things that will come to pass. Such
ideas and teaching then lead ones like the SDA church to proclaim
the teaching of their "prophetess" E.G.White, who taught Jesus
would return, collect His saints, go back to heaven for the 1,000
years, while the earth would be a desolate burned out hunk of
wilderness, which only Satan would inhabit. Such a teaching I
have answered in other studies on this Website - Keith Hunt).
6. Don't be concerned with extra-biblical questions. The
questions we so often want answered are not always the pressing
concerns of the biblical writers. When we try to make prophetic
passages answer specific end-time questions that the biblical
writers do not address, we cloud prophetic interpretation
with our own concerns. The Bible simply leaves open many
questions about the end.
(Ah, but it also fill in many events, the main events of the last
three and one half years especially - Keith Hunt).
7. Don't expect every prophecy to be literal. Remember that much
of the language is figurative and symbolic. It's the message
behind the metaphor that counts.
(Metaphors may be used, but they are usually used to teach a
literal application of what will take place within or to a nation
or nations - Keith Hunt).
8. Don't read modern definitions or ideas into a prophet's words.
Let each biblical writer determine the meaning of his own words.
Don't put words in his mouth by introducing ideas that are
completely foreign to his life and times. That is not
interpretation but impersonation.
(Not sure what they mean by this, but we must of course realize
the prophet had to use terminology of his day in describing
things to take place two or three thousand years from his time.
We cannot or should not expect them to talk about "air to air
missiles" or "computer guided bunker bombs" - Keith Hunt).
9. Don't apply all predictive prophecy to the future and dismiss
its historical fulfillment. So much of what passes today as
prophetic interpretation is nothing more than making the Bible
fit the latest newspaper headlines. It's flattering to think that
the whole of Bible prophecy centers around us, that we will be
the special generation which lives to see the Lord return. But
every generation since the first century has thought it was the
To see almost every prophecy as a prediction of some event or
condition of our own day is to sever the prophetic message from
its historical roots. Remember that most Old Testament prophecy
involved forth-telling, not foretelling.
(No, remember that MOST of Old Testament prophecy involves BOTH
forth-telling and fore-telling - Keith Hunt).
10. Don't believe everything everyone says about the future. To
avoid being fooled: a) Put all prophetic claims and theories to
the test. b) Analyze the interpreter's hermeneutics. c) Avoid
theories based on fear and sensationalism rather than on faith
and Scripture. d) Keep your eyes on the big picture, a you won't
(True indeed that many have come and will come, who get a small
prophecy from the whole picture, and build a false theory around
it, with false prophetic teachings that end up putting egg on
their faces and all who follow them. Actually all the prophetic
OT books talk about the SAME basic events, some enlarge on
certain parts of those events, some put it in different picture
words, but when all is said and done, MOST of all the fore-
telling events FOR THE LAST DAYS, contained in the OT prophetic
books, are fore-telling events of the LAST THREE AND ONE HALF
YEARS of this age, with overall "sin transgressions" of people
and nations, leading up to those last three and one half years -
1. Genre identification. For each of the following texts, match
the verses to the corresponding components of the genre.
A. Prophetic call or commissioning - Jeremiah 1:4-10
1) Confrontation with God
3) Prophet's objection
4) Reassurance to objection
To whom was Jeremiah being sent? How does that play out in the
rest of the book?
What was his specific objection?
How did the Lord overcome his objection?
B. Judgment speech - 1 Kings 21:17-19 1) Prophet's commission
2) Messenger formula ("Thus says the Lord")
4) Messenger formula
What was the specific accusation against King Ahab? (See previous
verses in chapter 21 for larger context.)
C. Covenant lawsuit - Hosea 4:1-3
What type of figure of speech is used in connection with the
verdict in verse 3?
2. Hosea 5 contains an oracle announcing impending judgment on
Israel (Ephraim) and Judah.
A. Read Hosea 5:3-5. What is the nature of the harlotry that
Ephraim has committed? Is it literal or figurative? Describe the
Although the covenant between Yahweh and Israel is not
specifically mentioned in the passage, what does the accusation
of harlotry imply about Ephraim's faithfulness to the covenant?
How is Hosea being a "covenant enforcer" in this passage?
B. Read Hosea 5:13-15. What is the "sickness" and "wound" that
Ephraim and Judah have?
What judgment will come upon them? How is it described in terms
of the figure of speech that is used, and what does that mean in
real terms? Who is the "I" in the passage?
3. Some have interpreted Nahum 2:4 as a prediction of the modern
automobile and traffic jams. Also, Daniel 12:4 has been
interpreted as a prediction of the speed and extent to which
people now travel the globe (via jet plane and of the great
explosion in scientific knowledge that marks our modern era.
Are these legitimate interpretations? Why or why not? Depending
on your answer, what principles are being either followed or
ignored to achieve these interpretations?
How may Amos 8:11,12 help us understand Daniel 12:4?
4. Read Jeremiah 18:7-11. How does this text provide a guiding
principle for understanding conditional prophecy?
TO BE CONTINUED
A key to understanding Old Testament prophetic books is knowing
who the prophets are speaking to, who the nations mentioned are
TODAY. For all the nitty-gritty in-depth information on that side
of the question I recommend to you the following Website: