Session 9 | Understanding the Prophets

➡ Average Reading Time: 9 minutesUnderstanding the Prophets

Learning Objectives

When you finish this session, you should be able to:
  • Understand that the prophets’ main message was for their contemporary hearers
  • Understand that the prophets were Covenant messengers
  • Know the importance of context
  • Identify the two main forms of prophetic speeches
  • Understand the cautions concerning applying prophecy

Session Preview

This session will focus on the discussion of prophecy in the following areas. First, we will overview prophecy and prophets. Then, we will look at how prophecy functions. Next, we will consider how context, wider and specific, helps us interpret prophetic speeches. Then, we will discuss the two major forms of prophetic oracles: lawsuits and woes. Finally, we will caution students concerning applying prophecy.

Where We Are Going

The Prophets: Covenant Spokesmen
Prophecy’s Function
Corporate Blessings
Corporate Punishment
Some Interpretive Considerations
The Wider Context
The Specific Context
Some Application Considerations
Caution Concerning Foretelling the Future
Caution Concerning a Fuller Meaning
Orthodoxy and Orthopraxy


The Prophets: Covenant Spokesperson

The message of God was given by God’s spokesperson for their contemporary audiences.

The largest number of First Testament books comes under this genre. They are usually identified under two captions: Major and Minor Prophets. These terms only address the size of the book. They do not address the importance of the book. The major function of the prophet was to speak for God to his own contemporaries. They were covenant spokespersons. God had made a covenant with Israel, and the prophets were God’s reminders in the generations after Moses, that when they kept the covenant, the blessing would result, and when they broke the covenant, the punishment would be given.

Here are some statistics about the prophetic books to consider. Approximately two percent of all First Testament prophecy is foretelling about the coming Messiah. Approximately five percent deals directly with the New Covenant age, and less than one percent predicts events yet to occur. The remaining ninety-two percent addresses the problems of the contemporaries of the prophet whom he was addressing. [ref] Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 182. [/ref]

There are many different forms in which the prophetic occurred. Each form must be interpreted differently. They are judgment speeches, a blessing of delivery, woe oracles, symbolic actions, and legal or trial oracles. They are expressed in poetry. Some are set in the form of wisdom thinking, while others are apocalyptic.

Today, the prophetical books are often abused because we read them like a newspaper. We quote them frequently in relation to world events. These activities are based on the assumption that the prophetic words were written today only and not for the ancient world in which the prophet spoke. The newspaper approach to reading the prophets is a post-1948 phenomenon. It took form after Israel became a nation. It is a subjective approach. We must learn to think about these books from a different perspective.

These books are often the most difficult to read and understand. For the most part, this is due to our misunderstanding of the way in which they function and the form in which they are presented.

When coming to the prophetical books, we have difficulty in understanding because of the presuppositions we hold concerning prophecy. The sources of information we use to help us define prophecy and the way the word prophecy is used most frequently in modern times, lead us to believe that prophecy is the prediction of things that have not yet occurred.

With this definition in mind, we as Second Testament believers read back our understanding of the Second Testament and see the Prophets as foretellers about Second Testament events, centering around the Second Coming of Jesus and other future events yet to occur.

We often believe that the events of the distant future were the main concern of those prophesying in Israel during the prophetical period.

The First Testament prophets did predict the future, but it was the immediate future of Israel or Judah along with other nations for which God had a message. A key to looking at the First Testament prophets and their fulfillment is to realize that we are looking back upon times, which for them were still future, but for us are past.

Their major function was to speak for God to their own contemporaries. They spoke to God’s children concerning the covenant. Their focus was to encourage compliance with the covenant.

The earliest name for a prophet was seer (1 Sam. 9.9). The word meant one who sees in a vision. Other terms for the prophets include “man of God,” “watchman,” “messenger of God,” and “man of the Spirit.” These terms describe the activities of the First Testament prophet.

One of the disadvantages we have today is that we can not hear how the prophets sounded when they gave their message.

The biblical prophet was certain that he had been called. In some of the prophetical books, the details of the call of the prophet are done with considerable detail. These calls were individual events (Isa. 6.1-13; Jer. 1.4-10; Ezek. 1.1-3; Hos. 1.2-9; 8.1-5; Amos 3.1-8; 7.12-15).

Moses is taken as the prototype of prophets (Ex.4.16ff., Deut. 18.18). As Moses spoke to Aaron, so God spoke to the prophets.

Only a few prophets of Israel that spoke a message from God had their words collected and written into books. There are other prophets who had great influence in Israel but did not have their prophecies recorded in a book under their names. Elijah and Elisha are examples. We know more about what they did than what they said. What they did say was placed within the historical context of what they did.

The narrative books of Samuel and Kings tell us more about the prophets, while the prophetical books tell us what the prophets said.

The problem of historical context is difficult to solve by just reading Scripture (if possible at all). The historical distance presents the modern reader with difficulty. Things that were clear to them are often quite muddy to us. Remember, the speaker’s audience had several advantages that we, as modern readers, do not have. Part of the solution is to have a good Bible dictionary, some good commentaries, and handbooks.

Prophecy’s Function

A clear understanding of the function or role of a prophet in Israel will greatly increase our understanding of these books.

They were covenant spokespersons. God made a covenant with Israel. The prophets were God’s reminder in the generations after Moses that when Israel kept the covenant, the blessing would result, and when Israel broke the covenant, the punishment would be given. Leviticus 26.1-39; Deuteronomy 4.15-28, 32-40; 28.1-32.42 provide for us the places where these blessings and punishments are described. The prophets did not invent these blessings and punishments; they only announced them. Taking time to familiarize yourself with these chapters will reward you with a better understanding of the Prophets.

With a worldview that his highly individual, we must remember that these blessings and punishments delivered by the prophets were corporate. They may be seen under the following headings:

Corporate Blessings

There are six general categories: life, health, prosperity, agricultural abundance, respect, and safety (Illustration: Amos 9.11-15).

Corporate Punishment

There are ten general headings: disgrace, destitution, deportation, defeat, destruction, danger, death, drought, disease, and death (Illustration: Hosea 8.14; 9.3). Again, these are always corporate, referring to the whole nation of Israel.

The prophets spoke God’s message, not their own. They were not social reformers! They were not innovative thinkers! They were messengers with a message from God. They did not speak or act independently. They spoke a message which was not original. They presented the central message of the covenant blessings or punishments (Hosea 4.2).

Some Interpretive Considerations


| The Wider Context

Most of the prophetical books come to us from a narrow strip of the history of Israel, from Amos (ca. 760 B.C.) to Malachi (ca.460 B.C.). These years were characterized by the following things:

  • Political, economic, social, and military upheaval
  • Religious unfaithfulness by disregarding the covenant
  • Shifts in populations
| The Specific Context

This is where the outside help of dictionaries, commentaries, and handbooks are invaluable. Knowing a few facts makes a great deal of difference in one’s ability to know what the prophet is saying. There are four things to take into account:

  • The date
  • The audience
  • The situation
  • The oracles or speeches

The first thing one must do when interpreting the prophets is to learn to think oracles or speeches. This is not unlike thinking paragraphs. It is not an easy task.

Some books internally help us with this. In the books of Haggai and some of the early chapters of Zechariah, the prophecies are dated (Haggai 1.1, 2.1, 2.10, 2.20; Zechariah 1.1; 1.7).

Others do not provide this internal help. Again, this is where outside sources can help one make these decisions.

It is generally agreed that Amos 5 presents three different oracles.

  • Verses 1-3 form a lament oracle announcing punishment.
  • Verses 4-17 contains an oracle of invitation to blessing and warning of punishment.
  • Verses 19-27 forms a single oracle which warns of punishment.


Scripture is made up of many kinds of literature. Prophecy is one of these genres of literature. Within prophecy, there are many forms. Understanding the form will enlighten us toward understanding the message.

There are two common forms:


This form shows God as the plaintiff, prosecuting attorney, judge, and executor in a court situation. A full lawsuit form will contain a summons, a charge, evidence, and a verdict. Sometimes these are implied rather than stated. Isaiah 3.13-26 is such a form.

  • Court convenes (vv. 13-14a)
  • Accusation made (vv. 14b-16)
  • Evidence demonstrated guilt and judgment announced (17-26).

Covenant has been violated, and punishment will come upon Israel’s women and men by disease, destitution, deprivation, and death.

Micah 6.1-5 is another example:

Call to Listen

Listen to what the LORD says:

 Summons to trial

“Stand up, plead my case before the mountains;
let the hills hear what you have to say.

“Hear, you mountains, the Lord’s accusation;
listen, you everlasting foundations of the earth.


Lord has a case against his people;
he is lodging a charge against Israel.

God’s Testimony

Lord has a case against his people;
he is lodging a charge against Israel.


I brought you up out of Egypt
and redeemed you from the land of slavery.
I sent Moses to lead you,
also Aaron and Miriam.
My people, remember
>what Balak king of Moab plotted
and what Balaam son of Beor answered.
Remember your journey from Shittim to Gilgal,
that you may know the righteous acts of the Lord.”

As an interpreter, you must decide what purpose each lawsuit serves. Does it level charges? Does it provide evidence to prove guilt? Does it announce a verdict? Does it impose a sentence?


Woe was the word that Israel used when faced with disaster or death or when they mourned at a funeral. Woe oracles contain either explicitly or implicitly three elements which no Israelite could miss because of the significance of the use of the word. They are

  • Announcement
  • Reason
  • Prediction

Habakkuk 2.6-8 is a woe oracle spoken against the nation of Babylon. Babylon is seen as a thief (reason), and woe is announced with a prediction of disaster.

Another example is Micah 2.1-5:

Announcement of Woe
Woe to those who plan iniquity,
to those who plot evil on their beds!


Basic Statement
At morning’s light they carry it out
because it is in their power to do it.

They covet fields and seize them,
and houses, and take them.
They defraud people of their homes,
they rob them of their inheritance.

Message Formula
Therefore, the Lord says:

“I am planning disaster against this people,
from which you cannot save yourselves.
You will no longer walk proudly,
for it will be a time of calamity.
In that day people will ridicule you;
they will taunt you with this mournful song:
‘We are utterly ruined;
my people’s possession is divided up.
He takes it from me!
He assigns our fields to traitors.’”

Therefore you will have no one in the assembly of the Lord
to divide the land by lot.

Micah describes the ones doomed by their crimes and predicts their disaster.

These woe speeches resemble the lament for a murder victim in which the lament condemns and provides an expression of outrage toward the killer. If this is the case, we must hear these woe speeches as expressions of prophetic outrage at the breaking of the covenant which they condemn.

Some Application Considerations

Caution concerning foretelling the future

We have suggested to you that the First Testament prophets’ primary task was not to predict future events. To see most of these prophecies fulfilled, we must look back to a time that was future for them and past for us. Thus, the future they did predict is past history for us. There are times when the temporal meaning is to be seen in the light of the eternal plan of God. [ref] Illustration: two plates. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read … (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 182. [/ref]

Caution concerning a fuller meaning

There are a number of places in the Second Testament where First Testament passages appear to have a different meaning than in their original setting in the First Testament (1 Cor. 10.1ff; Num. 20.1-13). The meaning, which Paul gives to this passage, is called sensus plenior. Note: Would we, as modern readers have noticed the same analogy that Paul did? Would we on our own be able, with any degree of certainty to determine this fuller meaning? The writers had one thing going for them that we do not have. They were inspired. A fuller meaning appears to be a function of inspiration, not illumination. Inspiration is the original motivation to record Scripture. Illumination is the insight to understand what the authors of Scripture wrote.

| Orthodoxy and Orthopraxy

Orthodoxy is correct belief while orthopraxy is correct practice. The prophets called God’s children to a balance between correct belief and correct practice of those beliefs. Our responsibility is the same today.

Community Discussion Questions

➡ |CDQ Info|

  • How has the newspaper approach to reading and understanding affected your interpretation of First Testament prophecy?
  • How does not being able to hear a prophetic word affect the way you read and understand prophecy?
  • Is it important to know what a prophet sounded like? Why or Why not?
  • Do the categories to which the prophets prophesy appear to be eschatological or practical?
  • Why should you have your orthodoxy and orthopraxy balanced?
  • What happens when they are not balanced?

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Jesus Followers


There are many synonyms to use for the word believer, which is the most common word for a person who has "converted" to follow Jesus. I have chosen "Jesus follower(s) or follower(s) of Jesus instead of the word believer in these presentations to allow the reader an opportunity to move away from the idea of believer which conjures up the possible thought of "ascent" to a set of doctrines that have been assembled by different groups over the centuries and show up in this day and age as a set of statements posted on web sites and other written material. These sets of beliefs are suggested by many as the ones that one should ascent to so that upon death the one who assents can go to heaven, i.e., just believe and you are good to go. Jesus followers/followers of Jesus suggest an action that one should take. Remember, Jesus told his disciples to follow him. Yes, belief is important, but one must move beyond belief to action.


(See "Discipleship" Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. 182-188.)