Interpreting Prophecy

Prophecy was that institution ordained by God as a gift for Israel, whereby God graciously undertook to convey His message to Israel through men, such as Moses, Elijah, Isaiah and Hosea, and occasionally women, such as Deborah, Huldah and Anna. When we speak of the form of prophecy in the Bible, we are talking about the books from Isaiah to Malachi, with some prophecies incorporated into the historical books.

A. Basic Forms

1. Accounts
Most of the prophets have accounts: e.g. Amos 7; Samuel and Kings contain accounts concerning prophets (e.g. 1 Kings 13-14); Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah and Malachi have no accounts. Jonah is essentially a narrative with a very brief prophecy: “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown” (Jon. 3:4).
2. Prophetic speeches
This is the most basic form in the prophetic writings whether longer or shorter oracles: e.g. Isa. 1.
3. Prayers: e.g. Jer. 11, Jer. 15, Jer. 17, Jer. 18, Jer. 20.
Note: Amos: good combination of three:

1) Amos 7:10-17;
2) almost everything else;
3) Amos 4:13; Amos 5:8-9; Amos 9:5-6

This combination mirrors the division of the OT: Historical books, prophetic speech and Psalter.
The significance is that the Word of God is the prophetic Word.

a. Kept in historical narratives (Samuel – Kings)
b. Books by themselves (Amos – Hosea through Ezekiel – Daniel)
c. Praise to God for prophetic word (cf. Psalm 119)

B. Messenger Speech

1. Form
Example of messenger speech outside prophetic corpus: Gen. 32:3-5: Jacob sends message to Esau

a. Report of sending
b. Addressee
c. Place
d. Introduction to commission
e. Commission
f. Messenger Formula
g. Messenger’s speech

2. Note: basically three events:


Cf. 2 Kings 18:28; Gen. 45:9; Num. 22:5,15; 2 Kings 18:19-35; unique case of Judg. 11:12ff.; cf. Jer. 2:5

3. Significance

The prophet is a messenger from the throneroom of God
The prophecy is a message from the throneroom of God
To reject it is to reject God.

C. Specific Forms

1. Judgment Oracle: An announcement of judgment for certain sins

Cf. Amos 7:16-17; 1 Kings 21:18-19; 2 Kings 1:2-4; Exo. 4:21-23; 1 Sam. 2:17-36; 1 Sam. 3:11-14; 1 Sam. 13:11-14; 1 Sam. 15:10-31; 2 Sam 12; 1 Kings 11:29-40; 1 Kings 13:1-3; 1 Kings 14:7-14; 1 Kings 17:1; 1 Kings 20:35-43; 1 Kings 21:17-22; 1 Kings 22:13-23; 2 Kings 1:6; 2 Kings 1:16; 2 Kings 20:14-19; 2 Kings 21:10-15

2. Cry of Woe: (hoy): Introduces accusation after which announcement; Isa. 5; Isa. 28-33; Hab. 2; Nah. 3

3. Legal Procedure: A whole controversy or court case against the people: (rib): Isa. 1:18-20; Isa. 3:13-15; Isa. 5:1-7; Micah 6:1-5; Hos. 2:4-17; Hos. 4:1-6; Hos. 5:3-15; Jer. 2:5ff; Jer. 25:31; Mal. 3:5. A dramatic description of what is happening in every other judgment oracle. In the legal procedure God speaks as the judge directly and without any introduction: Hos. 4:1-3

4. The Disputation: Like (3), but more of an interchange where arguments are specifically addressed. Micah 2:6-11; Isa. 28:23-29; Jer. 3:1-5; Jer. 2:23-25; Jer. 2:29f, Jer. 2:34f; Jer. 8:8-9; Amos 3:2; Amos 3:12; Amos 5:18-20; Amos 5:24f; Isa. 41:1ff; Isa. 43:8ff.

5. Parable: A verbal picture, sometimes a story, to bring the truth home with force. Isa. 5:17; 2 Sam. 12; Jer. 13:12-14; Hos. 1; Hos. 3; Eze. 4:1-3; Jer. 16:1-12

6. Lament: A poetic composition lamenting the judgment that has come or is coming. Amos 5:1-3; Isa. 1:2-3; Jer. 9:16-21; Jer. 2:31f; Jer. 12:7-13; Jer. 15:5-9; Jer. 16:1-12

7. Prophetic Torah: More of a sermon to guide or teach, for example, repentance, or holiness. Isa. 1:10-17; Isa. 8:11-15; Jer. 7:21; Amos 5:21-24

8. Oracles against foreign nations: Essentially (1) but directed to foreign nations to show that God commands and directs not only Israel, but all the nations: Amos 1-2; Isa. 7-8; Isa. 10:5-15; Isa. 10:24-27

9. Oracle of Salvation: Poetic compositions that exalt the salvation of God. Amos 9:11-15; Hos. 14:4-8; Isaiah 55. Often incorporating Messianic Prophecies: e.g., Isa. 9:6-7; Isa. 11:1-12

D. The Judgment Speech

1. Form

a. Commissioning of messenger
b. Summons to hear
c. Accusation
d. Messenger formula
e. Announcement

Cf. Amos 7:16-17; 1 Kings 21:18-19; 2 Kings 1:2-4; Exo. 4:21-23; 1 Sam. 2:17-36; 1 Sam. 3:11-14; 1 Sam. 13:11-14; 1 Sam. 15:10-31; 2 Sam. 12; 1 Kings 11:29-40; 1 Kings 13:1-3; 1 Kings 14:7-14; 1 Kings 17:1; 1 Kings 20:35-43; 1 Kings 21:17-22; 1 Kings 22:13-23; 2 Kings 1:6-16; 2 Kings 20:14-19; 2 Kings 21:10-15

Note: Relationship to covenant: the prophets were guardians of the covenant
2. Examples

a. Introduction Amos 7:16; 2 Kings 20:16; Jer. 28:15; Isa. 7:13

b. Accusation 1 Kings 21:18; Isa. 7:13; 1 Sam. 2:29; 2 Sam. 12:9a; Isa. 22:16; Isa. 37:23-29; Jer. 22:15-17

c. Declaration 2 Sam. 12:9b; 1 Kings 14:9; Amos 7:16; Jer. 28:13, Jer. 28:15

d. Announcement

i. Death as punishment: 1 Kings 21:29; 2 Kings 1:6; 1 Kings 20:42; Jer. 28:16; Jer. 29:21; Eze. 17:16
ii. Dispossession of the Kingdom: 1 Sam. 13:14; 1 Sam. 15:28; 1 Kings 11:31

3. Expansions

a. Of accusation

i. Against earlier deliverances from God: Amos 2:6-16; Amos 2:9-11 expansion; Hos. 9:10-13; Isa. 5:1-7; Jer. 2:1-13; Micah 6:1-4; Eze. 16:20;
ii. Against earlier warnings: Amos 4:6-11;
iii. With reproaches and warnings: Amos 5:6, Amos 5:14-15; Isa. 1:17
iv. With calls to repentance: Isa. 1:18

b. Expansions of announcement: Isa. 3:1-8

c. Dramatic description of approach of enemy: Isa 10:28-32

E. Parallelism

1. Synonymous: The same sense is expressed in different but equivalent terms

Isa. 41:22: “Produce your cause, saith the Lord
Bring forth your strong reasons, saith the King of Jacob.”

2. Antithetic: Two lines correspond with one another by an opposition of terms and sentiments

Isa. 40:4: “Every valley shall be exalted
And every mountain and hill shall be made low.”

3. Chiastic: The order of terms in the first line is reversed in the second

Jer. 4:5a: “Declare ye in Judah, and in Jerusalem publish”

4. Staircase: A step like pattern in which some elements from the first line are repeated verbatim and others are added to complete the thought

Judg. 5:12: “Awake, awake, Deborah
Awake, awake, utter a song.”

5. Emblematic: A simile or metaphor forms one of the lines

Jer. 2:26: “As the thief is ashamed when he is found
So is the house of Israel ashamed.”

6. Specifying: The second line gives greater detail on item from first line

Isa. 45:1: “Thus saith the Lord to his anointed
To Cyrus, whose right hand I have holden.”
Isa. 44:10: “Who hath formed a god
Or molten a grave image that is profitable for nothing?”

7. Intensifying: The second line gives more intense picture of the first line

Isa. 14:14: “I will ascend above the heights of the clouds
I will be like the most High.”

8. Synthetic: The second line complements rather than parallels

Isa. 30:21: “And thine ears shall hear a word behind thee, saying
This is the way, walk ye in it.”
Isa. 38:20: “The Lord was ready to save me
Therefore we will sing my songs to the stringed instruments.”

F. Special Features of Parallelism

1. Word pairs: Fixed word pairs used in separate lines, such as heaven and earth, day and night, horse and chariot, father and mother

Jer. 48:46: “For thy sons are taken captives, and thy daughters captives.”
Isa. 3:8a: “For Jerusalem is ruined, and Judah is fallen.”
Eze. 16:3: “Thy father was an Amorite, and thy mother an Hittite.”
Isa. 44:23: “Sing, O ye heavens, for the Lord hath done it: shout, ye lower parts of the earth.”

2. Numerical: X // X+1

Amos 1:6: “For three transgressions of Gaza, and for four, I will not turn away the punishment thereof.”

3. Difference in tense: Variation between past, present, future

Mic. 6:2b: “For the Lord hath a controversy with his people, and he will plead with Israel.”
Isa. 60:16: “Thou shalt also suck the milk of the Gentiles, and shalt suck the breast of kings.”

4. Difference in number

Isa. 66:8: “Who hath heard such a thing? Who hath seen such things?”
Hos. 5:5b: “Israel and Ephraim shall fall in their iniquity, Judah also shall fall with them.”
Isa. 44:26: “That confirmeth the word of his servant, and performeth the counsel of his messengers.”

5. Difference in Morphology

a. Noun and pronoun:

b. Noun and relative clause:

Lam. 5:1: “Remember O Lord, what is come upon us; consider and behold our reproach.”

c. Prepositional phrase and adverb:

Isa. 52:3: “Ye have sold yourselves for nought; and ye shall be redeemed without money.”

d. Noun and verb:

Lam. 5:19: “Thou, O Lord, remained for ever; thy throne from generation to generation.”

e. Different conjugation:

Isa. 1:19-20; Isa. 33:1; Isa. 66:13; Jer. 20:14; Jer. 23:19; Hos. 12:13-14; Mic. 6:14b

f. Difference in mood:

Isa. 44:8: “Is there a God beside me? Yea, there is no God; I know not any.”
Mic. 6:1: “Arise, contend thou before the mountains, and let the hills hear thy voice.”

G. Other Specific Features of Poetry

1. Repetition: Isa. 40:1: “Comfort ye, comfort ye.” Also Isa. 51:9-11; Isa. 51:17-20; Isa. 52:1-2

2. Acrostic: Lam. 1 is an acrostic chapter; Lam. 2 is acrostic with transposition, etc.; Lam. 3: 66 verses: 3x A; 3x B etc.; Lam. 4: also transposition

3. Anaphora: several consecutive lines may begin with same word or phrase: Ps. 150; Jer. 4:23-26: “I beheld.”; Jer. 50:20-23: “a sword.”; Hos. 3:4

4. Epistrophe: consecutive lines end with same word: Isa. 40:13-14; Joel 2:26-27: “And my people shall never be ashamed.”

5. Anadiplosis: the last word or phrase of a line is repeated at beginning of next: Ps. 96:13; Ps. 84:4b-5; Luke 12:5

6. Chiasm: reverse patterning: Isa. 5:20; Isa. 40:30-31

7. Sound patterning: share phonemes: Isa. 5:7; justice – injustice; equity – iniquity

Significance: The prophets used speech and speech devices to the full to grab people’s attention, while never leaving the terrain of messenger speech, and never losing reverent speaking of God and earnest speaking to the people.

H. Figurative Representation

1. Metonymy of cause and effect: cause is put for effect or vice versa

Isa. 49:6: “That thou mayest be my salvation unto the end of the earth” (the Savior whom I have sent)
Metonymy of subject and adjunct: subject is placed for adjunct or vice versa
Isa. 41:1: “Keep silence before me, O islands” (O inhabitants of the islands)
Jer. 3:23: “Truly in vain is salvation hoped for from the Hills and from the multitude of mountains” (where the idols were)
Isa. 23:1: “Howl, ye ships of Tarshish” (sailors)
Metonymy of sign and thing signified
Jer. 47:5: “Baldness if come upon Gaza” (grief, from the practice of shaving the head in grief)
Eze. 7:27: “The prince shall be clothed with desolation” (garments of desolation)

2. Synecdoche: whole is put for the part, a part for the whole

Lam. 3:23: “The Lord’s mercies and compassions are ‘new every morning,’ always and continually new
Isa. 52:7: “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings”
Isa. 35:10: “with songs, and everlasting joy upon their heads” (upon themselves)

3. Personification: things represented as persons, collectives represented as person

Hab. 3:10: “Mountains saw thee and they trembled”
Isa. 3:26: “Her gates shall lament and mourn”
Isa. 24:23: “Then the moon shall be confounded, and the sun ashamed”
Isa. 1:5-6: “Why should ye be stricken any more? Ye will revolt more and more: the whole head is sick, and the whole heart faint. From the sole of the foot even unto the head there is no soundness in it: but wounds, and bruises, and putrifying sores” Nation represented as person

4. Apostrophe: turning aside from the direct subject matter to address others

Joel 2:22: “Be ye not afraid, ye beasts of the field”
Jer. 47:6: “O thou sword of the Lord, how long will it be ere thou be quiet?”
Hos. 13:14: “O death, I will be thy plagues; O grave, I will be thy destruction”
Zech. 11:1: “Open thy doors, O Libanon”

5. Hyperbole: clear instances of exaggeration (be careful to apply discreetly: the text should force this conclusion)

Jer. 9:1: “Would that my head were waters and y eyes a fountain of tears”
Lam. 2:11: “My liver is poured upon the earth”
Jer. 51:9: “Her judgment reacheth unto heaven, and is lifted up even to the skies”

6. Simile: formal comparison between two different objects

Isa. 55:10-11: “For as the rain and the snow come down from the heavens, and returneth not thither, but watereth the earth, and maketh it bring forth and bud, that it may give seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be…”
Jer. 23:29: “Is not my word like a fire? saith the Lord; and like a hammer that breaketh the rock in pieces?”
Multiple similes
Isa. 1:8: “The daughter of Zion is left as a cottage in a vineyard, as a lodge in a garden of cucumbers, as a besieged city”
Isa. 1:30: “For ye shall be as an oak whose leaf fadeth, and as a garden that hath no water”
Isa. 29:8: “It shall even be as when an hungry man dreameth, and behold, he eateth; but he awaketh, and his soul is empty; or as when a thirsty man dreameth, and behold, he drinketh, and behold, he is faint, and his soul hath appetite: so shall the multitude of all the nations be, that fight against mount Zion.”

7. Metaphor: the implied comparison

Jer. 2:13: “They have forsaken me the fountain of living waters, and hewed them out cisterns, that can hold no water”
Jer. 2:23: “Thou art a swift dromedary traversing her ways, a wild ass used to the wilderness”
Isa 40:6: “All flesh is grass”

8. Symbols
Definition: Greek: symballe = a throwing together. Some object while to be understood literally, has a different meaning assigned for the purpose of depicting, while some resemblance, more or less minute, is traceable between the thing symbolized and the symbol. Ahijah’s rending his garment a symbol of the rupture of the kingdom. A symbol is closely related to a metonymy, simile, and metaphor. Israel is like a barren fig-tree (simile); Judah is an olive-tree (metaphor). The two olive-trees are symbols of Zerubbabel and Joshua.

I. Conclusion

  1. The prophets were messengers from the court of heaven, who didn’t apologize for speaking, but had a burden to speak.
  2. The prophets had to be faithful in what they announced, not wavering at all from what God told them.
  3. The prophets usually started with a lot judgment based on the covenant, but they also included oracles of salvation and mercy, uses connected with the coming of Messiah,
  4. The prophets used language to the fullest extent to get through people’s ears into people’s hearts.
  5. To appreciate the substance of the prophets, you need to look at what the style of the prophets serves!