Prophetic Books Overview: Threat and Promise

Introduction

The Hebrew Bible classifies Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings as “The Former Prophets.” Although they are “historical narratives” they approach history from a prophetic viewpoint. Jewish tradition also held that the authors of these books were prophets.
The next classification in the Hebrew Bible is the “Latter Prophets.” This section is divided into the Major Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel), and the twelve Minor Prophets. Daniel and Lamentations were classified with “The Writings.”
The Latter Prophets do not contain everything that was ever uttered by biblical prophets. There were a considerable number of prophets who spoke to Israel but, although their messages are alluded to in the historical books, their words were not preserved in writing. They have been called the “oral prophets” and include Shemaiah, Ahijah, Elijah, Micaiah, Elisha, Oded, and many others.

In most cases their manifestos were addressed largely to contemporary crises in the life of Israel and did not have a permanent significance for coming generations in the same sense and to the same degree as did the writings of the prophetic canon. But where a revelation of God contained information relevant to the succeeding ages, the Holy Spirit inspired the authors to commit their messages to writing. These, then, are the documents which have been preserved to us as the Major and Minor Prophets.[footnote]G L Archer, A Survey of Old Testament Introduction (Chicago: Moody Press, 1998), Electronic Edition.[/footnote]

 

I. Authors

Unlike most of the other Old Testament books the prophetic books are attributed to individual prophets. We will consider each prophet in the relevant lectures
 

II. Dates

Unlike the Poetic books, most of the prophetic books have superscriptions which date and place the prophet’s ministry. Even where there is no superscription, the historical setting can often be suggested by the contents of the book. The dates of composition will also be examined in the relevant lectures. However, it is important to note the possibility that while the prophecies and events are accurately recorded, the composition of the book may have taken place at a later date and even in another place.
 

III. Historical Analysis

1. Early writing prophets

There are complicated debates concerning the dating of many of the prophetic books. Two of the most hotly debated are Obadiah and Joel. We shall follow the traditional early dating of these books and supporting arguments will be given in the relevant lectures.

Prophet Date Bible period Audience Message
Obadiah 845 BC 2 Ki. 8:20-22 Edom Destruction of Edom
Joel 830-820 BC 2 Ki. 11:4ff Judah Destruction of Jerusalem
Hope for restoration

2. The Assyrian Judgment (734-701 BC)

734 BC Syrian-Israelite coalition Isa. 7
722 BC Fall of Samaria and exile 2 Ki. 17
701 BC Sennacherib invasion of Judah 2 Ki. 18-19

During the 8th century BC the Assyrian Empire rose to become the dominant power in the ancient Near East. God used the Assyrian armies to judge His people for their long-standing disobedience.

In 734 BC the Syrian-Israelite coalition (Rezin of Syria/Pekah of Israel) against Assyria (Tiglath-Pileser) was defeated. Israel and Judah became vassal states under Assyria (2 Ki. 15:20-29).

In 722 BC, after Israel rebelled against Assyria, Assyria (Shalmaneser V/Sargon) destroyed Samaria and exiled many Israelites.

In 701 BC the Assyrian king (Sennacherib) attacked Judah and besieged Jerusalem. Only God’s intervention saved Judah by turning Sennacherib back to Assyria.

During the seventh century Assyria was gradually weakened by war with Babylon, which eventually took Nineveh in 612 BC.

The prophets who prophesied during this period saw the end of Israel and its implications for Judah. Their ministries focused primarily on the threat of the Assyrians as God’s instrument of judgment and the hope of restoration of God’s people after the Assyrian judgment. The fall of Samaria was public vindication for God’s prophets and enhanced their credibility.

Prophet Date Bible period Audience Message
Amos 793-740 BC 2 Ki. 14:21-15:7 Northern Israel Assyria will destroy Israel and Samaria
Exile is coming
Hope for restoration
Jonah 786-746 BC 2 Ki. 14:23-29 Assyria Destruction of Nineveh capital of Assyria
Hosea 753-722 BC 2 Ki. 15-18 Northern Israel Assyria will destroy Israel and Samaria
Exile is coming
Hope for restoration
Micah 742-686 BC 2 Ki. 14:23-20:21 Israel/Judah Assyria will destroy Israel and Judah
Hope for restoration
Isaiah 740-686 BC 2 Ki. 15:1-20:21 Israel/Judah Trust against Assyria
Exile of Judah
Hope for restoration
Nahum 663-627 BC 2 Ki. 21:1-23:35 Assyria Destruction of Assyria and Nineveh

3. Babylonian Judgment (605-539 BC)

605 BC First Babylonian incursion and deportation of Judah Da. 1:3-6
597 BC Second Babylonian incursion and deportation of Judah Ezek. 33:21; 2 Ki. 24:14
586 BC Third Babylonian incursion and deportation of Judah 2 Ki. 25:1-21

In 612 BC the Babylonians (Nabo-polassar) defeated Nineveh and became the dominant regional power. God used the Babylonian armies (under Nebuchadnezzar) to judge His people in Judah for their long-standing disobedience.

The Babylonians tried to rule Judah through Judah’s kings acting as their vassals. Successive kings of Judah (Jehoiakim, Jehoiachin and Zedekiah) rebelled against Babylonian dominance. Eventually the Babylonians gave up on ruling Judah through one of her kings. Nebuchadnezzar sent his armies to defeat Judah, destroy Jerusalem and lead the people into exile.

The kings who followed Nebuchadnezzar could not control his empire and in 539 BC Babylon fell to Cyrus, king of Persia.

As the Northern tragedy of 722 BC had failed to have a long-term effect on Judah in the South, God raised up prophets to call Judah back from the precipice of Babylonian judgment and announce a message of hope and restoration if they returned to covenant obedience.

Prophet Date Bible period Audience Message
Zephaniah 640-609 BC 2 Ki. 22:1-23:35 Judah Babylon will destroy Assyria
Hope for restoration
Jeremiah 626-586 BC 2 Ki. 22-25 Judah True repentance
Destruction of Jerusalem
Hope for restoration
Joel 835/597-586 BC Judah Destruction of Jerusalem
Hope for restoration
Habakkuk 605 BC 2 Ki. 23:36-25:21 Judah Lamented evil of Judah and oppression of Babylon
Encouraged trust in God
Obadiah 745/585 Uncertain Edom Destruction of Edom
Ezekiel 592-572 BC 2 Ki. 24-25 Judah in exile Destruction of Jerusalem and temple
Directions for rebuilding temple
Daniel 605-539 BC Judah in exile Exile to be extended
Encouraged repentance

4. Restoration/Persian era (538 BC – )

539-538 BC Cyrus Edict: Israelites begin to return to land Ezra
520-515 BC Neglect rebuilding the temple Nehemiah/Haggai/Zecharaiah
450-400 BC Widespread apostasy Malachi

In 539 BC, Cyrus, the Persian emperor defeated Babylon and gave permission to the Jews to return to Jerusalem. 50,000 did under the leadership of Zerubbabel and Joshua.

In 520 BC the stalled temple rebuilding program was re-started under the ministries of Haggai and Zechariah.

By 450 BC false religion had replaced the true, and hope of a glorious spiritual and national restoration had disappeared from the present. Ezra, Nehemiah and Malachi were raised up to attempt reform of both Church and State.

The prophets’ credibility had already been enhanced by their accuracy regarding the Assyrian and Babylonian disasters. In 539/8 BC this was further enhanced by the fulfillment of their restoration promises. However, still the people were disobedient to their messages of restoration hope founded upon covenant obedience.

Prophet Date Bible period Audience Message
Haggai 520 BC Ez. 5-6 Jerusalem Blessings upon rebuilding
Repentance
Zechariah 520 BC Ez. 5-6 Jerusalem Rebuild the temple
Future divine intervention necessary for full restoration
Malachi 458-433 BC Neh. 13 Jerusalem Coming great judgment
Final restoration of righteous

5. Prophets and Kings

One of the keys to understanding the role and function of the prophets is to trace the correlation between the prophets and the monarchical periods.

a. Pre-monarchical period (pre-1000 BC)

During the pre-monarchical period (pre-1000 BC), there were relatively few prophets. Their service tended to be informal and temporary.

Examples: Enoch (Gen. 5:22; Jude 14), Abraham (Gen. 20:7), Moses (Dt. 34:10; Hos. 12:13), Miriam (Ex. 15:20) Eldad, Medad, and the Seventy (Num. 11:24-29), Deborah (Jdg. 4:4), Man of God (Jdg. 13:6ff)

b. Monarchical Period (1000-586 BC)

It was during this period that there was a surge of prophetic activity. More prophets are associated with this time than with any other. Their service was formal and often in royal courts. The prophets saw the danger of corrupt kings. The King’s actions brought judgment on the nation and so prophets were raised up to restrict their power and hold them to account.

Examples: Samuel (1 Sam. 3:1), Gad (1 Sam. 22:5), Nathan (2 Sam 7:2), Shemaiah (1 Ki. 12:22), Elijah (1 Ki.17:1-2 Ki. 2:12), Obadiah, Joel, Jonah, Amos, Hosea, Micah, Isaiah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Jeremiah

c. Exilic Period (586-538 BC)

The demise of kingship brought a reduction in the number of prophets. Their service again became diverse and informal. They explained the exile and encouraged hope of return (Ezek. 37:40-48; Dan. 2:44-45, Dan. 7:27).

Examples: Ezekiel and Daniel

d. Post-exilic (post-538 BC)

There were very few prophets in this time. However the potential of restored kingship under Zerubbabel formalized their service again, as they instructed and warned the people (Hag. 1:3-8; Zech. 2:1-13; Ezr. 5:1-2)

Examples: Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi

e. Conclusion

This evidence must lead us to conclude that the need and purpose of the prophetic ministry was intimately bound up with the kings of Israel and Judah. In other words, they had a theocratic function.

6. Theocratic function

Ancient Near Eastern Suzerains often made covenants with vassal states. The Suzerain would then send emissaries to ensure that the covenant stipulations were being kept. The emissary would prosecute violations and bring sanctions to bear.

Similar emissarial language is used in the prophetic oracles. Yahweh is the great king or emperor who sends prophets as His mediators and emissaries to ensure covenant faithfulness in Israel – her kings and her people – and to prosecute covenant violations (eg. Isa. 6-7).

We shall consider the theological implications of this historic covenant structure below.

7. Cross-cultural influences

As we have seen above, the evidence suggests that God used an existing ancient Near Eastern covenant form and pattern to teach the people their relationship to Him and their obligations to Him. However, we must be careful not to go too far in suggesting a “borrowing” from existing patterns and norms.

Some critical scholars have suggested that Israel simply borrowed the idea of prophecy from their neighbors. Three literary sources are used to support this claim. We shall look at them in turn.

a. Babylonian Omen Texts

During the period 2000-1595 BC the Babylonians complied and collected “omen texts.” The two basic presuppositions behind these texts were that every event had a cause, and that the gods used unusual occurrences or “omens” to reveal their will. These omens could range from the appearance of a bird to unusual spots on animal intestines

Scribes, therefore, recorded events together with any unusual signs or “omens.” The belief was that by studying these texts and looking out for omens they could predict what was going to happen next.

Clearly, there is no connection with biblical prophecy. There is no moral basis to the omen texts, whereas the prophets based their word on God’s revealed standards and called people to obedience. They were not fortune tellers. All of God’s revelations, whether about the past, present or future were to motivate present obedience.

b. Mari Prophecy

Mari was an ancient and important Babylonian city (1700-1500 BC). Idolatrous prophets known as “ecstatics” lived in and around Mari. Their messages were based upon dreams, visions and trances and were usually directed towards the King.

Again, there was no moral element to these prophecies. God’s prophets carried messages which had serious implications for daily living. Also, biblical prophets spoke to the whole society and not just the king. The prophets of the Bible did not generally receive their messages in trances or ecstasies.. They did not go out of their minds nor lose their senses. They were not overwhelmed and did not become hysterical nor delirious. They remained alert and aware as God spoke through them and, though they did not understand everything, had good general understanding of what they uttered

c. Akkadian Prophecy

Akkadian texts dating to 1000 BC have been found which, arguably, resemble Biblical prophecy. They list political events in a predictive form. However, most scholars are agreed that they do look suspiciously like “prophecies written after the event.” They seem to concentrate on the very recent past, the present or the immediate future. They do not seem to have a long-term perspective.

Biblical prophecy differed from other prophetic types of activity in the Near East because it addressed the whole nation, it focused on people’s attitudes, it contained a moral imperative, and it looked at far-reaching implications of people’s actions.[footnote]B Arnold and B Beyer, Encountering the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999), 350)[/footnote]

Biblical prophecies are so comprehensive and specific that they put pagan prophets to shame (see notes on Isa. 41:21-29). All times and all peoples, especially in the ancient Near East, have known diviners, seers or sorcerers who claim to announce the future (Dt. 18:9-13; 1 Ki. 18:19,25,40). In all of the ancient Near Eastern literature, however, there is nothing to rival the prophecies collected in Scripture. Their remarkable specificity and record of fulfillment, as well as their magnificent, comprehensive grasp of history, are unparalleled in any other literature. Often their prophesies of doom were given at the very moment a nation was at the apogee of its power, and their prophecies of victory came when situations looked most hopeless.[footnote]Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 1066.[/footnote]

 

IV. Literary Analysis

1. Literary forms

The prophets often wrote narratives, both biographical (Da. 1-3), and autobiographical (Isa. 6). Sometimes they addressed God with laments (Jer. 9:10), petitions (Jer. 42:2), and praise (Isa. 12:1-6). Usually they addressed people. It is these addresses to people which make up the majority of prophetic literature. They divide into speeches of judgment and speeches of blessing.

a. Speeches of judgment

(i) Lawsuits (rib רִיב)

Through the prophets, God brought His people to trial for their covenant breaking and sentenced them accordingly (Isa. 3:13; Mic. 6:1-2). God revealed to the prophets the goings-on in the court of heaven and the prophets revealed to the people what they had seen and heard. The literary form of the lawsuit is:

Witness(es)
God’s kindness
Response
Accusation
Sentencing

(ii) Judgment oracles

Some of the prophets’ messages of doom were not so formal as the lawsuit (Ezek. 7:7-10: Zec. 9:1-8). The literary form is:

Address
Accusation
Sentencing

(iii) Woe oracles

Woe oracles were similar to judgment oracles, but were used when the judgment was especially serious. Usually prefaced with “Woe,” they warned of how awful things would turn out when the curses were executed (Isa. 3:9-11; Isa. 5:8-22; Ezek. 13:3-18; Hos. 7:13; Nah 3:1). The literary form is:

Woe
Address
Accusation
Sentencing

b. Speeches of Blessing

In contrast, prophets also promised blessings, both small and great. There are two main forms of “blessing prophecy.”

(i) Oracles of Salvation

Oracles of salvation contained not only the named blessings but expressions of wonder at the blessing (Isa. 40-55; Jer. 30-33; Ezek. 34-40). These encouraging prophecies were founded upon God’s covenant promises to the patriarchs (Ge. 15:1-21; Ge. 17:1-22; Ge. 22:15-18).

(ii) Oracles against the nations

God’s people were also given hope by God’s pronouncements of doom upon the heathen nations who were enemies of God’s people. Whole books, such as Nahum and Obadiah, have this literary form. Other prophetic books have major sections of oracles against the nations (Isa. 13-24; Jer. 46-51; Eze. 25-32).

2. Original Meaning

How do we make sense of the prophecies when we take into account the historical and thematic considerations. We have to understand them in terms of the original author, original document, and original audience. For example, what did Micah say to his hearers/readers? And, how much did Micah and his hearers/readers understand? There are three views.

a. They understood little or nothing

Many take the view that the prophets understood little or nothing of what they said, and claim biblical support for this view (1 Pet. 1:10-12, Jn. 11:49-52, Dn. 8:27, 12:18, Zech. 4:13). They argue that the meaning could only be known when the prophecy was fulfilled. For example only when Jer. 31:15 is fulfilled in Mat. 2:18, can a meaning be given to the original prophetic verse.

b. They understood most or all

Others are of the view that the writer and audience understand all, but the only question they had was about when the fulfillment would occur (1 Pet. 1:10-12).

c. They had limited and partial understanding

The correct view is that the prophets had partial understanding. The fundamental ideas were understood, but they did not understand fully the when or the how.

d. Conclusion

If we accept that the prophets and the people had at least partial understanding of the prophecies then, the first step in interpretation has to be “What was the original meaning?” To answer this question we need grammatico-historical (grammar and history) exegesis. We need to consider the literary context and ask: How does this fit into the chapter/book? We need to consider the historical context: Who wrote, to whom, why and where?

V. Thematic Analysis

1. Definition of a prophet

Prophets were given a variety of names in the Bible. This variety shows us that the prophets role was multi-functional.

a. nabi  נָבִיא

nabi is the Hebrew word we translate “prophet.” It probably means “a called person” (2 Ki. 9:1,2; 2 Chr. 12:5; Jer. 1:5). The prophet was called and designated by God. He did not send himself and he was not chosen by the people. He was called by God to be His spokesman (Isa. 6:1-3; Jer. 1:4-10; Am. 7:14-16).

b. profetes  προφήτης

profetes is the Greek (LXX) translation of nabi. It is composed of pro = forth/beforehand (from προ) + fetes = tell or announce (from φημί). It can, therefore mean to speak forth or to foretell. The prophet “tells forth” about the past and presents and predicts the future.

c. roeh   רֹאֶה

roeh is the Hebrew word which we usually translate “seer” (1 Sam. 9:9; 2 Sam. 15:27; 1 Chr. 26:28). A similar word is hozeh   חֹזֶה = observer (2 Sam. 24:11; 1 Chr. 21:9; Am. 7:12). It refers to a man who is given visions as opposed to just auditions. He did not just hear but he saw into heaven’s secrets (Ezek. 1:4-28; Am. 7:1-9:10).

d. ebed   עֶבֶד

ebed is usually translated “servant” (2 Kgs. 21:10; 2 Kgs. 24:2; Jer. 25:4; Jer. 26:5; Am. 3:7). The prophet was the servant of Yahweh. He was an official in God’s royal court who was commissioned by God to represent Him on earth.

e. malak   מַלְאָךְ

malak means “messenger” (Isa. 42:19; Mal. 3:1). Prophets received messages from God and delivered them with urgency to the people (Hag. 1:13). They did not bring their own messages but spoke on behalf of God as God’s envoy.

f. shomer   שָׁמַר   or tsafeh    צָפָה

These were watchmen or guards (Ez. 3:17). Watchmen were employed to give advance warning of hostile approaches or friendly visits so that important preparation could be made. Similarly, the prophets looked out for signs of God’s blessing and judgment so that appropriate preparations could be made (Isa. 21:11; Hos. 9:8).

g. ish elohim   אִישׁ הָאֱלֹהִים

ish elohim was a “man of God” (Dt. 33:1; 1 Sam. 9:6; 2 Kgs. 8:11). He was a pious and godly man whom God selected, sent and gave special protection to.

2. Covenant Message

As covenant emissaries the prophets’ messages were based upon the divine covenants. They were, therefore, rooted firmly in the flow of redemptive history. God’s dealings with His people are “limited” by the bonds He sovereignly established with all humanity and especially with Israel.

As we have seen in this and previous lectures, God’s covenants are structured along similar lines to Suzerain-Vassal Treaties [suzerain: emperor; vassal: servant]. In these treaties, the Emperor stresses his imperial benevolence and emphasizes obligations he expects of his vassals in return.

This pattern in the divine covenants can be tabulated as follows.

Covenant Divine Benevolence Human responsibility
Adam Garden of Eden, etc Forbidden fruit
Noah Rescue from flood Be fruitful and multiply
Abraha Promise of land and seed Walk before me and be perfect
Moses Rescued Israel from Egypt Full obedience
David Made David king Remain loyal/keep commands
New Saved by grace Good works

a. Universal Covenants

The covenants with Adam and Noah were universal covenants, covenants made with the whole of humanity which brought good things to and demanded obligations of all humanity

The universal covenants were behind much of what prophets said. They brought God’s stipulations to the nations (Jer. 1:5) and gave the hope of redemption for the nations (Isa. 25:6-8).

b. Israel’s Covenants

The following covenants were made with Israel through covenant representatives, Abraham, Moses and David.

(i) Abraham’s Covenant: The covenant with Abraham promised innumerable descendants and a fertile land, but threatened that the descendants would be cut off and exiled from the land if unfaithful (Gen. 15,17)

Prophets’ Message: The prophets refer to the promise of many descendents (Hos. 1:10) and a fertile land (Isa. 41:8). Although Abraham is only mentioned 7 times in the prophets, the theology of the Abrahamic covenant permeates them.

(ii) Moses’ Covenant: This set forth blessings upon obedience and curses upon disobedience (Ex. 19-24). Sin will result in exile for Israel, but repentance will effect a restoration (Dt. 28-29; Lev. 26).

Prophet’s Message: The Mosaic law was the standard by which the prophets critiqued Israel. The blessings and curses prophesied were determined by obedience or disobedience to the law (Isa. 5:24).

(iii) David’s Covenant: The Davidic dynasty will continue, but individual Davidic kings will be judged if they break the covenant terms.

Prophet’s message: David was mentioned 34 times as the prophets looked forward to a worldwide Davidic kingdom (Am. 9:11).

These major biblical covenants provide the structure and parameters which God binds Himself to work within. Covenant judgments and covenant blessings follow consistent covenant patterns, patterns which the prophets highlighted. The sovereign God will keep His covenant promises but the personal and individual enjoyment and participation in these promises depends on how each exercises their human responsibility. Divine benevolence is balanced by human responsibility.

c. The New Covenant

The New Covenant (Jer. 31) is the fulfillment of all other covenant blessings and promises. The earth will be inherited, God’s law will be written in the heart and David’s son will sit on the throne.

3. Prophets in harmony

Under historical analysis we noted the different eras of prophetic activity (pre-monarchical, monarchical, etc). As well as the numbers of prophets varying through these eras, their messages also varied in terms of emphasis. However, there was a basic harmony between the prophets and a fundamental unity of message. Each prophetic era built upon the foundation of the Mosaic law, and each era showed a dependence on the work of the previous era. For example the post-exilic prophets’ work was founded on Moses (Mal. 4:4), but also depended upon the monarchical prophets (Zech. 1:2-6), on the exilic prophets (Hag. 2:20-23), and also upon each other (Ezra 5:1-5).

4. Covenant judgments and blessings

a. Covenant Judgment

The types of judgments threatened by the prophets were based upon the Mosaic covenant (Deut. 4:25-28; Deut. 28:15-68; Deut. 29:16-29; Deut. 32:15-43; Lev. 16:14-39)

There were two basic types of judgment

(i) Judgment in Nature: drought, pestilence, famine, disease, wild animals, population loss

(ii) Judgment in War: defeat, sieges, occupation, death, destruction, exile

Judgment did not fall at once but was gradual and progressive. God’s great patience withheld immediate judgment. His patience was also seen in that the judgments only increased in severity as disobedience was persisted in. The climactic judgment of exile would only come after a long patient process (Lev. 26:14-39)

b. Covenant blessings

As above, these were based upon the Mosaic law (Deut. 4; Deut. 28; Deut. 30; Lev. 26) and were graciously given in response to faithful (not perfect) living.

Again, there were two basic types of blessing

(i) Blessings in nature: agricultural plenty, livestock fertility, health, population increase

(ii) Blessings in Warfare: defeat of Enemies, end to warfare, relief from destruction, return of captives

As in the judgments there were varying degrees of blessing which ultimately climaxed in the faithful remnant returned to the land and living in peace (Lev. 26; Deut. 4; Deut. 30).

5. Prophetic Predictions

Before we explore this area, we must first of all undergird everything with the doctrine of God’s immutability. God is unchangeable in His character and attributes, His covenant promises, and His eternal counsel (WCF 3:1l; Eph 1:11; Isa. 46:9-11).

However, God does not just make a plan and watch it unfold from a distance. He is involved with His world and His creatures. He is the living God. He interacts with secondary/creaturely causes.

So, while God is unchangeable in His character, covenant promises and plan, yet He has ordained human choice as a powerful secondary cause by which He carries out his plan

Specific examples of these historical contingencies in operation are found in Jonah’s ministry (Jonah 3) and Shemaiah’s prophecy (2 Chr. 12), where humble prayer affected the outcome of the prophecy. Shemaiah and Jonah warned of judgment to come so that the people would hear, repent and receive the grace of God.

Some prophetic predictions, then, were primarily designed to motivate the hearers to trust and obey the Lord in order to receive his blessings.

They frequently announced future judgments as threats, not as inescapable condemnations, and spoke of future blessings as offers, not sure promises.[footnote]Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 1065.[/footnote]

It must be noted, however, that the certainty of predictions varied. Sometimes God had high levels of determination to carry out what the prophets were predicting, sometimes low levels. There are certain clues to assist us here. We shall move from low levels of determination to high.

(i) Explicitly conditional prophecies

God presented Himself as still open to the direction history would take and indicated that it was dependent upon how they would react (Isa. 1:19-20)

(ii) Unqualified prophecies

Here there was a higher level of determination (Jonah 1:4) but also higher level or reaction required. In Nineveh, God delayed his judgment because of the widespread repentance (cf. Hag. 2:21-23).

(iii) Confirmed prophecies

Prophecies confirmed with signs (Isa. 7) or words (Amos 1:3) showed a higher level of divine commitment, but repentance was still possible to avert judgment Amos 5:4,6). The signs were to encourage deeper repentance.

(iv) Sworn Predictions

Oath raises prediction to covenantal certainty (Amos 4:2; Ezek. 5:11). God is absolutely determined to carry through what he has said. But even here, there is still some latitude for God to react to intervening historical contingencies. Questions such as when, who, by what means, and to what degree are dependent on the human reaction. Consider the “Who knows?” reaction to what seems like certain predictions of divine judgment in Joel 2:13-14 and in 2 Samuel 12:22

Summary: God revealed Himself as having varying degrees of determination to carry through with a prediction. Human reaction to the prophetic word always had the potential for influencing the way a prediction is carried out.

Prophets often spoke to motivate rather than to prognosticate. They frequently announced future judgments as threats, not as inescapable condemnations, and spoke of future blessings as offers, not sure promises…As a result, to one degree or another all prophetic predictions could be affected by human reactions to a prophecy. The Scriptures are replete with examples in which repentance, prayer, recalcitrance and indifference moved God to cancel, postpone, extend, shorten, hasten, mollify or intensify the fulfillments of prophetic predictions (Ex 32:12; 2 Sa 12:14-22; in 3:4-9). For this reason, when we apply the criterion of fulfilled predictions to true prophets, we must always ask how the prophets intended their predictions to be taken. What level of divine determination did the prophet’s words indicate? Did the prophet mean for his prediction to be taken as conditional or inevitable? We must not be satisfied with a mechanical understanding of the prophetic word divorced from such prophetic intentions.[footnote]Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 1064.[/footnote]

 

VI. New Testament Analysis

1. New Testament Interpretation

How did New Testament writers relate to or use the original meaning? Did they follow our own hermeneutical emphasis on grammatico-historical analysis? There are different answers to this question.

a. No link with original meaning

Some are of the view that New Testament writers were led by the Spirit to say whatever they wanted the prophecy to say. If so, there is no genuine link between the Old Testament meaning and New Testament.

b. Tied to original meaning

Others take the view that the New Testament writers could not say anything beyond the original meaning of text. They could only clarify it.

c. New Testament Elaboration

The correct view is that the New Testament takes the original meaning of the Old Testament text and elaborates upon it. There is no contradiction, and neither is there identity of meaning. The original meaning is the basis for New Testament interpretation, but the New Testament writers were at liberty to build upon and expand that meaning.

2. Three stages of fulfillment

The prophets anticipated the day when the Davidic king would come, set up His kingdom, destroy His enemies and rule over His people. This is fulfilled in three stages.

a. Commencement/Inauguration: Old Testament prophecies began to be fulfilled at the first coming of Christ and the establishment of His Kingdom.

b. Continuation: They continue to be fulfilled as Christ’s kingdom continues to grow now in the world

c. Consummation: They will be consummated when Christ comes again to complete His kingdom.

Old Testament prophets pointed to Christ and his work in a variety of ways. In all cases Christ fulfilled dimensions of these prophetic expectations in his first coming, continues to fulfill them in his ministry to the church today, and will ultimately fulfill them in the consummation of all things at his second coming.[footnote]Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 1065.[/footnote]

3. Christ the Greatest Prophet

  • Jesus possessed a heart devoted to God, and always sought his Father’s will (Jn. 5:30).
  • Jesus displayed a strong sense of calling; God had sent him for a specific purpose (Mt. 16:21-23).
  • Jesus was a messenger, bringing God’s ultimate will to the earth (Heb. 1:1-2).
  • Jesus was a “forthteller,” challenging his contemporaries to repent and by faith to live the lives God expected of them, instead of trusting in dead traditions (Mt. 15:1-7; Mt. 23:16-28).
  • Jesus was a foreteller, and predicted the future on several occasions (Mk. 13:3-27; Lk. 23:34,54-62).
  • Jesus used a variety of techniques to communicate his message, including parables (Lk. 15:3-16:31), quotes from the Old Testament (Mt. 5:17-19; Mt. 12:7; Mt. 26:31-32), illustrations (Mk. 9:36-37), and other significant prophetic acts (Mt. 21:1-5; Mk. 11:15-1 7).[footnote]B Arnold and B Beyer, Encountering the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999), 344.[/footnote]

 

VII. The Message of the Prophets

Original Message: Israel must repent of covenant violations and hope for a restoration of covenant blessings.
Present Message: The Church must repent of covenant violations and hope for a restoration of covenant blessings.