If anyone ever needed counseling, it was the Old Testament prophets who often spoke and acted strangely. Isaiah walked about town barefoot and naked (Isa 20:1-6), while Jeremiah strapped a wooden yoke around his neck (Jer 27). Ezekiel chopped his hair and scattered it to the wind (Ezek 5:1-4), while Hosea dutifully married a harlot (Hos 1:2-3; 3:1-5) and called his children unkind names (1:6, 9). Modern readers may struggle to understand, let alone apply, the message of these ancient prophets to everyday life. So for various reasons, the prophetical books might be the least-known portion of Scripture. They are filled with obscure names (Jer 48:31-32), surreal visions (i.e., Amos 7-9), and symbolic actions (Ezek 4-5). As Luther admitted:

 “The prophets have a queer way of talking, like people who, instead of proceeding in an orderly manner, ramble off from one thing to the next, so that you cannot make head or tail of them or see what they are getting at.”[1]

Thus, they have been barely read, hardly preached, and often neglected.[2] Even biblical counselors may skip over this section of Scripture or settle for individual jewels extracted out of context. For example, the book Scripture and Counseling illustrates how to use each of the biblical genres such as narrative, wisdom literature, the Gospels, and the Epistles—all except the prophets.[3] Yet our Bibles are too thin if we ignore this vital portion of Scripture. We must declare “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27), for the Old Testament prophets preached a message still relevant today as they looked forward with anticipation to the coming Messiah.[4] The following article explains basic principles for reading, interpreting, and applying the prophets in the ministry of biblical counseling.

Introduction to the Prophets

The Old Testament contains four Major Prophets and twelve Minor Prophets who wrote and spoke in ancient Israel around 760 to 460 BC.[5] At that time, Israel was a divided kingdom: the northern kingdom called Israel (or sometimes Ephraim), and the southern kingdom called Judah (with its capital city, Jerusalem). The prophets delivered God’s message and not their own, for they were specially chosen to do God’s work and to speak on his behalf (Isa 1:20; Jer 26:16).[6] Like ambassadors representing the heavenly court, they heralded the King’s message to his subjects and spoke boldly even before mighty kings and religious rulers.[7] Although they might have trembled in private (Jer 1:6-8), they fearlessly fulfilled their Spirit-empowered role (Ezek 11:5; Mic 3:8). Likewise, counselors today, who minister God’s Word in a different time and place, must learn from the bold obedience of the prophets as we herald God’s message, not our own. We must seek God’s glory instead of human praise and tremble before his Word as we pass it on to others (Isa 66:5).

Reading the Prophets

While reading the biblical prophets, we first explore the hermeneutical principles specific to this genre. As C. S. Lewis wrote, “There is a . . . sense in which the Bible, since it is after all literature, cannot properly be read except as literature; and the different parts of it as the different sorts of literature they are.”[8] The following four principles help us to read the prophets.

The Prophets Stood on God’s Past Promises

The prophets, first of all, grounded their message on Yahweh’s covenant promises to his chosen people, Israel: blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience (Lev 26; Deut 4; 27-32). Jeremiah, for example, drank deeply from Deuteronomy after the Book of the Law was rediscovered during Josiah’s temple reforms (2 Kgs 22-23).[9] The peoples’ response to God’s Word determined whether their consequences would include the blessings of life, health, and prosperity or the curses of death, disease, and destruction (Jer 18:7-8). In short, God’s people would reap whatever they sowed (Hos 8:7). We still declare this truth today (Gal 6:7-10).

God’s promises of judgment, however, did not always seem to be fulfilled. Verbs like “repent” or “relent” made God appear to whimsically change his mind. One moment, he warned of terrible judgment, but the next pardoned his people without apparent reason. To understand this, we must remember that the prophets stood on God’s past promises. Thus, even when unstated, the blessings and curses still pervaded every prophecy (e.g., Jer 26:13-19; Jon 3:4, 10; 4:2). Each warning still contained an element of grace: “Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster. Who knows whether he will not turn and relent” (Joel 2:13b-14a).[10] Therefore, God never spoke falsely, even as he reserved his right to respond in mercy to repentant prayers (e.g., Isa 38:1-6).

Sadly, however, God’s people too often remained in their rebellion. So, the prophets mainly preached to those suffering sin’s painful consequences (2 Kgs 17:7, 14-15). This recurring cycle of God’s judgment (Deut 4:25-28; 31:16-17, 26-29) followed by restoration (vv. 30-31) continued until God exiled Israel to Assyria (722 BC) and Judah to Babylon (586 BC). Yet the Lord did not abandon his people even then, for he had promised them steadfast lovingkindness through his covenants with Abraham (Gen 15; 22:17b-18), Moses (Deut. 4:25-31), and David (2 Sam 7:12-16).[11] Despite their sin, God would enable their hearts to obey so that he could shower them with future blessings (Ezek. 36:26-27).

The prophets used familiar imagery to maintain continuity with God’s past promises. They spoke of a new creation (Isa 65-66), a new exodus (Hos 2:14-15; Isa 41:17-19; 43:16-17; 52:12; Ezek 36:26-28; see Deut 30:3-4a), a new covenant (Isa 9:6-7; Jer 31:31-34; see Luke 22:20), a new David (Isa 11:1-2; Jer 23:5; Ezek 34:23-24; 37:24-25; Mic 5:2), and a new Jerusalem (Isa 62; 65:18-25). They also portrayed the Messiah as a coming King who would usher in both judgment and salvation (Isa 9:6-7; 42:4; Zech 9:9). Note, however, that they did not jump directly to Jesus but took a meandering approach through literary figures such as types, metaphors, and foreshadowing. Readers must first grasp that the prophets were expositors of Yahweh’s covenant with Israel, who grounded their preaching in God’s past promises.

The Prophets Focused Mainly on Their Present Hearers

Second, contrary to popular opinion, prophecy was not primarily concerned with predicting future events. The prophets were more often forthtellers (preachers to their own time) than foretellers (prognosticators of a future time). Even when they did envisage the future, they mainly focused on the near future of Israel, Judah, and the nations of that day (which is now verifiable history). Like medical doctors informing a patient she has only a short time to live, the prophets spoke of the future to increase value in the present. Only a small percentage of their prophecies addressed the intermediate future (i.e., the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus), and even fewer foretold the eschatological future regarding events still yet to happen (i.e., Christ’s second coming, the millennium, the new heavens and the new earth). Thus, instead of fixating on future predictions (as is common with speculations about the end times), readers should focus on how each prophet’s message impacted the lives of his original hearers.

The Prophets Possessed Limited Understanding of Future Events

Third, when reading the prophets, we must also understand the prophetic sense of time. The prophets grounded their message in the past and then spoke about the future to teach God’s people how to live in the present. Yet, they only possessed a limited perspective of future events. Our family once had two neighbors named Todd. So, we referred to them as near Todd and far Todd to reduce confusion. One day, my son called out in a very loud voice: “Daddy, near Todd, is at the door!” and I had to gently instruct him: “Son, you don’t have to specify which Todd when he’s standing at the door.” Similar to living on a two-Todd street is the principle of prophetic telescoping. As the biblical prophets spoke for God, they could not always tell between near and far fulfillment (i.e., near Todd and far Todd). To them, all future events appeared to be equal distance. Thus, the prophets faithfully relayed God’s Word without knowing the exact timing of each fulfillment (1 Pet 1:10-12). For example, Isaiah’s wife bore him a son (Isa 7:14; 8:3) whose birth pointed to the future birth of Christ (Matt 1:23). We must understand this flexible sense of time when reading the prophets.

We today know more about God’s redemptive plan than they did, for we have received progressive revelation. Living in the church age between Christ’s first and second comings, we can look back on certain fulfillments which were yet future to the prophets. We can read the biblical account of history and verify what God had once promised for the incarnation. We know more than the prophets did because we have 2,500 additional years of historical evidence. We also have a clearer picture of the future because we can separate the prophecies fulfilled at Christ’s first coming from the ones still promised for his return.[12]

Yet even though we know more than the prophets, God knows more than all of us. Man looks across history from an earthly perspective, while God looks down from heaven to see you, me, and the prophets all at once. According to Isaiah 46:9-10, “I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose.’”[13] Thus, God enabled the prophet Isaiah to foretell the birth of God’s Son seven hundred years in advance because God could perfectly see both the prophecy and its fulfillment. As we comprehend the prophetic sense of time, we worship the Eternal One who transcends time.

The Prophets Often Wrote Thematically

Finally, the prophets did not write in strict chronological sequence but often compiled their messages non-sequentially according to theological themes (e.g., Amos; Hosea). Leland Ryken depicts this discontinuity as a “mosaic” or “kaleidoscopic structure,” which brought order out of chaos.[14] In a cyclical Hebrew fashion, the prophets also circled back to repeat common themes. Modern readers must immerse themselves in this writing style of the Ancient Near East in order to understand the prophets.

Interpreting the Prophets

Once we establish the basic principles for reading prophecy, we then begin to practice them using the following keys for interpretation.

Check the Context

First, check the context: both the broad historical context (i.e., the prophet’s era) and the specific context of the given prophecy. The broad historical context, for example, from Amos to Malachi (c. 760-460 BC) is “characterized by three things: (1) unprecedented political, military, economic, and social upheaval, (2) an enormous level of religious unfaithfulness and disregard for the original Mosaic covenant, and (3) shifts in populations and national boundaries. In these circumstances, God’s Word was needed anew.”[15] This broad context also includes the socio-historical setting and the basic purpose for which each prophetical book was written.

The specific context is harder to determine since it alludes to themes and situations from a distant time. For example, God’s oracle of judgment in Hosea 5:8-10 promised to punish Judah and Israel for engaging in civil war (c. 734 BC). Thus, readers must be familiar with the socio-cultural setting and surrounding historical events of Hosea’s day. We must enter the world of the Bible and assume the prophet’s perspective before we can rightly interpret his message.

Sometimes, we may be tempted to read our New Testament understanding back into the Old Testament Scriptures. Yet, the prophets must first be understood in their original context. We cannot draw a straight line from the prophets’ message to the ministry of Jesus even though progressive revelation has since disclosed aspects of God’s eternal purpose that were previously concealed (e.g., Dan 12:4). For example, the “servant” in Isaiah first depicted the nation of Israel (e.g., Isa 41:8; 44:21) before later identifying Jesus as Messiah (see Isa 53; 1 Pet 2:24). We must first understand the original context before interpreting the message and unfolding its application for modern listeners. We bridge this gap between the worlds one careful step at a time.

Find the Form

The second principle for interpreting the prophets involves finding the form of the prophetic message. Some common forms included the covenant lawsuit, the oracle of judgment, and the oracle of salvation. In the covenant lawsuit, God portrayed various roles (i.e., plaintiff, prosecutor, judge, and the bailiff) as he presented his case in court against the defendant, Israel (e.g., Isa 3:13-26; 41:21-24; Hos 3:3-17; 4:1-19; Mic 6:1-8). The heavens and the earth often constituted the jury as God presented evidences of his grace in contrast to his peoples’ rebellion. The lawsuit would justify God’s statement of accusation (Isa 3:13-14a), call witnesses to give evidence (vv. 14b-16), appeal for repentance, then declare a final verdict (vv. 17-26).

The oracle of judgment even more directly condemned the wicked by depicting the presence of evil (often with the interjection, “Woe!”), denouncing sinful practices, then declaring the appropriate punishment. The prophets lamented God’s sorrow over sin (e.g., Ezek 28:6-9) and sang songs of doom to vividly warn God’s people of his wrath (e.g., Jer 48:43-44). They also effectively used satire to ridicule human vice and folly (e.g., Ezek 8:7-12; Zech 5:1-4). They mocked those, for example, who bowed down to idols, though they had carved them with their own hands (e.g., Jer 10:3-8). The woe formula often served as a vehicle to convey the oracle of judgment.

By contrast, the oracle of salvation promised blessings for a particular people group or nation.[16] It pronounced blessings such as material well-being, family success, national prosperity, or spiritual flourishing (e.g., Isa 32:14-16; 40:1-2a; 60:19-21; 62:4). It made references to the future (i.e., “in that day” [Amos 9:11]), reassured listeners that God’s promises remained true, called for radical change (i.e., repentance), and pointed to the hope of future blessings. Oracles of judgment were frequently followed by oracles of salvation in order to frame the prophetic message in the context of hope.

Counselors communicate more effectively when we use forms familiar to our culture. We draw on shared terminology and rhetorical structures to help our counselees better relate. For example, we might depict the gospel in a courtroom context: “If you were to stand before the Lord today, would you plead innocent or guilty?” We also convey the tone of the text alongside its content. A lament expresses sorrow, while a salvation oracle declares hope. Counsel based on a covenant lawsuit replicates the tension of standing on trial before God. The prophets teach us that how we say a thing is just as important as what we say.

Pleasure in the Poetry

Third, the prophets often wrote in poetic form (i.e., figures of speech, rhythm, and parallel structure) to make the message more memorable and emphatic for their listeners. As with biblical poetry, readers must identify different kinds of parallelism and their importance for interpretation. Synonymous parallelism, for example, restated a similar thought in successive stichs (half-lines). If one line was confusing, the other line could clarify it.

But he was pierced for our transgressions;

he was crushed for our iniquities;

upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,

and with his wounds we are healed (Isa 53:5)

Antithetic parallelism balanced contrasting thoughts in each of the two stichs. This juxtaposition also serves to sharpen the reader’s perspective.

They do not cry to me from the heart,

but they wail upon their beds (Hos 7:14a)

Basic rhetorical structures also included repetition (Amos 1:3-2:5), inclusio (Ezek 26:15-18), and chiasm (Amos 5:10-13; Jon 1:17-2:10). These various structures highlighted the scope and emphasis of each literary unit. Other common figures of speech were metaphor (i.e., an implied comparison), simile (i.e., an explicit comparison using the formula “like” or “as”), personification (i.e., attributing human qualities to nonhuman phenomena), apostrophe (i.e., directly addressing something absent or inanimate as if it could respond), and hyperbole (i.e., conscious exaggeration for the sake of effect). Poetry also employed symbolic or apocalyptic imagery to represent greater realities beyond the person, object, place, or event itself (e.g., Isa 52:9; Dan 2:31-35; Zech 3). All of these literary elements and more should be taken into account as we interpret the prophets. We need not explain them all when counseling, but they should inform our instruction of the text.

Applying the Prophets

Right reading and right interpretation of the prophets then lead to the right application. Although we cannot speak with the same certainty as to the divinely-appointed prophets, we can still relay their message accurately (2 Tim 2:15). Counselors should implement the following principles to apply the message of the prophets in a contemporary world.

Principle the Particulars

The particulars of literature serve as a net to capture the “concrete universal.” In this way, a prophet’s message in his own day can demonstrate universal principles still applicable in the present day. For example, the judgment oracle in Ezekiel 25:8-11 reveals the character of God to punish sinners just as he judged Moab and Seir. Isaiah’s condemnation of allying with foreign nations (Isa 7; 30:1-5; 31:1-3) conveys the principle that we must never place more faith in earthly powers than in the Lord (see 30:15-17). One way to discover such timeless truths in Scripture is to meditate on God, who stays the same yesterday, today, and forever (Heb 13:8). Study his eternal character and sovereign plan to restore his kingdom on earth. Then remember his ultimate promises to judge the wicked and to bless his worshiping people. As counselors draw upon the character of God, we help our counselees with their present concerns.

Glory in the Gospel

Today, the church cannot fully claim God’s covenant with Israel, yet we do possess the new covenant promises in Christ (Jer 31:31-34; 2 Cor 3:3-6). Our risen Lord Jesus is the One to whom all the prophets pointed (Luke 24:27). “To Him, all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through His name” (Acts 10:43). Therefore, we must read, interpret, and apply the prophets to better know Jesus and enjoy him more fully (2 Cor 3:18-4:6). We then discover his glory afresh in a multitude of ways.

The prophets unveiled the manifold character of God, later displayed in the radiance of God’s Son (Col 1:15, 19). Like his Father, Jesus created and now sustains the universe (vv. 16-17). He serves as Head of the church (v. 18), having made peace between God and man (v. 20). As the Bridegroom of his redeemed people (Mark 2:19-20; Eph 5:22-23), he jealously protects them from deceitful lovers (see Hos 1-3). Jesus fully embodied both “grace and truth” (John 1:16-18) just like his Father: “a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster” (Jon 4:2; Nah 1:2-3; see Exod 34:6-7a).

God’s people, however, continually fell short of his perfect holiness (Isa 6:3; Rom 3:23). Thus, the prophets lamented human wickedness. They called for repentance by vividly depicting sin’s various manifestations as adultery (Hos 2:1-13), idolatry (Ezek 14), abuse (Amos 1:2-2:16; Mic 2:1-3:12), and impurity (Mal 1:6-14). Then, as they declared God’s intermediate judgment on Israel and the surrounding nations (Joel 1:2-2:11; Obad 1-16; Zeph 1:2-18), they foreshadowed that final day when Jesus would ultimately judge the world (Acts 17:30-31; Rev 19:11-21). Their shocking words convict us still today that we need a Savior from our sin (Rom 1:18-3:19; Eph 2:1-3). No man can keep God’s law, and therefore none escape sin’s wages (Rom 6:23a).

Therefore, the prophets also pointed to the righteous God-man who would die for sin upon a cross (2 Cor 5:21). Jesus would bear his Father’s wrath to spare us from that future judgment (Matt 27:32-56; John 3:16-18). He would take the prophets’ “woes” upon himself and lead us to salvation (1 Pet 2:24). Like his Father, who forgives our sins by casting them deep into the sea (Isa 1:18; Mic 7:18-20), Jesus would be “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29, 35-36). He would lead his people out of exile and return them to the promised land.

The prophets then proclaimed a King of kings who would supersede the faltering kings of Israel. God promised from David’s line; this king would establish peace and justice among the nations, rule God’s people as a shepherd (Mic 5:2-5) and transform the creation itself (Amos 9:11-15; Zech 9:9; 14:9). So as the true and greater Son of David (Matt 1:1), Jesus Christ is now our peace (Eph 2:14) and leads us today as our Good Shepherd (John 10:11-18). He sits triumphant at his Father’s right hand (Heb 1:1-13) and awaits that final day to renew the whole creation (Rev 21-22).

Finally, the prophets remind believers today that God’s Spirit now lives within us. God’s promise to pour out his Spirit on his chosen people (Joel 2:28-32) is repeated by the risen Christ (Acts 1:8) and fulfilled when Jesus is exalted (2:1-41). The Holy Spirit empowers God’s people to live in holiness and bear witness to God’s glory. The Spirit also teaches counselors how to minister God’s truth with grace and love (Eph 4:15).

As we read, interpret, and apply the prophets, they expose our sin, declare the coming judgment, and prompt us to repentance. Through the prophets, we praise the One who took our place and bore his Father’s wrath (2 Cor 5:21). Through the prophets, we discover the sinless King of kings (Isa 6:3) and submit ourselves to his sovereign authority (Phil 2:9-11). Through the prophets, we see the promises of new covenant salvation accomplished in Christ, filling our hearts with assurance of his love (Rom 8:35-39). Through the prophets, we receive the promises of God’s Holy Spirit, who witness to our hearts that we are God’s children and his eternal heirs (Eph 1:3-14). Through the prophets, we find joy in Christ and testify to his glorious transformation of our lives (2 Cor 5:17).

[1] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works (Weimar Edition, Volume 19: 350), quoted in Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, vol. 2 (New York: Harper & Row, 1965), 33.

[2] According to one scholar, “The books of Israel’s prophets are among the most difficult in the Old Testament, and probably among the most difficult books ever written” (Delbert R. Hillers, Covenant: The History of a Biblical Idea [Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1969], 124).

[3] Robert Kellemen and Jeff Forrey, eds., Scripture and Counseling: God’s Word for Life in a Broken World (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014).

[4] Luke 24:25-27, 45-47; John 8:56; Matthew 13:17; Acts 3:18, 22, 24; 10:43; 26:22-23; 1 Peter 1:10-11.

[5] We will focus on the sixteen writing prophets as distinguished from the non-writing prophets in the historical narratives (e.g., Elijah and Elisha). We also accept the traditional view that the name of each book identifies its author and that Lamentations was written by Jeremiah. The books of the Minor Prophets are shorter in length but no less important.

[6] The Old Testament introduces the messenger formula, “Thus says the LORD” nearly four hundred times (Ezek 2:4) and makes approximately two hundred references to “the word of the LORD” (Jer 43:1; Zech 1:1).

[7] 2 Samuel 12:1-14; 24:11-17; 1 Kings 19:16; 21:17-22; Hosea 1:4; 4:4-11; Amos 7:17; Malachi 2:1-9.

[8] C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1958), 3.

[9] Many even claim that Jeremiah’s father, Hilkiah (Jer 1:1), was the same high priest who had discovered the Book of the Law as the temple was being restored (2 Kgs 22).

[10] This anthropomorphic use described God’s “change of mind” from his peoples’ perspective without denying his immutable nature.

[11] The prophets often fused these covenants together without a clear distinction (e.g., Isa 9:7; 55:3; Jer 23:5; 30:9; Ezek 34:23; 37:24-25; Hos 3:5; Amos 9:11; Zech 13:1). Although the Assyrian exiles would not corporately return to the land, the Babylonian exiles would eventually rebuild Judah in 538 BC.

[12] Over two hundred Old Testament prophecies were fulfilled at Christ’s first coming (Isa 9:6a), yet more will be fulfilled when he comes again to reign forever as our King (vv. 6b-7). By process of elimination, we know something of what the future will hold through the prophecies which still remain.

[13] The prophets were so certain of God’s promises that they used a literary technique called the prophetic perfect tense to describe future events with past tense verbs. In God’s eternal mind, these future events were as good as done (e.g., Isa 5:13; Jer 23:2; Amos 5:2).

[14] Leland Ryken, Symbols and Reality: A Guided Study of Prophecy, Apocalypse, and Visionary Literature (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016), 127.

[15] Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How To Read The Bible For All Its Worth: A Guide to Understanding the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982), 157.

[16] E.g., Amos 9:11-15; Hosea 2:16-20, 21-23; Isaiah 45:1-7; Jeremiah 31:1-9; 32:36-44; 35:18-19; Ezekiel 34:25-30.

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