In the year 2019 we will be reading through the prophetic books of the Old Testament along with the Gospel of Mark, 1 & 2 Peter, Jude during Lent, and ending the year with Romans and Hebrews.
The prophets were not the regular teachers of God’s Word; that was the priests’ calling (Deut 33:10). Rather God raised up prophets for particular times in the Old Testament story (which is why their “calls” were so important, as in Isa 6). The prophets were “visionaries” and “seers” who could “see” and “envision” details about the present and the future. The prophets also served as God’s appointed spokesmen, and their main declaration was to call the Lord’s people back to their covenantal roots, announcing both the curses and blessings for covenant disloyalty and loyalty respectively (see esp. Deut 27–30).
The prophets constantly call God’s people back to divine realities: they belong to God, God does not belong to them; God has called them into being for his purposes of redeeming what was lost in the Fall; and of blessing the nations. Therefore, at the heart of the prophets’ message, is deep concern that Israel reflect God’s character by walking in his ways and keeping their covenant with him. At the same time, they are constantly reminded that the LORD is not a local Israelite deity, but the sovereign God of the universe—Creator and Sustainer of all things and therefore also sovereign over all other nations.
It is important to note that all of the prophets spoke at a time when Israel had been permanently divided into North (Israel/Ephraim) and South (Judah). A few of them prophesize to northern Israel (Amos [c. 760~], Jonah [c. 760], Hosea [c. 755~]). Most of them address Judah (Micah [c. 742~], Isaiah [c. 740~], Nahum [c. 660~], Zephaniah [c. 640~], Habakkuk [c. 640~], Jeremiah [c. 627~]) some of them speak into the situation of the exile (Daniel [c. 605~], Ezekiel [c. 597~], Obadiah [c. 586~]) and several of them speak after the exile when a small remnant had returned to their historic land (Haggai [c.520~], Zechariah [c. 520~], Malachi [c. 460~]).
There are three crucial matters to keep in mind when reading the prophetic books:
- In much the same way as the New Testament letters, these writings were addressing a specific situation; therefore, some awareness of the social-religious-political situation into which they were speaking is essential in order for you to read well. Three common features of all prophetical books are that it was a time of (1) significant political, economic and social upheaval; (2) a very high level of unfaithfulness and disregard for the Mosaic covenant; and (3) enormous shifts in the balance(s) of power on an international scale.
- As you read, you will want to be aware of the frequent tension that exists in the prophets between the near future and the ultimate future, since the final consummation of the biblical story often serves as the backdrop for what is said about the near future. Thus Haggai, for example, is speaking directly to the situation of the rebuilding of the temple after the return from exile. Yet, in encouraging the people to return to this work, he speaks both of the greater future of the temple and the near future of Zerubbabel as the Davidic heir. And so it is with most of these books in their final form.
- It is important also for you to be reminded that most prophetic speech takes the form of poetry. Because these books are poetry, you will want to pause at times to notice the powerful and evocative images and metaphors that the prophets regularly used to capture the people’s attention.
In prophetic books we have God speaking in ways that are loud and clear. As you read, be aware not only of what God was saying to the people of the prophets’ times, but also of how much it is equally relevant to our own times and history. May we hear the call of the prophets this year and return to the LORD.