HOW TO READ AND TEACH THE PROPHETIC LITERATURE OF SCRIPTURE
There are prophets throughout the Old Testament, often found in the narrative accounts, such as Elijah and Elisha. The emphasis here, however, is in the prophetic books from Isaiah—Malachi, books at the end of the Old Testament.
Prophecy is often understood as something that predicts the future. Though these elements can certainly be found in the prophetic books, it’s been said that there is more “forthtelling” in the prophets than foretelling. The prophets are generally proclaiming a message from God to others. Often, the message is a warning and can be harsh, because the people have forsaken God and His ways. In such cases, the prophet is calling on the people to repent and change their ways.
When teaching prophesy, therefore, it is important to have some understanding of the historical circumstances that have caused the prophet to proclaim this message from the Lord. If the underlying sin relates to idolatry, social injustice, religious hypocrisy, or some other problem, the challenge for the teacher is to discern how these same sins may manifest themselves today. Since the prophets were generally speaking to God’s covenant people, Israel, then teaching these texts should begin with how God’s people in the church today may be failing to love God faithfully. Though the prophets can often be very confrontational and harsh to those who have forsaken God, there is usually an accompanying message of hope for those who seek God and trust in Him. Every Bible lesson, I believe, should have an element of hope for those who respond appropriately to God. There may be an occasional exception to this rule, but for the most part every teaching of Scripture – even when the text deals only with a prophetic word of judgement – should offer the listener the hope of forgiveness and salvation in Christ.
Prophetic language can often be figurative and hyperbolic. The language of prophecy, therefore, is usually not to be understood in detailed, meticulous ways, but as conveying a general feeling of either displeasure or hope. Also, when prophecy is being predictive, the intent is not to give scientific precision about the future, but often to paint a vision of the future in broad strokes.
What are the implications for how to teach prophetic literature? Here are a few. First, the message of the prophets is often a harsh denouncement accompanied (eventually) by hope. The underlying sins of the original audience need to be understood in ways that relate to the modern audience. Idolatry is not about bowing down to a wooden statue, but loving my career more than God, for example. As a teacher, I call my people to repentance, but also offer hope that is found in Christ. Second, I should not oversell both the consequences of sin nor the rewards of righteousness, at least as temporal consequences. Far more important are the eternal ramifications of our choices. Third, I should be cautious about how I approach predictions about the future, and should certainly attempt to understand if and how the New Testament interprets these prophecies when applicable.