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The Nature of Old Testament Prophetic Literature

The prophetic books include the four major prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel), as well as the twelve minor prophets(Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi). The terms major and minor have nothing to do with importance. Rather, they refer to the length of the books. The first four prophetic books are much longer than the twelve that follow.

A large percentage of the latter half of the Old Testament is comprised of this prophetic literature. Indeed, the prophets take up as much space in the Bible as the New Testament does! Clearly, then, this material is an important part of God’s message to us.

Yet of all the genre types in the Bible, prophetic literature is perhaps the most difficult for us to understand. Why? The main reason is probably related to the fact that we have nothing similar to this genre in English literature. Think about it for a moment. We are familiar with narrative because we read stories all the time. Likewise, we are comfortable with Psalms because we are familiar with hymns and choruses. The letters in the New Testament bear some similarities with modern letters, so we are not lost when confronted with the genre of letter.

There is, however, little in the literature of our language and culture that resembles the prophetic literature of the Old Testament. The world of the prophets can seem strange and baffling. However, even though we are not overly familiar with this type of literature, we can learn to recognize the elements of prophetic genre, and we can learn interpretive principles for this genre. Furthermore, as we mention below, there is perhaps a hint of genre similarity between Old Testament prophecy and some of our music. So let’s begin!

The prophetic books contain primarily numerous short spoken or preached messages, usually proclaimed by the prophet to either the nation of Israel or the nation of Judah. They also contain visions from God as well as short narrative sections and symbolic acts.

Only a small percentage of Old Testament prophecy deals with events that are still future to us. This may surprise you. Many people assume that the term prophecy only refers to events of the end times and that the prophets of the Old Testament are primarily concerned with predicting the end times. Note what Fee and Stuart write: “Less than 2 percent of Old Testament prophecy is messianic. Less than 5 percent specifically describes the new-covenant age. Less than 1 percent concerns events yet to come in our time.”[1] The vast majority of the material in the prophetic books addresses the disobedience of Israel and/or Judah and the consequential impending judgment. The role of the prophet included the proclamation of this disobedience and the imminent judgment as much as it did the prediction of things to come in the more distant future.

The prophets use poetry for much of their message, and it is the poetic aspect of their message that is the most foreign to us. Earlier in the unit we explored the fascinating topic of Hebrew poetry. Be sure to apply the lessons of that unit to the poetic sections of the prophets as well. A central feature of Hebrew poetry, remember, is the extensive use of figures of speech. These figures of speech are some 2 of the main weapons in the literary arsenal of the prophets. Such language is what makes the prophetic books so colorful and fascinating.

  • Amos does not simply say, “God is mad.” Rather, he proclaims, “The lion has roared” (Amos 3:8)
  • Isaiah does not analytically contrast the awfulness of sin and the amazing wonder of forgiveness; he uses figurative language, announcing, “Though your sins are likes carlet, they shall be as white as snow” (Isa. 1:18)
  • Jeremiah is disgusted with Judah’s unfaithful attitude toward God and wants to convey the pain the Lord feels because Judah has left him for idols. Thus, throughout the book he compares Judah to an unfaithful wife who has become a prostitute. “You have lived as a prostitute with many lovers” (Jer. 3:1), Jeremiah proclaims, referring figuratively to Judah’s idolatry.

Remember that the power of poetry lies in its ability to affect the emotions of the reader or listener. Without doubt, prophetic literature is the most emotional literature in the Bible. The prophets express the deep, deep love of the Lord toward his people and the intense pain he feels as a result of their rejection of him. Nevertheless, the prophets are also explicit in their description of how horrible the coming judgment (invasion by the Assyrians or Babylonians) will be. They are scathing in their critique and criticism of society, especially of the king and the corrupt priesthood.

There is little in American literature or culture that resembles the scathing, poetic critiques that the prophets deliver against the nations Israel and Judah. The closest genre we could locate is that of protest songs of the 1960s, and those of Bob Dylan (the “prophet of the ’60s”) in particular. Of course, we are not suggesting that Dylan is at all similar to the prophets theologically, but the form of some of his songs has strong points of similarity—the scathing, poetic critique of the status quo in society, the attack on the authority structures of that society, and the prediction of impending judgment or destruction if the message falls on deaf ears. Consider, for example, a few lines from Dylan’s “The Times They Are a-Changin’ ”:

Come gather ’round people, wherever you roam
And admit that the water around you has grown;
And accept it that soon you’ll be drenched to the bone.
If your time to you is worth savin’,
Then you’d better start swimmin’ or you’ll sink like a stone,
For the times they are a-changin’.

Note the poetic imagery of the impending flood that Dylan uses. This is close to the use of judgment imagery in the prophetic books. The prophets will criticize the king, the false prophets, and the corrupt priests. In the second verse Dylan addresses senators and congressmen. Verse 3 is aimed at writers and verse 4 contains a strong warning for parents. Keep in mind that we are not elevating Dylan to prophet status, but we believe that it is helpful to connect the biblical genre that you are studying to something similar in form within your own culture and language, if possible.

Another important feature to note about the prophets is that their books are primarily anthologies. By this we mean that the prophetic books are collections of shorter units, usually oral messages that the prophets have proclaimed publicly to the people of Israel or Judah. Other literary units, such as narrative, oracles, and visions, are mixed in. Sometimes the delivered oral message is the vision or oracle.

It is important to note the collection nature of the books. Like a contemporary collection of a writer’s poetry, the prophetic books contain relatively independent, shorter units. These units are not usually arranged chronologically, and often they do not appear to have thematic order either (see especially Jeremiah). Occasionally a broad overall theme (judgment, deliverance) unites a large section of text, but for the most part, tight thematic unity is absent.

Because of this anthology feature, most prophetic books are almost impossible to outline satisfactorily. We can, by contrast, outline each of the New Testament letters, and our understanding of each book is usually enhanced by the outline. Even the narratives of the Bible can be outlined beneficially. Outlines of the prophetic books, however, are normally useless. As anthologies they focus on a few major themes that they repeat over and over, so there is also much repetition.

But don’t despair. Just because we cannot outline the message of the prophets does not mean that we cannot understand the message. Anthologies can be crystal clear in communicating their message. While Jeremiah, for example, is impossible to outline in any detail, his message comes across loud and clear. And just because the genre or literary form of the prophets is not one we are readily familiar with, this does not mean that we cannot feel the emotion of the text and grasp what God is saying through the prophets. However, we simply cannot approach Old Testament prophetic literature in the same way we would approach a modern essay.


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