Old Testament Survey - Lesson 25

Prophecy and Hebrew Prophets

In this overview lesson, you learn about the prophets of ancient Israel and the essence of prophecy, setting the stage for deeper exploration into individual prophets in subsequent lessons. The discussion begins with an etymological examination of the term "prophet," derived from Greek but significantly different in its ancient Hebrew context. You discover the multiple titles used to describe prophets each reflecting a unique aspect of their role and relationship with the divine. The lesson contrasts the prophets' roles with their counterparts in other ancient Near Eastern cultures. It highlights their roles as God's messengers and agents, tasked with delivering His messages and serving as the nation's conscience, often challenging established religious norms to guide the people back to faithfulness and ethical living. 

Daniel Block
Old Testament Survey
Lesson 25
Watching Now
Prophecy and Hebrew Prophets

I. Introduction to Prophets and Prophecy

A. Definition and Origin of the Term 'Prophet'

B. Importance of Prophets in Ancient Israel

1. Variety of terms used to identify prophets

2. Roles and designations of prophets

II. Titles and Designations of Prophets

A. Seers

B. Visionaries

C. Prophets (Navi)

D. Man of God

E. Servant of Yahweh

F. Messengers of Yahweh

III. Historical Context and Role of Prophets

A. Prophets in the Ancient Near East

1. Comparison with Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and Aramaic prophets

B. Unique Aspects of Israelite Prophecy

1. Integration of prophets in the religious and social fabric

IV. Prophetic Function and the Institutional Development

A. Function of Intercession and Proclamation

B. Development from Moses to Later Prophets

1. Moses as a foundational prophet figure

2. Continuation of the prophetic role through various figures

V. Characteristics and Impact of Prophets

A. Diversity and Backgrounds of Prophets

1. Variety in social, professional, and gender backgrounds

B. Ad Hoc Nature of the Prophetic Institution

1. Lack of institutional continuity

2. Specific missions and messages

VI. Historical Examples and Theological Implications

A. Role in National Conscience and Guidance

1. Prophets as agents of divine communication

2. Implications for national behavior and destiny

B. Prophetic Books and Preservation of Messages

1. Role of traditionists in preserving prophetic words

2. Significance of written prophecies

VII. Conclusion and Reflection on the Prophetic Legacy

A. End of Prophecy and Transition to Other Forms of Guidance

B. Continuing Relevance of Prophetic Messages in Modern Times

  • Learning about the First Testament's language, geographical, and cultural contexts, and how these factors contribute to its frequent misinterpretation and underappreciation in modern times.
  • Gain insights into the literary and cosmic foundations of grace and glory in the Torah, understanding its role as more than law.
  • Learn that to be made in God's image entails embodying divine qualities and functioning as His representative on Earth, which extends a universal dignity upon all humans and shapes a theological ethic that influences how you treat others.
  • Genesis 1-3 frames human response to divine creation, emphasizing human dignity, work's moral role, free will's consequences, and the persistent grace amid sin.
  • This lesson reviews the Israelite covenant, understanding its stages, implications, and its role in God's redemptive plan.
  • Gain insights into Abraham's covenant with God, exploring his faith and God's promises.
  • Learn how the Exodus from Egypt marked Israel's transformation from a family to a nation under Yahweh.
  • Understand how the covenant at Sinai transforms Israel from slaves into a treasured nation destined for a divine mission, fulfilling God's ancient promises.
  • This lesson covers the covenantal expectations at Sinai. The covenantal agreement provided a constitutional and ethical framework for societal living, focusing on community rights and responsibilities.
  • In this lesson, you gain insight into how the tabernacle was both a physical manifestation of God's presence and a profound symbol of His grace, emphasizing the holiness and detailed guidance He provided to the Israelites for worship and daily life.
  • Gain insights into Deuteronomy, recognizing its focus on teaching rather than legislation, and understanding Moses' role as an instructor of Yahweh's will.
  • In this lesson, you explore how to interpret the First Testament's historiographic writings, emphasizing the divine inspiration and literary artistry that guide the selective storytelling and theological themes.
  • Learn how the books of Joshua and Judges illustrate the fulfillment and failure of Israel's covenant with Yahweh, highlighting divine promise, cultural assimilation, and the cyclical nature of faith and apostasy.
  • The Book of Ruth, highlights divine providence, social justice, and personal righteousness while exploring the role of Boaz as a pivotal figure in maintaining the lineage of King David.
  • Samuel had a significant yet complex role in Israel's history; judge, priest, prophet, and crucial figure in establishing monarchy.
  • Learn of David's central role in the Bible, understanding his unique portrayal and the extensive attention he receives compared to other figures.
  • Learn about the Davidic covenant's role in shaping biblical history and theology, emphasizing its eternal impact on Israel and beyond.
  • The books of Kings and Chronicles use historical events to underline theological themes, highlighting the role of scribes in documenting Israel’s history.
  • In this lesson on 1 and 2 Kings, review the downfall of Israel through kings' forgetfulness of God's covenants.
  • Learn about Solomon's temple's historical and theological significance, its divine design and purpose, and its role in Israelite worship and communal life.
  • Gain insights into the transformation and resilience of the Judean people during their exile in Babylon from 586-539 BC, exploring their struggles and adaptations in a new socio-political and religious context.
  • Learn about Daniel's exemplary life in Babylon, his integrity, and his prophetic visions, which highlight divine sovereignty and the vindication of the faithful amidst calamities.
  • Review the Persian period's impact on the Jewish diaspora, analyze the Book of Esther's literary and theological significance, and reflect on divine providence and cultural identity.
  • Explore the crucial roles of Ezra and Nehemiah in reconstructing the Jewish community and faith post-exile, understanding their historical significance, source materials, and theological insights.
  • Gain insight into the roles and significance of prophets in ancient Israel, learning about their historical context, and their critical function in guiding and correcting the nation through direct communication from Yahweh.
  • Learn about the lives and ministries of prophets Amos and Hosea, their calls for justice and return to divine covenant amidst Israel's political and spiritual turmoil, through prophetic books that blend personal biography with national prophecy.
  • This lesson reviews Jonah's struggle with divine grace and Micah's advocacy for justice and the messianic hope.
  • In this lesson, you learn how Isaiah's vision portrays the Messiah as king, servant, and conqueror, emphasizing his divine roles and global mission.
  • Learn of the political and social contexts of Jeremiah and Ezekiel's exile, including Babylon's rise, Jerusalem's fall, and the crisis of faith portrayed in Lamentations, emphasizing hope amid despair through God's faithfulness.
  • Learn about Jeremiah's life and prophetic ministry, navigating challenges with kings, themes in the Book of Jeremiah, and profound passages on true religion and a future covenant, offering lessons on prophetic burdens, God's faithfulness, and spiritual transformation.
  • Explore Ezekiel's life as a priest in exile, his bizarre actions, and profound messages revealing Yahweh's passion and eternal promises of judgment and restoration.
  • Learn about Nahum and Joel's prophecies on judgment, hope, and Yahweh's character. Explore the day of the Lord and the expansion of the covenant community.
  • Explore Obadiah, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah's prophecies. Discover themes of judgment, faith, and restoration in God's plan.
  • Gain insight into Haggai's role in motivating temple rebuilding during the Persian rule. His brief yet impactful ministry fosters hope and action amid community disillusionment, recoginizing God's presence and reign.
  • Gain deep insight into Hebrew poetry: its forms, parallelism, acrostics, and emotional depth. Explore its celebration and lamentation of Yahweh's glory.
  • Gain insight into Psalms which reflect diverse emotions and experiences. Structured into five divisions, attributed to various authors, their interpretation involves understanding Torah context, literary devices, and applying timeless principles to life.
  • Explore biblical wisdom's depth: from practical skill to moral insight, rooted in the fear of Yahweh. It contrasts with secular knowledge, emphasizing God's order and universal application.
  • Engage with Proverbs to unravel its diverse wisdom, from aphorisms to discourses. Understand its practical guidance for righteous living and leadership.
  • Discover the Song of Songs, a rich exploration of love's nature. From its allegorical interpretations to its celebration of covenantal love, it examines human relationships with wisdom and depth.
  • The book of Job offers insights into faith and suffering, exploring theological themes and character dynamics. It emphasizes trust in God amid life's most difficult trials.
  • Uncover Ecclesiastes' profound journey from despair to hope. Koheleth's existential ponderings contrast with the narrator's faith, urging a shift from worldly pursuits to finding fulfillment in God's sovereignty.

This Old Testament Survey course offers a deep exploration of the Old Testament's literary structure, divine covenants, and historical context. Lessons cover the Pentateuch, emphasizing its narrative over legalistic interpretations, and extend through key biblical figures like Abraham and Moses. Topics such as the covenant at Sinai, the concept of imago Dei, and the tabernacle rituals highlight the continuity of God's grace and the ethical implications of divine laws. The course critically addresses common misconceptions, the role of the Torah as instruction, and the portrayal of God’s plan, underscoring the relevance and complexity of these ancient texts.

Dr. Daniel Block 
Old Testament Survey
Prophecy and Hebrew Prophets
Lesson Transcript


Heralds of Yahweh's glory and grace, in this lesson I want to introduce us to the prophets of Israel and prophecy in general, and then in subsequent lessons we will look at the individual prophets whose books we have in our Bibles. Let's begin by talking about how the Scriptures talk about prophets. To understand the prophets of the First Testament we need to consider the titles by which they were addressed.

Now the English expression prophet comes from a Greek word meaning one who speaks forth, one who proclaims. But this does not explain the terms used in ancient Israel. They didn't speak or write in Greek.

The importance of the prophets in ancient Israel is reflected though in the variety of expressions used to identify them. First, they were seers. According to 1 Samuel 9-9 this was the early designation for prophets.

In fact, as a parenthetical comment the narrator says, people who are now called prophets used to be called seers. The word reflects the special perception of this class of people, particularly their ability to see sights normally unobservable to the natural eye, to see the future, to perceive the mind. Those are seers.

Second, they were visionaries, choseh. This designation derives from a specific means of revelation. Yahweh reveals to his prophet visions of the future of himself as in Isaiah 6 or Ezekiel 1. Third, they were called prophets.

The Hebrew word is navi. This is a passive form of a verb referring to one who is summoned by God. We can speak a little bit further about this.

Navi, with this i-class theme vowel, resembles other i-class theme vowels for official offices. Amashiach, the e there, is one anointed a messiah, and nasi, prince, is one who is elevated from a verb meaning to pick up and elevate, and nagid is one who is promoted, and nazir, a nazirite, is one who is set apart. So, navi is a passive verb meaning one who is summoned by God, and in most instances to be a spokesman for him or spokeswoman as well.

Fourth, they are called man of God. We never have the feminine counterpart of the expression. While there's no hesitation in the first testament for God to call women into prophetic ministry, we don't have the expression woman of God in this sense.

But by man of God, as in Deuteronomy 33, where the narrator calls Moses the man of God, this title reflects not only the person's relationship with God, that is a person whom God authorizes to come into his presence, and then sends out to speak for him. It's an official title, but it may also reflect character, as in the godly man in 2 Kings chapter 4, verse 7. Fifth, servant of Yahweh, eved Yahweh. This title is not reserved only for prophets.

It's applied also to Abraham and David as well. The expression reflects the special relationship prophets enjoyed with Yahweh. According to 2 Kings 17, 13, the prophets were agents of the heavenly court sent to proclaim the divine king's message.

Now this title is not a menial title, as we have in some usages in the Greek counterpart, bond slave, but that is not the case here. This is not a lowly term. It's an honorific title, and when Paul identifies himself as Paul, a servant of the Lord, I don't think it means bond slave.

It means he is an agent from the court of God, and whatever he writes in this letter, he writes as God's designated and commissioned agents. It's actually a high title. In the ancient world, the servants of the king, this title was often used of those who were members of the inner circle.

In fact, their status was so high, archaeologists have discovered dozens and dozens of seals that people used to stamp official documents that have the title that is servant of Jeroboam. Menial slaves never had seals. This was reserved for only those who had special authority from the king.

Prophets are called my servants the prophets. That means they are agents of God, the king of heaven and earth. Six, they are called messengers of Yahweh, malach Yahweh.

English translations have traditionally rendered malach Yahweh as the angel of the Lord, but this is somewhat misleading. A malach is simply an officially commissioned messenger of a higher authority sent out on the latter's initiative. This is especially the case when the designation is applied to the prophets.

They are messengers of God. In fact, in English, if you translate this as angel of the Lord, in modern readers, it conjures up all sorts of wrong impressions. It's interesting that in the first testament, for instance, angels never have wings.

When people interact with them, they think they're interacting with a human. They never fly. There are creatures that fly.

There are creatures that have wings, but they're not malachim. They are not these messengers. Well, those are the terms, and that gives us a window into this world.

The fact that we have seven different expressions for prophets in the Bible indicates how important this institution was for them. I had a student who came from Uganda. He said until he came to the United States, he had never seen snow.

In fact, in their language, they have no word for snow or ice. Well, then I asked, well, what do you call that? And they call it hailstones. They have hail, but they don't have snow or ice.

In a world like southern Uganda, you don't need a word for snow, but on the other hand, if snow is common, if you live up in Canada or here in this part of Washington state, you probably have several different words for a word like snow. Let's talk about the history of the prophetic institution in Israel. Many are surprised that the institution of prophecy was spread throughout the ancient Near East.

We have references in extra-biblical literature to prophets from Egyptian texts and especially from Mesopotamian texts and Aramaic texts. Prophets were everywhere. They served important purposes in the courts of ancient kings as counselors to kings through whom they learned the will of the gods, often for their administration, especially when they were entering into a battle.

They would consult a prophet and see what the oracle might tell them about the outcome of this battle. The Israelite version of prophecy was special. The history of the institution in the Bible goes back to Abraham, who is called a prophet, who the Lord said who prays for Abimelech.

He is a prophet. He will pray for you. Well, among the functions of ancient prophets was the function of intercession on behalf of people before God.

Well, God identified Abraham as a prophet in Genesis 27, but we never see him announcing a message of God to another audience. So that function in Abraham we do not see. We see this institution being developed most roundly, or should we say fully, for the first time in Moses.

We know that Moses had access to the court of Yahweh where he received revelation for the people and interceded on their behalf. From the time of Moses to the end of the first testament, there appears to have been an unbroken succession of prophets, people specially called by God as his agents. But before we get there, let me say one more thing about Moses.

At what point does Moses become a prophet, or is he officially recognized as prophet? At the end of his life, within days of when he passes away, in his third address to his people in Deuteronomy 18, he says, the Lord will raise up a prophet like me. When did Moses become a prophet? Well, our first inclination is to say in Exodus 3 and 4, where God calls him to lead the people out of Egypt. But that function is really quite different from what most prophets do.

I think the event, the moment of his installation officially, publicly as prophet, happens in Exodus chapter 20. You remember the story? After the Lord had spoken to the people directly, revealing to them the Decalogue, I am Yahweh your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, and then you have the ten commands in the Decalogue revealed directly to God. Remember the people's response? The people came to Moses and they say, stop, stop, stop.

If God continues to keep speaking to us directly, we will all die. It's lethal, it's deadly, his speech. And then they propose, Moses, you go to God, you talk to him, let him talk to you, and you pass on his messages to us.

In a sense, they are looking to Moses to be the lightning rod between the energy of heaven and the needs of earth. And in the Deuteronomic version of that event, when Moses recalls that event, he says, the Lord said that's a good idea. And at that moment, from that moment on, Moses became primarily the agent of mediating revelation.

That's what a prophet does. He hears a word from the heavenly court, and on behalf of God enthroned in the heavenly court, he passes the word on to his people. From that moment on, Moses' primary role was that of a prophet, or one of his primary roles was that of a prophet.

But the list of prophets includes others, including women like Miriam and Devorah and Huldah. It includes farmers like Elisha and Amos, men from the backwoods like Elijah and Jonah, men with priestly background like Jeremiah and Ezekiel, those from the upper classes like Isaiah, and those with troubled marriages like Hosea. Prophets come from all over the place, and the institution of prophecy is such an ad hoc institution.

There is no automatic transmission of the office from father to son. There could be more than one generation exercising this gift and this office, but on the other hand, people are sent to a target audience with a message to proclaim, and when they proclaim that message, they disappear. It's an ad hoc institution.

It is not institutionalized like the offices of king, and later on after Solomon's time, judges were often inherited positions, and especially the priesthood. These were regular, canonized positions, not so with a prophet. It was ad hoc.

There was a need. God would send a messenger to address that need. Sometimes it was expressly because the other institutions were failing.

Kings were not behaving, so God sent in a prophet, or the priests were not behaving, so God sent in Samuel, for instance. Throughout Israel's history, Yahweh provided the nation with a continuous succession of prophets. We can trace this from Hannah to Samuel to Nathan to Gad, Ahijah, Ido, Shemaiah, Hanani, Elijah, Elisha, Huldah, the writing prophets that we have in our Bibles, and many unnamed persons.

In the absence of an effective Urim and Tumim, and in the absence of a spiritually sensitive priesthood, the prophets served as the conscience of the nation. The prophets were a gift of grace to the people. God would send his agents to keep the people on track, and of course, since this was an ad hoc institutions, prophets had no authority, no power to make people do what they told them to do.

The only person who comes near to an exception in that would be Samuel, who was also acting as a priest, and also acting as a judge. But for the rest of them, as prophets, they had no power. They had authority to speak the word of God, but they did not have license to be sure the people did it.

They were not police in that culture. In the courts of Israel, they supported the Davidic dynasty in principle, though when that dynasty was going off track, they were there to correct them as God's agent of discipline. When the king operated within the will of God, the prophets functioned as messengers of God and intercessors for the nation.

But unlike the prophets in other countries, when the king operated contrary to the will of God, they were fearless in their rebuke. Although their messages often appear to challenge established religious and cultic institutions, in principle, true prophets were thoroughly mosaic in doctrine and in ethic. They did not preach a new gospel.

They were prophets in the order of Moses, for whom the book of Deuteronomy, the speeches of Moses in the book of Deuteronomy would have been deemed their classic paradigmatic textbook. Their task was to keep people on track with God. Their goals were spiritual renewal, demonstrated in exclusive devotion to Yahweh, think about Elijah and Elisha.

They also sought to encourage and inspire personal holiness and purity, compassionate and merciful conduct. In the end, both northern and southern kingdoms fell because they failed to heed the messages of the prophets. II Kings 18, 7-23 is explicit in this, because they refused to listen to my servants, the prophets.

And Daniel uses similar expressions in Daniel chapter 9, in his prayer, verses 4-19, he talks about my servants, or his servants, the prophets. And they also prophesied in keeping with the Mosaic covenant, curses and blessings. When they announced the rewards of fidelity, they would echo Leviticus 26, and especially Deuteronomy 28, verses 1-14.

And when they proclaimed messages of judgment, they were proclaiming the application of the covenant terms found in Leviticus 26 and 28. They did not preach contrary to the covenant, but they preached the theology and the ethic of the covenant. Let's talk then about the writing prophets.

Apparently, Israel was unique among its neighbors, not only for the independence her prophets demonstrated vis-a-vis the king and the priesthood, but also for the care that her people who kept track of official writings, traditionists, the care the traditionists took in preserving the messages of the prophets. It is the prophetic books that give the first testament the distasteful tone for many modern readers, as one prophet after another rails upon the nation and pronounces the divine sentences of doom. The fact that these messages have been preserved in written form for all posterity attests to the seriousness of the ancient preachers, the hardness of Israel's hearts, and the veracity, the truthfulness of the divine word.

The histories of northern and southern kingdoms of Israel came to a crashing halt in 722 BC and 586 BC, respectively, all in fulfillment of the divine word. As Moses had said, the Lord will raise up a prophet like me. He will speak my words, and the test, the proof of a true prophet is that his word will come true.

It will happen. But the presence of these prophets at Israel's critical hour attests to the compassionate heart of God, and we need to hear this. In each instance before 722 and 586, in each instance, immediately before the final doom happened, the Lord appealed to the nations by sending another wave of prophets to warn of the dangers ahead.

We know how this works. If we are going for a walk with our child, and there's a steep ditch, and you see the child is about to walk over the ditch, you scream at the child, and you say, or you grab the child, and you pull him back. This is not an act of abuse.

This is an act of mercy. In the conflict between the Israelis and the Gazites these days, I'm saddened by all the violence that occurs between these two parties, but I am impressed by one feature of the Israeli tactics here. I find it interesting that before the Israelis send in another bomb missile into Gaza, they send a message regularly to the people living there, get out, this is our target, we're coming.

That's an act of mercy. It is an act of grace to let the people know of the dangers about to happen in keeping with previous words or in keeping with principle. The Hebrew canon designates the historiographic books as the former prophets, and the recorded messages of the prophets as the latter prophets.

Tradition divides these two, the latter, into two groups, the major prophets, so-called because of the length of the books, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, and then you have the twelve. Apparently, there was a scroll that at one point contained all the prophecies of the minor prophets. Originally, they would have been written on separate scrolls, but you could collect them all on one scroll.

In fact, all twelve minor prophets together is not nearly as long as the book of Jeremiah or the book of Ezekiel or Isaiah. Technically, Daniel is not a prophetic book, since this person didn't function as a professional prophet in the same sense as the rest, which is why in the Hebrew canon, Daniel is found in the writings at the back with Ezra and Nehemiah and Chronicles. But we must also talk about the end of the prophetic spirit in Israel.

Malachi is the last book in the first testament, but according to tradition, this prophet's death marked also the end of prophecy in Israel. First Maccabees, an apocryphal text, intertestamental text, it notes, there was a great distress in Israel such as had not existed since the time that the prophets ceased among them. That's First Maccabees 9.27. Compare also 4.46 and 14.41. The Jewish rabbis note that the Holy Spirit abandoned Israel when the last prophet died.

Josephus blames the failure of the exact succession of the prophets for the poor complete history of the nation after the time of Artaxerxes. That's in Contra Appion 1.8.41. Well, Malachi is not only the last book in the first testament. According to tradition, this is when prophecy died in Israel.

Now let's look at the nature of prophetic ministry. Many people are mystified by the way first testament prophets operated, but the mystery may be removed somewhat if we recognize that the prophetic role was based upon the model of the official messenger in an ancient royal court. Prophetic speech was the speech of the divinely authorized and commissioned messenger.

We may note several important elements of their role. For prophets, the prophet's speech was divine speech. The prophet had divine authority.

What God said, the prophet said. What the messenger said, God said, which is why these messengers regularly, when they're speaking for God, speak in first person. But this is not only true of prophets as messengers.

It's illustrated in Genesis 32, 3-6, a story from the life of Jacob. Here is, in the left column, I've given you the headings of the parts of a messenger's enterprise and message that we can identify. In the preamble, for instance, in Genesis 32, 3-6, we see the identification of the commissioner, the addressee, and the place.

And Jacob sent messengers ahead of him to Esau, his brother, in the land of Seir, the country of Edom. Notice messengers. It's the same word that's used of prophets malak, not navi, but malak, prophets as messengers.

What happens then is Jacob commanded them, saying, thus you shall say to my lord Esau. With prophetic messages, it is the same. Ezekiel will write, the word of the Lord came to me saying, thus you shall say to them.

And what follows then is given as the divine speech, beginning with what we call a citation formula, thus has your servant Jacob declared, and then the report of the message. Jacob is saying to Esau, I have sojourned with Laban and stayed there until now. Now I possess oxen, donkeys, and flocks, and male and female servants, and then he gives the purpose, and I have sent messengers to inform my lord so I might find favor in your sight.

Well, this little episode from Jacob and Laban's life has all the elements of most prophets, most prophetic pronouncements. The goal of prophetic speech was to get the addressees to view reality the way God perceived it. This typically involved breaking down prevailing perceptions and reconstructing them according to the divine mind, how God sees things.

The communication, the rhetorical event has four phases. You have the commissioning of a messenger, the transmission of the message to the messenger, God talks to the prophet, then the delivery of the message, the prophet talks to the intended audience, and then the report of the task completed and the response of the addressee. You find this pattern all over the place.

But this leads us to one more question. How did the prophecies that these prophets delivered become a prophetic book? When you read the book of Isaiah, who did this? Who wrote this book? Who put this thing together? Those are questions we have. There are many questions we have concerning the relationship between divine revelation and oral proclamation and written prophecy in ancient Israel, but most of the prophetic books in our First Testament must have gone through a process involving most, if not all, of these stages, and now I have one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, seven stages in the process by which a prophetic book would be produced.

Stage one, the prophet receives a message from God. Stage two, the prophet transmitted that message to the audience. Stage three, that oracle was transcribed.

Somebody wrote it down. Stage four, the circumstances of that prophetic event were added to the transcribed oracle, creating a complete literary unit. You see this in some instances in our prophets.

For instance, in Ezekiel, he will sometimes begin, the prophecy will sometimes begin, in the sixth year of our exile, the following word of the Lord came to me, and that's what this is about. That's not part of the prophecy. It's part of the book, but it's not part of the prophecy.

It's simply giving the circumstances of that prophecy. Then when you've got that, the prophet has finished his work, and his speeches are committed to writing or whatever. Somebody gathers these texts, these little ostraca or little scraps of papyrus or whatever they wrote their texts on.

Somebody will have gathered them into a basket. Then we have stage six. The collection was organized, and individual oracles were stitched together by means of connective and relating notes, resulting in a more or less coherent book.

And finally, a formal heading was added to the book, identifying the prophet, the circumstances of ministry, and the genre of the collection. And now finally, we've got the whole book. The rest of the history of the book has to do with how it was copied and transmitted, and in our case, we're reading the English text, how it was translated.

But most of these books will have gone through this process in one way or another. Prophetic passages were often recorded, so they could be delivered by a messenger to the intended audience or simply be preserved for that and future generations. Daniel is reading in the documents the prophecy of Jeremiah concerning the 70 years of captivity, and he is responding to what he reads.

So prophecies were often recorded and then sometimes distributed. But in the absence, I mean under normal circumstance, the proof of a true prophet is his prediction happens. But what happens if your primary goal in prophecy is not prediction but reformation? You're not predicting events.

You're appealing to people to get right with God. What happens if people don't respond? Where's the proof that you're a true prophet? Well, in the absence of audience response and in the face of false prophetic opposition, that is opposition by false prophets, it was not only important that prophecies be fulfilled but that the audience would know that events occur specifically in fulfillment of the words. In the ancient world where messengers had a reputation for deceit, and all over the place, you've got these stories of true prophets interacting with false prophets.

They're fakes. They're phony. Written documentation of a message offered the most foolproof means of determining whether a messenger was true or false.

Accordingly, recorded oracles provided a test of the truth or falsehood of a person's claims to prophetic status. Earlier predictions could be checked in light of the historical facts. I'm going to end this conversation about the nature of prophecy with just by summarizing quickly a few basic principles involved in interpreting Hebrew prophecy.

What principles apply? Some of these apply to any kind of writing. But with prophetic speech, number one, recognize that prophetic speech is rhetorical speech. Rhetoric is the art of using language for persuasion in speaking or writing, especially in oratory

The interpreter of prophecy must examine the text for clues to the passion and the goal of the speaker, clues to the mental and spiritual state of the audience and the theological message communicated, and then pay attention to the rhetorical strategies employed to get the message across. The most interesting character in this business, especially the rhetorical strategies used, is the prophet Ezekiel, who uses a hundred different ways of trying to get his point across, some of which are traditional, but some of which are shockingly bizarre. Second, interpret the oracle within its cultural context.

Often awareness of cultural features learned from the First Testament itself and, thankfully, from extra-biblical, artifactual, and literary sources, these may illumine our understanding of the message. I cannot understand the book of Ezekiel if I haven't immersed myself in Babylonian mythology and culture. Ezekiel works in Babylon.

He speaks to an audience that has been infected by Babylonian spiritual and theological diseases. Third, interpret the oracle within its literary context. If you're working with a particular text, see how it fits into the canonical arrangement of a prophet's messages and how it relates to other oracles by the same prophet.

Four, identify the genre and form of the prophecy. Notice how the structure adheres to the form or modifies the hypothetical ideal and how it compares with oracles of similar forms in other prophets. Pay careful attention to poetic features.

This is a fifth principle. Parallelism, figures of speech, hyperbole, imagery, symbolism. Six, interpret the prophecy within the context of Israelite prophecy in general.

Some prophecies appear in virtually the same form in more than one book. Isaiah 2, 1 to 4, and Micah 4, 1 to 3 are very close. It looks like somebody's copying from somebody.

Others obviously adapt and build on previously delivered messages by other prophets. There's no doubt in my mind that in Ezekiel 34 he has Jeremiah 23, 3 to 5. That's his sermon text, and now he is building on that with a whole chapter devoted to God as the good shepherd and my servant David whom God appoints over his people. Or compare Ezekiel 28 with Isaiah 14.

It looks like Ezekiel is building off Isaiah. Seven, examine the relationships among the prophetic messages and earlier divine revelation. This is especially important in relation to judgment oracles.

Then we must check the covenant curses in Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28 and the basis of salvation oracles in the Lord's eternal and irrevocable covenant promises to the patriarchs through Moses and to David. The prophets, when they announce the doom of Israel or the ultimate restoration of Israel, it is always using terms and motifs and expressions out of the Torah texts, the biblical texts, especially Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28. And nine, recognize that most prophetic speech was driven by ethical and spiritual concerns.

Specific predictions of distant future represent just a small minority of prophetic utterances. Their point is a message. They're functioning like pastors.

It's a message to this audience to this day trying to inspire fidelity and spiritual renewal in their relationship with God. Number 10, we need to observe evidence of conditionality. Even where no conditions are recorded, announcements of judgment were usually by definition conditional.

Remember Jonah chapter three? Jonah didn't want to go to Nineveh, and so he ran away, but then God called him back, and he rescued him from death in the sea by means of a whale, and then he sent him back to Nineveh, and we have a summary statement of the message Jonah is to preach. Forty days, and it's over. That's all.

Forty days, and it's over. Well, as it turns out, the Ninevites repent, and it wasn't over. Obviously, this message of judgment was a message of grace.

It was an invitation to respond to God who is calling them to repentance, and they repented. Number 11, recognize that prophetic visions of the distant future are often compressed and tend to focus on the Messiah and the messianic age. Describe the vision of the future as understood by the prophet, and then examine how later prophets and how New Testament writers adopt and adapt that vision.

Seldom do they simply quote. They're using earlier texts as sermon texts that they are now preaching. Number 12, recognize that Israelite prophets were preachers, not systematic theologians.

That's important. Their goal was pastoral. They are not writing term papers that you hand in to your college or seminary professor.

Their goal was pastoral, to feed the flock and to challenge them to faithful covenant living, and the methods they use are right across the spectrum. Sometimes they make up stories to make a point. Sometimes they adapt earlier memories, and they switch, and they change it to make it speak to the present situation.

It doesn't mean that now that they've used that text, you go back to the earlier text and interpret it in the light of the later. No. That text must keep its original message for that original context, the natural reading, but it does mean you cannot understand the later text without having looked at the earlier text.

And then finally, reflect on the permanent theology expressed in the oracle. This becomes the key to proclamation from the pulpit today, or application of the lessons in our private reading of Scripture. The prophets were called of God to represent Him, to proclaim His Word, and to inform us of God's perspective on reality, and as embodied in the canonical Scriptures, they are authoritative for all time, even though their shape is determined by their immediate BC cultural and literary context.

But we need to examine always, ask always, what is this text telling us about God? What's it telling us about the human condition? What's it telling us about the state and destiny of the world? And then we will begin to see what it is telling us about ourselves in our worlds. This is how the prophets operated.