Key questions about texts in the prophets

Ezekiel in Berlin – Tony Watkins

If we want to understand and interpret a passage from the biblical prophetic literature, there are a few key questions we need to ask. Most of these are not specific to the  prophets of the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible, but are basic matters of handling any Bible passage responsibly. Most people find they need to work harder on Old Testament texts as the setting and style is less familiar than the New Testament. And for many, that's even more true when it comes to the prophetic books. We may only have the vaguest idea about the historical context, we don't get many of the prophet's references to matters of religion, culture, or international politics, and the way they express themselves often feels very alien to us.  So here are some pointers to help your thinking.

Three worlds to consider

The world behind the text

What is the background situation and the historical context of the passage? This is important for all Bible passages, not just those in the prophets, but you may feel less familiar with the worlds in which the First Covenant prophets operated. You can find much of what you need here simply by carefully reading the history books within the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. For the prophets, the books of Kings and Chronicles are most immediately relevant, but you'll also need to be familiar with the earlier history from the Pentateuch to the books of Samuel.

  1. Where does this passage come within the flow of salvation history?
  2. What is the particular historical context of this passage?
  3. What problems is the text addressing (the ‘rhetorical problem’)?

The world of the text

What is really going on in the text? We need to do a great deal of work to understand any passage of the Bible on its own terms, rather than simply reading our assumptions into it.

  1. What is the text's genre? Genres are groups of texts sharing similar characteristics. Old Testament prophetic literature is a kind of super-genre: these books are distinguishable from other books in the Hebrew Bible, but to really get to grips with them, you'll need to be able to recognise some specific prophetic genres. See Genres within the Prophets.
  2. What is the structure of the passage? You may need to think about the structure of the whole book, at least to some extent, though that's challenging for a long prophet like Isaiah, Jeremiah, or Ezekiel. Then you need to identify the structure of the discourse (the whole unit), then sections within the discourse, and then the individual paragraphs.
  3. What does the text actually say and mean? Pay close attention to repeated words or ideas, and words or ideas which are highlighted some other way. Try to work out what the various idioms, similes, and metaphors mean. See Figures of Speech. Reflect on the parallelism between pairs of lines (often called half-lines or verses). See Hebrew Poetry. At this stage, I think it's best to start at the sentence level, then see how they work together in paragraphs, and then how the paragraphs create the meaning of the whole discourse.
  4. Identify the core theological principle that the passage communicates. We're trying to identify what the text reveals about God and His will. How does He reveal himself in relationship with His people, and what they need to understand or do in the light of it? In other words, what was the point of this text for its original audiences? I think we need to consider two original audiences: the people who heard the prophet speak the words in person, and then the people who first had the written text of the prophetic book.

The world in front of the text

There are two main aspects of this. First, how does this text relate to what follows it in Scripture? Second, how does it relate to us? We must do the previous two stages first: understand them in context (the world behind the text), read them well and understand them on their own terms (the world of the text). Then, as Walter Kaiser says, we must read them in a Christocentric way to put them in their full biblical context and apply them to us. He says:

Sound expository preaching always requires these three basic moves: from (1) determining the original meaning, to (2) the meaning in the context of the whole canon, to (3) the application of this meaning for our hearers today.

Greidanus, 1999, p. 231

Relating prophetic texts to Jesus

There's a balancing act here. We must not read Christ back into the First Covenant texts, but we must read them in the light of Christ. We need to identify ways of legitimately talking about Christ from First Covenant texts in the canonical context of the New Covenant. If we don't do so, we are not reading the texts as Christian readers.

So as well as asking what the text reveals about God and his will, we also need to consider what it reveals about Christ. As well as asking what the text meant to its original audience(s), we need to ask what it means in the light of Christ? Greidanus gives 7 ways of relating First Covenant texts to Jesus, which I will write about in due course:

  1. Redemptive-historical progression
  2. Promise-fulfilment
  3. Anticipations (typology)
  4. Analogy
  5. Longitudinal themes
  6. Contrast
  7. New Testament quotations and allusions

Applying prophetic texts to our context

As Christian readers, we must see the texts through Christ first – understanding them from a Christocentric perspective. That will help us to see how the texts speak to us.

The prophets address the First Covenant people of God – a geopolitical, cultural, religious entity. Under the New Covenant, the people of God is the international church of Jesus Christ, comprising Gentiles who have been grafted into Abraham's family as well as Jews descended from him genetically. The prophets do not, in the first instance, challenge the world in which we live; they rebuke our unfaithfulness as God's people.

The promises which the prophets give are about Jesus first, then the Church as a whole, not us as individuals. The judgements they announce fell on First Covenant Israel/Judah, anticipating the full weight of God's judgement being borne by the Lord Jesus Christ. They further anticipate the final judgement, which is relevant both inside and outside the church. Those judgements come out of a theological vision of what God wants for his people – shalom and flourishing – so we need to look at how both promises of salvation and warnings of judgement ultimately point to the new creation.

References

Greidanus, S., 1999. Preaching Christ From the Old Testament : A Contemporary Hermeneutical Method. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans.

© Tony Watkins, 2020
The Tony and Jane Watkins Trust oversees and supports the ministries of Tony and Jane Watkins in Christian training, education, and communication. It is a charity registered in England and Wales, no. 1062254.
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