Have you ever seen a piece of art that left you... confused? Admittedly, I am incredibly naive when it comes to artistic expression. Recently, we ventured to our local art museum, and I stumbled upon a massive canvas painting that took me aback. Upon first glance, it was splatter painted, created spontaneously and without much forethought. Yet, something about the painting captivated my attention. Maybe it's because this particular piece had a huge exhibit to itself. Maybe it was the graffiti-esque style. Soon I was convicted about my rash judgment, when an art historian began to share details about the piece. What I thought was chaos, had a specific purpose. Colors were chosen to represent feelings, and their splatter upon the canvas represented the complexity of human emotion. My snap judgment was wildly incorrect!
Oftentimes, we can approach the Prophets of the Bible in the same way. These books seem chaotic and confusing–filled with "doom and gloom" warnings of the future. The whispers of hope throughout the Prophets may feel cryptic and clouded. But just because the Prophets are more complex than other books in the Bible, does not mean they aren't important. Just like the painting, they are intentionally designed and hold great purpose in God's redemptive story.
Israel was a wayward nation. During the times the Prophets were written, Israel turned their back on God under the leadership of corrupt kings and priests. They worshiped foreign gods, disobeyed God's law, and ultimately forgot Yahweh–the God who lovingly rescued and redeemed them time and time again. The prophets were everyday Israelites who experienced a divine encounter with God, and then were appointed to speak to God's people on His behalf. In short, the prophets were filled with God's word and would pour His words out among the people. Sometimes, the prophets went to great lengths to be heard. For example, the prophet Elijah challenged worshippers of false prophets of another god to a fire-making challenge. God showed up and consumed the burnt offering with fire before the eyes of the people, putting other false gods to shame (1 Kings 18:20–40). No other God could compete with Yahweh, and it was Elijah's mission to prove that.
How to Read the Prophets
The Prophets primarily spoke for three reasons:
1.) To make accusations against those who refuse to follow God
2.) To call for the Israelites to repent and return to their merciful, forgiving Father
3.) To convey predictions of future hope and coming judgment.
Understanding these categories of prophecies can help us best navigate these sometimes challenging books. So before you begin studying a prophet, try to determine why the prophet is speaking. You can do this by reading commentary available on websites like www.blueletterbible.org or reading the introduction of a book in a study Bible. Either way, determining the reasoning for the prophet's message will help you better understand the "why" behind the prophet's message. Additionally, it will also help you to understand the who, what, when, and where of the prophet's message: Who are they speaking to? What is the main point of the message? When were they delivering their message? And from where are they prophesying? Again, this information can be found by reading the introduction section of most study Bibles or by visiting www.blueletterbible.org.
Finally, we must also remember that many prophets use profound imagery. To understand how prophets used imagery, let's revisit my experience with the painting. Imagine that I later described the complex painting to a friend over coffee. Though my friend may have an idea of the painting through my description, she may not be able to completely visualize what I saw. In the same way, we may not be able to fully comprehend these complex word pictures. And that is okay! God used the prophets to write His inspired Word, so the prophetic details on these pages are exactly enough for us to glean God's intended message.
What Do the Prophets Tell Us about God?
I think my favorite aspect of the prophetic books are what they communicate about our loving God. Remember, God rescued the Israelites from slavery, provided for them, gave them a beautiful home in the Promised Land, and protected them from their enemies over and over again in their history. However, they failed to remember Yahweh. Just like us, they became distracted by immediate pleasures and reliefs. But God is faithful. He graciously sent prophets to woo His beloved children back to His embrace. The prophets reminded Israel that their God is full of mercy and forgiveness, if they would only turn around to seek Him.
Underlying even the most intense images of judgment is the message, "there will be another way." Whispers and shouts of gospel-hope are scattered throughout the prophetic books. God graciously reminds Israel that He is working throughout their pain and throughout their unfaithfulness to bring a Savior that will one day triumph over evil. A virgin will conceive a Son (Isaiah 7:14) from the line of David, and He will be the long-awaited perfect King and Israel's Savior (Jeremiah 23:5–6).
Though prophetic books can be more difficult to understand, they are so worth our time. By diving into Old Testament prophecies, we get a fuller, richer, and deeper picture of the gospel. We see God's faithfulness to provide for His people, and we see Jesus fulfill each and every prophecy in the New Testament. In many ways, these prophetic books are a bridge into the New Testament. Just like the friendly historian awakened the painting with history, the prophetic books reignite our longing for Jesus and remind us of the beauty of our gospel hope.
For more resources to understand genres of the Bible check out these resources: