Interpreting Prophetic Literature & Amos

Prophetic literature is somewhat of a minefield for wacky interpretations. To start, let me just tell you that there are 737 prophecies in the Bible. 139 of these prophecies were about the divided kingdom – about Israel and Judah separating, which happened in approximately 931BC. This gives us some perspective to show that a lot of the prophecies found in the Bible have already been fulfilled. Only 2% of the prophecies found in the Bible are about Jesus, and less than 1% of the prophecies are about the age to come (Christ’s return). We can get very carried away thinking that every single prophecy is fulfilled in Jesus, or are pictures of the “last days,” when in reality, the vast majority of Biblical prophecy has already been fulfilled. Does this take away from the prophecies about Christ’s return? Certainly not! We can look to the prophecies that have already been fulfilled, and know that because they were accurate, prophecies about Jesus coming back for His faithful people are also accurate.

God sent the prophets for a number of purposes. First of all, the fulfillment of predictions shows that God is in control. Some of the prophets prophesied about events that would take place hundreds of years later (Isaiah prophecies about the fall of Jerusalem in the 700s BC, and this didn’t happen until 586BC). The prophets give God’s perspective on the past, present and future, brought warnings of judgement that were meant to bring sinners to repentance and brought hope of restoration. We can think of the prophets as God’s “policemen.” The people of God had broken the covenant they had made with Him, and the prophets were calling them to repentance, before it was too late and they were judged. Many of the prophets prophesied about exile; Israel was exiled by Assyria in 722BC, and Judah was exiled by Babylon in 586BC.

Prophets communicated in a number of ways. There are several prophets mentioned in the Bible who do not have books in the Bible; look at Kings and Chronicles to see these “spoken prophets.” Other prophets wrote down their messages as well as speaking them; these are the prophets we see with books in the Bible. Prophets also often communicated through enacted symbols. Hosea was called to marry a harlot as a symbol of Israel’s unfaithfulness to God. Isaiah was called to walk around naked for three years as a sign against Egypt and Cush.

As we think about interpreting the prophets, there are several things to keep in mind.

  1. First of all, learn abut the historical situation of the prophet speaking, and the people he was speaking to. The prophets spoke into specific situations and a specific people. Joel, for example, spoke to Judah in the aftermath of a locust plague; if you learn about the dismal effects of a locust plague, you will have a much greater appreciation for the imagery used throughout the book.
  2. Be inductive in your interpretation of the prophets. Don’t just pull out one line and decide you know what it is about. Read the whole book. Get a feel for what the prophet is talking about before you make assumptions based on one verse.
  3. Keep the main idea in mind. A lot of the prophets wrote using poetry, and just as with poetry today, if we get lost in each and every single word, we lose the main message of the poetry. If you keep the big picture in mind, you’ll be less likely to get caught up in the details.
  4. The New Testament always interprets the Old Testament. For example, Amos 9:11-12 is quoted in Acts 15:16-17. Find out where the New Testament quotes the Old Testament, and realize that though the original reader would not likely have understood the fulfillment of the prophecy, the fullest interpretation is found in the New Testament. It is a minority of prophecies that are quoted in the New Testament, but when they are, take notice.
  5. If you are trying to figure out the fulfillment of a prophecy, finding the event that is closest in time frame to the prophecy is usually best. We can go all sorts of places with “exile” language, but the reality is that most prophets were speaking about actual exile, not some sort of figurative “last days” exile.

Hope these tips help as you read the prophets! Remember, these are just guidelines; prophets did not follow formulas, so we can’t always interpret their writings using a formula! Our next post will be on Joel; Michael will by writing a summary of his teaching of this very highly debated book! Joel takes about fifteen minutes to read.


Amos

Main Idea: Amos warns Israel that their social injustice and idolatry will not go unpunished.

Reason Written: Written to address the rich with regards to God’s intolerance for social injustice.

Timeless Truth: God despises empty worship which is not congruent with the way in which one lives one’s life (Amos 6:21-24).

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