The prophetic books (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, the 12 minor prophets, and Daniel) are the books of the Bible I understand the least. Thankfully I’m taking Prophetical Books with Dr. Jack Collins this semester. He is the editor of the OT portion of the ESV; basically he is the man when it comes to reading the Old Testament well.
Today I wanted to pass along some questions he gave us to help our understanding of these books. Considering these questions will help us get at what the authors was trying to communicate. This is the initial goal when reading Biblical books. Actually that is probably the first principle, or one of the primary principles, of Biblical interpretation. First, figure out what the author meant to communicate to his audience. Only then do we work that into our 21st century Western setting. If we read the prophets as if they were speaking to our particular time and culture we can get all kinds of strange readings (a different meaning for each different setting) that have may little to do with what the author meant to get across.
1) What are the historical circumstances of this prophet and his work? What are the specific circumstances of this passage (if we can tell)?
2) What is the assumed form in which covenant institutions (e.g. kingship; worship; etc.) are administered, and how is this drawn upon and enriched?
3) What is the literary relation of this text to its larger context, and what is the literary structure of the passage itself?
4) What imagery does the prophet use?
5) What would constitute fulfillment of predictive elements?
6) What elements are conditional and unconditional?
7) How did the people respond to the message (if we can tell)?
8) How does this passage speak about the people of God – their current condition, their role in the story, and God’s future for the people?
To help you answer question one, here is a breakdown of the prophet’s time and place:
8th Century Prophets to the Northern Kingdom – Jonah, Amos, Hosea
8th Century Prophets to the Southern Kingdom – Micah, Isaiah
7th Century Prophets to the Southern Kingdom – Nahum, Zephaniah, Habakkuk
7th to 6th Century Prophets to the Southern Kingdom – Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Obadiah, Daniel
6th to 5th Century Prophets, Judah Restored – Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi, Joel
To illustrate why setting matters, consider a prophet prophesying to the Northern kingdom. The North has rejected David’s line and set up false worship. As a result, prophecy about David carries a very different connotation then if the prophet was speaking to the South who hadn’t rejected David. Therefore, we interpret that passage differently.