After residing for over thirty years in Northern Virginia, my wife and I recently moved to Austin, Texas. Even though both locales technically own the label “Southern,” Texas feels a bit like a foreign culture. And I’m not just referring to vocabulary choices like y’all, yonder, and “howdy.” Learning new roads (with U-Turn lanes!), tasting new foods, and basking in more sunshine all make for challenges in interpretation.
In greater and more important ways, many Christians find interpreting the Old Testament prophets similar—like encountering a foreign language and culture. As a result, the works of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and all those so-called “minor prophets” remain closed books. But ignoring or undervaluing a section of God’s word—greater in length than the entire New Testament—must be resisted. We must figure out how to read, understand, and heed these proclaimers of God’s truth.
To be sure, this is a challenge. Even the most devoted scholars of the prophetic works acknowledge the difficulties. And interpreting the prophets’ words is only the beginning of the mess. When we actually grasp what they’re saying, their message penetrates in deeply painful ways. The very first sentence of Abraham Joshua Heschel’s magnificent landmark work on the prophets greets us with these words: “This book is about some of the most disturbing people who have ever lived.”[i]
I’ve come to benefit greatly from reading the prophets. But I’ve found it a bit of a learning curve to conquer. May I suggest a few aids to help you in your own reading? If we can recognize these common devices or patterns of speech, the prophets can become more welcome and regular food for your scriptural diet.
The prophets painted pictures. Often, they described a scene of minute precision that illustrated a much larger reality. The small image pointed to an immense scenario. For example (to start with an easy one), Isaiah tells us that “the wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them” (Isaiah 11:6). Take a moment to picture this. Have you ever seen a photo with a wolf and a lamb in the same frame? You’ve watched those National Geographic documentaries, right? These episodes are disgusting! The wolf was eating the lamb or chasing it in order to devour it. They weren’t lying next to each other in tranquility. And get that little child away from all those animals! But Isaiah was given a vision of a time of such peacefulness that even the animal kingdom experiences dramatic transformation.
Some of the imagery isn’t as easy to decipher. (By the way, getting some interpretive help from commentaries or other guides shouldn’t be considered cheating. Allow the biblical scholars to ease the process a bit. The more you learn from them, the more you’ll be trained to see things properly and interpret more and more imagery.)[ii]
Amos pictured a future time when, “the reaper will be overtaken by the plowman and the planter by the one treading grapes” (Amos 9:13). Allow these visual images to sink in for a moment. Sometimes the visual paves the way for the cognitive. Do you see a reaper in a field? Is he picking grapes? Is there anyone behind him? Probably not. Why not? After reapers come through, the field sits dormant for a while to allow it to rest. During that time, the harvested grapes are pressed to make wine, often by people treading the grapes with their feet. Then, months later, plowmen come and dig up the soil to start the agricultural cycle all over. The plowmen leave the soil prepared for sowers to scatter seed. Again, more time elapses for watering and growth to progress at the normal pace, usually more slowly than we’d like. Sometimes we wonder if anything is happening at all or if we’ll ever get to that day of harvest.
But what if God elongated the entire process? What if it was a time of such tremendous fruitfulness that the reaper looked over his shoulder and saw the next wave of the agricultural process already starting, even though he was still harvesting? The plowman would catch up to the reaper. In fact, he might even overtake him. Right behind the plowman, the wine-pressers were waiting to get to work; as it was already their turn. Some readers might think this “overtaking” is impossible; no field could produce that much fruitfulness. But that’s exactly Amos’s point! A time is coming so unlike our current age that we need arresting images to capture it. The coming age will be beyond our wildest dreams. And to a people who lived without food security, this was beyond their wildest dreams. And that’s where the prophets often camp out—beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.
Not all the imagery is pleasant. Isaiah envisions a day when, “…seven women will take hold of one man and say, ‘We will eat our own food and provide our own clothes; only let us be called by your name. Take away our disgrace!” (Isaiah 4:1). Some men might relish these marital prospects tilting so lopsidedly in their favor. But the surrounding context will not allow for such a modern, sensually-obsessed interpretation. The time Isaiah sees is after such horrific military defeat that the male population is catastrophically depleted. There aren’t enough men to go around! This is an individual picture of a larger disaster.
Let’s not end this section on such a negative note. Zechariah paints a picture of a time of unequalled prosperity and transformation. He says, “On that day Holy to the LORD will be inscribed on the bells of the horses, and the cooking pots in the LORD ‘s house will be like the sacred bowls in front of the altar” (Zech. 14:20). Here are two sides of a coin that evaporate any notion of a sacred-secular dichotomy. On the mundane side of things, bells on horses could be jingled to tell the horses to get a move on. There’s nothing religious going on here. But in the holiest of settings, sacred bowls are used as vessels for blood or sacrificed meats. Do you see what Zechariah is saying? The most “secular” settings will have “Holy to the LORD ” inscribed on them. Everything will point to the holy God who is sovereign over all of life, even such “ordinary” things as bells on horses. On the other side of the spectrum, cooking pots and sacred bowls will seem interchangeable because everything is considered holy.
The prophets constructed rumble strips. I realize this needs some explanation. If you’ve ever approached a tollbooth on an interstate highway, you know how important it is to slow down before you get to that tollbooth. Highway construction crews put down rumble strips on the road hundreds of yards in front that spot to help. Your car shakes disturbingly and, if you had any tendency to fall asleep at the wheel, these concrete reminders woke you up in a hurry. Without words, they unambiguously broadcasted the warning: “Slow down! Pay attention! Something different is about to happen!”
The prophets worded certain portions of their oracles in unusual ways to alert their hearers of something different, something bigger, something that required more careful attention. And these rumble strips were inserted to heighten our attention to specific prophecies about the Messiah.
Although the very first prediction of the Messiah was not uttered by one of the prophets, Genesis 3:15 established a pattern that would be repeated many times afterward by the prophets. When we read the Genesis 3 account of that most horrific of moments in human history, we get to the part where God pronounces the consequences of the serpent’s, the woman’s, and the man’s rebellions. For the man and the woman, the language is dramatically clear. Women will experience physical pain in childbearing and marital tension with their husbands. Men will toil painfully and eventually die. While these words are difficult to read, they are not difficult to understand. They are excruciatingly clear.
But the words to the serpent pose puzzles. The first part seems clear enough. He will crawl on the ground. But then comes the confusing words about the serpent’s and the woman’s respective offspring and the two-way crushing between them. One side will crush the other’s heel (a relatively minor part of the human anatomy) but the other side will strike a crushing blow to the head. We could ask why God didn’t make this foundational portion of his revealed word more transparent. But perhaps he deliberately worded this prophecy to be difficult to interpret. Perhaps he purposefully worded these phrases in ways that slow down our reading, cause us to ask what’s going on, highlight the need to answer who this is all about, and force us to pay attention with more care. What at first seems confusing actually forces us to interpret more diligently.
Many other Messianic prophecies that follow include these built-in, divinely-inspired rumble strips to alert us to the not-to-be-glossed-over words that follow. It is worth mentioning that the same Old Testament portions identified as messianic were also seen that same way by Jewish rabbis many years before Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John penned their works. Alfred Edersheim lists thirty pages of quotes from rabbinic writings to document this.[iii]
Consider another example of some rumble strips. The first time we encounter the term “Branch” in Isaiah’s prophecy, we may stumble upon that word and wonder who or what it is referring to. To me, at least, the first time I read through Isaiah and, even now as I continue to reread his great work, I find verse 2 of chapter 4 to seem to sprout (pun intended) out of nowhere. Much of what preceded the introduction of the Branch has resounded with ominous, disturbing scenes of God’s judgement. Then, all of a sudden, we hear of something or someone “beautiful and glorious” (Isaiah 4:2). We see a colorful picture where “the fruit of the land will be the pride and glory of the survivors in Israel.” The next few verses and the entire song of a vineyard that follows (Isaiah 5) lifts our eyes and our hearts to a time described with words like “cleansing,” “shelter,” and “refuge.”
But Isaiah doesn’t tell us who the Branch is—at least, not yet. We get the idea this term refers to someone who will usher in a time of peace and restoration but we don’t see that term again until seven chapters later. (Those seven chapters, by the way, are laden with some of the richest prophecies about a Messiah—a person, not just an era—in all of Scripture). Isaiah puts aside his use of the word Branch long enough for us to wonder who this is. His non-explanation, at this point in his prophecy, stimulates our curiosity and causes us to pay attention not unlike the way rumble strips tell us to slow down.
Isaiah brings back the term Branch in chapter 11 in one of the most glorious depictions of a coming Messiah:
“A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
from the roots a Branch will bear fruit.
The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him—
the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and of might,
the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD—
and he will delight in the fear of the LORD” (Isaiah 11:1-3).
The most elaborate set of rumble strips, in my opinion, comes in the extended series of Servant Songs in Isaiah 42 through 53. The Servant first appears in chapter 42, where we are told that God delights in him, puts his Spirit on him, will be one who “will bring justice to the nations” along with many other wonder-filled descriptions. But we’re not told who this servant is. He’s mentioned again in the next chapter. Again, he’s unidentified, other than the fact that he’s “chosen” (43:10).
For at least the next six times the servant is mentioned, he’s identified as Jacob or Israel. (Isaiah 44:1, 2, 21; 48:20; 49:3, 5). So just when we felt like we solved the puzzle of the servant’s identity, he’s mentioned again in chapter 50:10 and called one whose word should be obeyed. Could this be Israel? Do you feel the rumble strips?
And can Israel be the one described in the climactic Servant Song in Isaiah 52:13-53:12? To be sure, Israel has been “despised and rejected” far more times than can be counted. But when did Israel ever atone for the sins of Israel? Isaiah’s emphasis on payment for sin cannot apply to Israel.
“Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities, the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way, and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:4-6).
And if there was any doubt, Isaiah tells us that this servant, “though he had done no violence,” had no “deceit in his mouth” (vs. 9). Could Isaiah ever say that after he confessed “I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips”? (Isaiah 6:5). A case could be made that much of Isaiah’s previous 51 chapters have been a series of condemnations for Israel’s unclean lips.
The sequence of rumble strips about the servant in chapters 42 through 49 climax the tension-filled, curiosity-raising question of “could Israel be the ultimate servant?” with a resounding and painful “No!” Israel served God on occasion but eventually failed and needed the kind of piercing, crushing, punishing, healing, atoning work that only the servant par excellence, the Messiah, could offer.
The prophets wore trifocals. Of course, I do not mean this literally. But God gave them an ability to see immediate circumstances as foreshadowings of future events. Often, they saw things on three levels—the near, the far, and the eternal. This may be the prophets’ most distinguishing feature. It may also be the most confusing.
Here’s one way to think about it. The prophets were called by God to both foretell and forthtell. They foretold the future. This is what most people think of as the prophets’ primary ministry. But far more of their proclamations spoke to (forth-told) their immediate hearers about circumstances right there and then. They called people to repent. Often, they combined their forthtelling and foretelling by condemning current sin and predicting future punishment.
Sometimes, these are not difficult passages to interpret. All the foretelling and forthtelling occur on one level in one time frame. For example, Jonah reluctantly but nevertheless clearly condemned the sin of the Ninevites and foretold of their destruction. (see Jonah 3:4).
But, sometimes, the prophets lifted their gaze and looked through the longest lens of their trifocals and saw a third scenario, one of redemption or consummation in the distant future. Read the first four chapters of Micah to feel these three stages of prophetic revelation.
Here’s another way to look at it. Imagine you’re standing at the foot of a mountain. What may not be clear to you is that you’re facing three mountains in front of each other. The closest one is the shortest, the second one fits in between, and the third one is tallest. At first glance, all three blend into one and you think there is only one mountain when, in fact, there are three.
As Christopher Watkin observed, “In general, each prophecy is to be read in terms of three cumulative peaks of fulfilment, each subsequent peak higher than the one before. The prophecies receive their first fulfilment in the biblical history of Israel; a greater fulfilment in the incarnation, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ; and their ultimate fulfilment in Christ’s second coming and the advent of the new heavens and the new earth.”[iv]
We can see this pattern in one of the most familiar and most complex (i.e.: confusing) Messianic prophecies in all of Scripture, Isaiah’s prediction of the Messiah’s virgin birth. Many Christmas cards highlight this great announcement:
“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14 ESV).
Just by itself, that verse brings great joy and prompts us to start singing favorite Christmas Carols. But as you keep reading Isaiah, all sorts of questions surface. In the very next chapter, a child is born with the unforgettable name of Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz. Didn’t he fulfill the prophecy of 7:14? What makes us think Isaiah 7:14 is about Jesus or anyone after Isaiah’s lifetime? Suddenly that Christmas card doesn’t seem as clear as it did before. But don’t despair.
Even though this is one of the most complicated prophetic texts in the Bible, it’s also one of the most significant. It just takes more study than we’re used to. The scope of this article only allows for a brief explanation. But allow yourself some extra Bible study time, perhaps with the help of a commentary or two and next year’s Christmas celebration might be richer than ever. [v]
To begin, note that chapters 7 through 11 form a single unit with the theme and word “Immanuel” or “God is with us” woven in. King Ahaz and his people did not need to fear an invasion from kings in the north because God would be with them. A child would be born as a tangible sign and would be called Immanuel, the Hebrew term for “God with us.” Even when something worse than an invasion from the two kings in the north happens—an invasion by a stronger, more evil empire, the Assyrians—God would be with them (8:8 &10). Eventually, in the distant future, a time will come when the notion that God is with us will be so real, it could be said “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea” (11:9).
This still seems confusing, doesn’t it? How can the destruction and judgement depicted so graphically in chapters 8, 9 and 10 (Note the fourfold repetition of “Yet for all this, his anger is not turned away, his hand is still upraised” 9:12, 17, 22; 10:4) fit with the promises of peace in 9:1-7 and all of chapter 11? Even within these scenarios, there seems to be different time periods predicted:
- a time when a child is born as a sign of God’s presence during the Assyrian invasion (7:14 and 8:1-4).
- a time when another child is born and that brings about a greater peace (9:1-6).
- another time when peace is even more pervasive (9:7 and all of chapter 11).
A key observation can help. Isaiah predicts a child in chapter 7 and reports the birth of a child in chapter 8. (We’ll call him Maher for short.) But then he speaks of a child in chapter 9. This child has loftier names than Maher. He’s called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. These titles announce the presence of God himself. Is this the same child as Maher? It can’t be.
This can only be sorted out if we remember the common prophetic device I’m calling trifocal vision. Prophets saw an event or a person in their immediate present that seemed to fulfill a prophecy. But they kept talking and, what becomes clear, is that the immediate fulfillment could only be a partial fulfillment. A much fuller fulfillment would come later. And, in many cases, a third, fullest fulfillment would come in the distant future, during a time of culminating world peace.
Isaiah’s trifocal lens could see the immediate situation (King Ahaz’ need to trust God and the arrival of a child called Immanuel), a later time (when another child with divine names will usher in a time of peace), and a distant time (when God will fulfill that promise of peace in an all-pervasive way).
This pattern of near, partial fulfillment and fuller fulfillment plays out on a much grander scale. Jesus’ first arrival fulfilled some Messianic prophecies but not all. The fuller fulfillments of other prophecies are still to come— when he returns. And, ultimately, the greatest, fullest fulfillments won’t take place until eternity.
This inevitably raises the question, “Did the prophets or their initial hearers understand all this?” I’m not sure we know the answer to that question. The lofty language must have at least implied that. And Jesus did chide the two men on the road to Emmaus with, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” (Luke 24:25-26). Jesus then explained from “Moses and all the Prophets,” that he was the one to whom their visions pointed.
To a certain extent, the answer to that question—Did the prophets understand all that they uttered?—may not matter all that much to us today. From our vantage point—after the first arrival of the Messiah and before his return—we have clarity through the divinely-inspired revelation of the New Testament.
One final thought. The prophets go on and on a lot. Their oracles are long. What are we to make of this? We might be tempted to respond in disturbingly self-centered, self-righteous ways. “What is wrong with these guys? Enough already!” Oh, how we’ve been shaped by our me-centric-world. Oh, how we need the message of the prophets more than ever! If we turn the situation around and ask why God chose to inspire his prophets to repeat themselves so much, we might submit ourselves to the authority of his word (instead of standing in judgement over it!) and perhaps begin to accept what we hate to hear.
Namely, we’ll realize that sin is far, far worse than we think, and that worshipping other gods like pleasure, acceptance, success, and security is no less disgusting to God than adultery is to a spouse. (See Ezekiel 16—the whole chapter).
I found a recent rereading of Ezekiel to be particularly disturbing, especially because of the repetition (over thirty times!) of the refrain, “Then they will know I am the LORD.” Do we really need all that repetition? Apparently, God’s answer is YES! We have a tragic case of theological amnesia. We need endless reminders that only the LORD— and no one else— is LORD.
Not only do we need reminders about the sinfulness of sin. We need the prophets to reawaken (or awaken for the first time) our sense of awe. Isaiah was “undone” in the presence of God. The other prophets sensed they were hearing from a God who could not be tamed. We need such wonder as well. In our world that uses the word “awesome” for trivialities and banalities so often that the word has lost almost all meaning, we need to reacquaint ourselves with the God who is truly awe-some. Then, we’ll marvel that this same God offers forgiveness, reconciliation, redemption, adoption, and salvation.
“Who is a God like you,
who pardons sin and forgives the transgression
of the remnant of his inheritance?
You do not stay angry forever
but delight to show mercy.
You will again have compassion on us;
you will tread our sins underfoot
and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea.
You will be faithful to Jacob,
and show love to Abraham,
as you pledged on oath to our ancestors
in days long ago. (Micah 7: 18-20)
[i] Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Prophets, Prince Press: 2004, vii.
[ii] One very helpful work is Walter Kaiser’s The Messiah in the Old Testament, Zondervan: 1995.
[iii] Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Hendrickson Publishers: 1993, 980-1010.
[iv] Christopher Watkin, Biblical Critical Theory, Zondervan: 2022, 301.
[v] Two very helpful resources for this complex section of scripture are J. Alec Motyer, Isaiah: An Introduction and Commentary, IVP, 1999 and D. A. Carson, Matthew: The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Zondervan: 1995.