The Prophets Were Preachers Not Prognosticators
Recently someone asked me if I thought there were still Old Testament prophecies that needed to be fulfilled. The question is a familiar one that I was asked many times when I served as an ordained minister and lead pastor for 10 years. It’s a sincere inquiry, revealing a desire to be discerning of the times, faithful to Scripture, and seeing how the Bible may be speaking to our world today. Unfortunately, the question also reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of the biblical prophets and their prophecies.
The biblical prophets were primarily preachers, not prognosticators. They were concerned about their immediate context — their time and place in history, not the distant future. And they certainly had nothing specific to say about 20th and 21st-century politics and the rise and fall of specific nation-states today.
So when you hear preachers say this or that Bible prophecy is being fulfilled in the current events of modern-day Israel, America, China, Russia, North Korea, or some other nation pay no attention. These well-intentioned preachers are badly misinformed and misguided in their reading and interpretation of Scripture and theology. That’s just not what the biblical prophets did or what their prophecies were about.
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Part of the challenge for us in responsibly reading the biblical prophets comes from our common default understanding of the word “prophet” as one who tells the future. Here I’m reminded of the importance of precision in language.
A quick search at Merriam-Webster Dictionary online reveals that the predictor of future events is the third definition given for the word prophet. The first, second, and fourth definitions — one who utters divinely inspired speech as God’s spokesperson, one with special spiritual and moral insight, and one who is a spokesperson for a cause, doctrine, or group (in this case, they are a spokesperson for God and God’s ways as outlined especially in the Torah) — more closely describe the office and ministry of the biblical prophets.
Bible scholars — including more conservative and evangelical ones — are quite unanimously in agreement about the prophets being preachers rather than prognosticators. For example, in their classic book on basic Bible interpretation, How To Read the Bible For All Its Worth, Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart assert, “To see the prophets as primarily predictors of future events is to miss their primary function, which was to speak for God to their own contemporaries” (182).
If and when the prophets did speak of future events, Fee and Stuart insist that it was all about “the immediate future of Israel, Judah, and other nations surrounding them that they announced rather than our future” (182). Indeed, Fee and Stuart conclude, “One of the keys to understanding the prophets, therefore, is that for us to see their prophecies fulfilled, we must look back on times that for them were still future but for us are past” (182).
Evangelical Bible scholar Ben Witherington III agrees. In his guide to biblical interpretation, Reading And Understanding The Bible, Witherington notes that the prophets were primarily concerned with their immediate audience and immediate context. He puts emphasis on the role of prophets as forth-tellers as opposed to future-tellers. The prophets, he says, were not predictors of future events. Rather, they were primarily truth-tellers to the people in their time and place in history (see his discussion on p. 46).
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This raises another challenge for us in reading the biblical prophets responsibly; namely the huge gap between their time and ours. The biblical prophets lived, preached, and were speaking to people and their cultural, religious, political, and social contexts that are far removed from our own.
Imagine someone 3,000 to 2,500 years in the future reading and interpreting the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution of the United States. Can you imagine how different the world will be? What ancient historical, cultural, linguistic, and anthropological artifacts will be necessary for our future friend to rightly understand these documents? How will people 2,500 years from now live and love and worship and work? How will language and communication have evolved and changed? Try to imagine that. Because that’s how far removed we are from the biblical prophets. See a nifty timeline chart here.
This simple exercise demonstrates the complexity of reading the biblical prophets responsibly. Their world was simply not our world. Though there is some truth to the idea that “people are people”, the reality is that their cultural, social, political, and religious contexts were very different from ours. We’re not reading responsibly if we assume they thought and lived as we do. They didn’t.
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Another challenge specifically for Christians responsibly reading the biblical prophets is that we’ve been conditioned to read them primarily as predictors about the birth of Jesus, his ministry, death, and future reign. I’ve read books where the uniqueness and divinity of Jesus are “proved” by compiling a long list of so-called fulfilled Old Testament prophecies.
This way of reading the biblical prophets is reinforced in the New Testament in Matthew’s Gospel, for example, where Matthew repeatedly uses a “fulfillment” formula as a rhetorical technique to persuade his readers that certain Scriptures were fulfilled by events in the life of Jesus. Repeatedly, Matthew says something like, “All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet …” (for example, see Matthew 1:22-23; Matthew 2:5-6; Matthew 2:14-15; Matthew 2:16-18; Matthew 2:19-23; Matthew 3:1-3; Matthew 4:12-16; Matthew 8:16-17; Matthew 12:15-21; Matthew 13:34-35; Matthew 21:1-5).
Some important things to note. First, Matthew is following a long line of Jewish reinterpretation and application of their sacred texts. We see this practice embodied in the oral tradition of Jewish (re)interpretation (mentioned in the Gospels), as well as written texts like the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, and the (somewhat later than New Testament era) Talmud.
Second, Matthew’s “fulfillment” passages are a rhetorical technique to persuade his audience. Decide for yourself whether or not he’s persuasive. But what’s always intrigued me is that when you go back and read some of the Old Testament passages Matthew quotes as being “fulfilled” in Jesus, they clearly have nothing to do with Jesus in their original context. My favorite example of this is Matthew 2:13-15.
In these verses, Matthew tells a story about Joseph fleeing from King Herod and taking his family to hide out in Egypt until any potential threats upon Jesus’s life are gone. Importantly, Herod’s so-called slaughter of the innocents immediately follows the flight to Egypt, suggesting a narrow escape for the holy family. It’s not until after the coast is clear that an angel of the Lord tells Joseph he can return home to Israel (see Matthew 2:16-23).
Joseph takes his family to Egypt, Matthew says, in order to “fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son'” (Matthew 2:15). Here Matthew quotes from Hosea 11:1 as being fulfilled in Jesus.
Now here’s what’s fascinating. When you read Hosea 11:1 (and following), Hosea is clearly talking about the people of Israel collectively and God’s liberation of them from Egypt, followed by their repeated pattern of rebellion. Hosea is decidedly not speaking of a future messianic figure, and certainly is not predicting the events of Jesus’s life in the story that Matthew tells. Nevertheless, Matthew takes Hosea’s passage, reinterprets it, and applies it to Jesus. Why does Matthew do this?
The historical veracity of the flight to Egypt story is questionable. It’s not mentioned in Luke’s Gospel, which is the only other canonical Gospel that has information about Jesus’s childhood. But Matthew is less concerned about historical veracity than he is with making theological claims about who Jesus is and convincing his audience that Jesus is the long-expected Messiah. Matthew does this by drawing on what would have been familiar themes for his audience from their Scriptures and traditions and then taking texts like Hosea 11:1 and applying them to Jesus as a fulfillment.
Think about the broad contours of Matthew’s story. An important person in God’s redemptive plan is born (i.e. Jesus). A tyrannical king (i.e. Herod) wants to kill him and in trying to do so, slaughters every child in and around Bethlehem under age two. The child and his family narrowly escape by fleeing to Egypt until it’s safe to return. Then an angel of the Lord calls the family back out of Egypt to the land of Israel. Sound familiar? It should. This is the story of Moses, the law-giver and liberator of Israel, being retold, reinterpreted, and applied to Jesus! (See Exodus 1-4 for comparison).
That this is Matthew’s purpose is further indicated by the fact that his Gospel is divided into five major teaching or discourse sections, suggesting a parallel with the five books of Moses (i.e. the Torah). Each of these five sections in Matthew’s Gospel concludes with a similar formula, “When Jesus had finished saying these things …” (see Matthew 7:28; Matthew 11:1; Matthew 13:53; Matthew 19:1; and Matthew 26:1).
Also, in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus delivers his most famous discourse, the Sermon on the Mount, from a mountainside (see Matthew 5-7). Matthew’s readers would have understood the parallel to Moses, who received God’s instructions on the mountaintop and delivered them to the people.
For Matthew, Jesus is the new Moses, the new teacher, law-giver, and liberator of Israel and all people.
So what does this tell us about reading the biblical prophets primarily as predictors of Jesus’s life and ministry? At the very least it ought to give us pause in affirming a one-to-one correspondence between certain passages from the prophets and events in the life of Jesus as direct fulfillments of so-called prophecy.
The Gospel writers were making theological claims, using the common rhetorical tools and received Scripture and traditions at their disposal to make their case. To the extent that the Gospel writers tell history, it’s more like theological historiography than how we think of objective, scholarly history or biography written today. They freely reinterpreted passages from their sacred texts and applied them to Jesus.
And the biblical prophets, as we’ve seen, were primarily speaking to their immediate context, not the distant future. They weren’t predicting Jesus. Rather, they were preaching to the people that lived in their own time and place in history, calling them to repentance and covenant faithfulness.
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If the biblical prophets were primarily preachers to the people in their time and place in history, what did they preach about?
Fee and Stuart note that the prophets were basically riffing on the Torah, calling the people back to covenant faithfulness and fidelity to the ways of God. Their pronouncements of blessing for repentance and obedience and impending judgment and doom for continued rebellion were nothing new. Like all good preachers, they were preaching from what was already written in their Scriptures and received tradition, especially as summarized in the blessings and curses of Deuteronomy 28, the covenant renewal story of Deuteronomy 29, and the explication of God’s faithfulness to his people and plea for them to choose life (i.e. obedience to Yahweh and his ways) over death (= disobedience) in Deuteronomy 30.
Old Testament scholar Steven McKenzie notes in his book How To Read The Bible that the biblical prophet’s pronouncements about the future were not so much predictions as they were threats. Reading, reinterpreting, and applying their sacred texts and received traditions to their contexts, the biblical prophets also discerned the religious and socio-political realities of their day (see discussion on p. 68).
Thus, McKenzie observes that the biblical prophet’s preaching was typically a “turn or burn” message. Repent, or else! And the “or else” was typically discerned as judgment and punishment from God in the form of whoever the leading political superpower was at the time — Assyria, Babylonia, Persia, Greece, etc.
The nation did, in fact, suffer crushing defeats. First, the northern kingdom of Israel fell to Assyria in 720 BCE. Then the southern kingdom, Judah, was demolished by the Babylonians in 586 BCE. The prophets interpreted these national disasters as God’s judgment.
Nevertheless, the prophets also pointed to God’s covenant faithfulness despite the people’s repeated failures. This, after all, had been their story from the beginning. The prophets preached that even if judgment and wrath came, ultimately Yahweh would rescue, redeem, and restore his people. They would not suffer indefinitely. They would return to their Promised Land to live and love and worship, faithfully following Yahweh and his ways. And, importantly, the prophets preached that eventually all of their enemies would be vanquished and God would punish their adversaries.
Jews in Jesus’s day, under the control of the Roman Empire, were still waiting for God’s promises of restoration to be fully realized. Different Jewish groups had different ideas about how and when this would happen. Many Jews today are still waiting.
Christians reading the prophets through a Christocentric and Christotelic lens pick up some of these same themes, especially those involving restoration and redemption. For Christians, these things have been fulfilled in the person and work of Jesus Christ and will be fully and finally realized when Christ returns to establish his rule and reign once and for all.
The Christian hope, not all that dissimilar from practicing Jews today, is that ultimately God is going to put everything that’s wrong in the world right. Evil will be vanquished. Justice, peace, and righteousness will prevail. Pain and suffering will cease. All of God’s creation will be restored and flourish as God has always intended. We’re still waiting for that.
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The prophets may not have been predictors of the future, but they still have a vital message for us today. They invite us to examine our assumptions about what God’s up to in the world, what God really desires and expects of us, and how we’re actually living and what we value. As McKenzie says, “The basic essence of biblical prophecy is critique,” (How To Read the Bible, 69).
There are a few recurring big themes in the biblical prophetic literature that invite us to critique our beliefs, attitudes, and actions.
First, the prophets are insistent that true worship that’s pleasing to God is more than merely going through the motions of external piety. Rather, true worship that’s pleasing to God consists of real heart and life transformation that results in obedience to God’s ways. And, importantly, such transformation will be demonstrated in doing good and right, seeking justice, and caring for the disadvantaged.
In other words, how we actually live matters. What we actually say and do matters. In fact, that’s more important than just about anything. Isaiah 1:11-17 is a great example of this recurring prophetic theme. Check out Isaiah 58:1-14 as well, along with one of my favorite passages of Scripture, Micah 6:8.
These passages suggest that attending services, observing special days, saying prayers, and reading our Bibles, as important as those things are, in and of themselves are worthless if they don’t result in actually changing our attitudes and actions.
A closely related recurring theme in the biblical prophetic literature is social justice, with special deference for the poor, marginalized, and oppressed of society. The prophets hammer on this repeatedly. Their most scathing rebukes and indictments were directed at the political and religious who lived high on the hog while neglecting their responsibility to care for the poor, the hurting, the marginalized and dispossessed. See Ezekiel 34 as a great example of this, along with Amos 8:4-8 and the previously noted Isaiah 1.
They also rebuked people in general for their lack of care and concern for social justice. Passages from Amos 4, Amos 5, and Amos 6 are good examples. To these people, the prophet thundered, “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24).
Finally, the biblical prophets also called the people to repent of idolatry. In that ancient context, idolatry included literally worshipping created gods of wood and stone (see Isaiah 44:9-20 and Ezekiel 14). But more broadly, idolatry is putting anything in the place of God.
Idolatry entails putting our hope and trust in people or things, rather than God. Maybe it’s wealth, military power, a political party or leader, or some combination. The biblical prophets preached about these too. One example is how some of Judah’s kings and people put their hope in political alliances for their safety and flourishing, rather than in God (see Isaiah 31).
That’s a relevant message for us today, regardless of our political persuasion. No President or political party, no government, no military, no economy, no amount of stuff and success is our ultimate savior and sustainer. That’s God’s job. The prophets are clear about that.
Yet it’s also true that God works in and through these human institutions, structures, and systems like government, business, education, and commerce. That’s why there are also prophetic calls for doing good and right and seeking justice, especially for the poor, oppressed, and marginalized. This is the essence of true religion for the prophets.
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We’ve seen that the prophets were primarily preachers, not prognosticators. But perhaps there’s one “prophecy” we’re still waiting to be fulfilled. It’s something alluded to earlier: The hope that everything will be put to rights, that evil will be vanquished, and justice, peace, and righteousness will prevail.
You don’t have to be of any religious persuasion to see or believe that things are not as they should be or as we would wish them to be. The world’s a pretty messed up place. Our lives and families and communities are often messed up. There’s unfathomable suffering, pain, and brokenness all around us and daily splashed across the news and social media.
Into this pervasive darkness, the prophets speak a message of hope. They preached that all the pain, suffering, and brokenness won’t be the end of the story. They insist that, despite any evidence to the contrary, God will never abandon his creation or creatures, and his redemptive purposes and plans will ultimately prevail.
One day — hopefully not too far in the future — God will act decisively to put everything right; to rescue, reconcile, redeem, and restore all things. The prophet’s vision of God’s restoration project is cosmic and universal in scope. It’s a beautiful message. It’s also a challenging message because it invites us to get to work.
For Christians, we have a part to play in this cosmic redemptive drama. We’re called to be agents and ambassadors of Jesus’s kingdom vision in our various spheres of influence. We’re called to love God and others, to recognize the dignity and equality of all people as divine image-bearers, and seek justice, mercy, compassion, and peace. These prophetic themes permeated Jesus’s ministry. He saw himself fulfilling them, according to Luke’s Gospel (see Luke 4:16-22 cf. Luke 7:18-23). He calls us to go and do likewise.
The darkness may be pervasive and at times overwhelming. But as the Gospel of John proclaims, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:5).
That’s a message worth proclaiming. That’s a message worth working towards. That’s a message we’re still waiting to see fully fulfilled. Though if we have eyes to see, there are glimmers of grace all around us and flickers of courage, goodness, and beauty lighting the way.
“We’re called to be agents and ambassadors of Jesus’s kingdom vision in our various spheres of influence.” Amen! Guess the question of the day is: How am I doing with fulfilling that?
Jeannine, thank you for reading. Yes, absolutely agree with you! That is the key question!