Of all the genre “types” in the Bible, prophetic literature is one of the most difficult to understand for contemporary English readers. Only apocalyptic literature (think Daniel or Revelation) is stranger to the modern Western way of thinking. In Israel’s Scriptures, the prophetic books contain numerous spoken messages, but these can be difficult to understand today. A look into the original Hebrew language and culture can open modern eyes to the power of ancient prophetic speech.

Hebrew poetry features prominently in these prophetic oracles, and this use of poetry enriches the imagery and increases the power of the message—sometimes in very different ways! One instance is found in Amos 3:8: “The lion has roared; who will not fear? The Lord God has spoken, who can but prophesy?” Amos does not just say, “God is angry.” Rather, he says that a “lion (אריה; aryeh) has roared!” The prophetic description of God as a roaring lion suggests divine intensity, and also underscores the Lord’s authoritative position: just as a lion is “king of the jungle,” the God of Israel is King of all creation. At the opposite end of the animal hierarchy, this same God says through the prophet Hosea, “I am like a maggot (כעשׁ; ka’ash) to Ephraim, and like rot to the house of Judah” (Hos 5:12). In Hosea’s prophetic analogy, God is likened to one of the lowliest (and most unappealing!) entities on earth, but the imagery conveys the high impact of the Lord’s response to the wayward people. 

In light of these meaningful metaphors and razor-sharp rhetoric, interpreters must take care when trying to comprehend the Prophets. What are some principles that modern readers can adopt for more precise prophetic interpretation? First, set a reasonable goal in trying to understand a particular text. Second, take symbolism and metaphor seriously, but not hyper-literally. And last, but not least, always read a given prophetic verse or passage in its literary context—usually, the context will clarify the content. Outside of these principles, enjoy the beauty and poetic expertise of the prophetic writings!

BEGIN YOUR JOURNEY OF DISCOVERY

26 COMMENTS

  1. Dr. Lyon, the examples you chose from Hosea and Amos are lovely. Yet I (and my Bible buddies) are struggling right now with Isaiah. We are working on Chapters 28 through 34, using commentaries to try to determine whether Isaiah is talking about Jerusalem or Israel, Babylon or Assyria, and when the passages were written, and under which king/s and so on. When I have cherry-picked Isaiah readings in the past, I did not think of Isaiah as a difficult-to-understand book; but now, carefully reading it from start to finish, we are getting bogged down. Do you have any suggestions about how to approach this reading?
    • Robin, thanks for your question. I'm glad to hear you're going through the prophets. Isaiah is actually, historically, hard to understand because of the language it uses. Really, a good idea is learning the original language (Hebrew) and working to see the connections in the text that way. It takes a little longer, but it's worthwhile!
  2. I really appreciate that but I would like to know about the prophet and do you differicate with apostle as they look the same
  3. I really enjoyed reading this. Lots of food for thought that has helped me to see the text a little differently. I hope to know more about the prophets. I've always liked the prophetic books, but remained confused as I tried to decipher it. I might join this course.
  4. They did not no nuclear devices so they had to explain God in there understanding.his like a nuclear device and his voice is like thunder and lighting.and plenty of static.hence the burning bush
  5. what a great interpretive perspective into into the lion roaring and the comparison from God being likened to maggot.
  6. I always see wonderful opportunities of courses and books which I'd very much like to purchase. Unfortunately it is all too expensive. I´m Brazilian, Presbyterian, a Sunday School teacher. If you have some free material I'd appreciate do receive. Thank you!
    • Silva, Israel Bible has a growing library of free stuffs... Here, there are lots of free articles, deep and profound; also you can subscribe to Israel Bible Center Podcast. I tell you, your life will never be the same again.
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