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!