Helpful Hints for Reading the Prophets

Modern people frequently use the term “prophet” and “prophecy” much differently than the Biblical authors and first readers did. Often we think of prophets and prophecy as predictions about the future. But for Israel, prophets were people through whom God spoke. The prophets understood themselves to be messengers from God. While sometimes a prophet would make a prediction, these were predictions for the immediate future. The prophets were given messages for their current time and called the people to prompt, immediate response.

Our word “prophet” comes from the Greek word prophetes, which means “one who speaks for another”.  The Hebrew word for prophet is nabi, “to call” or to “announce” or “to name”.

The first person named as a prophet was Moses ( Deut 18:18; Hos 12:13). Miriam and Deborah were also prophets. By the time of Samuel prophets were a particular class in Israelite society. In 1 Samuel 10 we are told about a company of prophets. Saul, whom Samuel anointed as king met a band of prophets and prophesied. The verb used “to prophecy” meant “to behave like a prophet” or “to prophesy ecstatically”. While ecstatic behavior, in modern times can imply a lack of reason or self control, in Hebrew there is also the sense that God has taken control of the person. God’s spirit possesses the person.

While current popular culture may think of prophets as lonely, isolated people, in ancient Israel prophets were part of the community and involved in it’s life.

Sometimes prophets belonged to schools or groups of prophets, often called “the sons of the prophets”. Sons in this usage is an idiom meaning a member of a group. Both men and women lived in these communities. The communities were not permanently located in a specific area but would travel. Persons in these groups lived communally under the leadership of a “father” or chief prophet. Elijah and Elisha appear to have been leaders of prophetic communities (2 kings 2:3-4; 4:38).

There were also prophets who had closer ties to the sanctuaries of Israel. Cultic prophets served along with priests, and brought the peoples’ prayers before God. They also indicated whether an offering was acceptable and told what the answer to a person’s petition was.

Remember that in the ancient world there was not a sharp distinction between politics and religion and so prophets were often involved in politics. (Recall Samuel anointing Saul king in 1 Sam 10). In the days of the early prophets there were three main ways to discover God’s will, dreams, the Urim and Thummin, and prophecy.  As Israel developed as a nation the role of prophets,with respect to the kings, became more complex. Some prophets, like Elijah, were outside the court structure and were seen as opposing the king. Other prophets, like Nathan, were situated within the court.

While some prophets names have been recorded, most prophets’s names and announcements have not been recorded. But some of their words may have been embedded in the prophetic books that we have, although preserved under another prophet’s name (as the title of the book).

The order of the books of the prophets which we have now is not chronological but appears to have been dictated by the size of the text and the size of a scroll. Our ordering of our reading of the prophets will be (roughly) chronological. The history at the time of the prophets is complex and can be confusing as there are many kings and two (Israel and Judah) kingdoms.

Recall that the Northern kingdom (Israel) was weaker politically and had less prosperity than the Southern (Judah) kingdom. The Northern kingdom also was politically unstable and had many kings until its fall in 721 BCE. The Northern kingdom did not hold to the view of a Davidic dynasty but believed that God’s spirit would be poured out on an individual. The Southern kingdom (Judah) had a single dynasty, and believed that God had made a covenant with David to continue the Davidic dynasty.

Here is a chart to help you (try to ) keep the kings, kingdoms, and prophets in their proper relationships.

The prophetic books are complex and different than other Biblical texts we have read. They contain the oracles or statements of the prophet (except for Jonah). Some may have been written by the prophet, and other statements may have been written by followers or scribes. But, at the same time, probably not every statement in a particular book was from the prophet whose name is given to the book. These books, like other Biblical books, have a long history of composition and editing. Many of the prophetic books also have biographical or autobiographical material added. The crisis of the fall of Jerusalem and the Babylonian exile affected how editors thought about events and the text. For example the book of Amos has material that assumes the fall of Judah. The content of the book of Isaiah include the words of Isaiah from the eighth century but also there are chapters which are from the time of the exile and later in the sixth century.

The fact that these biblical texts ( like other biblical texts) have been reworked and had additions made does not mean they are “damaged” or somehow less than scripture. When biblical texts were first written they were not immediately considered sacred text. That recognition took time. Recognizing their literary past acknowledges the importance of the texts to Israel and the need for each generation to seriously engage scripture.


Read more about it:  

Anderson, Bernhard W., Katheryn Pfister Darr, Understanding the Old Testament Abridged fourth Edition. (Upper Saddle River,New Jersey: Prentice Hall) 1998.

Blenkinshopp, Joseph, “Introduction to the Prophetic Books” in  HarperCollins Bible Commentary Mays, James L. ed.(San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco) 2000.

Sweeney, Marvin A. “Introduction to the Prophetic Books” in The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books, Fully Revised 4 th Edition,  Michael Cougan, ed. (New York:Oxford University Press) 2010. Kindle Edition




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