How to Read the Prophets

A friend of mine discovered John Piper and devoured just about every online sermon in under 12 months. It changed him profoundly. (I highly recommend Piper’s biographical series. I should listen to them again.)

Anyhow, my friend shared that Piper had made a comment about not ‘getting’ the prophets. As there are so many views on what the prophets are talking about, this is understandable. Based on what I’ve heard from James Jordan and my resulting studies, I would like to offer some helpful hints. They seem to play out, from what I can see.

  1. The prophets must all be read as Covenant lawsuits. They are sheriffs knocking on the door because the contract has been broken. The Covenant contained both blessings and curses. The prophets were a reminder, and eventually a promise, of the curses. (See also Rags to Robes.)
  2. The prophecies were written to get a reaction. This means that they cannot concern modern nations. They predicted IMMINENT judgments if the generation living at the date of writing did not repent (Matthew 23-24 and Revelation are good New Testament examples of this principle).
  3. Because they concern the Covenant, and the Covenant structure goes right back to Genesis 1, many prophecies are recapitulations of the Creation week, and use its language. A New Covenant is a new heavens and a new earth, or more correctly, a New Land. If your translation says “earth” anywhere in the prophets, read it as Land (the same goes for Revelation). God sees the world through His mediator-nation, which is, like the Temple (and Noah’s Ark), the three-level world-in-a-box.
  4. Prefiguring Christ, God always dealt through mediators, like the prophets. But the prophets were called because the national Mediator, Israel, was in rebellion. Israel was the Land between the Firmament and the Sea, the four-cornered Altar. And their message is often that God was going to wash the Altar clean by submerging it.
  5. So the prophets not only use Creation language, but also use many images from earlier judgments, like the flood. Isaiah even uses Noah’s submissive animals to describe the submission of the Gentiles to Mordecai after the exile in the “new heavens and new earth” Restoration Covenant.
  6. The prophetic books sometimes look like they are arranged haphazardly, but are carefully structured. Often they follow the Egypt to wilderness to Canaan pattern. God takes the old rebellious house of Israel, deconstructs it, judgment flows out upon the surrounding nations, then God reconstructs a bigger house which absorbs some of the surrounding nations. Sound familiar? This pattern undergirds the New Testament. This pattern also helps us interpret Ezekiel 37-39 as a prophecy of the return from exile and the events in Esther. 
  7. Related to this point, the books often follow the Garden, Land, World pattern established in Genesis (Adam, Cain, sons of God). God anoints His prophet, the judgments are first given as liturgy in the garden (the courthouse – Father), carried out in the Land by the prophet (representing the brother/Son) with huge ramifications upon the Gentile world (Spirit).
  8. The prophets that deal intimately with the deconstruction and reconstruction of the Covenant use and modify the furniture and layout of the Tabernacle. The best example of this would be Zechariah’s visions, which follow the pattern of the seven feasts. At the Day of Atonement, there are not two goats but two Arks of the Covenant. The true one has died and ascended to heaven (seen as a flying scroll) and the false one (a round basket) is exiled to the wilderness (Zech. 5). So the missing Ark actually “died and ascended” for the life of Jeremiah’s promised new covenant. As Covenant Lawsuits, the prophets flow directly out of the Torah.
  9. When the Apostles quote the prophets concerning Christ and Israel, they are rarely prophecies that concerned the first century directly. Take a look at just about any of the famous Messianic prophecies and you will find it is surrounded by images and conditions that root it firmly in the exile/Restoration era. (And of course, neither does it concern modern Israel!)
  10. The secondary, and perhaps most important audience is … us! All these events were for the benefit of the church, so we can understand the foundation of the church laid in the first century. The ‘apocalyptic’ sections of the New Testament are about the end of the Restoration Covenant and the foundation for a better Temple. Just as Israel was executed and resurrected through the exile, the pattern was replayed in the first century (hence the Apostles’ quotes). God works in history in exactly the same way as He did through Israel, but through churches across the world.

If you have any questions or comments on these ideas, I would love to hear from you.

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