How to Read Prophecy Part 2: Reading With Hebrew Eyes

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How to Read Prophecy Part 2: Reading With Hebrew Eyes

Reading the Prophets

In our last article we laid out the foundational elements of reading the prophets, and now we will look at a few nuts and bolts of reading these inspired writers of God’s revealed truth. Let me explain why this is necessary. A fundamental problem of ‘listening well’ is that of distance, that is, we are far removed from the original context (historical, literary, etc.).[1]

Of course, we always start with prayer and maintain complete dependence on the Holy Spirit for growing in the knowledge of, faith in, hope in, and love for our Master, Jesus. From that, we understand that the Bible is God communicating through a literary document written in a historical setting and context through the gift of poetry with specific aims from the Author [God] and co-authors (prophets, priests, kings, etc.) that transcends a humanistic or secular scientific view of reality.

So, there are two aspects of reading the Bible, and these should never be held as a dichotomy or one or the other as an unnecessary complication. We recognize (1) the Supernaturalism (revelation & inspiration)[2] of the Bible as well as (2) the humanity of it.[3] By humanity we mean that Scripture is not mystical or esoteric; the rules of language, genre, history, etc. apply to the study of Scripture.

There are five areas of knowledge that serve as controls on our reading of Scripture and bridge the gap of distance:

1) Language/Literature;

2) Culture/Customs;

3) Geography;

4) Religion/Philosophy: Basic patterns of thought (worldview); and

5) History.

These are important because they dissuade from speculative readings and control our temptation to adopt relativistic and private interpretations (cf. 2 Pet 3:16–17).

I always encourage my students to strive to become proficient in these five areas as it makes for a better and more informed reading of the Bible because they help bridge the gap from the culture of the Bible to our culture today.[4] We want to be competent Bible students.

A great myth in our church is that the prophets, disciples and our pioneers were “unlearned” or that they didn’t go to Bible colleges or the seminaries of their day.[5] I dare say that a misunderstanding on this point has led to an uninformed mystical reading of Scripture and has caused considerable confusion in our ranks especially when it comes to prophecy. So, what are the major aspects of reading the prophets that should correct this misreading?

RELATED LINK: The Book of Daniel in 3D

Reading the Prophets with Understanding

A significant aspect of Reading the Prophets is understanding Hebrew Poetry.[6] This is an art more than a science and is marked by 3 significant elements: (1) terseness, (2) parallelism, and (3) imagery. As we look at these 3 aspects of Hebrew poetry we’ll use examples from the book of Amos to demonstrate these elements in action.

  1. Terseness

The prophets used brevity to make meaningful and picturesque punchlines. So Amos, for example, instead of going through a long, tedious, didactic essay on God functioning as a Judge over the Northern Kingdom (Israel) from the capital city of the Southern Kingdom (Judah), the text states,

The Lord roars from Zion and utters his voice from Jerusalem (Amos 1:2; cf. 3:8)[7]

Though brief, the terseness of this statement captures the imagination of the reader much more effectively than a long essay.

  1. Parallelism

This deals with the correspondence (complimentary or contrastive) of two or more lines of poetry that usually carries a rhythmic expression for comparison. This rhythm can be expressed as (1) rhythm of thought, rhythm of sound, and rhythm of meaning. Let’s first discuss, Parallelism when it shows up as “Rhythm of thought” in which two words or phrases in two lines of poetry have corresponding meaning.

I gave you cleanness of teeth in all your cities, and lack of bread in all your places. (Amos 4:6)

Another type of rhythm of thought can be depicted as a development or intensification of a thought or activity.

I sent among you a pestilence after the manner of Egypt; I killed your young men with the sword, and carried away your horses, and I made the stench of your camp go up into your nostrils. (Amos 4:10).

Notice that each successive line is giving more detail about the destruction being described.

However, rhythm of thought is not the only type of rhythm the Hebrew prophets used to craft their poetry. The ancient Hebrews also used “rhythm of sound.” This type of rhythm shows up as alliterations (repeated letters), assonance which is a repeating of vowels, and paronomasia which is better known as “a play on words”[8] or sounds.[9]

Admittedly, it is difficult to detect these elements of poetry without prior knowledge of Hebrew. If you’re not able to read the original languages, I encourage you to supplement your reading experience with several other Bible versions/paraphrases (not for theology, but to feel the rhetorical effect of God communicating personally to you). Here’s an example from the Message paraphrase.

Don’t fool around at those shrines of Bethel, Don’t waste time taking trips to Gilgal, and don’t bother going down to Beer-sheba. Gilgal is here today and gone tomorrow and Bethel is all show, no substance. (Amos 5:5, Message paraphrase).

The last type of rhythm (parallelism) we’ll discuss is rhythm in meaning. This type of rhythm can also show up in multiple ways but its primary purpose is to show the fundamental relationships between poetic parallel lines. Below are six different examples of rhythm in meaning all from the book of Amos.

i. Heightening/Intensification

O you who turn justice to wormwood and hurl righteousness to the earth! (Amos 5:7; notice how Amos plays on this theme in v. 9 when speaking of God’s judgment).

ii. Abstraction (literal to figurative)

when the plowman shall overtake the reaper and the treader of grapes him who sows the seed; the mountains shall drip sweet wine, and all the hills shall flow with it. (Amos 9:13).

iii. Concretization (figurative to literal)

and shake the house of Israel among all the nations as one shakes with a sieve. (Amos 9:9; God will not literally shake the people, but the purpose of the sieve is to sift strain out unwanted coarse particles).

iv. Focusing (spatial or geographical)

Woe to those who are at ease in Zion, and to those who feel secure on the mountain of Samaria. (Amos 6:1; Zion is a theological name for God’s dwelling place).

v. Dramatization

who drink wine in bowls and anoint themselves with the finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph! (Amos 6:7; note how Amos portrays their indifference, by juxtaposing his last statement with two previous comments of opulence and comfort).

  1. Imagery–the descriptive world of the poetry.

This aspect of Hebrew poetry is the most important because a picture is worth a thousand words. This aspect can be broken down into 2 major categories broadly speaking: (1) natural and (2) artificial/man-made. Below are a few examples of imagery from the book of Amos.

i. Physical-psychological

a. Sensory, emotive

The lion has roared; who will not fear? The Lord God has spoken; who can but prophesy? (Amos 3:8; as one is gripped by the roar of a lion, so Amos is gripped by the call of God to prophesy).

ii. Nature

a. Floral, animals, creation, habitats

Hear this word, you cows of Bashan, who are on the mountain of Samaria, who oppress the poor, who crush the needy, who say to your husbands, ‘Bring, that we may drink!’” (Amos 4:1; while it may seem misogynistic to call a woman a cow, the use is metaphorical and the point of comparison is that both are well-fed—the latter from oppression, not their anatomical similarity).

iii. Architecture

a. Geographical- mountains, rocks, cliffs

Come to Bethel, and transgress; to Gilgal, and multiply transgression; bring your sacrifices every morning, your tithes every three days. (Amos 4:4; the rhetorical use of irony stems from the fact that these were prominent cultic sites in Israel’s history, God is not really commanding people to go and sin. Cf. 5:5).

b. Constructed- temples, houses

iv. Experiential

a. Life: Domestic, commercial, political

as if a man fled from a lion, and a bear met him, or went into the house and leaned his hand against the wall, and a serpent bit him. (Amos 5:19; Amos pulls from the daily experience of the dangers of living in a particular environment and uses a collection of possibilities to affect the worst possible situation).

Reading the Prophets: Finishing Touches to Begin the Journey

Maturing in our ability to read with understanding must finally account for the totality of the message. How do we know where to start and where to stop reading? Do we just choose based on how we feel? No. To understand prophetic communication, we must address the logic that emerges from the text.

Three areas that will round out our discussion is the basis for how we draw conclusions about meaning and relevance. This comes through following how the prophet articulated his inspired message. This is done through discourse markers (indicators that tell us where a section begins and ends) that define discourse units that help us think holistically and lead to intertextual readings of the book.

RELATED LINK: An Introduction to Biblical Narrative Analysis

Making sense of transitions—Discourse Markers.

Discourse markers typically show up as formulas (combinations of keywords and phrases) that ancient Hebrews would have recognized as marking the beginning, turning point, or the end of a literary unit (think chapters in a book or sections of a paper).

These formulaic patterns (evident in every prophetic book except Daniel) lets us know where the author wanted us to start and stop. What this does is helps us follow the writer’s logic rather than our own. So, there are observable patterns of where a section begins, turns, and ends and it is from the text’s cues that we should draw out theological understandings, instead of our personal spirituality or blind intuition.

The Beginning of a Unit or Speech

Some unit discourse markers are more obvious than others. One phrase that is often repeated in the Bible to mark the beginning of a unit is “The Word of YHWH came to X” formula, where “X” is the prophet writing that particular book of the Bible. See Isaiah 38:4 as an example.

Now modern scholars call this the “word-event formula” but I’m sure the Hebrew people were not walking around with these categories in their heads. What is important to keep in mind is how the formula appears in the text “The Word of YHWH came to X.”

Another popular discourse marker for the beginning of a literary unit is called the “Hinneh + Participle” formula. But again I doubt the ancient Hebrew people called it that. All you need to remember is that hinneh means “Behold!” This literary marker usually means something is really close to happening, typically some act of God. Amos 9:9 is an example of this formula. “Behold, I am doing X” (Amos 9:9), where “X” is the act of God that He is about to perform.

A third way to know that a literary unit is beginning is the called the “Utterance/Declaration” formula. This typically shows up as “declares the LORD” or “the utterance of the LORD.” You can find examples of this in Amos 3:13; 8:9.

The Beginning or Turning Point of Action

In these scenarios we find a turning point in the literary unit. Typically these turning points show up as what is called the “messenger formula” which is often quoted in churches today “Thus sayeth the LORD.” This is a turning point because “Thus” indicates that what is about to be said by the prophet is based on what was stated earlier at the beginning of the literary unit.

Another turning point indicator is the “vision-report” formula, where the prophet basically states, “I had a vision” and then proceeds to tell what was in the vision. You can find examples of this in Amos.[10]

The End of Unit

The end of a unit is often indicated by what have been called Eschatological-Day[11] Phrases. You can find examples of this in the book of Amos such as “On that day” (Amos 8:9; 9:11),[12] “in those days,” and even “Behold, the days are coming”[13] (Amos 8;11; 9:13). The end of a unit can also be marked by an Utterance/Declaration formula as discussed earlier. (Amos 2:16; 3:15)

Discourse Units: A poetic discourse is made up of several elements.

I’ve articulated the main elements of Discourse Units below.

  1. Cola: A colon is a subunit of a line, two/three colons (cola) make a line (sentence)
  2. Line: a line is a unit that is comprised of one or more cola
  3. Strophe: a group of closely related lines
  4. Stanza: groups of closely related strophes
  5. Poem: The movement from the entrance to the exit of a poem; the story of the stanzas

And here is an example of how to analyze a poetic portion of a prophecy from the book of Amos.

Behold, the days are coming,” declares the Lord God, [colon] when I will send a famine on the land— [2nd colon = line] not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord. (Amos 8:11; 8 lines in vv. 11–12 = Strophe).

  • 9–10//11–12//13–14 = Stanza (3 strophes about eschatological time; “on that day,” “the days are coming,” “in that day”)
  • Poem- chapter 8 is an explanation of v. 1–2[14]

Intertextuality

Finally, we come to the importance of intertextuality which is noted by verbal links, allusions, and thematic development. Chapters 5–6 and 8 of Amos are “Day of the LORD” passages, and each should be studied together to see the parallels, but also the differences. The same exercise can be done with other major themes in prophetic literature.

Final Thoughts

Hopefully, as you read the prophetic literature of the Old Testament, you will now be able to more fully appreciate the craft and care the Hebrew prophets of old employed to communicate their timeless messages.

These messages were calls for the God’s people to return to Him. The prophets rebuked the sins of their people as spokespersons for God. They pointed out hypocrisy, injustice, and other forms of covenantal unfaithfulness exhibited by God’s people. But they also spoke promises of hope, renewal, and restoration for God’s people if they repented.

These messages are still relevant to God’s people today, the church, and now that we have a stronger foundation and plenty of tools in our toolbox, we will study the so-called Minor Prophets looking at an increasingly important and yet extremely divisive topic: Social Justice.

Click here to read the rest of Jerome’s series on Reading Biblical Prophecy

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Notes.

[1] We see this phenomenon in Scripture itself. When the people of God returned from exile, they had lost for the most part knowledge of the Hebrew language (Aramaic was the lingua franca in Mesopotamia that the Israelites spoke). The scribe and priest Ezra and the elders were responsible for restoring a knowledge of God’s word (in Hebrew) to the people. Ezra 7:1–28. Though a bit long Ellen White expresses well the method advocated here, “Ezra was of the sons of Aaron, a priest, whom God chose to be an instrument of good unto Israel, that He might put honor upon the priesthood, the glory of which had been greatly eclipsed during the captivity. Ezra was a man of great piety and holy zeal. He was also a man of learning, and a ready scribe in the law of Moses. These qualifications made him an eminent man. Ezra was impressed by the Spirit of God to search the historical and poetical books of the Bible, and by this means he became familiar with the sense and understanding of the law. During the captivity the knowledge of God’s will had to some extent been lost. Ezra gathered all the copies of the law that he could find. He published copies of these among God’s people and became a teacher of the law and the prophecies in the schools of the prophets. The pure Word, thus diligently taught by Ezra, gave knowledge that was invaluable at that time” Ellen White. Letter 100, 1907

[2] “The Bible is the most comprehensive and the most instructive history which men possess. It came fresh from the fountain of eternal truth, and a divine hand has preserved its purity through all the ages. Its bright rays shine into the far distant past, where human research seeks vainly to penetrate. In God’s word alone we find an authentic account of creation. Here we behold the power that laid the foundation of the earth, and that stretched out the heavens. Here, only, can we find a history of our race, unsullied by human prejudice or human pride.” Ellen White, Christian Education, 37.

[3] “But the Bible, with its God-given truths expressed in the language of men, presents a union of the divine and the human. Such a union existed in the nature of Christ, who was the Son of God and the Son of man. Thus, it is true of the Bible, as it was of Christ, that “the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.” John 1:14” Ellen White, Great Controversy, 88.

[4] Often the communicative impact that comes from hearing a book in its historical context contributes to our understanding of the nature of God. I was surprised to find out many years ago that about 40% of the OT is written in poetry. Why would God speak to us through poetry rather than simple propositional prose? Food for thought indeed.

[5] Ellen White again corrects this notion, stating about the period we are addressing, “Further provision was made for the instruction of the young, by the establishment of the “school of the prophets.” If a youth was eager to obtain a better knowledge of the Scriptures, to search deeper into the mysteries of the kingdom of God, and to seek wisdom from above, that he might become a teacher in Israel, this school was open to him.” White, Fundamentals of Education, 96.

[6] I refrain from using technical jargon in this elementary and brief survey and by no means attempt to encapsulate the depth of the genre of poetry in the Prophets. For a more detailed analysis, see Wilfred Watson, Classical Hebrew Poetry: A Guide to Its Techniques (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1986).

[7] The book of Amos will be our guide again. Most modern Bibles are good about noting where Hebrew Poetry is being used.

[8] Notice the play on the letters “g” and “l” (bolded) in Amos 5:5. we’al-tidreshu beth-‘el wehaggilgal lo tavo’u ube’er sheva’ lo ta’avoru ki haggilgal galoh yigleh ubeth-‘el yihyeh le’awen

[9] Best seen and heard in the original language, there are Bible versions that attempt to maintain some semblance of the literary play that has rhetorical punch.

[10] See Amos 7:1, 4, 7; 8:1.

[11] The OT perspective of eschatological must be seen in its historical context. They say two periods, one before the coming of the Messiah and the Messianic Age. They did not have the whole canon before them as Christians today do, so it would be a stretch to assume they understood everything the way we do (1 Pet 1:10–12). Eschatology is the study of “Last Things” in other words how will the great battle between good and evil end and what will the world be like after the battle is over.

[12] Refers almost exclusively to things in the future and the major focus is the promissory nature

[13] Usually, it indicates a pronouncement of judgment

[14] There is a play on words—qayits =summer fruit & qets = end

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About the author

Jerome Skinner, earned his Ph.D as an Old Testament scholar at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary. He focuses on the Psalms and Wisdom literature and on practical Christianity. Jerome is active in following American Christianity and social issues.