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The Prophets are difficult to understand. In part, that is because God revealed Himself to them in dreams and visions. Only with Moses did God speak face to face (Num. 12:6–8). The Major Prophets include Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel. The Minor Prophets include Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. Here are several tips that will help you read and understand the Prophetic Books.

1. Investigate the context.

First, understand as much as possible about the historical occasion, the social setting, and the prophet you are reading. A good study Bible, such as the Reformation Study Bible, can help with this.

2. Recognize the role of the prophets as God’s covenant lawyers.

Second, recognize that the prophets were essentially God’s covenant lawyers. Although they spoke to many parts of the covenant—for example, the preamble and the historical prologue (“I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt”), and they often reminded the people of their responsibility to fulfill God’s commands (i.e., “stipulations”)—their primary purpose was to communicate the sanctions of the covenant. In popular parlance today, we tend to view sanctions as only negative (for example, “economic sanctions”). But in Scripture, sanctions can be positive or negative. In other words, blessings for obedience, and curses or punishment for disobedience. Like good lawyers, the prophets compiled their suits against the king and/or the people and preached to them about how they had failed to live up to God’s standards.

3. Learn to be aware of the prophetic idiom.

The prophetic idiom is an important aspect of how the Prophets speak of future realities. Here, the central thesis is that the Prophets, which continually talk about the maintenance of and arrangements of Israel and the tribes, their land, and their temple, are very often describing new covenant realities yet to come. Therefore, the reader should constantly be asking the questions, “Are the contemporary matters surrounding the prophet, what he is really talking about? Or, is he speaking of future realities?” The prophetic idiom, therefore, is that manner of expression by which the prophets of the Old Testament use the typological configuration of the things of Israel in order to portray the Messianic realities of the new covenant age. This is the nature of the prophetic idiom, and if we do not recognize it, then we will misunderstand the Prophets.

This is what Paul knew well, even in his appeal before Agrippa (Acts 26:19–29). Paul appeals to the prophets, that they speak about Christ and Paul’s mission to the gentiles. The language of the prophets, the kind of figurative idiom in which they express themselves, demands (especially for the new covenant believer) separating the external idiom from the reality of the new covenant promises.

In short, in the prophetic idiom, the prophets are often describing the new covenant in the terms of the circumstances of the institutions of the old covenant. The language of prophecy, the imagery the prophets use, the idiom they use in their descriptions, is often used to portray what is going to happen in Christ Jesus and to all of humanity. This becomes important, for example, in the descriptions of exile and scattering, the gathering of the tribes, the return to the land, and the form that the curses take. Although the prophets do not speak with omniscience with regard to the future, they do often speak of the certainty of God’s coming in Jesus Christ, the new covenant, and even to the second advent of our Lord, without distinguishing all the parts from one another. Nevertheless, there is still an integral unity to the various stages about which they speak under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

For example, when Joel speaks about the outpouring of the Spirit and the images of the great and terrible coming day of the Lord, it was not only his original audience to whom he was speaking (Joel 2:28–32). Joel 2 is quoted in Acts at Pentecost (Acts 2:17–21). The same images expressed in Acts 2:28–32 are also evident at Christ’s crucifixion. One could even legitimately argue that Joel’s prophecy finds ultimate expression in the second coming of our Lord. Therefore, although Joel had a single intent, his words find many references (i.e., “landing points”) throughout redemptive history. That is why this passage about the outpouring of the Spirit was one of John Calvin’s favorite passages for explaining how the prophetic idiom works.

4. Hunt for ways in which the New Testament Scriptures cite, allude to, or echo the Prophets.

Fourth, and finally, since Christ told His disciples on the road to Emmaus that all the Scriptures spoke about Him and His ministry (or by extension His body, which is the church), we should always be on the hunt for ways in which the New Testament Scriptures cite, allude to, or echo the Prophets. For example, Peter (having been a witness to the transfiguration) realized that the foundational passage in Deuteronomy 18:15–19, which speaks about Moses as the paradigmatic prophet of all subsequent prophets, found its ultimate homecoming in Christ as the final prophet (see Acts 3:17–26). This interpretation is confirmed further by the writer to the book of Hebrews, who understood that Moses was faithful as a servant over His house (the old covenant) but Christ is faithful as a son over His house; that is, the new covenant. Moreover, God is the builder of the entire house, old and new (Heb. 3:1–6).

This article is part of the Hermeneutics collection.