What makes prophetic books so difficult to understand?

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The prophetical books are wonderful rich literature, and yet, at the same time, they’re also difficult to understand. And I think there’s a couple of reasons for that. I think, first of all, the language itself that’s used seems strange. It’s very unfamiliar to us. And because the language from the Prophets is coming from Mosaic covenant, we don’t always know that. We’ve got to go back to Mosaic covenant to try and understand how the language itself is being used. So, there’s unusual language being used. I think the second issue is that you have the historical context. It’s hard to work out because there are so many prophets. We have a northern kingdom and southern kingdom. We have about 20 northern kings and about 20 southern kings, and we’ve got to put the Prophets somewhere in that context. If we don’t do it, we won’t understand their message. For example, if we know that the northern kingdom — which was for two hundred years — that they’re worshipping idols. You know, we have them at Dan and Bethel. We have the golden calves and have Baal worship as well as other idols. If we know that for the historical context, and I know that Hosea is a northern prophet in the northern kingdom, when I read about the idolatry that’s taking place, I immediately know the message of the book because I understand the context. So, I think it’s hard for people to understand the historical context. I think the third thing I would say, too, in understanding the prophets and why it’s difficult, is that the prophets are speaking to their immediate circumstances, particularly whether it’s the northern or southern, they are directly speaking to their immediate circumstances. But they’re also speaking beyond their immediate circumstances to a time of restoration, which is after the exile. And what is interesting, what happens with that, then, after the exile, they come back. All the things that the prophets had said would happen, that some things have happened, but they haven’t happened in full. And in fact, therefore, those prophetic texts still are hope for the future. So that’s * then they get picked up in the New Testament. So, if you think of that, we have a prophetical text. We’ve got to look at the immediate historical circumstances, we’ve got to look at the time of restoration when they come back from exile, and we have to look at the time of the New Testament to see where are the places that those prophetic texts are fulfilled. Like, Matthew says, “Out of Egypt I call my son,” from Hosea, saying that’s fulfillment in Jesus. So, we’ve got to have that layer, and then if I add one more layer, then we’ve got to think, sometimes the words from the prophets don’t come to fulfilment in the New Testament, but it’s a future. It might be the day of the Lord in terms of the final judgment. So, we need to have some sensitivity to these different places of fulfillment, and we want to really stay with the biblical text. And when there’s quotations in the New Testament that go back to a prophet, we want to be very careful to be aware of those, because again, New Testament writers — book of Revelation — they’re going back to the prophets for their categories. So, I think we’ve got to think of language, we’ve got to think of historical context, and then we’ve got to think of the prophetic immediate: Where is this being fulfilled, and who are they speaking to? So, it’s well worth it because these are wonderful books, but we do need to give a little bit of extra attention to these issues.

Answer by Dr. Carol Kaminski

Dr. Kaminski teaches Old Testament at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Boston MA.