Reading the Prophets with the Right Hermeneutics

Biblical hermeneutics is the term that defines principles of interpretation that are applied to Scripture to in order to understand what the Scripture means. Because our life in God is determined in large part by how we interpret the Scripture, the principles of interpretation we use are critical. Most conservative believers use what is known as the “Historical-Grammatical Method” of interpretation. In short, the historical grammatical method attempts to interpret Scripture by determining the meaning the original author intended and the way the original audience would have understood the message.

The Historical-Grammatical makes an excellent starting point for biblical interpretation because it takes the Scripture literally and considers Scripture in the context that it was originally given. The challenge of the historical-grammatical method is that it only allows for a single meaning of a passage. While a single-meaning approach is usually the best option, the gospel is the revelation of a mystery (Ephesians 3:3), which is why Paul described the apostolic call as being “stewards of a mystery” (1 Corinthians 4:1).

The “mystery” element in Scripture is one of the primary ways that the Scripture is self-validating because the first coming demonstrated that the Scriptures spoken by the prophets actually meant more than the author of Scripture or the original audience could have understood. For example, the New Testament reveals a mystery hidden in the Old Testament – primarily centered on the first coming of Jesus. Though it does not fully allow for the concept of the mystery in the Scripture, the Historical-Grammatical method aims to understand the original message that God gave His people, a message that is not nullified when we find that a passage of Scripture ends meaning far more than it was understood to mean when it was first given.

Given the prominence of the prophets in the Scripture, the magnitude of their predications, and the volume of material in the Scripture, it is critical that we understand them and the Historical-grammatical method is an excellent starting point for understanding the prophets. However, this method is almost never fully applied to the prophets. It is typically applied superficially to analyze what the prophet said about specific events, but is not applied, as it ought to be, to how the prophet and the people understood their message.

The prophets did not only make predictions. They understood their proclamation in the context of something far larger – something that went beyond the moment to which they were speaking. Many of the statements made by the prophets are dramatic and the most dramatic statements by the prophets especially require our investigation because none of them are adequately fulfilled in history. Therefore we must understand what these statements mean and whether they are merely artifacts of biblical history or if they were given to describe things that are yet future – things that will have dramatic implications for the church.

We must know why the prophets so easily move in and out of a present and a final apocalyptic application for their oracles. This is typically referred to as the “Double Fulfillment” or “Near-far” nature of prophecy, but we must look beyond the near-far nature of prophecy to determine why this near-far phenomenon exists in the first place. To do this we have to understand the message as the prophet understood it and then we will understand why it was given in the way it was given.

Developing a Sound Hermeneutic for the Prophets

To form a substantial prophetic hermeneutic, we must begin with how the prophet understood their message. When the prophets spoke the Word of YHWH to Israel, they primarily spoke a present application of what had already been made known in the law – specifically concerning the covenant. We must see that their word concerning judgment, and eventual deliverance, were not new or novel concepts to the prophets or the people that were validated only by their oracular delivery of it.

In other words, the prophets did not simply receive a prophetic word the same way you or I might have a word regarding a specific situation that Scripture does not specifically address, such as the question of a ministry assignment or how to deal with a relationship. The prophet’s oracles were an application of something already revealed in Scripture. They understood, and perhaps more importantly felt, the overarching context of their proclamations and until we understand that overarching context, we cannot yet fully understand what is recorded for us in Scripture. This means the oracles of the prophets were not only addressing specific events; they were God’s application of the everlasting covenant in a historical context.

The prophets felt the weight of YHWH’s emotions at a specific point in time as He spoke to His people about their present condition. However, part of what accounts for the deep pathos and emotion in the proclamation of the prophets is that it is the expression of YHWH’s pain that Israel’s violation of the covenant would not be limited to a specific generation, but would continue in many generations until it was brought to a final apocalyptic end.

This covenantal pain is what causes the prophet to, in one simultaneous oracle, both address Israel’s present covenant jeopardy and launch into language describing the ultimate end of the covenant. The prophet was speaking the word of an eternal God and, as such, they were speak words whose origin was outside of time and yet were being injected into a specific point in time and space.

This is precisely the interpretive grid that Isaiah gives for prophecy. In Isaiah 8, Isaiah addresses the people’s pursuit of guidance through mediums and false spirituality with a clear rebuke. If the people want to know what is to come and how God is relating to them, they simply need to go back to the law and the testimony. If prophets do not prophecy out of the law and the testimony then there is no light, or truth in them. The central governing element of the law and the testimony is the covenant, therefore true prophets, like Isaiah, are speaking according to what is found in the law and the testimony.

20To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, it is because there is no light in them. (Isaiah 8:20 NKJV)

In this way the prophets’ oracles, though many are set with specific historical details, are ultimately trans-historical. They have application, and relevance, more in relationship to the covenant than the historical details of the prophet’s life or his prophecy. Though the prophets do address specific situations and make very specific predictions, the predictions themselves all have their genesis and foundation in the covenant. In other words, the blessing available or the threats warned of are all governed by Israel’s relationship to the covenant rather than by Israel’s historical context.

Why then are historical details provided in the prophets? Those details contained in the prophets’ predictions typically serve two primary purposes:

  1. The precise prediction of events validates the prophetic oracle for the generation that hears it. 22when a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD, if the thing does not happen or come to pass, that is the thing which the LORD has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously; you shall not be afraid of him. (Deuteronomy 18:22 NKJV)
  2. The specific events predicted describe to that generation how the covenant conflict will unfold in their generation. However, the exaggerated language so often present in these prophecies is there because the events are not the primary point, the covenant conflict is the primary point. God emphasizes this by speaking through the prophet both current and apocalyptic events in one oracle. The prophet connects the current crisis to ultimate judgment and ultimate deliverance because the primary point of his oracle is not a sequence of events in his generation, but rather the agony and final resolution of Israel’s covenantal wrestle with God.

The prophets, over and above all, felt the ecstasy of the ultimate resolution of the covenant and the pathos of the discipline of the covenant that would unfold before that final ecstasy. If this is how the prophets understood the message, it has a dramatic effect on how we understand and apply the oracles of the prophets to Israel’s present day situation.

Typically prophetic passages are evaluated based entirely on their language. If there is language that is specific to a situation in Israel’s past, the passage is marked as fulfilled and no longer applicable. Other passages that have clear apocalyptic predictions that do not match ancient events become a point of discussion where some dismiss them as no longer applicable and others assign them a future fulfillment. Using this approach, when believers attempt to determine God’s message to present day Israel they typically end up sifting through Scriptures and separating them into already fulfilled and not yet fulfilled based on various criteria. The verses considered not yet fulfilled are then used to construct an argument of what Israel’s future looks like.

However, the challenge in this approach is that so many passages that address Israel’s ancient past also address her apocalyptic future in the same oracle. Because we have not recognized the covenantal and trans-historical nature of the prophets, we typically attempt to solve this dilemma in various ways.

  • Some simply allegorize the language and assume that it does not refer to actually events because the prophet’s predictions go so far beyond the ancient context and far beyond what we can imagine. The words are treated as some sort of divine or prophetic hyperbole.
  • Others attempt to fulfill these passages in the life of Jesus divorcing them from their plain meaning and spiritualizing them.
  • Others adopt a “Near far” perspective of the prophecy where the prophecy to the current situation is connected to another situation in Israel’s long distant future – a situation that will far exceed the crisis of the prophet’s generation and will finally resolve both Israel’s unfaithfulness and her inheritance of God’s great promises to her.
  • The “near far” solution is certainly better than the others because it attempts to treat the entirely of the prophets’ predictions as substantial and literal, but we must go one step further to understand the covenantal context that animated the near-far nature of the prophecy and why the prophecy was given in that way.

Once we realize that the prophets primarily address God’s trans-historical controversy with Israel and the nations, we can see why we should actually expect the prophets to express themselves in trans-historical language. In other words, the trans-historical nature of prophecy is not at all unusual, but exactly what we should expect if the prophet is speaking the words of YHWH to Israel.

Therefore the question, when addressing the applicability of the prophets oracle to Israel’s present condition is not primarily whether or not we can confine a prophetic oracle to ancient history based on specific details (though this consideration is important), but whether or not Israel remains in the same relationship to the covenant as they did at the point at which the oracle was given.

We must first understand how Israel relates to the covenant before trying to determine whether individual oracles have any future application or not. If Israel is in a condition of covenant jeopardy based on her corporate relationship to YHWH then the prophetic burden of the ancient prophets still applies because that burden has its origin outside of time and its expression transcends time. This is the same principle that the author of Hebrews refers to when he describes the Word of God as “living and active.” (Hebrews 4:12)

This demands we understand the nature and requirement of God’s covenants and give far more consideration to what God spoke audibly to that nation in the wilderness. This is the only way to understand what the prophets spoke, why they spoke, and how to apply what they spoke. When we do, we will find that the Words of God spoken through these messages are truly “living and active” (Hebrews 4:12).

If Israel is in the same covenant jeopardy that she was, for example, in the early 6th century BC, then the heart of the oracular proclamations made towards Israel by the prophets in that time period are applicable now even if those oracles were given with specific historical details and fulfillments that are long past. If the people of the covenant relate to YHWH as they did when the oracle was given, the message of the oracle is still applicable though some historical details in the prophet’s words may have been “fulfilled.” The very fact that the prophet so often includes apocalyptic type language in his oracle is a warning by the prophet himself not to restrict his prophecy to a specific generation.

This is because the spirit of the prophets is ultimately the voice of YHWH speaking to His people and addressing them on the basis of His covenantal relationship with them. If the relationship has not changed, then His word to them is unchanged because He is unchanging (Numbers 23:19).

Israel’s Covenant Jeopardy

The question we must answer then is what is Israel’s relationship to the covenant and how does that relate to fact that Jesus’ death opened up the “new covenant.” It is clear that Jesus’ atonement opened the door to the new covenant and His atonement is the only way for Israel to enter into the glory of the new covenant. Hebrews 8:7-12 affirms that the new covenant was given to deliver Israel and Judah into their long awaited promises.

However, while a way has been opened up to access the new covenant and many individuals, both Jew and gentile, have entered into it, it still remains for corporate Israel to come into the covenant. This is why Paul, in the middle of his teaching on Israel’s ultimate salvation in Romans 9-11 clearly states that Jesus is the end of the law for all who believe.
4For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes. (Romans 10:4 NKJV)

Corporate Israel made a covenant together with YHWH in response to His audible voice. That agreement included conditions, blessings, and promises, which are detailed in Deuteronomy and in Leviticus. Though individuals through repentance can enter into the benefits of the new covenant, the corporate people of Israel do not come to the end of the law, or the covenant, until they come, as a corporate person, into righteousness through Jesus. So what is required for Israel to come into the new covenant? Paul gives the answer in Romans 7.

In Romans 7:1-6 Paul explains how a covenant can be broken and reestablished. A covenant must be broken through death, and Paul explains that Jesus endured the death necessary to break the old covenant. However, that break of the covenant is effectual only to those who believe (Romans 10:4).

There must be a death of what the bride is joined to before the bride can enter into covenant again. What corporate Israel currently joins herself to must be brought down into death. This can happen when individuals willingly join themselves to Jesus and join themselves to His death as the death that is necessary to break the required curses of the covenant and enter into the new covenant. However, in Israel’s case it must also happen corporately because Israel’s covenant is a corporate one.

This is precisely why Jeremiah 31 predicts corporate (i.e. national) Israel entering into the New Covenant right after the final suffering of Jacob’s trouble (Jeremiah 30). While Jeremiah could not have anticipated that God would open up a door for individuals to access the New Covenant through the sacrifice of Jesus, he did correctly prophecy how Israel would come corporately into the New Covenant. The way Jeremiah prophesies the story of Israel’s salvation is not accidental.

6Ask now, and see, Whether a man is ever in labor with child? So why do I see every man with his hands on his loins Like a woman in labor, And all faces turned pale? 7Alas! For that day is great, So that none is like it; And it is the time of Jacob’s trouble, But he shall be saved out of it. (Jeremiah 30:6–7 NKJV)

31“Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah…34No more shall every man teach his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them, says the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.” (Jeremiah 31:31, 34 NKJV)

The tragedy of this age is that Israel, like the nations, is naturally unwilling to embrace God’s chosen way of salvation. Because of this God will force Israel to go where she will not go. He will force corporate Israel down into death – a death of all that she holds dear that keeps her from making covenant with Jesus – in order to break the endless cycle of covenant unfaithfulness and covenant jeopardy. As a jealous bridegroom, He will bring corporate Israel’s present husband to a final death so that she will join herself to Him.

Until Israel, both individually and nationally, goes down into death and embraces the death and resurrection of Jesus as the resolution to her covenant jeopardy she will remain bound to the conditions of the covenant previously made audibly with YHWH. Some might wonder if the pain of Israel’s previous calamities were enough to bring the nation to death, but so long as the state of Israel exists on a basis other than full relationship with Jesus, it indicates that the nation has not yet gone down into a death that separates her from the Sinaitic covenant and joins her everlastingly into the new covenant through Messiah (Jeremiah 31:31-34; Hebrews 8:7-12).

The good news is that YHWH loves Israel too much to leave this controversy unresolved. He will continue to wrestle with Israel, as He did with her father Jacob, until she cries out to receive her blessing His way. YHWH has wrestled with Israel over the generations, but a time will come when the dawn of the next age is near and He is unwilling to wrestle any longer. At that time, He will force Israel with all His might down into a final, inescapable death that He might raise her up in newness of life, and we will know that Israel’s covenant jeopardy is ended when she, as a corporate people, makes covenant with her Bridegroom. Though many of the Jewish people have already come to Jesus, and many more will in the days ahead, God is not content with only a remnant of the Jewish people coming into the New Covenant. He will not end the age until all of Israel comes into the New Covenant.

God’s own longing for this cataclysmic moment – when all of Israel is finally freed from her rebellion and launched into her glory – is what undergirds all the oracles of the prophets. It is why their oracles are so often attached to ultimate deliverance and are delivered with such deep pathos and emotion. This is why we must understand Israel’s path down into death is not merely for the purpose of her suffering, just as Jesus’ crucifixion was not for His destruction. Israel’s final journey down into death, prefigured by the death and suffering of her Messiah, is for the purpose of her glory. It is ultimately God’s commitment to the salvation of Israel that causes Him to bring Israel to this apocalyptic moment.

This is why Jesus went before Israel as the singular Suffering Servant to demonstrate to her as the corporate Suffering Servant what the end of her suffering would be. He gave her the ultimate example so that she can trust that when He brings her down into death, He will also bring her back up into life, just as He was taken down into death and then brought back up to life with an indestructible glory. Just as the singular Suffering Servant received a glorified body, so too the corporate Suffering Servant will be a glorified, entirely righteous body.

Once we understand that the covenantal context undergirding the prophets’ oracles is the hermeneutical key to understanding them, we realize that we do not have the liberty with the covenant to proclaim to corporate Israel anything different than the prophets declared to her so long as she is in the same covenantal jeopardy with YHWH. We cannot hold to a literal interpretation of the promise of the land and the new covenant without also holding to a literal interpretation of all the covenantal conditions related to those promises because all Israel’s promises, and YHWH’s relationship to her, are governed by her unique covenant with Him. At the same time we also do not have the liberty to appropriate Israel’s unique covenant blessings to another people. We must also declare them to Israel and remind Israel of them until all of Israel comes into her promised blessings. If God it not content to see the age end until all of Israel is saved (Romans 11:25-27) neither should we.

The Significance of How We Interpret the Prophets

Because so much of what is written in the prophets is typically considered to apply just to ancient Israel or dissected merely for clues to end-times events, it causes many people to wonder if it is even significant to give considerable time to understanding the prophets. First of all, we have to consider just how much content is given to us in the prophets. The prophets represent a significant percentage of Scripture and God wants believers to fully understand it. This alone should cause us to give it our attention, and this is why we must have the right hermeneutic. Once we understand what is really behind the prophets their burdens make more sense and the trans-historical nature of so many of their prophecies becomes much easier to understand and communicate to others.

Secondly, the salvation of the gentiles is inseparably bound to the salvation of all of Israel so we must understand the nature of their salvation. It is ultimately Israel’s promises and covenant that we are enjoying (Romans 9:4) and our handling of these promises is directly connected to Israel’s final enjoyment of them (Romans 11:24-26).

Third this is the critical question for this generation. Given the astronomical odds against the Jewish state that currently exists in the Middle East and similarity between its context and the context of ancient Israel, we must be able to give a biblical answer to why it exists and what YHWH’s word to it is in our generation. The earth is already focusing on this crisis in Jerusalem and we must have biblical understanding of why it is happening and where it is going.

When we understand the trans-historical nature of the covenant, we also recognize that Israel’s covenant is tested by cataclysmic conflicts in specific generations. Each of these covenant conflicts have elements that are very similar to each other simply because the underlying conflict is trans-historical. We must notice that these covenant contests escalate in their severity. The fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD, for example, exceeded the fall of Jerusalem in 586 BC in devastation. The Holocaust in the 20th century became the most severe test of the covenant yet.

The Holocaust is also unique from every other covenant conflict because it focused on the attempted extermination of the Jewish people. Every previous covenant contest caused unspeakable suffering and exile, but none sought complete extermination until the Holocaust. Both 586 BC and 70 AD could have been avoided by Israel’s political submission, however the Holocaust, in the spirit of what Daniel 7:21 warns, sought the complete annihilation of the Jewish people. We have not fully felt the weight of the fact that it was this brutal contest of the covenant that shattered nearly 2,000 years of silence on the issue of political Israel.

The fact that the Holocaust was the most severe covenant contest yet and yet did not result in the salvation of all of Israel is a grave warning that the covenant conflict has not yet ended. There is a future installment coming and the church must have understanding of it and how it relates to the future of the current state of Israel.

This is why the question of Israel is one of the most pressing questions in this generation. However, how are we to answer this question? If we are going to answer it biblically, we must answer it from Scripture. If we are going to answer it from Scripture, where will we find a biblical answer for YHWH’s perspective for our modern Jewish state that is resistant to Him and surrounded by threatening armies? That perspective must come from the prophets. Therefore, we must interpret them rightly so we have a proper biblical view.

If we search the prophets excluding chapters that do not have some specific prediction that we can assign only to the end of the age, we miss the biblical answer to the crisis that has been provided for us because we do not perceive what the Lord is speaking to Israel and the nations, not just about events, but about the covenant. This covenant perspective is the only thing that makes sense of current events.

Too many are trying to find an unbiblical way out of Israel’s present predicament, both for Israel and for the church, by finding a historical fulfillment for the prophet’s words, when that’s not really the core issue. The prophets’ words weren’t born in a historical context. Their historical context was a manifestation at a specific point in time of a covenant reality born long before them and we find ourselves in the same predicament that these ancient prophets did. The issue to Israel’s current predicament and future is not simply the number of verses for which we cannot find any ancient fulfillment. The issue of Israel’s current predicament is her relationship to the covenant and her future is still governed by the covenantal statements of Leviticus and Deuteronomy until she passes through death into life.

The Covenant and the Secret of the Lord

The book of Amos helps summarize how we are to understand God’s actions towards nations in generation and Israel in specific.

7Surely the Lord GOD does nothing, unless He reveals His secret to His servants the prophets. (Amos 3:7 NKJV)

Amos 3:7 is Amos’ grand statement concluding Amos 3:1-6 in which God affirms His intricate involvement in Israel’s national predicament. In this statement, Amos states that God does not take action towards Israel unless He reveals His “secret” to the prophets. Psalm 25 gives us understanding of the secret of the Lord by indicating a unique relationship between the secret of the Lord and the revelation of His covenant.

14The secret of the LORD is with those who fear Him, and He will show them His covenant. (Psalm 25:14 NKJV)

In other words, the Lord gives His secret to the prophets. That secret contains the revelation of the covenant, and the revelation of the covenant is the animating principle for all God’s actions towards Israel. Therefore, the Lord does, and has done, nothing towards Israel without giving the prophets revelation of the covenant so that the people can understand His actions and respond to them rightly.

This is the way He has always acted – according to His covenants – and this is the way He will act right up to and through the end of the age. If we do not understand these covenants, then we have not perceived the revelation of the Lord’s secret to the prophets. However, if we do understand the covenant than we understand that what the Lord revealed to the prophets is our interpretive grid not only for the Lord’s actions in ancient Israel, but in modern Israel as well.

We do not have liberty to try to piece together Scriptures to support a view of the nations that seems palatable to us. Instead, we must know what was revealed to the prophets. God is not doing anything new that is outside of what He has revealed to His prophets. We often attempt to determine whether a prophecy towards Israel is “fulfilled” or “future” due to the historical application and the future implications of the prophecy. However, we need to understand the deeper things undergirding the prophecy. It is not enough to know the “near-far” elements of the prophecy – we must know what is animating the near-far nature of their proclamations. Until we understand it this way, we have not done the work of the Historical-grammatical method because we have not understood the Scriptures as the ancient prophets, the original authors, did.

The prophets apply an everlasting covenant in time and space. The details given in time and space are an emphasis to the people of the surely of the fulfillment of the prophet’s word in that generation, but the everlasting nature of the covenant that underlies their proclamation makes the prophet’s burden applicable in every generation until every covenant crisis is resolved. Understanding the prophetic Scriptures the way the prophets understood and experienced the burden will help us to apply these Scriptures properly. We must understand the trans-historical nature of the covenant because it is the most critical issue for this generation to understand at this stage of history, but there are also specific apocalyptic events that the prophets predict that we should be aware of.

God wants us to be aware of specific details where He gave them. For example, Daniel and Jesus both take pains to emphasize an event known as the “abomination of desolation” therefore we should be aware of what Scripture says about it (Daniel 8:13; 9:27; 11:36; 12:11; Matthew 24:15). We are also to watch for these specific events and have understanding of the season we are living in (Matthew 24: 32-33; 1 Thessalonians 5:4).

However, as we wait for the events specifically prophesied, we also must understand the overarching context in which those events play out so that we can have a biblical perspective of the events in our generation whether or not we see events that the prophets specifically identified. This biblical perspective comes from understanding the covenantal foundation that gives expression to God’s dealings with the nations. This foundation allows us to properly interpret, understand, and apply the prophetic oracles that God so intentionally gave to the prophets and carefully preserved for us in the Scripture.

The glorious news is that this covenant controversy will end with Israel coming into all the glorious promises God has made towards her. Israel will enjoy her position as the leading nation, serving all the nations of the earth so filled with the knowledge of God that a teacher will not even be necessary (Jeremiah 31:34). Some have proposed that Israel’s covenant jeopardy ended in 70 AD, but we know that Israel’s covenant controversy has not ended for one simple reason: the end of the controversy of the covenant is not judgment, but blessing for Israel.

1 thought on “Reading the Prophets with the Right Hermeneutics”

  1. Thank you for this teaching I really enjoyed reading this I plan to share with my ladies Bible study group, Debbie Wallace

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