How to Read the Bible For All It’s Worth: The Prophets
10/17/2016 6:07:09 PM
“How to Read the Bible For All It’s Worth: The Prophets”
October 16, 2016
Rev. David Williams
Scripture: Hosea 1:1-2:1
I think the Jehovah’s Witnesses must be having an evangelism week. On two different days this week, while working in 2 different coffee shops, I had JW’s come up to me and comment on the fact that I was reading a book on the Bible or a commentary on Hosea. In both cases they proceeded to give me a booklet of JW beliefs. The first lady and I chatted for a while and it turns out she goes to the kingdom hall across the street from us. When I said I was a pastor and likely her neighbour and told her about Priory she was a little taken aback. It was funny. It’s only the second time I’ve seen a JW uneasy.
Anyway, after she left I went back to work for a while. Then, taking a break from Hosea, I flipped through the booklet she had given me about “Good News from God.” It is in the form of questions and answers about a variety of topics ranging from “What is the Bible about?” to “How can you recognize true worship?”
For each answer they also have at least one scripture reference if not more. As I read through the answers, I realized that a lot of what they said was actually true. The problem is that there are parts that are not true and parts that are missing. I wonder how many of us, though, would be able to identify which answers are wrong and what parts are missing. Would you be able to?
I looked up a number of the scripture passages for some of the answers that were wrong. I quickly realized that our series on “How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth” applies to exactly this situation. Many of the scripture passages they quote are taken completely out of context! In using them to support their answers, they were not actually using the original meaning of the verse!
As a point of interest, two terms they misunderstand are terms we talk about all the time: kingdom and name! Reading through their material they consistently misunderstand “kingdom” to mean “government” whereas we now it actually means “authority to rule.” Similarly, they think name means “label by which a person is identified” and we know name means character. This is actually why they are called “Jehovah’s Witnesses.” They think using the name “Jehovah” all the time is how to keep God’s name holy! Funny, I don’t think they realize Jehovah actually comes from the Latin translation of the Bible, not Greek or Hebrew, as we talked about last week!
I don’t want to go into specifics on how they misused scripture. This is not a series or sermon on the JW’s. My point, though, is that here is a really good, practical example of doing poor exegesis and coming to poor application. That is, they are doing a poor job of drawing out the original meaning of the text and, with their poor understanding of the original meaning, they are applying that poor understanding to today.
The sad part is that their well put together booklet and careful answers and scripture proof texts are going to be very convincing for many people! If you were talking to one of them, or if you found one of their pamphlets in your mail box, would you be able to spot the errors? Maybe if you spotted the theological errors, would you be able to address how they used scripture to support their wrong answers?
This is one of the reasons we are doing this series on how to read the Bible well. On the card with our goals written on it you will see this. On the one hand, we want to appreciate why other sincere Christians hold different views than we do even though we are reading and trying to honour the same Bible. We want to respect the legitimate, orthodox (correct) beliefs of other Christians even if they are different from ours.
On the other hand, there are a number of groups that go beyond orthodoxy. There are groups, like the JWs, whose interpretations of Scripture and whose doctrinal beliefs mean that they are not, in fact, Christians. We want to equip you to read the Bible well so that you can identify false doctrine, wrong doctrine, especially when it falls outside the boundaries of correct or orthodox Christian belief.
Reading the Prophets
So, with that in mind, let’s consider today’s topic- how to read the Prophets. We’re going to do a little background work, explaining things to keep in mind while reading the prophetic books, then we are going to do a
case study on Hosea 1. For this reason, we’re not going to open our Bibles for some time! We have some preparatory work to do before we dive into the text itself.
First, what are the prophets? Prophets were divinely inspired people who spoke for God. They served as God’s “mouthpiece.” They were his ambassadors to the people. [Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, p. 193] Famous prophets include people like Moses, Samuel, Nathan, Elijah and Elisha, as well as Isaiah, Joel, Hosea and Daniel. These are but a few examples of literally hundreds of prophets that served in Israel over the course of its history. Most of these prophets are not named, only a few have books attached to their name. [Fee and Stuart, p. 189]
Something we must remember whenever we are speaking of prophets is that in the Bible most prophecy is forth-telling, not future telling. The prophets speak forth the word of God, they do not predict the future for the most part. Yes, the prophets often foretell doom, or God’s punishment, or, conversely, God’s redemption or rescue, but almost always this is in the context of God’s previously established covenant with Israel! Much of their predictive discussion is based on the “if/then” formula of the covenant. “If you continue to disobey, then God will punish you in this way.” Or, “Because you have continued to disobey, God will punish you….” Implicit in this “if/then” formula is that if they people repent, God will either spare them from disaster, or rescue them afterwards.
A great example of this is Jonah speaking to Nineveh. He says, “In 40 days God will destroy the city!” If you know the story, you know that the people of Nineveh repent and God does not, in fact, destroy the city. As a prophet, Jonah spoke for God. He called the people, in the case the Assyrians not the Israelites, to repent and return to God.
This is true for most of the things we read about prophets in the Bible, whether we be reading narratives about the prophets, like those found in Exodus, 1 Samuel, or 1 and 2 Kings, or whether we be reading the messages of prophets, like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea or Amos, etc.
If this is the role a prophet served in ancient Israel, speaking for God, what are the prophetic books? Why are they so hard to read sometimes? The prophetic books are collections of the messages or sermons various prophets delivered between 760 BC and 460 BC (roughly speaking). [Fee and Stuart, p. 197] That means that the prophetic books come from prophets serving near the end of the northern kingdom Israel and before and after the exile and restoration of the southern kingdom Judah. This is the tail end of the OT, relatively speaking.
This means that the books themselves contain some narrative, but a lot of dialogue! Actually, a lot of monologue! Much of the prophetic material is what God is saying to his people at specific times and in specific historical circumstances. Understanding this is what we are going to talk about today.
But a note about the prophetic books. The books are organized by length, not chronologically. Thus Isaiah is listed first, because it’s the longest. The terms “major” and “minor” prophets have to do with the length of the book, too, not the significance of the prophet or book. A better way to refer to them would be “the longer” and “shorter” prophets.
One thing this means for our approach to the books is that we need to figure out when each prophet was serving. Was it before or after the fall is Israel? What is before, during or after the exile of Judah? To whom was the prophet sent to prophesy, Israel, Judah or both?
[chart] I’ve included a helpful chart in your handout that lists when each prophet was serving. You can see that a majority of the prophets were working before the fall of Israel. Knowing the order in which they lived and preached his helpful because sometimes they even quote each other!
Remember, a few weeks ago we talked about how to approach any given text. We talked about asking the questions “who, what, when, where, why, how?” These are the questions we need to ask of any text in order to get at its original meaning. In the case of the prophets, when asking “who?” we need to ask who was the prophet and to whom was he speaking? When, as we just talked about, gives us a broad indication of the historical context. But for each book and, indeed, each passage, it is necessary to ask when, specifically? What were the particular circumstances surrounding this prophetic proclamation? Perhaps there is an enemy army threatening a city. Perhaps the people are in exile and God is promising their return. Perhaps they have already returned but have become discouraged in rebuilding the temple. All of these are factors in what the text originally meant! This will also help us answer why the prophet was speaking.
These are also factors that are not obvious from the text itself! For a lot of this historical context you will need outside help. A good study Bible will give you an introduction to each book. Other good sources are either commentaries or a Bible Encyclopaedia. Almost always you will need an outside source to help determine the who, what, when, where and why of a prophetic book or passage. That’s because the books themselves often do not contain a lot of narrative giving this information directly.
Consistently asking these questions of any text we want to study is important. We must not just reserve this work for passages we think are easy or clear! But when it comes to the prophetic works, we may also need some help with the “how?” That is, how do the prophets communicate? How do they go about fulfilling their role as God’s ambassadors or mouthpiece? This is the “literary context” of the passage. That is, this is the way the passage has been written down.
Now, at this point, I need to introduce you to another new word. I’m sorry about that, but it’s hard to talk about the prophetic books without this word. The prophets’ messages from God to the people are called “oracles.” [Fee and Stuart, p. 189] Why is this important? Why do we need a new word? Because when we are reading the prophets we must always think in terms of reading an entire oracle at a time. In other books of the Bible we want to think and read in paragraphs, not individual verses or lines. In the prophets, we need to think and read in terms of oracles. We need to read an entire message from God to his people if we are to understand individual lines within it! Otherwise we are taking words of God out of context and we are more likely to make them say something God never intended. That means we attribute to God our own meaning, putting ourselves in the place of God, which is idolatry and sin!
These oracles, these messages from God, what can we know about them? How do we approach them? There are a number of consistent forms these oracles take which helps us understand them. For instance, there is the lawsuit oracle in which the prophet speaks for God who then fills the role of both prosecutor, judge and witnesses. This is where God, through the prophet, builds a case against Israel or Judah for their disobedience.
There is also the “woe oracle” in which the prophet announces coming distress or a source of sadness, then gives the reason for it and a prediction of what it will look like.
The flip side of the woe oracle is the promise or salvation oracle. Here the prophet foretells a time of blessing. Frequently these oracles have to do with the “Day of the Lord” in which there will be a radical change in the future. You may be familiar with the passage in Joel that Peter quotes on the Day of Pentecost.
The most common form of oracle, which can be mixed with the other forms, is the messenger speech. These begin, “The Lord says….” These follow the pattern of diplomatic speeches or messages.
The most dramatic form of oracle, and one which we often are most baffled by, is the enactment prophecy. You can kind of think of this as a prophecy with visual aids. Remember, the prophets themselves were ministering in an age in which many people were illiterate. The prophets had to rely on spoken words to convey their messages, not written texts. To aid in their communication, God sometimes called them to enact a prophecy. For instance, Isaiah was called to go about wearing nothing but his underwear for 3 years to symbolize that the Egyptians would be carried away by the Assyrians! (Isa 20) Now, he was probably allowed to wear clothes much of the time, especially when we went to formal meetings with the king or other leaders. However, over the course of three years, he would frequently appear in public wearing nothing but his undergarments! This would serve as a reminder to the people, when they saw Isaiah walking around nearly naked, that he had prophesied about the Egyptians’ future capture in which they would be carried away in a similar fashion. [Fee and Stuart, p. 203] The people of Israel, knowing their geography, knew that the Egyptians were on one side of them and the Assyrians on the other. If the Assyrians were going to conquer the Egyptians, they would wind up going through Israel to get there!
So, let’s put all this together and actually do it! Please turn with me to Hosea 1. If you’d like to read along but don’t have a Bible, please raise your hand for our ushers to get you one.
Case Study- Hosea 1
What do we see right off the bat? This is the word of God, Yahweh, that came to Hosea. That’s part of “who?” Hosea was the son of Beeri and the word of God came to him during the time of the kings Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah of Judah and Jeroboam in Israel. You can read about these kings in 2 King 14-18.
Hosea was called to preach to Israel in the north. This was before their destruction at the hands of Assyria. What’s the first thing God said to Hosea? Verse 2 is rather startling! “Go, take to yourself an adulterous wife and children of unfaithfulness….” Wow! As other translations put it a little more bluntly, “Go, take for yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord.” (Hos 1:2 NRSV) How would you like that for a call to ministry?
This is clearly an example of an enactment prophecy. God is calling Hosea to enact in his marriage the kind of relationship God has had with Israel. God says that “the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord.” The people have not been faithful to God. God is giving Hosea the message that God is upset with them for being unfaithful. So he calls Hosea to enact this, to give a visual aid of sorts, by marrying a prostitute and trying to build a family with her!
Hosea is obedient and marries Gomer and she bears Hosea a son. Now, look down at verses 6 and 8. There is something missing in those 2 verses. In verse 3 we are told Gomer “bore him” a son. But in 6 and 8 there is no mention of Hosea. Gomer gives birth to the children but they are not Hosea’s! So here is Hosea, the prophet, the man of God, who has married a prostitute and she continues to be unfaithful to him! She bears him 2 illegitimate children! [Derek Kidner, The Message of Hosea, p. 12]
What about these kids? God instructs Hosea to name them with significant names that reflect God’s attitude towards Israel. The first child, a boy, is named Jezreel because of the massacre at Jezreel. What is this all about? It’s interesting that the valley of Jezreel appears several times in the OT. In Judges, it was in this valley that Gideon was victorious! (Judges 6:33-7:23) So the valley was originally a sign of God’s victory.
But later, in 2 Ki 9 and 10, the valley became the sign of a blood bath and treachery. Jehu was anointed to be king over Israel, but instead of waiting for the Lord to deal with the current king, Ahab, Jehu went to the city where Ahab was recovering from wounds sustained in battle. Jehu came acting like he was coming in peace, but he killed bot Ahab the king of Israel and Joram the king of Judah.
Because of the manner in which Jehu killed the two kings, God was here telling Israel, through Hosea, that he was going to punish Jehu’s descendants. Furthermore, he will bring an end to Israel as a nation!
The second child Gomer bore was a girl whom God told Hosea to name “not loved.” This was to symbolize that God was withdrawing his love, his steadfast love, his hessed love from Israel. That is, he was withdrawing his sustaining, protecting, providing love from Israel. But Judah would not face the same fate (yet). Judah God would save.
Finally, the third child is named “not my people.” Why? Because God is saying, “You are no longer my people and I am no longer your God.” Literally, in Hebrew it says, “I am not yours.” This may be reminiscent of the name Yahweh which means “I am.” This is the name by which God identified himself to Moses at the burning bush in Exo 3:12. [Kidner, p. 23] God began to establish his covenant with Israel and make them a nation at the burning bush. Here, hundreds of years later, he is finally bringing the covenant to a close because Israel has consistently violated her part of it.
This is pretty dark! Hosea’s whole family become a living, breathing oracle about the destruction of Israel! Can you imagine growing up with those names? Can you imagine being Hosea, the prophet, the man of God, whose wife cheats on his repeatedly, bearing more illegitimate children than legitimate?
But God isn’t done with the dire prophecy. Ever faithful, even when his people are unfaithful, verses 10-2:1 are remarkable! In verse 10 we see the prediction of doom being reversed. In language reminiscent of God’s promise to Abraham, God says, “Yet the Israelites will be like the sand on the seashore.” They people will experience the reversal of not being God’s people to being “sons of the living God.” This is actually even better than being the people of God- being his sons! This goes beyond reconciliation! [Kidner, p. 25]
Finally, verse 1 of chapter 2 completes the reversal saying, “Say of your brothers, ‘my people,’ and of your sisters, ‘my loved one.’” These are the reversal of the names of the illegitimate children from Gomer. Remember, the girl was “not loved” and the boy was “not my people.”
So what’s happening here? What was the original meaning of this text? Hosea’s story, the story of his marriage to Gomer, is one of love and betrayal. As the story continues to unfold through the rest of the book, we see Gomer continue in her unfaithfulness, eventually leaving Hosea, who then pursues her, rescues her and brings her home. The complex dynamics of their marriage, the tragedy mixed with sacrificial love, is a profound
testimony to God’s relationship with Israel specifically and his people generally.
And this story of Hosea and Gomer is not just a parallel to God’s relationship with his people. It is a model for it because God actually commands Hosea to go do this! God is communicating a powerful message to Israel, and by extension to us, about his pursuit of fallen people, about people’s persistent sin and unfaithfulness and what those things bring.
How do we apply this then to our situation? What is God saying to us through this passage? First, we must remember that these words were written to Israel in a specific time and under particular circumstances. We cannot use this passage to justify marrying prostitutes, being unfaithful in our marriages like Gomer, or consider this a prescriptive passage in any way! This is descriptive, not prescriptive. The command to marry a whore was not given to all of God’s people, but to one particular prophet and with one reason in mind- an enactment prophecy to Israel.
Now, I don’t think many of us were likely to try to apply Hosea 1 to our own lives in a prescriptive manner, or even a “permissive” manner. That’s because we don’t want to go through what Hosea went through. But I want to point out that the reasons why we should not apply Hosea 1 to ourselves are the same reasons why we should not apply other passages, more attractive passages to ourselves either! If a promise was made to Israel, then the promise was made to them, not us! Context, context, context!
That being said, one thing we do learn from this passage is how God feels when his people betray him, are unfaithful to him and worship things other than him. His covenant relationship is violated. It is as bad as committing adultery! And God continues to pursue us and seeks to reconcile us to himself, even though we have done this to him!
It also shows us that God understands what it is like to be betrayed. For those of us who have experienced betrayal, broken marriages, abandonment, unfaithfulness, we can see that God understands how that feels! God can have compassion for us because his people are doing that kind of thing to him all the time!
What about the prophetic, future aspects of this passage? They have already come true. God has already broken the house of Jehu and pretty well destroyed Israel. But, not all the Israelites were killed or carried off. The nation ceased to exist, but some of the people were able to flee to Judah. When Judah went into exile and was then restored, they rebuilt the temple and sacrificed 12 bulls- members of all 12 tribes were still present in Judah. In Acts 26:7, Paul speaks of all 12 tribes of Israel when testifying before Agrippa. So even in those days the Jews recognized that although the northern nation of Israel no longer existed as a political entity, the people of Israel, the 12 tribes of Israel, still existed.
Why does this matter? Because this is also part of the fulfilment of the prophecy given in Hosea 1. God is still the God of Israel, the God of the Jews. He did rescue a faithful remnant and the people were not all destroyed.
Furthermore, we continue to be the fulfilment of God’s promise to Abraham! God promised Abraham that his children would be more than the sands of the seashore. That is repeated or echoed in our passage. God is fulfilling this promise in the church! We are part of the fulfilment of this prophecy.
But realize, too, that most of this prophecy is already complete. Most of the OT prophecy is complete, actually. There is very little, other than the Day of The Lord, that has yet to come to pass. We have to be careful when we hear people citing OT prophecy and pointing to either our day or the near future. A vast majority of what God promised would happen has already happened!
The role of the prophets was to enforce the covenant God made with Israel. They drew upon the covenant from Deuteronomy and Leviticus, reminding the people that there are consequences when they fail to live up to their side of the covenant! Finally, ultimately, God rejected his people in the north and severely chastised his people in the south. But this was unthinkable to the Jews. How could God allow them to be defeated? So God went to extreme lengths to communicate to them the severity of the situation, calling prophets and giving them profound ways to communicate these truths.
Today, 2000 years later, we need to be careful not to lift these prophesies out of context and twist them to mean things God never intended. Because when we do, we are putting God’s authority on our own ideas! So read the context. Read the oracles in their historical and literary contexts first! Do the hard work of understanding what God was saying to his original readers before you try to apply it to yourselves or to our
situation today. This doesn’t guarantee you will always have the right application, but to not do this work means you will almost always be taking things out of context and making them into a pre-text. Amen.
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