Back in the summer I began a series giving some ‘Guidelines for Reading the Bible.’ At that time I covered Old Testament Narrative and Wisdom Literature.

Today I’d like to move on and cover the Prophetic Literature. These books may be divided up into their three main redemptive-historical categories of pre-exilic, exilic, and post-exilic (all referring to the Babylonian exile of 605-536 BC).

All of the writing prophets have their ministry span falling between about 760 and 460 BC. Just like your pastor’s message to your church this coming Sunday will be different than the message preached to our people (addressing different sins and different cultural pressures, etc.), the prophets were addressing different people groups (either Israel in the north of Judah in the south). It’s important to know where and when these prophets are ministering so you can make sense of their warning / admonition / rebuke. A good study Bible will always help you here.

Prophets as Historians and Future-Tellers

Often when we conceive of prophecy and prophets we think merely of future-telling. But there is much more identity-grounding memory-jogging in the prophetic literature than anything else. As historians, they were to remind God’s people of their covenantal past and all that God had already promised & warned.

But inasmuch as they reminded people of what God had said in the past, the prophets could predict the immediate future (because they knew God would keep his word to bless & to curse appropriately). The prophets saw the future events of the ‘last days’ as a mountain range in the distance, as one singular unit. Living in the ‘last days’ now, however, we see that within the mountain range there are many peaks and valleys between individual predicted events.

Some Patterns in Prophetic Literature

  1. The Lawsuit: (1) Call (2)Accusation (3) Announcement, and often, (4)plea for repentance (e.g. Amos 4.1-3)
  2. The Woe (e.g. Isaiah 5)
  3. The Promise (e.g. Isaiah 40)
  4. The Poetry (e.g. Isaiah 52-53); also, proverbs, riddles, satire, etc.
  5. The Prophetic Narrative (e.g. Jeremiah 32)
  6. The Apocalyptic Prophecies (e.g. Daniel 7-12)

10 Principles for Interpreting Prophetic Literature: 1

  1. Because prophets speak mainly to their own day, we need to make sure we understand their day
  2. Don’t be afraid of (good) Study Bibles and commentaries
  3. Read a whole prophetic book rather than just sections; main themes and rhetorical strategies are important for interpreting the various parts
  4. Use a cross-referencing system to see how the NT interprets / borrows the passages you’re reading
  5. In apocalypse, remember the big picture: This world is messed up beyond repair and exists in a state of turmoil until God intervenes by judgement, bringing victory for the good, which ushers in a time of peace, where justice reigns
  6. In highly image-driven apocalyptic sections, always remember that the author’s main purpose was to effect change in his contemporaries; if our interpretation doesn’t include a call to holiness in the present, our interpretation is wrong
  7. Always look for the persistence of hope: the shining of the light of redemption through the dark clouds of God’s judgement; this is where the nature of our God is magnified—this is where we see the cross
  8. Because the prophets write to a people in a different covenantal  relationship, the application is less direct; the application will spring from the heart of God revealed in his dealings with his people
  9. Application should always be done through Jesus, the one who lived our righteousness, became sin, and took our curse so that we could know the hope & blessing the prophets extend to the righteous.
  10. Prophecies of judgement, showing us the wrath of God toward sin, and what we truly deserve, should always make us more thankful for the cross.




  1. This list is made up from my reflections on various sources including How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth by Fee & Stuart, Introduction to Biblical Interpretation by Klein, Blomberg, and Hubbard, An Invitation to Biblical Interpretation by Kostenberger and Patterson, and Knowing Scripture by RC Sproul.