Why Read the Prophets?
When one takes a cursory look at the books of the prophets like Isaiah or Zechariah, it is easy to wonder how they could be valuable to the “New Testament” Christian. There are dozens of oracles against nations that do not exist anymore. Many of the prophets were ordered to do all number of confusing and illogical signs to show their message, in addition to experiencing visions and signs that are equally as baffling. “After all, the prophets were speaking to those under the Law of Moses, and we don’t follow that Law anymore, so…”
While I do not wish to stand as any sort of authority on the books of the prophets, it is important to understand that “all scripture is breathed out by God” (2 Tim. 3:16) and are therefore important to us. God, in his matchless wisdom, saw fit to preserve the works of the Old Testament prophets to this day for a reason, even if that reason is not immediately apparent to us! In the books of the prophets there are many concepts and scriptures that are used on a regular basis by Christians today (such as Jer.10:23; Isa. 55:8-9 and Eze. 3:16-20) yet many times the majority of the text from the books of the prophets are ignored in regular bible study. This is to our shame, as a study of books such as Isaiah and Zephaniah can give us huge insights into the major themes of our faith today. The five that are listed here are by no means a comprehensive list of what can be learned from the prophets, yet I hope they will give you more consideration for these oft-ignored texts within the Bible.
1. The Prophets give us a glimpse into God’s global power.
If one reads through the book of Isaiah, beginning in chapter 15 we have oracles or prophecies against the nations of that day. As you read through the book Moab, Damascus, Cush, Egypt, and Babylon are all going to experience the judgment of God. Jeremiah speaks out against Moab, Egypt, and Ammon on God’s behalf. The entire (short) book of Obadiah is written entirely in judgment of the nation of Edom. If we can gain nothing else from the judgments against these nations (which all came to pass, by the way), it is that God is ultimately in control. HE is in control of not just the affairs of His own people today, but the affairs of all people around the world. It is God that permits rulers to be raised up, and it is God that causes rulers to be struck down. (Dan. 2:21) This fact is easy to forget when we get caught up in the moment politically when looking at the current circumstances of our world. God has never stopped being in control, nor will he.
2. The Prophets let us see God’s broken heart due to Israel’s betrayal.
Ezekiel 16 perhaps better than any other passage puts Israel’s betrayal of God into terms that we can understand. It describes how God looked down upon the Israelites and brought them up from nothing, from worthlessness and made them His own. “I made you flourish like a plant of the field,” (Eze. 16:7) “Thus you were adorned with gold and silver, and your clothing was of fine linen and silk and embroidered cloth. You ate fine flour and honey and oil. You grew exceedingly beautiful and advanced to royalty.” (Eze. 16:13) How would you feel if this person betrayed you for another man? This is exactly what Israel did by following after other gods and abandoning their trust in God. The book of Hosea puts this betrayal into personal perspective, where his marriage to a harlot represents God’s marriage to his unfaithful wife of the northern kingdom of Israel. The prophets help us to understand how God feels when we sin and decide to be unfaithful to Him today!
3. The Prophets show us God’s fierce wrath when His covenant is broken.
“For I solemnly warned your fathers when I brought them up out of the land of Egypt, warning them persistently, even to this day, saying ‘Obey my voice’ 8Yet they did not obey or incline their ear, but everyone walked in the stubbornness of his evil heart. Therefore I brought upon them all the words of this covenant, which I commanded them not to do, but they did not.” (Jer. 11:7-8) Over and over we see God reasoning with His people, pleading with them, using his prophets to shout at them, even using language that is nigh-unrepeatable in today’s society. (See Eze. 23) When they did not repent, God judged them and allowed his wrath to burn hot against them, first in destroying Israel via Assyria, and Judah by the Babylonians. “Therefore thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, my anger and my wrath will be poured out on this place, upon man and beast, upon the trees of the field and the fruit of the ground; it will burn and not be quenched." (Jer. 7:20) The prophets let us see that God is ultimately serious when it comes to fulfilling His promises, both of reward and of punishment. They give us real insight into verses such as Heb.12:25, where the latter half of the verse reads “For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven.”
4. The Prophets let us see God’s willingness to forgive and show mercy to those who repent.
The prophets are not all “doom and gloom”. Think about it: Why send prophets to the people if there was no hope of repentance? Our God is not a God that would gloat over the punishment of His people. Again and again we see God pleading with His people to return to Him, to repent and turn back from their idolatry to worship Him once again. “1Return, O Israel, to the LORD your God, for you have stumbled because of your iniquity. 2Take with you words and return to the LORD; say to him, "Take away all iniquity; accept what is good, and we will pay with bulls the vows of our lips. 3Assyria shall not save us; we will not ride on horses; and we will say no more, 'Our God,' to the work of our hands. In you the orphan finds mercy." (Hos.14:1-3) In Amos 5 we find the simplest pleas from God: “Seek Me, and live;” (v.4), “Seek the LORD and live,” (v.6) “Seek good, and not evil, that you may live; and so the LORD, the God of hosts, will be with you,” (V.14) A more familiar verse to most readers would be Isaiah 1:18 “Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.” The prophets show us that God is willing to show mercy to those who would repent and turn to Him!
5. The Prophets show us the Final Solution, Jesus Christ.
In any great story that encompasses multiple volumes, it would be lunacy to read the last books before reading the first books. Sure, one can read the Gospels and the Epistles and understand some things about Jesus, but without the Prophets many of the details about Jesus are just minor details. Isaiah describes many things about the Savior, how He would be a Nazarene (Isa. 11:1), His name would be called Immanuel, and born of a virgin (Isa. 7:14). Hosea tells us that the Christ would spend a period of time in Egypt (Hos. 11:1). Jeremiah 31 tells us of the massacre of small children that would occur at His birthplace. Zechariah 11 tells us that the Christ would be betrayed, and specifically for how much money! And there are many, many others. The prophets serve to tell us that the Christ is the final one that we were to look for. They describe for us who the Jews should have looked for. And they serve to tell us that the Christ was given as a sacrifice for our sins, which is the root and foundation of our faith today as Christians. “but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, 24but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” (1 Cor. 1:23-24)
Hopefully the above points will give us more motivation to study and spend serious time within the books of the Prophets. This is not to say that they are always easy to study, in many cases the contrary is true. This does not take away from their value to us as Christians today! We must remember one fact about the prophets: Amos, Obadiah, and Zechariah were inspired by the same Holy Spirit that moved Peter, Paul, and Luke to write. We must learn to give all of them the same attention and concern in our study! “For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” (1 Pet. 1:21)