Prophecy: Past, Present, and Future

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from The Prophets of Israel: Walking the Ancient Paths
by James K. Hoffmeier

One might be inclined to think that the Hebrew prophets were preoccupied with the distant future, matters regarding the coming of the Messiah or Christ (i.e., the anointed one) and the end times (i.e., the end of the world as we know it!). One analysis reveals the following surprising results: less than 2 percent of OT prophecy is messianic, less than 5 percent specifically describes the New Covenant Age (i.e., the Christina era), and less than 1 percent is concerned with events yet to come.[1] The reality is that Israel’s prophets preached messages that were based on the covenant relationship God had established at Mt. Sinai (i.e., Exodus 20–Leviticus 27) and the earlier covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The latter began with a “promise” to Abraham that included three facets: land, posterity, and a blessing or relationship with this deity (Gen. 12:1–3). This promise, in turn, is guaranteed subsequently by the covenant or treaty agreement in which God introduces himself to Abraham as “the Lord, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land (Canaan) to take possession of it.” The covenant ceremony concludes with the Lord affirming, “to your descendants I give this land.” This promise is reiterated to Isaac (Gen. 26:2–5, 24) and Jacob (Gen. 28:10–15; 35:11–15).

The “Abrahamic Covenant” further anticipates the four hundred years of living as sojourners or aliens in an unnamed land (Gen. 15:13). At the height of the Hebrew enslavement in Egypt, the book of Exodus observes, “God heard their groaning and he remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob” (Exod. 2:24), implying that he was about to act to fulfill that old promise regarding the land. Again prior to the exodus itself, the Lord again speaks to Moses saying, “I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God, and you shall know that I am the Lord your God, who has brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians. And I will bring you to the land I swore with uplifted hand to give to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob. I will give it to you as a possession. I am the Lord” (Exod. 6:7–8). When God says “I will take,” as noted previously, the verb is the same one used for marriage, when a man takes a wife.[2] This term points to a marriage covenant between God and Israel (cf. Mal. 2:14; Prov. 2:17).

The Sinai covenant was established after the exodus from Egypt, and there as we observed in the previous section, the Lord is identified as the God who brought Israel out of Egypt. By virtue of entering into the covenant relationship that was sealed in the oath ceremony affirming allegiance to the Lord, the laws or stipulations were rehearsed. The people of Israel obligated them- selves to lives of obedience to this God and the commandments he introduced through the prophet-leader Moses. By virtue of this covenant relationship, Israel became God’s people, and using the marital motif, Israel became God’s bride (cf. Ezek. 16).

One of the components of the treaty structure was the covenant curses and blessings. Blessings come as a result of keeping the laws and the curses are experienced as punishment for violations. Once again, the focus is on the land. God will make it fertile by the seasonal rains and thus provide for their needs, and the Lord will also provide security from hostile neighbors: “I will grant peace in the land” (Lev. 26:6), that is, Shalom (šālôm): peace and well-being.

In Deuteronomy, which is regarded by many interpreters as the renewal of the Sinaitic covenant with the new generation who would actually take possession of the promised land of Canaan (cf. Deut. 31:9–13), heaven and earth are summoned as witnesses to the renewal (Deut. 4:26; 30:19; 31:28), and similar blessings and curses are announced (Deut. 28), with an additional caveat: disobedience to God’s laws (especially those dealing with idolatry) will result in the loss of the land and exile in distant foreign countries (Deut. 4:25–27). However, the prospect of return and restoration for Israel is held out if there is a genuine repentance and a sincere seeking after God (Deut. 4:29–30), because “the Lord your God is a merciful God; he will not abandon or destroy you or forget the covenant with your forefathers, which he confirmed to them by oath” (Deut. 4:31).

This discussion about the Abrahamic and Sinaitic covenants lays the foundation for the preaching of the prophets Israel. It is what God has said in the past (especially in the Sinaitic legislation) that is used as the measuring rod that is applied to the present (i.e., the prophet’s time), which naturally has implications for the future. This three-fold focus on past, present, and future must always be borne in mind when reading the prophets and understanding their message. Therefore, the task of the prophet, as Richard Averbeck has recently observed, “focused primarily on reforming the behavior of the people and the nation as a whole by calling them back to exclusive and heartfelt covenant loyalty and obedience to the Lord and his word already revealed.”[3]

[1] Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982), 50.

[2] HALOT 534.

[3] Averbeck, “The Test of a Prophet,” 3.


This post is adapted from The Prophets of Israel: Walking the Ancient Paths, written by James K. Hoffmeier, released October 26th 2021. If you are interested in adopting this book for a college or seminary course, please request a faculty examination copy. We will also consider requests for your blog or media outlets.

Seeing the biblical prophets in context makes all the difference in understanding their messages

In The Prophets of Israel, Old Testament scholar and longtime field archaeologist James K. Hoffmeier explores the biblical prophets through their ancient settings. Readers gain a more accurate and comprehensive understanding through many practical components:

  • Full-color photos and images of historical and cultural importance
  • Focus on the geopolitical contexts of the prophets
  • Clear explanations of the prophets’ provoking messages
  • Discussion questions for Bible students or instructor use

These features and photos vividly illustrate the biblical narratives and the prophets’ concerns, helping readers better comprehend each text’s message and make informed theological applications.

The biblical prophetic tradition extends far before and far after the Major and Minor Prophets. Yet all biblical prophets–including recognizable figures like Moses and Elijah, lesser-known prophets like Huldah and Micaiah, and the New Testament prophets–ministered in distinctive cultural and historical circumstances. Hoffmeier draws on his extensive knowledge of ancient Near Eastern culture, geography, political realities, and the Old Testament message to locate the prophets in their worlds. This approach illuminates prophetic messages and ministries with a theological clarity that basic history and literary interpretation cannot achieve.

 


Author:

James K. Hoffmeier (PhD, University of Toronto) is emeritus professor of Old Testament and Near Eastern archaeology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He taught Old Testament and Hebrew for over forty years. For the last twenty years he focused on Hebrew exegesis in the prophetic books. He engaged in archaeological work in Sinai and at the Karnak Temple Complex in Egypt, and presently is part of a team investigating the Cushite cemetery at Nuri, Sudan. His other works include The Archaeology of the Bible.

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About Author

(PhD, University of Toronto) is emeritus professor of Old Testament and Near Eastern archaeology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He taught Old Testament and Hebrew for over forty years. For the last twenty years he focused on Hebrew exegesis in the prophetic books. He engaged in archaeological work in Sinai and at the Karnak Temple Complex in Egypt, and presently is part of a team investigating the Cushite cemetery at Nuri, Sudan. His other works include The Archaeology of the Bible.

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