Modern prophetic interpretation is surprisingly diverse, often presenting a bewildering array of national, personal, and cosmic predictions. Opaque scriptural symbols appear to have insufficient predictive potential, making even fulfilled prophecy frustrating to understand. As blood moons pass, “significant” dates come and go, and Planet X stubbornly refuses to destroy the earth, we are forced to reflect on our approach to prophecy. Are we doing it wrong?
In this series of three articles we’ll be building a foundation for understanding the message of the prophets, starting with how they prime their language for maximum impact.
When we think of prophecy it is often as the telling of future events.1 This definition often constrains our reading of scripture, and the expectation of “tomorrow’s news today” can frame our interpretation in subtle – and not so subtle – ways. How many times have you seen Bible prophecy characterised as a newspaper headline?
Poetry in the prophets
While the language and form of prophecy used through the Bible varies, is never the independent factual narrative style of (some) modern news outlets. In fact, it is characteristically poetic. It is also more than simply telling the future: the divine perspective is conveyed in powerfully emotive language, leveraging every figure of speech available from metaphor and simile to synecdoche and metonymy.2
Though this language pervades the text or the Bible, two examples serve to demonstrate its use:
“Son of man, the house of Israel has become dross to Me; all of them are bronze and tin and iron and lead in the furnace; they are the dross of silver”3 (Eze 22:18)
Here metaphor is used to make a powerful statement about how God values the Israelites, leveraging recognizable activities from the ancient world to draw a disturbing picture of the nation’s fall from grace.
This form of speech is characteristic of divine assessment, the forth-telling of God’s perspective on the world. However, it is also found in passages that speak of the distant events through fore-telling. Describing the invasion of Israel in the last days Ezekiel proclaims to Gog:
“You will go up, you will come like a storm; you will be like a cloud covering the land, you and all your troops, and many peoples with you.” (Eze 38:9)
Here we may be frustrated by scripture’s use of simile as an inherently imprecise way to describe the future. What aspect of “storm” and “cloud” should be understood here? Perhaps the inevitability of the invader’s advance, breadth of its shadow, or portent of coming irresistible violence?
The power of figurative language is that it paints rich scenery with only a handful of brush strokes. Tempting as it might be to browse military websites for literal cloud-creating weaponry, it is unlikely that the author intended to enable a dazzling prediction regarding the prolific use of smoke grenades in the end times.
Figures of speech are used throughout the Bible, from a land “flowing with milk and honey”, the land that could “vomit them out”, to Christ’s recommendation to take the sinful hand and “cut it off”. This type of language is not alien to the Bible but native to it, and prophecy is no exception.
The value of such wordplay is the visceral impact that it has on the hearers:
“Without poetic technique, prophecy would be little more than tedious diatribe—recitations of failures and dashed hopes, with an occasional offer of hope for the repentant. In poetry, however, their creativity resulted in literary masterpieces”4
Literary structure in the prophets
Not only do we find eloquent wordcraft in the prophets, we also find those words are deliberately placed in recognizable structures and genres. Ezekiel’s prophecy against Tyre leverages a variety of literary forms to express divine disgust for the city’s greedy betrayal of God’s people.
First, chapter 26 of Ezekiel delivers an oracle5 against Tyre in similar fashion to those in the previous chapter. The case against Tyre is elaborated using the formula “thus says the Lord”, with clear cause and effect conveyed using the “because… therefore” structure. In classic Ezekiel “halving” style, the case is stated twice.
While the effect is powerful, it does not conform to any modern expectation of chronological progression. Speaking of Ezekiel’s later prophecy in chapter 39, the Tyndale commentary notes that the oracle:
“…is fond of repetition and delights to revert to previous statements and enlarge on them, even though the result is to destroy all sense of consecutive arrangement.”6
Attempts to predict world events are therefore frustrated by the twin problems of language and form.
After announcing judgement in these familiar terms, Ezekiel follows with a lament7. These passages take a more explicitly poetic form, anticipating Tyre’s downfall and the subsequent reaction to her demise. She is described as “broken by the east wind” (27:26), “falling into the heart of the seas” (27:27), and their king “turned to ashes in the midst of the earth” (28:18).
The clearer function of the lament genre ensures that these prophecies are not understood literally, and the relatively well-documented history of the city also precludes literal applications of the prophecy. Nevertheless, without the benefit of history to qualify the literal and figurative portions of this account, the difficulties forming a predictive model in advance of fulfilment are evident.
The still small voice
For people whose necks can be made of iron, and whose forehead can be bronze (Isa 48:4), God’s word needs a special kind of power. Drama, figure, and wit8 are forged into the prophetic word, imbued with a weight of concepts intuitive to an ancient audience, and wielded to crack the hearts and minds of an obstinate people:
“Is not my word like fire, says the Lord, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?” (Jer 23:29)
We like Elijah must learn that for all the fire and brimstone God can rain down, and all the wind and quaking at his fingertips, the one thing capable of breaking through the stubborn heart of man is the still, small voice of God. Couched in shocking word-pictures and dramatic extremes, the language of prophecy is designed to change behavior rather than satisfy our curiosity about the future.
In the second part of the series we’ll be considering the role of the prophets conveying the divine perspective, and how this further explains their preference for words of impact. Finally, the third part will show how allusion and metaphor can be information-rich in ways we often overlook.
- “The ability to say what is going to happen in the future” Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary and Thesaurus, 4th edition (Cambridge University Press, 2013)
- Technical definitions of language are unnecessary to appreciate the point, but for clarity: metaphor says the object is whatever it is the figure (“the people are dross”), simile says it is like the figure (“we all like sheep…”), synecdoche has the part stand for the whole (“give us our daily bread”, bread standing for food in general), and metonymy uses related ideas to allude to the referent (“throne of Israel” alluding to authority). These can all be appreciated under the general heading “figures of speech”.
- All Bible quotes taken from New American Standard Bible, 1995 Edition: Paragraph Version (La Habra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995)
- D Brent Sandy, Ploughshares and pruning hooks (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 72. A book review by this article’s author is available at https://biblesnippets.com/ploughshares-and-pruning-hooks/.
- Adair, J. R., Jr. Oracle “A message from God to an individual or group of people, usually delivered by a prophet. Heb. makkāʾ, in its basic meaning ‘burden,’ frequently refers to the prophetic communication from God to humankind”. In D. N. Freedman, A. C. Myers, & A. B. Beck (Eds.), Eerdmans dictionary of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 2000), 991.
- Comment on Ezekiel 39:1-16. John Taylor, Tyndale Old Testament Commentary: Ezekiel (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009)
- Dobbs-Allsopp, F. W. Lament. “One of the oldest and best-attested literary genres in the ancient Near East. The OT contains at least four different kinds or subgenres of the lament: funeral dirge, city lament, individual lament, and communal lament… The city lament owes its original inspiration to the funeral dirge, as it mourns the destruction of a city as if the city were a deceased person. Knowledge of city laments dates back to the end of the 3rd millennium b.c.e. in ancient Mesopotamia. These laments describe the destruction of particular cities and their important shrines.” In D. N. Freedman, A. C. Myers, & A. B. Beck (Eds.), Eerdmans dictionary of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 2000), 784.
- The irony of Tyre, a naval merchant power, drowning in the heart of the sea, is a typical example of the dry poetic justice common to many of Ezekiel’s oracles.