Your pastor says that he is going to be preaching a series on the prophets. Which books are you expecting to be in the series? If you’re like most you are anticipating a bit of Jeremiah or Ezekiel or Isaiah and maybe a few of those guys with weird names and short books. But would you be shocked if he included Joshua or Samuel in his series? Would you expect any New Testament books to be considered prophetic books of the Bible and thus be included in the series?
When we try to answer the question about which books are prophetic, the question is a little more complex than we might have first assumed.
What Qualifies a Biblical Book as Being Prophetic?
In order to answer this question, we must first establish what is meant by the term prophetic. One of the simplest definitions I have heard of prophecy is that it is “Spirit-inspired utterance.” But if this is the case, what do we do with 2 Timothy 3:16?
All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness…
Would this not make Scripture at least in some sense prophetic? When most people think of prophecy, though, they think of that which is prophetic—what is predictive and pointing to something future. What, then, do we do with Jesus’ words in Luke 24:27?
And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.
So, in another sense, all Scripture is pointing to Jesus. Jesus is the fulfillment of all Scripture. Again, it is starting to sound like all Scripture is prophecy. But notice, also, Jesus’ words in Luke 24. He clearly makes a division between “Moses and the Prophets”. What is happening there? This was shorthand for the way the Scripture was divided between Torah and the Prophets.
I share all of this to say that there is not a cut and dry formula for determining something a prophetic book or not a prophetic book. As noted earlier—all Scripture is God-breathed, and it all points to Jesus. In that sense everything is prophetic and these constructs are somewhat arbitrary. But there is a different genre that is often labeled prophetic. There is a difference between the style of a book like Jeremiah and a book like Job or Ezra or Acts.
It might be helpful, then, to consider which books are considered prophetic. But that too isn’t quite as cut and dry as one might assume.
Which Books Are Prophetic Books in the Bible?
For most Christian Bibles the Old Testament is ordered along four major divisions: Pentateuch, Historical Books, Poetic and Wisdom Literature, and the Prophets. In this division, the prophets would be divided along the lines of the major prophets and the minor prophets. The Major Prophets are Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel. And Jeremiah’s work in Lamentations is also put into this category. The Minor prophets are Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi.
The Hebrew Scriptures, however, are divided differently. The TaNaK is the acronym used for the three major sections of the Hebrew Bible: Torah, Nevi’im, Ketuvim. Nevi’im means prophets but you might be a little shocked at what appears under this category. The Nevi’im is divided into three categories: the Former Prophets, the Latter Prophets, and the Minor Prophets. The ones in the category of Former Prophets are the ones that will be the most surprising. These are Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings). And there will also be one prophet missing in this section of the Hebrew Bible; namely, Daniel. Daniel appears in the Ketuvim (Writings) section as does Lamentations.
So, is Daniel a prophetic book? If we are solely going by these arbitrary divisions then in the Hebrew Bible it would not be considered prophetic. In fact, it is debated whether or not Daniel is even to be considered a prophet. The Talmud explicitly states that he is not a prophet. Yet the book of Daniel uses apocalyptic language and tells of the future. It reads similar to other prophets. So, is it prophetic?
This is where I think it is best to acknowledge that these classifications are arbitrary. Even with how Jesus referred to all of Scripture, he left off the Writings. It’s not because he wasn’t making reference to them pointing to Him. But rather that was just shorthand for saying “all of Scripture.” Again, it’s arbitrary.
It’s better, in my opinion, to allow each section of Scripture to stand on its own and consider the genre of each section rather than attempt to force entire books into a specific genre. In other words, there are times when the book of Jeremiah is a prophetic genre of literature. There are other times when it is narrative. We use different interpretive tools for interpreting and applying a narrative than we do in interpreting and applying a piece of prophetic or apocalyptic literature.
What tools should we use to study a piece of prophetic literature?
How Should We Study These Prophetic Books of the Bible?
If you are considering studying an entire book of the Bible that falls under prophetic literature the first step is to consider it as a whole and place it within its context. These books tend to be occasional in nature—meaning there is some historical situation that motivated them. Therefore, it is important in as much as we can, to consider the background material. Was this book written to the Northern Kingdom during the Assyrian invasion? Was it written before the Babylonian exile? Was it written to the people who had returned from exile? It’s important to read all of the Bible as a unified story which is pointing to Jesus. But the first step in doing this is letting the text speak in its original context.
One of the hallmarks of prophetic literature is that it is typically highly figurative. It’s a good idea to expect this type of language. Robert Plummer points out the importance of reading the literature as the author intended:
The prophet’s use of poetic meter is a further indication that one should be expecting figurative, poetic expressions and symbolism. If the author intended his language to be understood literally, we want to understand it literally. If he intended his words to be understood figuratively, likewise, we want to understand them that way. As we study the text, we are seeking the conscious intention of the divinely inspired author. Most modern Americans are prone to read all language literally. Undoubtedly, the Hebrew language of the Scriptures is much more likely to contain hyperbole and figurative language than the type of literature most modern American read regularly (e.g. newspapers, magazines).
You’ve perhaps heard it said that it’s wise to read with your Bible in one hand and your newspaper in the other. This type of statement is usually made when considering prophetic books of the Bible. I actually think such a statement is misinformed. For one, the newspaper is a different genre than prophetic literature. And it is always a temptation to read our current situation into the Bible rather than to read the Bible into our present turmoil.
It’s also important when considering the predictive prophecy that we distinguish between that which has already been fulfilled in Christ and that which awaits fulfillment. Some of the literature is conditional and very confined to its time. Consider Jonah’s message that in forty days Nineveh will be destroyed. That didn’t happen because it was conditional. It would be ill-informed to supply your enemy’s name into the place of Nineveh and assume that God gave you “a word” that your enemy would be overthrown in forty days. But it would be solid exegesis to establish from this text that when we repent God forgives.
The key point of the prophets is “thus says the Lord.” It is meant to show us that when God speaks it is truth. He means what he says, and he does what he says he is going to do. The prophets ultimately point us to Christ. It is in Christ that all the promises of God find their “yes”. If your interpretation of a prophecy has more to do with your own life situation than it does with the finished work of Jesus Christ, then it’s probably established on faulty grounds. Yes, the Scriptures speak to us and they exhort and encourage us. But they are not fundamentally about us or our historical situations. The prophets weren’t given to give people a crystal ball into the future so they could make plans and save their investments. The primary prophetic call was to repent and to trust in God. We see that ultimately fulfilled in the finished work of Jesus Christ.