How (Not) to Preach the Old Testament Prophets
Preaching faithfully from the Old Testament is always a challenge. But preaching faithfully from the Old Testament Prophets is perhaps most challenging of all. “The books of Israel’s prophets are among the most difficult in the Old Testament, and probably among the most difficult books ever written.”1 Luther agreed: ““The prophets have a queer way of talking, like people who, instead of proceeding in an orderly manner, ramble off from one thing to the next, so that you cannot make head or tail of them or see what they are getting at.”2
Yet, despite the difficulty, we cannot neglect or avoid preaching the Prophets if we seek to declare to our people the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27). Instead of telling you what to do, here is a brief list of what not to do when preaching from the Prophets. Consider the following a “not-to-do” checklist.
1. Don’t preach about the prophet. Preach the message of the prophetic book.
The first thing not to do when preaching from the Old Testament Prophets is to preach about the prophet. Instead preach the message of the divinely inspired book that bears the prophet’s name.
The Old Testament prophets are colorful characters. Isaiah stripped off all his clothes and wandered around naked for three years (Isaiah 20:1–3). Jonah, the stubborn prophet, fled in a boat from the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land (Jonah 1:1–3). Jeremiah hid his linen loincloth in a cleft of the rock by the Euphrates River (Jeremiah 13:1–6). Hosea dutifully married a prostitute in obedience to the Lord’s command (Hosea 1:2–3). With such interesting biographical material as this to work with, it’s easy for the preacher to be seduced into treating the Prophets as if they were a form of ancient Israelite memoir. But the prophetic books aren’t biographies of the prophets. In many instances, we know only scant details about their personal lives.
Instead of preaching about the prophets, the task of the faithful expositor is to proclaim the message of the God-breathed prophetic books, the sacred writings, which are able to make your hearers wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus (2 Timothy 3:15; 4:2). This requires prayerful and careful reading and rereading of the prophetic books, meditating day and night (Psalm 1), as well as asking for and receiving wisdom from the Lord Himself. For: “Whoever is wise, let him understand these things; whoever is discerning, let him know them; for the ways of the LORD are right, and the upright walk in them, but transgressors stumble in them” (Hosea 14:9).
2. Don’t focus exclusively upon Israel. Highlight God’s glorious global purposes for all nations.
The second thing not to do when preaching from the Old Testament Prophets is to focus exclusively upon Israel. It’s easy to read the Prophets and come away thinking these books are solely about the Lord’s ancient dealings with the people of Israel. After reading the prophetic books, some Christians might even begin to feel like they’ve been reading someone else’s mail! After all, to the Israelites “belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen” (Romans 9:4–5).
Certainly, the prophetic books inform us of historical events that occurred in Israel’s past. But Israel’s past was the divine canvas on which God painted his plans for the future.3 Israel’s past is the prologue for the world. The Lord’s divine plans for the future not only feature Israel, but also highlight God’s glorious global purposes for all nations. The Prophets proclaim the vision of the last days found in the Pentateuch, where God promises to bless the whole world through Abraham and his offspring (Genesis 12:3; 22:17–18; 49:10; Galatians 3:16).
This glorious hope isn’t intended only to summon the house of Jacob to walk in the light of the LORD. God also intends that His salvation reach to the ends of the earth (Isaiah 2:2–5; 49:6; 52:10). Not only is the whole world presently filled with His glory (Isaiah 6:3), but one day in the future “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD as the waters cover the sea” (Habakkuk 2:14). One day, the heavens and the earth will be made new (Isaiah 65:17). You must proclaim this global good news when you preach the Prophets.
3. Don’t just preach divine judgment. Point to Christ and the bright hope of the New Covenant.
Prophetic preaching is often associated with the earnest proclamation of impending doom. And for good reason! The theme of divine judgment spans the breadth of the Prophets. If you seek to preach expositionally through the prophetic books, then you must faithfully address God’s anger towards the sins of His people. Disobedience has consequences. And the prophets constantly remind God’s unfaithful people of the curses for disobedience that were first promised in Deuteronomy 28. In this way, preaching from the prophetic books often involves an exegesis of an exegesis, because the prophetic books interpret and apply earlier biblical texts. This is why the prophetic books are brimming with Bible.
But just as the Prophets interpret and apply the Pentateuch’s warnings of divine judgment for disobedience, they also marvelously illuminate the glorious hope of the coming Messiah and the promise of the new covenant. Atop the dark backdrop of the failure of God’s people to believe and obey his Word rests the bright vision of the forever Davidic King and the establishment of a his forever kingdom through a new covenant (Isaiah 9:6–7; Jeremiah 31:32–34). The glorious global purposes of God revealed in the Prophets look beyond the ravages of the exile and center on the arrival of this future King like David (Ezek. 34:23).
Elsewhere, the Lord says that this new covenant will involve a regathering of his people through a kind of new exodus (Ezek. 36:26–28; cf. Deut. 30:3–4) and a pouring out of his Spirit in a fresh way, such that all the people of God will be given new hearts to trust and obey their King (Joel 2:28–29; Acts 2:14–21). The prophets even hold out the hope that the King of all creation will bring about a new creation, a new heaven and a new earth in which all the nations shall worship before the Lord (Isa. 65:17; 66:22–23).
Any faithful preaching of the prophetic books must include consistently pointing our people to Jesus Christ, the seed of Abraham, the son of David, the prophet like Moses, the Suffering Servant, who was obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross, who inaugurated the new covenant and purchased the church of God with His own blood (Luke 22:20; Acts 20:28). “He was pierced for our transgressions; He was crushed for our iniquities; upon Him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with His wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” (Isaiah 53:5-6)
Jesus Christ, the risen Lord, taught His disciples to look for Him in the Prophets. “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, He interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27; see also 1 Peter 1:10–12). So preach the Prophets by pointing your hearers to the Coming One whom the Old Testament prophets all longed to see. “To Him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through His name” (Acts 10:43).
1 Delbert R. Hillers, Covenant: The History of a Biblical Idea (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1969), 124.
2 Martin Luther, quoted in Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology vol. 2 (New York: Harper & Row, 1965), 33. (Luther’s Works, Weimar edition, Volume 19: 350).
3 John Sailhamer, Biblical Prophecy (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1998), 47.