Some things are easier to read than others. When we open a newspaper or a website or a novel, we normally know intuitively what’s going on. We don’t have to labor to understand what the author is trying to say or what literary devices he’s using to communicate his message. But when we try to read the prophetic books of the Old Testament, we’re often waist-deep in a mix of unfamiliar genres with rules and conventions we don’t understand. Add in a few thousand years and a vast cultural difference, and it can be hard to know what to do with these books. As a result, many Christians are intimidated by the idea of reading them devotionally.
This is especially true of the “Major Prophets.” We often divide Old Testament prophetic books into “major” prophets (like Jeremiah) and “minor” prophets (like Amos)—not because one is more important than the other, but because of the length of their writing. And that length can add to the difficulty; if reading a minor prophet feels like crossing a river, reading a major prophet can feel like swimming across an ocean.
Mining the Major Prophets
The New Testament authors repeatedly mine these Major Prophets—Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, and Daniel—for themes and prophecies that would illuminate what God was doing in sending his Son. Jesus clearly understood and explained his own ministry in terms laid out by the prophets (Luke 4:16–21). So Christians who want to know their Bible needs to wrestle with these books. To that end, here are a few pointers to help you dig into these books:
1. Read in light of the rest of the Old Testament.
The prophets aren’t operating in a theological vacuum. They’re reminding the people of Israel of God’s faithfulness as seen in the exodus and calling them to be faithful to God’s covenant—or else experience the exile promised in Deuteronomy. Use what you know of the story of Israel to help you understand what the prophet was saying to the people of his day.