Understanding the Prophets

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What makes prophetic books so difficult to understand?
Prophetic book literature is very difficult to understand, and I would say for three, really three main reasons. First of all, the designation of the genre itself that derives from the text is misleading because, when you think "prophetic," you tend to think predictions of the future only. But the prophetic literature as a literary slice is way more than just prediction. And anyone who were to pick up the Prophets and read it would see that. But, so, the overall designation "prophetic literature" is almost a deterrent for people understanding what this block is about because it is way more than just prediction in nature. So that's the first thing. But the second thing that makes predictive literature, or prophecy, hard to understand initially, or difficult to grasp, is because of the very genre itself. If you were to pick up Amos or Hosea, for example, you will soon see that it is filled with poetic language. And, by nature, poetic language means it utilizes a lot of figurs of speech, and it also utilizes a lot of parallelism. So, when I say figurative speech we're talking about metaphorical language, we're talking about similes, comparisons, contrasts, and we're also talking about hyperbolic language, and that makes it hard for any reader, in any time, to figure out what is the meaning of that figure of speech. And so, it's almost like it's a two-step process because you're figuring out what this figure of speech is, and then you're trying to understand meaning beyond that. The other reason it's difficult in terms of the literary genre has to do with the fact that that same genre that utilizes a lot of figurative speech also uses parallelism. So, one line could be repeating itself right after the other; one line could be in contrast to the other line; and so, the reader has to follow that carefully, because a lot of concepts are actually being repeated twice. And so, in that sense, the genre of the prophetic literature is tricky. And I think the third reason that I would say why prophetic literature is challenging and difficult to understand has to do with the very thing called the "predictive element" that's involved in so many prophecies, because everybody's asking, "When? When does this take place?" So, for example, Ezekiel chapter 40—48 talks about a new temple that's going to come on the scene. Everybody just wants to know, "Well, when is this? When's this going to happen? Did it already happen, or when will it happen?" And therefore, that is a really challenging piece when one considers prophetic literature overall.

Answer by Dr. Donna Petter