How to Read the Prophets


When we think of prophets we immediately think of predictions about the future. Surely this is a part of the prophetic tradition in Scripture, as God reminds Ezekiel. However, there is much more to the meaning and message of the prophets than simply future predictions.

When we think of prophets we immediately think of predictions about the future. Surely this is a part of the prophetic tradition in Scripture, as God reminds Ezekiel, "When this comes — and come it will! — then they will know that a prophet has been among them" (Ezek. 33:33). However, there is much more to the meaning and message of the prophets than simply future predictions. Hebrew prophets often "embody" their message. In other words, prophets don't simply speak a message, they live it out in a dramatic and, quite frequently, symbolic way.

Although the Greek term from which we derive our English word "prophet" means "to foretell," the Hebrew word for prophet, nabi, signifies "one who is called." The Hebrew term better describes the nature and mission of a prophet. God calls the prophet, and the prophet's authority comes from being God's spokesman. Jeremiah's call illustrates this well: "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations" (Jer. 1:5). The call and authority come from God. The prophet is taken into God's counsel and shown God's plan of salvation and how it relates to His people. "Surely the Lord God does nothing, without revealing his plan to his servants the prophets. The lion has roared; who will not fear? The Lord God has spoken; who can but prophesy?" (Amos 3:7-8). (1) The prophet is an ambassador of God to the people, and his message communicates God's plan and wisdom both in word and deed.

The life and message of Hosea is a case in point. Hosea is not simply told to proclaim that Israel is breaking the covenant, he is told to charge Israel with adultery. However, Hosea communicates this message not merely by his words but also by his deeds. God commands Hosea to marry a prostitute, so that he will experience what it is like to have an unfaithful bride — as God has experienced with Israel: "Go, take to yourself a wife of harlotry and have children of harlotry, for the land commits great harlotry by forsaking the Lord" (Hos. 1:2).

Hosea's wife bears three children, each of whom is given by the Lord a symbolic name. The name of the last child in Hebrew is Lo-ammim, which means "not my people." (2) The meaning is poignant for Hosea who, without the convenience of modern DNA testing, does not know if he is the biological father of this child because his wife was unfaithful. Hosea experiences the very betrayal and brokenheartedness that he proclaims. He can speak well on God's behalf about covenant infidelity and unrequited love. But the fact that he takes his adulteress wife back and forgives her is clearly a sign also of hope for Israel's reconciliation with God (cf. Hos. 3).

Jeremiah gives a message that "the voice of mirth and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride" (Jer. 33:11) shall cease from the cities of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem. The image of the bridegroom and bride captures well the epitome of human celebration and joy, and their absence signifies a time of great sorrow. This message of sorrow is at the heart of the young Jeremiah's proclamation, for he announces the impending defeat and exile at the hands of the Babylonians. But not only must Jeremiah announce this in words, he is called to embody this bitter message in deed. For despite Jeremiah's desire to marry, the Lord told him "You shall not take a wife, nor shall you have sons or daughters in this place" (Jer 16:2). Jeremiah foretold that the mirth of the bridegroom and bride was to be taken from the land, and the absence of a joyful wedding in his life was a sign of the times. Being a prophet was not easy, especially when one had to not only declare one's message but also embody it.

Actions Speak Louder

Another symbolic action of Jeremiah was his purchasing a piece of property. This purchase was made after Jeremiah had predicted Jerusalem's doom. Why would a prophet, privy to a divine real estate tip (the land and city were soon to be destroyed), invest money in the land of Judah? Jeremiah well knows that the sealed deed of purchase and an open copy of the deed will not be used for some time, so he stores the deeds in an earthen vessel "that they may last for a long time" (Jer. 32:14). In other words, Jeremiah bought land to signify that although Judah will be taken into exile, God will restore the land in the future. The purchase of land at God's command was a sign of hope for the people of Jerusalem, that despite the political crisis they were about to go through, God would bring them back to the land.

A prophet's work could certainly be demanding. Even though Isaiah was Israel's Shakespeare and born from the upper classes, he was told by God to walk around Jerusalem naked and barefoot. In doing so God declared that Isaiah himself was a "sign and a portent" (Is. 20:3). This signified the despoiling, stripping, and humiliation of those taken in exile by Assyria. The shock of seeing the noble Isaiah shamefully disrobed was to jolt the residents of Jerusalem into graphically imagining the fate of those handed over to their enemies.

Ezekiel, too, had to enact his message. God told him to shave off his beard with a sword! For a man to have to shave off his beard in that culture was a mark of shame! Then God told Ezekiel to burn a third of his shaven beard, cut up another third with the sword, and scatter the other third in the wind. Certainly such behavior must have garnered much attention and curiosity. As to the significance of this behavior, Ezekiel explained what God had told him: that a third of the residents of Jerusalem would burn with the city, a third would perish by the sword, and the last third would be scattered in exile. Such prophetic actions would make a memorable impression in the minds of their audience. These symbolic actions functioned as a neon sign so that God's message would be loud and clear.

Dressed for the Part

With this prophetic backdrop, much of what John the Baptist and Jesus do in the New Testament will take on deeper meaning. For example, John's wearing "a garment of camel's hair, and a leather girdle around his waist" (Mt. 3:4) is symbolic of the prophet Elijah who was known by his dress, "a garment of haircloth, with a girdle of leather about his loins" (2 Kings 1:8). Malachi foretold that Elijah would reappear before the day of the Lord (cf. Mal. 4:5). John's dressing as Elijah signifies to all of Israel that Malachi's long-awaited messianic time had arrived.

Jesus' choosing of 12 apostles is a prophetic sign that He is reconstituting and gathering the 12 tribes of Israel around Himself. Even some of the more puzzling actions of Jesus, such as the overturning of the tables in the Temple, make sense once they are seen as prophetic actions intended as "signs and portents." Jesus does not simply turn over the tables out of anger, but rather as a prophetic sign that undergirds His words about the Temple's imminent demise. The overturned tables presage how sometime soon the entire Temple will be overturned. Although Jesus is more than a prophet, He was in deed a prophet. His deeds embody His message, and often in ways as startling to His onlookers as the deeds of the prophets startled their contemporaries.


  1. The RSV has "secret" instead of "plan." The word in Hebrew, sod, signifies counsel given to close advisors or friends that is given in confidence. The point in this text is that while God has His secret counsel, He makes it known to His prophets. Thus "plan" seems preferable in this context, as God is making known not simply a secret but rather His plans for history.
  2. See Hosea 1:9.


Tim Gray. "How to Read the Prophets." Lay Witness (Nov/Dec 2001).

This article is reprinted with permission from Lay Witness magazine. Lay Witness is a publication of Catholic United for the Faith, Inc., an international lay apostolate founded in 1968 to support, defend, and advance the efforts of the teaching Church.


Tim Gray is assistant professor of Scripture and catechetics at the Notre Dame Graduate School of Christendom College in Front Royal and Alexandria, VA. He holds a master of theological studies degree in Scripture from Duke University and a master's degree in theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville. To order his latest book, Sacraments in Scripture: Salvation History Made Present call Emmaus Road Publishing toll-free (800) 398-5470.

This ten-part series offers tips for reading Scripture, drawing upon the Church's rich history of harvesting the vineyard of God's Word.

Copyright © 2001 LayWitness

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