Five Keys to Reading Prophecy Contextually
“Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean;
Remove the evil of your deeds from My sight.
Cease to do evil,
Learn to do good;
Reprove the ruthless,
Defend the orphan,
Plead for the widow.
“Come now, and let us reason together,”
Says the Lord,
“Though your sins are as scarlet,
They will be as white as snow;
Though they are red like crimson,
They will be like wool.
— Isaiah 1:16-28 NASB
The churches of Christ have had this mantra from Isaiah 1:18 that says, “Come now, and let us reason together.” It has been used in discussing doctrinal matters with others. I’m quoting this today to show the difference between reading and using scripture as prooftext and reading and applying scripture contextually.
Influence of the Enlightenment and Rationalism has led to past leaders among the churches of Christ to take such texts and elevate the idea that we’re going to reason our way into others believing the way we do. So this text was held up as a shining light and model for rationalism, but it was spoken and/or written long before the Enlightenment, and I want to imagine for a moment if readers in the past two hundred years among our fellowship had read texts like this more contextually.
In this blog I’m not going to go into the historical background of Isaiah as in other blogs, but I’ll just say this: even if you read two more verses in context, rather than just taking one verse out of context, your “reason” and mind could be changed completely as to what the text is about and the emphasis you place on application of the text. Read the text above from 1:16-18. One more question, then I’ll give five keys to reading contextually. What if the mantra of the churches of Christ the past one hundred years had been not from 1:18 but from the verse before it, verse 17?
Five Keys to Reading Prophecy Contextually
1 . What is the historical background?
For example, in Isaiah, you can learn the background by reading the text itself. See verse 1:1, and you’ll learn that Isaiah prophesied during the reigns of four kings, but mostly during reigns of Ahaz and Hezekiah in the 700s BC. Isaiah ministered mostly in Jerusalem, Judah, in the days when the kingdom had been split in North (Israel) and South (Judah).
You can also learn about the context from other biblical books. For example, I learned from one of my Old Testament professors, John T. Willis, that a good way to get extra background is use your cross-reference. When you use your cross reference, you’ll probably see that you can read about the kings referenced in Isaiah 1:1 in 2 Kings 16-20; 2 Chronicles 29-32.
2 . What are themes and message?
God called Isaiah to speak to Judah’s leaders. Injustice, oppressing vulnerable, allegiances to government power and military might of allies . . . repent or be exiled like Israel.
3 . Who is speaking?
It’s amazing what just this “small” difference in reading can do for your comprehension of what’s going on. Who is speaking? God, Isaiah, Israel/Judah, nations, someone else?
4 . Who is the audience generally and in particular chapters?
In addition to paying attention to who is speaking, it’s important to understand who is being spoken to. We assume scripture is written directly to us, applied directly to us, and that’s not a bad impulse, for we should be taking scripture to heart and living it. But if we simply try to take the literal words and apply it without understanding the historical context, who is speaking, who is being spoken to, then we won’t be able to understand how to apply it in principle today in our specific context.
5 . What are metaphors and word plays used in poetry and prose?
Seeing word plays will not be easy when we read in English alone. One of the advantages of reading in Hebrew, what the Old Testament was originally written in, is that we can see word plays like the one I reference in this blog post. Get a good study Bible and it usually has notes that point out important word plays in Hebrew. Ask me if you are interested in buying one, and I will advise you on some good study Bibles.
Finally, look for metaphors. Prophets in particular use a lot of metaphors. Isaiah alone will use more than a dozen important metaphors from nature, building, biology, and he will also get himself quite involved in some of the metaphors about what will happen to the kings of Egypt and Assyria (Isaiah 20:1-6).
Greg Taylor, M.Div.
Greg Taylor is the preacher for The Journey. He holds degrees in Print Journalism from Harding University and a Master of Divinity from Harding School of Theology. Greg is working on his Doctor of Ministry at Phillips Theological Seminary in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where The Journey is located. Greg is married to Jill, who is a math teacher at Broken Arrow High School. They have three adult children, Ashley, Anna, and Jacob, and of course they are very proud of each of what God has done in each one of their lives. Greg is author of several books you can order from your favorite bookseller.