6.3 The Prophets -- Prophetic Imagery
Before we get into the prophetic books, we must pause and take note that inconsistency is a quality of prophetic Scripture: prophecies do not always agree with one another, even when uttered by the same prophet. Judgment and forgiveness, love and rage, annihilation and redemption -- these opposing themes exist within the same book. For example: "Israel is beloved/Israel is condemned," "God has overflowing love for His people/God will utterly destroy all sinners", "God will make a total end in the midst of the earth/A remnant shall return and prosper" and so on. See the study on Hosea for numerous examples of these contrasts. Not infrequently, a modern preacher quotes one theme and ignores its opposite -- a faulty hermeneutic.
Here are some examples of contradictory parallels from Amos:
"Not one will get away, none will escape" (Amos 9:1) / "Yet I will not totally destroy the house of Jacob" (Amos 9:8).
"Are not you Israelites the same to me as the Cushites?" (Amos 9:7) / "You only have I chosen" (Amos 3:2).
How are we to understand and reconcile these divergent passages?
It is important that we not discard one or other of the opposites, because in so doing we will misrepresent the character and work of God. The oracles were delivered at different times, sometimes to different persons, and reflected God's word in a specific situation. Rather than cancelling each other out, many such opposites should be taken as both being true, depending on the response of the hearers: those who defy God will reap the worst consequences of the warning, and those who obey or repent will escape the punishment and receive the promise.
Prophecy is almost always a two-sided coin. A book that is full of warnings and judgments, fire and brimstone, may have very little hopeful content. But even so, a promise is implied, even if it is indefinite and in the future. This is because prophecy itself represents the presence of God among His people. Even if He has nothing good to say, He is here saying it, He has not left them. The ultimate catastrophe is not political, but the cutting off of the prophetic voice:
"The days are coming,” declares the Sovereign Lord,
"when I will send a famine through the land—
not a famine of food or a thirst for water,
but a famine of hearing the words of the Lord (Amos 8:11).
This is a night with no day, it represents the abandonment of Israel by God, the breaking of all ties and the end of the possibility of repentance.
We must also recognize that another characteristic of Bible prophecy is "poetic exaggeration." Sometimes the extent of the judgment (or the blessing) expresses the strength of the Lord's emotion -- whether in anger or in blessing. And so the effects of His works are portrayed in ultimate terms. For example,
The Lord, the Lord Almighty—
He touches the earth and it melts,
and all who live in it mourn;
the whole land rises like the Nile,
then sinks like the river of Egypt (Amos 9:5).
The days are coming when the reaper will be overtaken by the plowman and the planter by the one treading grapes" (Amos 9:13).
These two opposing words occur in the same chapter, and neither is meant to be literally fulfilled. So in the interpretation of prophetic themes, we cannot be hardline and literalistic. God is using pictures, images, and strong emotions. He is trying to reach the hearts of the people with a vital message, to stir them out of apathy and motivate them to repentance.