Unlocking Old Testament Prophecy


Eight keys can help us apply the words of ancient prophets to our lives.

Unlocking Old Testament Prophecy

A golden storehouse of scriptural bounty seems locked away and hidden from many readers as they approach the Old Testament.

Some Latter-day Saints wonder why certain teachings—such as God’s inevitable judgments, or his prophecies concerning the last days—are repeatedly emphasized, while other valuable doctrines—such as God’s loving mercies, or life after death—seem to receive scant attention. Other readers may empathize with Nephi’s people, who did not understand the “manner of prophesying among the Jews” (2 Ne. 25:1); they struggle with both the Hebraic styles of poetic symbolism and the manner of expression on theological themes.

How do Latter-day Saints study the Old Testament when they feel awkward and frustrated with its prophetic writings? There are eight keys that will help readers unlock the most common barriers to scripture understanding. The following four questions focus our attention on these keys:

  • Why is prophecy given and recorded?

  • What themes are emphasized in biblical prophecy?

  • How can one understand the ancient manner of prophesying?

  • How much personal application can I find in these prophecies?

Why is prophecy given and recorded?

The Lord’s prophets deliver God’s message with courage and forthrightness, but they usually do not state the value or purpose of their prophetic utterances. However, occasionally they do tell us why some scriptural material has been given. For example, in the second paragraph of the title page of the Book of Mormon, the prophet Moroni wrote that the records of the ancient Lehites were to be preserved “to show unto the remnant of the House of Israel what great things the Lord hath done for their fathers; and that they may know the covenants of the Lord, that they are not cast off forever.” Thus, the book (1) shows the house of Israel what the Lord has done for their ancestors; (2) teaches the Israelites the covenants of the Lord; and (3) gives them hope of God’s continuous love. These three objectives give insight into the purpose of all scriptures from God, and they provide some valuable keys in unlocking Old Testament prophecy.

Key number 1: Prophets are more forth tellers than fore tellers. Prophecy can be defined as the inspired utterances of the prophets. According to Elder Bruce R. McConkie, “these declarations may pertain to the past, present, or future. … Prophecy is the announcement of something that has been revealed to a prophet; it always comes by the power of the Holy Ghost.” Elder McConkie points out that “in their most dramatic form [prophecies] are declarations of things to come, things which no mortal power could have made manifest.” (Mormon Doctrine, 2d ed., Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1966, p. 602.) Occasionally, then, prophets foretell the future and reveal some things in store for subsequent generations. More often, to meet the remedial needs of the people, prophets speak forth with pointed frankness. As the Old Testament prophets spoke forth, they often demonstrated why and how God’s judgments upon the people were fair and appropriate. (See Mosiah 29:12.) They often built upon the teachings of earlier prophets and included their own witness of God’s existence and his concern for his chosen children. (Deut. 6:24–25.) When the prophets added prophecies of the future, they often foretold within the context of their sermonizing so that both contemporary and future generations could find application from their prophecies.

Individual prophets had differing ratios of speaking forth and fore. Moses, for example, did more forthtelling than foretelling. He emphasized preparing Israel for their future rather than on telling them much about it. Isaiah, on the other hand, spoke forth with powerful poetry while foretelling much more of what would befall future Israel.

The individual prophets also emphasized particular themes, although a couple of general themes appear throughout the Old Testament. Prophetic denunciation of the twin sins of adultery and idolatry was common in their forthtelling. (See Isa. 2:8; Isa. 57:3–9.) Perhaps the most common theme in their foretelling was the last days and the events immediately preceding the Lord’s marvelous millennial reign. (See Topical Guide, s.v. Last Days.) Modern prophets continue in the same vein. For example, we may approach each general, area, or stake conference expecting to receive new, bold prophecies from the General Authorities, but we receive instead words of admonition, warning, and encouragement. (See, for example, President Ezra Taft Benson’s address, “Beware of Pride,” Ensign, May 1989, p. 4.) Like prophets of old, modern servants of God usually speak “forth” rather than “fore.” As we strengthen our faith in God and his prophets, both ancient and modern, we will glean the greatest value from their messages.

Key number 2: Scripture is directed first to the House of Israel. God’s prophets deliver his divine message first and foremost to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Then they speak to the rest of the world. A few pronouncements of Isaiah (see Isa. 13–23) and Jeremiah (see Jer. 46–51), and at least one prophetic mission, that of Jonah to the Assyrians, clearly fall into this latter category. But by and large, the great majority of prophecy is addressed to the extended families of the Hebrew prophets, particularly the house of Israel.

Biblical prophets speak to and about both ancient and modern members of the house of Israel. Old Testament prophets not only spoke of their day, but also prophesied concerning the Lord’s promises to Israel that are to be fulfilled in the latter days. A dominant message the ancient prophets emphasized concerns Israel’s scattering and gathering. We are directly involved in the latter-day gathering.

To unlock Old Testament prophecy, readers first need to relate to the scriptures and assume that God is speaking forth personally to them. (See Rom. 15:4.) If readers think the prophecies, warnings, and promises apply only to others, the scriptures remain distant, foreign, and hidden, and their great power is never unlocked. Since all of us in the Church are inheritors of the promises made to the house of Israel, we can particularly identify with the history and messages of the scriptures, and we can read them as if Isaiah, Moses, and other prophets were not only speaking about us, but to us.

What themes are emphasized in biblical prophecy?

Those who thoughtfully study the scriptures recognize the repetition of certain themes. This repetition serves a twofold purpose: to instruct and to prepare. First, because the prophet’s audience often did not maintain their faithfulness to prophetic word, that message was constantly repeated to them, with warnings of judgment and punishment. Prophets continually reminded their audience to become God’s true children, who would faithfully fulfill his plan. By following prophetic counsel, the people removed themselves from the corruptions of the world and prepared themselves to enter into a covenant relationship as God’s people and ambassadors. (See Isa. 55:3.) Through keys three and four, we see how understanding the instructive and preparatory aspects of biblical repetition allows us to better comprehend Old Testament prophecy.

Key number 3: Prophecy reveals God’s master plan. As stated on the Book of Mormon’s title page, scriptures let us know what God has done for our ancestors. We learn that God has a plan that he reveals and witnesses through the scriptures. We see what God has planned for his children on earth and how he has patiently worked with them through the ages as they responded to these opportunities. (See Hosea 14:4; Isa. 9:12, 17, 21.)

The scriptures provide a blueprint of the Lord’s eternal purposes. (See Titus 1:2.) From a distance, we view the premortal councils where he prepared this earth for our habitation. (See Job 38:7; Luke 10:18.) We observe how agency and death became a natural part of mortal existence. (See Gen. 2:16–17; Gen. 3:1–19.) We appreciate especially how the atoning sacrifice of his Son provides for our redemption. (See Isa. 53:5–6; Matt. 20:28; Alma 34:8.) Through our study of many scriptures, we come to know God’s plan of salvation for this earth and its inhabitants and how he has constantly worked to bring it about. (See 2 Ne. 9.) We come to understand that God’s purpose is “to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.” (Moses 1:39.) He not only has a prophesied plan for all people, but he is also concerned about each one of us and our eternal potential. He reveals the scriptures to help us catch the vision of his plan and also to give us a personal purpose within that plan.

Key number 4: God’s word prepares people for a covenant relationship. The second purpose cited in the Book of Mormon’s title page emphasizes that scriptures help people to know the covenants of the Lord. The covenant theme permeates Old Testament teachings and is a primary purpose of their existence. From the beginning, the Lord established a covenant relationship with his chosen people. (See Ex. 34:27–28.) Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob all entered into covenants with God. (See Moses 6:51–52; Gen. 9:8–17; Gen. 17:4–7.) Later prophets continued the covenant emphasis, stating the reasons for God’s judgments: woes result from breaking covenants with God, while blessings result from keeping the covenants. (Ezek. 16:59–63.)

The word covenant comes from the Hebrew word b’rith, which has at least two probable Semitic roots. The Akkadian root biritu means “to bind or fetter,” while the Hebrew root barah means “to eat bread with.” The meanings of both roots contribute to covenant concepts as taught in the Old Testament. In the scriptures, although covenant-making is serious, it is not something harsh (like adversaries binding and obligating themselves in a compact), but something gentle (like two friends, especially a father with his children, sitting and eating bread together).

Teaching about covenants is a primary purpose of all scripture. When the Bible was first translated into English, some versions identified the two portions of the Bible as the “Old Covenant” and the “New Covenant,” for that which we now call the Old and New Testament, respectively. Israelites entered into a covenant with God as a means of gaining God’s protection. (See Ex. 34:10.) This is spoken of as the Old Covenant, from which we get the name Old Testament for the first part of our Bible. The New Covenant, or New Testament, is God’s promise for salvation to those who believe in Christ as their Savior. (See Matt. 26:28.) In one of the most touching passages of Jeremiah, the Lord announces that in the future he will make a new covenant with Israel, the old Mosaic covenant having been broken. (See Jer. 31:31–34.) The Book of Mormon, as Moroni’s declaration says, serves to help Israel to “know the covenants of the Lord.” The standard work of this dispensation carries the word covenant in its title—the Doctrine and Covenants—and teaches both old and new aspects of temporal and everlasting covenants. (See D&C 22:1–3; D&C 131:2; D&C 132:6.)

How can one understand the ancient manner of prophesying?

Key number 5: Ancient prophets often wrote in symbolic poetry. Because of the oral nature of the teaching-learning process common in ancient Semitic societies, Hebrew prophets helped their listeners by organizing their pronouncements into various poetic patterns. For example, ideas and words or phrases were often expressed in couplets that were parallel with each other. The prophets also used symbolism to reinforce mental images while allowing the full meaning of the pronouncements to remain veiled and hidden from those not ready or willing to understand them.

These Semitic literary devices are much like Christ’s technique of teaching through parables. Jesus explained that he taught in parables “because it is given unto you [the disciples] to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them [the multitudes] it is not given.” (Matt. 13:11.)

Those who are spiritually and mentally prepared are best able to understand God’s word. As we appreciate the prophets’ patterns of symbolism and poetic parallelism, we peel away the outer layers of literary technique and style to discover the sublime messages and teachings that make up the central core of their writings. Stylistic elements in the Hebraic manner of prophesying—patterns of poetry and types of symbols—challenge today’s readers to use their full mental and spiritual concentration in order to comprehend the message.

Key number 6: Prophecy is understood by the gift and spirit of prophecy. The reader needs to seek for spiritual enlightenment to assist intellectual understanding of the teachings. We need to make God a companion in our study of scriptural prophecy. Our Heavenly Father, through promptings of the Holy Ghost, can help us understand his revealed words and let us know how to apply them in our lives. (See D&C 8:1–3.)

The Hebrew root of the word prophecy, naba, derives from a verb that can be interpreted to mean “to bubble forth,” as if from a fountain. As children of God seeking direction from our Maker, we have access not only to his written word, as revealed in the scriptures, but also to his gentle inspiration as we ponder his messages and pray to him. God is the source of our spiritual strength, for he is indeed the “fountain of all righteousness.” (Ether 12:28.)

We have also been blessed with modern prophets and additional scriptures that clarify the meaning of many enigmatic Bible passages. For example, the Old Testament ends with Malachi’s perplexing promise of Elijah’s return to earth before the great and dreadful day of the Lord when the hearts of parents and children will be turned to each other. Additional insights from the Pearl of Great Price (See JS—H 1:38–39), and the Doctrine and Covenants (See D&C 110:13–16; D&C 128:16–18) help explain this passage. As we listen to our inspired leaders, we gain additional insight as to how we can turn our hearts to our ancestors and thus be a part of the fulfillment of this ancient prophecy.

In order to have access to God’s inspiration and direction, we must develop spiritual gifts that will expand our understanding of the scriptures. One of the most important spiritual acquisitions is to have the testimony of Jesus Christ—the true spirit of prophecy. (See Rev. 19:10.) We can then add our testimony to that of the Apostles, whom Christ commanded to testify, “These words are not of men nor of man, but of me; wherefore, you shall testify they are of me and not of man.” (D&C 18:34.) The gift of prophecy gives us the witness through the Spirit that Jesus is the Christ, thereby fulfilling the second major purpose of scripture, according to Moroni:

“And also to the convincing of the Jew and Gentile that Jesus is the Christ, the Eternal God, manifesting himself unto all nations.” (Book of Mormon Title Page.)

How much personal application can I find in these prophecies?

Key number 7: Prophecies are meant to edify. Scriptural prophecies edify, enlighten, encourage, and endow us. They edify us through intellectual and spiritual insight into God’s word. They enlighten us by revealed truths. They encourage us by giving us hope and promise of divine aid. They endow us with power from on high to meet the challenges of mortality. As Moroni indicated, God’s word reveals that he loves us and that he has not forgotten us. (See Book of Mormon Title Page.)

It is more difficult to recognize these tender attributes of God in the historical and prophetic portions of the Old Testament than in the Psalms and other poetic parts of the Old Testament. But one can gain much by studying the difficult passages, remembering how they demonstrate God’s work, pondering their meaning, and then praying sincerely. These steps of reading, remembering, pondering, and praying are the ones outlined by Moroni as keys to gaining enlightenment and understanding from the Book of Mormon. (Moro. 10:3–5.) The same pattern provides affirmation and edification from any scripture passage.

As prophets have followed these steps, they have received new insights and revelation. Nephi records: “As I sat pondering in mine heart I was caught away in the Spirit of the Lord.” (1 Ne. 11:1.) It was Joseph Smith’s reflective nature that led him to the grove of trees in the spring of 1820 and to the reception of later revelations now recorded in the Doctrine and Covenants. (See JS—H 1:8–14.) Joseph F. Smith reported that after reading and pondering the scriptures, he was contemplating their meaning when a vision opened up to his mind. We now have the record of that vision in our modern scripture. (See D&C 138:1–2, 11.) Every reader of the scriptures can receive of enlightenment, edification, and inspiration. The key is to read, remember, ponder, and pray about the word of God.

Key number 8: We should liken the scriptures unto ourselves. Nephi recognized that scripture will help only those who can personally relate to its message. As he read prophetic passages to his people, he also likened the scriptures to them in their unique circumstances “that it might be for our profit and learning.” (1 Ne. 19:23.) We can enrich our understanding of Old Testament writings if we learn to distinguish ancient particulars from universal general themes.

Initially, ancient prophets usually gave a message with a certain theme that had particular application for the time and place the pronouncement was given. But in addition, that theme could appear in later periods—thus God’s revealed word usually carries a universal moral, ethical, or spiritual message that transcends the ages. (See 2 Tim. 3:16.) Finally, modern readers can often find individual application from these ancient teachings of great personal value for their own lives. (2 Ne. 25:7–8.)

The story of Jonah is an excellent example of how an ancient prophet’s experiences may benefit us. When the Lord called Jonah to go to Nineveh and testify against the sins of its people, Jonah fled to the coast and boarded a ship bound for Tarshish (Spain) instead. The account of his being swallowed by a great fish and returned to the shore with a desire to fulfill his mission is well known.

How can Jonah’s experience be applied to our lives? Do we ever run from our responsibilities in the Church? Are we ever afraid to do a task given us by our leaders? Does the Lord seem to put obstacles in our lives to help us turn around and establish more valuable priorities? The example of Jonah provides answers to these questions as we understand how God works with his children.

These eight keys to unlocking Old Testament prophecy can make all our scripture reading more exciting and valuable. They let us know why God speaks with inspired forthrightness to the House of Israel. They explain the dominant themes of the plan of salvation and the covenant relationship that are emphasized in the scriptures. They enlighten us concerning the style of prophetic writing and help us understand its sublime messages. Finally, they enrich our appreciation of the edifying power and personal application to be found in the scriptures. What a blessing the scriptures can be in our lives as we use these keys to unlock their spiritual power and make their teachings a part of our lives!

[illustrations] Illustrated by Robert T. Barrett

Victor L. Ludlow, director of Bible studies and associate professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University, is a counselor in the presidency of the Provo Utah East Stake.