Foundations: No.73 Autumn 2017

Book Reviews

How to Read and Understand the Biblical Prophets

Peter J Gentry, Crossway, 2017, 141pp, £13.76 (£6.71 Kindle)

The books of the Old Testament prophets form a substantial proportion of the Bible and yet for many Christians they constitute largely uncharted territory. With the possible exception of the book of Jonah and isolated passages which explicitly foretell the coming of the Messiah, we frequently find ourselves at sea. Unfamiliar place names, combined with alien imagery and an apparent absence of any overall structure within many of the books can leave us intimidated and overawed. Judging from the widespread neglect of the Twelve Minor Prophets and large portions of Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel in the public preaching of the Word, those entrusted with the task of expounding the Scriptures do not feel any more at home in the writings of the prophets than those to whom they minister. But in this slim and readable volume by Peter Gentry, professor of Old Testament Interpretation at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, help is at hand.

Professor Gentry argues that:

A central problem in the Christian church, especially during the last one hundred years, is that we have been reading the Gospels of the New Testament, the narratives of the Old Testament and the book of Acts, and the Hebrew prophets of the Old Testament and the New Testament (e.g., Revelation), including apocalyptic prophecies, exactly the same way we read Romans (13).

Yet he contends that the prophets must be understood as an entirely different type of literature from a New Testament epistle – as different as a cartoon is from the front page of a newspaper. In seven chapters, he proceeds to set out seven characteristics or features of prophetic literature in the Bible which provide us with the keys – or “cues” – that will help open up the prophets to us.

The first point to be stressed is that: “Everything in the prophets is based upon the covenant made between God and Israel during the exodus from Egypt, especially the expression or form of the covenant as it is found in the book of Deuteronomy” (15). The promises and warnings of the prophets, and even the very words and sentences they use, are based on the expansion and renewal of the Sinaitic covenant found in the final book of the Pentateuch. Professor Gentry uses Isaiah 5 and 6 as an example of how the prophet called the people back to the covenant. He notes that “the biggest part of the message of the biblical prophets has nothing to do with predicting the future”. Their chief concern is, rather, to explain “how the word of God, already revealed and received in the past, applies to present circumstances and situations” (30).

Literary structure

Professor Gentry repeatedly emphasises that the literary structure of each prophetic book is fundamental to interpretation (18, 21, 28, 51, 60, 107), and notes that the normal pattern of Hebrew literature is to consider topics in a recursive manner – i.e. the topic is progressively repeated. Taking the prophecy of Isaiah by way of example, he demonstrates how the book can be divided into seven separate sections in which the prophet “goes around the same topic like a kaleidoscope, looking at it from different perspectives” (18). He likens this repetition to the two speakers in a stereo system. Each speaker provides music which is both different and the same. The principle is illustrated from different genres of Old Testament literature, including the creation accounts of Genesis 1:1-2:3 and Genesis 2:4-3:24.

Other features of Hebrew literature that receive attention include the couplet, which forms the basis of almost all Hebrew poetry; word pairs, in which two words communicate an idea that is fuller and greater than either of the two words considered individually; and chiasms, in which topics are communicated and repeated according to different patterns and arrangements. Whether consciously or unconsciously, Professor Gentry adopts something of a recursive approach himself, as he returns to his key point that when we study the prophets, “we cannot read the text in a linear manner, like we read scientific texts derived from a Greek and Roman heritage. Only when we grasp the literary methods of ancient Hebrew writers can we properly understand the text” (50-51).

Turning again to Isaiah, he demonstrates how attention to the literary structure of the book can help us see how the central theme of the transformation of Zion is presented seven times, as the prophet maps the path from a corrupt Zion in the old creation to a renewed and transformed Zion in the new creation:

In other words, we can divide the book of Isaiah into seven distinct conversations or discourses. In each one Isaiah is dealing with the topic of how we get from a corrupt Jerusalem in the first creation – a Jerusalem characterized by covenant disloyalty due to idolatry and lack of social justice – to a renewed, restored, transformed Zion in a new creation. (52)

After giving a brief overview of the seven sections (1:2-2:4; 2:5-4:6; 5:1-12:6; 13:1-27:13; 28:1-37:38; 38:1-55:13; 56:1-66:24), the author demonstrates how repetition can serve as an aid to interpretation. When confronted with a difficult passage, we may be able to identify a parallel passage in another section where the same topic is treated: “We need to listen to these seven speakers all at once in order to catch the idea Isaiah is communicating” (58).

Purpose of the writing prophets

The question is raised as to why the words of the earlier prophets were not put into writing as were the words of the later prophets. Professor Gentry’s response is that as a result of a breaking point being reached in the covenant relationship between Yahweh and Israel, it became necessary to record the messages of the prophets in order to establish the Lord’s faithfulness. He outlines five reasons for the predictive element in the prophetic writings:

  • It distinguished Yahweh from the idols worshiped by the nations surrounding Israel and by faithless Israelites.
  • It was necessary to explain the exile. Without the messages of the prophets, the people might have concluded that the gods of the nations were more powerful than Yahweh.
  • It pointed to the fact that deliverance would take time. During the long weary years of waiting, the Lord’s people could derive comfort and hope from the promise of salvation.
  • It demonstrated the sovereignty of Yahweh over the nations.
  • It proved the trustworthiness of the word of Yahweh.

Professor Gentry writes:

Predictions given concerning the future were made known publicly and written down at a specific date and time and attested publicly or verified by witnesses. Later on, when these predictions came true, people would see that Yahweh is indeed able to predict and determine the future (34).

In many of the prophetic writings, predictions relating to the distant future are placed side by side with predictions concerning the near future. When the more immediate predictions were fulfilled, the prophet was validated and the people could have confidence in predictions made in relation to the distant future.

Oracles concerning the nations

Many readers of the Old Testament prophets have been perplexed by the presence of long passages devoted to nations in the ancient world that have long ceased to exist. What possible relevance could they have to us today? Do we really need them? Professor Gentry addresses this question head-on. He begins by setting the oracles against the background of the book of Deuteronomy, and in particular the Song of Moses in Deuteronomy 32. He demonstrates how Moses’ Song sums up the current history of Israel and predicts its future history through to the end of time, showing that “the relationship of the foreign nations and their future is connected directly to the future of Israel” (60). Professor Gentry writes:

Throughout all the stanzas of this song run two themes: (1) negatively, God will bring judgment upon the arrogant idolatry of the foreign nations, and (2), positively, he will fulfil the Abrahamic covenant by using Israel to bring deliverance and salvation to the rest of the world. God called Abraham and blessed him so that he might bless all the nations of the world (Acts 3:25–26).

This song and the messages in the prophets concerning the foreign nations would bring huge comfort and encouragement to the people of God. The oracles show that Yahweh controls and governs not just Israel but the entire world. He is sovereign over all nations. Only Yahweh is sovereign. He alone defines what is right and wrong, he alone makes future plans that shall certainly come to pass, and he alone acts in history. No one and no nation can challenge his right, spurn his will, or thwart his actions (65).

Professor Gentry then proceeds to give an illuminating overview of the first group of five oracles found in Isaiah 13-27, showing “how God plans to judge the nations for arrogant idolatry and also how he calls and invites them to find salvation through Israel and particularly through a future king of Israel” (65-66). Viewed in this light, far from being tedious and boring, the oracles concerning the nations may be read with great interest and delight: “God is sovereign over the world. He will hold the nations accountable for worshiping the creation instead of the Creator. The only form of deliverance and salvation is found in Israel and in her coming King” (70).

Typology and apocalyptic language

In his consideration of how the prophets describe the future, Professor Gentry devotes a chapter to typology followed by a chapter on apocalyptic language. He advances the view that typology is governed by four factors:

  • correspondence between events, people, places, etc., of one time, and events, people, places, etc., of a later time;
  • escalation from type to antitype so that the later event, person, or thing is much better and greater than what foreshadows it;
  • biblical warrant in the form of exegetical evidence that indicates that what the text is dealing with is intended to be a model or pattern for something to follow in history;
  • the progression of the covenants throughout the narrative plot structure of the Bible creates, controls and develops the typological structures across the canon of Scripture (90).

Professor Gentry focuses on how the exodus served as a model or pattern to describe not only the deliverance from Babylonian exile, but also the subsequent coming of the King who would bring spiritual rescue from slavery to sin. In the interpretation of types, he insists that, “The literal meaning is the meaning as determined by the rules of the particular genre or kind of literature.” Therefore,

according to the interpretive principle of using images and the language of God’s deliverance in the past to describe a coming salvation, we form in our minds only the idea that no obstacles will stand in God’s way when he gathers the remnant of his people (85).

There is no warrant for expecting the antitype to conform to the type literally in every detail:

The debate between literal interpretation and spiritual interpretation is entirely bogus. When the Reformers talked about the “literal sense” of the text, they meant the meaning intended by the author according to the rules of the genre of literature being used to communicate the message (124).

In his chapter on apocalyptic language, Professor Gentry lists a number of features that normally characterise this genre of literature: (i) a narrative framework, (ii) an arrangement of human history into periods, (iii) the mediation of revelation by a heavenly messenger, (iv) a representation of history from God’s vantage point, (v) colourful metaphors and symbols, and (vi) a note of future hope in present trouble. He demonstrates that apocalyptic language can be used both to describe the event and explain its meaning, and further argues that expository teaching must go beyond merely communicating the content of the text; the preacher must also explain the form and show how it carries the meaning.

“The Already and Not Yet”

In a concluding chapter entitled “The Already and Not Yet”, Professor Gentry draws attention to the way in which the prophets of the Old Testament frequently put everything together in one grand picture and did not clearly distinguish between the first and second comings of the Messiah. They did not see that there would be a gap of at least 2,000 years between the revelation of grace at Christ’s first coming and the exercise of judgment at his return. On this basis, he cautions that,

[W]e cannot construct a chronology of events from the prophets of the Old Testament concerning the coming of the King and the coming of his kingdom. We need the teaching of Jesus and the apostles to clarify which prophecies apply to the first coming and which apply to the second coming. It is even possible that some prophecies can apply to both at the same time (122).

As a bonus, How to Read and Understand the Biblical Prophets contains an appendix, briefly describing the literary structure of the New Testament book of Revelation as analysed by Andrew Fountain. This is provided on the basis that, “while John is writing in Greek, this book follows the characteristics of the Hebrew prophets” (125).

To sum up, this is a most helpful and stimulating title, which will be instructive to both preachers and general readers alike. The disproportionate attention given to the prophecy of Isaiah gives the book a certain uneven feel, but that is a minor criticism given the range of valuable pointers that it provides to assist in the interpretation of a neglected part of Scripture. Perhaps in a subsequent edition or a sequel, Professor Gentry may be persuaded to treat us to a more detailed consideration of the literary structure of some of the other prophetic writings.

Norman Wells
Director, Family Education Trust


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