Review: Interpreting the Prophetic Books

Prophetic BooksInterpreting the Prophetic Books, Gary V. Smith. Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2014.

Summary: This is a concise guide for those preaching from Old Testament prophetic texts covering issues of genre, themes, interpretation, preaching, and contemporary application.

This summer, I’ve been part of a preaching team covering a number of the shorter books in the Bible one book per Sunday, including the Minor Prophets. My assignment has been the books of Nahum and Habakkuk. This is a challenging task if you are not a specialist in this area and some distance from your seminary classes! Distinguishing between near and distant fulfillment, understanding the setting, recognizing different genres within prophecy, and moving from the meaning of the text to relevant application for an audience separated by over two millenia and a cultural gap are all issues that face anyone working with these biblical texts.

Gary V. Smith’s book, part of Kregel’s series of Handbooks for Old Testament Interpretation, is a concise and helpful guide for all these issues and more. In six chapters coming in at under 200 pages, Smith covers the following:

Chapter 1. The Nature of Prophetic Literature: Temporal categories of present, future, and apocalyptic, genres of prophecy, and poetic elements including parallelism and imagery.

Chapter 2. Major Themes in the Prophetic Books: Themes running through the prophets, and themes by specific books.

Chapter 3. Preparing for Interpretation: Knowing the setting of the pre-exilic prophets to Israel and Judah, the exilic prophets, and the post-exilic prophets, issues to be aware of in Ancient Near East Prophecy, textual criticism, and the use of commentaries, including recommendations of commentaries by book (conservative to mainstream Western scholarship).

Chapter 4. Interpretive issues in Prophetic Texts: Literal vs. metaphorical, contextual limits, conditional or unconditional, near or far future, and prophecy and its New Testament fulfillment.

Chapter 5. Proclaiming Prophetic Texts: Getting oriented, shaping the presentation, determining the principle, and reflecting on the application.

Chapter 6. From Text to Application: Offers examples of the steps of Chapter 5 with reference to near future and distant future prophecy.

The book concludes with a glossary of terms relevant to interpreting the prophetic books.

The organization of the book follows good principles of biblical exegesis and provides pointers to the most common exegetical and interpretive issues that arise in handling the prophetic material. There is a brief and then more detailed table of contents that allows one to consult material relevant to a particular prophetic text. The author provides examples from scripture throughout to illustrate points. And the examples in Chapter 6 illustrate the process and care involved in putting together a message that is both exegetically sound and appropriate for one’s audience.

If there was any criticism that could be made of this book, it would be the very limited attention (six pages) given to prophecy and New Testament fulfillment, and particularly, to Christological interpretation. It may be that the author decided to defer to other texts that give greater attention to these matters but given that this is written for use by pastors of Christian churches, a fuller treatment might have been helpful.

On the whole, however, this is a valuable work that serves as a helpful review for those who have had seminary-level training in prophetic exegesis, and a valuable and accessible primer for those without such training.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

When is a Book “Great”?

A post in Salon this week by Laura Miller on “What Makes a Book a Classic?” raises again a perennial and oft debated question. It’s a great post and I’d encourage you to read it. I thought I might take a slightly different tack because one definition of “classic” is that it has stood the test of time, which automatically disqualifies recent authors, including the likes of Kurt Vonnegut and David Foster Wallace, who Miller mentions. I’ve not read David Foster Wallace yet although I have Infinite Jest on my Kindle, and I have to admit that Slaughterhouse Five is the only Vonnegut book I’ve read and that I actually gave up on it.

What I want to explore is what makes a book “great”? Certainly this is also open to debate but this framing allows for current as well as “classic” books to considered. As you consider my criteria, keep in mind that I am not and have never been an English or Literary studies major but rather am simply a dedicated reader who wants to read great books because there is not enough time to read everything.

1. A great book explores great questions about life, questioning both my assumptions and even my questions. Whether it is Babette’s Feast by Isak Dinesan, or Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton, it explores the large issues of love, relationships, grace, justice, life, and death and the Ultimate.

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2. A great book matures as I mature. At very least it stands the test of the times of my life. If a book speaks to me at 30 and speaks more profoundly at 60, there is something to it. If I come back to a book and find myself asking, “what did I ever see in that book?”, it may have been entertaining, interesting or even significant for a particular time in my life–but it’s not great. I’m re-reading Pilgrim’s Progress right now and it makes far more sense to me than when I read it in my twenties. This suggests that our early judgments on a book should be provisional. Maybe an immediate clue is that I want to read the book again on completing it because I have a sense that there is “more” there.

3. Normally, great books reflect the elements of good writing in terms of plot (if fiction), character development, narrative, pacing, organization of ideas, felicity of expression, etc. As Miller notes, there may be exceptions such as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  I’m also convinced that our standards of “good writing style” have changed over the years.

4. Great writing can be found all over the bookstore. Miller notes that a book is “classic” to booksellers if that is the section where most people look for it. It might be a George Will book on baseball or Doris Kearns Goodwin on Lincoln or Ray Bradbury in science fiction or St Augustine in theology. One of the things I realize I haven’t thought about is how widely this applies. Is there great horror writing, or romance novels, or dystopian fiction (I guess 1984 might qualify here)?  This also raises the question of whether there are genre-specific criteria of greatness.

5. A great book is becoming part of a sub-cultural or cultural conversation. It keeps coming up as the standard of reference around its subject matter. You can’t talk about Russian fiction without talking about War and Peace.

6. I do think that whatever the genre, great writing somehow helps me understand and better live in my world. It clarifies rather than distorts reality, it leads to greater self-understanding, and evokes “the better angels of my nature.”

What are your thoughts on great writing? What, for you are examples of great writing?