“Rethinking the Language of Biblical Prophecy and Apocalyptic”
“Prophecy speaks to the heart as much as the head. If we think that by objectifying and exegeting every aspect of prophecy we can grasp the intent, we will have ignored one of the most important features of prophecy.” (Sandy, p.31)
Prophecy is not the easiest genre of Scripture to read or understand. Much of what is at stake in studying the prophetic passages of Scripture is history, and without a strong understanding of biblical history, these passages tend to blend and meld together, making the books of prophecy, sadly, some of the most avoidable in Scripture. D. Brent Sandy has provided a fantastic and even amusing read, however, in his book, Plowshares & Pruning Hooks, one that not only teaches the importance of recognizing the placement of prophecy in history, but more importantly also emphasizes the language necessary for understanding how to read it.
One of the major emphases in Plowshares is that the language the prophets used was highly figurative. The books of prophecy we have today did not come from a single session of writing, like the Epistles of Paul had, for example. In fact, the prophetic books were often the result of multiple years of oral preaching (see Jeremiah 36:22-23, 32), finely honed with figurative language for maximum impact (i.e. Isaiah 33:11). “We must realize that the language of prophecy may be poetic, emotive, conditional, hyperbolic, figurative, surreal, oral and uncertain about fulfillment” (56), Sandy writes, concluding that we ought not nitpick every word of prophecy as some authors are prone to do, hoping to find its hidden message, for it steals from the message of God and makes Him out to be the great Riddler rather than the divine Communicator that He truly is.
Sandy’s chapters 6 and 7 provide an excellent discussion on the foretelling nature of prophecy by first investigating how prophecy has already been fulfilled in order to then identify how similar prophecies will be fulfilled in the future. Such investigation certainly provides a strong argument for a less literal interpretation: not that the prophecies are unreal but that the words used are more figurative than specific. He approaches this reality of prophecy by differentiating between both transparent and translucent predictions. Whereas a prophecy can be transparent in that it shares the fact of God’s impending judgment, it can also be translucent in that it might not clearly define how the judgement will come.
Sandy’s book gave me a new perspective on biblical prophecy and a method of reading it that has not necessarily been my natural way of reading. He does reveal the reality that studying prophecy involves a great of work and literary knowledge, but he does not leave his readers hanging, hoping they will figure it out on their own. While other books on prophecy are available and could probably teach the same material just as well, I think that Sandy’s writing style helps keep the material interesting, much less like a textbook and more like a self-studybook. His book is filled with practical helps to guide his readers through the adventures of prophecy, and I would recommend it to relative beginners looking to learn best methods in studying biblical prophecy.