Chalmers, Aaron. Interpreting the Prophets: Reading, Understanding and Preaching from the Worlds of the Prophets. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2015. 173 pp. Pb; $20.00. Link to IVP
Aaron Chalmers is head of the School of Ministry, Theology and Culture at Tabor Adelaide and wrote Exploring the Religion of Ancient Israel for Intervarsity’s Exploring Topics in Christianity Series (2012). In this new work on the prophets, he introduces students to the “world” of the prophets.
In chapter 1 Chalmers explains defines biblical “prophet” in contrast to modern definitions of prophecy. I too have found my students think biblical prophecy is more or less like Harry Potter meets Left Behind. They seem a bit surprised that my Old Testament Prophets course starts with a lengthy section of social ethics and covenant faithfulness! Chalmers also offers a sketch of how a prophetic book is formed, moving from oral presentation to a written document or collection of documents. He does not shy away from describing some of the prophetic books the results of an editorial process and briefly discusses the “locus of inspiration,” indicating that God;s hand is at work in the whole process, whatever that process might be. He concludes “at the end of the day there is still much we do not know about the composition of the prophetic books,” but this is not really a problem because Chalmers is interested in exegeting the final form of the text (31).
In chapter two Chalmers describes “The Historical World of the Prophets.” The first half of the chapter is a basic sketch of Old Testament history from the eighth century through the return from exile. He sets each prophet into the history, although he discusses the historical context of Jonah and Daniel in a sidebar, suggesting the “historical context” is not necessarily the same as the final form of the literary works bearing their names. He presents Second Isaiah in a separate historical context than Isaiah 1-39 and only deals with the division of the book briefly in a footnote. He dates Joel to the post-exilic period as well as Trito-Isaiah (“if its presence is accepted,” 60). This chapter includes a short primer on exegeting the Prophets, warning against substituting historical research for exegesis and overgeneralizing about ancient cultures (not all ancient people thought exactly alike!)
Chapter 3 is devoted to “The Theological World of the Prophets.” Here Chalmers primarily discusses two mountains, Sinai and Zion. Sinai represents the Lord’s covenant with his people Israel and Zion represents the Lord’s covenant with David. The first half of the chapter describes the Covenant as it was given on Sinai and shows how this covenant resonates through the prophetic literature. With respect to David and Zion, Chalmers argues the Lord rules through the Davidic kings as a regent, ruling from Zion. This Zion theology becomes the basis of messianic expectations after 586 B.C. Although Chalmers does recognize this development, it is perhaps beyond the scope of his book to tease out those developments in much detail.
In “The Rhetorical World of the Prophets” (Chapter 4) Chalmers discusses the unique rhetorical features of the prophets, beginning with the structure of prophetic speech. Included in this chapter is a survey of “prophetic forms” (judgment, salvation, disputation, lawsuit, vision report and action report). The chapter includes some introduction to parallelism as a feature of Hebrew Poetry, but more important for Chalmers is the function of prophetic imagery. Since these features are “easy to over-exegete” (113), Chalmers suggests we read imagery with the context of the prophetic book: what is the point the prophet was making with a metaphor or simile.
“From Prophecy to Apocalyptic” (chapter 5) focuses on this particular form of prophetic speech found in Daniel, Zechariah and other parts of the later Old Testament. Chalmers describes apocalyptic as a visionary mode of revelation often mediated through a third person (an angel, for example), set in a narrative framework. These texts tend to focus on the “end of history: in order to encourage the reader during a time of crisis. Using an impressionistic painting by Claude Monet as an example, Chalmers urges would-be interpreters of Apocalyptic to focus on the ‘big picture” not the details. With respect to the “big picture,” we can be fairly confident of the meaning of apocalyptic, but less certain when examining the details. This is not far from Brent Sandy’s Plowshares to Pruning Hooks, another IVP book Chalmers cites several times.
Perhaps the most interesting chapter is the last, “Guidelines for Preaching from the Prophets.” Along with the conclusions to several chapters, this guide to preaching these difficult books will be welcomed by pastors struggling with presenting the prophets to their congregations. Despite observing the prophets receive “minimal air time” in the three-year ecumenical lectionary (147), Chalmers suggests it is not necessarily wise to preach through a prophetic book using the “verse-by-verse” method some expository preachers prefer. It is in fact difficult to develop appropriate analogies for application since the books themselves are focused on their own theological agenda. As a potential avenue of application, Chalmers suggests observing the witness of the New Testament and the fulfillment of the prophets in the person and work of Jesus, although he warns against leaning too heavily on the “promise fulfillment” method found in popular preaching (158).
With respect to “future fulfillment,” Chalmers devotes several pages debunking the widely influential (and very outdated) approach of Hal Lindsey. This over-literal interpretation of prophecy tends to read Ezekiel through the lens of current events in the Middle East and completely miss the rich meaning found in the actual text of the Bible. I wholeheartedly agree with the point of this section, however I do think there are parts of the prophetic books which really do concern a future eschatological restoration of God’s people and a messianic kingdom. This is not to say I would read Ezekiel as referring to the Gulf War, but some of the promises of restoration in Jeremiah or Ezekiel are not fully exhausted in the work of Jesus. Chalmers does not appear to deny this, but it is also not really the focus of his book.
The book includes frequent insets and sidebars, illustrations and charts. Some of these are labeled “going deeper” and provide a few lines of extra consideration on some particular aspect of the text. Sidebars labeled “have you considered?” intend to provoke thought or introduce a controversial issue, such as “prophetic plagiarism” (28-9). There are several “archaeological insides” in which texts such as the Cyrus Cylinder and other Mesopotamian parallels appear. Chalmers includes a number of tables offering chronological and historical information. Finally, there are a number of illustrations including maps and line drawings of archaeological items. Each chapter concludes with a “for further reading section.” There are no questions based on the text which could be utilized by a teacher in the classroom that these would not be difficult to add to the text.
While all of these various features are valuable, sometimes there are too many on a page. Pages 42-3, for example, contains two photographs with 9 lines caption, two sidebars filling more than half a page, and only 6 lines of actual text. Page 75 is perhaps the worst example since the only actual text appearing on the page is a section heading wedged between a photograph and sidebar. One “sidebar” runs from page 137 to 139, and the rest of 139 contains a Gustav Dore engraving of Leviathan. The contents of this sidebar is good enough to be a part of the main text, setting it off in a gray box does not help the reader at all. In fact, the readability of the text would be greatly improved if the sidebars were more balanced, or the photographs were all gathered to the center of the book. I understand the motivation for placing an illustration near the text it pertains to, but this editorial decision distracts from the overall presentation. It is not a criticism of Chalmers as the author of an otherwise excellent text; an editor ought to have caught some of these issues.
Conclusion. Like Chalmers, I have struggled to find a good introductory textbook on the prophets. Since the prophetic books are such a large section of the Hebrew Bible, most introductions try to cover all the books in individual chapters and miss the overall themes of the collection. This book is rich in illustrations of prophetic language from other Ancient Near Eastern cultures, something often missing from basic introductions to the prophets. Chalmers’s approach is refreshing. By focusing on the historical, theological and rhetorical worlds of the prophets he provides the framework for reading the prophets intelligently.
NB: Thanks to Intervarsity Press for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.