Bandy Alan S. and Benjamin L. Merkle. Understanding Prophecy: A Biblical-Theological Approach. Grand Rapids, Mich. Kregel, 2015. 264 pp. Pb; $21.99. Link to Kregel
There have been several introductory handbooks for the Prophets have appeared recently. Most of these recent textbooks focus on the background and theology of each individual book. Rather than survey the Old Testament prophetic books, Bandy and Merkle present a study on how prophecy works in the whole canon of Scripture, including the New Testament. In fact, the main theme of the book is not the prophetic books themselves, but how messianic prophecy functions.
What makes this book different is the diversity of views represented by the authors. Bandy identifies himself as a Historic premillennialist, while Merkel calls himself an amillennialist. Both are committed evangelicals who believe the Bible is God’s word and is a divinely inspired message from God. In addition, both agree the Bible has a unified message that centers on Jesus, his death and resurrection. This means that all prophecy is to be read Christologically.
In part one of the book, Bandy and Merkle offer three chapters on how to interpret prophecy. Everything in the prophets concerned with Jesus’s death and resurrection as the climax of redemptive history. While it is true the prophets do look forward to a messiah and the eschatological age, there are whole sections of the prophets which have very little to do with the coming Messiah. For example, Amos and Hosea are more concerned with social ethics and the unavoidable exile of Israel. It is hard to make Ezekiel 16 into a messianic prophecy! In fact, it is possible to argue much of prophetic literature refers to the immediate context of the prophet and the coming judgment on either Samaria or Jerusalem, the exile or the future return from exile. This prophetic “forth-telling” is overlooked in this book, although in practice the authors do often recognize prophecies which do not refer to a future messianic age (conditional and fulfilled prophecies in chapter 4, for example).
The focus of part two is on Old Testament prophecy. First, the authors examine unconditional prophecies (such as the Abrahamic Covenant), conditional prophecies (such as Jonah’s announcement of the destruction of Nineveh), and fulfilled prophecies (such as the prophetic condemnation on Babylon in Isaiah 13). Here is the recognition that some Old Testament prophecy is fulfilled in the Old Testament itself, but that is not the focus of the book.
There are many Old Testament texts which predict a restoration of Israel in the future. These “restoration prophecies” are problematic since they seem to be unfulfilled with the coming of the Messiah. Chapter 5 therefore discusses the possibility these prophecies were fulfilled in the church in a literal future (Jewish) kingdom. They conclude the prophecies of a restoration of Israel were never meant to be interpreted in a literalistic way, therefore any interpretation that expects a literal Israel to rebuild a literal Temple in the future simply minimizes the finished work of Christ on the cross (123).
Possibly, but did not the Jewish followers of Jesus continue to worship at the Temple well into the present age? Even Paul worshiped in the Temple as late as Acts 21 and James leads a church in Jerusalem which is still “zealous for the law” (Acts 21:20). Presumably these zealous Jewish Christians worshiped in the Temple, perhaps without making sin offerings. There are many ways to worship at the Temple besides making atonement for sin.
In chapter 6 Bandy and Merkle survey various Messianic prophecies. After a short discussion of what “counts” as a messianic prophecy, they conclude some of these prophecies have a direct fulfillment in the life of Jesus, others are partially or typlogically fulfilled (149). That the messiah was to be a prophet, priest and king are examples of typological fulfillments (since Jesus was not actually a king). But this chapter also includes passages such as Micah 5:2, predicting that messiah will be born in Bethlehem and Zech 9:9, fulfilled when Jesus rides a donkey into Jerusalem on “Palm Sunday.” Unfortunately there is no method offered for sorting out what prophecies are “direct predictions” and which are typological.
In the third part of the book, Bandy and Merkle focus on two aspects of New Testament messianic prophecy. First, they discuss prophecies of the coming of the Messiah (chapter 7). This includes examples like Zechariah’s prophecy of the birth of Jesus as well as elements of Jesus’ message such as the kingdom of God. The point of this section is to show that “Jesus did not come unannounced” (170).
Chapters 8-10 focus on predictions of the return of the Messiah in the Gospels and Acts (chapter 8), the Epistles (chapter 9) and Revelation (chapter 10). Here is where the views of the two authors diverge the most, since it is possible the Olivet Discourse refers to the Second Coming of Jesus (premillennialism) or to the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 (amillennialism), or a balance between these two extremes (the already/not yet” view). Too much of this chapter is devoted to an attack of the “left behind” interpretation of Matthew 24:41. Many dispensationalism rejected this passage as referring to the rapture long ago and Merkle is entirely correct that the reference is to judgment not a rapture of the church. But not a single dispensationalist is cited in this section, making me wonder what the motive for attacking an outmoded and abandoned view might be. The book includes an appendix on the problematic phrase “all Israel” in Romans 11:26.
Conclusion. This is not a textbook on the prophetic books, and as such does not discuss the prophets as iconoclastic voices calling Israel and Judah back to covenant faithfulness nor is the book interested in the social ethics of the prophets. While the authors do state the prophets do address their own times, but emphasis in this book is on prophecies of the coming eschatological or messianic age.
There is a conscious effort in the book to interpret prophecy in a way that is as distant from dispensationalism as possible. Bandy makes this clear in the appendix where he indicates he does not want to be associated with the Left Behind style of millennialist. Earlier in the book he uses Tim LaHaye as an example of overly literal interpreters of prophecy (58). Even Charles Ryrie is used as an example of someone who warns against straying too far from a literal interpretation, although I do not recall Ryrie engaging in the sort of wild-eyed interpretations one finds in the Left Behind series.
Fair enough, some dispensationalist have engaged in overly-literal interpretations of prophecy (and looked foolish for doing so). But much of what this book argues resonates with the more rational, ecclesiological form of dispensationalism (Darrel Bock, Robert Saucy, Dale DeWitt). In fairness, the authors cite Kevin Vanhoozer’s distinction between the “literal sense” and literalism. The literal sense is what the author intended to mean when he originally used symbols for symbolic language. In my experience, few serious interpreters of prophecy attempt pure literalism when reading prophecy.
Despite my misgivings, this is a useful introduction to how OT messianic prophecies are interpreted in the New Testament, although the title implies the volume is more comprehensive than it actually is. Bandy and Merkle achieve what they have set out to accomplish, although not all readers will be happy with the results of this dialogue between millennial views.
This volume could be improved by the addition of a subject and Scripture indices.
NB: Thanks to Kregel for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.