Book Review: Gary V. Smith, Interpreting the Prophetic Books

Smith, Gary V. Interpreting the Prophetic Books: An Exegetical Handbook. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel Ministry, 2014. 224 pp. Pb; $22.99.   Link to Kregel

This new contribution to the Handbooks of Old Testament Exegesis covers a huge section of the Old Testament canon. Gary Smith has already contributed a commentary on Isaiah in the New American Commentary series (B&H, 2007, 2009), The NIV Application Commentary on Hosea, Amos, Micah (Zondervan, 2001), the Mentor commentary on Amos (Mentor, 1998), as well as The Prophets as Preachers (B&H 1998).

Smith, Interpreting the ProphetsSmith begins with a discussion of prophetic literature. This first chapter is divided into a discussion of the genre of written prophecy and a brief introduction to the literary aspects of prophecy. Smith describes prophecy as having three “temporal categories.” First, some prophecy refers to events in the life of the life of the prophet (the present), some prophecies refer to a “future era.” His third category is “symbolic apocalyptic prophecies.”

Like other books in this series, Interpreting the Prophetic Books suffers from the limitations of the series. Since the goal is a short primer, there is no way for/ Smith to adequately cover even the four major prophets. Since the book is designed to cover 17 books, Smith must dispatch the major themes of each prophet in twenty-four pages (chapter 2) and the historical context in a mere nine pages (chapter 3)! This third chapter also includes a short note on Ancient Near Eastern prophecy and a primer on textual criticism in the Prophets.

A valuable aspect of this book is the section on interpretive issues unique to the prophetic books (chapter 4). Smith first deal with the problem of “literal vs. metaphorical.” There are many examples of prophecy which was fulfilled literally (Amos’s prediction that Israel would go into exile “beyond Damascus” Amos 5:27), but there are other examples of prophecy given in poetic language which remain “nebulous” (116). Smith uses Isaiah 42:14-16 as an example of a prophecy that is not particularly specific and contains highly evocative metaphoric language such as describing God’s anguish over his people as like the pain of a woman giving birth. When this kind of metaphoric language is used in a future prophecy, the application is even less clear. Using the example of Isaiah 42:1, Smith points shows how four different commentators read the broad metaphors in quite different ways (120).

Second, Smith asks if the meaning of prophecy is limited by its context. For a prophet like Haggai, there is a particular time and place which creates the background context for the prophecy. But an eschatological or apocalyptic prophecy has no immediate connection to the context of the prophet (121) since it refers to something in the future of the prophet and perhaps still future for the modern reader. Sometimes later New Testament progressive revelation makes the prophecy more clear, but Smith urges humility when approaching these prophecies.

Third, the conditional / unconditional nature of prophecy causes a number of problems for the interpreter. While some prophecies are explicitly conditional, others do not seem to be conditional yet remain unfulfilled. Smith cites Micah 3:12 as a vivid prophecy of the destruction of Jerusalem that remained unfulfilled after Hezekiah responded properly to the Lord. Smith cites Jer 18:7-10 as a hint many prophecies are conditioned on a proper response even if the original prophecy did not make the contingency obvious.

Fourth, Smith deals with the problem of both near and far fulfillments of prophecy. There are many “day of the Lord” prophecies which seem to have a fulfillment in the fall of Samaria or Jerusalem, yet are not fully realized in those historic events. For example, there are many prophecies concerning the restoration of Israel and Judah to the land which are not fulfilled in the end of the exile, such as God “pouring out his Spirit” on his people (Ezek 36:27, Joel 2:28-29).

Since most readers of this book will be Christians, Smith discusses the problem of fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy in the New Testament. Sometimes a New Testament writer claims a messianic prophecy is fulfilled even though it is hard to see how that is the case from a modern perspective. For example, Matt 2:15 claims the sojourn in Egypt was the fulfillment of Hos 11:1, a text describing Israel as a child coming up out of Egypt. But in the context, this looks back at the Exodus or forward to a new Exodus at the end of the exile, but there is no clear reference to the Messiah being taken to Egypt as a child. Evangelicals have offered several ways to approach these exegetical problems (double fulfillment, a “fuller sense,” pesher and typological interpretations, for example).

Last in this section, Smith asks if prophecy is always fulfilled. This may seem like an odd question, but there are examples when a prophecy seems to clearly predict something which does not occur. Jonah is an obvious example, although implied contingency may be a solution (Nineveh did repent) or near/far fulfillment (Nineveh did fall eventually). In other cases, there is only a partial fulfillment because a prophecy was stretched to cover many more years than first anticipated (the exile for example). For some difficult prophecies such as Ezekiel’s prediction Babylon would destroy Tyre, Smith encourages the reader to humbly admit there is something anomalous in the prophecy and that we do not fully understand the situation (140).

Chapters 5-6 deal with proclaiming the prophetic texts and drawing applications from these sometimes obscure passages of Scripture for contemporary Christians. These two chapters provide a hermeneutical strategy for reading prophetic texts and several examples of proclaimed prophecy.  First, the exegete must define the setting of the prophecy. This requires a study of the political, socio-economic and religious setting of the prophet. Second, the exegete must fully appreciate the nuances of the literary context, including the genre of the prophecy as well as any elements of biblical poetry present in the text. From this research, the exegete can develop a “descriptive outline” of the text. From this outline, basic steps of exegesis will fill in the details (word studies, background studies, etc.)

Once the descriptive outline has been detailed for the passage, the exegete must find a way to present the material to an audience. This requires using the needs of the audience to develop a thematic outline and illustrating the main principles of the text which will be of importance to the audience. Smith encourages a sermon presentation that is both theological and practical and calls for some change in action or thinking. He illustrates this method with Isaiah 31:1-9 (a near-fulfillment) and Jeremiah 23:1-8 (a distant fulfillment).

Conclusion. While some portions of this book are extremely brief, the hermeneutical method presented by Smith is clear and useful. Certainly I would have liked to see far more detail in chapters 2-3, but detailed descriptions of the prophet books, especially with respect to the formation of the books goes well beyond the goals of this short handbook. A second mild criticism is the lack of attention to application of the prophets to contemporary social issues. Since many of the prophets accused their listeners of abuse of the poor and needy and a general lack of justice in their society, it seems to me this message is an easy application to contemporary American culture. Third, I wonder if Smith would consider some passages in the prophets to be “un-preachable” from the pulpit in most churches. For example, Daniel 11 has so many difficulties, it is almost impossible to preach an applicable sermon which also deals with the text in any detail. Perhaps some of the more vulgar passages would be difficult to properly treat in a church context (Ezekiel 16, Nahum 2).

This Handbook reaches its goal of providing students of Old Testament prophecy the tools for teaching and preaching these important and often neglected texts. This would make a good textbook for a college or seminary class on the Prophets, especially in more conservative circles.

NB: Thanks to Kregel Books for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

Book Review: The People, the Land, and the Future of Israel

Bock, Darrell L. and Mitch Glaser, eds. The People, the Land, and the Future of Israel: Israel and the Jewish People in the Plan of God. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel, 2014. 369 pp. Pb. $16.99   Link to Kregel

Darrell Bock and Mitch Glaser have worked together on the topic of Israel in two other books published by Kregel (To the Jew First: The Case for Jewish Evangelism in Scripture and History, 2008 and The Gospel According to Isaiah 53, 2012). These two volumes collected papers from conferences sponsored by Chosen People Ministries, an evangelistic mission to Jews led by Mitch Glaser. This new book is based on a conference held at Calvary Baptist Church in New York City in 2013. Most of the participants are Evangelical who have a high view of Scripture and several are involved in some sort of ministry aimed at Jewish evangelism. Not a few of the scholars participating in the conference can be fairly described as “Progressive Dispensationalists” (Bock and Blaising, especially) although that language does not appear in the book.

The People of IsarelThe first section surveys Israel according the Hebrew Bible. Eugene Merrill (Torah), Walter Kaiser (Writings), and Robert Chisholm (Prophets) contribute very brief biblical theologies of Israel. Chisholm’s contribution is especially important since the prophets looked forward to a return from exile and a reunification of Israel under a new David. This return, Chisholm demonstrates, will be the result of repentance and forgiveness at the time of a new covenant. The prophets generally teach the nations will come to restored Zion to worship Israel’s God at the Temple.

Michael Brown’s chapter “The People of Israel in Jewish Tradition” is placed in the book between the Old and New Testament sections, leading me to think it would cover the Second Temple Period, but that is not the case. After spending a few pages on making six points drawn from the Hebrew Bible, Brown offers a few examples drawn from late rabbinic literature. Sadly, his longest example is taken from a website rather than the Talmud itself. He also cites Midrash Tanchuma Qedoshim, a text dated A.D. 370 attributed to Rabbi Tanchuma bar Abba and Rashi (d. 1105). By juxtaposing these later writers with the list of messianic expectations drawn from Emil Schürer’s History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ, he gives the impression that Jews at the time of Jesus thought of Jerusalem as the “navel of the world.” Perhaps they did, but the evidence offered here does not support the claim.

The second section continues the survey by examining what the New Testament has to say about Israel. Michael Wilkins contribution surveys the Gospel of Matthew, highlighting the tension between Jesus’ command to go only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel and the emphasis Matthew places on the salvation of the Gentiles. Matthew has the most negative view toward Israel, especially toward the religious leadership (Matt 23, for example). The gospel also has strong statements about Gentiles participating in the Kingdom. But Wilkins does not see this as replacement theology, since Israel will be in the land in the eschatological age (Matt 23:37-39), worshiping in the temple, (Matt 24:14-16), and the disciples will be ruling a restored Israel (Matt 19:28)

Darrell Bock discusses Luke/Acts. Like Matthew, Luke does not indicate God replaces Israel with Gentiles, even if that was part of God’s plan from the beginning (p. 104). Bock highlights a number of texts throughout the Gospel of Luke indicating Luke’s belief that Israel’s judgment is only for a time and they will participate in the eschatological age (p. 109). Of considerable importance is Peter’s sermon in Acts 3:18-21, in which he states clearly the “times of refreshing” will come and Israel will once again be blessed. There is nothing in this sermon even hinting that the Gentiles will replace Israel and that the promises of a “time of refreshing” has been transferred to the Gentiles.

Michael Vanlaningham examines the question of Israel’s restoration in the book of Romans. Romans 9-11 can fairly be described as the most important text in the New Testament for understanding Israel’s future since Paul deals with God’s faithfulness to his promises and a potential objection that faithfulness. If God has canceled his promises to Israel, perhaps she will do so with the Gentiles. Vanlaningham shows that replacement theology has trouble dealing with Romans 11, especially the clear statement that “all Israel will be saved.”

In perhaps the strangest article in the collection, Craig Evans examines Hebrews and the General Epistles. The chapter is strange because the General Epistles have very little to say about the replacement or restoration of Israel and almost nothing about the land. Evans simply points out each book in this General Epistles is written by a Jewish writer to Jewish Christians (with the possible exception of 2 Peter). That James addresses his letter to Jewish Christians in the Diaspora is significant since it presupposes Israel in the Land. While I agree with everything Evans says in this chapter concerning the Jewishness of these letters, it really has little to do with the theme of the book.

The third section of the book takes on the topic from the perspective of hermeneutics and theology. Craig Blaising, Mark Saucy, John Feinberg and Michael Vlach each contribute articles challenging the supersessionist view of prophecies from the Hebrew Bible. It is significant that all four of these writers are associated with dispensationalism, but with the exception of Vlach’s historical survey, there is no clear indication they are using a dispensational hermeneutic. Blaising challenges supersessionist views on Israel by appealing to the overall narrative of Scripture, arguing popular supersessionist writers have made a “reality shift” when moving from the promises of the Old Testament to the fulfillment in the New Testament. He associates this first with W. D. Davies and his students, but Reformed biblical theology is guilty of using typology to downplay the literal fulfillment of the land promises to Israel. Mark Saucy examines the overall narrative of the Bible and argues that de-emphasizing the role of Israel in the fulfillment of Old Testament promises misses the point of the story of the Bible. Jesus clearly believed in the future new covenant hope of the Prophets. John Feinberg examines three prophecies from the Old Testament and simply observes they cannot be fulfilled if Israel has been replaced by the church because the presuppose Israel is in the land and worshiping in the Temple.

Michael Vlach article on Israel in Church History demonstrates replacement theology began very early in church history. After Jerusalem was destroyed in A.D. 70 and 135, Gentile membership in the church became the majority and Church leaders became less interested in Israel and the Land. As allegorical interpretations of Scripture became the standard hermeneutic of the church, replacement theology developed rapidly, so that by the early third century, Clement of Alexandria could describe Israel as “divorced” from God and replace by the Church as a faithful spouse (p. 201). While few in the writers Reformation dealt with the restoration of Israel, seventeenth century saw a great deal of interest in evangelizing the Jewish people, often in an eschatological context. Puritan millennialism, for example, understood the conversion of Israel as a pre-requisite to the second coming (p. 206), a point he illustrates by citing Charles Spurgeon. Vlach points out Dispensationalism did not create this interest in the early nineteenth century (as is often assumed), but continued a trend with respect to the restoration of Israel.

The last article in this section also takes a historical perspective. Barry Leventhal examines “Israel in Light of the Holocaust.”  While Leventhal has written books on this topic, I found this chapter to be disappointing. First, he has too many extremely long citations from other writers, to the point that several pages have virtually nothing from Leventhal. Most of these citations are appropriate to the topic and some are probably necessary for Leventhal to make his point, but the fact some appear in the article virtually without comment does not strike me as good use of resources. Perhaps the article would read better if he summarized the lengthy quotations and cited the source for further reading. Second, he argues toward the end of the article for a three-exile/three return model for understanding modern Israel. The first exile is the sojourn in Egypt after Joseph, the return was the Exodus. The second exile began in 586 B.C. after the destruction of Jerusalem and the second return was after the seventy year captivity was complete. Leventhal considers the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 to be the third exile, with the third return still in the future when God calls his people back to the Land (p. 239). Leventhal does not consider Bar Kokhba in his discussion of the beginning of a third exile. On the one hand, this “third exile” sounds like standard Dispensational theology since he describes an antichrist and a great tribulation (supported with copious citations of Scripture, see his list on p. 241!) While I agree with many of the details, I question the validity of the sojourn in Egypt as an Exile, since it was not a punishment for covenant unfaithfulness. Joseph’s generation are not judged with slavery in Egypt for their failure to keep the God’s commands, in fact, Gen 50:19-21 specifically states God intended the sojourn for the good of Jacob’s family. Perhaps a better way to make a similar point is to adapt N. T. Wright’s “ongoing exile” as a way of explaining why Israel remains in exile after the return in 538 B.C. and even after the events of A.D. 70.

The final section of this book looks at the question of Israel and practical theology. Michael Rydelnik looks at the Jewish people as evidence for the truth of Scripture. This essay considers the remarkable history of Israel and their survival as a people as a kind of proof that the Bible contains truth. Since both the Old and New Testaments indicate Israel will continue to exist until the end times and Israel has miraculously overcome attacks and persecution. This supernatural survival is “strong evidence of the truth of Scripture” (259).

Mitch Glaser discusses the controversial topic of evangelism directed at the Jewish people. Glaser makes a clear distinction between national promises made to Israel in the Bible and personal salvation of individuals. All people must accept Messiah Jesus as savior, “being Jewish” is not sufficient to guarantee participation in the coming messianic age. Glaser believes Paul’s message “to the Jew first” is fully understood when it is coupled with Romans 11:25-27. He states that Paul himself believe that “if Jewish people are successfully evangelized then Jesus the Messiah will return” (p. 274). For Glaser, this means prioritizing evangelism to the Jews because they are God’s chosen people. This is possible and although the opposite may be true as well, that if the “full number of the Gentiles” are saved, then Messiah can return. In Acts 21, Paul hurries to return to Jerusalem by Pentecost with a gift from the Gentiles as a firstfruit offering.

David Epstein tackles this same question from the perspective of a local pastor. Epstein is a Jewish Christian who has pastored Calvary Baptist Church in New York City and has been active in reaching Jewish people with the Gospel for many years. Drawing on his own experience in New York, Epstein argues continued evangelism of Jewish people is a compassionate and biblical practice because Jewish people are still loved by God.

Finally, Gregory Hagg surveys “The Various Positions on Israel Currently Taught in Theological Schools.” Hagg constructed a survey seventy primarily Evangelical institutions in North America. His questions attempt to gauge the interest in these institutions in premillennial and somewhat Dispensational views of Israel and Palestine as well as their views on evangelism to Jews and Arabs. Only about twenty percent returned the survey, so the results are far from a definitive statement of what Evangelicals are doing in their seminaries. In general, the results indicated less enthusiasm at self-identifying as a Dispensationalist, and most schools do not have courses on evangelism to Jewish or Arab peoples.

Darrell Bock offers a few words as a conclusion to the book highlighting the main contours of the articles. In short, these articles indicate God has made promises to Israel which he will keep in the future. Israel’s past or current unfaithfulness does not cancel out the promises of God to bring his kingdom into this world.

Conclusion. I find this book fascinating since it is essentially a book on Pre-millennialism and Dispensational Theology even if it rarely uses the language of classic Dispensationalism. Most (but not all) of the writers are associated with Dispensationalism in some way or teach in traditional Dispensational institutions. Perhaps the writers avoid explicitly using the language because of recent backlashes against Dispensationalism generated by the Left Behind phenomenon or some of the invective commonly used against this once popular way of reading the Bible.

Each chapter ends with a series of study questions to facilitate further discussion of the topic of the paper. A “for further reading” section appears for only paper, Bock’s contribution on Luke/Acts. Throughout the book there are URLs and QR Codes to access conference videos and additional interview material with the individual contributors to this volume.

NB: Thanks to Kregel for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.


Book Giveaway Winner! – An A-to-Z Guide to Biblical Prophecy and the End Times

My May-Term class on Daniel and Revelation is now history, although not in a preterist way.  So this morning I can announce the winner of An A-to-Z Guide to Biblical Prophecy, by  J. Daniel Hays, J. Scott Duvall, and C. Marvin Pate:


Step up to the podium LLM and collect your valuable prize.  LLM blogs at Enough Light, go check out his blog.  Please contact me at Plong42 at gmail dot com and I will ship the book to you right away.   Stay tuned for another give-away.

Zondervan originally published this book as a Dictionary of Biblical Prophecy and End Times, I reviewed it under that title in October of 2011.  This is a paperback version, but the contents are the same as the hard-back.

This is a handy, non-sensational guide to prophetic texts in both the Old and New Testaments.  The book includes summaries of prophetic books (Revelation is particularly helpful and has been “spun off” as an e-book for Kindle).  Other topics include schools of thought (dispensationalism, amilennialism, etc.) and specific prophetic images (great white throne, four beasts of Daniel 7, etc.)   Some more obscure topics are covered as well (gematria, 4 Ezra, for example).  As I said in my previous review, the book is a handbook rather than a detailed encyclopedia.  The authors give a quick definition and overview of the topics, enabling the student or busy pastor quickly to get what they need to read a passage.

Book Giveaway – An A-to-Z Guide to Biblical Prophecy and the End Times

To celebrate the near conclusion of by May-Term class on Daniel and Revelation, I have a copy of this book by J. Daniel Hays, J. Scott Duvall, and C. Marvin Pate.  Zondervan originally published this book as a Dictionary of Biblical Prophecy and End Times, I reviewed it under that title in October of 2011.  This is a paperback version, but the contents are the same as the hard-back.

This is a handy, non-sensational guide to prophetic texts in both the Old and New Testaments.  The book includes summaries of prophetic books (Revelation is particularly helpful and has been “spun off” as an e-book for Kindle).  Other topics include schools of thought (dispensationalism, amilennialism, etc.) and specific prophetic images (great white throne, four beasts of Daniel 7, etc.)   Some more obscure topics are covered as well (gematria, 4 Ezra, for example).  As I said in my previous review, the book is a handbook rather than a detailed encyclopedia.  The authors give a quick definition and overview of the topics, enabling the student or busy pastor quickly to get what they need to read a passage.

To enter,  leave a comment and I will pick a winner at random from the comments.  I will close the contest on May 16 and announce the winner then.

Book Review: Dictionary of Biblical Prophecy and End Times

J. Daniel Hays, J. Scott Duvall, and C. Marvin Pate.  Dictionary of Biblical Prophecy and End Times.  Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2007. $29.99 HB, $14.99 Kindle

This handbook on Bible Prophecy was written by three professors at Ouachita Baptist University in Arkansas.  At 512 pages including indices, the book is manageable for laymen but has enough depth to be useful for the busy pastor.  Despite the fact that the authors state that they “do not agree” on all issues in the field of biblical prophecy, this is a fairly homogenous book.  While articles will fairly describe other views, the articles are clearly pre-millennial and occasionally dispensational.  This is not a surprise given the fact that Duvall and Hays were educated at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Pate has represented progressive dispensationalism in other books on biblical prophecy.  This is not a criticism of the text, but it does tend to narrow the target audience more than a collection of essays from scholars representing several viewpoints.

One pointed criticism: the articles are unsigned.  I realize there are only three contributors, but at the very least I would like to have seen initials at the end of the article to indicate the author. Perhaps this is a personal annoyance, but I find an article far more useful if I can cite the author by name.

There are some excellent articles in this volume which deserve attention.  The sixteen page article on the book of Revelation is a good introduction to the genre, purpose and intention of Revelation.  Various interpretive methods are discussed in separate articles, as are views on the millennial and rapture. Articles on millennialism, tribulation, and the four beasts of Daniel were all well written and useful.  The article on the People of God was particularly well balanced.

I appreciate the inclusion of a number of articles on Second Temple Period apocalyptic.  The article on Apocalyptic is a nicely balanced approach and has brief descriptions of most of the literature.  There is a separate article on the Parables of Enoch, but nothing on the rest of 1 Enoch.  Articles on Second Baruch and Fourth Ezra would have been valuable for students working in Revelation.  But these go beyond the goal of “biblical prophecy” and may not have been included for that reason.

A few articles strike me as strange topics to include.  Some concern biblical prophecy but only as it is formally defined.  For example, Iddo the Prophet, Huldah the Prophetess and Miriam have short articles despite the fact that the have nothing to say on the topic of “end times.”  There is a nice article on poetry in the Bible, although there is little in the article which bears directly on biblical prophecy.  I found the articles on the “Club of Rome Conference,” the European Union, and Bible Codes somewhat useless if the goal of the book was to provide a handbook on biblical prophecy.

My usually critique of dictionaries like this is “how would I use a book like this?” Articles in a dictionary like this are selected by the editors because they are significant, but no dictionary can contain entries for all of the topics which may arise in studying prophecy.   I think that most layman and not a few pastors will find this book a handy guide to the books of Daniel and Revelation and related topics, but the limited articles make me think that the Dictionary of Biblical Prophecy and End Times would be better titled “A Handbook.”