Interpreting the Prophetic Books by Gary V. SmithTwenty five percent of the 66 books of the Bible are categorized as prophetic books. The genre of prophetic books is perhaps the least preached among the nine genres in the Bible. Like apocalyptic literature, they can be hard to read and interpret let alone preach and teach. But if Paul is right about the Old Testament, and “these things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the culmination of the ages has come” (I Cor. 10:11) then this 25% of the Bible is much more relevant for the Church than we give it credit.

Having already written, taught, and published extensively on the OT prophets, Gary V. Smith has now made a recent contribution, Interpreting the Prophetic Books: An Exegetical Handbook, for the Handbooks for Old Testament Exegesis (HOTE) series (Kregel, 2015). The HOTE series is dedicated to giving students of the text the necessary basic skills to exegeting, preaching, and teaching the text of Scripture from each genre of the Bible. Smith summarizes the goal of his book as follows:

In addition to understanding the historical setting and the literary forms, a person who wants to share the messages of the prophets needs to be able to outline the text around one main theme, the illustrate the main theme in practical ways that are meaningful and interesting to people today, to discover the theological principles that each message teaches, and to present a challenging application that is derived from the themes in that prophetic text. (18)

Background Work

As a handbook, this book is a guide on how to read and interpret the prophets and then present the text in a way that is meaningful to the modern day reader. Smith breaks down the prophetic books into three main categories of temporal prophecies: present events, future events, and symbolic apocalyptic events. Smith points out that what makes the third category more challenging to identify is that “some future prophecies contained symbolic language that was part of a vision.” (27) The prophecies are further divided by the genre of the prophecy (judgment, salvation, trial speech, etc.) and even further according to their literary structure as poetry.

In chapter two Smith gives a thematic summary of each prophetic book. Regarding the controversy over Isaiah and whether it has more than one author, Smith is not favorable to the critical scholarly opinion that there is a second and third-Isaiah (62-63). Equally summative as chapter two, chapter three provides a brief survey of the historical contexts in which each book is written. Smith has a good four page discussion on comparative ancient near eastern prophets and their false prophecies (94-98). Understanding “this background,” Smith notes, “to the prophetic situation should help the reader sympathize with the frustration that many prophets experienced when people rejected their prophecies.” (97)

Chapter four addresses a number of interpretive issues that are unique to prophetic literature. Smith summarizes the issues under contrasting options: literal or metaphorical, limited to context or open beyond it, conditional or unconditional, near or far future, and the New Testament use of the Old Testament. What many interpreters struggle the most with will be whether a prophecy is literal or metaphorical and whether its fulfillment is near or far future. Of metaphorical interpretation Smith states that

Many of the predictions in future prophecies were much more nebulous or general in nature, and they were not tied so closely to identifiable people, places, events, or objects. Many prophecies were expressed in highly symbolic poetic language that was much harder to interpret in any kind of literal fashion. (116)

Smith closes chapter four by discussing the fulfillment of prophecies in light of the fact that some are in fact not fulfilled. How so? It is clear that some are conditional, like the prophecy to Ninevah to repent, and might or might not happen. Some prophesies are not to be fulfilled until some time in the future like the coming of the Day of the Lord. Further, some prophecies fulfillment is extended over time like God’s promise to Abraham to make him a great nation.

Preaching Work

After all of the background work is done with the text, Smith moves onto crafting the text itself into a teachable/preachable outline. While Smith does not break any new ground as far as developing a preaching outline, he does help the preacher and teacher to synthesize and package the background information about the text in a way that is presentable and not overbearing with minute details. While opinions may vary as to the best way to preach the texts, Smith is keen to bring all of the text down to one main principle that is drawn from the text, and to shape the sermon around that idea.

Drawing application from the OT can be hard, and even more so from the prophetic books. Smith uses Isaiah 31:1-9 as a test case to help the reader see how one would put into practice all that he has outlines in the book. This helps the preacher to see how application is drawn from the text in a more natural, rather than forced way.

Conclusion

Interpreting the Prophetic Books follows the trusted and reliable reputation of the HOTE series in providing the preacher and teacher with the necessary basic information and tools to interpret the prophetic books. This book points you in the right direction for further study and should be on the shelf of every pastor, teacher, and serious Bible student.

Other books in the HOTE series:

Interpreting the Pentateuch by Peter Vogt

Interpreting the Historical Books by Robert Chisholm Jr.

Interpreting the Psalms by Mark Futato

I received this book for free from Kregel for this review. 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.”

 

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