Peter Gentry, Donald L. Williams Professor of Old Testament Interpretation at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, has written an incredibly helpful and accessible book in How to Read and Understand the Biblical Prophets. In this 140-page book, there is much general wisdom about reading Scripture and many specific applications for reading the Prophets, especially Isaiah.
In his plain-spoken and even humorous way, Gentry helps deepen our understanding how different the prophetic literature is. But even more, he gives tools to read these ancient words better.
In preaching Isaiah this month, I’ve found much help in How to Read and Understand the Biblical Prophets. I share a dozen of the best quotes from his book below. These give a taste of what you’ll find in this book. But let me encouragement you, if you take seriously the study of Scripture, pick up this book and spend time thinking about how to read the Prophets.
General Principles for Reading the Bible
Here are seven quotes taken from various parts of the book. They all speak to the importance of literary structure in rightly discerning the meaning of the Bible.
“A lack of proper reading strategies is exactly the problem some have with reading the Bible.” (13)
“Reading and studying the Bible may not be straightforward for readers with a modern and Western background in culture and language. The biblical text in origin are ancient and Eastern—they come from a different culture and different time. The normal pattern of Hebrew literature is to consider topics in a recursive manner, which means that a topic is progressively repeated. Such an approach seems monotonous to those who do not know and understand how these texts communicate.” (16–17)
“Only when we grasp the literary methods of the ancient Hebrew writers can we properly understand the text.” (51)
“The literal meaning is the meaning as determined by the rules of the particular genre or kind of literature.” (85)
“In studying the text, no aspect is harder to grass then literary structure. It is also difficult to communicate to audiences of today. Expository teaching must be more than communicating the content of the text; we must explain the form and show how this carries the meaning. Nowhere is this more important than in apocalyptic.” (106)
“The literary structure is the key to both interpretation and teaching. We need a clear view of the whole in order to understand the parts.” (107)
Specific Details About the Prophets
Gentry’s book deals with prophetic literature and the use of apocalyptic imagery and language. These next five quotes all relate to the Prophets. I’ve added summary headings to synthesize these larger quotes.
1. All the prophets are messengers of the Sinai Covenant.
“Everything in the prophets is based upon the covenant made between God and Israel during the exodus from Egypt, especially the expression or form of the covenant as it is found in the book of Deuteronomy. Claus Westermann, in his book Basic Forms of Prophetic Speech, demonstrates and details this in many ways. For the prophets, their perspectives on social justice, their promises and their threats, even their very sentences and words, are all based upon the book of Deuteronomy, an expansion and renewal of the covenant made at Sinai.” (15)
2. The prophets may speak of visions that they do not fully comprehend at the time of their writing.
“So the prophet hears and see the divine decisions that concern the governing of particular individuals, nations, or situations. The prophet does not necessarily understand all he is reporting. Yet with broad strokes the prophet paints a panoramic picture in which the near and distant future of this vision are set side by side.” (72)
3. Apocalyptic imagery uses complex symbolism and mixed metaphors to describe single events. In this respect, Gentry describes the way Scripture employs complex metaphors. He also cites N.T. Wright who has written clearly on this subject.
Apocalyptic language uses complex and highly colored metaphors and symbols in order to describe one event in terms of another. In this way, an event can be described and, at the same time, the meaning of the event can be explained. [Citing Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, 282–83],
We use this kind of language all the time ourselves. Suppose a news reporter had described the fall of the Berlin Wall, as one well might, as an ‘earth-shaking event.’ Such a description might perhaps lead some future historian, writing in the Martian Journal of Early European Studies, to hypothesize that an earthquake had caused the collapse of the wall, leading to both sides realizing they could live together after all. A good many readings of Daniel and Revelation in our own century operate on about that level of understanding. (101)
4. A Christian interpretation of the Prophets requires learning how from later authors how to read the Old Testament.
The idea that later writers of Scripture help to interpret earlier writers of Scripture means that citations of the prophets by later writers of the Old and New Testaments are important in learning how to read and understand the biblical prophets. This is especially true if we want to have a Christian understanding of the prophets. If all we are doing is exegesis based on the cultural setting of the text, the linguistic date, and the literary structure, what would make our exegesis Christian as opposed, for example, to Jewish or other scholarly study of these texts? The answer is that if we do not listen to the teaching of Jesus and the apostles in the New Testament, our understanding of the biblical prophets is not a Christian interpretation, no matter how skilled we are in the details of exegesis! (118)
5. The full canon of Scripture is needed to explain any prophesy in the Old Testament.
The prophets of the Old Testament put everything together in one grand picture and do not clearly distinguish the first and second comings of the Messiah. This principle means that we cannot construct a chronology of events from the prophets of the Old Testament concerning the coming of the King and the coming of his kingdom. We need the teaching of Jesus and the apostles to clarify which prophecies apply to the first coming and which apply to the second coming. It is even possible that some prophecies can apply to both at the same time. (122)
A Final Word
Gentry finishes his book on the relationship between exegesis and eschatology. As anyone familiar with contemporary discussion knows, there is a great debate about how to read and apply the Prophets. With Gentry, I believe most who demand a “literal” interpretation misread Scripture in the name of being literal. This misunderstanding of literalism seems to be at the heart of why Gentry wrote this book.
One can only hope that his book will bring light to debate that often only filled with heat. With this hope, I pray his book will have a wide reading, for there is a desperate need in churches today to rightly understand the literature of the Old Testament, as Gentry himself concludes,
My book focuses much more on how Hebrew literature works and how it differs from the kind of literature we are familiar with in the Western world. In the past one hundred years and more, Christians have hotly debated eschatology—what the Bible teaches about future events. The biggest problem in all this is that we have not known the rules and strategies used by the biblical prophets for communication, and we do not understand the texts they have written.
The debate between literal interpretation and spiritual interpretation is entirely bogus. When the Reformers talked about the ‘literal sense’ of the text, they meant the meaning intended by author [sic] according to the rules of the genre of the literature being used to communicate the message. Listen to the prophets themselves. Hosea, one of the earliest writings prophets, says this:
I spoke to the prophets, gave them many visions and told parables through them. (Hos. 12:10 NIV)
Here we are reminded that God communicated to the prophets not only by visions but also by parables. Note how all Jesus’s parables begin with the statement ‘The kingdom of God is like . . . .” So the prophets are actually telling us: “Pay attention! We are using symbols and types when we speak.”
I have attempted to describe and spell out the communicative methods used by the biblical prophets. Most people in the Western world will have to consciously apply these principles before they can read and understand the prophets. (123–24)
So serious-minded Bible reader, take up and readHow to Read and Understand the Biblical Prophets. It will be a great guide to reading God’s Word, and I pray it will help you see the meaning of the Bible.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds