How to Read and Understand the Biblical Prophets

Written by Peter J. Gentry Reviewed By Steven W. Guest

The writings of the biblical prophets have been neglected, to a large degree, by the contemporary Church. I suspect that this is true because believers today have not understood the message in these books and hence are unsure about how the message(s) ought to be applied. This suspicion is supported by Peter Gentry, Professor of Old Testament at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, who argues that the contemporary audience has not understood the message because it has not appreciated how these books should be read. Gentry’s primary concern is “to describe and spell out the communicative methods used by the biblical prophets” so that the misunderstanding is overcome (p. 124).

This helpful book is organized into two parts. The first section (chapters 1–4, pp. 15–70) answers the questions: What? Why? How? and Why? What is the basic premise and purpose of the prophetic message? Gentry answers that the message of the prophets is derived from the Pentateuch, especially the book of Deuteronomy. He rightly highlights that Deuteronomy is primarily concerned with the establishment and continuance of the covenant relationship between Yahweh and the children of Israel. Since a careful reading of the prophets confirms this premise, chapter 2 asks the question, Why, then, do the prophets include so many predictive elements in their messages? He offers five reasons that work to validate the message(s) of the prophet(s), which, in turn, underscore their call to covenant fidelity. Chapter 3 introduces the reader to the basic hermeneutical principle that will address the central concern of the book, that is, How should one read and understand the biblical prophets? Gentry contends that since the ancient authors used repetition to convey the essential message of the text (seen primarily in the overall structure of the prophetic books but also evidenced through poetic devices, pp. 41–51), the interpreter must be aware of and identify this rhetorical device. Chapter 4 concludes the first section of the book and answers the question, Why are there so many prophecies directed toward the nations? Underscoring the connection between Israel and the nations in Deut 32, Gentry maintains that the oracles concerning the nations essentially serve the purpose of demonstrating that Yahweh is sovereign over nations and history (p. 70).

The titles in the second section of the book (chapters 5–7, pp. 71–124) all begin with “Describing the Future.” Herein Gentry explains the employment of typology by the prophets (pp. 71–91), the principles for interpreting apocalyptic language (pp. 93–115), and the idea of inaugurated eschatology (pp. 117–22).

Much of the book consists of illustrations of the detailed principles that are drawn primarily from Isaiah. The final chapter demonstrates how the New Testament appropriated the prophecies of the Old Testament to point to the greater fulfillment in Christ and in the eschaton. Finally, Gentry includes an appendix on the literary structure of the book of Revelation (pp. 125–32).

The strength of this book, and that which is new (or at least underemphasized elsewhere), is found in the third chapter where Gentry demonstrates for the reader principles necessary for discerning the message of the prophets. He advocates three tools or skills that are needed to unlock the prophetic message: (1) perceptive reading of the poetic expressions (in contrast to a literalistic reading, pp. 84–85); (2) identification of repeated word pairs (e.g., kindness-faithfulness, chiasms); and (3) recognition of repetitive patterns that extend across large sections. Unfortunately, for the novice, this book does not offer a step-by-step guide for recognizing these larger structural features that span large portions of a prophetic book. In Gentry’s defense, however, he does offer examples of his own structural analysis throughout the book.

Without forcing the Stendahlian distinction too far, this book does well in helping the believer read and understand what the biblical prophets meant. But for the Christian reader and interpreter, one cannot stop short of what the text means, and by extension how the ancient word applies today. Gentry desires to give the contemporary reader “cues the first readers had for reading these texts” (p. 14). However, he fails to articulate how “what it meant” then translates into “what it means” today. For instance, in chapter 1, Gentry demonstrates how the prophetic ministry called people to faithful adherence to Torah principles and loyalty to Yahweh, but he does not bridge the gap and help us read and understand how the prophets would have us apply Torah to the Christian experience.

Since this aspect is beyond the stated aim of this book, a reader could consult Willem VanGemeren’s fine work: Interpreting the Prophetic Word: An Introduction to the Prophetic Literature of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990). VanGemeren’s volume is an introduction and is thus more thorough (offering three chapters on the development, tradition, and perspectives on prophecy before engaging in a prophet-by-prophet analysis and offering a summary of the prophetic motifs). VanGemeren, not unlike Gentry, is sensitive to the literary form and structure, as evidenced by his including a subheading for the same for every prophetic book. VanGemeren’s final chapter, “Living the Prophetic Word,” does take that important final step of aiding the reader to apply the prophetic message today. I would argue that application is the true measure of whether an individual has truly read and understood the biblical prophets.

Having said this, I do believe that rightly reading and understanding the biblical prophets (“what it meant”) is an important first step in the process of deriving right application. For this reason, I affirm that this easily-read handbook would be a valuable addition to the pastor’s library and tool kit. The message of the Prophets, rightly understood, should bring revival to the Church today and would inform the Church’s mission in the world. Moreover, this book would serve as a great supplementary text to an Old Testament Introduction course, or as a text for an elective course on the Old Testament Prophets.

Steven W. Guest

Steven W. Guest
Baptist Theological College Cebu Graduate School of Theology
Cebu, Philippines

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