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Interpreting the Prophets by Aaron Chalmers: A Review Article

Sherif Gendy

Interpreting the Prophets: Reading, Understanding and Preaching from the Worlds of the Prophets, by Aaron Chalmers. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2015, 173 pages, $20.00, paper.

In this book Aaron Chalmers looks at the nature of both the prophetic role and prophetic books in Israel. He considers three key “worlds” of Israel’s prophets—historical, theological, and rhetorical—which provide the basic context for interpreting these books. He concludes with a helpful chapter that provides guidelines for preaching from the prophets—including advice on choosing the texts, making appropriate analogies, and the potential problems and common pitfalls to avoid. The book is divided into six chapters with a bibliography and indices. Here is a summary with assessment for each chapter.

1. What Is a Prophet and What Is a Prophetic Book?

In this chapter Chalmers provides an overview of the role of the prophet in Israel as well as the nature of prophetic books. According to Chalmers, the prophets are members of the divine council. As such, they function as observers of the council, “advisers” to God, and envoys for the council. Fundamentally, the prophets were intermediaries, called by God to stand between him and human realms. They were communicators of the divine will. The prophetic book is the written record of the divine revelation mediated to the people of God through the prophet. For Chalmers, the process by which the largely spoken words of the prophets became the written books involves three distinct movements in the formation: 1) from oral words to written words; 2) from written words to collected words; and 3) from collected words to a prophetic book.

Chalmers is right in asserting that our primary focus should be on exegeting the text in its final form, rather than trying to explain the exact process behind the written text. At this point it is important to understand that what counts as history is not merely origins, but also effects. In other words, the prophetic witness as it stands within the canon presents a history on its own terms. Critical scholars assume that one could truly get at the Bible’s meaning by adopting a vantage point outside the Bible itself. There is a tendency to reconstruct the prophets historically and treat them in supposed temporal sequence instead of trying to understand them as they are within the biblical witness. What Chalmers neglects in this chapter is that the canonical presentation of the prophets is its own kind of theological and historical statement. It is a statement in its own form.

2. The Historical World of the Prophets

Chalmers acknowledges that the historical context of a prophetic book may not be clear. He also recognizes as a challenge that a single book may address multiple historical contexts. He seems sympathetic to the critical view of the presumed Isaiah’s three distinct historical horizons: pre-exilic or Proto-Isaiah (chaps 1–39), exilic or Deutero-Isaiah (chaps 40–55), and post-exilic or Trito-Isaiah (chaps 56–66). For Chalmers, one needs to seriously consider the secondary sources to gain understanding for the occasional nature of the prophetic literature and historical context. He calls for reconstructing the historical world of the prophets in order to obtain a richer, fuller, and more accurate understanding of the message of Israel’s prophets.

The aim of the historical reconstruction of the prophetic book is seeing the text in its historical and cultural context (Sitz im Leben). The higher critical view of the prophets has given them a kind of distinctiveness that makes it difficult to relate them to one another or to understand them as an associated movement. Thus, higher critics have “decanonized” the prophets by placing them in a context other than the canon in order to get at their “real” meaning.

Against the critical view of Isaiah’s authorship, the traditional view, which regards Isaiah son of Amoz (Isa. 1:1), the eighth-century prophet, friend, and confidant of Hezekiah, as the author of the entire book, seems more plausible. The superscription of the book bears Isaiah’s name as the author. Moreover, the New Testament bears witness to the unity of the book. Isaiah is cited by name about twenty times in the New Testament, and such citations include references to the three parts of the book.

3. The Theological World of the Prophets

In this chapter Chalmers discusses two key traditions that are particularly important for interpreting the prophets since they form the background to and provide the basic shape for much of the prophetic proclamation. Essentially, these traditions center on the two great mountains in Israel’s story: 1) Sinai and the establishment of a covenant between the Lord (who is portrayed as a mighty suzerain) and the Israelite people (who are portrayed as the Lord’s vassal) and 2) Zion and the establishment of a covenant between the Lord (who is portrayed as the great King) and the Davidic king (who is portrayed as the Lord’s regent).

The second part of this chapter focuses on the exegetical implications of the prophets’ use of pre-existing traditions. Chalmers analyzes theologically “loaded” words and phrases, utilizing tradition criticism, which seeks to discern what an author presumes, intends, and insinuates through the use of traditional language. Chalmers speaks of the prophets changing some pre-existing traditions found in the Scripture in order to communicate their message. He lists Amos 5:17 with possible allusion to the Exodus tradition and the events associated with the first Passover. It might be helpful to speak of the prophets invoking their audience’s memory by using well-known traditions in different contexts to make their point clear. It is not a matter of changing traditions as much as using and applying traditions in different context.

4. The Rhetorical World of the Prophets

In this chapter Chalmers discusses the rhetorical world of the prophets to enquire how they effectively used language to persuade and influence their audience, and how they shaped their material to communicate their message in a compelling fashion. Chalmers’s analysis of the rhetorical world of the prophets takes place on two levels. First, he considers the rhetorical structure of the individual prophetic units of speech. This process involves identifying the various units within a passage and focusing on the structure and movement within these (the forms include prophecy of judgment, salvation, prophetic lawsuit, vision reports, and symbolic action reports). Second, he analyzes the rhetorical features of Hebrew poetry (including parallelism and the use of images) and the various literary and rhetorical devices the prophets employ (including metonymy and synecdoche, irony and sarcasm, hyperbole, merism, and hendiadys). Chalmers understands the limits of approaching prophetic rhetoric in a scientific fashion and calls for a balancing approach that keeps the interpreters contemplative by ruminating over the text to enter into the experience of the text and allow it to capture their imaginations.

5. From Prophecy to Apocalyptic

Here Chalmers focuses on interpreting the apocalyptic texts from the Old Testament. Although related to prophecy as a subset, apocalyptic is generally recognized as a distinct genre with its own emphases and set of literary “rules.” An awareness of these can help the reader avoid some of the common interpretive mistakes associated with this challenging genre (including historicizing and decontextualizing). Chalmers suggests that when we read apocalyptic texts we need to focus on the big picture, interpret images within their original historical context, and focus on the paradigms the texts embody.

In an attempt to define apocalyptic literature and its literary features, Chalmers unpacks a few of the key ways in which apocalyptic texts differ from prophecy. Apocalyptic literature emphasizes a visionary mode of revelation. This revelation is often mediated by a third party—an angel. Moreover, apocalyptic texts often have a narrative framework and are literary compositions. These texts focus on the end of history by describing a decisive, climactic act of God which will bring a violent, radical end to history through the triumph of good and the final judgment of evil. The purpose of apocalyptic literature is to encourage its readers in the midst of their trials and during times of crisis. Finally, in apocalyptic literature the course of history is completely predetermined by God. These texts are more deterministic, with kingdoms and empires rising and falling by the sovereign will of God.

6. Guidelines for Preaching from the Prophets

In this chapter Chalmers considers how to preach from the prophets in an authentic, faithful, and responsible fashion. He lays out some guidelines for bridging the “chasm” between the world of ancient Israel and the contemporary world. Chalmers calls for a focus on the theology of the text rather than a heavily didactic, morality-focused approach. He also wants to consider the witness of the New Testament.

There are two potential problems Chalmers identifies that we should avoid when preaching from the prophets. First, he cautions against the contemporary fulfillment approach, which assumes that the promises and warnings we find in the prophetic books must come true and be fulfilled in a literal sense. This hermeneutical method ignores the text’s dynamics by flattening all prophecies into one time period (the now). Second, Chalmers rejects the promise-fulfillment approach, which sees Jesus as fulfilling various Old Testament prophecies. For Chalmers, this method fails to hear the prophetic word as it was intended and renders the proclamation from the Old Testament irrelevant. Furthermore, due to its Christological emphasis, this approach leaves little room for the contemporary listener in the text.

Chalmers questions the typological interpretation and wishes to read the Old Testament prophets in a way that allows them to speak beyond the Christ event. He insists that by taking the Old Testament prophecies as being fulfilled in the person and work of Christ we fail to grasp their ongoing significance for our life. In making this argument, Chalmers sets up a false dichotomy. The New Testament bears witness to the centrality of Christ in the Old Testament as a whole (Luke 24:27, 44). In fact, Moses wrote of Christ (John 5:46). It is only by our union with Christ that the Old Testament prophecies have significance to us. The blessings of the Old Covenant, as well as the new, are mediated to us through Christ. Any application of the Scriptures for our contemporary life that does not find its root in the finished work of Christ is a superficial application to say the least.

Apart from Chalmers’s rejection of typology as a valid hermeneutical method for interpreting the prophets, his suggested approach of considering the historical, theological, and rhetorical worlds of the prophets is unique. Chalmers’s presentation of reading and preaching the prophets is comprehensive and organized. The “Going deeper” sections that Chalmers has throughout the book provide in-depth information related to the topic at hand. Although these sections are helpful, their position in the middle of the page may interrupt the flow of the discussion and disturb the main argument. Chalmers provides a list of books for further reading at the end of each chapter. In sum, this book could be used effectively as a seminary textbook for introductory classes on the prophets.

Sherif Gendy is a licentiate in the Presbytery of the Midwest (OPC), a PhD student at Westminster Theological Seminary in Glenside, Pennsylvania, and serving as Arabic Theological Editor for Third Millennium Ministries in Casselberry, Florida. Ordained Servant Online, November 2015.

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Ordained Servant: November 2015

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