How to Read and Understand the Biblical Prophets

Peter J. Gentry, professor of Old Testament interpretation at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, wrote a very accessible guide for a first orientation in the prophetic literature of the Old Testament that helps us to understand its message. Its title is How to Read and Understand the Biblical Prophets. He divided his book in seven chapters: 1. Calling the People Back to the Covenant; 2. The End of the Covenant, Judgment and Restoration; 3. The Function of Repetition in Hebrew Literature; 4. The Purpose of the Oracles concerning the Nations; 5. Describing the Future, Part 1: Typology and the New Exodus; 6. Describing the Future, Part 2: Apocalyptic Literature; 7. Describing the Future, Part 3: The Already and the Not Yet.

The author does not in the pages push a particular brand of eschatology. He wants that the readers learn to read and understand the prophetic texts on their own. He underlines that the literary structure of each prophetic book as a whole is fundamental to its interpretation. With illustrations and examples – starting with Isaiah 5 an 6 – Gentry offer guidance for reading the prophets.

He rightly sees the concept of the covenant as fundamental for the Old Testament prophets. One of the main points of their message was to bring Israel back to loyalty to the LORD who had established his covenant with them at Sinai. Insightful is the way in which Gentry relates to oracles against the nations with the Song of Moses in Deuteronomy 32. In this song it is made clear that the LORD will not only fulfill his promises to the patriarchs to give deliverance to Israel, but also that he will bring judgment on the nations because of their arrogant idolatry. The messages concerning the nations shows that the LORD is absolutely sovereign over the world.

More than once we see the prophets painting a panoramic of the near and distant future side by side. When the Old Testament prophets proclaim Israel’s deliverance from the exile that use the type of the exodus. A new exodus typified by this the first one will come. Especially here we see the principle at work of the ‘already and not yet.’ The new exodus found its principal fulfilment in the inauguration of Christ’s covenant with his first coming. Its final fulfilment is related to Christ’s second coming. Then his kingdom will be consummated.

One of the features of apocalyptic languages is its use of aphors and symbolic language. This we see in the book of Daniel. The apocalyptic begin to blossom in exile. In the Old Testament we find in Zechariah and even more in Daniel the language of apocalyptic. In Daniel the son of man as God’s representative stands in opposition to the beast who symbolize the earthy powers. The son of man does not establish his authority by military power. He simply receives it from God.

How to Read and Understand the Biblical Prophets fully does what it promises. It gives a faithful and reliable first orientation in the Old Testament prophets. It shows both scholarship and readability.

Peter J. Gentry, How to Read and Understand the Biblical Prophets (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2017), paperback 141 pp., $17,99 (ISBN 9781433554032)

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