The Prophets Can Speak Today: A Review of “Interpreting the Prophetic Word” by Willem VanGemeren

Willem VanGemeren  has made a small reputation for himself among the Reformed community as both an Old Testament and Biblical Theological scholar. His other book, The Progress of Redemption captures the big theological picture of the whole scope of Scripture. In Interpreting the Prophetic Word he specifically zeroes in his expertise on the Old Testament prophets and places them within the larger framework of Biblical Theology.

Summary

The book is divided into three parts, each focuses on its own specific content, yet each clearly related to the other two chapters. The first division begins with an introduction to the “Phenomenon” of the Prophets in Israel’s history. His analysis begins with the development of Prophetism and particularly the contrast between God’s divine revelation to Israel and the surrounding nations’ pursuit of religion. VanGemeren argues that revelation and religion are polar opposites. Divine Revelation is characterized by submission, divine guidance and protection, divine wisdom, and is countercultural. In contrast to this Religion is characterized as manipulation, divination and magic, Realpolitik (political pragmatism), and vox populi (the authority of popular voice). True prophets receive their authority and truth via divine revelation, not religion. Prophetism begins with the fountain head of Moses, then is picked up by the model of Samuel, and continues with the Covenant Prosecutor, Elijah, and finally the classical prophets. So Moses defines what a prophet is for us, Samuel models it, and Elijah heightens the prophetic function.

Continuing to introduce the prophets, VanGemeren turns to consider the prophetic tradition, exploring, in chapter 2, the office of the prophet (spokesman for God in the theocracy), the role of the prophet (to offer divine council, to proclaim God’s kingdom, and to critique human kingdoms), and the message of the prophet (judgment and deliverance within a cultural context, yet with a connection to the progressive revelation of God). He then gives a brief survey of the prophets themselves, and their periods, and concludes with the distinguishing features of false and true prophets.

The author then turns to consider issues of hermeneutics and the prophets; this is by far the most helpful section of the entire work. VanGemeren sees great need for modern students of the Scriptures to reevaluate the way they read, interpret, and apply the Old Testament prophets. Chapter 3 looks at the prophets in light of the four main “ingredients” for interpretation, highlighting the importance and function of each. He begins with the Cultural context, pointing out that we must read the original text in lieu of their original time, audience, and setting. He then examines the prophetic word as literature and explains how studying the text as you would study literature opens up the interpretation more clearly. Examining, next, the place of the prophets in the larger cannon (The Canonical Function), VanGemeren reminds his readers that the prophets have a theocentric focus and are connected to one another and the particular Covenant that they fall under. Finally, and in relation to the last point, the author directs his readers to consider the Redemptive Historical Perspective. Each of the prophets relates, in one way or another, to the larger plan of God in redemptive history.

In the remaining two portions of the book VanGemeren explores specifically the message of the Minor Prophets (part 2) and the Major Prophets (part 3). Without falling into a full on commentary of each of the prophetic books of the Old Testament the author nonetheless provides us with an overview of the primary message, the related themes, and the biblical theological framework for understanding the books themselves.

Critical Evaluation

It appears clear that part of VanGemeren’s agenda with this book is to correct what he believes has been a diminishing of the voice of the prophets for today’s readers (13). He avoids connecting the interpretative process to any eschatological system (13) or theological system (369). Instead of forcing the prophets into a false mold, VanGemeren has provided us with a hermeneutic that allows the prophets to speak for themselves, from within their context as well as from within the larger biblical theological framework. From this position the author allows the prophets to speak from their own intent and yet with application to today’s readers.

He begins the process of establishing this position by defining for us what prophetism is, how it came to be, and why the interpretation of the prophets must be read from within their original context (as opposed to imposing our culture on the text and reading it in lieu of the 21st century) (Part 1). Understanding the text for interpretation requires an “understanding of the social world of Israel and a sensitivity to God’s accommodation to human language and images” (75). This also requires understanding the literary forms used by each of the authors, such as metaphor, imagery, poetry, etc. Specifically VanGemeren highlights the authors’ use of both oracles of judgment and salvation (78-79). He argues that when we understand the prophetic words as words of promise, whose fulfillment is progressive, and when we understand them in lieu of the covenants (where there resides both blessing and cursing), then we are closer to understanding their original meaning (79-85). With a clearer interpretation, then, we are now ready to articulate an application from the text for contemporary readers.

Though the books are prophetic, VanGemeren argues that a more broad understanding of the term eschatology can open up the application of the prophets for the Christian. VanGemeren defines the term as follows: biblical teaching which gives humans a new perspective on their age and a framework for living in hope of a new age (88). With this definition in mind he points out that “the whole Bible is eschatological” and that since the prophets, specifically, “announce the closure of one era and the opening of a new era” Christians today can find genuine parallels to their lives. Picking up on the heels of the eschatological studies of George E. Ladd, VanGemeren argues that we too live between the old age and the hope to come and therefore we live in the same eschatology as the original audience of the prophets and their words have bearing on us too.

This broader definition of eschatology gives ground and solid support to VanGemeren’s overall hermeneutic, and it is his hermeneutic that is the most significant part of the work. For far too long the prophets have either remained silent in the church or have been used to support an eschatological view that has little or nothing to do with contemporary Christians and their day-to-day lives. VanGemeren has highlighted just how applicable their teachings are for us today and how beneficial their words our for our souls and our ears. We, like the original audience, need to be reminded that God does not tolerate the breaking of his covenant. We like the remnant need to be reminded that our hope is yet to come and it is greater than any suffering we face in this life. We live in an age very similar to that of the prophets and their words to Israel of judgment and salvation are words for us.

Conclusion

Willem VanGemeren presents his case well and even despite the overabundance of technical terminology the book is very readable. He explains his terminology well enough and gives enough discussion to allow readers to catch up if they get temporarily lost in the academia of the subject at hand. He displays his expertise, then, not only in his discussion of the subjects but in his ability to make them accessible to those not especially aware of Old Testament prophetic studies. Overall I found myself convinced by his hermeneutic and excited by the possibility of reading, understanding, and applying the Old Testament prophets for my life.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: