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Interpreting the Prophetic Books: An Exegetical Handbook

Author: Gary V Smith
Published By: Kregel Publications / Alban Books (Grand Rapids, Michigan)
Pages: 149
Price: £16.95
ISBN: 978 0 82544 3633

Reviewed by Richard Dormandy.

This is a straightforward and workmanlike introduction to the Prophets. It has some very useful material, although the style is more that of a workshop manual than an inspiration. There are one or two oddities and some aspects which many will find frustratingly simplistic, but there are plenty of positives.

After a survey of prophetic genres and the nature of prophetic literature, Smith offers a brief summary of each of the prophetic books. This is fine, but it doesn’t go much further than what you might read at beginning of each book in a good Study Bible. There is limited acknowledgement that not all scholars accept the unity of Isaiah, but it is assumed that ‘evangelical’ scholars take a conservative view - that’s not always so!

Chapter 3, ‘Preparing for Interpretation’, has a very useful table of the prophets combined with the succession of kings (from a conservative viewpoint, of course). It concludes with a Commentary list which includes perspectives different from his own. What would have made this even more useful would have been a sentence comment here and there, where a commentary was particularly commendable. It would also have been useful to have some more radical viewpoints, such as feminist, narrative, socio-political etc. - they do exist!

Chapter 4, ‘Interpretative Issues’, is a judicious survey, and includes a summary of some of the ways in which prophetic texts are understood to have been fulfilled in the New Testament. The idea that the text may have taken on a meaning quite unknown to its original speaker seems to present quite a major problem, but it’s one that I can’t get too exercised about. For me, one of the great wonders of Scripture is that it continues to speak far beyond the intentions of the original author - a fact which is true of all great texts.

Chapter 5 offers some down-to earth, nuts & bolts advice on how to preach from the prophets. However, if you had all the books in this series, and they were all working to the same brief, would there not be a lot of overlap at this point? I can’t help thinking that it would be better to learn the principles of preaching elsewhere, and make better use of the available pages in this book by focusing on, for example, the characters of the prophets, and other aspects that would capture the imagination.

Finally, what grated was an occasional Sunday School simplisticism. For example, in an otherwise helpful summary of the basic principles of textual criticism, he says, “It is important to make sure that the text chosen to study has the exact reading that the prophets wrote when the Spirit inspired them.” (p.98) Well, if that’s the aim we really may as well give up now! We can’t possibly know if it is exact, but we hear the Word of God in faith that God will speak through it.

And the oddity? Well, this book is clearly for beginners, yet in the opening chapter, he quotes in Hebrew script on a number of occasions. What is the point of this? Anyone who knew Hebrew would probably not need this book, while anyone who did need it would not make sense of the Hebrew! Transliterated Hebrew would have been preferable, if it was being used at all.

Would I recommend this book? It’s sound; it’s useful; it’s a start; it’s helpful; it could have been more inspiring; it feels a little over-priced.

Richard Dormandy

Vicar, Holy Trinity, Tulse Hill, South London

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You are reading Issue 64 of Ministry Today, published in July 2015.

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