Reviewed by Johnson Pang
The Old Testament is often overlooked in the pastorate. How much more so the prophets! Their ecstatic utterances, symbolic actions, and perplexing visions can lead the frazzled duty-laden pastor toward the lower hanging fruit of the New Testament. Aaron Chalmers sounds the call to give attention to the “awe-inspiring, confronting and compelling passages” (1) of the prophetic corpus. In Interpreting the Prophets Chalmers desires to provide a basic conceptual framework out of which one can interpret and preach the prophets with competence and faithfulness.
Aaron Chalmers is the head of the School of Ministry, Theology and Culture at Tabor Adelaide in Adelaide, Australia. Chalmers regularly teaches on the prophets and had not found a suitable textbook for his students so he decided to write his own. Rather than key in on introductory matter, key themes, or the structure of various books, Chalmers chooses to focus on both the knowledge and skills required to read the prophets well. His work is fueled by a passion for students to “read these wonderful, life-changing books for themselves” (xi).
The book is structured around three key themes, or “worlds”: (1) the historical world; (2) the theological world; and (3) the rhetorical world of the prophets. They comprise the main chapters of the book (chs. 2–4), flanked by an introductory chapter on defining what a prophet and prophetic book is (ch. 1) and also a chapter on apocalyptic literature (ch. 5). Chalmers then closes with some guidelines for preaching the prophets (ch. 6).
The burden of the first chapter is to define what a prophet is and then in turn what a prophetic book is. After considering modern notions of a prophet Chalmers defines a prophet according to the OT largely by surveying the role and functions of an OT prophet (e.g. member of the divine council [1 Kgs 22:19–23], communicates the Word of God, an intercessor). He then leads the reader to consider how prophecy moved from oral words to written words, from written words to collected words, and then from collected words to prophetic book.
The historical world of the prophets is explored (ch. 2) through delineating three key phases in Israel’s history marked by three events: (1) the fall of the northern kingdom, (2) the fall of the southern kingdom, and (3) the end of classical prophecy with Malachi. In each phase Chalmers provides a summary chart outlining key historical figures, key events and developments, and the prophets of that time (37, 47, 54). Chalmers also draws attention to the larger geopolitical events of Israel’s neighbors, and he presents relevant data from archaeology, historical studies, and social science (e.g. anthropology, 55).
The theological world of the prophets (ch. 3) includes the “beliefs, ideologies and assumptions, especially regarding God, the Israelite people and the Israelite King” (67) which would have shaped the prophets’ messages. Chalmers identifies two key traditions important for interpreting the prophets: (1) “Sinai and the establishment of a covenant between the Lord and the Israelite people,” and (2) “Zion and the establishment of a covenant between the Lord and David (and his descendants)” (68). It is these two traditions to which the prophets regularly pointed, both to ground their judgments and demands and also as basis for their future eschatological hopes.
Chapter four, the rhetorical world of the prophets, considers the method of the prophets: how they communicated. Chalmers does this by first discussing the rhetorical structure of prophetic units, including how to identify them and a survey of “key prophetic forms” (100). Second he analyzes various rhetorical features of Hebrew poetry and some of the literary and rhetorical devices a prophet may employ.
The concluding two chapters of Chalmers’ work covers apocalyptic literature and how to preach the prophets. Chalmers describes apocalyptic as a subset of prophecy and calls it “prophecy on steroids” (121). He builds on Grant Osborne’s definition of apocalyptic literature (The Hermeneutical Spiral) and elaborates on how apocalyptic is different than prophecy. Chalmers closes the book with specific advice on preaching the prophets, identifying problematic approaches and common pitfalls while providing positive guidelines and furnishing specific examples.
A major strength of this book is Chalmers’ presentation. Writing a work that enables a student to actually interpret and preach from the prophets is no easy task. One can imagine the options: on the one hand a long, exhaustive (and exhausting!) work that covers every aspect, and on the other a short, introductory work that can only pique interest but not actually equip the reader. Chalmers is able to keep it short, make it eminently accessible, and yet provide substantial information.
Chapter by chapter, Chalmers consistently defines his terms and makes clear how he is going to tackle each issue while ably demonstrating why it is important. He does not shy away from difficulties (e.g. the differing versions of the Septuagint Jeremiah, 30) and fairly represents both critical and conservative scholarship (e.g. dating of Isaiah or Daniel, pp. 27–28, 61). The formatting of the work itself is user-friendly, with pictures and charts strewn throughout. Chalmers regularly inserts “asides” giving further information to sometimes peripheral but important issues the reader may not be aware of. He incorporates insights from archaeology and provides numerous pictures and specific examples.
Another strength of Chalmers’ book is how practical it is. In the chapters on the historical and theological world of the prophets Chalmers not only gives a conceptual framework but provides specific guidelines for interpreters to analyze the prophets for themselves. He informs the reader what elements in the text to identify, even what theological dictionaries to consult (87). Each chapter provides resources for further reading. One can tell that Chalmers’ is an educator and that his students must be well served.
This reviewer can quibble over which theological emphases should have been included in the thought-world of the prophets (where is mention of the Abrahamic Covenant?), but one major issue must be pointed out. Chalmers clearly embraces the methods of critical scholarship and also some of its assumptions and in the process throws doubt upon the veracity of Scripture. Aside from historical critical views on the issue of Isaianic authorship (27–28, 31, 54), and in addition to questioning the historical reliability of Chronicles (62), Chalmers suggests that Assyrian historical records might be correct over and against the biblical record. In Isaiah 36–37 and 2 Kings 18–19 the Scriptures report that the angel of the Lord struck down the Assyrians. Chalmers points out how Assyrian records attribute the withdrawal of Assyrian forces to Hezekiah paying tribute. As a result Chalmers says the precise reason for Jerusalem being spared remains “unclear.” Chalmers leaves the interpretation open as to which account is actually correct (47). If the reliability of the biblical account is cast into question then Chalmers’ work will not go very far in helping readers faithfully interpret the prophets.
In light of the above, Chalmers’ work can still be helpful. In spite of the influence of critical scholarship, Chalmers’ advice is to focus on the final form of the text and his practical guidelines follow suit. There is a lot of information packed into a small book with much practical help.
Johnson Pang is a PhD candidate at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Buy the books
Interpreting The Prophets: Reading, Understanding And Preaching From The Worlds Of The Prophets