The Old Testament Prophets are perhaps not quite foreign to most Christians, but they are not usually the most familiar parts of the Bible to us either. And so it’s a happy occasion when a little book like this comes along to introduce the prophets to us again.
Hi, I’m Fred Zaspel, editor here at Books At a Glance, and I’m talking about Peter Gentry’s new book, How to Read and Understand the Biblical Prophets, and Dr. Gentry is here to talk about it with us.
Peter, welcome, and congratulations on your new book!
What was the role of the Old Testament prophets, both in their historical setting and in the canon?
Well, there are a number of roles that they play. First of all they were calling the people back to the covenant. God created the world and everything went down the tubes pretty quickly. He made a brand-new start with Noah and that went down the tubes pretty quickly. Then he made a new start with Abraham and with his family, which turned into the nation of Israel. When God brought Israel out of Egypt and into the desert at Sinai, he made a covenant with them. And they became like husband and wife—a covenant is a permanent relationship with very serious commitments. What can happen in a marriage relationship is that the loyalty of one of the partners or both of the partners may flag over time, and God had given this covenant to them because he had delivered them out of Egypt.
So it was not given to them in order to redeem them, but it was given to them to show how to live in the land, to have a right relationship with God, to treat each other in truly human ways and to treat the earth as good stewards of the earth’s resources. This was designed for their blessing, and before the covenant was even finalized, they broke it and they were offering sacrifices to idols and looking to other means and ways to guarantee the good life for themselves. So one of the main reasons for the prophets is to bring the people back to the covenant.
We have to ask ourselves the question, why did the early prophets not write anything down? Why was it only the later prophets that wrote things down? And that is because after 400 years had passed the covenant relationship was at a breaking point. The marriage was at an end, so to speak, and the only thing for God to do was to keep his threats. The biggest curse or threat in the covenant was to kick them out of the land—was exile. So they were exiled to Babylon. But the interesting part of the story is that judgment is not the end of the story, restoration is the end of the story. God wanted the prophets to write things down so that when they arrived in Babylon they would not draw the wrong conclusions, they would not say, “the reason we are in exile is because the gods of Babylon were bigger and better than Yahweh. We are in Babylon because we broke the covenant with Yahweh and this is our judgment and our punishment for breaking the covenant.” God had the prophets write these things down so that later generations would be instructed, not only about his judgment but about restoration. And the prophets described the restoration of all things. The coming King—they didn’t realize that the coming of the King was divided into a first coming and a second coming, but the coming of the King; the role of the King in dying sacrificially to restore the broken covenant; to bring about the forgiveness of sins; to rebuild the Temple, which was not a physical building but a building constructed of people; and to bring about the fact that God could live once more in the midst of his people as King. So the vision of the prophets takes us to the very end of time.
To many people the prophets’ oracles against the nations around Israel seem rather distant and of little contemporary relevance. If that’s what we’re thinking, tell us what we’re missing.
Every prophet has long sections that deal with the foreign nations, the nations surrounding Israel. In Isaiah there’s a long section—chapters 13-27; there’s a long section in Jeremiah; there’s a long section in Ezekiel. Some of the books in the 12 Prophets are directed specifically to foreign nations like Obadiah and Nahum and Jonah going to the Ninevites, and so on. So there’s a lot in there about the foreign nations. Sometimes they are called the oracles against the foreign nations; I think they should be called oracles concerning the foreign nations. Because it shows us two things – that the God of Israel is the creator God and he’s the king, the ruler, the sovereign over the whole world. So he’s not just the God of Israel, he’s the God of all the nations. He requires all of the nations to recognize his sovereignty. And he’s inviting all the nations to turn from their pride and to find salvation in Israel’s King. This is really too much for them to ask because it’s like God saying to a country like the United States or China or Russia, “there’s a king in Liechtenstein, if you turn to him you will be saved.” And I’m sure this would be an unbelievable message but it’s true and it goes back to Deuteronomy 32 which lays out the program for the rest of the Old Testament and shows that Israel will end up by violating the covenant. God will judge them and send them into exile, but God does not want the foreign nations to conclude that they conquered Israel because their gods were bigger and better than the God of Israel. And God has to humble the nations, bring them to realize his sovereignty and he has to restore Israel for the sake of his own character and glory and name.
A big question here, but just in broad terms, how are the Old Testament prophets and their prophecies understood by the New Testament writers?
I want to say two things here. First of all, the book is not called How to Read and Understand the Old Testament Prophets. It’s called How to Read and Understand the Biblical Prophets because there are prophets in the New Testament, particularly the book of Revelation. What a lot of people don’t understand is that John is operating in the same attitude and mode and manner of thinking as an Old Testament prophet. Part of what I say in the book is that the Bible is like the newspaper of a big city like Chicago or New York or Toronto. There are different sections, there’s the front page and then there’s the business section, economics, leisure, theater, travel, culture, fashion, and then there’s the comics. I asked the question, “is there truth on the front page and no truth in the comics?” And the answer is, “well, there may be more truth in the comics than there is in the front page, it’s just a different method of communicating.” And when people today turn the page to the comics they don’t even think to themselves, “well, now I have to change the rules of interpretation and read these texts differently.” When Christians read the Bible they are turning from Romans to the prophets of the Old Testament and they are reading the prophets of the Old Testament exactly the way they read Romans, and this is a huge mistake. It’s a completely different kind of literature; it has different rules; it has to be read more like the comics than Romans or narrative literature or the Gospels.
The other part of it is that with the coming of Jesus, Jesus and the apostles taught us that the coming of the King is in two parts. There’s the first coming and the second coming. And the first coming is the coming to bring the exiles home, to bring them back to a covenant relationship with God. Not only Jewish exiles, but Gentile exiles. Jeremiah chapter 12 says that not only will Israel have an exile but every nation will have an exile. And God will not only bring the Jewish exiles home, he will bring the Gentile exiles back. And if they acknowledge the God of Israel they will be delivered and rescued and saved and built in the middle of Israel, they will become part of Israel. But if they reject the God of Israel, they will perish forever.
The problem in the New Testament is that the New Testament authors help us to understand when the prophets of the Old Testament are speaking about the first coming and when they are speaking about the second coming. The Old Testament prophets saw things in dreams and visions and they painted a big panoramic picture. They put it all into one big picture and they did not distinguish the first coming from the second coming. The apostle Peter tells us that the prophets were trying to figure out what or what manner of time the spirit of Christ that was in them was referring to when he referred to the sufferings of the coming King and the glories that would follow. An Old Testament prophet can talk about the first coming in one breath, in the first half of a sentence and in the second half he can talk about the second coming. An example would be Zechariah chapter 12, “they will look on me, on him whom they have pierced and they will mourn for him as one mourns for an only son.” And in the New Testament, in the Gospel of John, John says, “they will look on him whom they had pierced” refers to Jesus dying on the cross. And then in the book of Revelation, when Jesus comes again, this is when they will mourn as one mourns for an only son. So there’s 2000 years between the first half of the verse and the second half of the verse. It just shows that the prophets were given access to the heavenly court, they saw things, they recorded the pictures, they recorded it into one big panoramic tableau, but there’s no chronological distinction and the authors of the New Testament help us distinguish between what applies to what has already occurred in the first coming, and what has not yet occurred because we’re waiting for the second coming of Christ.
Tell us about your book—maybe a brief overview. What are you hoping to contribute?
I’ve attempted to write this book in a popular style. Most people do not know my scholarly writings. The first popular book that I wrote was the book with Dr. Wellum, Kingdom Through Covenant and many did not consider that popular, but I’ve tried to make this a really popular book, a book that can be understood by anyone. I’m not trying to tell people what their eschatology should be, I’m not trying to tell them what will happen at the end. I’m simply trying to tell them the rules for reading Hebrew literature. I lay out seven rules, seven principles for interpreting these texts. I’m describing for a person who does not understand how to read the comics and the newspapers in the Western world, the principles of this kind of literature and how you read these texts. With the hope that the average Christian will be able to go back to these books—Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and The Twelve Prophets and Daniel and even Revelation—and they will know how to read them. The problem with Christians today is they are fascinated by the book of Revelation, they want to understand it, but they haven’t got a clue how this literature works. It communicates in a completely different manner from literature in the Western world. So I’m hoping that it will help the average believer learn how to read these texts for themselves. And then hopefully, they will come to the right conclusions.
We’re talking to Dr. Peter Gentry about his new book, How to Read and Understand the Biblical Prophets. It’s an excellent introduction to understanding this important portion of the Scriptures, and we’re happy to recommend it heartily. If you’re not familiar with the Old Testament prophets this is a great place to start.
Peter, thanks so much – great to have you with us today.
Thank you so much.