A Book Review from Books At A Glance
by Brandon D. Myers
“Prophecy is something with which most people are either obsessed ad nauseum or about which they feel so inadequate they avoid it altogether…Prophecy is in many respects the flesh and bones of biblical revelation…Understanding prophecy is essential for understanding the message of the entire Bible” (p. 17). These claims are made by New Testament professors Alan Bandy (New Testament Chair at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary) and Benjamin L. Merkle (Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in North Carolina). Their book is written with an aim “not merely to explain various ‘prophetic’ texts but to primarily give the reader a framework of how to interpret any passage in the context of the bible” (p. 9)
The authors were interviewed about their book by Fred Zaspel of Books at a Glance and the transcript can be accessed here.
The book contains ten chapters and a conclusion divided into three parts (Part 1: Introducing Biblical Prophecy; Part 2: Old Testament Prophecies; Part 3: New Testament Prophecies) with Appendixes that detail their different interpretations of two key sections of Scripture (What is meant by “All Israel” in Romans 11:26 and the meaning of the Millennium in Romans 20). Bandy (a historic premillennialist) and Merkle (an amillennialist).
Chapter 1 (“Keys to Understanding Prophecy”) works through the relationship between what many commonly think of when they hear the word “prophecy”: namely prophecies relationship to eschatology (“the theology of last things”). The chapter briefly overviews G.B.Caird and N.T. Wright’s work on eschatology, and Bandy and Merkle note, “to say something is eschatological does not necessarily imply a future event; it may more accurately describe a present reality” (e.g. eternal life in John 3:16 and 11:25) (p. 18-19). They reject simple one-size-fits-all answers (p. 20) and then walk through how to understand prophecy: within the story of Scripture and Redemptive History; as Gospel-Centered and Christocentric; as thematic; as progressive revelation; and as historically conditioned and applicable (p. 20-34).
Chapter 2 (“What is Biblical Prophecy?”) explains how biblical prophecy is primarily “forth-telling” (p. 39) and details what an Old Testament prophet’s ministry was. Bandy and Merkle note “out of all biblical prophecy only a relatively small percentage pertains to events still yet to come in the future“ (p. 38) and give the example of Moses who “is not always thought of as a prophet…actually represents the prototype of all biblical prophets that every prophet was like in many ways” (p. 41-43). Next, they walk through the other prophets’ content and the structure of their messages especially as it relates to the covenant. They follow this with a discussion of prophecy as poetry and prose in relation to apocalyptic writings. The chapter closes with a fair critique of a popular dispensational hermeneutic before seeking to correct and clarify the relationship between prophecy and its challenging relationship to symbolism (engaging and drawing on the work of theologians Kevin Vanhoozer and Greg Beale p. 57-60).
Chapter 3 defines what Biblical Theology is and argues that the Bible is “God’s Word with a unified message is centered upon Jesus as the climax of redemptive history” (p.67-82). Here the authors draw heavily from many texts of Scripture itself and outline and elaborate on Graeme Goldsworthy’s different ways to view revelation (Literalism, Allegory, and Typology).
Chapter 4 begins Part 2 (Old Testament Prophecies) by introducing three different kinds of OT prophecies (Unconditional, Conditional, and Fulfilled Prophecies). Walking through some numbers and data in Old Testament they demonstrate these different kinds of prophecies (directed for Israel or for a future time) and then move into Chapter 5’s related discussion (Restoration Prophecies) of whether Old Testament prophecies to restore Israel should be taken literally or symbolically. Bandy and Merkle point out “restoration prophecies given to Israel are ultimately fulfilled in the Messiah” (p. 107) and offer a helpful corrective to wooden literalism by looking at a few examples of OT prophecy and how they are fulfilled in Christ (in addition to/or at times rather than) Israel.
Specifically helpful was when they briefly engage the inner and deeper nature of true circumcision, true sacrifice, and true fasting (according to the Bible) and offer guidance for how to interpret prophecies symbolically. They conclude “a literalistic interpretation does not do justice to the genre of biblical prophecy…affirming that the restored people of Israel will rebuild the temple, reinstate the priesthood, and restore animal sacrifices, seems to minimize the work complete and perfect work of Christ” (123).
Chapter 6 (Messianic Prophecies) works through “messianic texts that relate to Jesus as prophet, priest and king” (125) and in pretty thorough detail helpfully respond to some of the key objections to these messianic texts. The authors provide helpful categories of direct predictions fulfilled (i.e. only the life and ministry of Jesus) and immediate partial or typological fulfillment (149).
Chapter 7 (Prophecies Regarding the Coming of the Messiah) is the start of Part 3 (New Testament Prophecies) which might seem a little redundant in that it covers the Jesus as prophet territory again. Yet here the authors briefly first discuss why intertestamental writings were not and are not authoritative and discuss the important role of John the Baptist—the forerunner of the Messiah. According to Bandy and Merkle, the Message of the Messiah is especially summarized under Jesus as Prophet, the Kingdom of God and the Farewell Discourse of John 13-17. Under Jesus as prophet, the authors give six lines of evidence confirming the prophetic role of Jesus (160-161).
The chapter closes with a helpful discussion on The Spirit of the Messiah highlighting the new covenant age of the promised Spirit. They provide a short but fair critique of “the traditional Pentecostal” interpretation/understanding of a “second blessing” from the Holy Spirit and the “baptism of the Holy Spirit” by arguing “the situation of the disciples was unique because they lived in a transition period in redemptive history” and by connecting “the reception of the Spirit [as more vitally] linked with acceptance into the people of God” (167-170).
Chapter 8 (Prophecies Regarding the Return of the Messiah-Part 1: The Gospels and Acts) tackles the Olivet Discourse of Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21, or what the authors refer to as perhaps “one of the most challenging portions of Scripture to interpret” (171). The authors overview the three major interpretations of these verses (1. Preterist interpretation, 2. ‘already-not yet’ interpretation, and 3. Futurist interpretation) noting the central question concerns whether Jesus’ predictions were fulfilled with the destruction of the temple or in his second coming (171). The authors argue for an ‘already not-yet’ interpretation and give four options for dividing up the passage in Matthew 24 and are very fair to highlight differences, strengths and weaknesses even within the other two interpretations wisely stating, “it is difficult to be to dogmatic about any interpretation of the text [of Matthew 24:4-44]” (179,189).
The section ends with a useful four-point outline regarding the return of King Jesus that preachers and teachers will especially benefit from. Next Bandy and Merkle take on the subject “Who will be left behind?” (i.e.‘being left behind’) through an investigation from the Old Testament (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Zephaniah, and Zechariah), Jesus teaching, and two particular texts of Scripture [Matthew 24:40-41 and Luke 17:34-35] (181-182) asserting ‘In both the Old and New Testaments, the picture of God’s judgment involves the ungodly being taken away while the righteous are left behind” (185). This pushes back against certain (ex. Dispensationalist) understandings of being left behind.
Chapter 9 (Prophecies Regarding the Return of the Messiah Part 2: The Epistles) engages the meaning of “the last days” with the authors asserting ‘without a doubt, Paul taught that we are now in the last days” and “it is also the confirmed belief of the other New Testament writers” (193-194). The authors then walk through what the epistles teach about Jesus’ return especially in relation to the three main words connected to last things that the Apostle Paul employs: 1. Coming, 2. Appearance and 3. Revelation. The authors press into particular texts including a number of controversial and interesting biblical texts arguing:
- Jesus’ return and the identity of the “man of lawlessness” in 2 Thess. 2:1-12) (with admitted reservation) “seems likely the man of lawlessness is the same person the Apostle John used to identify the ‘antichrist’ (1 John 2:18,22; 4:3; 2 John 7) and who is pictured as a beast in Revelation 13” (198).
- The Secret Rapture (alleged by some pre-tribulation proponents to be found in 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17) is to be rejected as something that “cannot be sustained form the New Testament due to five textual and contextual issues they walk through “(201-203) and according to the authors “having no evidence” for the secret rapture does not mean rejection of the imminent return of Christ (212).
- The necessity of affirming the imminent return of Christ regardless of one’s millennial view (204, 206). The authors engage texts that state that even though Scripture says events are to take place before Jesus returns (in particular 1. preaching of the gospel to all nations-Matthew. 24:14; 2. the conversion of ‘all Israel’-Romans 11:26; 3. the great tribulation and apostasy- 1 Thessalonians 2:1-3; 4. The coming of the Antichrist-2 Thessalonians 2:1-3) and represent different positions commendably.
Chapter 10 and the final chapter (Prophecies Regarding the return of the Messiah Part 3: Revelation) give an overview of the last book of the Bible (Revelation). The authors unsurprisingly adopt an eclectic approach to Revelation and make a number of helpful interpretative corrections to balance Revelation’s historical and futuristic aspects. They observe Revelation is best regarded as “prophetic-apocalyptic” (214-215) and offer seven points of helpful guidance for understanding symbolism. At the outset, they comment (pace Hal Lindsey) “symbolism in prophetic-apocalyptic texts express theological meaning directly and only indirectly points to the underlying event (216). The last section includes a discussion about the book of Revelation’s structure and content. The structure according to the authors is “an intricately interwoven literary masterpiece intended to convey a unified message” whose unity is “evident with the repeated command ‘to hear’ and ‘promised blessings for obedience” throughout John’s four visions (220-221).
As for the content of Revelation, the authors limit themselves to a packed but brief and fair examination of the following subjects: 1. The relationships between and interpretations of the seals, trumpets, and bowls (aka septets) (225-228); 2. The meaning of the 144,000 in Revelation 7:4-8 (228-232)—the authors argue for the church rather than ethnic Israel; 3. The two witnesses in Revelation 11:1-2 (232-234); and 4. The Millennium in Revelation 20:1-10 (234-239). These pages are basically overviews of the strengths and weaknesses of the differing so-called “approaches” to the book– preterist, historicist, idealist/timeless/symbolic, or futurist (224). Yet they cover a lot of ground in a little space with some great footnotes for deeper study. Postmillennialists may wish a fuller representation for their views could be given here but that was not the intended purpose of this book nor do either of these authors subscribe to that millennial view.
This book was refreshingly not technical on a topic that easily could have become technical and egg-heady. I would highly recommend it to busy pastors, bible teachers, college students, and undergraduate professors as well as Sunday School teachers who will be teaching introductory classes on biblical prophecy. It is a faithful, well-written guide on an often confusing subject (biblical prophecy). The authors detail a number of very useful interpretive tools as they walk through difficult texts in an easy-to-read fashion. My assessment is almost any average layperson in the church from an older teenager onward would also be very blessed by the vast majority of the book’s content. While it was overwhelmingly accessible and helpful there admittedly might be a few discussions that are more technical and do not necessarily require but would be helped by some prior knowledge or content familiarity.
The minor critiques I had were that: 1. At least in the copy I had, there is no bibliography or a Scripture Index at the end (though I kept looking). There are footnotes at the bottom of most pages but both of these would have been very helpful. 2. Similar to the 40 Questions About Series (Also Kregel Academic), a Reflection Question or Discussion question guide would be very helpful for a book like this. 3. Dispensationalists and Postmillennialists will likely wish more space and other stronger representations would be given to each of their respective views but Bandy and Merkle are very fair and charitable and all will be greatly blessed in Christ’s church from this book.
Dr. Alan Bandy was interviewed by Dr. Michael Heiser in 2018 on his understanding of Revelation 4-5. Pastors, professors, and curious minds may want to listen to or read the transcript of the interview.
Brandon D. Myers is Senior Pastor of The Country Church–First Baptist Church of Niles in Illinois.
Buy the books
UNDERSTANDING PROPHECY: A BIBLICAL-THEOLOGICAL APPROACH, by Alan S. Bandy and Benjamin L. Merkle