Reviewed by Alex Gowler
For many students of the Bible, the world of Old Testament prophecy feels like a vast and unfamiliar landscape. Not only does our uncertainty of the prophets’ historical context frustrate our attempts at interpretation, but the symbolic and poetic nature of prophecy also tends to bring less clarity and more confusion to our exegesis. What we need is a guide familiar enough with the prophetic world to be able to navigate the terrain and teach us to do likewise. Aaron Chalmers seeks to fulfill this role in his new book, Interpreting the Prophets.
Chalmers teaches Old Testament and hermeneutics at Tabor Adelaide, a multidenominational, evangelical college in Adelaide, Australia where he also serves as head of the School of Ministry, Theology and Culture. Chalmers has a passion for helping Christians engage with the Hebrew Scriptures, a passion which infuses his work. His first book, Exploring the Religion of Ancient Israel (2013), is an introduction to the religious and social world of the Israelites. It discusses both the major religious offices of the Old Testament as well as the beliefs and practices of the common people. Interpreting the Prophets is his second book, focusing on the historical role of the Old Testament prophets and the lasting significance of their works.
Chalmers states that his motivation for writing Interpreting the Prophets stemmed from his frustration at being unable to find a textbook that would equip his students to engage independently with the prophetic literature (xi). Rather than detailing the content of each prophetic book, he sets out “to equip readers with the knowledge and skills they need to be competent and faithful interpreters of the prophetic books themselves” (2). He does this by acquainting readers with the various contextual “worlds” within which the prophets ministered, taking time to explain how those worlds influence one’s understanding of the prophetic books.
Chalmers begins in chapter one by outlining the characteristics which identify the Old Testament prophets. He emphasizes their role as both recipients of God’s revelation and mediators of that revelation to God’s people. The author makes a distinction between the historical prophets and the books associated with them, outlining the process by which their oral proclamations were eventually written down and later collected into cohesive documents. The books of Jeremiah and Isaiah are posited as evidence for this process which, if accurate, should challenge modern evangelicals’ ideas about the locus of inspiration: does inspiration rest with the prophetic author or in the resultant prophetic literature?
In chapter two, Chalmers provides the reader with a chronological overview of the historical world in which the prophets first delivered their messages. Beginning in the 8th Century BC, he weaves the ministry of the prophets into the political and social realities of Israel, Judah, and neighboring nations, ending with the close of the “classical” prophetic period in Malachi. The chapter has an almost narrative tone to it, bringing a certain vividness to the prophets’ ministry and their distinctive historical contexts that simple timelines fail to convey. This presentation helps the reader situate each prophet within the unique issues and events of his day.
The author moves from the historical world of the prophets to the theological world in chapter three. He introduces readers to the basic theological frameworks through which the prophets would have communicated and been interpreted. The first is the Sinai (or “Mosaic”) covenant which stipulated the terms of relationship between God and the Israelites. The terms of this covenant informed the indictments and exhortations which the prophets brought to God’s people, as well as their hope of eventual restoration. The second theological framework is the Zion covenant made between God and David. This covenant not only established God as the ultimate ruler of Jerusalem, but also identified the Davidic king as God’ vice-regent. When David’s line failed, the prophets drew on the Zion tradition to articulate the messianic and eschatological expectations of God’s people.
Chalmers moves to the world of rhetoric in chapter four. He explains how an understanding of the rhetorical structure and purpose of individual prophetic units aids the task of interpretation by allowing the author to follow the contours of the prophet’s overall message. The author also provides explanations and examples of rhetorical features such as metaphor and Hebrew parallelism, as well as the literary devices of metonymy, synecdoche, hyperbole, hendiadys, and merism. The succinct and organized nature of this chapter makes it great reference for any exegete.
In chapter five, Chalmers discusses the similarities and differences between prophecy and apocalyptic literature. He identifies prophetic and apocalyptic literature as the two ends of a spectrum, the latter being characterized primarily by visionary experiences, angelic mediators, a narrative framework and an eschatological focus. Additionally, whereas prophetic literature may have many purposes, the primary purpose of apocalyptic literature is to encourage readers to persevere in the midst of hardship. The prophets presupposed that divine judgment was contingent upon a certain response from their audience, but the events in apocalyptic literature are depicted as unavoidable: the only response for God’s people was remain faithful as the future ran its course.
Chalmers brings his work to a close with a discussion of how to move from interpreting the prophets to preaching the prophets. He places particular emphasis on the selection of appropriate texts so as to avoid misappropriation of the prophet’s original message. In this way, Chalmers’ brings his work full circle: the ancient proclamations of God’s messengers are brought to bear once again on His people.
Taken as a whole, Interpreting the Prophets is like a guided tour through the strange and often misunderstood world of Old Testament prophecy. The itinerary is clear (the detailed table of contents proves the book’s meticulous arrangement!) and Chalmers skillfully directs readers to the most significant elements of his subject while explaining their significance in a way that is both informed and understandable. Citations of relevant Scripture abound, and each chapter ends with practical guidelines for interpretation, warnings against potential interpretive faux pas, and suggestions for further study.
If there is any downside to Chalmers’ work, it is that there is plenty of potential for the reader to get sidetracked. The author includes a fair amount of “offline” information throughout the book which takes the form of images and “call-out” boxes embedded within the main text. The positive contribution of this material is that the images add more dimension to the main text while the “call-out” boxes provide deeper discussion on the topic at hand. While these elements can spark interest and direct further study, it can also distract readers from the author’s mainline material due to the frequency of occurrence and placement within the body of the main text.
Additionally, readers from conservative evangelical traditions might find Chalmers’ somewhat agnostic stance towards the authorship of the prophetic books to be an obstacle. While he is able to articulate both the conservative evangelical position on the prophetic literature’s compositional process (29) as well as that of critical biblical scholarship (29-31), he does not advocate for either position. That Chalmers is not afraid to allow material from critical biblical scholarship to inform his interpretations is evidenced by his comments on the composition of Jeremiah and Isaiah (30-31) and the role of hyperbole in the prophets’ judgment and salvation oracles (115-116). However, he also holds that “[the interpreter’s] primary focus should be on exegeting the text in its final, completed form, rather than trying to explain the exact process by which this came into being” (31). Keeping this in mind will help readers be aware of when Chalmers is explaining a certain interpretive perspective and when he is drawing his own distinctive conclusions.
Overall, the journey through Interpreting the Prophets is a worthy one. Students will benefit from the foundational and introductory nature of the book while pastors will be glad to have such a concise and clearly laid out reference work at hand. Those who can stick to the path, steering clear of both distractions and obstacles, will greatly benefit from the tools that Chalmers seeks to equip his readers with as they strive to appropriate the message of the prophets for today’s world.
Alex Gowler is the Spiritual Formation Director at Alpine Chapel. He currently enrolled in the Master of Divinity at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
Buy the books
Interpreting The Prophets: Reading, Understanding And Preaching From The Worlds Of The Prophets