Gentry, Peter. How to Read & Understand the Biblical Prophets. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017, 141 pp., $17.99, paperback.
The prophetic books of the Old Testament are often neglected or misinterpreted by the typical Christian due to the difficulty to understand them. Peter Gentry has written this short primer—How to Read & Understand the Biblical Prophets—to equip the average Christian with a better understanding of how Hebrew prophetic literature works and, thus, how the biblical prophets ought to be read and interpreted. Gentry is professor of Old Testament at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, the coauthor of Kingdom through Covenant, author of many articles, and the director of the Hexapla Institute.
Through seven chapters, Gentry explains various aspects of the prophetic genre illustrated throughout with examples from the biblical prophets. In the first chapter, Gentry argues that the bulk of the content of the prophets has little to do with predicting the future but, rather, is concerned with calling the people of God back to the covenant of God—primarily using the language of the book of Deuteronomy (p. 30). Chapter two, then, surveys the genuine predictive statements of the prophets. Gentry shows that even these predictions of coming judgement and future restoration are still based on the Sinai covenant, for covenant violation leads to judgment (p. 40). He also explains that an important purpose of the prophetic predictions is that they allow for God himself to interpret the coming exile (p. 37) and restoration. For example, the restoration will involve a physical return and a spiritual return from exile (p. 39).
Chapter three surveys the form of the prophetic message, in which Gentry describes the literary function of repetition in Hebrew literature (p. 44), word pairs (e.g. ḥesed and ‘ĕmet, 46), and chiasms (p. 47). He then illustrates how this recursive nature of Hebrew literature functions also at the macro level by showing that the literary structure of the book of Isaiah reveals that Isaiah tells the same message—the transformation of Zion—seven times from different angles (pp. 51–55). Gentry, in chapter four, argues that the Oracles against the Nations, have their genesis in the Song of Moses in Deuteronomy 32 (p. 60) and that hope is extended to these nations to find their salvation within Zion (p. 65).
The final three chapters each look at different ways the prophets describe the future. Chapter five examines the prophetic use of typology to depict a New Exodus. Gentry defines typology as that which meets four criteria: (i) correspondence between people, places, etc., (p. 2) escalation from type to antitype, (iii) biblical warrant, and (iv) development of type coinciding with the progression of the biblical covenants (pp. 90–91). Chapter six tackles the apocalyptic, understanding it as both a genre and a literary type found within other genres (p. 101). Chapter seven describes the so-called “already-not-yet” as unveiled by the New Testament authors’ use of the Old Testament. The book then concludes with a brief appendix on the book of Revelation.
It appears to be a central concern of Gentry to disprove the wide-spread purported “literal” reading of the prophets and to provide an alternative reading method. In the chapter on typology he “bluntly” addresses the issue of alleged literal interpretation (p. 85) and in the conclusion to the book writes:
The debate between literal interpretation and spiritual interpretation is entirely bogus. When the Reformers talked about the “literal sense” of the text, they meant the meaning intended by the author according to the rules of the genre of literature being used to communicate the message. (p. 124, italics original)
Gentry’s aim, therefore, is to begin to explain these “rules” of Hebrew literature. Relatedly, Gentry also argues against a strict chronological reading of the prophets. He supports this argument by showing how the New Testament authors use the same text (Zech 12:10) to refer to different periods of time (p. 122). Additionally, it appears that the chief purpose of the appendix on Revelation is also to show how John employs the recursive nature of Hebrew literature which thus precludes a strict chronological reading (p. 128). Those raised within the tradition which puts forward this so-called “literal” reading as the touchstone of orthodoxy will certainly be challenged as they interact with Gentry’s level-headed and exegetically sound alternative reading method.
Many significant insights from Gentry’s years of studying the Hebrew literature and the prophets are peppered throughout the book. Some such insights significantly impact other critical issues on the prophets but were not further developed in the book. For example, Gentry argues that repetition is “how a single author communicates” in Hebrew (p. 44), thus critiquing those who would argue repetitions evidence different sources. Similarly, Gentry argues that prophets predicted the near future and the distant future so that when their near-future prophecies came true the prophet would be validated (Deut 18) regarding his distant-future prophecies (pp. 34, 74). This understanding of Hebrew literature implicitly challenges those who would argue that distant prophecies were in fact later additions, vaticinium ex eventu. Granted, it was not the intent of the book to address critical issues, but the aware reader will benefit from these perceptive statements recognizing their larger implications than those explicitly mentioned in the book.
The average Christian may at times find themselves struggling with the amount of technical terms within the book. When Gentry introduces a term, like hendiadys, he does provide a definition (e.g. p. 22) but, since the book is short and contains a number of potentially new concepts, the uninitiated may feel disoriented. This is not so much a critique of the book, but a disclaimer for the novice interpreter combined with a call to press on, labor hard, and develop the important skill of interpreting God’s Word by learning from a master builder like Gentry.
One sad omission, however, is any extensive explanation from Gentry on how to discern the literary structure of a passage or a book. It is not as if literary structures are not important to Gentry, quite the opposite. He claims the “literary structure is the key to correct interpretation” (28) and “teaching must be more than communicating the content of the text; we must explain the form and show how this carries the meaning” (p. 106), and he provides numerous literary structures of texts throughout the book (e.g. pp. 20, 52, 56, 61, 66–69, 72–74, 79–80, 86, 95, 106). Yet the closest the book comes to a detailed explanation on how to derive the literary structure of a text is the mention of the methodology of M. P. O’Connor for Hebrew poetry and also discourse grammar, methods not for the beginner (p. 60). Yet, the ardent reader may be able to pick up clues from the literary structures provided by Gentry to begin determining literary structures on their own.
How to Read & Understand the Biblical Prophets is essentially a book on the nature of Hebrew literature and the appropriate hermeneutical tools required for accurately interpreting the prophets. It is written at a popular level to instruct the beginner while also offering correction for the seasoned interpreter. It fills an important gap in the literature since most hermeneutical or Hebrew literature textbooks are too complex for the common reader, and most books on the prophets cover only the content of the prophets rather than how to read them (though see Chalmers recent work Interpreting the Prophets which has a similar goal to Gentry, yet both have different emphases and complement each other). This book is recommended as an excellent, thoroughly biblical, erudite, yet down-to-earth and practical handbook for all those wanting to learn how to properly read the biblical prophets.
Immanuel Baptist Church, KY