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Plowshares & Pruning Hooks: Rethinking the Language of Biblical Prophecy and Apocalyptic Paperback – November 22, 2002
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"With every new major turn of events in the Middle East, many Christians scramble for their Bibles and seek to link the prophecies of the past to the events of the present. Brent Sandy has provided for both the average Bible reader and the serious student of Scripture some careful thinking on how to approach these prophetic texts that so intrigue them. Readers will find Plowshares and Pruning Hooks both balanced and challenging. They may not agree on every point, but all of us can appreciate the call for a consistent and careful approach to prophetic texts. This book opens the door for laymen and scholar alike to a serious study of prophetic literature and its value as part of the Word of God." (David R. Plaster, Vice President for Academic Affairs, Grace College and Seminary)
"Sandy's book reflects insights gained over long years of careful research. His investigation of the use of imagery, metaphor and stylized language in connection with prophetic literature provides a much-needed correction and direction to a field that is too often plagued by speculative excesses. His command of the subject is ably demonstrated by his own use of imagery in presenting his observations and evidence of the data. This is not just another book on prophecy. It is a groundbreaking proposal that invites further scrutiny from readers of all persuasions. Geared for a general audience, laymen, pastors and scholars alike will nonetheless profit from its balanced presentation. It will need to be consulted by any serious reader of the Scriptures." (Richard D. Patterson, Distinguished Professor Emeritus, Liberty University)
"Timely, engaging, probing, carefully researched and faithful to the biblical text, Plowshares and Pruning Hooks will be helpful reading for students, biblical scholars, theologians and pastors alike. Not all questions are answered, but the right questions are raised. While not satisfying all of his readers, Sandy offers considerable guidance for the beginning student and provides fresh insights for the seasoned scholar. This comprehensive exploration of the language of prophecy and apocalyptic will prove to be valuable for many." (David S. Dockery, President, Union University)
"Luther is reported to have said that the prophets have a 'strange way of talking.' Anyone who has read Isaiah or Daniel closely knows the truth of these words. Brent Sandy helps us to engage the prophets intelligently and avoid sensationalist readings that take us down a road that obscures God's message. I will recommend this book to all my students." (Tremper Longman III, Robert H. Gundry Professor of Old Testament, Westmont College)
"This book represents the fruition of Sandy's many years of careful study and thinking on the commonly misunderstood topic of prophetic language. I have benefited from his insights over the years and am delighted to see his work finally made available to a wider audience. Students of the Bible who have been baffled by the prophetic texts of Scripture and their many interpretations will find great relief and helpful guidance in this book. Sandy's presentation makes excellent use of illustrations from the English language to guide the reader in understanding the language of prophecy. The resulting explanations enable the reader to bypass popular sensationalism and reclaim the biblical prophecies as God's Word." (John H. Walton, Professor of Old Testament, Wheaton College Graduate School)
About the Author
Sandy (Ph.D., Duke University) teaches New Testament and Greek at Wheaton College. His books include Plowshares and Pruning Hooks: Rethinking the Language of Biblical Prophecy and Apocalyptic.
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Top Customer Reviews
Mr. Sandy explores the nature and function of language, and the power of that language in its poetic setting. A must read for any serious student of prophecy, to remind us to be humble in our interpretations of eschatalogical events.
The section that is exceptional impact is "How Will Prophecies Be Fulfilled?", in particular pages 188-194. These six pages may make you rethink your presupposition and position on prophecy altogether. Am I condoning heresy or a heretical view point? Only to those that are probably misinterpreting unfulfilled prophecy already. I will leave you with a quote from the book that warrants close scrutiny.
"Tension naturally exists between the notions that the faithful should be ready for the end and that they cannot be ready. The end is expected at any moment, but will come at an unexpected moment. This dualism is due in part to the ethical dimension of the apocalyptic. The call to purity is strengthened if the end will occur imminently, and is strengthened if the end may catch us off guard. Because we expect it soon, we live accordingly. Because we cannot expect it precisely, we live accordingly. It is expected to be unexpected. Just like the second coming presumably could've occurred in the first century--as many Christians expected--or in every century since. Was the Lord's return imminent across the span of two thousand years? What about the events of every generation that were identified as sure signs of His coming...Current events simply cannot be claimed as the sign of his coming, no matter how many wars and rumors of wars there are."
Another brilliant quote from the conclusion:
"It is often in retrospect or in the present that biblical prophecies achieve their greatest importance."
On the night of Jesus' betrayal He twice gave them [disciples] the important perspective on all that He was saying to them. He told them so, "that when it does happen you will believe that I am He" ~John 13:19.
Knowing this we can then realize that it is not always the intent to reveal the future as much as to confirm and explain the past and illuminate the present conditions surrounding the reader.
Although some events could be interpreted as signs of the Lord's imminent return (and in a sense, they are) to draw definitive conclusions on metaphorical apocalyptic language that is not often meant to be taken literally is to do and injustice to the intent and real meaning of the prophecy.
This book may not follow my exact hermeneutucal grid or theology to the letter but it is well worth the few days to read through. It is a quick read. Take those few days and it will bless you the rest of your life.
Rating: 92 Pruning Hooks Out of 100
The problem with prophecy lies not in prophecy itself but in the reader. The reader must divest himself into the culture in which the prophecy was written so he can better understand the use of the author's language. It is the same if a native Spanish speaker wants to really understand English; he is not going to only read a dictionary, but he is going to immerse himself into the American culture. However, there are great difficulties once you are inside the culture of the biblical language of prophetic literature. First, prophecy is difficult because much of it is written in poetic language. Poetry employs metaphoric language not a timetable of events; it is like music and is not meant to give us a detailed description of anything. A second difficulty stems from the first, in that prophecy employs figurative language. That would be fine if we knew that all of prophecy was figurative, but the problem is deciphering when the author is meant to be taken at face value. We use figurative language all the time, where the dictionary definition of the words used does not mean what the phrase as a whole in a certain context means. Thirdly, there is a problem in that the language of the prophets is full of emotion. It is like us today speaking in exaggeration for effect; we are not worried about the details but that the recipient understands our urgency or excitement. Hyperbole exists even in the narrative portions of Scripture (Deut 1:10, 28; Judg 20:16), and the author uses it as a means to shock the listener/reader. The focus is not historical accuracy because the author is not concerned with that, but the focus is on getting the attention of the intended recipient in the greatest manner possible.
Another difficulty in prophecy is that there seems to be unmentioned conditions in promised blessings from God. This seems to feed off of the previous difficulties in that the language of blessing can be taken as figurative and emotive. The prophet is trying to get the listener's attention, so they speak in blessing terminology that is full of emotion. The fifth difficulty with this genre of literature is that there are a number of visions given by God to the prophets. These visions have "otherworldly and fantastic" images, but are they meant to be symbolic or do they merely add to the main theme of the whole vision? Also, there is a difficulty in the fact that much of prophecy was both spoken and written. That is a problem because the speaker or author is going to give his message in a way that can be easily remembered. Many times we cannot remember our pastor's message from last week, but we can remember a gripping illustration or story that applied what he said. On top of making their prophecy remembered, the prophets had to be "different" from the number of prophets before him; and so he had to be even more fantastic in his language so his prophecy would stand out from the rest. Also, the prophet had to then write down this prophecy at some point, and in his compilation he might add or subtract things to make it better for reading. The last difficulty with prophecy is the fulfillment aspect. It is difficult to know if a prophecy has been fulfilled, if it is to be fulfilled, or if it has many layers of fulfillment. All seven of these difficulties seem to be centered on one problem, and that is when to take the words at face value.
That problem is the use of metaphors in language. Metaphors cannot be broken down and explained by dictionary definitions. So how do we who are thousands of years removed from the metaphoric language of Scripture understand what their metaphors meant? It is difficult for us even to understand modern metaphors in another language. Our fault in prophecy is that we have been taking metaphoric language and making it narrative so we can affix a normative meaning to that text. We do not like open-ended questions or things we cannot pin down and figure out. Metaphors are prolific in our speech and thoughts, and they do convey truth statements but not based upon taking the words at face value. Metaphors help someone who is trying to communicate something ambiguous, however the metaphor does not aid in making that object less ambiguous. "The Devil is like a roaring lion" is a metaphor (simile) that gives us an ambiguous idea (Devil) and a known object (roaring lion); so even though we still do not know the Devil any better, now we can at least think about what he is like. Unlike the one just given, the metaphor can not have any specific referent but merely aid in a big-picture idea of the passage. It is impossible to think of the prophets using any other language than metaphors to impact the reader with the urgency of the message with such graphic pictures that it will be remembered.
Metaphorical language takes on a whole new difficulty when it is used in reference to divine blessing and judgment. Just as man is limited in how he can describe God, he is limited in how he can describe in full an attribute of God. We have glimpses here and there of God from different angles, but no one passage describes him in full. The same is true of any characteristic of God; we simply cannot fathom in our limited understanding all of God or even all of just one part of God. It is also difficult when the author can write the same phrase but have different meanings for each one, so it is just as important to know how the author is using a phrase as to what the phrase means. The biblical language of judgment parallels that of the aNE in that it uses overwhelming curses that never seem to end and even seem to be self-contradicting.
Apocalyptic literature is a sub-genre under prophecy. Apocalyptic is quite different from prophecy in that the author uses it to take the reader into an imaginary world. It is like going through the wardrobe into Narnia, where good and evil are described as fantastic and graphic images. Things do not seem real in apocalyptic literature. The purpose of this "fairy-land" type imagery being in the canon is to show the reader that God is in control and will be victorious over evil. Since the beings and images are out of this world, it would make sense if it is not to be taken as detailed in prediction. The images do not have corresponding referents so there is no way to know what to expect if it has not yet been fulfilled. There is no point to trying to figure out all of the details of an apocalyptic vision, because they may have been added merely for effect or to aid the listener in remembrance.
The main question with prophecy is when or how will it be fulfilled, but prediction is only a small part of the genre of prophetic literature. The prophets were not giving their hearers/readers a detailed description of the future; however, they were mainly concerned that they make an immediate and appropriate response to their message. By nature, western minds want to know the future so they can feel as though they are somewhat in control of their destiny. But even when predictive prophecy is fulfilled in scripture, it is never in the way one would have expected just by reading the prophecy. So with prediction being a small part of prophecy, and its fulfillment not coming like we thought it would; we should not be reading prophecy making charts for how the future will play itself out. I think God does not want us to do that and that is exactly why he kept predictive prophecy to a minimum and even then it is translucent in its details. The response is not to look for when it will be fulfilled, but to know it will be fulfilled in some way and your response had better be obedience to God.
There are seven key features to "futurespeak" (prophecy and apocalyptic), and they are: poetry, metaphor, hyperbole, urgency, intentionality, immediacy, and orality. These features have been mentioned previously, but they all reflect why the author wrote the way he did. They wrote in such a way that was beautiful wording with many metaphors and emotive language so the hearers would remember it when it was read and respond immediately to the message. It is important to understand the context in which a metaphor is written or else you will not understand what it is there for. So, even though there is no details concerning the manner or time of future dates there are some things are certain. What we do know is there is going to be great manner of horrors and evil judgments and it will be a time of persecution and turmoil like never before; but Jesus is coming back and he has everything under his control and we need to overcome until the end. We need to look at futurespeak like we look at a stained-glass window. You do not look at this up close trying to see what is inside, but instead to view the beauty of it you step back and look at it all together.
I believe the main argument of this book is that we need to view prophecy from the perspective of the prophet who is speaking to a people with a message of blessing or cursing and not a map of the future. He does so with poetic language full of metaphors and hyperbole which do not always have corresponding referents, and if the referents were that important then they would have been mentioned. I completely agree with Sandy's thesis, and I think that when you step back and look at all of prophecy and how little of it is predictive and then how that small bit is fulfilled in a way not expected you will look for the message of the prophet and not the details of the future. Just in the little bit I know of the Hebrew language, I know the authors wrote in beautiful style with a theological message not a historical timeline. This book has already proved to greatly beneficial to my personal study of Scripture as I continue to force myself to step back and look at the big picture of the prophets message in light of the meta-narrative. This takes away much wasted energy trying to answer questions or fit a theological system with answers the Bible just does not give. We need to stop trying to figure out how and when all the fantastic events will happen, and we need to focus on our response to be overcomers and obedient to Christ.
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