Prophetic Language

D. Brent Sandy, Plowshares and Pruning Hooks: Rethinking the Language of Biblical Prophecy and Apocalyptic (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2002). Sandy provides the student with valuable insights regarding the interpretation of prophetic texts.

Initial Thoughts

Time and time again, as a biblical studies student, I have heard the idiomatic-like imperative to ground exegesis in the authorial intent of the passage. Sandy’s Plowshares & Pruning Hooks has been added to the list. The most important principle of hermeneutics for any genre of literature concerns the author’s intended meaning, and that certainly includes prophecy. Discovering the authorial intent requires an investigation of the author’s world, its language, assumptions, etc. Therefore, a correct interpretation of prophetic texts requires the student to investigate the prophet’s ancient context – a large endeavor. Nonetheless, if authorial intent is the crux interpretum, how are we to deal with the NT’s noted fulfillment of seemingly non-predictive passages? To use one of Sandy’s examples, the authorial intent of Psalm 22 does not appear to be predictive of Jesus’ crucifixion, but John treats it as such. That is still a conundrum that continually teases me, and hopefully Sandy will further elucidate it throughout the book.

In line with this observation, and secondly, Sandy describes prophecy in a way that is more broad than I am accustomed to. I will admit that I believed prophecy to be synonymous to prediction, but such a limited view does not appear to be Sandy’s explanation. For Sandy, prophecy is more of a genre of the prophet’s voice than the prophet’s predictive content. It is how the prophet communicates more than what he communicates, thought the latter is not excluded. I am certain that this has much to do with the specific topic of the book – i.e., analyzing the language of prophecy – but it is nonetheless eye opening, expanding my presumptuous limitations on prophetic texts. As to whether such a broad categorization is correct and profitable, much bears on the further examination of Sandy’s book. For the moment, it has at least brought a new perspective to prophetic texts.

Thirdly, Sandy has clarified the ‘problem of prophecy’ like I have never heard before. I was one of those who studied prophecy like poetry and resolved to be confused most of the time. I simply guided myself from notable text to notable text, and every once and a while marveled at a stanza. I never, however, learned to work past this interpretive lacking; and it is mostly because everyone else shared my scheme. The clarifying questions regarding literalism, hyperbole, the nature of God’s covenant, partial fulfillment, etc., all reverberated with my own difficulties regarding prophecy in the past, and I am excited about the possibility of discovering some resolution throughout the rest of Plowshares & Pruning Hooks.

Attempted Application

Applying some of Sandy’s insights, Isaiah 1:1-19 (for example) becomes much more intelligible. It is not that I better understand the ancient references or the details to the author’s metaphors, rather I better understand the essential message in the text and thus allow the details to further inform the central claim. The essential message in this text appears to be that God will judge those who have rebelled against him, but God is willing to bless those who repent and obey him. Every part of the passage functions to communicate that message. However, rather than the prophet communicating that essential message with blunt statement, he chooses to utilize literary tactics to stir the heart and mind of the reader (listener). God’s transcendence is vital to Christian theology, and its clarification is nowhere as important as it is for one’s understanding of biblical revelation. Prophetic language is a paradigmatic illustration of God’s transcendence translating into intelligible communication for finite man. As Sandy described, “The combination of something exciting to describe and something impossible to describe will result in something like the language of prophecy” (Sandy 2002, 32). When one is communicating theologically, the limitations of human language is in a sense attempting to instill the impossible. One means of communicating this endeavor is by hyperbole, paradox, and a variety of metaphors. Isaiah 1:1-19 is rich with such a method of communication.

The prophet speaks with extremes (1:2a, 9-10, 13-14), utilizes anthropomorphism (1:2b), metaphor (1:5, 6, 7, 15, 18-19), repetition, hyperbole (1:5b-6), simile (1:8), and the passage is overwhelmed with vivid imagery. Verse 6 reads, ‘From the sole of your foot to the top of your head there is no soundness—only wounds and welts and open sores, not cleansed or bandaged or soothed with olive oil.’ A soft heart cannot resist the twisting and turning that such a passage inflicts. The mechanics of a poetic heart is too lofty to explain, but it is an undeniable reality for the one who experiences it. Yet, the occurring pendulum swing makes this all the more beautiful. From the portrayal of God’s wrath against wickedness comes the sweet taste of God’s persistent grace for those that obey him. 18b-19 reads, ‘Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool. If you are willing and obedient, you will eat the good things of the land.’ Not only does the prophet speak with stirring and powerful language, but also he utilizes such language to build up both extremes. The vividness of both God’s wrath and God’s grace are spoken with the same amount of force, and in the pressing and the pulling, it is no marvel why the reader’s heart is awakened. He cannot remain still, and yet he is pulled in two extreme directions, and it is such an engagement where the paradoxical absurdity causes him to humbly cry out to his Creator. Prophetic language does not merely move people within their might and power. It does not merely stir them towards their own greatness. The vividness of the absolutes pulls and pushes the man into a state of utter dependence, where the impossible might be brought to him. For this passage, it brings man’s state of deficiency into full exposure with God’s sufficiency.


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