What are we to make of the images presented to us in biblical prophecy? How literally or figuratively should we interpret them? How did prophetic language function for those who first heard these prophecies? Without a doubt, prophetic and apocalyptic literature is some of the most difficult to understand.
Recently I read D. Brent Sandy’s Plowshares and Pruning Hooks: Rethinking the Language of Biblical Prophecy and Apocalyptic. It is one of the most helpful books I’ve read on interpreting these biblical genres. It is well written and accessible to the non-academic reader.
Sandy is not concerned with helping us nail down the meaning of specific passages. Rather Sandy takes us on a survey of the literature, focusing more heavily on the Old Testament than the New Testament. He shows us commonalities that exist within prophetic literature. His chapter on the common pairing of destruction and blessing is very helpful.
Sandy spends considerable time exploring how prophetic language worked within the culture. He reminds us that these texts were written to oral cultures. Thus, what we read was not read by the original audience, but rather heard.
Prophetic and apocalyptic language was not merely a transfer of information. It was language that was intended to engage us at the emotional gut level, transporting us into otherworldly visions of hope and glory, as well as worlds of despair and devastation. The intent was to engender commitment and inspire action. You might say it is the difference between explaining how if we reflect on our past and contemplate the trajectory of our future in light of more eternal considerations we can be motivated to change versus Dickens writing a story about a man named Ebenezer Scrooge. Poetic language is central to prophetic literature and the author spends some time walking us through various metaphorical linguistic techniques.
Sandy points out that the three primary functions of prophecy were prosecution, persuasion, and prediction, in that order (although in the New Testament, prosecution becomes less prominent.) In our age, there is a near obsession with the predictive aspects of prophecy. To address this question, the author has a chapter on prophecies in the Bible that were fulfilled within the biblical era. He asks, if based on the prophecy given, would the original hearers of the prophecy have been able to accurately describe the specifics of future events. The case studies run from what he calls the transparent to the translucent. Once a prophecy is fulfilled it sometimes is clear that the language of the prophecy was hyperbolic poetry. In some cases, prophecies that seemed to predict impending events were not fulfilled until after considerable time lapses. Thus, the practice of precise identification of specific people, places and events to each and every biblical image is unwise. This is not so that to say that prophecy is just poetic symbolism without reference to actual future events. It is to say the prophecy's predictive quality is usually a translucent window into future events that is intended to inspire us to commitment and action, not an encrypted code to be cracked.
If figuring out what to do with prophetic and apocalyptic portions of the Bible is something you’ve struggled with as I have, then I would highly recommend this book.