Plowshares and Pruninghooks: Rethinking the Language of Biblical Prophecy and Apocalyptic Literature

D. Brent Sandy IVP Academic, Downers Grove, IL November 1, 2002
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This book, by the chair of the department of religious studies at Grace College, Winona Lake, Indiana, examines the language of prophetic and apocalyptic literature. He argues that prophetic language is predominantly metaphorical (pp. 70–73, 189–94). This challenges the traditional approach of many commentators who take biblical prophecy literally unless there is sufficient reason contextually to do otherwise.

Sandy considers how prophetic language works in general (chaps. 1–4). He then considers the use of apocalyptic language (chap. 5), how recorded prophecies were fulfilled (chap. 6), and then how one can expect other prophecies to be fulfilled (chap. 7). While this extensive consideration of the use of language is comprehensive, it deemphasizes an important aspect of literal interpretation, which states that whether the language is metaphorical or literal it must refer to an actual referent. For example what do the words “plowshares and pruning hooks” refer to? Sandy seems to leave unanswered this matter of the referents of prophetic texts.

In assessing apocalyptic language Sandy raises a number of questions about different passages. One such question is, Did Daniel have 20-20 vision? (pp. 111–16). By considering Daniel 8 alone Sandy reached conclusions that would not follow from a more complete consideration of the Book of Daniel. Had he considered Nebuchadnezzar’s vision of the image in Daniel 2, he would have noted Daniel’s helpful interpretation (2:24–45). Some details do involve 20-20 vision, as “you [Nebuchadnezzar] are the head of gold” (v. 38). The presence of textual comments that interpret the visions is common in Daniel and Revelation. In addition the biblical corpus of apocalyptic revelation quite clearly builds on previously revealed images and symbols. So the history of the sequence of empires in Daniel 2 is followed by parallel visions of empires in Daniel 7. And Daniel 8 examines the sequence of two empires introduced in Daniel 7 but adds more information. And the ten horns arising in the Roman Empire (7:7–8) appear again in Revelation 12:3 and 13:1.

Sandy introduces an unwarranted skepticism about the clarity of any prophetic language. He characterizes the function of prophetic language as a “stained glass window, not a crystal ball” (p. 184). The varying colors and different thicknesses of the glass, he says, suggest possible distortion and obscurity in the prophetic references to reality. He writes, “All systems of eschatology are subject to reconsideration” (p. 206).

What has influenced Sandy’s investigation is finally brought to the surface in the conclusion. “How will prophecies be fulfilled? Are detailed theories of the twentieth century (of premillenial dispensationalism in particular) valid interpretations of prophecy and apocalyptic?” (p. 188). However, this reviewer asks, can Sandy’s limited investigation of prophetic language provide a legitimate answer to these questions? Sandy’s work may be a basis for continued conversation, but it is not a warrant for outright rejection of viable models of interpretation of prophetic literature.

—Elliott E. Johnson

January 1, 2005
 

Biblotheca Sacra

This review appeared in the Jan-Mar 2005 vol. 162 no. 1 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.

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