Themes and Transformations in Old Testament Prophecy

Samuel A. Meier IVP Academic, Downers Grove, IL April 30, 2009
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Meier, associate professor in the department of Near Eastern languages and cultures, Ohio State University, examines “certain features of the prophets that run throughout the prophetic books like leitmotifs.” These themes, according to Meier, “are at the core of the prophetic world” (p. 12).

Meier traces the development of these themes and argues that significant changes are evident, especially in the exilic and postexilic prophets. He constructs his argument as follows: (1) In preexilic times the prophet is a participant in the divine council, but after the Exile there is a “deterioration” and “no prophet is explicitly depicted as taking part in God’s council” (p. 24). (2) In the preexilic prophets, predictions are contingent for the most part. As Meier states, “The future is negotiable and open to manipulation by choices that are unfolding in the present” (p. 28). This “open future in the writing prophets echoes in narrative texts throughout the Bible where divine pronouncements can be reversed if new factors emerge” (p. 29). But this changes in the later prophets and especially in apocalyptic literature, where “the future becomes exceedingly predictable” (p. 36). (3) In earlier times the prophet has an unusual capacity to “see the specific relevance of an event, an object, a comment in terms of what Yahweh was trying to accomplish” (p. 40). Indeed, prophets were called “seers” at that time. However, “visionary texts that are composed after the exile do not depict prophets with this same gift” (p. 44). Apart from angelic interpretation there is a “declining ability of the prophet to see the significance of what God is doing in human history” (p. 51). (4) Early prophets engage in give-and-take with God and enjoy a personal, even friendly relationship with Him. This begins to change with Ezekiel, who collapsed before God’s powerful self-revelation. In the later prophets one detects “the loss of intimacy and ease which had characterized the earlier prophets” (p. 62). (5) Another marked change occurs with respect to angels. Before the Exile no prophet “receives a message from an angel” (p. 63). But in the exilic period “a dramatic change” occurs and in Daniel “angels become the only means by which a verbal message comes to a human” (p. 68). (6) The introductory formula “thus says the Lord” (or one of its variants) becomes much more prevalent in the postexilic prophets. Meier’s argument is not as convincing on this point, for he fails to discuss the data from Isaiah 1–39, where these formulae appear rather frequently. (7) As for literary style “poetry is the primary medium for the preexilic prophets, prose for the prophets after the exile, while the prophets associated with the exile show a mixture of both” (p. 81). (8) With Jeremiah and Ezekiel one finds a greater concern to record the prophetic message in writing. There is a “transformation of prophecy from a primarily vocal phenomenon to a primarily visual and literary phenomenon” (p. 110). (9) In Jeremiah and Ezekiel the “dating of prophetic oracles becomes important” (p. 117).

Meier also detects an important change in the ninth and eighth centuries. The former prophets (Joshua-Kings in the Hebrew Bible) depict the early prophets as working miracles, but, with the exception of Isaiah 36–39 (which has a parallel in Kings), “the literary prophets do not mention the miraculous powers a prophet might possess or be able to bring into play” (p. 126).

Meier contends that prophecy was closely associated with kingship in ancient Israel. Prophets were “both king-makers and king-breakers” (p. 131). Not surprisingly, then, “when kingship disappeared from ancient Israel, one of prophecy’s major roles in ancient Israel also vanished” (p. 136). Also of no surprise, Meier contends, is the fact that the prophetic vision of an ideal Davidic king to come includes “a prophetic companion to identify, confirm and anoint this king” (p. 137). Meier makes a convincing case that John the Baptist satisfied this role and that Jesus’ official anointing as king took place at His baptism.

Kings functioned as warriors in ancient Israel, and the prophets were vital to the kings in carrying out this responsibility. The Lord prohibited Israel’s kings from having horses and chariots because He himself would fight Israel’s battles. In this regard “the prophet functions as Israel’s chariots and horsemen all merged into one person” (p. 151). The prophets could summon God’s chariots to battle (p. 164).

In a chapter entitled “Continuities in History,” Meier demonstrates that the prophets had a “paradigmatic way of looking at history, where patterns repeat with variations but with consistency” (p. 170). This explains why later prophets could utilize and adapt earlier prophetic oracles with such regularity.

The longest chapter in the book is devoted to the difficult and important issue of prophetic reliability. After a careful analysis of Deuteronomy 18, in which he discusses the difficulty of applying the test given there, Meier concludes, “There is no single criterion by which an ancient Israelite could isolate prophets who might, or might not, be deserving of trust” (p. 217). Generally speaking, trustworthy prophets could be recognized by their refusal to pursue financial gain, their persistence in confronting sin, and their willingness to endure rejection.

Meier is to be commended for this insightful and enlightening volume that focuses on the fundamental features of ancient Israelite prophetism and traces the significant chronological changes that occurred, especially in conjunction with the Exile. The reviewer highly recommends it as a text for introductory courses on the prophetic literature and intends to make it a required text in his Old Testament introduction course.

—Robert B. Chisholm Jr.

July 1, 2011
 

Biblotheca Sacra

This review appeared in the Jul-Sep 2011 vol. 168 no. 3 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.

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