The Message of Joel, Micah, and Habakkuk: Listening to the Voice of God

By David Prior
Downes Grove, IL : InterVarsity (1998). 279 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Keith Essex
14.2 (Fall 2003) : 350-352

This book is part of The Bible Speaks Today [BST] series, the OT works edited by J. A. Motyer and the NT by J. R. W. Stott. David Prior, a former pastor in South Africa and England who is presently involved in an outreach and training ministry to business people in London, previously contributed to the BST with the NT volume on 1 Corinthians (1985). His present exposition joins the BST works already in print on The Minor Prophets from the well-known English evangelical writers Derek Kidner (Hosea, 1981) and Motyer (Amos, 1974). The series editors in the General Preface to Prior’s recent contribution state, “The Bible Speaks Today describes a series of both OT and NT expositions, which are characterized by a threefold ideal: to expound the biblical text with accuracy, to relate it to contemporary life, and to be readable” (9). Prior has met the threefold goals of the BST in this work on Joel, Micah, and Habakkuk, the last two with excellence. He has provided an adequate exposition of the text with insightful contemporary application in a very readable style.

Prior bases his interpretation of these three prophetic books on previous evangelical commentaries. He references other volumes continually, particularly those in the EBC, NICOT, TOTC, WBC, WEC, and the exegetical and expository volumes on the Minor Prophets edited by T. E. McComiskey. While Prior is to be commended for selecting the best works available for the evangelical expositor, his own interpretive work is no more than a summarization of what is found in greater depth in these other volumes. The expositor would be well advised to follow P rior’s lead and use those commentaries himself, rather than use only the present author’s summaries. The writer does help the reader by repeatedly placing Micah and Habakkuk and their messages in their historical context and regularly relating the messages of all three prophets to their OT theological context. On the basis of this historical and theological context, Prior draws parallels between the prophets’ messages and contemporary life. He particularly shows how the religious and social issues confronted by the prophets are found in the present Western religious and business communities. His application of these prophetic messages is not a call for the church to reform Western society, but for Christians to live as God’s representatives in the secular culture. He states, “But when we fail to engage relevantly, truthfully and compassionately with the marketplace, the marketplace enters the holy place and begins to take it over. . . . God, meanwhile, wants to meet his people at depth as we gather in the holy place, and then propel us out into the marketplace—to make a difference by being different” (12). This he sees as the thrust of these three prophets, and the whole Bible, in their contemporary application.

A major weakness in Prior’s work is his unwillingness at times to state a preference for a preferred interpretation when there is disagreement among evangelical commentators. T his is especially seen concerning the date of Joel. The book could have been written any time over a span of 60 0 years, from the ninth to the third centuries B.C. (19). Prior sees this uncertainty as helpful. “It is in many ways providential that the book cannot be dated or traced to a particular person in a particular setting. The events described in it are, at one and the same time, unprecedented and timeless” (21). However, later he admits the full significance of 2:17 cannot be known because of the uncertainty of the dating of Joel (60).

A further weakness is his handling of “The Day of the Lord.” Prior sees this day of the Lord as any time God steps into history to do a special work, either of judgment or blessing. Minor events of individual lives and major events in the nations can properly be called the day of the Lord. However, in a special way, “the day of the Lord, for Joel, applied to what was happening then, what would happen soon and what would eventually happen when God called the nations to account” (48). This triple perspective, according to Prior, is a key to understanding Joel in relationship to the rest of the Bible (48). The first stage of this day took place in Joel’s own time with the coming and the removal of the locusts according to 2:19-27 (64). Joel 2:28-29 looks ahead to the second stage, the pouring out of Holy Spirit that began on the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2 and continues to come upon believers today as they become a part of the people of God (69-79). The final stage is the eschatological day when the whole world will be summoned before God according to 3:1-21 (80-102). Prior is fuzzy concerning the outworking of the eschatological details, except that God will finally judge His enemies and reward His people. This same kind of fuzziness is evident in his eschatological discussions in Micah and Habakkuk. The author states concerning Micah 4, “[T]here is a temporal thickness to these prophecies, which prevents us from stating categorically when or how they find their fulfillment” (148).

In spite of these weaknesses, this volume in the BST, like its OT and NT counterparts, will aid the expositor, particularly as he thinks through the contemporary application of the biblical text.