Plowshares & Pruning Hooks: Rethinking the Language of Biblical Prophecy and Apocolyptic

By D. Brent Sandy
Downers Grove, IL : InterVarsity (2002). 263 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. William Barrick
16.1 (Spring 2005) : 180-183

When Brent Sandy writes about “pulling an octopus from its hiding place among the rocks in the Aegean Sea” (9), he knows what he is talking about. He has been there and done it. From the first page of Plowshares and Pruning Hooks he captures the reader’s attention and infects us with his enthusiasm for the biblical text. Through his talented pen (or laptop?) his exploration becomes our adventure as well. Sandy is Professor and Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Grace College (Winona Lake, Ind.) and is perhaps best known for co-editing Cracking Old Testament Codes (Broadman & Holman, 1995) together with Ronald L. Giese. He and Martin Abegg co-authored the “Apocalyptic” essay in that volume. The current book is an expansion of that study.

In his preparatory remarks, the author explains his acceptance of biblical authority and divine inspiration (11-12). He also denies any intent either to defend or to dismantle dispensational premillennialism (12). Concern about the negative impact of prophetic sensationalism hyping Y2K predictions and attempts to identify the Antichrist fuel Sandy’s desire to call evangelicals back to sounder principles of interpretation (9-10, 155-56). Questions, not answers, are his primary focus (13). Key questions driving his investigation (10) include “How Have Prophecies Been Fulfilled?” (Chap. 6, 129-54) and “How Will Prophecies Be Fulfilled?” (Chap. 7, 155-94).

A significant characteristic of Hebrew prophetic literature is the employment of a wide range of literary devices. As Sandy notes, the prophets were “wordsmiths, master carpenters” (24). Creative language is clearly evident in the writings of the Hebrew prophets. The author recalls that a reader of OT prophetic books must pay attention to the artistry of their poetic language so as to understand their messages.

Yet that very artistry creates problems for interpretation. Seven problems expressed in two-part questions occupy center stage: 1. Predictive or poetic (34-37)? 2. Literal or figurative (37-41)? 3. Exact or emotive (41-44)? 4. Conditional or unconditional (44-47)? 5. Real or surreal (47-50)? 6. Oral or written (50-54)? 7. Fulfilled or unfulfilled (54-56)? Underlying such questions is a greater pair: Can we understand OT prophecies literally (40)? And, is it possible, as Abraham Heschel suggests, for those prophecies to be “inaccurate” (41)? Sandy cautions the reader about jumping to conclusions regarding his intent. He claims not to be “questioning the truthfulness of the prophets but simply seeking to understand the intent of their words” (42). Indeed, he concludes that biblical prophecy “is always accurate in what it intends to reveal” (154, 197).

This reviewer found some of Sandy’s exploratory observations less than complete and, therefore, less than satisfying. For example, he cites Zeph 1:2-3 as a possible example of hyperbole, yet the language is nearly identical with that employed by Moses to describe the universal Flood in Noah’s day (Genesis 6–8). If Zephaniah’s description of a future universal judgment is potentially hyperbolic, what might the interpreter conclude about the Flood or about Peter’s description of the dissolution of all creation in 2 Pet 3:11-12? Perhaps one might use the author’s own paradigm to examine how literally God fulfilled His pre-Flood announcement (Gen 6:7) in order to determine how literally He might fulfill a pronouncement like Zeph 1:2-3.

Sandy’s exploration of the process of oral transmission prior to inscripturation (51) raises more questions. Is it necessary for the modern interpreter to “distinguish between oral and written features in the prophets” (54)? Does the biblical ascription of “inspired” (or, “God-breathed”) as the quality of inscripturated revelation dismiss the need to consider the problems of oral transmission? Due to the focus of this volume, Sandy writes, “I will lay aside those issues for another time” (53). In personal communication the author affirms that no matter what might have transpired during oral transmission, the final written product is what is conclusive and authoritative. A similar question arises when Sandy writes concerning the prophecies of Daniel and Revelation, “Some details may in the end match up with a precise event, but it would have been impossible to see that in advance” (128). Were such details impossible for God Himself to see? Is divine revelation limited by the extent of human perception? Though it may be true, from the human perspective, that “knowing in advance how prophecy would be fulfilled was generally impossible” (154), are we able to know how God might choose to fulfill His prophetic revelations? Perhaps God has and will fulfill prophecies in ways that humans have failed to remember, note, or anticipate. Sandy emphasizes that the problem that such questions raise must not cause us to diminish either God’s omniscience or the accuracy and authority of the prophetic text itself: “The biggest problem, of course, is not prophecy. Unless we enter into the world of prophecy and learn to think like prophets, the primary problem will be our ignorance” (196).

Chapter 3 (“How Does the Language of Prophecy Work?,” 58-74) is an excellent discussion of metaphors and figures of speech in Scripture that stays pretty much within the boundaries of traditional historical-grammatical hermeneutics. However, Chapter 4 (“How Does the Language of Destruction and Blessing Work?,” 75-102) gets to the nub of the current debate in prophetic interpretation. Sandy employs ANE treaty curses as one of the criteria by which to judge whether the reader of Scripture can take biblical curses and language of judgment at face value (89).

In the spirit of Sandy’s own method of inquiry, this reviewer offers his own questions regarding what might prove to be an overemphasis on the presence of hyperbole in biblical prophecy. Should Ezek 5:10, referring to apparent cannibalism (79), be interpreted as hyperbole, when accounts like 2 Kgs 6:28-29 prove that cannibalism did occur during severe sieges? Are we to understand that ANE armies never slaughtered infants or mutilated pregnant mothers the way Hos 13:16 describes (79)? Is it possible that the piling up of a series of punishments might be intended to apply distributively across a population rather than being heaped upon a single individual (88)? Are not Homer Heater’s eight “stock motifs” (94) actually an accurate description of what was perpetrated against conquered peoples in the ANE, rather than hyperbole? All of these so-called “stock motifs” reflect actual practices (cf. William H. Stiebing, Ancient Near Eastern History and Culture [Longman, 2003], 277; Pierre Briant, “Social and Legal Institutions in Achaemenid Iran,” in Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, ed. Jack M. Sasson [Hendrickson, 1995], 525-26). Psychological warfare and mass intimidation in Assyrian practice consisted of more than mere verbal rhetoric (cf. A. Kirk Grayson, “Assyrian Rule of Conquered Territory in Ancient Western Asia,” in ibid., 961). Is not the language of desolation exemplified by texts like Isa 13:20 (96) and 34:13 (219) an accurate picture of ANE practices in the conquest of cities (cf. Richard H. Beal, “Hittite Military Organization,” in ibid., 553)? Sandy’s apparent conclusion that references to “hyenas, ostriches and wild animals is apparently metaphoric, not predicting that these specific animals would inhabit Babylon” (166) causes this reviewer to remember a 15-year residency in the Third World in which he witnessed such things actually occurring. It is not metaphor; it is reality. Is it really irresponsible interpretation to understand that the judgments of prophecy will match exactly what was normative in ANE siege tactics and conquest? Were the past fulfillments of those prophetic judgments really evidence of a kinder and gentler generation? Will the eschatological (yet future) fulfillments really be less dramatic and shocking?

Having posed these questions and observations, this reviewer hastens to add that Sandy is correct in directing his readers’ attention to the significant role of metaphor in biblical prophecy. Due to our distance from the time, place, and language of Hebrew prophetic announcements, he rightly admits, “Even with hindsight it may not be certain which statements in Jeremiah’s prophecy [re: Babylon] were metaphoric and which not” (166).

Sandy’s intent in writing this book is commendable. He has managed to come close to a means for bringing about unity: a common hermeneutic is a very good place to start. However, he does not clarify his hermeneutic sufficiently. He has not proven that the rhetoric of prophecy is as general, as non-specific, as metaphorical, as stereotypical, and as hyperbolic as he has assumed it to be. In the end, he neglected to identify what eschatological “system” results from his approach. True to the exploration he invited his readers to embark upon, our excursion has produced more questions with which to prepare ourselves for another expedition into the interpretation of prophetic revelation. Superbly written and illustrated with charts and diagrams, Plowshares & Pruning Hooks is a must read for anyone desiring to know the direction evangelicals are taking in the realm of prophetic studies. The volume is a sincere, transparent inquiry into the issues.