Handbook on the Prophets

By Robert B. Chisholm, Jr.
Grand Rapids : Baker (2002). 512 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. William Barrick
16.2 (Fall 2005) : 328-332

Handbook on the Prophetsis one of the latest contributions of Robert Chisholm (Professor of OT Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary) to the study of the Hebrew prophets. Baker’s choice of Handbook as a title for volumes in this series (cf. Victor Hamilton, Handbook on the Historical Books, 2001) is somewhat misleading since they are really commentaries. The introduction to each of the prophetic books is very brief and, by the publisher’s design, neglects major issues relating to date, authorship, unity, and canonicity. For example, the introduction to Isaiah does not delve into the debates over unity and authorship (13-14). The introduction to Daniel does contain a helpful section on “Historical Problems” (293- 94). This reviewer was surprised that Chisholm’s discussion of Darius the Mede did not mention John Whitcomb’s Darius the Mede (Presbyterian and Reformed, 1959). Baker’s format presents extensive bibliographies, helpfully dividing them into “Commentaries” and “Recent Studies.” The latter is subdivided into “General” and major sections of text for the major prophets (e.g., “Isaiah 1–12”).

The vast majority of the volume is a well-written concise commentary offering many sound interpretations and suggestions for new approaches to old cruxes that will make the volume valuable to its readers. One example is the prophecy concerning Cyrus in Isa 44:24–45:8. Chisholm, responding to critics who would post-date the text, points out that “the sovereign Creator who speaks so eloquently of his greatness in this passage is certainly capable of foretelling and determining the future” (108). His interpretation of Isa 49:1–54:17 is an excellent exposition of messianic prophecy with only a few glitches—something we expect of any human commentator (111-23). Dealing with Isa 56:1-8, he provides a clear explanation for the end of Mosaic law and the church’s relationship to the new covenant (126-27). He states that Jesus the Messiah fulfilled the shepherd-king prophecy in Ezekiel 34 (278, 348). Few OT scholars have voiced the sane suggestion that perhaps Isaiah (2:2-4) and Micah (4:1-3) might be drawing on a common source rather than one being dependent on the other (421 n. 212). In addition, he takes a passionate anti-abortion stance in his illustrations and comments (166 n. 31, 387).

Chisholm’s commentary reveals his love for the text and for the study of ANE history that forms its backdrop. Therefore, when he discusses texts like the oracle about the invasion of Moab (Isa 15:1–16:14) he looks for extra-biblical corroboration for the biblical record of historical events to help his readers see such ties when they exist and to inform them when such corroboration does not exist (55). However, ANE historiography and literary characteristics have led him and others to treat some of the large numbers in the OT as hyperbolic. Thus, Chisholm believes that a number like 185,000 for the Assyrian dead in Isa 37:36-38 is far higher than reality (89)—a conclusion this reviewer does not believe is necessary.

The publisher’s approach to the bibliographies is both a help and a hindrince. Baker limited most bibliographic entries to post-1990 publications (10). True to this standard, Chisholm’s entries in “Recent Studies” were all (with but one exception: Holladay’s Isaiah: Scroll of a Prophetic Heritage, Eerdmans, 1978) (139) published after 1990. The helpful aspect is the rich trove of mainly periodical literature carefully chosen to give the avid college student the inside track. However, the limitation is a hindrance because it eliminates significant evangelical works to which the target audience should be exposed: Sir Robert Anderson (reprint of The Coming Prince, Kregel, 1975; reprint of Daniel in the Critics’ Den, Revell, n.d.), David Baron (reprint of Commentary on Zechariah, Kregel, 1988; reprint of The Servant of Jehovah, Wipf & Stock, 2001), Robert Culver (The Sufferings and the Glory of the Lord’s Righteous Servant, Christian Service Foundation, 1958; Daniel and the Latter Days, Moody, 1977), Charles Feinberg (The Prophecy of Ezekiel, Moody, 1969), Alva McClain (Daniel’s Prophecy of the Seventy Weeks, Zondervan, 1960), Robert Dick Wilson (especially his Studies in Daniel, Putnam’s Sons, 1917), and Leon Wood (Commentary on Daniel, Zondervan, 1973). Chisholm could have referred to some of these works within the body of the text and its footnotes, but the ambitious nature of the enterprise requires a brevity inimical to a wider exposure to significant sources.

In this reviewer’s opinion, a few excellent evangelical commentaries should not have been omitted from the bibliographies’ “Commentaries” sections. The following are but a few select examples in addition to Feinberg’s Ezekiel and Wood’s Daniel already mentioned above: Unger’s Zechariah (Zondervan, 1970), Barker and Bailey’s Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah (NAC; Broadman & Holman, 1998), Harrison’s Jeremiah and Lamentations (TOTC, IVP, 1973), Hubbard’s Hosea (TOTC, IVP, 1989), as well as Feinberg’s “Jeremiah,” Wood’s “Hosea,” and Patterson’s “Joel” from Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Zondervan, 1978-1992). In the footnotes Chisholm does cite a few commentaries omitted from the bibliographies.

Chisholm’s treatment of some traditional messianic texts as indirectly messianic rather than exclusively messianic will be disconcerting to some readers (including this reviewer). He concludes that the prophet intended Isa 9:6-7 to refer to a mere human king for whom he ascribes hyperbolic titles (38-40). Isaiah was not aware that another descendant of David would arise who would ultimately fulfill even the hyperbolic language in the prophetic announcement. Chisholm believes that the context of Zech 12:10 and 13:7 requires a non-messianic interpretation (474-75). He explains that John 19:37 refers to the OT passage as a metaphor tied to Christ’s spear wound only as “a specific example of Israel’s rejection by God” (475). As for Jesus’ own apparent application of the text (Matt 26:31), He “utilized it in a proverbial manner” (47 5), not as an indication that it was directly messianic. T his reviewer agrees with Will Varner’s conclusion that it should be interpreted as a direct messianic reference (The Messiah Revealed, Rejected, Received, Author House, 2004, 98-103).

Chisholm interprets Mal 4:5 as “essentially fulfilled in the person and ministry of John the Baptist” (483). He does not clarify exactly what he means by “essentially.” He does not reveal whether he thinks of the traditional interpretation that sees Elijah still returning just prior to Christ’s second advent (often associated with Rev 11:1-13; cp. Matt 17:1-8).

Archetypal interpretation plays a major role in Chisholm’s hermeneutic. It is one of the recurring refrains in this volume. It appears in his treatment of passages like Isa 11:10–12:6 (46). He identifies Assyria (59), Egypt (59), Edom (80), Babylon (53), Moab (69), and Tyre (64) as archetypes. This reviewer has the impression that “archetypal” is Chisholm’s code word for “eschatological” (cp. 406, with regard to an eschatological context for Obad 15-21, and 453, concerning Hag 2:6-7). Chisholm nowhere indicates whether identifying a nation like Assyria as an archetype allows for its historical involvement anywhere in prophecy. The impression the reader receives is that, if the national entity does not exist today (e.g., Tyre, 64), then it is not possible for any future existence of that nation. Indeed, charges interpreters who take the prophecies as a reference to a revived Assyria (or Babylon or Edom) with hyperliteralism (424).

For the oracle concerning Babylon in Isaiah 13–14, the author rejects the possibility that absence of an immediate historical fulfillment could be an indication that the prophecy belongs to the still future realm of eschatology (53). He refers to the language of Jeremiah 50–51 as “undoubtedly stylized and exaggerated” (213). Chisholm does consider the eschatological option in some passages like Isa 19:1-25, but leaves the impression that eschatological fulfillment is actually “an essential, rather than literal, realization of the prophet’s vision” (59). Only in his commentary on Jer 22:17-19 does the reader find, concerning apparent unfulfilled prophecy, that “[w]hile the evidence does not corroborate the fulfillment of the prophecy, neither does it preclude it” (181). Instead of taking the reference to “Gog and Magog” in Ezekiel 38–39 as historical and that in Rev 20:7 as archetypal, he takes the earlier reference as archetypal (283).

Both Chisholm and this reviewer firmly believe that God is able to resurrect a body that has been burned to ashes and scattered to the four winds, assimilated into plants and animals. However, this reviewer is more comfortable than he about applying that doctrinal concept to the revival of Assyria or Babylon. As far as a sustained ethnic identity and continuous occupation of virtually the same geographical territory is concerned, the current inhabitants of Iraq and Iran might be nearer descendants of the ancient Assyrians or Babylonians than modern Israel is of ancient Israel. Eschatological “Assyrians” do not need to be called by the same name or have the same identical political boundaries to be the legitimate national heirs to the ancient Assyrians. In fact, in a striking parallel to the Jewish diaspora, there are thousands of “Assyrians” living in Pasadena and the Central Valley of California who claim exactly that and insist on being called “Assyrians” because of their ethnic heritage.

Since Chisholm states that “the exiles of the northern kingdom disappeared as a distinct ethnic entity as they were assimilated into the surrounding culture of their new homes” (46), he concludes that “a future reunion of Israel and Judah and the implementation of a new covenant with both cannot be literally fulfilled” (197, 280). Without clarification in this volume, the reader is left to wonder what Chisholm envisions for the future restoration o f national Israel, which he fervently believes on the basis of NT texts like Romans 11.

In the author’s attempt to recall that the message of Jonah cannot be destroyed by liberals who deny the book’s historicity, he declares, “Unlike the exodus and the resurrection of Jesus, the historicity of the Book of Jonah is not foundational to redemptive history and biblical faith” (408). It is unfortunate that the readers of this volume will have to seek out Chisholm’s other writings on Jo nah to discover that he truly does adhere to its historicity.

In his commentary on Ezekiel 28’s reference to a guardian cherub, Chisholm states that “we must assume that Ezekiel draws on an extra-biblical Eden tradition” (269). This reviewer would prefer to describe the interaction another way. The revelation that Ezekiel received was not colored by ANE traditions. ANE traditions, rather, were colored by the Eden history. The memory of those wonderful beings remained in the minds of the ancient peoples and they incorporated them into their art and architecture. The culture reflected the older reality from Eden. Divine revelation provided Ezekiel with a firsthand confirmation of the reality of those beings and provided details no longer retained by the collective ANE memory, in addition to providing a corrective for some of the errors that had accumulated around the original kernel of truth.

“Seventy years” (Jer 25:11, 12; 29:10; 2 Chr 36:21; Dan 9:2), according to Chisholm, is a non-literal, stereotypical number (185). “Seventy weeks” (Dan 9:24) is likewise a symbolic number (317). He attributes the latter to the imprecision of “the apocalyptic literary genre” (317). He makes no attempt to identify viable options that would indicate that the number “seventy” could be literal rather than symbolic.

Lastly, without providing any clarification or disclaimer, a positive citation of Richard Rice regarding the nature of God (372) leaves the reader with the impression that Chisholm might agree with open theism. Readers would have to have read already his discussion of Jer 4:28 (161, esp. n. 25) and of the Cyrus prophecies in Isaiah (108) to know that their impression would be in error. Since the volume is written as a commentary, most will come to it piecemeal to look up a specific reference, rather than to read it through from start to finish as carefully as a reviewer might. It would have been of help for Chisholm to give at least a footnote reference back to his excellent statement on page 108 (which this reviewer quoted in the second paragraph of this review).