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How Do We Understand the Prophets? Dr. Peter Gentry

Home » How Do We Understand the Prophets? Dr. Peter Gentry

 

Dr. Arnold interviews Dr. Gentry on how to understand the Prophets.

Topics of conversation include:

  • Why Christians often struggle to read the Prophets
  • How we should approach reading this particular genre
  • The importance of understanding God’s covenant, Israel’s idolatry, near and far prophecy, the structure of Hebraic literature, and the already/not yet aspect of prophetic literature
  • Some practical resources for further reading on the Prophets

Dr. Peter Gentry currently serves as Distinguished Visiting Professor of Old Testament at Phoenix Seminary, as well as Senior Research Fellow of the Text & Canon Institute. Dr. Gentry previously taught for over 20 years at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and is a leading researcher on the Septuagint. He is the author of several books, including Kingdom through Covenant: A Biblical-Theological Understanding of the Covenants (Crossway, 2018), and How to Read and Understand the Biblical Prophets (Crossway, 2017).

 

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Intro (00:00):

Welcome to Faith Seeking Understanding, a podcast from Phoenix Seminary—helping Christians grow in their understanding of the faith, hosted by Dr. Brian Arnold, president of Phoenix Seminary.

 

Brian Arnold (00:17):

If you want to make a congregation blush in unison, ask them to turn to one of the Minor Prophets, a book like Nahum or Obadiah. You will see a lot of nervous fingers flipping back and forth across the pages of the Old Testament. Now, of course, many people use a Bible app, and it’s much easier to cheat and make it seem like you know where the Prophets are in your Bible. But if we’re honest, the Prophets are intimidating to many Christians. They feel like the Prophets are impossible to understand. What is going on when this prophet wrote? Why is the language so cryptic? Is this about the Northern Kingdom, the Southern Kingdom, before the exile, after the exile? And some of you may not even know that there was a Northern or Southern Kingdom, and that both Israel and Judah went into exile. And that the biblical prophets were prophesying during these events in Israel’s history.

 

Brian Arnold (00:58):

However hard we must work to understand them, the biblical prophets are important for understanding our Bibles. Not only do we learn a lot about the character of God—his patience with sinful people, and his ability to follow through on his promises—but we also see them anticipate the coming of Jesus and the establishment of the New Covenant. Well, to help us understand how we can read and benefit from the Prophets, we have with us today, Dr. Peter Gentry. Dr. Gentry is Distinguished Professor of Old Testament at Phoenix Seminary, having previously served for 22 years at Southern Seminary. Dr. Gentry is known worldwide for his research on the Old Testament, particularly on the Septuagint, which is the Greek translation of the Old Testament. Dr. Gentry has written many things, including Kingdom through Covenant, and the focus of our conversation today, How to Read and Understand the Biblical Prophets. Not only did I have the privilege of sitting under Dr. Gentry, but I also got to sit on his infamous “hot seat,” which is when he puts you on the spot in class to translate Greek or Hebrew, and then answer syntactical or grammatical questions. It was hard. It was scary. And it was transformative. If you’re a student of theology, let me plead with you to take the hard professors, because they’ll shape you well beyond your time in school. Dr. Gentry, welcome to the podcast.

 

Peter Gentry (02:09):

Thank you very much. I’m glad to be here.

 

Brian Arnold (02:11):

So we always ask our guests one big question. Today that question is—how do we read and understand the Prophets? Why do you think it is that Christians struggle so much to read the Prophets?

 

Peter Gentry (02:20):

Well, I think for a couple of reasons. First of all, in the popular understanding, they think the Prophets are mainly about describing end time events. And there’s a lot of debate, disagreement, and hot arguments over those things. And then the second thing, I think, is that there’s a big debate, especially in North America, about how to interpret these texts. And some people say, well, it’s a literal interpretation, and other people say…and they accuse the other people of spiritualizing the text. And so you have people who want to read these texts literally, people who want to read them symbolically, and I say—this is an entirely bogus question. It’s a false question. It’s a false dichotomy. The issue is not whether…is not literal interpretation versus spiritualizing the text. The central question is the genre, that is, what kind of literature are we reading?

 

Brian Arnold (03:40):

Yeah, because you even say in your book—we’ll read things like a newspaper differently than we read a work of fiction, differently than we’ll read a historical textbook. And the same is true when we come to the Bible. We have a lot of different types of genres there in Scripture that require a different way of reading them. You know, as people who have taught at a seminary, we teach a class on hermeneutics, which is how to read these different genres. So what’s the best approach to reading the Prophets, in terms of genre?

 

Peter Gentry (04:03):

Yes. Well, even if you take a newspaper—and that’s disappearing quite quickly from our culture today—but if you remember what a newspaper looks like, you’ve got the front page news, and then there are different sections with business, and travel, and real estate, and stocks and bonds, and obituaries, and comics. And all of these are different kinds of literature. And so I ask my students, “well, do you believe that there’s truth on the front page and no truth in the comics?” Well, if you stop and think about it, there may be more truth in the comics than there is on the front page. It’s just a different kind of literature. And when you turn the page from the front page to the comics, you’re not even conscious—you don’t say to yourself, “Self, I must remember the rules for reading comics.” You automatically switch into reading a different kind of literature.

 

Brian Arnold (05:03):

Yeah. And you don’t want to read the comics like the obits, do you? Or vice versa. That would be a problem. Well, so why are they so cryptic, then, for Christians to understand? Like, where did we get off track in understanding the Old Testament prophets, and how can we kind of get back into the groove of how to read them?

 

Peter Gentry (05:19):

Well, I’ve written this little book, How to Read and Understand the Biblical Prophets. I’m not trying to tell people the correct perspective on end time events. I’m not trying to tell them what their theology should be. I’m simply trying to say—look, this is the kind of literature that you’re reading. And I lay out seven guidelines for how to read this kind of literature. So I talk about how the prophets are coming primarily to call the people back to the covenant. So the prophetic books are not primarily about describing the future and predicting the future. The whole business in the Bible is that the God of the Bible has entered into a covenant relationship with his people, Israel. A relationship of love, of trust, of obedience, of faithfulness, and of loyalty. And the people have fallen away in terms of their loyalty. And the covenant included promises for commitment and faithfulness and loyalty and obedience, and threats for disloyalty and breaking faith in the covenant relationship.

 

Brian Arnold (06:48):

And it might be helpful there to even just say—that’s important to how you put the whole Bible together. This idea, from your previous book Kingdom through Covenant, that God, in the Old Testament, has a series of covenants. And if I recall correctly, you see the first one in the garden of Eden.

 

Peter Gentry (07:02):

That’s right.

 

Brian Arnold (07:02):

And then there’s a successive—through the Noahic Covenant, through Abraham, through Moses and David, and into the New Covenant—we have these succession of covenants, but I think you’re even highlighting the end of Deuteronomy.

 

Peter Gentry (07:13):

That’s right.

 

Brian Arnold (07:13):

Where there’s these blessings and these curses, and the prophets are looking back at that, saying—you promised God you would do these things, and then you didn’t do them.

 

Peter Gentry (07:21):

And how many of us have gone into a grocery store, and we see a mum with a bratty child, and we hear them for the 10th time saying, “If you do that again, I’ll…whatever.” And you say to yourself, “Come on, parent, when are you going to come through with your threats?” And so, even though God is gracious and kind and loving, eventually he has to come through on his threats. And those are laid out in Deuteronomy 28. And the final threat is that God will kick them out of the land. They will go into exile. And so, there have been prophets in Israel since really the earliest times, right from the time of Samuel—or from the time of Moses—but especially from the time of Samuel. But most of those prophets were not writing prophets.

 

Peter Gentry (08:18):

They didn’t write things down. So Elijah and Elisha were some of the greatest prophets in Israel, but they didn’t write anything down. So the question is, why did these later prophets write things down? And that’s because God is calling them back to the covenant, they’re not listening, he’s going to have to send them into exile. But exile is not the end. Judgment is not the last word. The last word is that God is going to restore his people and bring them back to himself. And so that whole process is going to take time, it’s going to take explanation, and that’s why these things had to be written down.

 

Brian Arnold (09:04):

Okay, so the covenant forms one of the most important things of understanding what the prophets are doing—calling them back to covenant faithfulness. You promised God you would do these things, now you’re not living in that way. Exile’s coming, judgment is coming if you don’t turn. And we see that they didn’t turn. And they went into exile. And then the prophets, during the exile, saying “return back to covenant faithfulness.” So that’s one of the reading pieces you have. What are some of the others that you suggest?

 

Peter Gentry (09:26):

Well this is where they begin to deal with the future, and they make predictions of the future. First of all, the central issue is idolatry. So how do we sum up the covenant relationship between God and Israel? Number one, you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength. And number two, you should love your neighbor as yourself. And so at the center of this is faithful, loyal love to God. And how do we distinguish Yahweh, the God of Israel, from the false gods?

 

Peter Gentry (10:17):

Well, the one thing that demonstrates true deity is the ability to know and predict and control the future. So in our society, what’s the most watched channel on television, what’s the most watched channel on our iPhones? It’s the weather channel. And what does that show us? We want to know the future, but nobody knows the future, nobody can control the future. We have our meteorologists, we have our scientists, but as a matter of fact, we don’t really know what’s happening an hour from now. And we can’t predict it. And so God sends the prophets to show that Yahweh is the one who knows the future and can predict the future.

 

Brian Arnold (11:06):

Yeah. “You’ll know that I’m the Lord, I declare the end from the beginning.”

 

Peter Gentry (11:09):

That’s exactly right.

 

Brian Arnold (11:10):

And even thinking about idolatry, one of the best passages, I think, in the Old Testament is Isaiah 44.

 

Peter Gentry (11:15):

Yeah.

 

Brian Arnold (11:16):

Where he cuts down this log. And he has to know—which end of the log do I make a god out of and worship, and which end of the log do I burn for fuel? Kind of making fun of the other deities in their day. Because Yahweh is so different.

 

Peter Gentry (11:27):

That’s right. And back in Deuteronomy God says, well, how do you recognize a true prophet? You recognize a true prophet by whether or not his word comes to pass, whether his prediction comes true. And so, if you’re going to make a prediction…if you’re going to be a prophet, and you make a prediction about something that’s going to happen a hundred years from now, how do I know that you’re a true prophet? Well, what they do is God gives them a prediction that will come true in the next two years. And then I know that this guy is a true prophet, and I trust him for the prediction that won’t come to pass for a hundred years. So God gives them predictions for the near future and predictions for the distant future. And the predictions for the near future validate the prophet and verify the prophet.

 

Peter Gentry (12:29):

And it also explains the exile for later generations. So can you imagine—Nebuchadnezzar comes, he conquers Jerusalem, he destroys the city. The whole place is burned up. And he takes the people back to Babylon. And so I don’t know how long that takes, two or three months? You’re walking all the way to Babylon. You can’t walk across the desert. You have to go up north, to the source of the Euphrates River, and down the Euphrates River to Babylon. And you’re coming, you’ve never seen Babylon—and you can actually see this today, because they’ve reconstructed the Ishtar Gate of Babylon in the museum in Berlin, Germany—and imagine you walk for a mile with these gorgeous walls and gates, and then you come to this enormous gate. And what are you going to believe?

 

Peter Gentry (13:35):

You’re going to believe that the gods of Babylon are bigger and better than Yahweh. And that’s wrong. That’s false. And so the prophets gave their messages to show that the gods of the nations are false gods. Yahweh is the true God. He predicted that this would come to pass. In the end he will also punish the foreign nations he has used as his instruments. And so the prophets had to write these messages down, so that when they happened the later generations would realize—no, the gods of Babylon are not bigger and better than Yahweh. Yahweh is the true God.

 

Brian Arnold (14:16):

And one of the texts that really helps show that near and far prophecy, that matters a lot for Christmas time, is something like Isaiah 7:14, where you have this near fulfillment of the prophecy. But of course, Matthew picks it up as actually a prophecy of Jesus, and the prophecy of his birth from the Virgin.

 

Peter Gentry (14:32):

Yeah, we’ve actually written a book on that. We’ve written a book called The Mother of the Infant King. It’s by Christophe Rico and myself. And we show how Isaiah actually intended that as a long distance prediction of the Virgin birth.

 

Brian Arnold (14:51):

Which is critical, to demonstrate how that is prophesied so far before Jesus.

 

Peter Gentry (14:57):

Yeah.

 

Brian Arnold (14:57):

And New Testament writers picked that up. So we have the covenant as a way to orient ourselves in reading the prophets, with blessings and curses. We have the idea of the futility of idolatry, and how Yahweh stands apart from that and declares the end from the beginning. What are some other reading strategies that we can use to understand the prophets?

 

Peter Gentry (15:14):

Well, there’s two or three things I’d like to talk about. First of all, how does Hebrew literature work? And Hebrew literature…the Hebrew authors communicate in a way that’s very, very different. So our culture in the Western world, our society in the Western world, is based on Greece and Rome. And we’re highly influenced by Aristotle. I call this Aristotelian rectilinear logic, which simply means that if we want to read something that’s scientific, we expect the author to start at point A and move in a straight line to point B using logical syllogisms—if this, then this, if this, then this.

 

Peter Gentry (16:05):

So when I want to “know the truth,” in quotes, I expect to hear this from a scientist—they’re going to start at point A, they’re going to move in a straight line to point B, they’re going to give me all the logical arguments that will lead me to come to the right conclusion. This is not how Hebrew literature communicates. So in Hebrew literature, a person starts talking about a particular topic and they go around…they have a conversation and they go around that topic. Then they shut that conversation down and they start another conversation. And at first you think he’s talking about something different, and then you realize he’s talking about the same thing from a different angle, a different perspective, a different point of view. And when you have those two conversations out on the table, they’re like the left and right speakers of a stereo system. So you’re getting the message in Dolby surround sound. Or if you want to think about lasers, we use lasers to create holograms, three dimensional images. They hang in the air and you can walk around and see it from all sides. This is the Hebrew way of communicating. They’re giving you an idea. The idea is three dimensional. You can walk around and see it from all angles. And that way, you know that you have the whole truth. Nothing but the truth, you see.

 

Brian Arnold (17:31):

Well, and then when we think about the New Testament, the book that’s probably least understood is Revelation.

 

Peter Gentry (17:36):

Yes.

 

Brian Arnold (17:36):

And we see that same kind of approach, of a circularity to it. A recapitulation that’s happening throughout the book. And many people, when they don’t see that, can’t understand how these images fit together. But really he’s picking up from the Hebrew prophets in many ways.

 

Peter Gentry (17:49):

Well, he is a Hebrew prophet. So the point is, John may be writing in Greek, but he’s a Jewish person. He’s a Hebrew person. He’s steeped in the Hebrew prophets—Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, and Zechariah. And this is his mode of communication. And what happens is that this repetition happens at the macro level and at the micro-level simultaneously. And this is very bewildering for modern readers from the Western world. And they become quickly bored by the repetition, and they don’t understand how the author is communicating.

 

Brian Arnold (18:34):

And we see that even in Hebrew literature in places like the Psalms, even, where there’s a lot of repetition as a way to enforce things.

 

Peter Gentry (18:42):

Yes. Well, you can repeat large segments, or you can repeat smaller segments. And Hebrew poetry is simply two short lines, where the second line is saying the same thing as the first line from a different angle, a different perspective, a different point of view. So you get left speaker, right speaker, left speaker, right speaker, left speaker, right speaker. And then you can even have what we call word pairs. So you could have…a famous word pair would be “justice and righteousness,” or another word pair would be, “hesed and emet—loyalty and faithfulness.” One word is like the left speaker, the other word is the right speaker. It’s the minimum repetition in a single soundbite to communicate a whole idea. An interesting example of that is in Isaiah chapter 16, verse five.

 

Peter Gentry (19:47):

He says “In love, a throne will be established; in faithfulness, a man will sit on it—one from the house of David—one who in judging seeks justice and speeds the cause of righteousness.” There are five lines there. The first line talks about loyal love. The second line talks about faithfulness. So that’s one-word pair. The last two lines…you take the last two lines—the fourth line talks about justice and the fifth line talks about righteousness. So these—with loyal love and faithfulness, and justice and righteousness, he’s summed up all of the requirements in the covenant relationship between God and Israel. And in the middle—what do we have in the middle—is one sitting on the throne of David. So the whole future is going to be determined and controlled by a Davidic King, who will finally bring social justice. Defined not the way we define it in America today, but defined according to the terms of the covenant. He’s going to bring a just society into being.

 

Brian Arnold (21:06):

Well, I don’t want to put you on the spot. I’m going to put you on the hot seat, actually, and just say—we’ll have to have you back at some point to talk about things like social justice in the Old Testament that are being used in a lot of ways in American culture today that aren’t necessarily according to the way the biblical prophets used them. But I’m wondering if, in our time left, one of the things that’s been the most helpful for me for understanding, in addition to the things you’ve already mentioned, is kind of already/not yet approach to understanding the Bible, particularly the Prophets. Could you take like just a minute and kind of lay that out for us?

 

Peter Gentry (21:34):

Yeah. So God gives the prophets access to the heavenly court. Through dreams and visions. And they hear things and they see things. And what they do is they paint a broad panoramic vision, but they themselves are not aware of how that is going to be fulfilled in time. And so, Jesus and the Apostles help us to understand that when they were giving us these visions, some parts of the visions were to be fulfilled at an earlier time, and some parts of the visions were to be fulfilled at a later time. So, for example, in Zechariah 12, “They will look on me whom they have pierced, and they will mourn for me as one mourns for an only son.” Well, John quotes that at the crucifixion, in the gospel of John, when the soldiers were coming to check on Jesus to see whether he was dead. They pierced him, and John says this is fulfilled. Then John quotes the second part of the verse in chapter one of the book of Revelation. When Jesus returns in the second coming—”they will mourn for him as one mourns for an only son.” So the first half of the verse applies to the first coming, and the second half of the verse applies to the second coming. The prophets are just putting together a big panoramic vision, and they’re not distinguishing the chronology of the events that they’re describing.

 

Brian Arnold (23:17):

Well, and I think one of the things that does for me, is help see how God put together the whole story, the whole Bible. It all fits together. The prophecies of old fulfilled, both in the first coming and the second coming. It’s a good apologetic, even, for the Christian faith, that we can have confidence that what God spoke was true when Jesus came, and it will be true for the second coming as well. Well, as we wind down, let me ask you just for some other resources. I want to tell our listeners to read Dr. Gentry’s book on how to read and understand the biblical prophets. It will revolutionize the way you read that section of Scripture that so many Christians don’t read. But even in terms of maybe study Bibles, or some other really practical, accessible resources, what do you think would be helpful?

 

Peter Gentry (24:00):

Well, we didn’t have time to talk about typology or apocalyptic language. I have a chapter on typology and a chapter on apocalyptic language in the book. And so that would be very helpful. And I think…our big book is Kingdom through Covenant. There’s a 275-page abridgment. It’s called God’s Kingdom through God’s Covenants. So you don’t have to read a thousand pages. You can read this short survey that will give you the larger story that will help you put the pieces together.

 

Brian Arnold (24:42):

Well, use those books, because they’ve been really influential in my life for understanding how the whole Bible fits together. I think that’s a place where Christians really need to grow, is understanding the whole so they can understand the parts. Dr. Gentry, I’m so thankful that you were with us today to talk about these things. You’ve been such an influence in my life for understanding the whole Bible, the Prophets in particular. And I really hope our listeners will take advantage of reading your stuff.

 

Peter Gentry (25:06):

Thank you.

 

Outro (25:07):

Thank you for listening to the Faith Seeking Understanding podcast. If you want to grow more in your understanding of the faith, consider studying at Phoenix Seminary, where men and women are trained for Christ-centered ministry for the building up of healthy churches in Phoenix and throughout the world. Learn more at ps.edu.

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