Book Reviews

Plowshares and Pruninghooks

Rethinking the Language of Biblical Prophecy and Apocalyptic Literature

D. Brent Sandy Downers Grove, IL 2002-11-01

This book, by the chair of the department of religious studies at Grace College, Winona Lake, Indiana, examines the language of prophetic and apocalyptic literature. He argues that prophetic language is predominantly metaphorical (pp. 70–73, 189–94). This challenges the traditional approach of many commentators who take biblical prophecy literally unless there is sufficient reason contextually to do otherwise.

Sandy considers how prophetic language works in general (chaps. 1–4). He then considers the use of apocalyptic language (chap. 5), how recorded prophecies were fulfilled (chap. 6), and then how one can expect other prophecies to be fulfilled (chap. 7). While this extensive consideration of the use of language is comprehensive, it deemphasizes an important aspect of literal interpretation, which states that whether the language is metaphorical or literal it must refer to an actual referent. For example what do the words “plowshares and pruning hooks” refer to? Sandy seems to leave unanswered this matter of the referents of prophetic texts.

In assessing apocalyptic language Sandy raises a number of questions about different passages. One such question is, Did Daniel have 20-20 vision? (pp. 111–16). By considering Daniel 8 alone Sandy reached conclusions that would not follow from a more complete consideration of the Book of Daniel. Had he considered Nebuchadnezzar’s vision of the image in Daniel 2, he would have noted Daniel’s helpful interpretation (2:24–45). Some details do involve 20-20 vision, as “you [Nebuchadnezzar] are the head of gold” (v. 38). The presence of textual comments that interpret the visions is common in Daniel and Revelation. In addition the biblical corpus of apocalyptic revelation quite clearly builds on previously revealed images and symbols. So the history of the sequence of empires in Daniel 2 is followed by parallel visions of empires in Daniel 7. And Daniel 8 examines the sequence of two empires introduced in Daniel 7 but adds more information. And the ten horns arising in the Roman Empire (7:7–8) appear again in Revelation 12:3 and 13:1.

Sandy introduces an unwarranted skepticism about the clarity of any prophetic language. He characterizes the function of prophetic language as a “stained glass window, not a crystal ball” (p. 184). The varying colors and different thicknesses of the glass, he says, suggest possible distortion and obscurity in the prophetic references to reality. He writes, “All systems of eschatology are subject to reconsideration” (p. 206).

What has influenced Sandy’s investigation is finally brought to the surface in the conclusion. “How will prophecies be fulfilled? Are detailed theories of the twentieth century (of premillenial dispensationalism in particular) valid interpretations of prophecy and apocalyptic?” (p. 188). However, this reviewer asks, can Sandy’s limited investigation of prophetic language provide a legitimate answer to these questions? Sandy’s work may be a basis for continued conversation, but it is not a warrant for outright rejection of viable models of interpretation of prophetic literature.

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Elliott E. Johnson
Dr. Elliott Johnson received his Bachelor of Science degree from Northwestern University in 1959. He went on to earn a ThM in 1964 followed immediately by a ThD in 1968, both from Dallas Theological Seminary. Dr. Johnson is the founder of the Asian Theological Seminary and has taught extensively overseas, including the Philippines, Poland, the former Czechoslovakia, Romania, and Russia. He also has ministered in Austria, Brazil, England, Germany, Israel, and Scotland. Dr. Johnson joined the Seminary as a faculty member in 1972 and as a pastor of a Dallas-area church the same year. He is a member of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) and has published in the field of hermeneutics. He is on the board of the Dispensational Study Group and has published in that field as well. Elliott and his wife Inge have six children and 19 grandchildren. He retired from teaching at DTS, after 47 years, in 2019.
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