Review of Interpreting the Prophetic Word by Willem A. VanGemeren

In his Interpreting the Prophetic Word, VanGemeren has undertaken a hefty venture: he seeks to provide both the tools needed to interpret prophetic literature in the Bible and a sweeping overview of each prophetic book. His approach is generally Reformed in its emphasis on the centrality of covenant in the unfolding of redemptive history and his appreciation of both continuity and discontinuity across both testaments. In this response, I will attempt to provide a broad summary of the books contents and interact briefly with VanGemeren’s handling of the Minor Prophets, especially Habakkuk.

 

Interpreting the Prophetic Word is composed of 3 sections, amounting to a total of 12 chapters. The first part attempts to provide the requisite information needed to understand and interpret the prophetic; the second part presents the message of the each of the Minor Prophets and draws attention to their key motifs. Employing these motifs, the last part unpacks the message of the Major Prophets, including Daniel. I will not summarize VanGemeren’s understanding of each of the prophetic books, but will provide a summary of his overall approach by briefly summarizing Chapters 1-3, 8, and 12.

In Chapter 1, VanGemeren lays the groundwork for what follows. He first identifies a key antithesis for interpreting the prophetic. At the heart of the prophetic is contrast between religion, characterizing the kingdom of man, and revelation, associated with the Kingdom of God (19). Religion, in VanGemeren’s use, refers to human religion, religion that seeks to manipulate the gods for the ends of man, which builds a human system to explain their environment and provide a way for peace with it (20-21). Religion is characterized by vox populi and realpolitik and is antithetical to revelation, God’s continued interaction with and rule of His people. The prophets, as spokesmen of God, are messengers of revelation; they oppose realpolitik and vox populi. “Realpolitik” and “vox populi” are technical terms describing the fundamental characteristics of religion: realpolitik, for VanGemeren, is the pragmatic and manipulative application of any technique that seeks to maintain or improve group life (26); Vox Populi refers to that form of realpolitik that rewards those who support common ideals and upholds traditions and popular views (26).  Chapter 1 concludes by considering the key prophetic figures Moses, Samuel, and Elijah.

In Chapter 2, VanGemeren introduces the features of prophetic ministry and their message. Prophets are those spirit empowered and called spokesmen of God who speak for Him with His authority. They are to be good shepherds of the people and at times are vindicated with signs (43). Their message was a witness to the plan of God: they were given unique vantage points into God’s plan from which they spoke to Israel and Judah’s situation (44). VanGemeren then considers the prophets as they developed through and interacted with the major events in Israel and Judah’s history and in their conflict with false prophets.

In Chapter 3, he provides the hermeneutical framework in which he will interpret the prophetic books. He emphasizes the need to consider the prophets in light of both their historical meaning and their canonical function. Canonical function describes the function the books, understood historically, have in the progressing eras of redemptive history (e.g., how Jeremiah functioned in the post-exilic era). He also highlights the important concept of “progressive fulfillment”: God’s promises are not two-dimensional predictions but rather like a vine that grows, “extends its branches in various directions, bears fruit, and keeps developing” (83).

In Chapter 8, VanGemeren explains 6 key motifs identified in the Minor Prophets, the day of the Lord, kingdom of God in creation, the Messiah and the messianic kingdom, the Spirit of restoration, the new people of God, and Israel and the nations. He hopes that these motifs will provide a helpful way in for interpreting the Major Prophets. Chapter 12 concludes the book by considering how we are to interact now with the Prophetic Word. He emphasizes here the Prophet’s emphasis on the Spirit at work, producing the future orientated and theocentric kingdom ethics found in the Prophets; the need for the whole of Scripture, both old and new (tota scritpura); and the tension we still face as those between the times—partaking of the new age but not yet receiving its fullness.

 

VanGemeren’s work reveals a breadth of learning and a deep knowledge of the prophetic, yet the comprehensive scope of the work has left room for criticism. Considering his account of the Minor Prophets, the book already shows signs of becoming outdated. The last 26 years has witnessed a bloom of new literature considering the Minor Prophets as a single canonical whole, with its own internal structure and message. The scholarly research in this area is deeply insightful and holds tremendous promise for interpreting these books.

Furthermore, his sweeping approach necessarily requires VanGemeren to approach each book quite generally, at time this produces an inadequate treatment of the particular books. Habakkuk is in important example of this deficiency. VanGemeren identifies the message of Habakkuk as the moral question engendered by God’s raising up of the Babylonians: “How could God use Babylon to inflict judgment on Judah when their cruelty and pagan ways further destroyed God’s kingdom?” (169) He rightly identifies the result of the questions Habakkuk asks, that the people develop faith in God and submit to Him, even in His fearful freedom (169). Key to his understanding is reading Habakkuk through the kingdom motif; Habakkuk questions concern the destruction of God’s earthly kingdom (169) and the answer is to wait the full establishment of God’s glorious kingdom (171). Though VanGemeren properly identifies important points, he ends up making sub-emphases the main emphases.

The kingdom of God is surely implicit throughout Habakkuk but this is never an explicit emphasis. The explicit emphasis on kingdom VanGemeren identifies is 2:14, an interpretation arrived at via Isaiah 11:9, but this reading underplays the context within which it is found. This text alludes to Numbers 14:23 with Isaiah and refers to the glory of God being magnified in His mighty works, particularly here the judgement of the wicked tool He has used (cf. 2:13, 3:3). The taunt in which it is found  (2:6-19) is structured to emphasize the Sovereignty of God in the destruction of His wicked tool and the end of His glory achieved by their downfall.[1]

More importantly, Habakkuk is unique in the approach it takes to the coming Babylonians: his dialogue with God is meant to lead the reader to conclude that Babylon is God’s salvific act (1:2, 3:16-19), that they are to trust God for life despite the unbelievability of the vision God gives (1:6, 2:4). Habakkuk rightly identifies the Babylonians as judgment on wicked Judah (1:12), but comes, as the book progresses, to affirm that they are not only judgment on wicked Judah but God’s salvation for His people (3:16-19).[2] Habakkuk has heard of God’s deed in the vision of 1:5-11 (cf. 3:2); in chapter 3 he responds in the way God commands by trusting God for this salvation (2:4, 3:16-19). Chapter 3 should not then be read as a remembrance of God’s past action (172), but the coming of the Divine warrior for judgment in Chaldea portrayed in the imagery of Deuteronomy 32 and Judges 5. Despite these criticisms, VanGemeren has accomplished a commendable feat with this volume.


[1] The woes are the answer to Habakkuk’s question in 1:17, and so a vindication of God’s character. The structure of Ch. 2 is a Chiasm, as suggested by the parallel woes in 6d-8b and 18-19, the repeated refrain in 8c-d and 17c-d, the echoing of the shame theme in woes 2 & 4 (9-11; 15-17b), and the three marked questions in 2:7, 13, and 18.

[2] 3:13 should read, “You come forth for the salvation of your people, for salvation with your anointed.” In v. 14, YHWH piercing the head with his arrows should be identified as God crushing the house of wickedness (Judah) through His anointed (Babylon). Cf. the Vulgate’s “in salutem cum christo tuo.”

(This review was originally prepared for Prof. Tremper Longman to fulfill the requirements of BIBLE 529: Jeremiah, at Regent College)

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