The Prophetic Discourse: What We Can Learn From It

Exploring the Old Testament
J. Gordon McConville
vol. 4 - A Guide to the Prophets
Intervarsity Press, 2002

I am new to the Church, as many of you know if you have read any of my previous posts. Therefore, I am constantly grappling with the Church, in ways that I think are different from those of folks who are inside the Church and have grown up in it. A number of folks who have grown up in the Church have had to grapple with the way the Church has treated them in the past and heal from a lot of wounds. Often, I think those wounds stem from how the church teaches its people - as the way the people are taught guides how they act and how they respond to issues of faith.

With that in mind, I have one thing to say that I think gripes me about Church teaching: I have found that the Church teaching on the Prophets is inadequate. As I see it, either the church underteaches the Prophets, ignores them all together, or just picks out those bits which prophesize the coming of Christ. But, I mean, really, when was the last time you heard a sermon on Haggai? And if you have, please let me know so I can start visiting your church!

All that said, there is a great deal of understanding to be gleaned from the Prophets that is simply left aside by the Church. I understand the challenges of reading from the Prophets: 1) You have to talk alot about context, and some folks get bored to death by history, geography, and culture; 2) the Prophets have some really condeming language at times which doesn’t make for an uplifting Bible study; 3) the Prophets are poets and (for some reason) we think poetry is hard.

Therefore, too often our literacy with respect to the Prophets is pretty low. Rarely will someone sit down and read all of Isaiah. Wait, that’s being nice - rarely will anyone sit down and read all of Joel. Coupled with poor church teaching, one is left with little to turn to with respect to truly understanding the Prophets in relationship to the history and worship of ancient Israel.

Therefore, for those who have to supplement a lack of Church teaching - though I would appreciate thoughts on how to incorporate more sound, biblical social justice teachings into sermons - one could turn to a commentary. But commentaries can be pretty intense, and not everyone has the time to go through one scholar’s 250 pages of thoughts on a particular prophet.

Therefore, I recommend volume 4 of the Exploring the Old Testament series by J. Gordon McConville. Dr. McConville is a former professor of OT and Hebrew at Wycliffe Hall at Oxford and currently teaches at University of Gloucestershire in England. He is well known for his commentaries on Deutoronomy and the prophets, many of which have been published by Intervarsity Press.

This book is a good way to introduce yourself to the biblical books - to get some historical and cultural context along with theological grounding. Because - *gasp* - guess what? All the prophets have different themes! Yes, that’s right, kids, the Word of God is diverse - hallelujah! Each prophet spoke to a different audience (which McConville identifies) at a different time, in different places, with different messages. So, to have McConville’s explanation of these differences is helpful. He even helps you understand a bit of the redaction of the books; redaction being the idea that many of the prophetic books were edited at different times to reflect themes pertinent to the people who were contemporary to the editors. This is different than the idea that the books were changed to reflect someone else’s agenda; no, rather, the books were simply compiled and edited in such a way that they could speak idiomatically to the their audience.

McConville starts by dating the books - then takes the time to describe what is happening in different units of scripture. He will point out signiicant sections from a book - maybe 5 or 6 verses - and give a paragraph-long descritpion of what is going on in that particular part of the book.

McConville even traces the history of modern scholarship on the Prophets. In his commentary on Jeremiah in the critical interpretation section that is at the beginning of the chapter, McConville notes how modern scholars began to view Jeremiah as a collection of poems and prose sermons. This is helpful for understanding the different thematic units that emerge from the Prophetic books.

Picking out certain challenging pieces of the text, McConville puts in boxes some sections that are called “Think About” sections. These provide an opportunity to reflect on a passage of scripture a bit more deeply. This kind of formatting is also helpful for someone who doesn’t want to read lengthy chapters on these books but rather pick and choose parts of chapters and apply them to the reading of the Bible.

McConville’s commentaries are concise and also reflect a real understanding of the literature of the prophetic material. Many of these books are poems - God spoke to the prophets in poetry! He spends some chapters discussing the poetry of the differnt prophetic books, which, I think, is a good reminder that God spurs us on to artistic creativity.

A literary understanding of the books is so important for understanding the vitality and continued richness of the metaphors and symbols used by the prophets. The ancient prophets, with their use of symbolic imagery, call us to this same kind of imagery - what are our symbols today to expose war, poverty, greed, injustice? Have our symbols been lost? Has the symbol been killed by the grotesqueness of media warfare, of denuded response to poverty, of deep greed? NO! The prophets reclaim imagery to shock the people into thinking differently. For example, when Ezekiel reports that God calls Sodom the sister of Israel:

‘Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. (16:49)

This would have shocked the people of Israel - to be called kin to Sodom. Could we be kin to Sodom? Is this metaphor as vibrant to us as it was to the Israelites? And, moreover, God doesn’t say that he killed Sodom because they were sexually devious, but rather economically devious and arrogant. Yikes for us.

But I’ve strayed a bit. I want to come back to McConville’s text and wrap this up. Here’s what I think lacks in this “textbook” if you will:

1) Too much of a “first-world” focus. McConville provides a bibliography of other sources to turn to at the end of each chapter - almost all scholars appear to be Euro-American - which could be the limitations of English-langauge scholarship, or the limitations of McConville’s continentalism. I’m not sure which

2) Very little political commentary. When I search out the sections of scripture that speak so boldly from a social justice perspective, McConville doesn’t have much to say. Yet, this might be ok, considering I’m not sure I’d be too impressed with the political commentary of an Oxford biblical scholar.

3) This isn’t really a lack, but at times McConville spends a great deal of time talking about the “Dueteronomistic” aspects of the Prophets - meaning, the theological understanding stemming primarily from Deutronomy. This is McConville’s scholarly pre-occupation to begin with, so it’s not surprising. However, I’m not sure I’m terribly interested in the idea. Again, personal preference, it might speak to you quite a bit.

In the end, if I had to give this a rating on a scale of 1 to 5, I’d give it a 3.8. I think it’s a great introduction, and I would highly recommend it to folks intending to do some group study on the Prophets - which I would also recommend, particularly at the height of the current American empire, we could use some good study of the Prophets to find ways to enunciate a prophetic perspective to our contemporaries. A great book, but I think should be supplemented at some point with some political and theological interpretations as well. For political interpretations, investigate Daniel Berrigan’s commentaries/meditations on the prophets such as Daniel, Ezekiel, and Isaiah. He also has some commentaries on Job and Kings which I hear are quite good. And, for a good theological survey, check out Abraham Joshua Heschel’s two volumes called The Prophets.

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5 Responses to “The Prophetic Discourse: What We Can Learn From It”

  1. Newguy Says:

    Thanks for this. I too find myself drawn to the prophets in this time when our own society’s guilt is becoming more and more obvious to me.

  2. Paul Says:

    “2) Very little political commentary. When I search out the sections of scripture that speak so boldly from a social justice perspective, McConville doesn’t have much to say. Yet, this might be ok, considering I’m not sure I’d be too impressed with the political commentary of an Oxford biblical scholar.”

    Thank God! This looks like an interesting book, and I will definitely hunt it down.

    And while I am all for social justice being done wherever and whenever it can be, what I don’t want is someone telling me about Ezekiel and then telling me that Ezekiel would vote for a republican or a democrat.

    It dates a book almost immediately. Face it, a conservative in France would never even think about taking any of the welfare state programs off the table, but in America, a conservative doesn’t want any put ON the table in the first place. At least for now. So, it automatically takes an overview of the old testament prophets (timeless) and makes them completely of its time. Bad idea for long term marketing, and bad idea for a Biblical commentary.

  3. folknotions Says:

    Paul,

    If I am understanding you correctly, you would not approve of a reading of the Prophets that engages current affairs with a partisan agenda.

    I, too, would not be interested in such a reading. However, I think there are political readings that transcend partisan politics that can be found in the prophets: serving the needs of the poor, the widow, the orphan, not being greedy, not worshiping the gods of redemptive violence, etc. This reading has little to do with partisan politics and is eternally relevant to the prophetic witness and to the Gospel preached by Jesus Christ.

  4. Paul Says:

    folknotions,

    I see what you’re saying, but here’s a thought too:

    why does serving the poor, the widow, the orphan, not being greedy or not worshipping the gods of redemptive violence, etc, need to be political in the first place?

    Yes, there is certainly a place for all of the above in the political arena, but isn’t it all empty talk if we expect it to be a political discussion (electing leaders who will have the government do these things) without doing it ourselves?

  5. folknotions Says:

    Paul,

    If politics were merely electing representatives to government to get these things done, then, yes, I would agree with you that serving the poor and etc. don’t have to be political.

    However, I think electing government representatives is only one element of a broader political dimension, which includes interpersonal relationships and our relationship to our neighbor (i.e. politics having as its root “polis”, the city-state, think “our community”).

    Not only that but governments tend to marginalize the above groups and worship violence; therefore, often the ancient prophets and the prophets/prophetesses of today largely focus on the tendency toward marginalizing these groups - not only as a critique to transform government (or “the powers”, if you will) but also to glorify God for his provision and favor toward the poor and marginalized and his blessing toward those who make peace.

    And, again, I think Daniel Berrigan does a great job of acknowledging these dimensions of the prophetic message and making them relevant for today.

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