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Plowshares & Pruning Hooks: Rethinking the Language of Biblical Prophecy and Apocalyptic

(Downers Grove: IVP, 2002), 263 pp.


D. Brent Sandy

Brent Sandy is professor and chair of the department of religious studies at Grace College in Winona Lake, Indiana. He has undertaken a monumental task in this book, perhaps an impossible one according to some. He proposes to analyze the nature of prophetic language in Scripture. It is his purpose to help the reader grasp how the biblical authors used words and images and ideas to communicate God’s design for the future.

People who have studied biblical prophecy usually fall into one of two camps, reflecting one of two perspectives. On the one hand are those who see prophetic texts as providing us with something of a crystal ball through which we can ascertain specific details about what the future holds. The biblical text, on this view, functions much like the blueprints for a new home, providing “specs” and dimensions concerning the future down to the smallest of details. On the other hand are those who read prophecy as if it were a stained-glass window, designed to paint in broad brush strokes the general principles that will govern how God brings this world to its consummation in Christ. Sandy definitely sides with the latter and makes a strong, although not always convincing, case for his position.

Essential to Sandy’s proposal is a principle that I find entirely convincing and apart from which the proper reading of prophetic texts may prove impossible. He states and restates this hermeneutical rule throughout the book. It is based on the assumption that “our ideas about things we have never experienced are largely controlled by things we have experienced” (25). In other words, whenever the biblical authors sought to describe the future, which they had not experienced, they necessarily employed language and imagery from the present, which they had experienced. Or, as Richard Bauckham put it, “Prophecy can only depict the future in terms which make sense to its present. It clothes the purpose of God in the hopes and fears of its contemporaries.” It’s the age-old problem of how to describe heavenly concepts in human language. Sandy’s argument is that “under divine empowerment, the prophets created metaphors and similes from their world to let us experience what the world of God and heaven is like – as best they could” (28).

Sandy is especially helpful in clarifying the distinction often drawn between what is literal and what is figurative. Take, for example, the passage from which the title of the book was derived. “They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore” (Is. 2:4; Micah 4:3; cf. Joel 3:10). How literal is this prophetic utterance? Do the prophets mean to suggest that people in the end times will literally, i.e., physically, reshape an actual sword into an actual plow or pruning hook? Or do they mean that those who have any instruments of warfare will transform them, by whatever means possible, into instruments of agriculture? Or it may be that the point of the imagery is simply that God will restore order to the earth in the sense that political peace among all nations and the complete absence of military conflict will come to pass. I’m inclined to think the latter is true. As Sandy points out, “only when we reach the point of denying that anything will happen as a result of these words have we moved completely away from literal meaning. At that point to be nonliteral would mean to be nonhistorical (nonactual)” (39). His point, and this is critically important, is that one can interpret the prophets as speaking “literally” if, by that, we mean that what they intended to communicate will actually and historically come to pass. Whether or not there is a one-to-one “physical” equivalence between the words of prediction and the event of fulfillment is of secondary important. The key then becomes ascertaining authorial intent.

Sandy’s point is that “if we fail to hear the communication as the authors intended and the hearers understood, it is because we are outside in the dark. When God chose to use the forms of communication and culture available in the biblical world, he simply left us with the challenge to enter into that world to understand his revelation” (57). In other words, it is a fatal mistake to think we can interpret the prophetic word apart from an understanding of the social, linguistic, historical, economic, cultural, theological and aesthetic conventions of the author, as well as the range of what the original audience could reasonably be expected to grasp from his words.

This leads Sandy to undertake, in Chapter Three (titled, “How Does the Language of Prophecy Work?”), an extended analysis of the nature of metaphor. Metaphors, he notes, “begin with something nonfigurative and make it figurative by using it to describe something beyond the scope of its normal meaning” (62). It’s important to remember, then, that “metaphors speak truths, but the surface meaning of the words in metaphors speak untruths” (63-64). The surface meaning of, “We locked horns on that topic,” is meaningless. Neither of the disputants had horns! But the statement communicates a real, actual, historical truth, namely, that I and another person disagreed and argued about a particular issue. Thus, figurative language, such as metaphor, hyperbole, simile, etc. may actually enhance the truth and power and force of utterances in a way that surface, flat-footed literalism never could.

Thus, “when people are nearly blind, we increase the font size. When people are nearly deaf, we turn up the volume. When people are mentally handicapped, we use visuals. The audience of prophetic language was sometimes blind, sometimes deaf and often mentally handicapped” (73). Therefore, figurative language was employed to communicate more effectively the truth about God’s eschatological purposes.

In Chapter Four Sandy turns his attention to two of the subgenres of prophecy: curses and blessings, as a way of illustrating how prophetic texts function. After listing numerous texts that portray the prospect of either blessing or cursing, Sandy explains why such a variety and extremity of graphic terms are employed:

“The reason is not difficult to see: normal human language is simply inadequate to express the heights of God’s love and the depths of his wrath. So the best the prophets can do with his attributes is the same as what they do with descriptions of his transcendence: offer a mosaic of mystery – glimpses of the attributes of God. Part of the explanation, then, for wild animals running all over the earth gorging themselves on sinners, and rivers of milk flowing through the countryside, is the inherent limitation of human language to describe the inherent majesty of God’s love and wrath. The best way to conceive the inconceivable about God is to picture him acting in very extreme ways” (80).

One especially insightful example cited by Sandy is the use of the term “forever” in prophetic texts. Whereas the immediate response of many is to assume that “When the Bible says ‘forever’ it means ‘forever’!” Sandy clearly demonstrates this to be a facile and erroneous conclusion. Yes, on occasion, “forever” can “designate something that is true presently and lasts indefinitely into the future, without interruption and without end” (98; cf. “Your statutes are forever right,” Ps. 119:144). But in countless other texts “forever” “may or may not begin immediately, may be interrupted for long periods of time, and may achieve its perpetuity only in the distant future, when time essentially will no longer matter anyway” (98). In other places “forever” may “designate perpetuity in the present world, with no notion of its being without end. It is simply the notion of continuing” (99; see 1 Kings 1:31; Neh. 2:3; Dan. 2:4; 3:9; 6:21; Josh. 4:7). “Forever” may also be used in “hyperbole, especially in poetic literature” (99; see Isa. 34:10; Jer. 15:14; 17:27; 18:16; Jonah 2:6). In a number of texts (see pp. 100-01) “forever” is used “to add a sense of pregnancy to language, or a sense of power and emotion and mystery” (100), rather than to indicate simply perpetuity (on p. 222, Sandy lists more than thirty texts in which “forever” does not mean literally “in perpetuity”).

Chapter Five is devoted to the subject of apocalyptic, with special focus on examples taken from Daniel 8 and Revelation 12. Sandy contends that apocalyptic language is designed to be “allusive rather than precise” (114). It “paints impressionistic pictures. Stand back and look at the picture. What is the overall effect? What did the artist seek to convey? But be careful not to stand too close. Impressionism uses dabs and strokes of paint that individually may be peculiar but in the larger context combine to depict scenes of unusual vividness and emotion. The artist’s intent cannot be understood if viewers stand close enough to see the individual brushstrokes” (127-28). Again, “reading apocalyptic . . . is best done from a distance. Like ancient hearers, we need to take in the sweep of the narrative. Apocalyptic uses allusions and symbols that may be peculiar but in the larger context combine to depict scenes of unusual vividness and emotion. But the message can easily be missed if the strokes of the painter’s brush are scrutinized individually” (128). Although Sandy makes an important point about the nature of apocalyptic, I’m not as confident about his interpretation of Daniel 8 or Revelation 12.

In chapter six he turns his attention to how prophecies have been fulfilled. He argues that the role or purpose of the biblical prophet was primarily three-fold: prosecution (indicting the people with rebellion and announcing God’s wrath), persuasion (the call to repentance), and prediction. As for the latter, Sandy argues (not always successively, in my opinion) that the way in which some prophecies have been “fulfilled” indicates that it wasn’t always the intent of the prophet to reveal specific details about the future. On the other hand, he is quick to argue that “what God has said will happen will happen” (154).

In the chapter (seven) titled, “How Will Prophecies Be Fulfilled?”, Sandy provides an excellent discussion of the nature of metaphor. There are, he contends, seven key features of “the language of futurespeak” (157): poetry, metaphor, hyperbole, orality (i.e., prophecies generally began as sermons rather than essays and were often not committed to writing until long after their original delivery), urgency, immediacy, and intentionality. Again, the most important of these is metaphor, the primary function of which was “to describe something that had never been experienced. Whether peering into heaven or into the future, the prophets used images known in their day to depict worlds that they and their hearers could know only in the broadest of terms. Thus images and metaphors are the norm rather than the exception. The language is visual, engaging, aesthetic and mysterious” (159).

What will certainly prove to be one of the more controversial features of the book is Sandy’s discussion of events traditionally thought to be associated with the second coming of Christ. He lists such texts as Mt. 24:30-31 (Jesus coming on the clouds, attended by angels, with a loud trumpet), 1 Thess. 4:16 (voice of the archangel, with a trumpet sounding), 2 Thess. 1:7 (blazing fire), Jude 14 (myriads of angels attending), Rev. 14:14 (a crown of gold, a sharp sickle in hand), and Rev. 19:11 (white horse, eyes like blazing fire). He asks:

“Are we to take a synoptic approach and seek to imagine an event encompassing all of the imagery? [By the way, my answer to that question, at least on this point, is Yes!]. Does a complete picture of the parousia include all of the above accompanying details? [Again, I answer Yes.] Or is the function of these images to communicate that it will be startling, unique, wonderful – and beyond description? Should we judge the fulfillment of these prophecies by whether we see exactly what is described?” (171).

Again, “are the images associated with the second coming definite details that we will see, or is this apocalyptic language expressing a future event that is indescribable?” (171). Sandy believes that “to describe the future [particularly the unprecedented turmoil and judgment associated with it] in the language of the present, a diversity of specifics are given about what will happen, but those details may not be intended as exact predictions about what will happen” (173).

Sandy’s conclusions will not set well with many, for he encourages us to “look at the imagery and admire it, but do not attempt to see through the stained glass to what is off in the distance. The function of the prophets’ language was to draw attention to basic ideas about the future, not to reveal precisely what will happen and when it will happen” (184). Prophecy and apocalyptic, then, “are not suitable for microscopes, so that we might scope out specific details of the future. But they are suitable for macroscopes, because they allow us to see the big picture of how God will bring to conclusion the present era and establish the kingdom of eternity” (188-89).

My purpose in this review was more to summarize than to critique. I feel compelled in that way for the simple reason that I’m not altogether certain in my own mind what to make of much of Sandy’s thesis. However, I will conclude with a couple of observations.

First, I believe Sandy is correct in reminding us that metaphor is dominant in Scripture, especially in prophetic texts. This recognition does not undermine the authority or infallibility of the Word. Evangelicals must stop their knee-jerk reaction to the word as if it is nothing more than the liberal scholar’s way of dismissing the historicity of the Bible. The concepts and principles communicated via figurative language are as true and real as those communicated via more “literal” language. To say that a text or phrase is metaphorical does not mean it isn’t true or that it is emptied of concrete reality. It simply means that ordinary, flat-footed literalism would fail to fully and properly communicate what God intended.

Second, Sandy is correct in arguing that the future can only (or at least, in large measure) be described in ways and from resources that make sense to the present. Biblical authors typically draw from images and expectations and ideas common in their own day and familiar to their contemporary audience to describe future realities of which they have minimal or no personal experience.

Third, I’m less comfortable with the way he almost casually dismisses some of the events traditionally associated with the second advent of Christ. I believe it is possible to affirm the first two points above while still affirming that the details related to the Parousia in the Pauline epistles, for example, are to be literally and exhaustively fulfilled. Whether or not the principles he articulates will help us in discerning what in the book of Revelation is literal or metaphorical is another matter, for another day.

In any case, I do recommend this book, especially for those who need to expand their understanding of how metaphor functions in the biblical text.