The word “prophecy” strikes fear and trepidation into many students of the Bible. This is not only because of the genre’s difficulty, but also because of the endless parade of doomsday predictions concerning Jesus’ return, associations of social security numbers with the mark of the beast, and the delightful folks who have 10 gallons of water stored away because of the coming apocalypse. Prophecy has developed a bad image. We could blame Nicholas Cage, but that clearly would be going too far. Many Christians simply do not know what to do with biblical prophecy. This is unfortunate, for to read the bible ‘rightly’ is to read the bible with a healthy understanding of biblical prophecy.
In Understanding Prophecy Alan Bandy and Benjamin Merkle seek to remove this fear of prophecy by offering a hermeneutical method which is both biblical-theological and gospel centered. It is their contention that a proper reading of the Bible cannot be had without a proper understanding of prophecy, they write, “Understanding prophecy is essential for understanding the message of the entire bible. Prophecy, therefore, is intrinsic to Scripture and its theology” (17). Throughout the book readers will have this importance pressed upon them as the authors repeatedly prove that their project is warranted.
In order to communicate a gospel-centered approach to biblical theology the authors clearly define their terms before demonstrating their methodology. In the chapter dedicated to the question, “What is prophecy?” Merkle and Bandy helpfully point out that prophecy contains both forth-telling and foretelling elements. (38) Furthermore, interpreters of prophecy need to account for the literary genre by noting the figurative language and symbols used. While emphasizing an understanding on how prophecy communicates through figurative language and symbolism, importance is also placed upon the historical context (60). The authors then give special attention to prophecy’s relationship to biblical theology. After surveying several possible definitions for biblical theology, the authors provide four presuppositions inherit in each of them: The Bible is God’s Word, God’s Word contains a unified message, The unified message of God’s Word centers on Jesus, and Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension are the climax of redemptive history (63-64). Furthermore, the authors convincingly show that a good, biblical theology will contain an understanding of revelation that is progressive and utilizes typology. They write, “Properly understood Biblical theology acknowledges that the Bible contains a unified message and that Christ is the center of that message. The revelation about Christ was made progressively clearer throughout the Old Testament but has been fully revealed only in the New Testament” (81).
The authors not only clearly define their terms, but also successfully demonstrate how to do biblical theology. By carefully organizing the body of the book, the authors apply their gospel-centered biblical theology to Old and New Testament prophecies with special attention to their literary genres. Concerning the Old Testament the authors discuss unconditional, conditional, and fulfilled prophecies, as well as restoration and Messianic prophecies. In the section on the New Testament the discussion focuses on prophecies concerning the coming and return of the Messiah in the Gospels/Acts, the Epistles, and Revelation. Although a full discussion of these passages cannot be had, the authors are to be commended for their attention to the figurative language of Old Testament prophecies and for their emphasis on inaugurated eschatology (already-not yet) regarding the New Testament. To be sure, readers of Understanding Prophecy will learn to do biblical theology better as they wade through the careful exegesis by Merkle and Bandy.
A unique aspect of this book is that although the authors share the same hermeneutical approach regarding prophecy, they come from different eschatological positions: Merkle (amilennial) and Bandy (historic premillennial). This should be a great encouragement to students of Scripture. Merkle and Bandy show that although disagreements may exist, a great deal of agreement can be had! The church needs more of the humility and cooperation that these authors express.
Although there are a few minor editing issues (namely the omission of a Scripture index) in Understanding Prophecy Merkle and Bandy have offered a faithful reading of prophecy through a gospel-centered biblical theology. They steer readers away from unfortunate doomsday readings and offer a robust reading in light of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Thus, they achieve their goal in offering a hermeneutical framework for interpreting biblical prophecy. Readers not only feel the important weight that should be given to prophecy, but are provided with a faithful guide of interpretation. This work is well researched, well written, and deserves to be widely read.