When Prophecy Appears To Fail, Check Your Hermeneutic -- By: Robert Chisholm
JETS 53:3 (September 2010) p. 561
When Prophecy Appears To Fail, Check Your Hermeneutic
Robert Chisholm is chair and professor of Old Testament studies at Dallas Theological Seminary, 3909 Swiss Avenue, Dallas, TX 75204.
I. The Problem Of Unfulfilled Prophecy
A close analysis of OT prophecy reveals that many prophecies were not fulfilled either in part or in whole.1 In response to this, one may retreat to one of two extremes: (1) discount the supernatural revelatory nature of OT prophecy (a typical modern critical approach); or (2) claim that all unrealized prophecy pertains to the eschaton (a typical popular approach). The first of these extremes turns the prophets into wishful thinkers at best or political propagandists at worst and robs their messages of authority. The second extreme turns the prophets into crystal gazers detached from their contemporaries. By uprooting prophecy from its historical soil, it invites sensationalistic and overly contemporized interpretation in the modern context in which the prophecy is transplanted.2 There is a better way to approach the problem that preserves prophecy’s supernatural character as well as its contextual integrity. Prophecy can appear to “fail” if we approach it with a faulty hermeneutic that treats it as inherently unconditional and demands precise fulfillment of any and all details. To explain adequately the phenomenon of “failed” prophecy we must move beyond this simplistic hermeneutic and recognize that prophetic language is inherently functional, often contingent, and invariably contextualized.
II. The Functional Nature Of Prophetic Language
The language of prophecy, like most language, has a deeper function, beyond being simply informative or descriptive. Sandy correctly affirms, “the
JETS 53:3 (September 2010) p. 562
function of language may prevail over form.”3 As the typical wife or husband can attest after listening to a distraught spouse pour out his or her heart after a hard day, words are often intended to be more than informative. They are frequently chosen because of the expected emotional impact they will have on a hearer and for their capacity to motivate behavior.4 When dealing with language, one must ask: “What do the words convey about the speaker’s feelings and values? What is the real point that is being made? What is the speaker’s primary purpose?” It is especially necessary to ask these questions of the emotionally charged language of prophecy.
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