Plowshares and Pruning Hooks: Rethinking the Language of Biblical Prophecy and Apocalyptic was written by Brent Sandy, a professor and chair of the department of religious studies at Grace College in Winona Lake, Indiana when the book was published by InterVarsity Press in 2002. The book aims to examine how biblical prophecy and apocalyptic genre work. In this paper, I will summarize the book’s content, give its overall thesis, strengths, weaknesses, and most thought-provoking points, and share how this book has impacted my thinking about the apocalyptic genre in the Old Testament.
Summary Content and Overall Thesis of the Book
The book is organized into seven chapters with the intent to answer seven questions about biblical prophecy. First, what makes prophecy powerful? The answer is that prophecy uses metaphors to let the readers experience God, heaven, and the future in full colors. Second, what makes prophecy problematic? The answer is that 21st-century readers do not understand how metaphors work in biblical literature. Third, how does the language of prophecy work? The answer is that metaphor is the language of prophecy and functions to create memorable images in the readers’ minds and to speak to their hearts. Fourth, how does the language of destruction and blessing work? The answer is that it uses metaphors and hyperboles to convey God’s holiness and, therefore, cannot be understood if we look only at the surface meaning of the words. Fifth, how does the language of apocalyptic work? The answer is apocalyptic is not primarily prediction but prosecution. In other words, the function of prophecy is more important than the content of the prophecy. Sixth, how have prophecies been fulfilled? The answer is that prophecies fulfillments have been generally translucent, not transparent. In other words, knowing the details of a prophecy before it is fulfilled is impossible. And finally, how will prophecies be fulfilled? The answer is that God only wants us to see the big picture, not to understand every detail of future events.
The overall thesis of this book is that biblical prophecy and apocalyptic passages are not meant to give microscopic details of future events but intend to give a telescopic picture of future events. Therefore, the intent of biblical prophecy and apocalyptic passages is not primarily prediction but prosecution and persuasion. Sandy’s thesis challenged the traditional hermeneutic of many commentators, especially those from the dispensation camp, who believe prophecy should be interpreted literary based on the surface meaning of the Scriptures unless that is clear evidence not to do so.
This is a very well-written book. First, Sandy extensively researched how prophesy works and presented compelling arguments with lots of supporting materials. For example, in chapter five, he provided clear historical background on Alexander’s victory over the Persian empire; explained the distinction between prophecy and apocalyptic; provided the functions of apocalyptic; gave ten reasons that the original readers of Daniel 8 could not have gotten the details of the conquest; gave six questions to help readers understand how apocalyptic work; and ended with another extensive research on Revelation 12-13 to support his point.
Second, Sandy did a fine job of demonstrating how prophecy works and making it accessible to non-seminary trained readers. His presentation is clear, logical, and easy to follow. He provided lots of concrete examples in each chapter to illustrate his points. The 26 figures (diagrams) that are spread throughout the book are beneficial for his readers. He did not use Hebrew in the book, making it accessible to those without biblical language training.
The book has a few weaknesses. First, the emphasis that prophecies are mainly metaphorical languages and thus the surface meaning of the Scripture is not its actual meaning could lead to misinterpretation of Scripture. This is a real danger, especially since it is not always easy to identify whether a passage is a metaphor. Although Sandy did include twelve criteria to identify metaphors, it is not still an easy task. For example, is Isa 65:25 a metaphor? I think the book would be stronger if Sandy had spent some pages discussing the danger of interpreting Scriptures as metaphors when they are not.
Second, the author emphasized the importance of prophecy’s function at the expense of the importance of the content of the prophecy. Sandy is influenced by the speech act theory that communication often is performative. He wrote that prophetic language is emotionally charged and designed to influence our beliefs. He believes the function of the prophecy does not always correspond with the dictionary definition of the words.  Again, this book would be stronger if Sandy would spend time discussing the danger of overemphasizing the function of a prophecy when the authorial intent is for readers to know the passage’s content.
Finally, the genre of apocalyptic, if abused, could cause us to misinterpret the Scripture. For example, Sandy interpreted the 144,000 in Revelation 7 as saints, meaning Christians, I presumed, while the Scripture says they are from every tribe of the sons of Israel (Rev 7:4). Readers need to have discernment not to let the genre of apocalyptic become the dominant interpretative lens for an entire book in the Bible to a point where the clear surface meaning of a passage is misinterpreted.
Most Thought-Provoking Points
The most thought-provoking points are first, Sandy claimed biblical prophecies are intended to reveal big pictures, meaning to give panorama views of the future; therefore, it is not suitable to be studied for details of future events. Second, Sandy urged that if his conclusions on the language of prophecy and apocalyptic are correct, “all systems of eschatology are subject to reconsideration.” This big claim particularly impacts those who believe in dispensationalism because dispensationalism is built on a literal interpretation of the Scripture, including the prophetic books and passages.
How This Book Has Impacted My Thinking about the Apocalyptic Genre in the Old Testament
This book expanded my tool set on interpreting the apocalyptic genre in the Old Testament. This book has convinced me of the need to think about the function of an apocalyptic passage in addition to the content of the passage. It helps me consider the possibility that God did not intend me to understand every detail of an apocalyptic passage. It is a very liberating idea because I have been shying away from preaching apocalyptic passages or books in the Old Testament. With a better understanding of how metaphor works after reading this book, I will pay more attention to the emotion conveyed by the passage and spend more energy looking for the overarching theme of a passage instead of spending all my energy on the details of the content. This book has made me a better student and teacher of the apocalyptic genre in the Old Testament.
In this paper, I have summarized the book’s content and thesis. I mentioned that the book’s strengths are its extensive research with convincing arguments and accessible presentation. Its weaknesses are missing warnings on the miscategorization of passages as metaphors, emphasizing the function of a prophecy could lead to the danger of neglecting its content and potential abuse of the apocalyptic genre. Its most thought-provoking points are that biblical prophecy is not suitable for details analysis; it is only meant to give a big-picture view, and if he is correct, all systems of eschatology are subject to reconsideration. Finally, I shared that this book has given me valuable tools to understand and teach apocalyptic passages.
Johnson, Elliott. “Book Review on Plowshares and Pruninghooks: Rethinking the Language of Biblical Prophecy and Apocalyptic Literature by Brent Sandy.” Bibliotheca Sacra 162 (2005).
Sandy, D. Brent. Plowshares & Pruning Hooks: Rethinking the Language of Biblical Prophecy and Apocalyptic. Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 2002.
 Sandy, Plowshares & Pruning Hooks, 188–89.
 Sandy, 154.
 Johnson, “Book Review on Plowshares and Pruninghooks: Rethinking the Language of Biblical Prophecy and Apocalyptic Literature by Brent Sandy,” 119.
 Sandy, Plowshares & Pruning Hooks, 189–94.
 Sandy, 81.
 Sandy, 82.
 See note 1 for the Conclusion chapter. Sandy, 249.
 Sandy, 206.