The Message of Joel, Micah, and Habakkuk: Listening to the Voice of God (The Bible Speaks Today) by David Prior (Leicester: IVP 1998)
The first question to ask here is why. Why group these three prophetic books together when it is admitted in the preface that they have ‘no discernible link with one another, in either their historical setting or their content’ (p11)? There are, of course, BST volumes covering Hosea and Amos already, but one cannot quite escape the idea that it would have been better to stick to the canonical ordering of the books. Presumably Obadiah and Jonah will come out together, but what will happen to Nahum?! I do not understand it, and I found no real justification for this editorial decision in the pages of this book. The library shelf of commentaries will continue to look a little confusing after Ezekiel and Daniel.
The second question to ask is, what? What is this book trying to be? I have read the general preface to the BST series several times and I am still puzzled. It is not a commentary we are told, because it seeks to apply the text. Prior does indeed seek to apply the text, but one might quibble with the definition of a commentary being put forth here. Won’t many readers of this book use it as a commentary anyway, reading it in preparation for a sermon or a Bible Study or as a reference book? It is meant to be a work of ‘literature’, not a sermon or a commentary, but it is hard to know just what that means when the subject is three biblical books.
I suppose the third question must be how. How well does David Prior, Director of the Centre for Marketplace Theology in the City of London execute the unenviable task of writing a BST? There is some useful background information here, as well as some intriguing suggestions as to contemporary application. I thought the suggestion that drug barons or employers who overwork their staff could be the dynamic equivalent to Joel’s locusts was worth contemplating, although I wasn’t entirely convinced. There is a theological edge to many of the comments made throughout the book, and a warm pastoral heart behind much of the application. Prior utilises stories he has been told by friends from around the world and his experience in the City and parish ministry to bring home the significance of the text.
Generally the book is quite useful but it is no replacement for a ‘real’ commentary. A few pedantic criticisms are worth mentioning. Prior uses some rather quaint language in the body of the book and (strangely) bases his comments on the RSV (including every ‘canst’, ‘dost’, ‘art’ and ‘thou’ !). Occasionally his writing is prolix and over-stylized. There is a mistake on p271 (Habakkuk 2:16a should be Habakkuk 3:16a) and an incorrect statistic on p74 (the Hebrew verb to prophesy is actually used three times in the Pentateuch out of a total of 115 times in the Old Testament – twice as a hitpael imperfect and once as a participle). The grammatical comment made on p64 about Joel 2:19 is really a comment about the text in the LXX not the Hebrew. More importantly perhaps, not every reader will agree with the comments made about ‘pictorial prophecy’ on p75 or those about ‘cultivating inner stillness to hear the voice of God’ on p231.
Notwithstanding the above, Prior is an observant reader of the biblical text and shows considerable pastoral sensitivity in his writing. He has given us some good explanations of key passages, some suggestive hints at application, and plenty of good stories, alliteration and one-liners. In keeping with the stated aims of the series then, I am uncertain about whether this is a commentary or a sermon.
This review was first published in Churchman 113/4 (1999).