Goldingay, John. Proverbs. Commentaries for Christian Formation. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2023. xvi+477 pp. Hb; $39.99 Link to Eerdmans
John Goldingay’s commentary on Proverbs joins N. T. Wright’s Galatians in the Commentaries for Christian Formation series (reviewed here). His commentary intentionally seeks to integrate serving the church through sound theological exegesis to support preaching, teaching, and forming believers in the faith. In the introduction to the series, the editors suggest, “Theology is not the result of exegesis; nor is it one discrete element that is separable from exegesis carried on by other means. Rather, exegesis is itself a way of doing theology” (xiv).
John Goldingay embodies the goals of this series in all his exegetical work, but especially so in this new commentary on Proverbs. This commentary does not deal with Hebrew syntax lexical issues, translation or textual criticism. It is clearly aimed at readers who want to be challenged by reading the proverbs or to prepare to challenge others in the classroom or from the pulpit.
In the brief introduction, Goldingay says Proverbs wants to enable people to learn wisdom for a life lived faithfully and in awe of Yahweh. Wisdom is also practical and will enable people to be smart, shrewd, and skilled. However, people “who refuse to learn wisdom will end up idiots whose lives will not work out well” (3). Gaining wisdom is hard work. Understanding proverbs requires thought and reflection. The book assumes there is an ethical dimension to wisdom. This ethic concerns everyday life. The book of Proverbs also assumes wisdom involves awe for Yahweh. Goldingay defines this as a “submissive acknowledgment of Yahweh.” Notice he does not use the common translation “fear of the Lord” here. He is avoiding the confusion caused by the English meaning of the word, preferring to translate the word as awe.
How did people encounter the Book of Proverbs in ancient Israel? “Books such as this commentary are written for a small group of people who have acquired a taste for reading.” The same is true for the Book of Proverbs in ancient Israel. Most people would encounter the book of proverbs from a teacher who had read it and studied it and is now communicating it to them in some way.
Most commentaries on Proverbs suggest some complicated origin for the book. Goldingay Keeps it simple by dividing the book into three parts: Proverbs A (1:1-9:18), Proverbs B (10:1-22:16), and Proverbs C (22:17-31:31). He starts with the observation that the phrase “verses of Solomon” “hardly seems to imply that Solomon composed the sayings in the book” (9). Maybe Solomon sponsored the collection. Or maybe the proverbs are Solomon’s in the same sense that the Torah is Moses’s or that the Psalms are David’s. Goldingay suggests that a lack of knowledge of the book’s origin does not greatly hold back our understanding of the book. Basing our interpretation of the proverbs on a hypothesis is as likely to lend to misinterpretation. Proverbs are independent of date and provenance. Jeremiah or Paul may have addressed specific contexts, but Proverbs is universal. In fact, he warns against hypothetical theories of the origin of the Book of Proverbs. Any hypothesis is built on limited data in the book itself, and it creates a feedback process. The interpreter finds things that support the hypothesis, whether they are there or not.
Nevertheless, Goldingay briefly outlines his hypothesis for how the Book of Proverbs was collected. Sayings developed independently over centuries. Much of Proverbs B was collected during the monarchic period. Proverbs C was collected during the Second Temple period. Proverbs A was composed in the Second Temple period as an introduction to the book. This process ended at the beginning of the Hellenistic period, but the book was still being adapted in detailed ways until the end of the Roman period (10-11). He suggests the fall of Jerusalem may have been the event that brought the process of collecting and supplementing the text to an end (13).
Each chapter of the commentary covers about a chapter of proverbs, although it’s not always as neat as that. There are 33 chapters at all. Each chapter has a title which summarizes the contents. The commentary moves through subunits of potentially coherent themes. His comments are entirely on the English translation (provided at the beginning of each section). These are Goldingay’s own translations, and they reflect the sense of the Hebrew well. Given the goals of the commentary, there are no footnotes explaining translation decisions, textual variants, etc. Footnotes interact with various modern commentaries and occasional journal articles or monographs. He sometimes recognizes the contributions of early Christian commentators (Gregory the Great and John Chrysostom, for example) and medieval Jewish exegetes (Rashi and Ibn Ezra, for example).
Conclusion. Goldingay certainly achieves the goals of the series by providing insight into the Book of Proverbs with the goal of forming readers spiritually. Reading John Goldingay is always a delight. His clear and insightful prose will be accessible to laypersons and scholars alike. In fact, this is one of those rare commentaries that is a pleasure to read.
NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.