Book Review: Heath A. Thomas, Habakkuk (Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary)

Thomas, Heath A. Habakkuk. Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2018. 243 pp. Pb; $25.   Link to Eerdmans

Following the methodology expressed in his Manifesto for Theological Interpretation (written with Craig Bartholomew, Baker 2016), Thomas attempts to use academically rigorous exegetical, historical, sociological and literary dimensions of the text in order to draw out theological implications for contemporary readers. In other words, this is “biblical criticism recalibrated within the larger aim of hearing God’s address through the prophetic book” (4). Later in the introduction to the commentary, Thomas calls this a dialectic between systematic and biblical theology which he considers a “hard-won ‘thick’ analysis of a biblical text” (34).

Heath Thomas, Habakkuk CommentaryIn his 55 page introduction Thomas observes the obscure prophetic of Habakkuk is sometimes dismissed as too “hellfire and brimstone.” Rather than a “ragbag collection of unintelligible material,” Thomas suggests the book is theologically rich and “extraordinarily pertinent” to contemporary church life and culture (3).

Thomas reviews the “drama of Scripture” in order to introduce the historical context of the prophet. The commentary assumes the context claimed by the book: Habakkuk is living in the final years of the kingdom of Judah, specifically during the reign of Jehoiakim just prior to the fall of Jerusalem in 587 BCE (26). Thomas considers an earlier context in the reign of Manasseh or just after the death of Josiah. That the book mentions the Chaldeans and the imminent threat of exile favors a date around 587 BCE. He therefore understands the wicked and righteous in Habakkuk 1:2-4 are wicked Judeans oppressing the righteous.

Theologically, Thomas says, this context “pits the faithful prophet against his own people and culture” (27). A major theological point made by Habakkuk is that wicked nations will be swallowed up in their wickedness and “Yahweh will but them to rights. This is true…whether that nation is Judah, Babylon, or the United States” (30). Thomas revisits this interest in applying the words of the sixth century BCE prophet living through the final years of the kingdom of Judah to contemporary experience throughout the commentary. These asides are usually vague, allowing the reader to draw out the implications for their own time and cultural context. Habakkuk’s critique of evil in the leadership of Judah or Babylon is universal and speaks to every political climate in history.

The introduction concludes with a section on Habakkuk and the church. Here Thomas offers short surveys of the use of Habakkuk in the apostolic era (Romans and Galatians), patristic, Medieval, Reformation and modern periods, concluding with “Habakkuk today.” This final section includes one or two international commentaries, but this section could have been more robust. Although this would not fit into the Christian theology of the Two Horizons commentary series, the reception of Habakkuk in Judaism would have been a helpful addition especially given the interest in Habakkuk at Qumran.

The body of the commentary devotes one chapter to each of Habakkuk’s three chapters, Thomas sub-divides the material into several paragraphs in order to treat individual issues in the text. He comments on the Hebrew text and all Hebrew appears in transliteration. For the most part he only lightly touches on lexical and syntactical issues, although occasionally he draws on cognate languages for obscure vocabulary (Ugaritic, for example).

Two excurses appear in the body of the commentary, one on power of silence and the second on the power of memory. I comment only on the first excursus. Drawing on Habakkuk 2:20, “be silent, all the earth, before him,” Thomas offers a short reflection on “The Power of Silence (135-38). He suggests Habakkuk 2:20 is a “call for his people to recognize God’s power to vindicate the righteous and judge the wicked” (136). He moves quickly from this observation to the importance of contemplation as a spiritual discipline, “contemplation centers the church within God’s life so that she might live authentically as the body of Christ, rather than be conformed to the idolatrous patterns of this present word” (137). This is quite true and there is much to be said for the practice of silence as a spiritual discipline, especially in the context of suffering and injustice. However, in the context of Habakkuk 2:20, the climax of God’s judgment on the nations, perhaps this silence is “An overt eschatological hope is formulated whereby “the wicked are silenced in darkness” because “the LORD will judge the ends of the earth” (1 Sam. 2:9–10)” (G. K. Beale, Revelation [NIGTC; Eerdmans, 1999], 446). Rather than “be still and know I am God,” this text seems to say, “stand in silence before the Lord who judges from his holy temple.” Thomas’s interest in drawing theological implications from Habakkuk may go beyond the meaning of the text.

The final third of the book collects three essays on the theological horizons of Habakkuk. The first is somewhat typical of a biblical theology in that Thomas sets out the main theological themes of the book of Habakkuk: the destructive power of sin, waiting on the Lord, righteous suffering and God, Israel and the Nations. This unit also includes the New Testament use of Habakkuk, including a short interaction with Richard Hays’s view that Paul has an apocalyptic reading of Habakkuk 2:4b which makes the “righteous one” a messianic title. Thomas disagrees, arguing (briefly) Habakkuk 2:4b is not a prediction of a messiah but rather a pointer to the incarnation of God’s faithfulness in this present age. For Thomas, Habakkuk focuses on “faith in the faithfulness of God” (164). By this phrase he wants to draw attention to God’s faithfulness as the one who both judges the wicked and vindicates the righteous. With this emphasis “Habakkuk presses toward and eschatological hope” (168).

The second theological essay, “Centering Shalom: Habakkuk and Prayer” is in large part re-telling of the “drama of scripture common to the theological interpretation of Scripture. The bulk of the chapter describes shalom as the orderliness of creation, then shows how sin has destroyed the shalom of the original created order. Habakkuk’s laments are desperate cries to a Holy God in a world full of injustice because sin remains powerful. Yet “Habakkuk’s prayers do not shake an angry fist at God in the fashion of a petulant teenager moaning about the injustice of having to carry out the rubbish to the bin at the parent’s request. As Christian Polke rightly says, ‘To lament is not to whine’” (188).

In his third essay “Dead Ends and Doorways: Habakkuk and Spiritual Formation” Thomas addresses two common issues which prevent people from spiritual formation or even coming to faith in the first place. For many, the violence of God on display in a book like Habakkuk leaves no room for faith, and the silence of God in the face of great suffering in this world is the biggest stumbling-block to faith. Thomas argues that the book of Habakkuk addresses both of these issues by leading the reader to an overlooked form of worship, the lament. Although common in the Old Testament, lament is rarely practiced in the modern church. Thomas believes if the church slowed down and worshiped God through the form of lament it would avoid both “blissful naiveté” and “sterile ambivalence” (209).  By following Habakkuk’s lead in lament as worship, the church will see suffering through the cross and be open to a divine response.

Thomas’s Two Horizons commentary on Habakkuk is a model for the method of theological interpretation of Scripture. He does serious exegesis and pays attention to the historical and cultural context of this obscure prophet and is able to draw out implications for how the lives and breathes in contemporary culture.

 

 

NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

 

Logos Free (and almost free) Books of the Month – Todd Wilson, Galatians: Gospel-rooted Living

The first Logos Bible Software “Free book of the Month” for 2018 is Todd Wilson’s Galatians: Gospel-rooted Living. This 2013 commentary is in the Preaching the Word series from Crossway Books. Todd Wilson is has a PhD from Cambridge University and serves as the senior pastor of Calvary Memorial Church in Oak Park, Illinois. Wilson recently edited Becoming a Pastor Theologian: New Possibilities for Church Leadership (IVP Academic 2016). I happened to attend his paper on Galatians at the 2017 ETS meeting in Providence and found it very stimulating, so I am looking forward to this commentary.

Michael Bird blurbed the book:

“Todd Wilson has written a deeply pastoral and theologically competent commentary on Galatians that is an exemplary effort at Biblical exposition. There are some doozy passages in Galatians, especially on the Law, and Wilson provides a plain explanation and then shows readers how these texts relate to modern Christian living. A wonderful synergy of homiletical energy and honest exegesis.”

For only $1.99 more, you can add Ray Ortlund Jr.’s Proverbs:Wisdom that Works (2012) in the same Preaching the Word series.  Graeme Goldsworthy said “The strength of Ray Ortlund’s study of Proverbs is its Christ-centeredness. The wisdom of Proverbs loses none of its practical value, but rather is given its ultimate fulfillment as an expression of the wisdom of Christ.”

Logos is also offering Martyn Lloyd-Jones’s Acts 1-8 for $9.99. The Lloyd-Jones commentary was originally in six volumes, so Logos will add six separate resources to your library; that works out to $1.67ish per volume.

The giveaway this month is the Crossway D.A. Carson Collection (7 vols.,  $105.99 value). There are several ways to get chances to win this collection, visit the Logos Free Book of the Month for details. The free books (and almost free) books are only available through January 2018.

Logos Free (and almost free) Books of the Month – James Montgomery Boice, Exposition of the Psalms

The Logos Bible Software “Free book of the Month” for November is volume one of James Montgomery Boice’s Exposition of the Psalms. Volume 1 (Psalms 1–41) is free, volume 2 (Psalms 42–106) is $1.99 and Volume 3 (Psalms 107–150) is $2.99. This is about 1000 pages of exposition for $4.98, less than the price of a Venti Candy Cane Peppermint latte.

Psalms, Vol. 1: Psalms 1–41These are expositional commentaries, rather than exegetical. Boice comments on the English text and only occasionally interacts with other commentaries or scholarship. This is a commentary intended to be read by a layperson or pastor. He is not interested in the origins of the Psalms not does the commentary worry too much about the historical setting beyond what the Psalm header indicates. He says in the introduction, “The sermons appearing in this volume were preached in relatively short segments between the winter of 1989 and the fall of 1991 and were aired on the Bible Study Hour in special winter and summer series in 1992–93.” Boice is a preacher, and his expositions in these three volumes demonstrate his preacher’s heart. You can also get the complete James Montgomery Boice Expositional Commentary series for $99 during the “Twelve Days of Christmas” sale.

Logos also has a giveaway, this month it is the Baker D.A. Carson Collection (15 vols. $262.99 value). I am not sure why they did not choose to make the Boice collection the giveaway this month, but the Carson collection is worth entering the contest.  There are a few ways to get chances in this giveaway, so scroll down to the bottom of the page and enter early and often.

The free books (and almost free) books are only available through December 31, 2017.

Logos Free (and almost free) Books of the Month – Three Anchor Bible Commentaries (Romans, Galatians and Habakkuk)

The Logos Bible Software “Free book of the Month” for October is their best offer ever. During the month of October, you can add The Anchor Yale Bible commentary on Romans by Joseph A. Fitzmyer for free, and Francis I. Andersen’s Anchor Bible Commentary on Habakkuk for only $1.99, and J. Louis Martyn’s Galatians commentary for only $2.99. All three of these are excellent contributions to scholarship. Any work on Romans engages with Fitzmyer, and Martyn commentary on Galatians is one of the best available. The three books are about $150.00 retail, and you can get Logos 7 Basic Edition for free. So no excuses!

The Anchor Bible format begins with a fresh translation followed by a comment on the text and then a “notes” section for exegetical detail. All Greek is transliterated and all citations are in-text. All three commentaries interact with both ancient and modern scholarship and seek to explain the text as clearly as possible. For each section there is a bibliography covering secondary literature in English, German, and French. This makes the commentary invaluable for any student of these biblical books.

Strangely, Logos is not giving away the Anchor series in their monthly Logos. In anticipation of the the Reformation celebrations at the end of October, they are giving away the 55 volume set of Luther’s Works (a $258.99 value).  There are a few ways to get chances in this giveaway, so scroll down to the bottom of the page and enter early and often.

The free books (and almost free) books are only available through October 31, 2017. Do not miss this opportunity to add three excellent professional commentaries to your Logos Library.

Romans 1:17 – “From Faith to Faith”?

I am not sure I have never done a blog post “by request” before, but when Mat Loverin calls the tune, I have to dance.  This is a difficult little problem which touches on the syntax of the Greek New Testament, but may very well reflect the presuppositions of the reader more than anything else.  In addition, this is an allusion to the book of Habakkuk and may also illustrate how Paul uses the Hebrew Bible to evoke more ideas that are contained in the actual words.

In his magisterial commentary on Romans in the ICC series, C. E. B. Cranfield lists the following options for understanding this phrase:

  • From the faith of the Old Testament to the faith of the New Testament.
  • From the faith of the Law to the Faith of the Gospel (Tertullian)
  • From the faith of the preachers to the faith of the hearers (Augustine)
  • From faith in one article to faith in another (Mentioned by Aquanis)
  • From faith in the present to faith in the future (Mentioned by Aquanis)
  • From the faith of the words (whereby we now believe what we do not see) to the faith of the things, that is realities (whereby we shall possess what we now believe in) (Augustine)
  • God’s faithfulness to man’s faith (Ambrosiaster)
  • Growth in faith (Sanday and Headlam)

Notice that some of these possibilities seem to bridge the gap between the Old Testament and the New, it is all “one faith.”  Others see “faith” as a technical term for “doctrine,” others here the word faith as our response to God.  Some of these historical suggestions are very much driven by presuppostions.

Cranfield says that the problem with all of these views is that they take “from faith” in a different sense that it is used in the Habakkuk quotation.  He mentions that it is possible to take “from faith” as meaning by faith and “by faith” as an instance of  “an abstract for a concrete.”   The Habakkuk quote probably intended to link righteousness and faith.  Habakkuk is commenting on the fall of Judah to the Babylonians – how does a faithful person respond to such a spiritual disaster? Cranfield therefore suggests that the meaning is something like “for in it (the gospel that is being preached) a righteous status which is God’s gift is being revealed (and so offered to men) – a righteous status which is altogether by faith.”  (Romans, 99).  This is a theological unpacking of the text which may very well be good theology, but is it what Paul intended to communicate?

Should the meaning of this line in the book of Habakkuk bear on Paul’s use of the line in Romans 1:17?  It is possible that Paul wanted us to hear the words of Habakkuk in their original context and “hear the echoes” of the fall of Jerusalem in the quote.  If so, then the reader ought to be thinking about the faithfulness of God in keeping his covenant despite the sin of Israel and the judgment of the exile.  The faithful God is working in the people of faith to reveals his righteousness / justice at the present time.   Perhaps this is a text which could be read as an “end of the exile” motif in Paul.  How is it that God has ended the long exile of Israel?  By revealing his righteousness through the faithful act of Jesus on the cross.

But if I say “we have nothing to fear except fear itself,” I am not sure I can expect my audience to hear the words in the context of Franklin D. Roosevelt, nor even know that the words are from his 1933 inaugural address.  (In fact, his point was “we can get through the depression,” but until I looked it up, I would have thought this referred to entering World War II).  There are some people who might think that someone else said the line and “hear and echo” of something I had not intended, and perhaps “create a meaning” in their own mind that was not my intention at all.  Imagine the meaning if someone thought that Yogi Berra was the source of the phrase, describing the chances the 1969 Mets had at winning the World Series!  Or worse yet, Harry Potter trying to convince Ron Weasley to follow the spiders into the Forbidden Forest.  Those contexts might very well spin the meaning of my use of the quote off into unintended and perhaps disastrous meanings to my original text.

Overall I am inclined to give the context of the Hebrew Bible full weight in Paul’s allusion, especially since this line is something of a theme for the whole book of Romans.  Paul is declaring that the faithful God is acting to reveal his righteousness in the faith actions of his Son, on behalf of the faithful.