John Goldingay, The Book of Jeremiah (NICOT)

Goldingay, John. The Book of Jeremiah. New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2021. xxix+1033 pp. Hb; $75.00   Link to Eerdmans

John Goldingay’s 2021 Jeremiah commentary in the NICOT series replaces J. A. Thompson’s 1995 commentary (now an Eerdmans Classic Commentary). Besides his major commentary, Goldingay also recently published a short The Theology of Jeremiah (IVP Academic, 2021, reviewed here) and the NICOT volume on Lamentations (Eerdmans, 2022, reviewed here).

The sixty-six-page introduction argues the Jeremiah Scroll (as Goldingay calls the book) is a compilation of messages from Yahweh, stories about Jeremiah, and exchanges between Yahweh and Jeremiah. Goldingay outlines a plausible “three horizons” for the composition of the book. First, the particular context when Jeremiah delivered a message (for example, Jer 3:6, 21:1, 25:1). The second horizon is Jeremiah’s dictation to Baruch in 604 BC and writing in 594 BC (Jer 51:59-64). The third horizon is the production of an expanded scroll after 587 BC, with the final form of the book some time before 562 BC (based on 52:31-34). This final horizon is the work of “curators and storytellers” (9). Curators conserve things. They look after traditions, selecting and arranging them. Storytellers use narrative and drama. People can appreciate and respond to stories (both factual and fictional). Both types of stories can be just as authentic, although whether any story came from Jeremiah directly is unclear. So, Goldingay does not pay much attention to determining the dates for Jeremiah’s messages.

Goldingay, JeremiahGoldingay uses the analogy of the formation of the gospels to help explain the formation of the book of Jeremiah. In fact, both Jeremiah and the gospels have a similar time span between the words of Jesus/Jeremiah and the writing of the Gospels/the book of Jeremiah period. There are even multiple versions of Jeremiah (the Masoretic text and the Septuagint are quite different). Similar to Mark versus Matthew/Luke in the New Testament, getting behind Jeremiah to trace composition is at least as complicated as the gospels. Goldingay suggests that focusing on “getting behind Jeremiah” to work on composition is like the pursuit of Q for the study of the Gospels: it risks ceasing to pay attention to the actual scroll (14).

Nevertheless, the introduction discusses the composition of the book. Goldingay’s reconstruction uses the word possible on nearly every line. In 6626-604, Yahweh gave a series of messages to Jeremiah (Jeremiah 2-6) critiquing Judah. At this point, Jeremiah is trying to reform Judah. By 604, he writes up the messages to present to king Jehoiakim, who destroys the scroll. More messages are added through 587, including the aftermath of the fall of Jerusalem. In either Mizpah or Egypt, Jeremiah has Baruch right down these messages. Storytellers in Mizpah or Egypt wrote the stories about Jeremiah (chapters 26-45). In his Lamentations commentary, Goldingay suggests Lamentations was formed in Judahite communities mourning and fasting at places like Bethel or Mizpah (based on Zechariah 8:18-19). Finally, the curators compiled these complex messages by the 550s, creating the form of the book in the Masoretic tradition we have today.

Goldingay admits this is the minority opinion: most scholars agree the book reached its final form during the Persian period. He offers a series of critiques of this “fourth horizon.” If the scroll of Jeremiah was finished in the Persian period, there are there is a lack of redactional connections with Ezra-Nehemiah. In addition, Jeremiah makes no references to the Persian period, as we know it from Ezra-Nehemiah. He also points out that Jeremiah has more threats and warnings than a hope for restoration, as one would expect if the book reached its final form in the Persian.

But there is a possible fifth horizon. For some scholars, the disunity of the book shows the book of Jeremiah did not reach its final form until well into the Second Temple Period. Goldingay suggests that if the curators of Jeremiah scroll lived in the Second Temple Period, “they avoided drawing attention to themselves” and “invited the readers to read the scroll in the context of the period from Josiah to the aftermath of 587… I have accepted that invitation” (22).

He therefore points out that the book fits well into the historical events in Judah of the late Assyrian and Babylonian. Is Jeremiah a creative fiction which accurately portrays this period in Judah’s history? He draws the analogy to Ecclesiastes, which uses the known history of Solomon to present (later) theology. However, he concludes however that there was a historical Jeremiah. This is true even if the actual authors were the “curators and storytellers” working in 550s and 540s. “Their aim was to transmit the message of the real author, the prophet Jeremiah—poet, preacher, crusader, persuader” (27).

Why are there two versions of Jeremiah? It is possible to study the Hebrew and Greek versions separately or top compare the two, highlighting the special features of each. A key component of Goldingay’s theory of composition is the community at Mizpah (Jer 41:1-43:13). Jeremiah and Baruch stayed in for a time before moving to Egypt with a refugee community. Did these two locations generate two different forms the book? Possibly. Goldingay observes the larger Jewish population was in Babylon, so it is possible that the community compiled the final form of the book. But Babylonian theories are complicated (see Duane Garrett’s recent Jeremiah commentary, for example). Mizpah and Egypt are the simplest. He concludes, “such possibilities are simply possibilities” (38). The commentary uses the Masoretic text as it appears in BHS, although Goldingay’s translation notes regularly refer to differences between the MT, LXX and occasionally the Vulgate.

With respect to the theology of Jeremiah, Goldingay says, “the theology of [Jeremiah] as we have it fits into that of the First Testament as a whole and particularly in the Latter Prophets” (55). He develops three themes in the introduction: The God of Israel, the Israel of God, and the nations. In Jeremiah, God is powerful and faithful, but he is also a God of wrath and rage. God calls Israel “my people,” but they are not acting like his people. Jeremiah probably did not prophesy to the nations, but he has quite a bit to say about them. All the nations serve Yahweh, even Nebuchadnezzar is God’s servant!

Since prophets “do much of their thinking in imagery” (57), Goldingay lists several metaphors Jeremiah uses for God. God is a king, a guide, a master, a build, a shepherd, a father, etc. Citing Walter Bruggeman, Yahweh is “an abandoned bridegroom, a water fountain, a betrayed father, a lion, a wolf, a leopard, a potter” (57).  This robust and diverse portrait of God leads to a series of both/and theological statements in Jeremiah. For example, Is God chiefly characterized by anger or love? Both are true in Jeremiah. Is the catastrophe of 586 inevitable, or can Judah repent and return to Yahweh? Again, in Jeremiah, both are true.

Although the book only uses the phrase in 46:10, the prophet’s vision of the future focuses on the Day of the Lord. The Day of the Lord is the time with God will restore Israel. But this is not a far-off eschatological event at the end of history. The day of judgment is the (soon) destruction of Jerusalem and the restoration is the end of the exile (three generations in the future for Jeremiah).

Each section in the body of the commentary begins with a new translation of the pericope with a series of footnotes on lexical and textual issues. Here is where Goldingay compares the Masoretic text with the Septuagint and occasionally the Vulgate and other ancient versions. Readers who are not interested in this can easily pass over these notes. After a brief introductory paragraph setting the context and literary structure, Goldingay moves through the section verse-by-verse in a clear, readable style. All Hebrew is transliterated, and syntactical comments are minimal. Goldingay is interested in explaining what the text says and does not become distracted by “what other commentaries say.” Nevertheless, he often refers to both contemporary and classic commentaries on Jeremiah in the footnotes.

Conclusion. John Goldingay’s Jeremiah commentary will serve the next generation of biblical scholars, pastors, and teachers as they study this important book of the First Testament (to use Goldingay’s preferred title for the Old Testament). Goldingay’s commentaries are always a pleasure to read and often challenging. His style is uncomplicated and understandable for both experts and laypersons alike. He is committed to explaining the meaning of the text in the clearest terms possible.

 

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

Duane Garrett and Calvin Pearson, Jeremiah and Lamentations (Kerux)

Garrett, Duane and Calvin F. Pearson. Jeremiah and Lamentations. Kerux Commentaries. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel Ministry, 2022. 281 pp. Hb. $29.99   Link to Kregel Ministry  

The Kerux commentary series pairs a biblical exegete and a veteran preacher in order to provide quality commentary with the sort of helps a pastor needs to teach or preach the text.

Duane A. Garret is Professor of Old Testament at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Garrett is well-known for his commentaries on Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs (NAC, 1993), Hosea, Joel (NAC, 1997), Song of Songs (WBC, 2004), Exodus (KEL, 2014, reviewed here) and was the general editor for The Archaeology Study Bible (Zondervan, 2010). With Jason DeRouchie, he wrote A Modern Grammar for Biblical Hebrew (B&H Academic, 2009). He recently wrote the popular The Problem of the Old Testament (IVP Academic, 2020). Calvin F. Pearson (PhD, University of Texas at Arlington) is a retired pastor who taught homiletics at Dallas Theological Seminary, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Clamp Divinity School at Anderson University, and Grace School of Theology.

Garrett, JeremiahIn the introduction (47-61), Garrett presents his view of the formation of Jeremiah. There are significant differences between the Hebrew text of the book and the much shorter Greek translation in the Septuagint. The consensus view (following Janzen, 1973) is that the translators of the Septuagint used an earlier version of Jeremiah, the Hebrew text is a later, expanded version of Jeremiah. Garrett describes the consensus view as a “rolling corpus.” Jeremiah and Baruch wrote a short book which was expanded over hundreds of years, resulting in the canonical Jeremiah. Garrett opines, “This interpretation of the composition history of Jeremiah reduces the book’s credibility as a faithful representation of the life and preaching of the prophet” (49).

In contrast to the consensus view, Garrett describes Jeremiah as an anthology of the prophet’s messages, interspersed with key episodes from his life (but not in chronological order). Jeremiah comprises several documents which were not originally part of a book (transcripts of sermons, letters, and documents). Think of Jeremiah as a collection of papers curated by the scribe Baruch.

Instead of a “rolling corpus” formed over several centuries, Garrett suggests the following scenario. When king Jehoiakim prohibited Jeremiah from entering the temple, the prophet dictated a scroll to be read aloud to the king (Jer 36:1-8). The king destroyed this scroll as it was being read in a fire (36:9-26). Garrett calls this “edition zero.” After they fled to Egypt, Jeremiah and Baruch expanded on the destroyed scroll. Garrett calls this “edition one,” or the Egyptian version. Baruch then made his way to Babylon, perhaps after Jeremiah had died. He brought edition one with him. While living in Babylon, he edited and expanded edition one, giving it a chiastic structure. This is “edition two,” the canonical Hebrew form of Jeremiah. Edition one remained in Egypt, where it was preserved and eventually translated into Greek (with minimal modification) and included in the Septuagint. Garrett’s suggested scenario means Jeremiah was formed within a decade after Jeremiah’s death. In contrast to the consensus, scribes without knowledge of Jeremiah’s life and message did not create the book over many centuries.

A key element of Garrett’s thesis is the chiastic structure of Jeremiah. This explains why the Hebrew version of Jeremiah includes the Oracles against the Nations later in the book (Jer 46-51). They mirror the oracles against Judah (Jer 2-20). The chiasm also explains why the message of salvation (Jer 30-33) appears in the center of the book rather than near the end (as in the Septuagint).

The introduction sketches the historical setting of Jeremiah (from kings Josiah to Zedekiah) and the outline of the book used in the commentary’s body. There is a brief review of theological themes, but this is barely a paragraph. Basically, the book says Jerusalem is condemned by Yahweh, and destroyed by Babylon, but the structural center of the book is a promise of restoration and eschatological salvation.

If the introduction seems brief for a lengthy book like Jeremiah, Garret teases a companion volume, Jeremiah: Composition, Setting and Message (Kregel, forthcoming). In addition, Garrett presents aspects of the theology of Jeremiah in sidebars scattered throughout the commentary. For example, there is a lengthy sidebar on the “Fulfillment of the New Covenant” (285-89). Garrett summarizes Jeremiah’s claim that the New Covenant will be for Israel and brings about a universal transformation of the heart, enabling God’s people to keep his commands. But Hebrews quotes Jeremiah and claims the church is under the New Covenant. Jesus says his death initiated the New Covenant (Luke 22:20) and Paul claims to be a minister of the New Covenant (2 Cor 3:6). If the New Covenant was “for Israel,” how do Gentiles enjoy the benefits of the New Covenant now? If the New Covenant meant all people would know God, why is evangelism a duty of the church? To answer these questions, Garrett compares contrasting answers offered by Covenant and Dispensational Theology. He wants to avoid a complete spiritualization of the New Covenant (so that the church is the new Israel) and an absolutely literal interpretation. Although Garrett clearly rejects aspects of older Dispensationalism, he does not embrace the view of Covenant theology either. Essentially, he concludes the New Covenant is inaugurated but not yet ultimately fulfilled. “Jeremiah predicts an eschatological future in which Israel would enjoy God forever under the new covenant. In its fullness, all people will know God and sin will be no more” (289).

Garrett and Pearson divide Jeremiah into thirty-two preaching units, and Lamentations into five (one for each lament). Each preaching section begins with a brief paragraph summarizing the literary structure and themes of the unit. This is followed by exposition of the text. Hebrew appears without transliteration, although it is always translated. Some knowledge of Hebrew terminology will be helpful. There are sidebars throughout the commentary dealing with detailed Hebrew exegesis. Entitled “translator’s notes,” these brief sidebars deal with details of Hebrew exegesis, lexical issues, in occasionally textual criticism (for example, “A Scribal Error in 42:10?”). In a commentary on a book of this size, Garrett cannot comment on every exegetical detail, but these sidebars touch on the most important details.

Following the exegetical notes is a short theological focus as a segue into preaching strategy. This unit begins with an exegetical and theological synthesis followed by a single sentence preaching idea (ala Haddon Robinson’s Big Idea). Pearson then attempts to draw contemporary connections by asking “what does it mean?” “Is it true?” and “Now what?” The last section of the preaching is “creativity in presentation.” Here Pearson suggests potential structure for sermons and contemporary applications from Jeremiah. Each chapter ends with a few brief discussion questions. Like other volumes in the Kerux series, Pearson devotes about one third of each chapter to preaching strategy.

Including the introduction, the commentary on Lamentations is about 64 pages. Garrett recognizes that the Hebrew book of lamentations is anonymous, although traditionally assigned to Jeremiah. He suggests “Little is gained by claiming that Jeremiah is the author, since the interpretation of Lamentations does not depend upon it being tied to the prophet” (431). Clearly written to Jews living in the aftermath of the fall of Jerusalem, he suggests a sixth or fifth century B.C. date. The bulk of the introduction to Lamentations concerns genre, ancient Near eastern parallels, and the style of poetry found in the book.

The difficulty of interpreting a book like Lamentations is that it does not appear to have a message beyond voicing grief over Jerusalem’s destruction. He surveys several recent interpreters who argue the book contains a challenge to traditional orthodoxy. This includes feminist interpreters who find the metaphor of Jerusalem as a promiscuous woman offensive. Clearly, the book points out Jerusalem’s guilt as the reason for her suffering. The people have broken the Sinai covenant, even though God is a loyal covenant partner. This creates difficulty for a pastor trying to find a reasonable application in a contemporary context. Pearson warns against over-analyzing the text of Lamentations: “In trying to honor the intent of the text, the deep emotions that are present in the text need to be displayed as well as explained” (452).

Conclusion. Like other volumes of the Kerux series, Garrett and Pearson provide excellent exegesis and useful strategies for and preaching this important Old Testament prophetic book. Since Jeremiah is such a lengthy book, there are sections which seem too brief, but I do not think this distracts from the overall goals of the commentary.

 

 

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

Other volumes reviewed in this series:

 

 

 

Walter C. Kaiser, Jr. and Tiberius Rata, Walking the Ancient Paths: A Commentary on Jeremiah

Kaiser, Jr., Walter C. and Tiberius Rata.  Walking the Ancient Paths: A Commentary on Jeremiah. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2019. 633 pp.; Hb.  $49.99; Logos Digital edition $34.99  Link to Lexham Press

Longtime Professor of Old Testament and former President of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Walter Kaiser is well known in evangelical circles for his work in biblical theology and commentaries on several Old Testament books. Tiberius Rata is Associate Dean of the School of Ministry Studies and Professor of Old Testament Studies at Grace Theological Seminary. Rata contributed a monograph on Jeremiah, The Covenant Motif in Jeremiah’s Book of Comfort: Intertextual Studies in Jeremiah 30–33 (Peter Lang, 2007). This commentary focuses on a clear exposition of the text of Jeremiah and will be useful for pastors and teachers preparing to apply Jeremiah to Christian communities.

Kaiser and Rata, JeremiahThe twenty-nine-page introduction deals briefly with the composition of the book. Jeremiah is obviously not arranged in a chronological order (chapters 36 and 45 date to the fourth year of king Jehoiakim) so there was some editorial activity. Kaiser takes the two scrolls in Jeremiah 36 seriously. When the king destroyed the first scroll, Jeremiah dictated a second scroll with added material. Beyond that, Kaiser is not interested in theories of composition. For example, he rejects Bernhard Duhm’s suggestion that the prophet Jeremiah wrote the poetry (280 verses), Baruch wrote the prose sections (220 verses) and the bulk of the book are post-exilic additions (880 verses). As Kaiser observes, most reject this theory today. Prose is close to Hebrew from the period (citing the Lachish letters).

The introduction deals with Jeremiah’s use of Deuteronomy. For conservative scholars, Moses wrote Deuteronomy much earlier and Jeremiah knew Deuteronomy after Josiah re-discovered in 622 BCE. Critical scholarship focuses on a Deuteronomic history (Joshua-Judges-Samuel-Kings) compiled during and after the exile. Kaiser points out there is no reference to Jeremiah in the Deuteronomic history, even though the prophet Isaiah figures prominently. Others detect a difference between Jeremiah and the Deuteronomic history; Jeremiah is optimistic about her return from the exile while 2 Kings seems pessimistic (there is no hope for return). For Kaiser, the historical Jeremiah wrote the book at the end of the Kingdom of Judah.

Kaiser deals briefly with the Septuagint text of Jeremiah in the introduction. The Septuagint text is 2700 words shorter than the Hebrew Masoretic text and arranged differently. Kaiser points out three fragments of manuscripts from the Dead Sea Scrolls, two of which are similar to the Masoretic text, and the third is closer to the Septuagint. This implies there were two text forms for Jeremiah in the third century BC (12). Although the translation in the body of the commentary often refers to the Septuagint, but the exposition relies on the Hebrew Bible.

The introduction summarizes the theological contribution of the book of Jeremiah. First, focusing on God, Yahweh is the God of creation, love, and “pathos.” More than any other book in the Bible, Jeremiah presents God as having deep feelings, emotions, and passions. God shows his love and affection for his people Israel and the people of the whole earth. But also his deep anger and wrath for the moral degradation of those flaunting his law (13). Second, Jeremiah presents God as using historical events as the means to accomplish his will. Third, God’s words of salvation echo the promises given to the patriarchs and David. In Jeremiah, promises of salvation intermingle with words of judgment. Commenting on Jeremiah 31:40, Kaiser asks, “has Israel forfeited… her share in the promises made in the covenant to Abraham and David? Surprisingly enough, the answer to that very good question is: Never! Never once will God retract and go back on what he has promised Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and David” (375). In fact, the new covenant “does not envision a change in the partners to that covenant” (370). Kaiser rejects a supersessionist reading of Jeremiah 32:31-33. He suggests the church has “no grounding and no vitality except through the promises made to Israel and that at some point the Jewish people will turn to their Messiah in such vast numbers that it will be said ‘all Israel’ will saved (Romans 11:25b-27)” (370). The future of Judah will not depend on Judah’s own works, but on God himself. Because God made an everlasting covenant with his people, he will accomplish his covenant via a new covenant, the internalized law written on people’s hearts (31:31-33).

The introduction concludes with a detailed nine-page outline of Jeremiah, which forms the sections of the commentary. In addition, there is a short bibliography of major works cited in parentheses in the body of the commentary.

In the body of the commentary, each unit starts with a fresh translation with translation notes comparing the Hebrew text to other early translations (Septuagint, Syriac, etc.). For example, if the Septuagint omits or adds words, these appear in the notes with relevant Hebrew and Greek, along with a translation of the phrase. Expositional comments are verse-by-verse, written in clear prose without too much reference to the Hebrew text. When Hebrew appears, it is untransliterated. Footnotes deal with details of Hebrew syntax or variations of translation based on the Septuagint. There are occasional references to secondary literature.

Although not marked with a heading, each unit concludes with a paragraph drawing devotional or pastoral conclusions. For example, in his comments on Jeremiah 11 and Jeremiah facing his enemies, Kaiser comments that a congregation will stand or fall on how faithfully the word of God has been preached, and how well that congregation has responded to the word of God.

Kaiser interprets some of the prophecy in the book from a premillennial perspective. For example, commenting on Jeremiah 3:16, the phrase “in those days” points to “the messianic times coming in the future” (71). Commenting on the unification of Israel and Judah in Jeremiah 50:4, he says this will occur over a long period of time, “into the days of the second coming” (561). Commenting on the prediction “Babylon must fall” (51:61-64), Kaiser rejects the suggestion Jeremiah’s words are hyperbole since that “would verge on saying Jeremiah gave a false prophecy” (571). Instead, he suggests this prophecy telescopes from the immediate fulfillment of Jews returning from the Babylonian exile to an ultimate future when these prophecies will be fulfilled in the messianic age. But Kaiser is no dispensationalist. He rejects an interpretation of Jeremiah 30:7 which associates “the time of Jacob’s trouble” with a great tribulation after the rapture (342).

Although the commentary is nearly 600 pages long, some sections are brief. For example, the section on Jeremiah 52:1-34 is only nine pages, the bulk of which is translation. In the printed version, pages 357 have the wrong chapters for the commentary; Lexham corrected this error in the Logos digital version.

Conclusion. Walking the Ancient Paths is an excellent example of evangelical scholarship aimed at service to the church. Pastors and teachers will find this a valuable addition to their library as they prepare to preach and teach this important prophetic book. Although some academically minded readers may find the lack of engagement with critical issues frustrating, that is not the goal of the commentary.

 

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

 

Logos Free Book -How to Read Proverbs by Tremper Longman III

longman-proverbsThe Logos Free Book of the Month offer for December is How to Read Proverbs by Tremper Longman III (IVP, 2002). Longman is a well-know Old Testament scholar who has contributed a commentary on Proverbs in the Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms series (2012) and Psalms in the Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (IVP, 2014). For only $1.99 you can add Longman’s companion volume, How to Read Psalms (IVP, 1988).  I have used both of these small volumes on the book of Proverbs as a textbook in an undergraduate Wisdom Literature class.

The book is divided into three parts. First, Longman deals with the genre of Proverbs by defining and clarifying what proverbs are and “how they work.” For example, most readers of the book of Proverbs wonder if proverbial sayings are “always true” since we all know someone who “raised up their child in the way they should go” and the child certainly departed from that part.

In the second part of the book, Reading Proverbs in Context, Longman places the book of Proverbs in the context of the Ancient Near East. Most books on Proverbs deal with potential overlaps with international Wisdom (did Solomon use Egyptian Wisdom?) Longman also deals with the conversation between Proverbs and two other Wisdom books which have a slightly different view, Job and Ecclesiastes. This section also deals with theological aspects of this rather secular of biblical books in a brief chapter entitled “Where is God in Proverbs? Christ, the Treasure of God’s Wisdom.”

The third section traces three themes in the book of Proverbs, money, women, and words. These three chapters demonstrate how to create a thematic biblical theology within the book of Proverbs. I used this model for several assignments the last time I taught wisdom literature.

Logos also has a free book available through their Verbum site. For the month of December they are offering The Sermons of St. Bernard on Advent & Christmas is a collection of 19 sermons, originally given in Latin and translated by John Cuthbert Hedley, the bishop of Newport from 1881–1915. For 99 cents you can add The Incarnation, Birth and Infancy of Jesus Christ, or, The Mysteries of Faith by St. Alphonsus Liguori. This book contains over 70 discourses and meditations on celebrating the Nativity of Jesus at Christmas.

Book Review: Christopher J. H. Wright, The Message of Lamentations

Wright, Christopher J. H. The Message of Lamentations. The Bible Speaks Today; Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2015. 166 pp. Pb; $16.00.   Link to IVP

Wright has already written the volumes on Jeremiah and Ezekiel for The Bible Speaks Today series as well as the excellent Old Testament Ethics for the People of God (Intervarsity, 2011) and The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative (Intervarsity, 2006). His brief commentary on Lamentations is a welcome contribution to the study of this obscure book. Often commentaries on Lamentations are something of an appendix to Jeremiah (with the exception of the strange paring of Lamentations and Song of Songs in the Word Biblical Commentary series). Recently, however, several commentaries Lamentations have appeared: Adele Berlin’s commentary in the OTL series (Fortress, 2002), Dobbs-Allsopp in the Interpretation series (WJK, 2002), and Robin Parry’s commentary in the Two Horizons series (Eerdmans, 2010).

Wright LamentationsWright’s thirty-five page introduction to the book of argues “Lamentations is a book for today” (21). This is true despite the fact the book is rarely the subject of preaching and few Christians would think to “lament” as part of Christian worship. Yet there is a great deal which is worthy of lament in the modern world, horrors which are in many ways resonant with the context of Lamentations.

Wright begins by setting lamentations in the context of the fall of Jerusalem in 587 B.C., “unquestionably the most traumatic moment in the whole history of the Old Testament” (25). With respect to authorship, there is nothing in the book that could not be written by Jeremiah and the book “sounds like Jeremiah” (27). Yet the author has chosen to remain anonymous, so Wright simply calls him “the poet” throughout the book. Wright offers a short introduction to the poetry of the book, including the acrostic structure and the form of dirge/lament.

Perhaps the most valuable section of the introduction to the book is Wright’s view how a lament functions. In some ways it is a memorial to the horrors of the fall of Jerusalem, but a memorial gives voice to those who have suffered and cannot cry out for themselves. But there is something more in this lament. Jerusalem suffered greatly because of their sin, but was God’s wrath on this people just? Lamentations can be read as a struggle to find the justice of God in the face of extreme suffering. In this sense, it is a protest against what God has done—but it is a protest that ultimately accepts both God’s sovereignty and his righteous wrath (39). Meditating on Psalm 56:8, Wright suggests Lamentations is something of a bottle for the tears of God’s people. The book is a place where outrage and sorrow can be honestly and safely expressed.

The final two sections of the introduction offers a reading of Lamentations as part of the whole canon of Scripture. In order to connect this book to the rest of the canon, Wright briefly explores the silence of God in Lamentations and the rest of Scripture. But how does a book like Lamentations “fit” into the overall drama of Scripture? He suggests reading Lamentations is like “hitting the pause button, freezing the action of the drama, memorializing that moment in the story when it did indeed seem like the drama was coming to an end” (47). He cites numerous verbal connections between Lamentations and Isaiah 40-55 to suggest the Servant of Isaiah 52:13-53:12 is at least theologically linked to Lamentations. But this reading does mean we “jump straight to Jesus” and make Lamentations all about the Cross (52). There is a sense in which God’ is silent in both cases, but his silence in the crucifixion anticipates resurrection and salvation.

The commentary itself proceeds by paragraph, commenting on the English text of the book of Lamentations. Since The Bible Speaks Today series is intentionally brief and aimed at the layperson, there is no Hebrew in the text or notes. The style used for the commentary is very readable and at times convicting. While Wright is offering an accurate exposition of the text, he also wants to challenge his readers with the content of this disturbing book. For example, while discussing the horrors of children dying in the streets of Jerusalem (Lam 2:11-19), he refers to a report from the United Nations Relief and Work Agency which detailed the aftermath of the July 2014 shelling of Gaza by the Israeli Defense Force. The spokesperson for the Agency wanted to show there is a human being with a heart behind the people killed. Likewise, Lamentations seeks to “humanizes the statistics” of Jerusalem’s disaster by graphically describing the death of children in the street. This juxtaposition of current events and the distant history of Lamentations brings the text alive for the modern reader.

This commentary is very friendly toward the non-professional reader. It is not an exegetical commentary nor does it intend to deal with all of the complex issues the book of Lamentations raises. While Wright occasionally interacts with other significant commentaries, the bulk of this is relegated to the notes so a layperson will have no trouble reading this book. Each chapter ends with a few “reflections” on the text. These are questions to prompt further discussion, perhaps as a part of a small group or Bible study.

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

Published on September 5, 2015 on Reading Acts.