Book Review: Richard P. Belcher, Finding Favour in the Sight of God: A Theology of Wisdom Literature

Belcher Jr., Richard P. Finding Favour in the Sight of God: A Theology of Wisdom Literature. NSBT 46; Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2018. 310 pp. Pb; $28.00.   Link to IVP Academic 

Richard Belcher’s contribution to New Studies in Biblical Theology focuses on Wisdom Literature. In the introductory chapter, Belcher observes wisdom literature is like an orphan in Old Testament theology. This is perhaps even more true for biblical theology which interested in the entire canon of Scripture. Part of the problem is the scholarly consensus which dates most of this literature in the post-exilic period. For Belcher, the historical Solomon functions of the second Adam, therefore much of this Solomonic wisdom literature looks back to the early chapters of Genesis (12).

Belcher, Finding Favour in the Sight of the LordThe next three chapters treat the Book of Proverbs. First, he focuses on the message of Proverbs 1-9. After the preamble (Prov 1:1-7), these chapters offer a choice between two ways, wisdom and folly. These chapters alternate between lectures from the teacher or father and the words of Lady Wisdom. In fact, it is this personification of wisdom that is the dominant feature in the first nine chapters of Proverbs. Lady Wisdom is calling God’s people to follow his way, and that way begins with the fear of the Lord (37). Belcher briefly comments on the Christ implications of Lady wisdom. Both wisdom and Christ are like “street preachers” proclaiming their messages in public venues and calling people to follow them. “Both wisdom and Christ are like banquet hostesses sending forth messengers, inviting people to a banquet of substantial food, experiencing opposition from sinners and promising life to those who come to the banquet” (38).

Second, he deals with the hermeneutics of Proverbs. The genre of a proverb and the lack of literary context creates hermeneutical problems for most interpreters. In fact, many Proverbs could be seen as secular statements. Like most introductions to Proverbs, Belcher briefly discuss is whether Proverbs are absolute statements. Most Proverbs can be fairly described as “dependently true.” One can always add “in general” or “in most cases” to the end of a proverb. There are always exceptions. Belcher argues the proverbs that are dependently true now will be universally true in the new heavens and earth (50). What I do not see in this chapter is the effect of sin on the ideal wise life. The reason some proverbs seem “dependently true” results from sin corrupting the created order. This would give Belcher an opportunity to develop a canonical theology of wisdom which considers the corruption of the created order (looking back to Genesis 3) and forward to the restoration of creation in the new creation.

Third, Belcher describes the theology of the Proverbs. Most introductions to wisdom literature, this theology focuses on the sovereignty of God in the goodness of the created order. One lives their life taking into consideration the goodness of the created order, when will have success in life. However, Belcher does not think that life in the book of Proverbs should be limited to this world, as if secular success was the point of the book. The fullness of life associated with the Lord looks forward to a time when the wicked or overthrown and the righteous find refuge (73).

Belcher covers the complex book of Job in three chapters. First, deals with the theological issues in the prologue to the book (Job 1-3). It is Satan that raises the question of the relationship between piety and prosperity, and Job’s wife asks the critical question, “why does Job hold fast to his integrity?” Belcher considers Job a wisdom debate about how to respond to suffering. This may be the case, but I would suggest that job also deals with the failure of wisdom. He has lived out the proverbial wise life, yet he suffered anyway.

The second and third chapter in this section continue a running commentary on Job. After surveying each of the three friend’s speeches, Belcher summarizes their theology as a “mechanical view of divine retribution that leads to a narrow view of God and his justice” (97).  Job 27-42 asks and answers the question “where is wisdom to be found?” in Job’s final words, Elihu’s speeches, and God’s speeches. Since readers of Job are always interested in the two creatures in chapter 40-41, Belcher concludes Behemoth is an animal of the natural world and Leviathan is a supernatural creature (124).

Although he thinks that suffering is integral to the book, he observes that Job never finds out why he suffered. Belcher thinks the book teaches an appropriate response to suffering, either positively through Job, or negatively through the three friends. Part of the teaching of the book, he suggests, is how to counsel someone who is suffering. Although these are fair applications of the book of Job, I question whether suffering is the major theme of the book. Perhaps it is Belcher’s second theological thread in the book of Job, the sovereignty of God and divine retribution.

The final unit of the book is three chapters on the book of Ecclesiastes. Belcher deals with more introductory questions than for Proverbs of Job, partly because there are several difficult problems the interpreter must address before reading the book. Belcher suggests that Ecclesiastes is part of the wisdom tradition, but the writer wrestles with how normative wisdom teaching matches with what he observes in life (145). Ecclesiastes deals with the “breakdown of the deed-consequence relationship” (144). People can live the life of wisdom, yet their life is still futile, “chasing after the wind.” Although Belcher does not make this connection explicitly in the book, this is the same problem Job addresses.

The second chapter of the unit is a brief running commentary on Ecclesiastes and in the third chapter Belcher summarizes the theology of Ecclesiastes. The book presents God’s works is incomprehensible to the human being. The writer presents God as a judge throughout the book, although Ecclesiastes does not suggest a future judgment as a solution to the meaninglessness of life.

The final chapter of the book develops the canonical connections between wisdom literature and Jesus. First, the teaching of Jesus shares some characteristics of the wisdom teacher, including the use of proverbs and beatitudes. There are several themes which appear in both Proverbs and Jesus’s teaching. Belcher has a chart comparing Proverbs to the Sermon on the Mount, for example (195). Much of the comparisons phone into the category of “two ways theology” which was very much a part of Second Temple Judaism, although it goes beyond the scope of this book to explore non-biblical wisdom literature such as Sirach. Second, Belcher explores the humanity and deity of Christ as presented in John 1:1-18 and Colossians 1:15-20 as allusions to the personification of wisdom on Proverbs 8. Third, Belcher briefly discusses Paul’s use of wisdom in 1 Corinthians 1:24-30. There Paul contrasts the wisdom of the world and the work of Christ.

Conclusion. Richard Belcher’s Finding Favour in the Sight of the Lord is an excellent introduction to the contents and theology of Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes. He clearly presents the contents and the theology of these three books in a way which will stimulate academic readers but also appeals to the non-academic reader.

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

Book Review: Jonathan G. Kline, A Proverb a Day in Biblical Hebrew

Kline, Jonathan G. A Proverb a Day in Biblical Hebrew. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 2019. 392 pp.; Pb; $29.95.  Link to Hendrickson

Kline has already compiled Keep Up Your Biblical Hebrew in Two Minutes A Day and Keep Up Your Biblical Aramaic in Two Minutes A Day. This new volume provides one proverb a day with glosses and reading helps from Proverbs 10:1-22:16.

As Kline says in his introduction, proverbs are best internalized by “savoring them slowly in small quantities.” This is because proverbs are often difficult to understand. They are cryptic and ambiguous, and they are especially difficult to translate. His goal in this volume is to help students, clergy, teachers, and scholars who have not yet read much of the book of Proverbs in Hebrew begin to explore how these sayings work in Hebrew” (xiii). This is not a commentary and Kline does not provide any guidance for translating beyond lexical and syntactic glosses, not does he attempt any explanation of the cultural and historical background to obscure elements.

To produce this reader, Kline sorted 365 proverbs from Proverbs 10:1-22:16. The section was chosen since it is labeled the Proverbs of Solomon and it has 375 proverbs. Kline omits ten which are very similar. For example, he omits 11:4 since it is similar to 10:2; 15:22 since it is similar to 11:14. Another advantage to this section of the book of Proverbs is each proverb is formatted into two parallel lines. In Hebrew, the lines are usually three to five words long.

In some ways this is a graded reader. Kline selected proverbs with more common vocabulary for the earlier in the book, less frequent vocabulary towards the end. But there is no attempt to sort the proverbs by morphology and syntax. Although most of the vocabulary on day three is common for Proverbs, the noun עָרוּם is only found twice outside of Proverbs 12 and 14, nine times in the entire Hebrew Bible. A student also needs to know what to do with a hiphel infinitive construct. For most students with a semester or two of Hebrew, this book provides enough to read with clarity.

Each page contains a single Hebrew proverb divided into two lines. Each word is glossed and identified morphologically if necessary. In the example to the left, Proverbs 15:31 is divided into two lines, the first line has three units and the second line only two. The first word אֹזֶן is a very common word (ear, 155x) and does not need a gloss since this is the lexical form. The verb שֹׁ֖מַעַת is identified as a Qal participle feminine singular from שׁמע. Kline glosses this common verb as a participle, (one) that hears/listens/heeds. The final two words of the line are glossed together, תּוֹכַ֣חַת חַיִּ֑ים reproof / rebuke of life. Although literally this is “rebuke of life” it is an idiom for reproof. In the second line of the proverb, בְּקֶ֖רֶב חֲכָמִ֣ים is taken as a unit, קֶרֶב plus the inseparable preposition as the sense of “in” or “in the midst of” and חֲכָמִ֣ים is the masculine plural form of the common noun חָכָם. The verb תָּלִֽין is the Qal imperfect 3fs form of לין, to lodge/stay/spend the night.

Put this together, Kline translates Proverbs 15:31 “an ear listens to a life-giving rebuke, it makes its home among the comprehending.” This English translation is not at the bottom of the page. To keep students from using the English as a crutch he puts his translation at the bottom of the third page to avoid “accidental” peaking. As is clear from the previous paragraph, his translations are more periphrastic than expected. As he explains in the introduction, he is “drawing deeply from the rich reservoir of English vocabulary” to produce a translation which is “fresh, memorable, and—by dint of their novelty—defamiliarizing, thought provoking, and even fun” (xx).  This is an important feature since Kline wants the reader to stop and ponder the two simple lines of Hebrew, to chew on them for a few moments and meditate on what they mean in a variety of contexts and circumstances.

The book includes an alphabetical index and a frequency index. The latter would enable a student to memorize common vocabulary in Proverbs. For example, there are only the fourteen words occurring 25 times or more in the book (even a beginning Hebrew student will know most of them). The book is bound as in green cloth over boards with an attractive green pattern on the front and back. What is lacking is a string bookmark typical of a Bible.

This book certainly achieves the goal of providing a student with the necessary information to read a proverb a day and it will facilitate meditation on these important verses in Proverbs.

 

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

 

Book Review: Ernest C. Lucas, Proverbs (Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary)

Lucas, Ernest C. Proverbs. Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2015. 421 pp. Pb; $28.   Link to Eerdmans

Commentaries on Proverbs are often difficult write because proverbs are, by nature, easy enough to understand yet difficult to interpret. Proverbs in general are fairly easy to understand: we all know enough sluggards and fools to get the gist of most of the sayings in Proverbs. But there are several hermeneutical problems unique to the book of Proverbs since the genre is so distinct from Law or Prophets. To talk about the application of any given proverb seems to open up a broad discussion and some proverbs seem to contradict others. What is more, the collection in the canonical book of Proverbs developed over as many as 500 years, from Solomon to the post-exilic world. Ernest Lucas’s new commentary in the Two Horizons series provides a solid foundation for understanding Wisdom literature in general as well as a good commentary on the book of Proverbs.

Lucas ProverbsThe 44-page introduction begins by defining both wisdom and a proverb before examining the structure of the book. Lucas sees seven sections in Proverbs based on the headings provided by the final editor of the book. More challenging is the structure within these broad sections. He divides chapters 1-9 into ten lessons with several speeches and warnings from Wisdom interspersed.

Since it is almost impossible to suggest any structure in the other subsections of the book, Lucas attempts to identify “proverbial clusters” using criteria similar to Waltke and Heim. He compares his results for chapters 10-11 to these scholars and finds agreement in general, but diversity in specifics. It is almost better, in my view, to treat each proverb in chapters 10:1-22:16 and 25:1-29:27 as separate units. For example, he identifies Prov 19:4-10 as a cluster dealing with “Wealth and Poverty” (136). While verse 4 specifically mentions wealth, verse 6 mentions a generous man, verse 7 mentions a poor man, and verse 10 mentions luxury, verses 5 and 10 concern a false witness and verse 8 does not appear to concern itself with wealth or poverty, but discovering “the good.” What is more, verse 3 (associated with another cluster) refers to folly bringing a person to ruin, which could refer to poverty (financial ruin), especially since Lucas suggested the fool in verse 2 is a rich man. Verse 12 concerns the wrath and favor of a king, and verse 14 specifically mentions “house and wealth.” In fairness, Lucas does describe 19:4-10 as “loosely related proverbs,” but in my view Proverbs 19 is so diverse in topics it defies clustering.  In fact, some of the clusters Lucas identifies are only a single verse.

The 149-page body of the commentary is divided by chapter and cluster. Lucas first suggests a title for a cluster, for example, “11:2-8 True and False Security” or “17:10-16 Danger, Beware!” Within each cluster treats each verse briefly, usually commenting on rare vocabulary by comparing modern translations and suggesting an alternative translation if necessary. Hebrew appears occasionally and is always transliterated so readers without Hebrew will be able to use the commentary with no problem. Occasional footnotes refer to other major commentaries on Proverbs. As with virtually every commentary on Proverbs, exegetical detail is reserved for particularly problematic verses. Often the meaning of the proverb is sufficiently clear in translation that Lucas only needs a sentence or two of comment.

The most valuable feature of this commentary is the 162 page section entitled “Theological Horizons of Proverbs.” Lucas divides this half of the book into ten sections, almost all are chapter-length excurses on elements of Proverbs. Each topic is richly illustrated with individual proverbs collected from the book and references back to the commentary where necessary. These theological reflections could be read before (or instead) of the commentary, especially for those interested in teaching or preaching on topics in Proverbs.

Lucas first deals with perhaps the most difficult problem for Proverbs, does Proverbs really promise a successful life if one “lives out” the life described in the book?  Is there a straight-forward relationship between “acts and consequences” in Proverbs? If the answer is a dogmatic yes, then there are both theological and pastoral problems. For example, Prov 22:6 states that children “trained up” properly will not depart from that training when they are older. Since everyone has experienced a child who does in fact depart from their training, either the proverb is wrong, or we are misusing the proverb. Lucas challenges an oft-repeated axiom that Hebrew wisdom literature teaches “successful living.” That two of the three books considered wisdom literature in the Hebrew Bible disagree with this assertion (Job and Ecclesiastes), there is enough evidence to challenge, or at least modify the view that living out a proverbs lifestyle will result in success. After surveying several studies of the “Acts-Consequence Nexus” as well as a large number of proverbs similar to Prov 22:6, he concludes Proverbs was intended as a rule of thumb for teaching life skills. Proverbs provides models rooted in Yahweh’s character and purposes (218).

In the next two sections of the Theological Horizons Lucas describes the “characters in Proverbs” (the wise, the fool, the righteous, and the unrighteous) and “family, friends and neighbors in Proverbs.” Here he collects evidence from the whole book to define these regularly mentioned characters in the book. Often there is some overlap, a wise person is also righteous and there is a considerable spectrum of traits which define the wise person or the foolish person. His comments on the family collect a range of data from the book which will help a pastor create a “theology of family” (for example) for teaching or preaching.

Since Proverbs is often described as “secular,” Lucas offers several observations about God in the book of Proverbs. He demonstrates this common description is not exactly the case, since there was no “sacred/secular” divide in the ancient world. He agrees with Derek Kidner: Proverbs functions to “put godliness in working clothes” (249).

Since most commentaries on Proverbs examine the personification of wisdom in Proverbs, Lucas devotes a substantial section to this issue. He surveys studies which suggest various sources for Lady Wisdom (Egyptian Ma’at, or Isis, Canaanite or Israelite goddesses, Babylonian ummanu) as well as Sinnott’s suggest Lady Wisdom is a literary creation and Camp’s view the personification was based on Israelite women. Lucas concludes the personification was suggested by the feminine gender of the Hebrew noun translated wisdom (263). Included in this section is the personification of folly as a “strange” or foreign woman as well as various other female personifications in the book. Lucas points out these personifications need not be offensive since there are male counterparts for each (271).

Lucas devotes a section of his theological observations to “spirituality of the Proverbs.”  Beginning with the fear of the Lord, he argues Proverbs intends to form character, so that a person’s religious faith is expressed through action (279). An example of this action is developed in the next section. Since wealth and poverty are key issue in Proverbs, a lengthy section studies what the book has to say about the relationship of the wise person and money. This lengthy unit collects data on rich and poor people,

The most canonical section of this theological reading of Proverbs is Lucas’s section on “wisdom and Christology.” He begins by tracing the development to personify Wisdom in later Jewish wisdom literature (Sirach, Baruch, Wisdom of Solomon and Philo) before moving to the New Testament. Lucas focuses on three passages, Hebrews 1:1-4, Colossians 1:15-20 and John 1:1-18. In all three cases, the description of Jesus as the Word goes beyond anything in earlier Wisdom literature (331). Although a reader of John 1:14 may hear echoes of Sirach 24:8-12, there are clear distinctions. Lucas then surveys suggestions made by Dunn and Witherington to the effect that Jesus functioned as a sage. Finally, he traces these theological movements into the patristic era. For example, Theophilus of Antioch (d. A.D. 184), who identified the Holy Spirit with Wisdom. Although Arians used Prov 8:22 as support for the Son as a created being, Lucas points out no one in the early Christological debates attempted to understand the text from the perspective of its own horizon.

Lucas reviews suggestions that wisdom is part of Creation. The way to get the most out of life, according to Proverbs, is to “understand how the world works and understand its rhythms and patterns” (347). Since the sages rooted their social ethics in a creation theology rather than in salvation history, it was easier to share common ground with other ancient Near Eastern cultures (359). Lucas includes a fascinating application of this principle to the relationship of faith and science in the contemporary world.

Finally, he concludes this theology of Proverbs by examining “words in Proverbs and the New Testament.” He estimates about 20% of the Sayings in Proverbs 10-29 deal with the topic of speech (364). Lucas therefore creates a mini-biblical theology of speech in Proverbs and draws this material across the canon by using James 3:1-12 and Ephesians 4:17-5:20.

Conclusion. Although this is a commentary on Proverbs, the book could be used as a textbook in a college or Seminary class on Wisdom literature. More than half of the book deals with special problems associated with the Book of Proverbs. In fact, this section could have been edited as a short, stand-alone monograph on Wisdom. Although it is part of the Two Horizons series, Lucas does not employ canonical criticism or reception history quite the way other volumes in this series have. Perhaps the New Testament commentaries are more prone to these methods (see Wall and Steele on the Pastoral Epistles, for example).

 

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