Book Review: Lindsay Wilson, Job (Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary)

Wilson, Lindsay. Job. Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2015. 420 pp. Pb; $28.   Link to Eerdmans

Suffering is one of the few constants of human history. The early twenty-first century has witnessed daily suffering because of war, human greed and natural disaster. Most people have wondered if some suffering is just and deserved or unfair and undeserved. It is difficult to hear stories of innocent children suffering in the media without asking how it is “fair” a child starves to death while a despotic ruler grows even more powerful and wealthy. If God is really both ultimately righteous, just and all-powerful, how can he allow such suffering in this world?

Wilson, JobFrequently Christians appeal to the book of Job for answers to these difficult questions, although Job does not always offer the answers we hope for when we study the book. Lindsay Wilson’s contribution to the Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary series is an attempt to understand the book of Job in its proper biblical context and to sketch out some possible answers to these deep questions about God’s justice and human suffering.

Wilson’s twenty-eight page introduction asks a series of questions about the book of Job. Although the story of Job takes place in patriarchal times, it was written later, probably after the exile and a significant time after Proverbs. When the book was written is not matter for Wilson, only that it is a reaction to misunderstandings of Proverbs and other wisdom literature (5). In fact, whether the story “really happened” does not matter since the book may be something like a parable, a story illustrating important theological truths. Job is a protest against a “fossilized misunderstanding of retribution that had misrepresented the mainstream wisdom tradition of Proverbs” (8). In fact, Wilson suggests that reading Proverbs is the first step in understanding Job.

The main issue in Job is retribution: Does God reward the righteous and punish the wicked? Based on their misunderstanding of wisdom literature, Job’s friends think this is the case, yet the book of Job makes it clear not all suffering is a result of God’s punishment, nor is every good thing in life a reward for righteous living. Although this is the most common theological use of Job, the book also is about God’s relationship with humanity. Why should humans fear God? Does “fear of the Lord” cancel the need to question God? Ultimately, however, the book of Job is about the character of God. As Wilson comments, the theophany and Yahweh speeches make it clear God cannot be constrained by “narrow human categories,” the “majestic picture of God’s power” is foundational for understanding the theology book of Job (10).

The Commentary is divided into four sections. Although it is minimal in the body of the commentary, Hebrew appears along with transliteration. Often difficult vocabulary is compared in various English translations (NRSV, ESV, KJV). Wilson uses footnotes for details of exegesis and interaction with major recent commentaries on Job. Occasionally textual variants appear in the notes. Although this is not a full exegetical commentary like Clines’ 1200+ page WBC Commentary, Wilson provides enough detail to help read the text of Job with insight. This commentary section is necessarily brief, treating large paragraphs in summary fashion. Occasionally Wilson will focus on a particular word or phrase (Hebrew appearing with transliteration). He interacts with major exegetical commentaries in the notes, providing the interested reader a pointer to more in-depth discussions. The purpose of the commentary is not detailed exegesis, but a discussion of the theological themes of the book.

The prologue and epilogue are treated briefly. Wilson focuses on a few key questions the prologue asks which will illuminate the dialogues. Job is a man of unblemished righteousness, but we are not sure why he serves God. Does Job have a disinterested faith? Or does he serve God because of what blessing and protection he receives from God?  The Dialogue (3:1-31:40) naturally makes up the bulk of the commentary section. As Wilson comments in his introduction, the dialogues are long and repetitive, they are in short a “talkfest” (27). Any commentary on Job must be selective in its exegesis, so this main section of the commentary summarizes larger units and only selectively comments on difficult exegetical issues. The Verdict section (32:1-42:6) deal with the divine speeches. Wilson observes “some of Job’s problems are simply resolved by the appearance of Yahweh” (180).

As with other Two Horizon commentaries, the bulk of the book is 172 page section tracing nine theological themes of the book of Job. The obvious theme in Job is of course suffering. Wilson follows David Clines in seeing three main questions concerning suffering that arise from the book: Why is the suffering? Why do the innocent suffer? What should I do when I suffer? The book offers some answers to these questions, but they are not always satisfying (especially those presented by Job’s friends). As Wilson observed, not all suffering is linked to sin nor does an individual who suffers need to know why they have suffered (219). A related theme is “Retribution and Justice,” is all suffering deserved? Does life really work like the Book of Proverbs implies it should? Wilson tracing retribution through the book and argues the book of Job ultimately agrees with Proverbs, although Proverbs does not promise peace and prosperity as is commonly assumed.

Wilson covers several related topics concerning Job’s questioning of God (litigation motif; lament and complaint to God; preserving faith). Christians are sometimes shocked by Job’s questioning of God and his frank refusal to accept suffering as a punishment. Although he ultimately retains his faith in God, Job cries out bitterly to God and even demands his case be heard by the just and righteous God. Wilson has several pages describing the form of lament in the Hebrew Bible and wrestling with the disappearance of laments as a form of Christian worship. For Job, laments may question God, but the purpose of Job’s lament is to restore and strengthen faith. “Job’s complaints can never be understood as merely mouthing off to God” (252). Citing Tennyson, Wilson concludes “There lives more faith in honest doubt, believe me, than in half the creeds” (257).

The final section of the book examines Job’s contribution to biblical, systematic, moral and practical theology. Under the heading of biblical theology, Wilson sets Job in a canonical context. In order to do this, he reads Job alongside of the rest of the wisdom literature. As he observes often in the commentary, Job is a kind of protest against misunderstanding the theology of retribution of Proverbs. In some ways Job goes beyond Proverbs by describing the righteous life of Job. Wilson traces the use of the rest of the Old Testament in Job (creation, Decalogue, God’s kingly rule). He briefly examines the common view that Job is a type of Christ, concluding Job is not “all about Christ” in the sense Job prefigures Christ’s suffering. The central theme of the book is God’s kingly rule (320). Perhaps the most fascinating section in his biblical theology section concerns the New Testament use of Job. How should we read Job as a Christian? He rejects the search for Christ in every page of Job, arguing instead to focus on God as sovereign and to restore the kind of “robust, lamenting faith” demonstrated by Job (331).

Under the heading of systematic theology, Wilson rightly begins with what Job contributes to our understanding of God, especially what Job tells us about God’s relationship with evil. Yet Job does not give a direct answer to the problem of evil, rather the book “seems content to leave the question of theodicy unresolved.” (340). He also briefly discusses the contributions Job makes to a theological understanding of Satan, sin, justice, resurrection and the nature of faith.

Under the heading of moral theology, Wilson attempts to create an “ethics of Job,” both in terms of sources for the book’s ethics and the ethical content of book. Scholars who do anything like this in Job usually focus on chapter 31 since it contains a clear statement of what integrity and righteousness looks like. Wilson goes beyond this by briefly touching on Job’s social ethics, including the book’s view of the environment and wealth. He includes a fascinating discussion of suicide. Job’s wife seems to think it is possible for Job to “curse God and die” and Job longs for death. Yet he continues to hope in God for justice and possibly restoration. As Wilson observes, suicide results from the total loss of hope in God (365), Job never seems to reach this point in the book.

Under the heading of practical theology, Wilson covers several topics which will appeal to anyone who wants to teach or preach from the book of Job. It seems strange to think of the book of Job as a source for pastoral care or a guide for prayer, but Wilson shows how the book contributes to these important areas of ministry. In addition, he includes a section on preaching the book of Job. Since it is unlikely anyone would (or should?) preach a lengthy series of expositional sermons based on the book, Wilson offers some practical advice on how to relate this difficult yet important book to Christian audiences.

Conclusion. Like other contributions to the Two Horizons series, Wilson’s book is an important contribution to a Christian understanding of the book of Job. It is a solid albeit brief commentary on the Hebrew text of Job with extensive theological reflection on how Job contributes to the overall theology of both the Hebrew Bible and the whole canon. The book is an excellent support for a pastor, teacher or layperson reading and wrestling with the book Job

NB: Thanks to Eerdmans 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.

Psalm 73:1 – Surely God is Good!

The first line of Psalm 73 may have been a popular proverb at the time the Psalm was written. At the very least, it is a common theme in the Psalms. Those who are the true worshipers of God are pure in heart. In Psalm 24, for example, only those who have clean hands and a pure heart may ascend the holy hill of God (Ps 24:3-4). In Psalm 51:10 David famously asks God to create a clean heart and a right spirit within him.

But Psalm 24:5-6 goes on to say that the one who has clean hands and a pure heart will be blessed by God; they can expect that the blessings of the covenant will come their way. The converse of this would be that the one who is not pure in hear will not receive the blessings, but rather the curses of the covenant.  A “pure heart” is therefore a way of describing a total commitment to God (Kidner, Psalms, 259).

This proverb reflects the covenant relationship which Israel has with God. In Deuteronomy God promised he would bless the nation when they kept the covenant and that he would punish them when they broke the covenant (curses and blessings). If a person did make a good-faith effort to keep the Law and followed the Law when they encountered impurity, then they ought to experience physical prosperity. God ought to give the good health and peace because they are “pure in heart.”

stupidity_xlargeIs it really true that the Lord is good to those who are pure in heart?  Is it really true that the Lord sends curses on the wicked?  The Psalmist has some doubts about the truth of this proverb in the rest of the Psalm. This doubt is common: how many truly wicked (or exceedingly shallow) people are wealthy and powerful? How many people who have dedicated themselves to God’s work are poor and oppressed?

For me, I am less upset when an evil person succeeds than when a shallow, useless person succeeds. Like the Psalmist, I feel like shouting, “hey God, are you paying attention to these people? Read their twitter feeds and judge them with hellfire!”

If verse one is true on some sort of universal “proverbial” level, is it fair that a long time servant of God dies painfully with inoperable cancer when a mass murderer lives out his years in relative comfort?  This is the issue the psalmist explores in Psalm 73.

Psalm 49 – The Folly of Wealth

Psalm 49 describes the fate of the wealthy. Wisdom literature in general has a great deal to say about the folly of relying on one’s personal wealth. Despite this, it seems like contemporary American culture (especially conservative evangelicalism) ignores the biblical associate of wealth and folly. I am tempted to inset a Donald Trump joke here, since there are far too many Christians who are fooled into thinking his wealth means he knows something about running a country (or worse, his wealth means he is blessed by God). If anything, American politics should demonstrate the truth of Psalm 49, reliance on personal wealth and power is folly.


The wealthy are described as cheating the worshiper.
To “cheat” or “deceive” is the noun עָקֵב, the root behind the name Jacob.  The basic meaning is “heel,” Jacob was the second of the twins born to Rebekah and was given the name “heel grasper” since he was born grabbing the heel of his brother.  To “raise one’s heel against” another person is a threatening sign, Ps 40:10 uses this phrase to describe a betrayer, Jesus quotes that Psalm in John 13:18 to describe Judas.

Trump MoneyThese wealthy people trust in their riches (49:6). Rather than trusting in God, the rich are confident that they can weather any economic problems which come along. Remember Y2K? Some people stocked up on food and water “just in case.” If the worst possible things happened on that date, they could have “boasted” in their own preparedness, they survived because they earned it and deserved to survive.

The fate of the wealthy is the same for the poor, they will both die (49:7-12). Wealth cannot ransom a person from the grave. This line (v.7) begins with a rare interjection which is not in the NIV and is usually translated “alas!” The word (אָח) is a cry of pain, almost like a guttural scoffing noise. The syntax here is significant (infinitive absolute with an imperfect cognate, the same sort of construction in the famous “you will surely die,” Gen 2:17).  The ESV uses “truly” to get at the meaning here, the point is the certainty of this not happening: “he most certainly cannot buy his way out of Sheol!”

Olsteen NoPeople who boast in their wealth have foolish confidence (49:12-13). It is not wrong to have wealth, nor does this psalmist praise poverty.  The problem is that people who have wealth place their confidence in the wealth, often to their shame.  Wealth can disappear in an instant. Their confidence is described as “foolish” (כֶּסֶל). They are relying on something which is unreliable.  Imagine if you had an uncle tell you that he was going to help you pay off all your debts because his new business was just about to make a huge profit.  He is only waiting for his Nigerian contact to wire him millions….most of us would understand that this is relying on something which is foolish.  Perhaps one of the reasons they have such high confidence in their wealth is that they have an entourage of people telling them what they want to hear! There are people following behind approving of their boats, giving more confidence to the wealthy person.

Wealth does not follow a person to the grave (49:16-17).  The idea that one leaves their wealth behind when the die common in most cultures, “you can’t take it with you when you go.”  This is a common theme in the Hebrew Bible as well (Ps 39:6; Job 27:16, 17; Eccl 2:18, 21, 26; Jer 17:11; cf. Luke 12:20). The wealthy used to name territory after themselves, but after they have died they will live in a bit forever without any hope of returning to the land they once claimed.   All of the honor the wealthy expect will not continue after death.  The ESV translates יְקָר as “pomp,” probably because the word is used to describe precious stones on a number of occasions (Jer 20:5; Ezek 22:25, Job 28:10).  The word appears four times in Esther to describe the honor given to Mordecai when the king honors him. The wealthy expect to be treated with a higher level of honor simply because they are wealthy.

In summary, the writer of the psalm paints a realistic picture of the “rich and famous” foolishly relying on their wealth instead of the God who gave it to them in the first place.  The riddle might be, “how can rich people be that stupid?” But before we quickly condemn the celebrities for being foolish, we need to recall that “wealth” is a matter of perspective.  Everyone in our church is wealthy compared to the rest of the world – that we have shelter—multi-room homes with indoor plumbing and usually multiple toilets, heat and air conditioning, reliable electricity, cable TV, phone service, internet, etc.

While it is easy to condemn “those rich people,” it is quite easy for us to rely on our own wealth rather than look to the God who is the real source of our blessings.

Psalm 49: Singing Wisdom

How did a wisdom Psalm function as a worship song?  Psalm 49 is an example of setting a wisdom theme to music, although these themes are not typically part of modern worship. When was the last time you heard a praise and worship song on the futility of wealth or the shortness of this life? This is true for traditional hymns or contemporary worship. There may be good theology in a song, but rarely is there anything akin to wisdom literature in a worship service.

Yet it is not clear how a worshiper would use this song as a part of Temple worship. Older commentaries assume wisdom psalms are late additions to the psalter, Mowinckel (1955) “posited a close relationship between a school of the wise and the Second Temple in Jerusalem in the post-exilic period which led to the production of wisdom psalms.” The main assumption is that wisdom as a genre is post exilic and completely separate from the religious life of Israel. Wisdom is a secular education, not a religious experience.

Our culture has many songs that can be described as educational (from the ABC song to song which set scripture to music, many folk songs have proverbial wisdom in a story format).  Most songs we sing in church teach us things, even if we do not think of them as educational.  There are quite a few hymns which are decidedly Calvinistic, or hymns which have the theme of the gospel clearly presented. This song is therefore worship, although it is worship that intends to develop wisdom in the heart and mind of the worshiper.

MoneyIt is possible that the song was used for teaching people about the dangers of wealth. One of the most common themes in the Bible is the dangers of relying on one’s own wealth. The prophets of the Hebrew Bible have a great deal to say about the rich, they gnaw at the bones of the poor (Micah 3:1-3) or steal from the poor by seizing their property (Micah 2:1-2), or impose fines and taxes (Amos 5:11) or cheat them in the marketplace (Micah 6:9-12).  This psalm stands in that same tradition, although the psalmist approaches the “problem of wealth” from the perspective of a wisdom teacher. He invites us to ponder a “riddle” about the wealthy in order to teach us something about our own relationship with our wealth

This is a worship theme which would never work in contemporary “praise and worship” music. Most of this music is about the worshiper’s relationship with God, and while some songs are about the Cross, most are about the warm feelings Jesus gives us or how he helps us through our troubles. I cannot imagine a song warning people to avoid accumulating wealth would be very popular on the P&W circuit. Not do I hear very many sermons about doing good things with wealth (usually sermons on money are thinly veiled plagiarisms of Dave Ramsey rather than preaching what the Bible says about wealth!)

 

Bibliography: Katharine J. Dell, “‘I Will Solve My Riddle to the Music Of The Lyre’ (Psalm XLIX 4[5]):  A Cultic Setting For Wisdom Psalms?” VT 54 (2004), 466.

Book Review: Douglas Sean O’Donnell, The Beginning and End of Wisdom

O’Donnell, Douglas Sean. The Beginning and End of Wisdom: Preaching Christ from the First and Last Chapters of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job. Wheaton: Crossway, 2011. 235 pp. $17.99, pb. Link to Crossway

The plan of this book is to help the reader “build a fire” by helping them to know and enjoy Wisdom literature. More importantly, O’Donnell wants to show the reader “how to build the fire” by giving them some tools for reading Wisdom literature. What makes this book different than most short books of Wisdom Literature is that O’Donnell specifically wants to read this material through the lens of Jesus and the Cross. He wants the reader to “put on Gospel glasses and look at this text” in order to preach Christocentiric sermons on Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes. In order to do this, he provides six sermons based on the beginning and end of the three Wisdom books. After these illustration sermons, he offers a chapter describing his Christological method for reading Wisdom.

What O’Donnell does not do in his sermons is exegesis of the text. By this I mean that there is little reflection on the meaning of words or the context of the ancient world. In his sermon on the opening section of Ecclesiastes, his title is “Why Work?” and the content of the sermon is on the importance of working hard for the at righteousness. He looks at work through “Gospel Glasses” and examines Jesus work doing the will of the father, then draws a line to his audience, urging them also to do the will of the father. I find this style of sermons as more or less thematic, based on some theme in the text, but in the end totally unconnected with the text read at the beginning of the sermon.

In his last chapter, O’Donnell shares several tips for preaching Christ in Wisdom literature. He recommends that the preacher not draw a straight line from the Old Testament to some ethical / moral teaching for his congregation. Rather, a Christocentric preacher will draw the line from the Old Testament, through Christ, and then to an ethical command for his congregation.

How is this to be done? O’Donnell recommends a judicious use of typology. For example, his sermon on Job 42 focuses on the sufferings of Job as a type of the sufferings of Jesus. “What Isaiah foretold, Job illustrated and Jesus embodied.” (125). I think that this style of typology is not particularly helpful if my goal is presenting what Bible actually says. There is nothing at all in Job 42 or in the later use of Job’s story that makes me think that this typological analysis is valid. In fact, I find it scarcely better than allegorizing the text. O’Donnell does not want to allegorize the Old Testament, and claims that this typological study is not allegory. I cannot see the difference. He does state that typology is “not an easy skill,” it takes time, hard work, and spiritual illumination (127).

I find this characterization intimidating since it implies that my resistence to typology is the result of non-illumination, even if it is the result of hard work and time spent in the text. The Holy Spirit may very well illuminate a pastor who takes the time to exegete a text and reflect on historical, cultural, and literary contexts in order to apply the text to his congregation. I think that a sermon on a section of Proverbs, for example, does not have to jump from the text of the Hebrew Bible to Jesus in order to be valuable for a Christian congregation. I certainly do not think that this is necessary for Job or Ecclesiastes. This is where I seriously differ with O’Donnell, I am after the original intention of the author. The application of a text ought to be drawn from that text. By using“gospel glasses” in parts of the Bible which are not expressly Christological, I think the meaning of the text suffers.

I found his appendix on reading Hebrew poetry well written and helpful, although he is standing on the foundation of Robert Alter. He provides a nice introduction to the forms of Hebrew poetry and gives some good advice on dealing with biblical imagery. For example, he urges his readers to not overanalyze imagery, allowing the fluid language of the text to be evocative and moving. I think that this section could be enhanced by taking into consideration the use (and abuse) of metaphors in poetry, but there is still much here that will help a preacher to better approach the poetry of the Hebrew Bible.

This was not the book I expected it to be when I began reading it. Rather than a short introduction to Wisdom Literature, it is book about how to preach Wisdom Literature with a decidedly Christ-centered approach. I think that O’Donnell achieves that goal, I just wonder if that goal is the right one for the pastor who preaches from Wisdom Literature.

Psalm 34 and Wisdom

[The Audio for this week’s sermon was accidentally deleted. Sorry about that!  Here is a PDF copy of the notes.]

When reading scholarly commentaries on the Psalms, there is a tendency to disregard the Psalm Heading as an interpretive grid for the Psalm since it is assumed that the header comes from an editor at a later date.  This is especially true for the psalms which relate the song to an event in the life of David.  Since the header is from much later date (usually post-exilic), in cannot contain historically valid information.  An editor is simply suggesting a context for the Psalm.

What I am proposing in this Sunday series on Psalms is that we take the header seriously and use the historical event as a lens through which we can read the Psalm.  Sometimes this is easy (Ps 51, for example), in other cases the connection to the historical event is thin at best.  Psalm 34, for example, the header to the Psalm says that it was written after David “changed his behavior before Abimelech.”  There are a few problems here.  First, in 1 Samuel 21, the king is named Achish, not Abimelech.  This is not a difficult problem, since the name “Abimelech” means “My father is king” and may very well have been an alternate name for the king of Gath (Dahood, Psalms, 1:205).   Second, in 1 Samuel David does feign madness, but it is not clear that David driven out of Gath by the king.  22:1 says he escaped, but the previous section does not say he was captured or imprisoned.  As I observed last week, the story in 1 Samuel 21:10-22:1 leaves out many details. All we know is that David escaped to Gath, was discovered and had to pretend to be insane, and eventually escaped from there.

Another problem is that Psalm 34 is clearly an example of Wisdom Literature.  It is an acrostic poem which invites the listener to “fear the Lord” in order to live a long and prosperous life.  This is more or less the theme of Wisdom Literature as found in Proverbs (Prov 1:7).

In this period of his life his family joins him for fear of Saul.  In 1 Sam 22:3-4 he petitions the king of Moab to give refuge to his family.  David then gathers people who are outside of normal society.  First, those who are “in distress” (ESV), although this noun (מָצוֹק) might be better translated as “outlaw.”  It is used three times in the Curses section of Deuteronomy to describe the ultimate suffering and distress the nation will face when they break the covenant (28:53, 55, 57).  Second, those who are in debt, the noun (נשא) refers to money-lenders and usury.  These are people who have found themselves in extreme debt because people have preyed upon them economically. Since usury was forbidden in the Law, it may be that these people were victimized by the law-courts, perhaps even the king himself.  Third, those who are “bitter in soul,” a phrase which only appears here in the Hebrew Bible.  This probably has the sense of “discontented,” specifically with King Saul. David builds up a small army of 400 men who have fled King Saul.  This army will continue to grow and will eventually be the core of David’s elite soldiers when he comes king.

In Psalm 34 David describes himself as poor and in grave distress, afraid and in need of rescue (verses 4-7).  The singer of the Psalm identifies himself with the lowest levels of society, perhaps like the men gathered by David in the wilderness.  David’s men need to be told that the Lord is good to those who fear him, but they also need some basic instruction on what it means to “fear the Lord.”  Verses 11-14 invite the listener to fear the Lord by speaking the truth, shunning evil, and seeking peace.  All three of these are Wisdom themes, but they are also the message the men described in 1 Sam 22:3-4 would need to be David’s “mighty men of valor.”

It really does not matter if David wrote this Psalm in order to instruct these men or a later psalmist wrote the Psalm using the story of David in Gath as a model.  Within the world of Psalm 34, David’s instruction to his men is to begin their life of service to the King of Israel by Fearing the Lord.