Walter T. Wilson, Ancient Wisdom: An Introduction to Sayings Collections

Wilson, Walter T. Ancient Wisdom: An Introduction to Sayings Collections. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2022. 321 pp. Hb; $34.99.  Link to Eerdmans

Walter Wilson is Charles Howard Candler Professor of New Testament at Emory. He previously contributed several works on gnomic (wisdom) literature, including The Sentences of Pseudo-Phocylides (deGruyter, 2005), Philo of Alexandria: On Virtues (Brill, 2010), and The Sentences of Sextus (SBL, 2012; link to 54-page sample). Ancient Wisdom introduces readers to twenty-seven ancient wisdom collections from ancient Near Eastern, Jewish, Greco-Roman, Christian sources. Although students in Old Testament Wisdom courses often sample other ancient Near Eastern wisdom literature (usually Egyptian collections such as Sayings of Amenemope), few are exposed to post-biblical Jewish and Greek collections. Wilson’s book fills that gap.

Wilson Ancient WisdomAncient cultures created short sayings, maxims, and proverbs. This gnomic literature contains crafted sayings making observations about life, human experience, or present a moral stance. By way of definition, proverbs are anonymous traditions, while maxims are the product of a single author. Maxims intend to educate the reader, in contrast to epigrams (short, witty poems) which should amuse the reader. A chreia is a short self-contained narrative, usually with a climactic which maybe maxim-like.

In the introduction to the book, Wilson discusses and illustrates the various forms of wisdom literature. Often, this literature addresses the reader by an admonition. The same can be positive or negative (“do this” or “don’t do that”). Sometimes gnomic literature is simply a classification such as “silence is good.” In a section entitled “Constructions and Contexts” Wilson introduces three types of collections. First, gnomologia refers to a collection with relatively little formal or thematic organization, such as the biblical book of Proverbs or the Mishnah tractate ‘aboth. Second, Gnomic poetry (a sub-category of didactic poetry) survives only in fragments such as Pseudo-Phocylides (see also Pseudo-Phocylides on Justice and Hard Work). Third, Wisdom Instruction refers to collections topically organized (the Egyptian Sayings of Amenemope). Sometimes this category is organized as speeches or testimonials (as in the biblical book of Ecclesiastes).

It would be difficult to summarize a general theology of wisdom literature across such a broad spectrum of cultures and eras, nevertheless Wilson includes several reoccurring themes. For example, most of this literature deals with social relationships, obligations to parents, and harmony in marriage. Remarkably, this literature often includes instruction on wealth management. Wisdom literature teaches a balance between frugality and generosity, avoiding both greed and unjust gain, and even helping the poor. This literature often includes statements on how people in different social groups should interact, such as “don’t envy the rich” or “treat your superiors properly.” Frequently, this literature deals with restraining anger and controlling one’s emotions. There are several examples of proper behavior during a banquet when one might become drunk and speak out of turn. Recall Paul’s advice about lawsuits in 1 Corinthians 6 which may have been fueled by drunken behavior at a banquet.

Each chapter is brief, providing a basic summary of the author, dates, and origin of the book. What follows summarizes the contents of the collection and literary observations.Wilson provides several examples of sayings from the collection. Each chapter concludes with a bibliography so interested readers can find modern translations of the complete collection. Chapters are arranged alphabetically rather than chronologically or by culture. Some of the collections should be familiar to biblically oriented readers, such as the canonical book of proverbs, or Wisdom of Ben Sira, which appears only in the Apocrypha. Wisdom of Solomon is not included although thi sis a important wisdom-like text from the Second Temple period.  Others are more obscure such as Ankhsheshonqy, an Egyptian papyrus dated to the first century B.C. or the Sayings of Ahiqar, a Jewish court tale which dates at least to the fifth century B.C. The oldest gnomic literature in this collection is the Sayings of Shuruppak, a Mesopotamian document which appears on tablets from the twenty-fifth century B.C. Wilson includes chapters on the Greek rhetorician Isocrates (d. 338 B.C.), the Greek dramatist Menander (d. 291) and the Stoic Epictetus (d. 135). The only distinctly Christian collection is the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, which seems to draw on both Jewish and Greek proverbial material.

Conclusion. Wilson’s Ancient Wisdom is an excellent introduction to non-biblical wisdom literature found in the ancient world. Each chapter provides sufficient background material to place the wisdom collection into a historical context and examples to illustrate the interests of the author. I think grouping the chapters into units (ancient Near East, Jewish, Greco-Roman, Christian) would improve the book, but the alphabetical arrangement does not diminish the value of the book. Although Wilson writes for a popular audience, the book includes detailed footnotes, and each chapter concludes with a bibliography, pointing interested readers to more detailed studies.

Minor question: at least twice in the introduction Wilson refers to “twenty-nine texts” (18). There are only twenty-seven and there do not appear to be chapters covering two collections. Were two chapters dropped after the introduction was written? Perhaps the Wisdom of Solomon?

 

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

 

W. Creighton Marlowe and Charles H. Savelle, Jr. Psalms, Volume 1: Wisdom Psalms

Marlowe, W. Creighton and Charles H. Savelle, Jr. Psalms, Volume 1: The Wisdom Psalms. A Commentary for Biblical Preaching and Teaching. Kerux Commentaries. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel Ministry, 2021. 389 pp. Hb. $36.99   Link to Kregel Ministry  

This new commentary is part of Kregel Academic’s new Kerux commentary series. Projected to be a 46-volume series, seven are currently available. W. Creighton Marlowe (PhD, Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary) prepared the exegetical portion of the Commentary and Charles H. Savelle Jr. (PhD, Dallas Theological Seminary) wrote the preaching and teaching notes. Marlow is associate professor of Old Testament at the Evangelical Theological Faculty in Leuven, Belgium. Savelle serves as an adjunct professor for Dallas Theological Seminary and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Psalms Volume 1 KeruxThis commentary on the Psalter is unusual because it covers a genre of the Psalms rather than each Psalm in canonical order. This commentary only treats fifteen wisdom psalms, although there are as many as thirty-nine potential examples of the genre. Kregel Academic plans two more volumes, a second on Lament Psalms and a third on Praise Psalms. Presumably, the introductory material in this volume will not be repeated, allowing for more Psalms in each subsequent volume.

The commentary has a general introduction to the Psalter (29-69) and a second introduction to Wisdom Psalms in particular (71-77). The general introduction covers typical matters of introduction (authorship, pace and date of writing and occasion). This must be general since the background for each psalm is different. The authors have a firm commitment to inspiration of Scripture (31), so the introduction favors traditional answers to questions of authorship. Regarding superscriptions, Marlowe suggests inspiration may not extend to editorial activity. “The superscriptions, however accurate in terms of maintaining a tradition, were the result of human imagination and ingenuity” (31). This seems to allow for some flexibility for the seventy-three psalms with “of David” in the superscription. Psalms with occasions associated with David are consistent with David’s career, but the “of David” psalms may be written about David, or in David’s style. Superscriptions are therefore highly valued, but not authoritative (30).

The introduction compares the Psalter with psalms found in the ancient Near East, especially Ugarit. Like wisdom literature from Egypt and Assyria, similarities exist on technical levels of linguistics and stylistics. But this does not diminish the “revelatory and remarkable and revolutionary message of the Israelite Psalter” (34). The introduction also compares the Psalter to extracanonical psalms from Qumran and the Septuagint. Marlowe concludes “the individual psalms in our current Old Testament psalter were a unique means of understanding biblical revelation via poetic personal and public praise, prayers, protestations, and pleas for mercy and judgment” (37).

Much of the introduction is a chart summarizing the type, features, and associations of each psalm.

With respect to outlining the Psalter, scholars often simply follow the five sections indicated by the presence of doxologies (see Psalm 41:13, for example). There are many suggests for the overall structure of the Psalms, see for example Gerald H. Wilson, The Editing of the Hebrew Psalter (Scholars, 1985) or John H. Walton, “Psalms: A Cantata About the Davidic Covenant” (JETS 34; 1991). Marlowe recognizes the five-part structure but suggests a different outline for the book. Psalms 1-2 are an introduction to the Psalter and Psalms 3-9 are an introductory section (all psalms of David). Psalms 10-139 are the main body of the Psalter, with psalms 140-145 forming a concluding section (all psalms of David). Psalms 146-150 for the conclusion to the whole Psalter.

The general introduction concludes with a summary of theological themes in the Psalms (54-66). As expected, the theology of the Psalter focuses on God (his names, descriptions, and character). Other themes include creation, salvation, evil, the afterlife, and the Messiah (including a three-page chart summarizing the messianic psalms). Under the heading of Anthropological Themes, Marlowe deals with the problem of hating one’s enemies. In many psalms, the opponent is the object of the psalmist’s hatred as he cries out to God for vengeance. This is followed by a second, related section on imprecations (curses) found in the psalms (specifically Psalm 137). Many Christians have a problem with hatred and curses on one’s enemies in worship literature, since this material seems to run counter to Leviticus 19:18 and the general teaching in the New Testament. More disturbing, it is often God who hates his enemies in the psalms. Marlowe draws a contrast between national Israel, which was used for military purposes to judge nations in the Old Testament, and the transnational church, which is never commissioned to wage war (65). This is a brief answer to a tough problem and may not satisfy everyone. What is more, is there is nothing here on how to preach and imprecatory Psalm (maybe the answers is “don’t preach those psalms”).

The introduction concludes the introduction with about two pages of Practical Theology drawn from the Psalms. First, a common question for readers of the psalms concerns God vindicating the blameless. Does this mean the Psalms demand us to be perfect? In the Psalter, “blameless” does not mean “sinless.” The one who is blameless trusts God and obeys his Law. Second, since the phrase “give thanks” appears frequently in the Psalter, connects giving thanks to an action of public witness, to make a public confession of faith in God.

The commentary for each psalm begins with a summary of the exegetical idea, theological focus, and preaching idea for the song. These are single sentences summarizing the big idea of the song. This preaching summary concludes with two paragraphs of preaching pointers.

The body of the commentary begins with a summary of the literary structure and themes followed by the exposition proper. Although there are a few brief notes on the potential historical context for some of these psalms, Marlowe is not interested in the Sitz im Leben for these psalms (which is less important for Wisdom Psalms than other forms).

The commentary proceeds verse by verse, although for longer psalms, groups of verses are treated together. Almost every verse of Psalm 119 has a brief comment! Transliterated Hebrew appears throughout the commentary. Marlowe only occasionally refers to secondary literature. Sometimes he compares major English translations, but there is little comment on Hebrew syntax in the commentary. Marlowe occasionally mentions variants from the MT. Following the exegesis of the Psalm is a short theological focus summarizing the Psalm, often with a larger canonical interest.

For the preaching and teaching strategies, Savelle begins an exegetical and theological synthesis (a summary of the exegesis provided above). He then provides a preaching idea, a one sentence big idea (following Haddon Robinson). Under the heading of contemporary connections, he briefly answers questions like “what does it mean?” “Is it true?” And “Now what? Under this heading, there are usually several action points which exhort the reader to apply the material from the Psalm to their lives. Under the heading of “Creativity in Presentation,” Savelle makes several suggestions on how to illustrate preaching points from contemporary culture. These sections may include references to history or recent events, but often to pop culture (Stephen Colbert and Jay Leno) and often popular music (from Ed Sheeran to Shane & Shane; even Leonard Cohen makes an appearance).

Each chapter ends with a few discussion questions.

As with other Kerux commentaries, the book contains frequent sidebars on issues found in the Psalm. For example, the Ruler of Tyre (Psalm 37:18), Holiness (Psalm 111), and Meditation (both Psalms 1 and 119). A feature of this commentary summarizes the preaching passages (13-22). This is the same material found at the beginning of each chapter, but it is helpful to see all the exegetical ideas and preaching ideas in one place. This will assist a pastor preparing a short sermon series on the Wisdom Psalms. The ratio of exegesis to preaching is about 2-1.

Conclusion. The goal of the Kerux series is to provide solid exegesis from leading scholars and teaching ideas for pastors. This volume achieves the goal of solid exposition of the text, and it offers help for pastors preparing sermons on these Psalms. I am curious if the next two volumes will cover the rest of the Psalter since there are quite a few Wisdom Psalms not included in this volume. Perhaps a volume of Messianic Psalms would be a popular addition to this series.

 

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:

 

 

John L. McLaughlin, An Introduction to Israel’s Wisdom Traditions

McLaughlin, John L. An Introduction to Israel’s Wisdom Traditions. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2018. 217 pp. Pb; $25.   Link to Eerdmans

James Crenshaw once suggested wisdom literature is sometimes considered “an orphan in the biblical household” (173). This new book by John McLaughlin attempts to connect the wisdom books to the rest of the First Testament (following John Goldingay’s nomenclature for the Old Testament).

McLaughlin Wisdom TraditionHe begins by describing the international context of wisdom literature (chapter 1). For example, Proverbs 17:1 has close parallels in the literature of Sumer, Egypt, and Ugarit. The bulk of this chapter summarizes and gives brief examples from the wisdom literature of Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Canaan. He points out that wisdom is quite at home in Canaan. It is unnecessary to appeal to Egypt or Mesopotamia to explain similar elements in Israel. To a large extent, the wisdom literature of Israel reflects the same sort of traditions found in Canaanite cultures as represented by Ebla and Ugarit.

Chapter 2, McLaughlin briefly introduces the readers to Hebrew poetry, especially the various forms of parallelism found in wisdom literature. He discusses other features of Hebrew poetry, such as acrostic, inclusio, keywords, and mirror patterns (chiasm). McLaughlin defines a biblical proverb as “a sentence, plus command or prohibition” (35). But there are other forms, such as instruction, numerical lists, disputations or dialogues, allegory, fable, and riddle.

McLaughlin devotes a chapter to each of the biblical wisdom books, Proverbs, Job, and Qohelet and to two Second Temple books, Ben Sira (Sirach) and the Wisdom of Solomon. Each chapter begins with an overview of the structure, date, and major themes of the book. Proverbs is obviously a compilation of sayings drawn from several periods. McLaughlin suggests shorter sayings in the book may be pre-exilic, while the more developed speeches in Proverbs 1-9, what does the word in the post-exilic period. Regarding Job, the lack of historical references makes the book notoriously difficult to date. He favors a sixth-century BC or later date based on the use of the definite article with the word satan, consistent with the post-exilic use in Zechariah 3:1-2 and 1 Chronicles 21:1.

Although the author of Qohelet claims to be a “son of David,” McLaughlin argues the book was composed well past the time of Solomon, or any other kings of Jerusalem. He detects allusions to the Persian Empire, suggesting a date in the third century B.C. The author was a teacher or a writer (12:9-10) and his observations are consistent with a Judean setting. The writer may have been the head of a school like Ben Sira (Sir 51:23). Ben Sira is a rare example of a book where the author and date are known. Ben Sira 50:27 states the author was Jesus ben Eleazar ben Sira in the book can be dated between 190-180 BC. Ben Sira’s grandson translated the book into Greek in about 132 B.C. Finally, The Wisdom of Solomon does not identify an author, but it is certainly not Solomon. Since the book has some similarity to Philo of Alexandria, McLaughlin suggests the book could have been written under the reign of Caligula.

Chapter 8 traces the influence of this literature on other books in the First Testament. In the penalty, he focuses on Genesis (the Joseph Story), Exodus (Moses’s Birth), and Deuteronomy. He briefly examines the Succession Narrative and Solomon’s reign in the Deuteronomic History. He observes that there are as many as thirty-nine psalms identified as wisdom psalms, but in this short chapter, he can only focus on three (Ps. 1; 37; 49. With respect to the prophets, he spends most of the section discussing wisdom in the book of Amos, although there are scattered proverbs in several prophetic books. Most scholars associate Esther and Daniel with wisdom “court tales” because of their similarities to the Joseph story. Finally, following Brevard Childs, he briefly discusses the Song of Solomon as wisdom literature.

Chapter 9 summarizes the theology of wisdom literature. Most biblical theologies relate wisdom to a theology of creation based on Proverbs 3:19, “The Lord by wisdom founded the earth; by understanding he established the heavens.” McLaughlin offers several other examples of proverbial literature focusing on God as the creator (Proverbs 16:4; 17:5 22:2). Proverbs 8:22-31 and Ben Sira 1:4-10 describe the role of lady wisdom in the Lord’s creative activities. Since the created world is an orderly creation, wisdom literature implies that living one’s life within the harmonious social order of creation will lead to success. However, an interest in creation is a late development. The earliest stages of Israelite religion saw the Lord as a Warrior God and a Savior God. To see the Lord as a creator only became prominent during the Babylonian exile period.

The final chapter of the book discusses the continuation of this literature in the Second Temple period and New Testament. First, building on Gerhard von Rad, it is possible wisdom was the basis for biblical apocalyptic rather than prophecy (182). McLaughlin offers several examples from 1 Enoch in which the author considers the book to be wisdom (1 Enoch 5:6, for example). Second, theodicy is an important element of apocalyptic literature. Third, he briefly surveys wisdom texts in the Qumran literature. Like apocalyptic literature, some of these examples combine traditional experiential wisdom with eschatological expectations. Fourth, he examines wisdom literature as it appears in Paul, James, Q, the Synoptic Gospels, and finally the Gospel of John. For example, Paul refers to Jesus as the “wisdom of God” (1 Cor 1: 24) and he observes that John’s prologue is the “fullest expression of wisdom Christology in the New Testament” (191). This chapter concludes with a short two-paragraph section on wisdom in Rabbinic literature.

Conclusion. McLaughlin’s Introduction is an excellent introduction to the biblical wisdom books with a few added features to distinguish itself from other introductions. Including Sirach and Wisdom of Solomon extending the introduction into the Second Temple period and his chapter on the continuation of these traditions beyond the First Testament is helpful, even if too brief. This book will serve well in an undergraduate or graduate level introduction course.

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: 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: 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.