Book Review: David Taylor’s ‘Open and Unafraid’

W. David O. Taylor, Open and Unafraid: The Psalms as a Guide to Life, Nashville: Nelson Books, 2020

In light of how positive my review is, I feel I should say at the outset that David Taylor is not related to me, he is not my friend, and I paid for my copy of this book!

It is apparent on every page of this book that David Taylor himself, experiences the same delight for the subject matter that the psalmist extols (Psalm 1:2). As I read it, I continually thought that this is just the book for those new to the psalms who need a competent, engaging, and clear guide. It is also apparent, throughout, that Taylor is humble before these ancient texts. There is a constant awareness that he both knows the psalms and yet he still journeys with them, in trusting expectation that they ‘are not done with him yet’. In short, he knows he is a disciple of Jesus; a pilgrim who needs these prayers on the way with Christ.

This book opens with a Foreword by Eugene Peterson, which must be one the last things that he wrote. You will then discover, or be reminded, of the remarkable encounter between Eugene Peterson and Bono which was facilitated by David Taylor. You can watch it here.

Each chapter has some real-life contextual settings. These are on some occasions personal to David Taylor. These work well as an anchor for the rich content of the psalms, and this way the reader is invited into something encountered in the psalms rather than a type of psalm. This is helpful as although psalms are obviously helpfully categorised, such genre work is more digestible when approached from a less abstract direction. The first three chapters concern the context that we need to bring to the psalms; our need for honesty and their use within the worshipping community. These opening chapters explain the title—the Psalter continually invites us in to be open with God and to trust in him. The nature of the psalms is explored under the themes of prayer and poetry. Other chapters pick up on their role in mirroring our emotions, such as fear, anger, and joy. The later chapters focus on themes and ‘things’ encountered throughout the Psalter such as the nations, enemies, and creation. Taylor, as he explains, has not attempted any exhaustive curriculum here, but he does teach us the major themes, ideas, and challenges posed by the psalms.

This is a book that should be read and then acted upon—although one suspects that Peterson might think Taylor overly suggestive on this front! To this end every one of the fourteen chapters has Questions for Reflection, Exercises, and a Closing Prayer. Each of these elements is a valuable addition and the questions and reflections are plentiful and highly creative. The closing prayers are insightful and profound, and each chapter puts you in the place to pray with integrity; to ask God for fresh grace in prayer and handling of the Bible. The reflective questions and exercises provide ample possibilities for the psalm theme to be followed up by individuals. It is here that Taylor appeals beyond the Evangelical tradition in which he has his home. The questions and exercises provide everything necessary to facilitate a small group that wants to work through this book and discover the psalms more fully together. I will be recommending it for precisely this within my church.

The focus throughout is very much on the psalms but it becomes clear that Taylor has a rich theology of Scripture and Christ’s work among his people. It is encouraging to discover that underpinning the engaging text is genuine theological depth. Taylor writes with an expectation of Scripture’s transformative potential. The reader of this book will not just see how the psalms mirror their soul; they can expect to be changed along the way. They will see how to praise, thank, and petition better—and with these ancient prayers grow in desire to do so, as the psalms do their work. They will deepen their self-awareness, their love of God, and their grace towards their enemies.

I have waxed somewhat lyrical and I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to become better acquainted with the psalms for enriched prayer and discipleship. Is this book perfect? Not quite, I have one quibble (and found one typographical error). My small niggle concerns the final section on Further Resources. This provides an extensive range of possible ‘next stop’ books. This is a really helpful end point, but it would have been even better for there to have been more guidance as to the nature and value of these resources. For example, for many people, reading Wenham’s The Psalter Reclaimed would be a firm next step in understanding the Psalter theologically—it is more demanding than Taylor’s book but a sensible ascent. But Mowinckel’s The Psalms in Israel’s Worship, recommended in the same subsection, would be like ascending the hill of the Lord in a hailstorm by comparison. I have picked out the most extreme example and this small point is totally eclipsed by a work which is beautifully written, engaging, and illuminating in equal measure.

So, what are you waiting for? Read Open and Unafraid. It might well be the most helpful step on your spiritual journey in these unusual times. Of course, it is more important you pray the psalms, but I am in no doubt you will want to at the end of every chapter of this book.

Living in Hope: Hebrews 11

1. Losing Virtue
Increasingly in the West virtue is an alien word. Worse than this the pursuit of virtues is something alien. The idea that virtue should be desired and pursued, that it is a high priority in the lives of individuals and communities is simple not a contemporary agenda.

There is a suspicion about the pursuit of goodness and of wanting to be good. Virtue and goodness depend on moral certainty and absolutes which are not popular in our culture. The closest we come to virtue in secular discussion in terms of other categories, such as values and rights. These are not the same as virtues. Values and rights are, however, seen as more neutral, ‘democratic’ and self-evident than the pursuit of goodness.

This has not always been the case as much of Western culture has celebrated virtue. Until a hundred years ago the idea of virtue was a popular concept and the pursuit of goodness was not only acceptable but was seen as desirable.

In the Church, virtue is also an unusual word today. In our Church tradition there can be a number of concerns which have undermined the pursuit of virtue and the goal of being good:

1. The theology of salvation by grace alone can cast a shadow over pursuing virtue.
2. The Church has been caught out too often as its members have claimed virtue whilst practicing vice.
3. Perhaps we think it’s not biblical. But if we translate virtues as another window on the fruit of the Spirit and the pursuit of goodness as sanctification, we can see that virtue is biblical.

In Hebrews 11 we find two of the so-called theological virtues, faith and hope, worked out in the lives of the ancient heroes of First Testament faith. The implication is that the best of the people of God display hope and cultivate right behaviour—and we too are called to do the same.

The basis of Hebrews 11 and its fixation on the future hope is incredibly counter cultural. In our culture we are taught to see an end horizon marked by our physical demise. Hebrews 11—the gospel of Jesus Christ—sees beyond an end horizon beyond this, the heavenly city.

Because of this:

  • Hope in God will mean that we know we are foreigners and behave as strangers in this world.
  • Hope in God will mean we will struggle at times with God.
  • And finally, and perhaps less surprisingly, such a hope means fixing our eyes upon Jesus.

2. Strangers to Vice
Both our hope in God and our faithfulness to him are easy to misunderstand. The promises we have ‘hope in’ and the God to whom we are faithful, are longer term prospects than anything else in our lives. What we put our hope in outlasts us in our mortality. Such hope and faith in God go beyond the more human hope and faith we place in our spouses, partners, or close friends.

All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth.
Hebrews 11:13, NIV

In the world’s eyes this sounds like those of faith, hope, and trust have been deceived. What is the point of a life of hope in which what is promised is not to be found? Why would anyone be faithful for a lifetime, only to die without receiving what is hoped for?

But such is the life of faith—at least to some extent. The life of faith in Christ is about something bigger than us—this is the ultimate in counterculture. We are called to a faithfulness in a God who is even more faithful to us. We know the truth of his faithfulness in the beautiful gift of Jesus Christ:

But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Romans 5:8

The guarantee, or taste, of the fruit of faithfulness is known here and now but the fullness of that fruit is yet to come in the inheritance of God’s Kingdom in the age to come. We are like the heroes of faith in Hebrews 11:

they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth.

And yet we also have more than ‘the ancients’—we have knowledge of Christ and we are in Christ by the power and grace of the Spirit of God. What we await in patient faithfulness comes after death, or the return of Christ. In this life of faith and hope, we are strangers on earth. What a challenge and what a remarkable call.

How can we be distinctive—salt and light—rather than just peculiar?

We of course share the same promises as the heroes of faith:

People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country – a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.
Hebrews 11:14–16, NIV

God has prepared city for us.

3. Struggling
Verse 21 of Hebrews 11 says this:

By faith Jacob, when he was dying, blessed each of Joseph’s sons, and worshipped as he leaned on the top of his staff.

Perhaps the implication is that Jacob leans upon his staff as he is old and in need of total hip replacement. But it’s quite likely that the author of Hebrews also has something else in mind. For like all people of faith, Jacob had wrestled with God—more so than most in fact. It all came to a head in Genesis 32. In this life, most people of faith will at some points wrestle with God.

We might suppose that struggling with God about anything is a denial of our hope in him. But this is not the case. The wrestling with God that Jacob experienced like that of many people of faith is entirely faithful and hopeful—it is the complex working out of how we achieve what God has called us to do.

What is the right way to go about finding blessing? Jacob had attempted to find blessing by deceiving his brother. It is as he is about to meet his brother, Esau, who he assumes will be very angry, that he wrestles with the angel of the Lord. That wrestling with God is not wrong is evident from the Psalms. One third of the biblical psalms are psalms of complaint or lament—a rich vocabulary given to us to complain to our God. More pragmatically we can note that:

“A faith that never feels challenged is most likely dead.”
Karen Swallow Prior, On Reading Well

To be truly faithful to God means wrestling with him—complaining to him—about how things are in this broken world. Many of those named in Hebrews 11 contended with God. When done for the right reasons and in the right way this is hope in action. Hope in God is not fatalism it’s about a real relationship with the living God. If we don’t in fact question God, and wrestle with him, we risk one of the two alternatives to hope.

On the one hand there is the risk of presumption. We presume all is well with ourselves without checking in with our Creator. We assume that because Jesus died once for all we are the finished article. But no, our hope in our future with God should be transforming us. Day-by-day, month-by-month, year-by-year, we should be better disciples. Bearing the fruit of goodness in both character and deed.

On the other hand, another alternative to hope is despair. Events can take their toll on us and the hope of dwelling with God can become too much to hope for. This is when we need our brothers and sisters in Christ. Who are those you can look to in your hour of need?

We live in a society where those around us do not have gospel hope. They have variously chosen presumption (putting their hope in something other than Jesus Christ) or despair (finding no hope).

4. Fixing (12:2)
We are of course in a different relationship with the living God than the heroes of Hebrews 11. They knew Yahweh the God of Israel and indeed they often experienced him first-hand. And yet despite this blessing we are fortunate to surpass the revelation they had.

These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.
Hebrews 11:39–40

For we know the Father through, and in, Christ. The Incarnation of the Son of God, his ministry, his death, and his resurrection provide the fuller revelation of the very heart of God. This is not just knowledge but is part of the fabric of reality—we are the body of Christ and he is the head.

We are a body in which the very Spirit of Christ is at work. Virtues are the fruit of the Spirit. We are sanctified, made virtuous, through the work of the living God in the Church his body.

The call to fix our eyes upon Jesus is a better one, than to fix our eyes on the heavenly city as those in Hebrews 11 did. As wanderers and pilgrims, they knew of the heavenly city that was the reward of their faith and faithfulness. For us this heavenly city is home to Jesus Christ seated at the right hand of the Father.

In Jesus Christ we have a redeemer who also founds a new creation- a new heaven and a new earth.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy that was set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

Hebrew 12:1–3

Job and Hitching to Wisdom

The Old Testament has been in the news in the last few weeks. Andy Stanley, a gifted preacher and Senior Pastor at North Point Community Church, argued in a series of sermons (Aftermath #1, #2 and #3) that Christians should unhitch from the Old Testament. Having listened to the sermons concerned, more than once and having read a follow-up interview, I am still not clear just what he actually means by ‘unhitching’. What I am clearer about is that Andy Stanley makes a number of unhelpful assumptions and steps in arriving at his conclusion. These include:

  • The notion that atheists object to the Old Testament but are quite willing to accept the New Testament’s claim about the resurrection of Jesus.
  • A misrepresentation of the Reformation idea of sola scriptura; divorcing it from the Rule of Faith.
  • Equating ‘the law’ with the whole of the Old Testament.
  • An understanding of Old Testament law as legalism, a notion that has been thoroughly discredited since E. P. Sander’s Paul and Palestinian Judaism.
  • A failure to recognise that Paul worked very hard to stay hitched to the Old Testament, as evidenced in the whole Pauline corpus, given his experience of the resurrected Jesus. Paul remained a Pharisee committed to the Law (Philippians 3:5).
  • The failure to acknowledge the fact that not a single chapter of the New Testament can make sense without reference to the Old Testament. This includes the very chapters Stanley preached on.

Here in the UK, part of the incredulity at his suggestion of ‘unhitching’ might come from the fact that most Christians this side of the pond are not wedded to the incredibly unhelpful notion of Scripture’s inerrancy (most famously part of the Chicago Statement). I have a high view of Scripture, informed by 2 Timothy 3:16, but have found inerrancy to be a slippery and alien notion for describing Scripture. It represents the on-going and unhelpful tendency to make Scripture what it is not—history, science, biography and other modern categories. ‘God-breathed’ works better. And why would anyone want to unhitch from something that is God-breathed? Rather ironically Stanley says he agrees with the Chicago Statement’s view of Scripture in the same breath as attempting to deal with the problems introduced by this conservative straitjacket.

But what about Job? Despite the fact that I don’t agree with Stanley, we must acknowledge that Christian frustrations, of one sort or another, are not a new issue. Perhaps it is cheap to mention Marcion? Perhaps not. In any case, any Bible-reading Christian will have had challenging encounters with the Old Testament. Anyone who hasn’t is really not paying attention to its claims, worldview, ethics and God. Job raises one subset of the wider and very legitimate question: ‘What are we meant to do with the Old Testament?’. We certainly can’t see it as a monolith. The books of which it is comprised are of very different categories, although we could do worse than start with the Jewish categories of Torah (instruction rather than plain law), Prophets (this includes what we often call history books—Joshua to Kings—as well as Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and The Twelve) and the Writings. The Writings, where Job belongs, are akin to DVD extras. They complement the story that is unfolded in Genesis to Kings.

Job is often said to answer the question of suffering. But it does not. If we read it only to address this question we will ultimately be disappointed. If we think it might answer the question of the origin of evil we will be perplexed. So why do we have (i)  a narrative about God and Satan agreeing to let Job suffer, (ii) chapter-after-chapter of poetic dialogues with subtle, and sometimes less than subtle differences of opinion, and (iii) an epilogue in which Satan makes no appearance?

Well this post won’t entirely answer such questions. But a plausible and partial answer is that although we do not find theological certainties about suffering and evil, we find something far more biblical. We find, written large, the dangers of being hasty in narrowly pinning down answers to the biggest questions in a broken creation. All of Job’s friends think they have answers. In so doing, they make the twin mistakes of thinking (i) they know Job better than he knows himself, (ii) they know the mind of God. Job has questions. They have answers. Whilst it would be overstating Job’s case to say that God speaks to him with approval—he does not. Nevertheless, he receives from God. He receives nothing less than revelation (Job 38:1–42:6). What do Job’s friend get? Nothing except the text’s occasional play on words—wordplay that implies they are full of wind (ruach) rather than God’s Spirit (ruach), see for example Job 16:3.

Can we tell the difference between the wisdom of questions, and the foolishness of wrong answers and false certainties? Job, the book, exists to help us learn just this.

Job might have foreseen his resurrection (Job 19:26). We certainly have that hope (1 Corinthians 15:12). But, this side of resurrection, we cannot make Scripture what it was never meant to be. Scripture answers where salvation and the Universe’s future is to be found, and also founded—that is in Christ. It also, in texts such as Job, helps us learn to speak wisely about the mystery that is our God—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—and to know when we should just put our hands over our mouth (Job 40:4).

Imagination and Wisdom

Imagination is not the first word that springs to mind in connection with biblical Wisdom. Nevertheless the origin of wisdom required imagination and its application requires imagination. If Wisdom is the quest for ‘how to live well’ this is not in the abstract sense but in a manner that makes the best of our context and reality. How could this not require imagination?

As wisdom originated in the Ancient Near East, reflection—imagination—was needed. The proverbs, which were probably the first wisdom literature, required sifting and testing—imagination is required to apply a saying to a new context and analyse its success. Only through the use of imagination could proverbs be tested, sifted and made Scripture. Only through the use of our imaginations can we apply wisdom to our lives.

When it comes to the Book of Job, imagination is also required to allow it to function as intended. The book is the lengthiest sustained piece of wisdom literature by a long way. If we read it with a closed imagination we will mistake it for narrative in the narrowest of senses. Once we ‘relax’ and use our imagination— recognising it as a work of theological imagination—can we free the text to ‘work’ and function as Scripture. Taken as some sort of historical account it begs so many questions that we are distracted from allowing it to function in any useful manner. Once we see and perceive the premise posed in the opening and the rhythm, beauty and design of the poetic dialogues we can feed on the text. We are then open to thinking afresh about our place in God’s creation and his wider relationship with all humanity. Imagination is an openness to change our thinking, how could we become wiser without change?

 

God and Wisdom, Part 2

7. Sources of Wisdom: Experience, Observation, Tradition, Correction, and Ultimately Revelation
In this chapter Longman explores the expected role of experience and observation in wisdom. These are the sources that mark out the idea of wisdom, i.e. in this sense it differs from legal material, historical narrative and prophetic texts. Longman argues that despite these distinct points of departure of wisdom thought, they have a theological trajectory crystallised in the centrality of the idea of Fear of the Lord. Longman also explores the false claims to revelation within wisdom material, such as those of Eliphaz and Elihu, and he argues that though such views are found wanting they can also be instructive.

8. Wisdom, Creation, and (Dis)order
Longman explores the connection of wisdom with creation, a relationship which he points out is the subject of some scholarly disagreement. He starts out with a brief survey of various key wisdom texts in Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, Wisdom Psalms and Song of Songs. He suggests that creation is a thread in all five texts, although he also points out that it is not a dominant concern. On this basis he makes that case that ‘the sages’ understand both the fact of creation and the existence of a creator as part of their worldview. Longman concludes this chapter by considering the role of wisdom in a world which is both ordered and yet broken.

9. Israelite Wisdom in its Ancient Near Eastern Setting
Israelite wisdom is more open to similar literature in other Near Eastern nations than is the case for prophecy and law. Longman argues that this openness is, however, not an uncritical one. He argues there ‘is, accordingly, no way that the Israelite sages who produced Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes would think that ancient Near Eastern wisdom teachers were wise in the most important sense of the word’ [p.163]. This is of course unsurprising in light of Longman’s central argument that Fear of the Lord is a necessity as a foundation for wisdom.

10. Wisdom, Covenant, and Law
In this chapter Longman addresses the claim that was highlighted in chapter 9, namely that wisdom is concerned with universal matters and is in some sense distinct from the wider Old Testament. Anyone who has read the book, or even this review, up to this point will know Longman’s likely conclusion—he argues that there are connections between the various Old Testament covenants and the Law.

11. The Consequences of Wise and Foolish Behaviour: The Issue of Retribution Theology
This chapter is an important one in that it addresses some of the terrible category mistakes that have been made regarding the wisdom elements of the Old Testament. He addresses the fact that a proverb is not a promise and the even more insidious claims of those who articulate a so-called prosperity gospel. The way this is approached is helpful—the Books of Job and Ecclesiastes are both recapitulated in terms of their identification of a simple theology of retribution in this life as ‘wrong-minded’. On this basis he helps unfold a more nuanced appreciation of the Book of Proverbs. In this way the three books generally identified as wisdom literature are seen to be of one mind in rejecting the notion of retribution theology.

12. The Social Setting of Wisdom
This chapter is helpfully frank about the limitations of the data available about the social setting of wisdom. The evidence for both the existence of schools and sages in Israelite society is considered. Longman concludes that despite some evidence we cannot be certain of the existence of schools of professional wise people. There is judged to be sufficient evidence to conclude that the wisdom has a variety of social settings and the canon has made use of proverbial instruction from every stratum of society.

The third and final part of this review will follow very soon.

God and Wisdom, Part 1

The form of this post is a little different to the previous ones in this #AtoZWisdom series. It is a book review. The book in question is by Tremper Longman III and the reason why it provides a fitting post on ‘God and Wisdom’ will soon become apparent.

Tremper Longman III, The Fear of the Lord is Wisdom: A Theological Introduction to Wisdom in Israel, Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017

Both the title and subtitle of this book distil the backbone of Tremper Longman III’s account of wisdom in the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible (OT/HB). He argues, with clarity and conviction, that the diverse elements of wisdom in the OT/HB find their unity within a theological framework. Such a view is not shared by all scholars. Indeed, some drive a wedge between wisdom (often in the form of the three books, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Job) and the cultic life of Israel. Longman not only sees the wisdom elements of the OT/HB as theological but in his commitment to a canonical reading (p.26) he sees ‘Fear of the Lord’ as the specific theological locus. Perhaps some will find such a reading displays too great a hermeneutic of trust, but the book makes an excellent case for such a reading—and despite the claim of theological canonical unity the wisdom material is not flattened but is permitted its wide-ranging claims and emotions.

The book has fifteen chapters and covers more ground than many introductions to the wisdom books of the OT/HB. I would recommend this book, because of its clarity, to anyone wanting a first introduction to wisdom literature. The book engages with wider technical scholarship, but it is written without pretension and little prior knowledge is required to get the best from it.

The rest of this review will make some brief comments about each chapter to give a flavour of the book’s thesis—and yes that is what it is, a coherent argument for a specific reading. For this reason, readers already familiar with biblical wisdom will also find this book stimulating.

The length of this review means that it will be posted in two parts. In this post the first six chapters are covered.

1. Proverbs: The Fear of the Lord Is the Beginning of Wisdom

This chapter considers three ways in which the Book of Proverbs defines wisdom. The first of these is at the practical level, as a skill for living. Longman suggests that wisdom, in this sense, parallels how emotional intelligence can lead to success in life. The second aspect of wisdom is the ethical level—the Book of Proverbs continually equates a wise person with a good person. The third level, according to Longman, is the theological level and especially the Fear of the Lord as expressed at the outset in Proverbs in 1:7. The theological perspective is further developed by considering the rich imagery of woman wisdom who permeates the Book of Proverbs.

2. Ecclesiastes: Fear God, Obey the Commandments, and Live in Light of the Coming Judgement

Longman explores from the outset his view that the Book of Ecclesiastes is the product of two voices and not just one. He argues that the bulk of the book, 1:12–12:7, are the words of Qohelet as indicated in by the constant use of the first person. He identifies Qohelet as a pseudonym of a post-exilic author. The case is made for the prologue (1:1–11) and the epilogue (12:8–14) being the second voice; the editor who commends the work to his son and thereby to all subsequent readers. This epilogue is key to Longman’s theological approach to the book. He argues that the work shows the limits of human wisdom—it is Fear of God (12:13) that is an essential stance for overcoming the limits of wisdom.

3. The Book of Job: “Behold, the Fear of the Lord Is Wisdom” (Job 28:28)

Longman dismisses the unhelpful caricatures of the Book of Job, such as a supposed concern with answering the questions of either suffering or theodicy. He rightly sees the book as a wisdom dispute. The three friends of Job share a similar wisdom view—so-called retribution theology. Because of this view they are convinced that Job’s suffering testifies that Job must have sinned. Job shares their perspective but knows he has not sinned. Thus, argues Longman, Job’s concern is that God is unjust (p.47). Longman sees Elihu as largely sharing the same view but being especially ‘full of hot air’. In the light of Yahweh’s speeches to Job and the book’s epilogues, Longman argues that Job makes three key contributions: (i) God is the source of wisdom, (ii) the proper human response to such wisdom is submission, and (iii) the fear of the Lord already articulated in Proverbs and Ecclesiastes is central.

4. Other Sources of Wisdom: Deuteronomy, Psalms, Song of Songs, and Prophecy

In this chapter Longman explores various parts of the OT/HB some of which are generally recognised to have some wisdom elements (for example Psalms) and others that are more controversial with respect to the role of wisdom (Deuteronomy for example). Longman is at pains to point out that even if there were such a concept as wisdom literature the books mentioned in this chapter would not be part of this literature. His argument is that wisdom motifs and ideas are found more widely in the OT/HB than is generally appreciated. This is important to the argument about the nature of wisdom in later chapters.

5. Joseph and Daniel: Paragons of Wisdom

In this chapter, and the next, Longman further broadens the concept of wisdom to the narratives of the OT/HB. This chapter is concerned with the Joseph and Daniel narratives. Longman explains that some scholars, for example von Rad, have made much of the wisdom influence in the Joseph narrative (Genesis 37–50). Others, like Crenshaw, have argued quite the opposite. Longman steers a clear middle road. He does not argue that wisdom is the dominant genre or theme within the Joseph narrative or the Book of Daniel. Rather he points to some core similarities between the characters at the heart of these stories. These are (i) their use of wisdom to interpret dreams, (ii) they acknowledge God as the origin of their wisdom, (iii) they use their wisdom to guide their foreign royal masters.

6. Adam and Solomon: From the Heights of Wisdom to the Depths of Folly

In this chapter Adam and Solomon (and the king of Tyre) are explored as examples of individuals who journeyed from wisdom to folly. The example of Adam is of course interesting due to the account of his folly at the outset of the HB/OT. The account of the fall in Genesis 3 is rich with the language of wisdom: the serpent is described as crafty/prudent (3:1), there is the tree of knowledge (2:17) and the fruit is perceived by Eve as being useful for gaining wisdom (3:6). The negative outcome of the story shows the stark problem of humanity seeking wisdom on their own terms without God. Longman shows that Solomon, despite his wisdom, followed a similar path of trusting in things other than God.

 

Form and Wisdom

Some scholars have questioned the value of the genre of Wisdom. They argue that seeing Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Job as part of a wider genre within the Hebrew Bible or within the Ancient Near East is just the unhelpful imposition of a modern genre. Whilst, I don’t share such a view, such views are a reminder that care is needed not to flatten wisdom literature. Paying attention to these three books is an essential part of ensuring we don’t make them into something they were never intended to be. We have already seen how these three books differ from each other. Each of them also contains different literary forms. This post will only scratch the surface of the different forms of literature within the three books we know as wisdom literature.

The two preceding posts paid some attention to the variety of content found in Job (Dialogue in Wisdom) and Ecclesiastes (Ecclesiastes and Wisdom). This Post will focus on the Book of Proverbs to ensure that that we appreciate that this book too contains a variety of forms and is also an edited collection of works.

Despite its designation as ‘proverbs’ the Book of Proverbs is not simply a collection of proverbs. Proverbs are the dominant form of literary unit found in the book, but its first nine chapters are very different in form. The opening chapter is nothing less than a hermeneutical call to see and use the wisdom found in the book. As the chapter proceeds we encounter a sustained exhortation to take learning, discernment, knowledge and righteousness seriously—and to recognise the foundation of these in Fear of the Lord (Proverbs 1:7). The opening chapter reveals the context of biblical wisdom as at least in part, the family. Verses 8–19 read as a father’s instruction to a child—this is of course metaphorical but points to the likely use, as well as origin of the book, and wisdom more generally. The gender-based imagery continues in the representation of Women Wisdom, perhaps a deliberate play on motherly instruction, see verses 20–33.

The first chapter closes with a key wisdom motif—found concisely in a hermeneutical wisdom foundation to the Psalter in Psalm 1—the two ways: the way of the fool and the Way of Wisdom. Chapter 2 also closes (verses 20–22) with echoes of Psalm 1. Of course, the dependence could be the other way around or the idea might simply be a pervasive stock concept. The other seven opening chapters continue the elegant and eloquent unpacking of wisdom in terms of teaching, wisdom personified as a woman and the call to pursue wisdom. In terms of form there are here diverse literary methods and units that all join together to provide a sustained call.

It is in chapter 10 that proverbs are finally encountered and the change in form is stark. These biblical proverbs are two-line sayings that share the Hebrew literary form of parallelism—we will meet this in more detail in the post ‘Hebrew and Wisdom’. This first collection of proverbs continues until 22:16 and often termed the first Solomonic collection (see 10:1). A second Solomonic collection is found in 25:1–29:27 (note 25:1). In these two collections of proverbs there is little indication of ordering by theme or other criteria. The collection of twelve proverbs concerning ‘fools’ is one of the few exceptions to this observation.

Within the Book of Proverbs there are clearly other smaller collections of wisdom and distinct literary units. Their origin is attested directly in the text rather than being the subject of speculation.

It is useful to recognise the spectrum of form in wisdom literature, even at the basic level discussed here. At one extreme there are the two-line pithy proverbs and their often dogmatic or apparently axiomatic claims. The other end of the spectrum is the dialogue found in Job, sustained chapter-after-chapter. The whole spectrum despite this enormous variety of form is still readily recognisable as part of an overarching aim to discern how the world works. Like science’s quest for understanding and critical realism’s quest for truth, wisdom has its established norms that are always open to question and enquiry. The apparent tension between parable and dialogue simply points to the limits of wisdom and human reason. From a stance of faith we can recognise the necessity of both wisdom/reason and revelation for living the life of faith.

Wisdom literature is not only concerned with reason but with revelation too. If in no other sense it is recognised as Scripture. For some, the relationship between wisdom literature and the wider religion

Ecclesiastes and Wisdom

This book is one of the most marginalised of the Old Testament. There are undoubtedly a number of reasons for this. One in particular perhaps stands out for contemporary readers—its first words seem to question the basic understanding that many have of Scripture. Whether the modern reader goes to Ecclesiastes with certainty or in the hope of straightforward guidance, either way they do not get what they hoped for or expected. Instead they read:

The words of the Teacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.

Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
What do people gain from all the toil
at which they toil under the sun?

Ecclesiastes 1:1–3 (NRSV)

It is not only the stranger to wisdom literature that would be surprised by vanity and meaningless as a point of departure. Any student of the Book of Proverbs would also think that there is a category mistake here. How can this be the same type of literature as Proverbs? Is it in fact the opposite? A worldview of vanity and disorder is surely antagonistic to the order assumed in Proverbs? To an extant this is the same issues covered in the previous post on Dialogue. Here we have simply stated the question at its most acute.

There are other challenges with Ecclesiastes but in this post we are going to consider this one issue; the apparent antagonism between not just Ecclesiastes and Proverbs but all three wisdom books of the Hebrew Bible. I suggest some initial reasons, below, why the differences between these three books might not be as extreme as they first appear. We will then consider that their diversity in many respects matches what we find the biblical psalms.

An underpinning ethos of wisdom is the ongoing testing, refining and discarding of inferences based on observation. Contemporary analogues exist such as in science the notion of a working hypothesis and in philosophy the methodology of critical realism. Biblical wisdom, at least in part, seeks to establish how to live well based on wise reflection on the nature of creation. In this way, Proverbs can be seen to lean towards a wholehearted embracing of the efficacy of the wisdom method. We might even say it embodies a hermeneutic of trust. Ecclesiastes comes to a different conclusion after trying variations of approach. Both books, look to what is needed in addition to wisdom—Fear of the Lord—one as an opening assumption (Proverbs 1:7) and the other in conclusion after highlighting various problems (Ecclesiastes 12:13). The Book of Job tests a very specific assumption of reward which is found wanting. In Job the necessity of revelation alongside wisdom comes through an encounter with Job which silences his wise enquiries (Job 40:3–5). In their different ways all three books encourage wise reflection but also recognise its limits.

In addition, it is vitally important to acknowledge that none of the three wisdom books claim to be an end in themselves. This is true not only of the biblical wisdom but in addition to wider Ancient Near-Eastern wisdom literature. In short, such literature is not an end in itself, it is an educational resource and approach to living. The individual literary units are not to be blatantly or blandly applied to life situations. The Book of Proverbs provides the most succinct indication of this in its twin proverbs:

Do not answer fools according to their folly,

    or you will be a fool yourself.

Answer fools according to their folly,

    or they will be wise in their own eyes.

Proverbs 26: 4, 5 (NRSV)

In many respects the three wisdom books exemplify the three categories of psalms identified by Brueggemann. He articulated what has been recognised as a very fruitful paradigm which connects the ancient psalms with the modern life of faith. Put simply the psalms can be classified into three categories of orientation, disorientation and reorientation. Brueggemann uses the term typology of function recognising that the hermeneutical connection between then and now operates at a very human contextual level.

We can conclude by noting that in this way:

  1. Proverbs is a book founded on order. The author is oriented and trusts that wisdom works day-to-day because of the existence of a creator and their implicit trust in him. Many psalms have a similar underlying basis. The author of Proverbs, and its accepting reader, would feel comfortable singing hymns of trust and faith to God.
  2. Ecclesiastes is a book in which the orderly nature of life and extent to which trust in God can deliver the good life is being questioned. In modern parlance a hermeneutic of suspicion is operative. The sort of suspicion we all encounter in the dark moments of life—the death of a loved one, the failure of a relationship or the loss of health. These are the moments in which the laments of the Psalter or the cynicism of Ecclesiastes eclipses simple trust. They are the moments of exile, whether real or metaphorical. Trust is still key but it is not longer simple and unquestioning
  3. The Book of Job is a book of movement. It starts with the questioning cynicism of Ecclesiastes. It proceeds with some received wisdom being painfully showcased as wanting. It concludes with an answer which is not rational but revelatory—a revelation of God that demands reorientation.

We will return to Eccelesiastes in future posts. It is my hope that the second part of this post will be developed into an academic publication in due course.

Book Review: ‘Psalms Old and New’ by Ben Witherington III

Witherington, Ben III, Psalms Old and New: Exegesis, Intertextuality and Hermeneutics, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017.

I came to this book with great expectations, having benefited over the years from a number of Witherington’s New Testament commentaries—in particular his The Acts of the Apostles and Letters and Homilies for Hellenized Christians (3 volumes). I also found the subtitle full of promise as the subject of how the New Testament authors use the psalms is a fascinating and complicated mass of interpretative issues.

At the outset of this volume, Witherington implies that there is a straightforward continuity in scholarship on the psalms with the trajectory initiated by Gunkel and Mowinckel (p.2). In a short paragraph he glosses over nothing less than a paradigm shift in psalms scholarship initiated by Wilson’s 1985 The Editing of the Hebrew Psalter. This work is not mentioned in Witherington’s bibliography nor are any other works by Wilson. A more thorough examination of the bibliography reveals very little of the recent work on what some term the canonical approach. This approach is important not least because it is now the scholarly consensus with regard to both the formation of the Psalter and the form of the Book of Psalms.

This sidelining of the canonical approach is puzzling for a number of reasons, two of which are worth noting here. Firstly, the canonical approach is enormously rich in its broader implications for intertextuality. The intertextuality within the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) itself would surely have formed a promising point of departure for this study—as a minimum the New Testament writers stand in continuity with a community of faith that had continued to reread the psalms. Secondly, Witherington structures his book around the five-fold structure of the Psalter which implicitly affirms the recent paradigm shift. At the outset there is very little justification for why the five books of the Psalter are each treated in a separate chapter. The impression is that this is just to provide manageable ‘chunks’ of material.

By page 4, Witherington affirms by use of italics that “the Psalms, unlike various other parts of the OT, served four functions at once: . . .”. Whilst the four functions he goes on to state are sensible, this bold statement mutes important interpretive nuance and diversity in early praxis. The complex processes of writing, editing, forming of collections, combining collections and further editing over something like a millennium means that the fourfold functionality of the psalms is prone to oversimplifying the psalms. Such developments mean that psalms were used differently over time and by different parts of the Israelite, Judahite and Jewish communities, between the Monarchical period and the early Rabbinic period. Just how anachronistic this implied uniformity of fourfold function is, is revealed a few pages later, where Witherington identifies a fourfold Christian pattern where the four functions are alternatives and are not viewed as being simultaneously operative.

The second chapter is titled The Psalter in Early Judaism, and at this point the reader realises that there will be no space given to the shape and shaping of the Psalter despite the hermeneutical promise of such an endeavour. This short chapter rehearses some generic comments about the importance, or lack thereof, of the biblical psalms in the Qumran literature, the Apochrypha, etc. Witherington is at pains to dismiss Brooke’s rather unusual claims about a movement from poetry to history during the evolution of the Psalter. The best way to show how such an approach fails to account for the Psalter would, in my view, have been a thorough exploration of the one thousand year history of the psalms (the interested reader can find such exploration in, for example, Holladay’s The Psalms through Three Thousand Years and DeClaisse-Walford’s Reading from the Beginning).

Chapters three to seven consider the five books of the Psalter. Here Witherington is in his element as he explores how the New Testament picks up on specific psalms directly and exhibits more subtle intertextual dependence on the Psalter. These five core chapters contain a wealth of detail and Witherington explains carefully how he has built on the work of others as well as carried out his own extensive work (writing major commentaries on every book of the New Testament, for example). This near exhaustive re-examination of the use of the Psalms by the New Testament writers makes this volume essential for anyone wanting to understand this intertextual and inter-testament interpretive issue.

A key strength of all five main chapters is the careful exploration of the different ways in which the New Testament writers use the psalms. Sometimes the New Testament authors have been given hard time for not abiding by modern interpretive approaches and playing fast-and-loose with the Psalter. Witherington helpful considers the variety of approaches used by the New Testament authors and notes that much of their usage relies on a homiletical approach (see p.251, for example). This is the key element of the work which can be said to be new and it represents a genuinely useful insight.

Witherington helpfully points out that some of the usage of the Psalms relates to the identity of the resurrected Jesus as the Messiah and other usage is far more general, reflecting the life of Jesus’ followers in a world where following Jesus means experiencing suffering. On this latter point, Witherington seems to be advocating something like Brueggemann’s Typology of Function Approach although this is not considered. Throughout the book, the psalms are consistently viewed as poetry and the New Testament writers are judged to have appropriately developed and interpreted them in the light of the Jesus Event. Witherington’s exploration of the nuances of such interpretation heads of some of some dangerously naive approaches of reading the psalms. In a similar vein the appropriation of the imprecatory psalms is handled with care as Witherington explores these psalms as the words of those struggling in prayer and at times voicing prayers at odds with Jesus’ teaching.

There is still a question in my mind about the use of the five-fold structure of the Psalter. At one point (p.319), Witherington sounds either disappointed or surprised that he has not really found any clear difference in the use made of the psalms in the five books by the New Testament authors. I would have liked to have seen some clearer conclusions about Witherington’s findings in the light of different interpretive paradigms of the psalms but this is perhaps unfair given the scope of this book and the series to which it belongs.

 

 

Regurgitating Jonah

Prologue

The Book of Jonah is for children. We might not say so, but our actions and thoughts often say otherwise. It is most likely met in church and home as a story for children. As adults we are perhaps embarrassed by its improbabilities.

We are however missing something if we dismiss this oddest member of the Twelve Minor Prophets. It is so different to the other Eleven. This oddness does not make it suitable for children nor relegate it to irrelevance. Rather, the opposite is true. This book has the capacity to challenge us in a way that adults need to be challenged and children do not.

It is only adults that know about cynicism, disappointment, running away, apathy and selfishness to a great enough depth to be the target of such a sharp and barbed prod from God.

To follow this meditation you will need to have a copy of Jonah available.

 

Running Away

Make yourself comfortable. Loosen your shoulders. Breathe deeply and slowly. Imagine you are Jonah. Keep asking what do you feel, taste, hear, smell and see.

Read Jonah 1:1–3

Why are you running away from God? You know so much about his ways. But sometimes you choose to go in the wrong, in fact the opposite, direction. Why is it sometimes so hard to do the things of God?

Why is it that there are some people that you do not want to be with? Is it their poverty that makes you run away from them? Is it their sin you can’t abide? Do you flee from them because of their ‘pagan’ religion?

How is it that running away from people can be the same as running away from God himself? Surely you know there is no running away from God? Where can you hide from him?

 

Where Can You Flee?

Read Jonah 1:4–12

You find it easy to judge others. Especially those who don’t share your faith. You are, after all, born of a chosen nation. You are born of a famous father, Amittai, who was a prophet of great renown. You too have been chosen for the same privileged role—to utter judgement on the nations.

Waking up you remember that you’ve ignored Yahweh’s call. Worse than that you have fled his presence, or at least you have tried to leave him behind.

Bleary-eyed you find that the pagan sailors have eyes wide-open to God. They see him at the heart of this storm. They perceive he is angry with someone on the ship. A fraction of a second after you judge them for their silly superstition you realise it is true, that it is you that God is angry with.

You have to do the right thing—your life for theirs is not the end you had expected. But you can’t bear to be responsible for their deaths too. You surrender to being thrown overboard; as you are going to die either way. You hear yourself say “Pick me up and throw me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you; for I know it is because of me that this great storm has come upon you.”

 

Going  Overboard

Read Jonah 1:13–16

Your horror grows as the sailors can’t bring themselves to throw you overboard. You’ve rarely heard such earnest prayer. Prayer born out of desperate fear and anguish. Calling on God’s name for salvation.

You are paralysed with fear. You can’t find the courage to throw yourself overboard nor can your lips find words, try as you might.

As your rather dull life flashes before you, you realise that you were at the crossroads of something important which your life had been moving to. But now it is too late, you’ve missed the boat—or rather you’ve got on the wrong one. It’s almost a relief when rugged calloused hands grab you roughly and throw you into the roaring waves.

 

Composing a Psalm

Read Jonah 1:17–2:9

Your lungs have barely started burning as you hold on to what you think is your last breath, when you realise that you are not drowning. Damp squidgy glutinous material is all around. The smell is like the fish market you passed through yesterday, yet one hundred times worse.

You attempt to calm yourself after your breakfast has made a reappearance. Your mind tries to find the words for this new experience. All you can do is patch together snippets of the psalms you have sung so often before. You patch verses together and they sort of work.

You are trying to believe that being in the stomach of a fish is God’s salvation rather than just the start of a slower death.

You realise that despite your daily commitment to the psalms, “songs of trust”, you’ve never really been tested before. This really doesn’t seem the best way to learn such a lesson—you ask yourself, “Why did I flee from God?”

Unlikely though the prospect seems you promise yourself, and God if he can hear you, that next time you will do what he asks. Even if it is pronouncing judgement on the smelly undeserving people of Nineveh.

In that moment you have to admit that you smell far worse, however, than any Ninevite.

 

Vomited Up

Read Jonah 2:10–4:3

Since being regurgitated you have done all that God asked. You walked 400 miles from where the fish vomited you up. You’d begged for help to get fresh clothes and food. You have pointed out to the people of Nineveh that these ‘pagans’ do things that are an abomination to God.

The people believed you! At first you enjoyed being a celebrity. The king believed you! If the kings commands were taken at face value, why even the cows and goats had repented.

But then God does a U-turn because of his mercy. Where is the justice in all this? What use is Law if it can be overturned with repentance? Are these pagans God’s chosen? Are these Assyrians God’s holy nation? Why can’t God stand up for his ways, punish those that do wrong? Wouldn’t punishing these people vindicate his own people?

 

An Angry Prophet

Read Jonah 4:4–11

Pray:

Father, we confess that too often we reject you ways. We want to know your mercy and grace, and yet we are slow to help bring news of your mercy and grace to others.

Father, we pray that we might learn to see this world with your eyes. Grant us wisdom to walk with you and to honour you with our choices.

Help us see temptation for what it is—a journey away from you.

Father, we pray that we would see others as you see them. Help us know with our hearts that you love all men, women and young people. Help us to love irrespective of wealth, status, ethnicity, gender and peoples’ mistakes.

Help us see the plank in our own eyes that we can love more truly.

Lord we are your servants. Help us learn from Jonah’s weakness that we can begin to echo better Jesus’ meekness.

Father, help us to be people of prayer. May we may pray more with our own words. May we pray liturgy together more passionately. May we desire your Spirit’s words more voraciously. And may we read, and be read, by your Word more frequently.

Amen.

 

Afterword: The Two Brothers

Read Luke 15:11–32. Whilst you do so imagine you are the first son (or you can be a daughter) and that the second son is called Jonah.