by O. Palmer Robertson
eARC, 432 pg.
P&R Publishing, 2017
Read: May 7 – 21, 2017
Robertson’s preface laments the way that the Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament is usually ignored in Redemptive-Historical studies —
…how do you fit these wisdom books into the flow of redemptive history that consummates in the Christ? By letting them be what they are in their own distinctiveness. They are, it should be remembered, canonical, divinely revealed, and authoritative writings that tell the world how and what to think about the deeper mysteries of human life. Rather than submitting to the moldings and bendings of modernity, these books broaden our understanding of the nature of redemptive history. Divine progress in the complete restoration of reality does not merely move in a purely linear fashion like the flight of an arrow moving across time and space without deviation until it reaches its target. This “third dimension” of redemptive history moves in a cyclical pattern. For certain aspects of God’s salvation perform according to a pattern of regulated repetition.
To ignore this dimension of redemptive history is to exclude a major portion of the old covenant canon—and that you do not want to do.
So how do you discuss these books from a RH point of view? This is what Robertson seeks to do in this book — not as a final answer, but as the beginning of a search for wisdom along these paths.
In one sense, Robertson could’ve made this easier to talk about this book — there’s not one central argument developed throughout. There’s a general discussion (brief) of wisdom, wisdom Biblically defined, that is. And then using that discussion, Robertson looks at the Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament (and Lamentations, which is not usually considered Wisdom Literature, but can function as such), summarizing each book, looking at the various forms of wisdom described and passed on through it.
Wisdom is the ability to understand the basic principles inherent in God’s created order, and to live by those principles. Wisdom enables a person to summarize these basic principles in a succinct and memorable fashion. Wisdom is living out the whole of life with a constant awareness of accountability before a loving, gracious, and just Creator and Redeemer.
The work he does to get to this summary is well worth the time and effort to work through. Actually, that goes for everything in the book, but I’ll hold off on saying that kind of thing for a few paragraphs.
The chapter on Proverbs is, fittingly, the longest and most developed. He discusses various approaches to the book, to understanding its construction and from there trying to understand it:
A much more accurate view of the theology of Proverbs may be gained from a covenantal perspective. The wise sayings of the book are not presented in a vacuum. They are not purely moralistic aphorisms. Instead, they are steeped in theistic assumptions. These wise observations about how the world works assume that God the Creator is none other than Yahweh, the Lord of the Covenant.
This, right here, would help so much of what I’ve read about Proverbs over the last few decades. To get into everything that Robertson says about the pursuit of Wisdom, passing it on and living by it from this book would make this post unbearably long — but it builds the foundation for everything that comes. Proverbs covers Wisdom as a whole — the rest of the book deals with it in specific areas.
While dealing with the personification of Wisdom in Proverbs 8, Robertson gives an excursus, “Athanasius as the Champion of the opponents of Arianism,” that is just gold. I’d love to see this developed into something longer.
Following Proverbs, he moves on to Job. Job doesn’t give us the answers to the puzzling circumstances of life, but for those who understand the book, they learn how to puzzle through the circumstances, how to think about them — how to ask God about them. Yes, there are answers given in the book — not easy answers, not the answers anyone necessarily wants, but answers — answers tied to the hope of the Resurrection. But wisdom knows to look for those answers in the difficulties of life, with a sure faith that is willing to look at dark circumstances and say, “I don’t know why this is happening, but I trust in Him Who does.”
Ecclesiastes, is, naturally, a tricky chapter — Robertson threw me a curveball when setting aside the usual discussion of authorship of the book to note
But a related question of some significance for understanding the book has been generally neglected. This neglected question is the identity of the “target audience”of Ecclesiastes.
Chewing on this a little helps get through some of the discussion of authorship. There are so many divergent readings of Ecclesiastes that your head can swim just trying to get a sense of them, Robertson is a pretty sure guide through them before landing on his conclusion that Ecclesiastes presents a “realistic picture of life” — one that is a precursor to Paul’s discussion in Romans 8, where creation is subjected to frustration, but that this is being renewed. I do think this chapter could’ve been organized in a more straight-forward way, but I appreciate the way that Robertson makes you work through various considerations and themes before leading to his conclusions — which are all very helpful.
His discussion of Lamentations, summed up in the subtitle “How to Weep,” was one of the best things I’ve read on the book (an admittedly too-short list). You may think that’s a pretty easy thing to learn — but there’s a wise way, a godly way to weep over the tragedies that will come into our lives. The book of Lamentations teaches us that — and, here’s the RH emphasis coming through — there’s a hope tied to the wise weeping. A hope tied to faith in God’s commitment to preserving a repentant people to Himself.
Lastly, we get to the wisdom of “How to Love” (in a marital sense) in the Song of Songs. The way he reads the book is a “Redemptive-Historical” way, in
terms of the redemptive work of God in restoring humanity to the situation prevailing at the time of creation . . . a restoration of the initial blessing of man and woman in their relation to each other, just as when they first stood in each other’s presence “both naked” but feeling “no shame” (Gen. 2:25). This Song rejoices in the fullness of God’s redemption of the marriage relationship.
He concludes this chapter uniquely, with a script for a Dramatic Reading of the Song of Songs — I think there could’ve been a bit more instruction on how to approach such a Reading — and why — than he gave. But I really appreciated that part.
He could’ve used a conclusion to wrap things up — returning to the closing admonition of the opening chapter. But that’s probably just a taste thing on my part.
There’s a focus on the literary/poetic forms in each book tying in the themes and teachings of them to the way the author presents them. This kind of discussion — no matter the type of literature (inspired or not) always stretches me. I imagine I’m not alone in that — in fact, I bet many people will skip those parts. This is to their own detriment. Robertson discusses these matters in a way that takes some effort to understand, but it’s effort that pays off.
This is a truly helpful book — not full-fledged commentaries on any of the books, but helpful summaries pointed towards seeing the wisdom passed down in each book, and tied into the Redemptive work going on in history all around us. I found it interesting that the recent A Biblical-Theological Introduction to the Old Testament doesn’t approach some of these books the same way as Robertson — in some ways flatly contradicting him. I’d hoped for more overlap between the two works approaching this material from the same framework — but none of the contradictions or differences change the overall message of the Biblical material, just shadings. Honestly, in each case, I think Robertson’s readings are easier to square with the texts in consideration (and not just because he has more pages to develop his points, either).
Robertson, as always, delivers the goods with this book. The reader has to think about what he says, has to drag out their Bible and use the two books together, but will ultimately come out the better for it. I found this book to be incredibly helpful, insightful and something that drove me back to the fullness and fulfillment of all the wisdom of God — Jesus the Messiah. Just where Robertson wants his readers to focus.
Disclaimer: I received this eARC from P&R Publishing via NetGalley in exchange for this post — thanks to both for this.
N.B.: As this was an ARC, any quotations above may be changed in the published work — I will endeavor to verify them as soon as possible.