Five Festal Garments by Barry Webb is the tenth volume in the New Studies in Biblical Theology [NSBT] series edited by D. A. Carson. Webb, known for his work on Judges, writes about ‘the Scrolls,’ made up by the five shortest books in the Writings, the third and final part of the Hebrew canon. These five books are the Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther. For a long time now these books have presented problems for their interpreters, with issues ranging from canonicity to “the manner in which they should be understood and used as Holy Scripture“ in the lives of God’s people (14). With biblical theology, Webb presents these five enigmatic books as case studies for how Christians can reflect on the OT.
Each chapters covers one of the five ‘Scrolls.’ Each chapter has three parts:
- What does the book say about itself?
- How does the book fit into and add to the rest of the OT?
- How does the book relate to the NT gospel and its “promise and fulfillment” structure?
Song of Songs
This book is certainly about love, but is also filled with realism and idealism. There are difficulties: not only do the two love-birds have to wait for love, but they have relatives and busybodies who get in the way, they face hostility, and they live in a world that is no longer the Garden of Eden. Love can turn to lust, love-making to rape. But what is most dominant is idealism. “The overwhelming impression that the Son leaves us with is that love is a beautiful thing, almost too beautiful for words to express” (27). This book is wisdom literature and reflects the ideals of Genesis 1-3. The love represented here is “the very flame of Yahweh,” seen in the relationship between the Christian and Christ, represented on earth by marriage, and what will be fully consummated in the new creation.
Ruth is a sort of ‘romantic-comedy.’ It features courtship and marriage, and like a comedy it has a happy ending. Throughout Ruth we see God’s kindness towards the characters. It is shown through Boaz as he cares for Ruth and gives her a son. It is shown to Naomi as she, at the end, is no longer ’empty’ but is ‘filled’ by holding Ruth’s son Obed. This was not kindness given because of legal obligation, but one seen beyond the letter in the spirit of the law. In Ruth we see how the Law is worked into daily life, and we see God’s kindness is not only shown in miraculous feats of splendor for the nation, but is seen “in the way his covenant people treat each other on a daily basis” (53).
“Learning is our soul’s requirement, and suffering our most persuasive teacher” Ruadh of Kells (59). Lamentations is “ordered grief.” “Grief itself, by its very nature, is a rather formless thing. The mind of a person in deep sorrow characteristically moves in circles, returning again and again to the source of grief, unable to leave it and unable to resolve it” (61). The first four chapters of Lamentations is an acrostic set to the Hebrew letters allowing for “grief to be fully expressed, and… at the same [setting] limits to it” (61). The author moves from Yahweh’s rejection, to his anger, to the encompassing sin of Israel, to the downfall of Israel’s leaders, to the entire community praying for a dose of Yahweh’s gracious mercy. Will he respond? Lamentations is a “parade example of applied theology” (78). Divine anger is right, but it is also unendurable. God’s people suffer within the covenant, and God’s new covenant people had One to suffer God’s wrath for them: Jesus Christ.
This chapter, like the book of Ecclesiastes itself, is difficult to read. Ecclesiastes isn’t a narrative like Ruth or Esther. Many scholars and people have had trouble finding a definite structure to the book. In this life, everything “is [vanity] in the sense of being transitory, passing, of no lasting significance” (93). Ecclesiastes, difficult as it is, understands God as the Creator and Maker of the universe, the one who has “made everything beautiful in its time” (3.11). The God we see in Genesis is the same we see here, “God is judge and the one who determines the conditions of human existence on earth precisely because he is first of all creator” (103). But there is hope… in Christ. There is promise of a new creation. He has defeated death, and we have eternal life. “The resurrection of Jesus from the dead decisively resolves the ambiguity we [find] in Ecclesiastes about the afterlife and final judgment (Acts 17:31)” (108).
Esther is a story of Jewish people in the Persian land of Susa, 150 miles northwest of where Abraham set out from Ur to Egypt. There is no reference to God, but he is still at work amongst his people, keeping his promise to Abraham that he will bless those who bless them, and curse those who curse them. Here we’ve come full circle from Abraham to the Jewish people promised to him by Yahweh. In the new covenant, there is an elect people and there is a people who hate them. Here, “of all the narratives of the Old Testament, it is precisely those that deal with the people of God in exile (the stories of Joseph, Daniel and Esther) that resonate most strongly with the circumstances of the new-covenant people of God” (131).
As an evangelical, Webb holds to the understanding that the Bible has a divine author who, in the sixty-six books, gives a single, coherent message. Yet how do we preach these difficult texts to Christian congregations today? This volume (as the series implies) shows the importance of biblical theology. The kind of biblical theology Webb employs in his volume focuses “on the unity of Scripture, while doing full justice to its diversity” (15, emphasis original). Webb doesn’t get into too many of the critical logistics of these difficult books. Instead he employs literary and historical criticism, looking at how each book is to be on it’s own and in light of the surrounding historical context. He looks at how the story is crafted, what it’s setting is, what it’s setting in Scripture is, and how we as Christians are to read these books in the biblical storyline.
To know how to better read the Bible with a Christian lens, especially short, difficult books like these, is immensely important. These five books are readable and applicable to the Christian life. The pastor (and the layman) will delight in this book. It should be consulted before the commentary, as it gives the reader an overhead view of these “five festal garments.” This volume will leave you wanting more, and hopefully will both provoke you an encourage you to study these odd, enigmatic, and wonderful little books.
- Series: New Studies in Biblical Theology (Book 10)
- Paperback: 151 pages
- Publisher: IVP Academic (April 26, 2001)
- Sample PDF
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[Special thanks to IVP Academic for allowing me to review this book! I was not obligated to provide a positive review in exchange for this book.]