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Book Review: Old Testament Wisdom Literature (Bartholomew and O’Dowd)

What does the Bible have to say about wisdom? Can pithy poetics really form character? In their new book Old Testament Wisdom Literature, Craig Bartholomew and Ryan O’Dowd present a theological introduction to the Bible’s wisdom books—Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes. Proverbs 3.19 says God created the world by wisdom, yet most 21st century Westerners have lost the wonder of creation. Christians are saved through the blood of Christ, what do we need to understand about the world? Being in a real covenantal relationship with Yahweh brought Israel together with the God who both created the universe and who redeemed Israel out of Egypt. Knowing his law meant knowing how to life. It meant wisdom and understanding (Deut 4.6). How can man expect to find it, and how can 21st century Christians apply 3,000-year-old Old Testament wisdom to their lives?

Summary

Chapters 1-3 bring us into (1) Israel’s world of wisdom—they believed that they were in covenant with the one God who created all of reality and who was the source of knowledge. Yet, as Job expresses, they knew their knowledge was limited. Next (2), the authors take a tour through Egyptian and Mesopotamian wisdom to bring us into the flow of thought around Israel. Chapter 3 makes a plea for poetry, which “gives us a nuanced understanding of people, language and culture” (51). Stating a mere proposition such as “God is omnipotent” is very different than “declaring that God rules ‘the raging sea'” or that he can “draw in Leviathan with a hook” (69). Poetry brings imagery to the stories which make up our life. 

At 160 pages, Chapters 4-9 make up the core of the book. The authors spend two chapters on each of Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes. In the first chapter on each book, rather than rehearsing the main gist of each book, they describe the book’s theological function. Each book’s second chapter (“Chapter B” as I call it) explores a particular theme in that book.

Proverbs

Proverbs 1-9 develops a character-consequence scheme. Here, your character (wise/foolish) determines the consequences in your life (life/ruin). Proverbs 10-30 nuance this idea and bring exceptions to the rule. These proverbs are not categorized by topic, but seem to be written chaotically and at random, just the way life is. In chapter B, the authors examine how wisdom is embodied in the Proverbs 31 woman, though she is not a real person for no one person could do what she does. Rather, that figure represents the extent to which wisdom reaches and the practical ways of living in which wisdom is required.

Unlike Proverbs 1-9, Job and Ecclesiastes “focus on profound experiences of apparent contradictions to the character-consequence theme,” which deepen our faith and our wisdom and form our character (285). The authors note, “Ecclesiastes is performatively enigmatic, just like suffering, and Job is long, at times tedious, with all those speeches, just like suffering” (318). Sometimes the text’s form is just as important as what it says.

Job

Job asks “Where can wisdom be found?” (28.20). His friends think they know it all, yet in the end Job is to make sacrifices for their foolish words. Job replies like a human being—he gives strong responses, fears, worries, and contradictions. Just like the process of suffering, all people learn as the conversation of suffering goes on. They change their answers from one idea to another, even being hopeful at points (Job 28), before plunging back into suffering again, and still yet before God shows up in a revealing way. Chapter B examines Job 28 and how we, limited in our understanding of all things, must go to the One who stands outside of creation to obtain wisdom.

Ecclesiastes

Similarly, Qohelet in Ecclesiastes looks for meaning in the world through his own autonomous wisdom—which is actually “folly” because Qohelet’s search occurs apart from God. The book “ultimately affirms life and joy… but only as the end result of a ferocious struggle with the brokenness of life” (189). Job presents bodily suffering; Ecclesiastes presents mental anguish. It’s not enough to have a high IQ. Job had money. Qohelet asked difficult philosophical questions. But wisdom requires us to admit our finite creatureliness before the infinite Creator. We, like the woman in Proverbs 31, can embody wisdom and image God. Chapter B takes up the topic of time, seeing the larger story, and using our time well.

Chapters 10 looks at wisdom in the NT through the coming of Jesus. Chapter 11 gives an OT theology of wisdom. The chapter both summarizes and expands on what has been said previously. Wisdom is related to creation and how the world works. It is brought about by the Creator who is also Israel’s Redeemer. God’s good creation links his wisdom with his law/covenant with the prophets. Chapter 12 applies wisdom to our present life concerning education, politics, spirituality, the ordinary, and the dark night of the soul. For example, even after we receive salvation, we still want to be the captains of our souls. We have “false selves” that we want to put on to protect ourselves, and God uses suffering to dismantle those false selves. The authors refer to C.S. Lewis’ image of someone buying a small cabin in the woods. She thinks it’s great to have God come live with her… until he begins to tear down walls and change out the stairs. He wants to revamp the whole house, and it hurts. But believing that he is great and good will help carry us to the end of the darkness that feels like our closest friend.

Recommended?

I greatly appreciated Bartholomew and O’Dowd’s theological interpretation. According to Ecclesiastes, how can we know if we truly have wisdom? Job 28 tells us that man searches high and low for treasure, yet even Abaddon and death themselves do not have wisdom (v. 22). God doesn’t come out and give us all the answers we need. How can man expect to find it, and how can a 21st century person apply 3,000 year old wisdom to their lives? The authors look at the meaning of the texts and what is really going on. Teacher and pastors would do well to read this book. Hopefully more people will grasp the importance of these important, often ignored Old Testament books. All people of all statuses everywhere can receive wisdom and they can use it, but it starts with fearing the Lord who both calms the raging seas, who condescends to know us, and who has descended and ascended to save us.

Lagniappe

  • Authors: Craig Bartholomew/Ryan O’Dowd
  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: IVP Academic (May 27, 2011)

Buy it from Amazon, Adlibris, or IVP Academic

Disclosure: I received this book free from IVP Academic. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html.

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Review: Excellent Preaching

excellent-preaching

Why is good preaching so difficult to accomplish, and why is excellent preaching so herculean a feat?

In this short book, Craig G. Bartholomew, the H. Evan Runner Professor of Philosophy at Redeemer University College in Ancaster, Ontario, and the principal of the Paideia Centre for Public Theology, explains how to land a plane. Every Sunday you might feel like you’re on a repeat viewing of “Airplane!” It’s like you’re speaking jive and no one understands you. You have a message, it’s based on the text of the Bible, but now you need to land the plane and get God’s truth to sit in the lives of your congregation. How do you impact their hearts and thoughts? You do you penetrate their lives and get them to think about how to live in a transformed way?

And often times, even when you do land the plane, you either land it upside down or two engines blow and you have to land in the water. Can this really be so difficult?

Outline

I’ll say this book has five “chapters,” although the word chapter isn’t used in the book to designate chapters.

Introduction

The Bible is extremely relevant in our day. Thee is suffering, hopelessness, turmoil, meandering, greed, selfishness, a lack of wisdom, and a need for salvation and knowledge of God in Christ. Liberal preachers “aim right at contemporary life in their preaching,” though many aren’t “always sure where [the] sermons have come from!. . . . By comparison, evangelical sermons originate from the Bible, but they tend to be aimed at nowhere in particular” (4–5). How does the pastor ground his sermon in Scripture while being sure to penetrate the hearts of his congregation?

The Destination, the Plane, and the Cargo

Just as on Mt. Sinai, our ultimate destination is Godward. He is our home. He is the destination. The pastor always needs to have that in mind when preaching to his congregation. “As Barth observes, within the Church God’s ordained means to speak is the Bible, the canon of holy Scripture, and all extrabiblical ‘speakings’ must always be tested alongside Scripture,” and where we meet God is through our hearts in his word (11). The word is central to the proclamation that brings us to him.

The Captain

The pastor is the one who preaches. The pastor cannot neglect his own spiritual life either. A rich prayer life must be in order so that the pastor can lead God’s people “ever more deeply into the very life of God” (13). The pastor keeps the congregations attentive and focused on God. To do so, he himself must be focused on him too.

The View From Arrivals

There is always only one destination, and the view is magnificent” (17). That view is of God’s whole creation. The Bible transforms our thinking of all of life, including God’s glorious creation. To understand better the God who created all of this, we must grasp the story of Scripture—it’s metanarrative.  This alerts us to:

  • the unified story of the Bible
  • the story as the story of the whole world
  • this story as the true story of the whole world

Each of these sections are developed more fully within the book.

The Airport: Contextualization

Scripture provides us with a hermeneutic for understanding our world. But it narrows down from there. God’s people are scattered throughout the nations, and the age we live in is one of missions. We live in the 21st century AD which is a farcry from the 1st century AD (and even the 19th century!). Then there is your own culture, whether it be western or eastern. Do you know what your culture is like? Bartholomew goes through an explanation of modernity and postmodernity, even showing how much his discussion has to do with preaching and understanding our own congregations.

The most important contribution our congregations play is “to receive the Word, and we need to create the space for this to come to the fore” (53-54). We need to figure out to to engage them “as fully as possible in listening to the Word” (54).

Landing the Plane: Some Examples

Barthomolew gives four examples on how to “land the plane.” These examples come from Galatians 1:10–2:21, Genesis 1:16, Exodus 20:3, and Ephesians 6:10–20.

Conclusion

Preaching is not the only thing the pastor does, but time must be carved out and effort must be put in. Pastors must get to know and become familiar with research done in other areas of life, such as cultural studies, sociology, and media. Prayer, the Word, and discipleship and mission must be a focus, along with the recognition that spiritual warfare is going on all the time, all around you. Preaching is costly.

Appendix A: Suggested Reading

Appendix B: An Expanded Apostles’ Creed

Recommended?

This short book will not give you a chapter called “Three Tips on How to Structure Your Sermon and Grow Your Church.” Instead, Bartholomew, who has many years of experience in preaching and teaching, gives a more holistic view of what preaching entails, and what the preacher must keep in mind. It is imperative. We can’t let our sermons fall flat and settle for that. We need to learn to land the plane, and to land it right-side up with  our passengers intact, engaged, and reaching their destination (of course, what they do with the information is up to them). This would be good to read alongside of Keller’s Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism

Lagniappe

  • Authors: Craig G. Bartholomew
  • Paperback: 96 pages
  • Publisher: Lexham Press (February 3, 2016)

Buy from Logos or on Amazon!

Disclosure: I received this book free from Lexham Press. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html.

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